Center for Studies on Literature and the Reception of Byzantium

Andrew White, Ph.D. Stratford University, Woodbridge Virginia, USA

A Tale of Two Actresses: Theodora, Sarah Bernhardt, and the Ever-Popular Byzantine Mystique1

I cannot thank my friend and colleague Przemysław Marciniak enough for inviting me to the University of Silesia to talk with his Department about Byzantium - a brilliant idea, but there's one problem: what on earth do we mean by "Byzantium"? The word evokes so many images, none of them very positive-which one do we have in mind?

At the moment I write this, the film industry has given us an especially vivid answer to this question-Neil Jordan's "Byzantium."2 In Jordan's vision, the word "Byzantium" evokes a sea-side resort packed with vampires, prostitutes, blood, murder, and of course lots of kinky sex. Jordan is already famous for classics like "The Crying Game" and "Interview with a Vampire," and this new movie features actress Gemma Aterton, whom you may remember as the star of "Hansel and Gretel, Witch Hunters" (the Grimm bothers would have loved that one) and the actor Johnny Lee Miller, who has done vampire movies like "Dracula 2000" and "Dark Shadows."

Now, you might ask: what on earth do show business, prostitution, and kinky sex have to do with Byzantium? Quite a lot, actually. On the subject of vampires in Byzantium, I must yield to the expertise of Dr. Marciniak; but as for prostitution and sex, there's plenty. (Why do you think we become Byzantinists in the first place? To look at churches?)

Today I will introduce you to one of the most famous chapters in the early history of Byzantium, the Eastern Roman Empire; I will take you back to the sixth century and the remarkable career of Theodora, a stage performer of many talents who rose to become an Empress. She's a popular subject because she started out in show business, and there are some really filthy stories about her early career in the Byzantine equivalent of the tabloid press. Given Theodora's reputation it's only natural that by the late 1800's, when Paris is caught up in a Byzantine revival, Paris audiences were thrilled to see a historical play by Victorien Sardou, entitled Théodora-starting Sarah Bernhardt in the role of the Empress. Bernhardt was famous throughout Europe and America, and Théodora became a huge hit.

As a historian and a theatre scholar I can honestly say that Theodora and Sarah Bernhardt belong together-it is as if they were twins separated at birth; both were actresses with bad reputations, both rose to great heights from very humble beginnings, and both suffered endless gossip about their private lives. For these reasons I believe that Sarah Bernhardt, although she lived over 1,300 years after Theodora's time, may have had more insight into the empress's psychology than even the Byzantines themselves. For like Theodora, Bernhardt knew what it was like to be talented, ambitious, but confronted by huge obstacles simply because she was born a woman. I will begin by talking about the Roman entertainment industry that Theodora was born into-an industry that was especially brutal to women. To understand why so many outrageous things were said about her, we need to understand the stereotype that Roman audiences had for women in the theatre-a stereotype she would fight against for the rest of her life. We will then see her enthroned as empress, a full ruling partner to Justinian the Great. We will then grab the iPad of history, flick down through the ages and select the late 19th century, when Sarah Bernhardt's personification of Empress Theodora signaled the dawn of a new era in Byzantine Studies.

Part 1 - Theodora, the Theatre, Whoredom and Empire

First - to understand where Empress Theodora started, and why she wanted so desperately to quit show business, we need to understand the Roman entertainment industry. If you were born into a family of entertainers, you stayed there; it was the family trade. But as an entertainer you were an object-a thing, not a person-and the public could do anything to you that they wanted. How bad was it? Here is a very discreet but very informative edict from the Theodosian Code, created at a time when Christianity was the sole religion of the state:

If they conduct themselves properly, Your Integrity should keep daughters of the stage away from the deceit and pillaging of rowdies. For it is just that only such daughters of men and women of the stage should be recalled to the theater who appear to be living, and have lived, a wanton life in their manner of living, and in their morals.3

The Emperor wants to make it look like he wants to keep theatre fans (the rowdies) from deceiving and pillaging "daughters of the stage." But although the law pretends to offer protection to actresses and their children, a careful reading shows that it actually takes this protection away completely. You see, in order to qualify for protection, you have to have a lifestyle that is 'above reproach.' And if we catch a Roman raping an actress or her little girl, and he claims that she was asking for it, who are we going to believe? In those days, actresses weren't even Roman citizens, they had no legal standing whatsoever. So a law that seems on the outside to protect actresses, in reality teaches potential rapists exactly how to defend themselves in a court of law, if an actress makes the mistake of trying to file charges.

And where did men get the idea that they were entitled to an actress's body? From the deliberate confusion, in the Roman male imagination, between acting and prostitution. But let's be clear: even in Roman times, prostitution and entertainment were two completely different professions. It's true that Roman festivals featured stage shows and whorehouses in the same neighborhood, but each was under separate management.4 The Theodosian Code has specific guidance on how prostitutes-those who are "obliged to perform certain duties at the spectacles" [spectaculorum debentur obsequiis] can become supporting actresses.5 But from the audience's perspective there was no real difference between the two. Keep in mind that well into Byzantine times, long after the capital of the Roman Empire had moved from Rome to Constantinople, audiences were almost exclusively male.

