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Books: Man & Wife Team

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THEODORA AND THE EMPEROR (336 pp.) —Harold Lamb—Doubleday ($4.50).

The only surprising thing about Theodora and the Emperor is that it took Harold Lamb so long to get around to it. Subject and author could hardly be more naturally joined: little is known for sure about the private life of Emperor Justinian, even less about his wife Theodora, but Harold Lamb is an old hand at bridging historical gaps. He once wrote a whole book about so shadowy a figure as Poet Omar Khayyam, and made it sound plausible at that. Now, working his imagination overtime, and with a large assist from Justinian’s court historian, Procopius, Author Lamb offers the inside story of “the first notable man and wife of modern history.”

The man was a Macedonian peasant who had come to Constantinople for an education at 18, became emperor at 45 and ruled the Eastern Roman Empire for 38 years until his death in 565. The wife was a Syrian circus brat turned prostitute who had the good luck to please the future emperor.

As Author Lamb tells their story, the peasant emperor loses in stature and the prostitute empress takes on a regal aspect. Justinian is seen as a dull, lifelong scholar, a grubber for facts, a physical coward with an insatiable lust for power. He seldom left his palace, and depended on his great commander, Belisarius, to defend the empire. Of his many great projects, only two fully succeeded: the Justinian Code and the building of the magnificent Church of St. Sophia.

Theodora was no idle throne warmer. She ruled as a full partner, intrigued incessantly against enemies of the regime. When the people revolted, it was she who was firm while Justinian stood helpless. Because her past continually plagued her, she put an end to brothels in a city that considered them indispensable. She even, so history tells it, built a sanctuary for prostitutes, and sent 500 there to repent at leisure. Of one thing not even her basest enemies accused her: unfaithfulness to Justinian.

Theodora and the Emperor is too glib to be taken with thorough seriousness, but it is thoroughly readable.

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