Three Gates

Reading the story of Empress Theodora.

Given much talk of this modern, American, empire, I've been on a Roman history kick, going back to older haunts as well as new ones. Reading the comparatively dry Tacitus, I went back to The Secret History of Procopius, remarkable for its vitriol towards Theodora (500-548), the empress of Justinian.

She was the daughter of a bearkeeper, and a distinguished prostitute and actress in burlesques. Then as now, the stage was considered a haven for loose morals. She traveled from Constantinople to Libya, and back, her reputation preceding and following. Justinian fell hard for her, enough to have his uncle, Emperor Justin, change the law to allow actresses to marry above their station. She was a great lover of animals.

Often, even in the theater, in the sight of all the people, she removed her costume and stood nude in their midst, except for a girdle about the groin: not that she was abashed at revealing that, too, to the audience, but because there was a law against appearing altogether naked on the stage, without at least this much of a fig-leaf. Covered thus with a ribbon, she would sink down to the stage floor and recline on her back. Slaves to whom the duty was entrusted would then scatter grains of barley from above into the calyx[1] of this passion flower, whence geese, trained for the purpose, would next pick the grains one by one with their bills and eat.

Which reminds me of a conversation I had at a party in Philadelphia, when I was 19. Two middle-aged men, old friends, took me aside and asked me if I ever played football. No, I said. How old was I? I told them.

“You ever go out to the strip clubs?”

I shrugged.

“Strip clubs now aren't any good,” said the other man. “Wilson Goode cleaned it all up.”

“You used to see some remarkable things,” said the first.



“Yeah. Back when Rizzo was mayor.”

“Fucking pig.”

“He was.”


“Peanut butter,” said the first.

“Coke bottle,” said the second.

“Shooting ping-pong balls.”

“Saw one write a letter on paper.”

“I saw that. Then she sealed the envelope.” He looked at me. “Without any hands.”

“I understand,” I said.

“That peanut butter was in the jar,” explained the first man.

“Not a big jar, though.”

“One of those jars that bends in the middle.”

“Talent like that you don't see any more,” he said. “This is a different city than it used to be.”

“Sad for our young friend here,” said the first.

“You missed some fine performances,” the second man said to me, punching my shoulder.

Theodora was not bested by the strippers of Philadelphia: “And though she flung wide three gates to the ambassadors of Cupid, she lamented that nature had not similarly unlocked the straits of her bosom, that she might there have contrived a further welcome to his emissaries.”

(An author at Wikipedia writes, cheerfully: “While her advancement in Byzantine society was up and down, she made use of every opening.”)

The Secret History, was known to have been written in 500, but was lost for centuries. Finally, someone came across it in the Vatican Library. What a shock to find it among all the Carolingian miniscule. Procopius' other histories probably saved it—Vatican librarians were known to burn offensive books—but the work of a master can't be easily discarded, and it was published for the first time over a millennium after it was written, in 1623, edited by a librarian named Niccolò Alamanni.


1. calyx—the whorl of sepals of a flower collectively forming the outer floral envelope; namely, her business [Back]




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About the author: I've been running this website from 1997. For a living I write stories and essays, program computers, edit things, and help people launch online publications. (LinkedIn). I wrote a novel. I was an editor at Harper's Magazine for five years; then I was a Contributing Editor; now I am a free agent. I was also on NPR's All Things Considered for a while. I still write for The Morning News, and some other places.

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