In early Christian times, the only way actors could gain any social status, any legal protection for themselves and their families, was by converting to Christianity. The bishops demanded that actors and actresses leave the theatre when they converted, but actors were so grateful for the church's protection that they tried to convert in large numbers, leaving Rome's producers with empty stages. To protect the entertainment industry, authorities demanded that an actor be on his or her deathbed before they were allowed to convert-truth be known this was how a lot of people converted in those days, adults often waited until their prospects for sinning were almost completely nil. One problem, though: the actors were so determined to convert they found a way to get around the death-bed requirement-as the following edict indicates:

If men and women of the stage, in the final extremity of life . . . should hasten to partake of the sacraments of the Most High God and should perchance survive, they can not thereafter be recalled, by any summons, to the performance of theatrical spectacles. Before all else, however, with diligent sanction We command the exercise of due circumspection and oversight, so that only those persons who are actually in extreme danger shall make the demand for the sacraments for their souls' salvation, and they shall receive this special favor only if the bishops approve.6

On the one hand this edict confirms that when actors have converted, they could not be forced to go back to the stage. But you have to be absolutely, positively certain that these actors are really, really dying before you let them get baptized. Why on earth would you need a law like this? Again, let's look behind the discreet language and realize that we are talking about actors, in large numbers, who are pretending to be at death's door. Picture the scene-a bedridden father, pale, gasping for breath, surrounded by family and theatre colleagues, all apparently in deep grief-pulling their hair, pounding their chests, tears flowing like wine-in a faint whisper he asks the Bishop for the last rites, and the Bishop in his compassion (of course) complies. But a few days after the baptism and first communion-a miracle!-the man rises from his death bed, praising God and rejoicing at this amazing cure, and in the midst of celebrations he turns to the producer and says, "by the way, you know about that show next Thursday? Can't do it, Bishop's orders-same with the family, they're all off of the stage now." If you're a producer, how many of these 'miracle cures' can you handle before you suspect fraud? It's no surprise that in addition to this edict, another later edict simply orders all former actresses back onto the stage:

We decree that mime-actresses freed by various writings are to be recalled to their duties with all urgency, so that the usual decoration is not absent from the people's spectacles and festival days.7

To explain this decision, consider what the typical Roman theatre fan might say, "Who cares if they're Christian or not? We want our dancing girls and we're going to get them, Bishop or no Bishop."

Roman law gives us plenty of ways to explain why even in Theodora's time, the early 6th century AD, when Christianity was now the dominant spiritual force throughout the Empire, female entertainers were still assumed to be prostitutes, and were expected to perform regardless of whether they were Christians or not. This was what made her rise to power so unlikely, even freakish; and it resulted in a powerful backlash. Picture a group of men drinking together in the great imperial capital of Constantinople, and the conversation turns to their new Empress, Theodora. One of them says "she used to be a showgirl, you know" - and every man in the room knows what that means. It didn't matter how much talent, intelligence or power she had, it didn't matter what she accomplished; the imagination of the typical Byzantine male raced from the throne room to the bedroom with lightning speed.

This helps to explain why we have a scandalous pseudo-biography of Theodora written by her contemporary, the court historian Procopius. It is vivid, pornographic, and as a result incredibly popular college reading. Where I come from, if history professors see you falling asleep while they talk about Constantine the Great, or the Gothic Wars, or the Ecumenical Council of Ephesus, all they have to do is assign Book 9 of Procopius' Secret History. Once students read it, the classroom lights up with gossip, nods, knowing glances and of course a lot of very rude double-entendres. As much as we love a good scandal, it's easy to forget that Procopius didn't want us to accept everything he wrote as fact; he wrote at a time when insults, psogoi, were high art and were taught at university. The rhetoric manuals we have from this time show that exaggeration and insults were actually a sign of good breeding.8 And a sure way for Procopius to prove himself was to rely on all of the old, rotten stereotypes Roman males had about female performers.

According to Procopius, Theodora was born into a family of mimes, entertainers at the hippodrome in Constantinople. We call them mimes, but keep in mind that the term "mime" includes a wide variety of skills, from acting to juggling to gymnastics to acrobatics-Theodora's father worked with trained animals for example. In her day there were two rival production companies responsible for the chariot races, and the many acts between races that kept male audiences entertained throughout the day. A day at the races could be a long one, with anywhere from 24 to 48 races on a good day, so the opportunities for mimes were enormous, and the companies shared that responsibility. The two main production companies, known in English as Factions, were the Blues and Greens; when she was born Theodora's family belonged to the Greens. But Theodora's father died when she was young, and when her mother remarried she and her husband were thrown out of work. After a public act of supplication at the Hippodrome, before the whole city, Theodora's family was hired by the Blues-the faction traditionally associated with the emperor.9 We will have more to say about these factions in a moment, but keep in mind that they clearly had tremendous power over Theodora and her family, and she knew it.

Procopius claims that Theodora's mother trained her to become a prostitute, and alleges that the little girl was performing certain sex acts long before she was old enough to have sex in the normal way. This is of course a disgusting accusation, but a common one. Under Roman law remember that all you had to do, to justify sexual exploitation of women and girls, was to claim that they wanted it, they begged for it. So pay no attention to the accusation here-pay close attention, however, to the mind of the man who made it, and pay attention to the audience of men he wrote it for. These were the men Theodora had to deal with throughout her career.

At an early point in her career, Theodora becomes skilled at gymnastics-has anyone here taken gymnastics? Performed in competition? It takes many years, tremendous dedication, practice, it's often painful, you can be injured easily-and yet when you succeed the results are spectacular. A typical Roman male, however, would watch a young women show off her skills and still make it sound pornographic.

You are probably familiar with contortionists, who are able to bend and twist their bodies into impossible shapes-you will find many fascinating videos of them on YouTube and elsewhere today. One of the most common techniques calls for performers to face their audience and arch their backs forward, above their heads, so that their legs come down in front. Some of them, standing on their hands, proceed to move around the stage in this position, like spiders with enormous insect-legs or antennae in front. The effect is amazing, and Theodora was one of the few who could do it in her day; I can only imagine how many years it took for women like Theodora to develop this skill. But here is how Procopius, the typical Byzantine male, chooses to describe it:

Often she would take her clothes off and stand in the middle of the stage ... alternately bending backwards or drawing attention to her rear [end], advertising her special brand of gymnastics both to those who had more intimate knowledge of it and to those who did not-yet. Thus did she abuse her own body licentiously, making it seem that she had genitals not in the place where nature had ordained for all other women, but in her face! All who were intimate with her were instantly known, by that very fact, to be men who did not have sex in the natural way ...10

An act of tremendous skill is deliberately misread as advertising for prostitution, and for kinky sex in particular. And Procopius chooses to describe this contortionist act in the context of what is perhaps the most notorious stage routine of all: in this scenario, Theodora allegedly comes out onstage wearing nothing but a loin cloth, accompanied by some assistants who throw grains of barley on her private parts while a flock of trained geese peck busily away.11 Classicists refer to this, discreetly, as her "Leda and the Swan" act but I'm sorry, Greek mythology never got that crude and for all of the things Zeus, king of the Gods, did with mortal women I have yet to find evidence that he performed this particular sex act.

