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Theodora: Actress, empress, whore, by Stella Duffy

Powerful consorts have often been trashed by prurient historians, and none more so than Theodora, Empress of Byzantium, wife of the sixth-century ruler, Justinian. Procopius's official work celebrated her piety and courage, but his scurrilous Secret History claimed to reveal her as a former prostitute of unsurpassed greed. A travesty, but Procopius had a novelist's flair for colourful detail: what reader could forget the circus performance with excited geese?

Stella Duffy has taken on an uphill task in turning this caricature into a human being. Her talent for exploring the many facets of Theodora's world stands her in good stead in this fictional version of the Empress's early life: the poverty-stricken upbringing, the brutal training as an acrobat and dancer. When this product of the back alleys of Constantinople becomes the mistress of a nobleman, he takes her to Egypt, where she leads a life of gorgeous luxury interspersed with theological arguments.



Duffy takes her heroine seriously, including the religious obsessions of a society in which the divinity of Christ was hotly debated in the streets. This Theodora is by nature a sceptic, but when forced to experience the life of a hermit in the desert, she discovers a depth of experience hitherto unimaginable. Yet it has familiar parameters: the indifference to pain required is not dissimilar to that needed by a trained acrobat. This is a complex character, capable of deep feeling, but always with something of the performer in her make-up. After escaping from riots in Antioch, aided by a woman lover, she has to return to her own great city and perform an unusual religious mission on behalf of the Patriarch Timothy. Her brief is to seduce the young Justinian, heir presumptive to the throne.



Justinian seems an unlikely prospect, a virtuous workaholic with no apparent interest in sex of any kind. Theodora must present herself as a reformed woman. But when she and Justinian finally meet... suffice it to say, Cinderella does go to the ball.



Duffy has carefully followed the history of this woman, but has achieved something much more: the creation for her heroine of a real inner life, which is the most affecting achievement of a historical novel. And she does find a plausible role for those geese.

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