Theodora (Penguin Press) as history is fascinating. Stella Duffy’s historical novel about the most progressive empress of Byzantium and wife of the late-Roman emperor Justinian I, affords the attention and respect the historical Theodora deserves. Duffy presents a main character that is brilliant, flawed, and utterly mesmerizing.

Scholars believe she was born between 497 and 510 AD. Her father was a bear trainer at the Hippodrome, the vast sports stadium that was the social center of Constantinople and the site of Theodora’s early career as an acrobat and actress, which, back in the day, also denoted prostitute. Duffy weaves a plausible tapestry-like narrative, illuminating the smallest details of daily life in the sixth century as well as each pinnacle and nadir of Theodora’s tumultuous life.

The interstices of Theodora’s experiences flow into a continuum of shared experiences familiar to any woman living in any age and culture controlled by men. Duffy captures Theodora’s indomitable spirit and through her viscerally connects readers to timeless human responses and reactions to pain, happiness, faith, and enlightenment. From bear-keeper’s daughter to empress, Theodora is the real deal. “I don’t care what [people] say about me,” she tells Justinian, “I have never… pretended to be anything but what I am, what I have been.” Theodora is flawed but her innate veracity and self-insight ennobles and elevates her from whore to empress:

Theodora had to admit, she had missed the theatre, but at least she wouldn’t have to give this costume back at the end of the night, and while Justinian was, in many ways, in every way, now paying her to be his companion, she was happy for that to be the case. Theodora ––and the girls she had grown up with, had always understood marriage to be a sanctified prostitution. Despite her friendship with Justinian, her pleasure in their passion, this view had not changed: she knew herself now to be his.

Theodora’s life is infused with desire—sensual and sexual, intellectual and spiritual. She loves her work in the theatre, and she loves women. Creativity and women capture Theodora’s soul and even her conversion and devotion to Christianity cannot dislodge them. Theodora’s love for Sophia, who was her pimp before she was Theodora’s lover, and (later in Antioch) Macedonia, a woman charged with grooming Theodora for her role as Justinian’s advisor and subsequently, his wife and empress, are her most emotionally connected relationships. It is love born out of difficult circumstances and necessity but it is not demeaning and certainly not shallow. Whoring was a way to make a living. With men, “as long as [Theodora] maintained the split between her body and her spirit, she could enjoy whoring for Sophia,” but “she and Sophia were different.” Theodora was used to being adored on stage, but “in Sophia she had a friend she adored in return,” a friend who truly cared without possessing or controlling, a friend who could let her go and accept her back.

Theodora is lush in its descriptions of “the geography, economics, and governance of the Empire,” and even if you do not like geography, economics, and governance, you might like the constant undercurrent of religious intrigue and strategy, or perhaps the fine-tuned machinations of late-Roman corruption, or the scheming long-term strategies of the Monotheists versus the Orthodox Christians.

Theodora was five, as old as the new century, born in the city of Constantine less than two hundred years since it ceased to be Byzantium and became the holy city of Constantinople, the center of the new Rome, the sparkling gem in a Christian crown. In the west the Empire was parceled out among Barbarian kings, some of them not even Christian. In the east there were the constantly disputed Persian borders and Sassanid rulers, none of them Christian…. Theodora was too young to know the intricacies of a schism born at the ecumenical council fifty years earlier, intricacies spinning out from the interpretation of a single word to questions of national identity, but even she had noticed that her parents’ friends, and the dancers in their rehearsal breaks, and the man who preached on the corner near their house, not to mention the monks who had recently physically attacked each other for their different beliefs, all took the matter very seriously indeed.

Here is a snapshot of the world Theodora moves through and across to become empress of the greatest period in Byzantine history. The historical novel is born of a disciplined mind and facile imagination, but no matter how scholarly or well researched a novel is or how elegant the prose, imagination drives its success. In Theodora: Actress, Empress, Whore, Stella Duffy’s brilliantly organized imagination has re-imagined one of the most resourceful, smart, and emotionally complex woman in history, creating a woman remarkably relevant to the 21st century: a rags-to-riches story of survival and achievement—a feminist reality tale we can all relate to. Read this book. It is a gift from Stella Duffy we should not refuse.

Theodora:Actress, Empress, Whore
By Stella Duffy
Penguin Press
Paperback, 9780143119876, 352pp.
September 2011



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  • Michael Craft

One Response to “‘Theodora: Actress, Empress, Whore’ by Stella Duffy”

  1. […] Theodora: Actress, Empress, Whore by Stella Duffy was reviewed at Lambda Literary. […]



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