According to Procopius, Theodora's sexual appetites were impossible to satisfy, no matter how many lovers, customers or casual dinner guests she slept with. And yet, he says, she found her way to the stage where she became a star, a great comic actress.12 Procopius is reminding his audience about that old edict that allows prostitutes to become actresses. Since we're talking about male audiences, it is no surprise that the most popular subject for theatre-goers in those days was the adultery play-usually revolving around a bored young wife, an ugly, incompetent (or maybe impotent) husband, and a handsome young man who takes advantage of the situation. What happens after she became a star of the stage isn't exactly clear; Procopius makes it sound like Theodora went from city to city plying her trade as a courtesan, but it is equally likely that as a star actress she was in demand at festivals-entertainers could take lucrative tours throughout the Empire. But he still manages to take the concept of a theatre tour and make it dirty: "It was as though some evil force had decreed that no place should be unacquainted with Theodora's lechery."13

It is at this point, while on tour in her hometown of Byzantium, that Theodora meets Justinian, during those years when he was the heir-apparent. Procopius, of course, accuses Theodora of witchcraft and claims that she forced Justinian to fall madly in love with her.14 As evidence of foul play, Procopius describes how Justinian demanded a new law be written allowing the Roman elite to marry former entertainers-out of compassion for their low social status, of course. His uncle, Emperor Justin, agrees; they marry, and this sets the stage for Justinian's coronation alongside his Empress Theodora, the former entertainer.15

Once Theodora becomes an Empress it becomes clear that she takes her new role seriously. At one point Procopius condemns Theodora for blocking a potential marriage-why? Because the man was already married, and his wife did not want a divorce. (How dare Theodora take marriage so seriously, as if it were a sacrament or something?) When she's not demanding that the men in court actually behave like gentlemen, she is of course scheming with her good friend Antonina (another former show-girl) and making everyone's lives miserable. Perhaps the crowning act, as far as Procopius and his friends are concerned, was when Theodora took hundreds of prostitutes from downtown Constantinople and sent them to a convent across the Bosphoros in Asia Minor-was this is the real reason why Procopius is so furious with her?16

Theodora's finest hour comes with a legendary uprising against Emperor Justinian, the Nika or "Victory" revolt. What makes this event unique is that the people responsible for the revolt were Theodora's former employers, the Blues and Greens-remember their primary function was as producers of entertainment. Emperor Justinian funded them, he paid most of their expenses, but now they thought they had the right to drive the Emperor off of his throne and crown somebody else. Furious, bloody battles raged in the streets for days and Justinian, locked in his palace with his closest advisors, seriously thought of going into exile. But then Theodora stands up-she knows the enemy, she worked for them for years. She knows them, right down to the hooligans who took advantage of girls like her, and who made the streets run red with blood. Theodora was not about to let the Blues or Greens control her fate, and she reportedly turned to her husband and said the following:

May I never be parted from the purple! May I never live to see the day when I will not be addressed as Mistress by all in my presence! Emperor, if you wish to save yourself that is easily arranged ... there is the sea; and here are our ships ... For my part, I like that old saying, that kingship is a good burial shroud."17

Guess who records this speech for us? Procopius himself; by his own witness, Theodora single-handedly inspired her husband the Emperor to put down the "Victory" revolt. The results were bloody, with at least thirty thousand producers, performers, fans and hooligans slaughtered in a single day in the hippodrome.

We can make no excuses for the massacre, but we can understand what motivated Theodora; she was determined to remain in control of her own destiny, after so many years of exploitation. It is hardly a coincidence that a few years after the Blues and Greens revolted against the emperor, Justinian ended all funding for public theatres.18 The centuries-old Roman entertainment industry, so massive, so exploitative, and now so dangerous, had to go. It is tempting to see Theodora's influence here once again, advising her husband to destroy the system that had exploited her since childhood.

To celebrate their rise to power, and to proclaim their piety, Justinian and Theodora enshrined themselves in mosaics at the church of San Vitale in Ravenna. When you go there you will see them standing, with their retinues, inside the sanctuary bearing the Eucharistic elements. Theodora bears the wine [image] in a huge goblet, gold of course, and encrusted with precious pearls and gems. Her entourage is decked out in much the same way as the goblet. When you look closely at her image, with her eyes wide open, try to understand that behind this gilded image stood an iron-willed woman, determined and ruthless. This is a woman who did what she had to do, to succeed in a hostile world.

Part 2: Enter the Divine Sarah

In the year 1884 a popular but notorious actress, at a low point in her career, came to Ravenna on pilgrimage to study this very image; every square centimeter, every jewel, every fold, nothing escaped her gaze. She had come to study Theodora, because she would soon bring her to life on-stage.

The name of that actress was Sarah Bernhardt.

If you asked Sarah where she came from you would get a lot of colorful stories, but none of them would be anywhere near the truth. Bernhardt's relationship with the truth, as they say, was dodgy at best.19 We know she was born in Paris, but we have no idea where or when. A few facts have emerged, in spite of themselves: her mother, Juliet, was a Dutch courtesan in Paris who cultivated a very high class of male customers, selling her body to some of the most brilliant artists, writers and politicians in France. Sarah's father, it is believed, was a young law student Edouard Bernard who left her with a small inheritance.20 Although Sarah's ancestry was Jewish, she was baptized into the Catholic Church at her mother's insistence-Sarah was even sent to a convent school, where she thrived.21 But as soon as Sarah came of age-maybe 15 years old-we have reason to believe that her mother introduced her to the life of the courtesan, teaching her how to flatter and seduce wealthy, distinguished men.22

