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Book Review: Theodora: Actress. Empress. Whore. by Stella Duffy

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Theodora, wife of the Emperor Justinian, is perhaps my all-time favourite Roman empress – what’s not to like about a character who even her sworn enemy and libeller credited with saving her husband’s throne with resolute courage. So when I read good reviews of Stella Duffy’s fictional biography, I couldn’t resist.

The fact is, however, that the only major source we have for Theodora’s life is Procopius, who’s far from well inclined towards her in his Secret History, usually taken as his real views. There’s something about the slurs against her – that she was a teenage actress and whore, famous for her pornographic acts with geese – that draw questions in my mind. How is that women whom ancient (and not so ancient) historians never find their female characters just simple, garden-style sex workers, but make them always famous for their perversities?

Still, Duffy has chosen to go with the basic biographical outline provided by Procopius, and for the opening sections of the book, as Theodora is a young girl training for the Byzantine stage, then a star upon it, works pretty well.

We disappear into the back streets and sleazy alleys of Constantinople, its scents and colours, and I’ve no doubt Duffy has done her research on street names and geography. (There’s a bibliography for those who’d like to go further in non-fiction.)

And Duffy seems to capture well the mindset of a girl and a class of women who expect to have to make their own way in the world, through means that they mightn’t always like (not least for the social stigma), but are resigned to. There’s a sense here that she might have caught something real about a pre-Christian morality, although of course Christianity is fast taking hold in Theodora’s world.

The novel works less well, however, when Theodora, now a fugitive thief far from the city she calls home, hooks up with the quasi-heretic Alexandrian Patriarch Timothy, and has, she tells other characters, a not-quite Damacene conversion. She rejects as hysterics the conventional conversion narrative – liked that, for there must have been plenty of such scepticism at the time – but there’s never any real feel that sometime has changed in this character, although Duffy appears to want us to believe that it has.

Once again back in Constantinople, Duffy’s excellent on life inside the royal palace, its claustrophobia and fear, as Theodora winds her way into the life of Justinian, now heir-apparent to the aging Justin. It’s to the author’s credit, too, that she doesn’t try to make this a romance genre novel – strongly resists putting modern conventions of romance into the mind of either character.

But there’s a dryness to all of this, a dutifulness to the storytelling, that doesn’t quite grab the reader in the way this great character of history should.

The novel ends with the coronation – I can feel a sequel coming on, but I’m afraid I won’t be looking out for it. Much better try, I’d suggest, a non-fiction account of Theodora’s life.

(This novel is available in the UK, but appears as yet unavailable in the US.)

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About Natalie Bennett

Natalie blogs at Philobiblon, on books, history and all things feminist. In her public life she's the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales.