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An evening with the bawdy Byzantines

The Emperor and the Prostitute. Now there's a title to capture the imagination. The first of this season's lectures organised by the Spalding Gentlemen's Society certainly piqued my interest. Nothing like a bit of smut to draw me in but if it's high-brow classical smut, all the better.

Dr Geri Parlby, Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, presented her fascinating talk at Spalding Grammar School, introducing us to Justinian, 6th century Eastern Roman emperor. Justinian married Theodora, former prostitute and exotic dancer.

I'm imagining him as a Byzantine Richard Gere, scooping his very own Julia Roberts out of the brothel and making her his wife. Pretty Roman?

My copy of Stories of the Byzantines (18461346)
My copy of Stories of the Byzantines (18461346)

An ambitious couple, their rule in Constantinople led to the empire expanding, reconquering some of the lost parts of the Western Empire. Justinian enjoyed taking all the plaudits, despite his general, Belisarius, being responsible for the battle successes.

Dr Parlby explained how Procopius, the secretary of Belisarius, wrote a sensational account of the reign of Justinian and Theodora, with plenty of shocking details of Theodora's lascivious activities. I'm sure I wasn't the only person in the audience making a mental note of the title to hunt out on Amazon. It's called The Secret History.

I've always enjoyed the scene in Monty Python's Life of Brian, where they discuss "what have the Romans ever done for us." In a similar vein it was heartening to learn that Justinian made judicial reforms that have become the basis of today's European law and Theodora did much to improve women's rights.

Together they were responsible for the construction of magnificent buildings which can still be seen today in Istanbul, Egypt and Ravenna in Italy. The images Dr Parlby showed us of the exquisite mosaics have just put Ravenna high up on my bucket list.

I returned home far more knowledgeable about Byzantine history. Then I remembered something. Unloved and forgotten on my bookshelf was a copy of Stories of the Byzantines. In 1976, aged 12, I was presented with the book as a school class prize. I'm ashamed to say, I never read it.

Leafing through it, there were stories about Justinian, Theodora and Belisarius - minus the more salacious details. Some 43 years later, thanks to Dr Parlby and the Spalding Gentlemen's Society, I've started reading it.

The Spalding Gentlemen's Society lecture programme continues through to March 2020. There are some wonderful talks ranging from Lawrence of Arabia to SS Great Britain. Anyone can go along and, at £2.50 entrance fee, it's a steal.

The society is always looking for new members, men and women, aged 18 and over. If you want further details on the lecture programme or how to join, take a look at their website www.sgsoc.org

You can read Trish's blog at www.mumsgoneto.co.uk


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