Paris in those days was a cruel place for a woman; if you were intelligent and ambitious but had no desire to get married, your options were limited. To escape from life as a seamstress or nanny (the "spinster" trades) you had the convent, the life of the courtesan-and then there was the stage.23 Because Sarah's mother had customers with connections to the world of French theatre, when the young girl showed interest in acting she was immediately accepted into the great Conservatory and soon became a company member with the Comédie Française, France's great national theatre.24 But after only a few years Sarah was kicked out of the Comédie; she had brought her sister to a company party, and when the younger girl stepped on the dress of a distinguished senior company member by accident, the old woman practically threw her up against the wall. Sarah, not to be outdone, slapped the old woman back-effectively ending her association with the company.25 With the help of her mother's clients once again she moved across town, working at the Gymnase and Porte Saint-Martin theatres and, within a few more years, the Odeon.26

So let's see: like Theodora, Sarah was allegedly prostituted from an early age; like Theodora, Sarah was rejected by one entertainment company and hired by another. Both were prominent stage performers, both of them toured the world (Sarah would eventually see London, continental Europe, the United States and Canada) and both were determined to climb the social ladder. Already in her early years, Sarah had adopted a simple catch-phrase that defined her character: "quand-même" - which can mean many things, but given her determination I think the best translation for Bernhardt would be "whatever it takes."27 Given what we know about Empress Theodora, this expression could apply to her as well.

Another coincidence of history is that in 19th century Paris, like in 6th century Constantinople, actresses were assumed to be prostitutes. Their salaries were small, they often had to pay for their own costumes-and the greatest roles required the most expensive costumes.28 And if they wanted those roles, and if they wanted to live a life of comfort and luxury-as Sarah did-these actresses developed a list of male clients whose "generosity" gave them what they needed. As Sarah's acting career began to take off, and as her fame grew, so did her circle of elite customers.

By the 1880's Bernhardt had become a sensation, playing some of France's greatest female roles, and was now able to commission playwrights to create roles specifically for her. She specialized in high drama, in extremes of emotion, and among other things she was especially good at playing tragic noblewomen. There was the 17th century classic Ph?dre by Jean Racine, a variation on the Ancient Greek myth of a queen stricken with lust for her step-son.29 There was Hernani by Victor Hugo where she played Doňa Sol, a Spanish noblewoman in love with the bandit of the title.30 The list goes on.

When we survey the royal roles Sarah Bernhardt made famous we begin to see three basic rules for popular French drama from her times: Rule #1) the queen can do no wrong; Rule #2) if she does wrong, it's not her fault; but Rule #3) even if it's not her fault, she has to die anyway. And when she dies, she has to do it passionately, pathetically, down-stage center, as thousands applaud through their tears. These were the rules handed to Sarah Bernhardt when she first took the stage, and she saw to it that they were obeyed to the letter. The fact that she was masterful at the art of dying on stage was the real secret to her success.31

But Sarah had her share of enemies; actresses jealous of her talent, jealous of her connections to the elite of both Paris and England-she included the Prince of Wales, the son of Queen Victoria, among her lovers. But by far her worst enemy was her former colleague, actress Marie Colombier. Marie had been hired by Bernhardt to tour the United States with her company, and to make some extra money Marie became a correspondent, posting articles in the French newspapers about the tour and its many stops. 32 The tour was long and difficult, the performance conditions were often horrific-circus tents, run-down town halls, etc.-and it didn't help that Sarah was incredibly cheap when it came to paying her actors. Sarah returned from America a millionaire, with more than enough money to buy and operate her own theatre-no longer just an actress, she now was the head of her own entertainment company. By contrast Marie Colombier ended the tour in debt, but when she begged Sarah for a loan she got brushed away.33 With no money, and fed up, Marie wrote a scandalous biography, very thinly veiled as fiction. While in America, she had learned about Phineas T. Barnum, a mountebank who was notorious for his many frauds and bizarre acts. The name of Barnum, to this day, is associated with the greatest American circus, so it's perhaps only natural that Sarah Bernhardt, in Colombier's nasty little book, became Sarah Barnum.

The publication of "The Memoirs of Sarah Barnum" created a sensation. Unlike Procopius, who had to keep his "Secret History" a secret just to save his neck, Colombier published in Paris, sold thousands of copies, and made a small fortune. By reputation, "Sarah Barnum" is just as pornographic as Procopius' nasty little book, and because Colombier had been an actress on the Paris scene for years, and had worked with Sarah Bernhardt, people to this day believe her. The book is also extremely anti-Semitic; to give you an idea just how filthy it is consider that for years, if you wanted to read it at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, you had to make a special application to the "Réserve"-a special section devoted to pornography and blasphemy.34

What Marie hadn't realized was that she was attacking a women who was perfectly capable of defending herself-and Sarah did just that, forcing her way into Colombier's apartment, trashing all the porcelain, horse-whipping her as she ran away. Bernhardt even had the time to write an equally pathetic book about Colombier-a sign that what Bernhardt really needed was a new show.35

So now it is 1884, and Sarah Bernhardt, humiliated in the press, has also suffered a series of defeats on-stage.36 She turns to the playwright Victorien Sardou, whose passion for theatre was rivaled only by his passion for books. The man had a barn filled with thousands of volumes that he loved showing off to guests.37 Sardou had already had a huge hit, Fédora, which featured Bernhardt in the role of a Russian princess; tangled up in intrigues, falling in love with the man she thought had murdered her husband (he hadn't of course). When Princess Fédora realizes she has condemned the wrong man she does what all good noblewomen do in French plays-you guessed it, she dies.38 To tell the truth, audiences were tired of seeing Bernhardt die all the time, it had even become something of a joke. Sardou took note of that.

Sardou also made the fateful choice to combine his love of theatre with his love of history-the history of Byzantium in particular. The liberation of Greece in the 1830's from Ottoman rule had inspired a flood of archaeologists and scholars into the Mediterranean, with Greece and the Ottoman Empire the most popular destinations. Europeans walked through the cathedral of Hagia Sophia-a mosque at that time-along with other Byzantine monuments in Constantinople. They were determined to record the visual splendor they found there, publishing elaborately illustrated books. The liberation of Serbia from Ottoman Rule also reminded Europe that there were many nations whose histories were still bound with the Eastern Roman Empire; Byzantium was where Orthodox Christianity had flourished and spread from Europe to the Russian Far East.39

Procopius' Secret History had been available in France for decades-hardly surprising-but in Sardou's day a series of studies on Byzantium had been published that had captured the imagination of Paris. Some of these books were boring, carefully-crafted scholarly stuff but others combined historical knowledge with passion and a flair for the dramatic. The architecture of the Greek Orthodox Church, with its grand domes, inspired the design for the cathedral of Sacre Coeur, dedicated at the dawn of the Third Republic.

One book in particular, Augustine Marrast's "La vie byzantine au VIe si?cle," inspired Sardou with its elaborate descriptions of Empress Theodora and her court. Marrast, who died young, did not live to see his vision of Byzantium on-stage, but it is clear that Sardou intended to give this grand empire, with its many intrigues and colorful characters, a new life on the Paris stage.40 The name of the play-what else?-Théodora. Its star-who else?-Sarah Bernhardt.

But by the time Sardou writes this glorious play about the Byzantine Empire, France is a Republic-a conservative one, but a Republic nonetheless.41 It had been 14 years since Napoleon III had surrendered to the Germans and been stripped of his throne, 13 years since the bloody Paris Commune, with its shades of the Reign of Terror, had been put down. In the power vacuum that followed, throughout the 1870's, the authorities could not decide exactly what kind of government they wanted. They had tried to restore some kind of monarchy, but negotiations with France's royal families fell apart.42 Finally, with the election of Jules Grévy in 1879, the Third Republic was on solid ground. It is under Grévy that July 14th is declared a permanent national holiday, the "Jour de la Bastille;" and it is under Grévy, again, that "La Marseillaise" is made the national anthem of the new Republic.43 Within a few more years the schools were secularized, and the Jesuits driven out of the French classroom.44 With this new form of government securely in place, French writers like Sardou had a luxury they hadn't enjoyed in years: the freedom to study an empire like Byzantium from a distance, safe in the knowledge that they do not live under a regime like the one they describe. The Third Republic, although conservative in its form, liberates people to write about empires in ways that few before them ever could.

Sardou, the loyal Republican, wants to honor Byzantium but also wants to recognize France's new, hard-won political reality. He wants to give Sarah Bernhardt the role of a lifetime, but-let's be honest-he just can't have her die on-stage again, the critics would go berzerk. He knows that the real-life Theodora died in bed of what many believe was cancer-but Bernhardt had already played the famous Camille in Alexander Dumas' play "Lady of the Camellias," the courtesan who surrenders to consumption at the end of the play.45 So even a natural death is a bad idea-as they say, "been there, done that." But you still need a grand ending, an unforgettable image that audiences will carry with them for the rest of their lives.

Hmmm ... what to do?

At this point, it might be helpful to know that Sardou, in addition to his voracious appetite for history, was a master of what was called the well-made play, the pièce bien faite.46 In this style of play the plot usually relies on secrets that are known by the audience, but which remain unknown to some or all of the characters onstage. These secrets lead the central characters - usually lovers-into impossibly complicated and dangerous situations, leading ultimately to at least one explosive scène a faire, or "obligatory scene," in which the secrets are revealed. The virtue of this style is that you don't need any fantastical solutions, no "deus ex machina" to end the play. Once everything is revealed, the characters realize how to resolve the situation themselves. This is a style of writing ideal for comedy as well as tragedy-as someone once said, tragedy is comedy, but with a bad sense of timing. Sardou once said that when writing a play he would begin with the obligatory scene first, and then construct the rest of the action around it.47 Just like our Hollywood executives today, Sardou wanted to guarantee a huge dramatic explosion; and to make sure he got one, he would start with the explosion and then assemble all the sticks of dynamite required.

Sardou, knowing the history, and knowing that for stage purposes the history by itself just wouldn't work, sets the action at the time of the "Victory" revolt, 532 AD and takes his liberties from there. Act I begins with an elaborate Tableau-the initial sight of the stage setting was often one of the main attractions to shows in those days. Here we find an elaborate wing of the palace, with Bernhardt resplendent in one of her many stunning costumes.48 The budget for the production was massive, and figures for the massive budget (in the millions) were leaked to the press as a part of the show's publicity campaign. Gold, icons, ivories-or what looked like ivory from a distance-all the splendor of the orient was there for audiences to enjoy. We forget that in those days the scenic design got its own design, each time the curtain rose on a new scene. Because she had studied Theodora's portrait in Ravenna Bernhardt personally commissioned a series of costumes; by one person's account, at least 4,500 gems and beads were sewn into Theodora's robes. As one biographer puts it, "How the actress could move, and move with such grace, under the weight of these encrusted garments was one of the miracles of her magic."49

The biggest stick of dynamite Sardou introduces, is that he gives Empress Theodora a double-life, so that she could be both a devoted empress and still walk the streets incognito, disguised as a commoner. In Act 1, after an elaborately-staged scene at the palace, Theodora insists on going out into the city on foot, "like in the old days," to meet an old potion-maker she knew when she was a showgirl. The old woman recognizes her as "Zoe" the circus girl; "Zoe," true to Sardou's method, does not reveal she is now an Empress.50 But in a nod to Procopius's accusations of witchcraft, Theodora asks her old friend to make a love potion so that she can get back the love of her husband (who, of course, remains nameless). In Sardou's play, Theodora didn't used any potions to get Justinian to marry her; so at this point, this empress appears to be doing right.

What we learn next, however, complicates things immensely. In Act II we meet a dashing young Greek, Andreas, who confesses to a secret affair with a "commoner" he met by chance during an earthquake -the earth shook, she fell into his arms, it was love at first sight-or lust, anyway.51 We also learn that Andreas and his friends are hoping to take advantage of the "Victory" revolt to remove Justinian from the throne, and-a nice modern touch here-he wants to create a Hellenic Republic of Byzantium. The key to the conspiracy lies with Marcellus, a palace guard with access to Justinian's private chambers-Marcellus will figure prominently in one of the play's climactic scenes.

After the conspirators leave Andreas' lover arrives, and we discover-horror of horrors!-that she is in fact Theodora, who goes by the name of Myrta here.52 (So to make sure we're up to date, she's Theodora to Justinian, Zoe to the old potion maker, and Myrta to her lover Andreas. And of course none of them have met each other yet).

Keep in mind that we in the audience are the first to realize the secrets Andreas and Theodora are keeping from each other-and the even bigger big secret that Theodora is keeping from Justinian about her affair. The tension rises as Andreas slowly reveals his plans for a Republican coup; he assumes that Myrta, a commoner, would approve. It turns out that Andreas hates Justinian and-worst of all-despises the empress. Obviously "Myrta" cannot reveal who she really is, and she is shocked; but nevertheless she still loves him. By now it's clear that this queen is foolishly and impulsive, and dangerously so. So we in the audience know, deep down, that she is doomed.

In Act 3 is when the conspiracy comes to fruition. It takes place in Justinian's private chambers; Sardou calls for ivory altars, screens, statues, tryptichs, with bas-relief images of Saints Constantine and Helen set in gold, with a ceiling of cedar wood inlaid with gold, silver and ivory.53 And that's just a fraction of what was actually there on-stage. Everywhere you looked you saw opulence and wealth, with the occasional concession to piety.

In this act Theodora's job is to protect her husband Justinian from the plot to exile him-and because the plot's leader is none other than Andreas, she has to protect him too. And because Andreas still doesn't know she is the empress, Theodora also has to conceal her true identity from him. One act, one character, three seemingly impossible tasks. As you see, Sardou likes his plots very tightly wound.

Theodora tells Justinian about the plot, and the court decides to set a trap for the conspirators-Task 1 completed.54 Sure enough, Marcellus and Andreas arrive, but before Andreas can enter the room, Theodora bolts the door, leaving him outside-Task 2 done.55 And since Andreas has no idea who shut the door on him (it's nightfall, and she was on the other side) Task 3 seems done too. Or so we think.

Marcellus is trapped, bound, and brought out, and Justinian plans to torture him into revealing his co-conspirators. To prevent Andreas's identity being revealed, Theodora pretends that she hates the sight of torture and persuades Justinian to let her "interrogate" Marcellus alone. Justinian naively agrees, at which point Theodora and Marcellus are alone on-stage. Theodora whispers to Marcellus that she is Andreas' lover, and like Marcellus wants to save his life. But Marcellus realizes that he is trapped and only his death-death before the torture-would save Andreas. But there's no time, his hands are bound, so he needs Theodora to kill him immediately. The empress hesitates, however-that old rule crops up again. The tension mounts, and with Justinian hovering nearby their whispered dialogue reaches a fever pitch:

Marcellus: Finish! Will you, yes or no, strike the blow at once?

Theodora: Let me alone!

Marcellus: Death, at once, or I speak!

Theodora: I cannot!

Marcellus: Then you wish me to do it? (Aloud) Well- this Andreas is your-

And it is at this moment that Theodora pulls out a long, golden pin she had used for her hair and stabs Marcellus in the heart.56 He cries out "It is over! I thank you!" and falls dead. So by the end of Act 3 Justinian and Andreas are both safe, and Theodora still has kept her secret identity. We know she's made a whole host of bad choices, and she has survived this test; but sooner or later, Theodora's lies will begin to catch up with her.

Act 4 finds us in the morning after the failed conspiracy, and "Myrta" finds Andreas in hiding; she also discovers that Marcellus' body, dumped into the sea, has washed up nearby and has been brought to the house.57 Andreas now wants to kill Justinian, and because he knows Theodora killed his comrade (he pulls the gold stiletto out of Marcellus' chest) he tells "Myrta" that the empress will be killed in revenge for his friend's murder. What's worse, because the hippodrome is set to open later that day, Andreas is determined to go to the games and get a good look at the empress first. "Myrta" begs Andreas not to go, and leaves in haste because-as we know-she must soon reappear at the hippodrome as the Empress Theodora. After "Myrta" leaves, Andreas learns that she is one who betrayed his cause; spies have discovered that she has been lying to Andreas the whole time, although they haven't figured out exactly who she is; they assume she's a call girl hired by the government.58 Disgusted, Andreas resolves to go to the hippodrome after all.

At the hippodrome-yet another brilliant set piece-Justinian and Theodora enter to mark the beginning of the games. The factions taunt her to remove her veil, and in frustration and anger she rips it off.59 A silence falls on the crowd, and one lone protester shouts out when he recognizes her-Andreas. He is arrested, brought before the royal couple, and once again Theodora manages to help him disappear, even though he knows her true identity now and clearly despises her. As the scene closes, Justinian gives orders to slaughter everyone in the hippodrome-in the whole scene this is the only line that is historically accurate.60 But because Sardou has devoted so much stage time to his fictional intrigue, the "Victory" revolt's bloody conclusion is left to our imagination.

Act 5 opens with Justinian openly questioning Theodora's loyalty; he tests her, and realizes she is in love with the conspirator Andreas.61 Meanwhile the old potion-maker comes to "Zoe," who she now realizes is Theodora, gives her a potion, and tells her where to find Andreas at the hippodrome.62 She also tells us how her beloved son was brutally murdered in prison during revolt. Theodora offers her condolences to the old woman, rushes to Andreas' side, and is met with nothing but contempt from her former lover.

It is at this point that Sardou gives his doomed empress, and Sarah Bernhardt, a passionate defense of their dark past. When Andreas launches into the kind of invective that Procopius and Marie Colombier made famous, this is what she says:

The only moral lesson taught me was that a poor girl has but one merit-her charms; and but one trade-to lay them out to the best advantage. Yes, I know what you would say-rather suffer poverty than shame! You men can talk at your ease. You who have managed the world so well, that woman is nothing without your love, and who hypocritically preach those virtues to us, which you have made it impossible for us to practice ... I did not bow to this humiliation of my whole life, this degradation of my whole being. I gave flight to all my ambitious desires, and flying from height to height I rose above all and reached the Empire, and am now mistress of the world. Be indignant if you will, and protest against the disgrace of such success; but first of all, bring your action against this shameful world, which gives no other alternative to girls poor like myself but either to sink to the lowest depths by being virtuous, or to raise themselves to any level by their vices!63

Sardou uses Theodora to teach the audience one of the most important moral lessons of his age, or any age for that matter. He wants us to understand why women like Theodora and Sarah Bernhardt have used their bodies to survive and rise through the ranks. Sardou knows that we are supposed to be shocked at their behavior, and we feel entitled to set ourselves up as better than they are; when in reality we all participate in their degradation. In the end we are, he reminds us, our sisters' keepers.

What follows this speech is all confusion; of course Theodora tries one last time to justify her behavior to Andreas, and of course she fails miserably. Desperate for Andreas' love, she sneaks in the potion for him to drink, in the belief that it will make him love her again. But-in the final, brutal twist of the plot-it isn't love potion at all, it's poison.64 The old woman, thinking the potion was meant for Justinian, wanted revenge for her son's murder; the old woman wanted to kill the emperor.

So now Sarah Bernhardt, the master of the art of dying, has to watch someone else die for a change. Andreas gets all the sympathy as he expires. After the death of Andreas Justinian's executioner arrives from the palace, with orders to hang her. As the curtain falls we see Theodora holding Andreas, while the executioner begins to unravel the red silk noose. An unforgettable image, especially because it was unique in the career of Sarah Bernhardt to be a condemned woman.65

Was Theodora's execution historically accurate? Absolutely not. Did Sardou take liberties with history? Absolument. But historical accuracy is one thing, and psychological accuracy, immediacy is another. After all is said and done it was psychological accuracy, as expressed by Sarah Bernhardt in her performance of Theodora that Sardou was aiming for. When asked why he had Theodora hung, he said:

It would obviously be absurd to make Mary Stuart die of consumption, Marie Antoinette of poison, or Joan of Arc in her bed. But an end as obscure as that of Theodora authorizes me, I suppose, to imagine for her a death more Byzantine than the real one.66

When Sardou read the history of Byzantium he found a highly sophisticated society that rarely was as it seemed on the surface. To simplify Byzantium might have been more accurate from a historical perspective, but would have been inaccurate from a deeper, psychological point of view. Moreover, Sardou believed that theatre was a more vivid and more true representation of reality than other genres. As he once said, "The Novel is an analysis; the theatre is a synthesis."67 It is one thing to write down what we know, or what we think we know, on paper. It is another thing to give it life, to have it breathe and walk and act, because it requires all of the arts of at the same time.

In a sense, when we think of Byzantium today, we think first and foremost of ourselves. What aspect of Byzantium reflects my own experience, my own life? What part of it is the most interesting, the most scandalous, the most sophisticated? It may not be easy to see why Byzantium remains such an important and rich period of our history. Historians offer one vision of the Empire, and we do what we can to give you an accurate picture. But in the end accuracy isn't always enough, is it? We need to show how Byzantium touches us here and now, where we live; we need to know why Byzantium can still teach us about our own culture, our own values.

Victorien Sardou understood this, and he was able to harness the power of Sarah Bernhardt's acting to achieve this goal. He created a Theodora for modern times; he crafted an image of the Empress that was instantly recognizable to his theatre audience. Byzantium had come to Paris, and Paris recognized it as if it were looking in a mirror. It was not accurate, but it was a brilliant distillation of the Byzantine character for the modern age.

So yes, Byzantium can mean many things, some of them unflattering. But it can also mean something, it has a great deal to teach us about ourselves; perhaps this is a project some of you young people might want to pursue?


1 Given before the Classics Department, University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland on October 29, 2013. I want to thank my friend and colleague, Przemysław Marciniak, for his invitation and for the opportunity to meet his brilliant colleagues and students.

2 To view the promotional "trailer" for this movie go to the following website: .

3 Codex Theodosianus (CTh )15.7.2 (translation adapted from The Theodosian Code and Novels and the Sirmondian Constitutions, C. Pharr, trans. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1952), 433.

4 On the management of prostitution "services" at festivals see Thomas A. J. McGinn, The Economy of Prostitution in the Roman World: A Study of Social History & the Brothel (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2004), 26. On this deliberate confusion of actors and prostitutes see also Catherine Edwards, "Unspeakable Professions: Public Performance and Prostitution in the Roman Empire," in Roman Sexualities, Judith P. Hallett and Marilyn B. Skinner eds. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997): 66-95.

5 See CTh 15.7.4 & 15.7.9, which allow low-born women who are "obliged to perform duties at the spectacles [spectaculorum debentur obsequiis]" to be re-assigned to "supporting roles at the plays [ludicris ministeriis]" if they request it. The Latin word "obsequiis" specifically connotes sexual services -- see OLD, s.v. "obsequium," 2.c.

6 CTh 15.7.1 (Pharr, 433).

7 CTh. 15.7.13.

8 For a selection of Byzantine-era rhetoric exercise books see George A. Kennedy, ed., Progymnasmata: Greek Textbooks of Prose Composition and Rhetoric (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2003).

9 Procopius, Hist. Arc. 9.2-7.

10 Hist. Arc. 9:23-25. Translation from Prokopios: The Secret History With Related Texts, trans. Anthony Kaldellis (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2010), 43.

11 Hist. Arc. 9.20-22.

12 Hist. Arc. 9.11-13. Procopius, like many other writers from this period, does not write this 'biography' in strict chronological order; internal evidence (like the material cited here) indicates he mixed early and later episodes together for rhetorical effect.

13 Hist. Arc. 9.28 (Kaldellis, 43).

14 Hist. Arc. 22.27-32 (Kaldellis, 100).

15 For the relevant edict see Codex Justinianus 5.4.23 (translation in Kaldellis, 133-136).

16 Hist. Arc. 17.5-6. In the spirit of exaggeration and insult, Procopius describes these women throwing themselves off the ramparts of the convent in despair-as if they were desperate to return to this degrading and punishing occupation. For a different view of this event see Procopius, Buildings, 1.9.1-10 (translation Kaldellis, 150-152).

17 Interestingly enough this is another quote from Procopius-see Wars, 1.2.36-37 (translation Kaldellis, 142).

18 See Procopius, Hist. Arc. 26.8-10 (Kaldellis, 114).

19 As one recent biographer puts it, Bernhardt "was a complete realist when dealing with her life but a relentless fabulist when recounting it. Why settle for anything less than the best story?" (Robert Gottlieb, Sarah: The Life of Sarah Bernhardt (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010), 1).

20 Cornelia Otis Skinner, Madame Sarah (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1966), 2.

21 When asked about her heritage, Sarah Bernhardt once famously replied "I'm a Roman Catholic, and a member of the great Jewish race; I'm waiting 'til the Christians become better." (Skinner, 13) Sarah was fated to wait her whole life for that to happen-it never did.

22 See Skinner, 42-43. Exactly when Sarah took on this line of business is subject to speculation; her enemies claimed that her mother had prostituted her from an early age, but it is more likely that she became a courtesan as an adult, and to further her theatrical career. See also Arthur Gold and Robert Fitzdale, The Divine Sarah: A Life of Sarah Bernhardt (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1991), 26-27 & 53-74).

23 On these limited options, and on the loose morals of Parisian men and women during the mid-1800's see for example Skinner, 3-4.

24 Skinner, 25-41.

25 See Skinner, 38-41; Gold and Fitzdale, 52.

26 Gold and Fitzdale, 57-74.

27 Gottlieb, 14-15.

28 For a brilliant study of this phenomenon, from the perspective of English theatre, see Tracy C. Davis, Actresses as Working Women: Their Social Identity in Victorian Culture (New York: Routledge, 1991).

29 See Skinner, 105-107; Gottlieb, 69-70; Gold and Fitzdale, 150-153.

30 Skinner, 109-110; Gottlieb, 71-72; Gold and Fitzdale, 140-146. The latter includes an amusing account of Bernhardt's spectacular balloon ride over Paris, dressed in her Doňa Sol costume.

31 See for example Gottlieb, 190-191; her stage deaths eventually came in for some satire (ibid., 101).

32 Gottlieb 99, 106-7. See also Skinner 180-182 (on Bernhardt's tour, 147-196).

33 Gold and Fitzdale, 208.

34 Skinner, 224-225. On the reliability of Colombier's book see Gold and Fitzdale, 27.

35 Gold and Fitzdale, 208-209; Skinner, 226; Gottlieb, 116-117.

36 On the string of box-office failures Bernhardt faced in 1884 see Skinner, 228-229; Gold and Fitzdale 205 & 210.

37 Among the images available on the Web is one of an elderly Sardou, seated at an ample desk, surrounded by an impressive library.

38 On Fédora see Skinner, 216-218; Gold and Fitzdale, 201-204; Gottlieb, 218-219.

39 For a thorough account of the scholarly context for Sardou's Théodora see Silvia Ronchey, "La "femme fatale", source d'une byzantinologie aust?re" in Byzance en Europe, Marie-France Auzepy, ed. (Paris: Presses Universitaires de Vincennes, 2003), 153-192.

40 On Marrast work see Ronchey's analysis in "La femme fatale" 156-159. See also Olivier Delouis, "Byzance sur la sc?ne littéraire française [1870-1920]" in Byzance en Europe, 111.

41 On the early Third Republic see André Maurois, A History of France, Henry L. Binnse trans. (New York: Funk & Wagnells, 1960), 461-475. See also Frederick Brown, For the Soul of France: Culture Wars in the Age of Dreyfus (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010), 40-57.

42 Marrou, 461-462; Brown, 46.

43 Maurois, 475; Brown, 57.

44 Brown, 54-55.

45 On Bernhardt's revival of La Dame aux camellias-abroad first but then in Paris-see Skinner 147-148, 166-167 & 213-214; Gold and Fitzdale 172-173 & 189-90; and Gottlieb, 100 & 110-111.

46 On the art of Sardou and his well-made play see for example the Introduction to Camille and Other Plays, Stephen S. Stanton, ed. (New York: Hill and Wang, 1990), xxi-xxv. Naturally, Sardou's reputation for 'clockwork' plots was not every theatre critic's cup of tea; on Sardou's detractors see for example Skinner, 203-204.

47 See Stephen S. Stanton, Camille and Other Plays (New York: Hill and Wang,1956), xxiii.

48 Ironically, Sardou oversaw an English translation first; the following plot analysis is based on Victorien Sardou, Theodora, a Drama in Five Acts and Eight Tableaux (London: Bean, Webley & Co., 1885). NB: some acts are subdivided into Tableaux, so that subsequent citations will sometimes cite Act, Tableaux and Scene.

49 Skinner 231-2.

50 Act 1, Tableau 2, Scene 3 (Theodora, 19-23).

51 Act 2, Scene 2 (25-6).

52 Act 2, Scene 5 (32-37).

53 Act 3 Scene 1 (38).

54 Act 3, Scene 2 (41-42).

55 Act 3, Scene 6 (48-49).

56 Act 3, Scene 7 (52-53).

57 Act 4, Tableau 1, Scene 4 (57-61).

58 Act 4, Tableau 1, Scene 5 (61-64).

59 Act 4, Tableau 2, Scene 2 (68-70).

60 Act 4, Tableau 2, Scene 3 (70-71).

61 Act 5, Tableau 1, Scenes 3-5 (73-77).

62 Act 5, Tableau 1, Scene 8 (78-80).

63 Act 5, Tableau 2, Scene 2 (83).

64 Act 5, Tableau 2, Scene 2 (85).

65 Act 5, Tableau 2, Scene 3 (87).

66 From Skinner,230-231.

67 As quoted in J. Passy and A. Binet, "Notes Psychologiques sur les auteurs dramatiques," l'Année Psychologique 1 (1894), 63.