Theodora: Actress, Empress, Whore
"A bravura performance: a witty, moving, sexy book that bursts with as much color and excitement as the city of Constantinople itself." -Financial Times
Roman historian Procopius publicly praised Theodora of Constantinople for her piety-while secretly detailing her salacious stage act and maligning her as ruthless and power hungry. So who was this woman who rose from humble beginnings as a dancer to become the empress of Rome and a saint in the Orthodox Church? Award-winning novelist Stella Duffy vividly recreates the life and times of a woman who left her mark on one of the ancient world's most powerful empires. Theodora: Actress, Empress, Whore is a sexy, captivating novel that resurrects an extraordinary, little-known figure from the dusty pages of history.
-Laura Lippman, New York Times bestselling author of The Most Dangerous Thing
"Duffy's seductive retelling of the story of the legendary empress Theodora will delight historical fiction fans."
"Duffy's retelling of the true story of a woman (500-548) who rose from lowly beginnings to become Empress of the Byzantine Empire is lively and dramatic."
"There's... intelligence and empathy under the energetic potboiler surface."
"Duffy's passion for her heroine, the charismatic Theodora, is evident on every page. The result is a novel that remains true to its historical sources, whilst managing to reinvent its subject matter with great freshness and verve. A vivid and affectionate portrait of one of the most fascinating personalities of the ancient world."
Despite her grand accomplishments, Theodora is a bit of an obscure historical figure. How did you find her? What was it about her life that inspired you to write the novel?
I was at a book festival in Ravenna, Italy. I was taken to see the mosaic of Justinian and Theodora in the chapel there, and was amazed by both the incredible mosaics, and also the very brief detail of Theodora's life I found in the bookshop leafletborn into the Hippodrome, her family was destitute when her father died, yet she became Constantinople's most successful and famous performer. She then ran away with her lover, had a religious conversion, may have been a spy, and traveled alone all the way from (modern-day) Libya back to Constantinople, via Egypt and (modern-day) Syria. Within two years of her return, the law was changed to allow her to marry Justinian; three years later she was crowned empress by his side. Not only a classic rags-to-riches story, but one where the woman (eventually) had her own power and went on to make some laws in her own right. I feel enormously lucky to have found a fantastically interesting and powerful historical figure who hasn't already been written about by a dozen other authors. I also find the politics of the disintegrating Roman state fascinatingthere are great parallels with the current Arab Spring, and I really enjoyed researching the early church of the period. Also, anyone so little mentioned in the history books (at least until more recently) allows a great deal of leeway for a fiction writer!
Looking at the bibliography you include at the back of the book, you worked with a variety of modern and ancient sources to construct your portrait of Theodora, yet with little historical evidence available, much of what is written is interpretation and opinion. Did you find a great range of perspectives on her and her accomplishments? How did you develop your own version of Theodora?
There are widely different versions of Theodora in historythe Machiavellian mistress, the courtesan who ensnared an emperor, the saint of the Orthodox Church, the passionate campaigner for women sex workers, but these have, until recently, rarely been investigated in great detail. Until the twentieth century, women's roles in history were often relegated to that of wife/mistress or Virgin Queen, with very little between. More modern writing on the period teaches us that women did indeed have a great contribution to make, that Theodora enjoyed her own power, and thatfar from being a pretty thing on her husband's armshe was, in fact, the "pious consort" Justinian himself names her, someone who had a very real and strong place in her court. Of course I did as much research as I could, reading into and around the period, but ultimately, this is a novel, so while research is vital and useful, I personally believe it should never get in the way of the story itself. When I read a textbook I want all the facts; when I read a novel, I want the characters to breathe.
In terms of attitudes toward sexuality, politics, women's rights, and other cultural issues, would you say that Theodora's Constantinople was more or less conservative than today's society?
It's tempting to imagine that sixth-century Constantinople might be a more conservative world than our own, but it's just not that simple. For example, there is the truth that while prostitution may have been illegal in Theodora's time, the state still taxed prostitutes. Women did not have the status of men, but they had not yet been entirely shut out from positions of influence at court, and in the churchthis is pre-Dark Ages, that is all yet to come. Constantinople was also a big city teeming with refugees, asylum seekers, people coming in from both the Persian and the western borders, fleeing war; as we know from our modern cities, the larger the city, the more expansive it is, the more accommodating of all kinds of people, and in wider and diverse populations we often find the most liberal views.
From her childhood as a performer under Menander to the political machinations that prompt her relationship with Justinian, Theodora spends her life being used by men. Yet at the same time, she's a woman who makes the most of her situation and uses her wits to take care of herself. How does she achieve this balance? Does it ultimately tilt more in one direction than the other?
In the Theodora I've written, what "balance" she has is achieved by constantly juggling, by giving up some ambitions to attain others, by silencing some of her desires to feed others. Even the woman who became empress of half the known world could not have it all, and I like that about her. None of us has a gilded life, and as writers of fiction we need to make sure that even our fairy-tale princesses are as rooted in real human life as possible. Her life is, necessarily, defined by the men around her, by her time, by her position (both as an entertainer and later as empress), and by her gender. Even when she ultimately gains her own power as empress, it is a still a very male power, based on a very patriarchal model, not too different from very many powerful women in our world today. I'm personally not sure we've yet worked out what a matriarchal image of modern power would look like. I do like the idea though…
Theodora is an inspirational figure in many ways and her ambition, determination, and intellect are clear, but what do you see as the flaws in her character?
She is forceful and loud and funny and smart-mouthed and sexy and smart and infuriates herself as much as she does others. And I love her for it.
Sex and religion figure prominently in the noveltwo topics that many writers would shy away from, yet you explore in great detail. What is the connection between the two in Theodora's life? Were you concerned that certain scenes in the novel might alienate readers in any way?
During Theodora's life, religion was an absolutely vital force in society. The Christian church was very much still in a state of flux, still forming, becoming itself. The records tell us that people would argue in bars about the very nature of the Christwas He fully human, partly human, mostly divine, human and divine mixed, human and divine unmixed…? These questions were thrashed out and they really mattered to the people of the time, in the same way a great football player or pop star might matter to us now.
As a woman, as a dancer and acrobat (and possibly a prostitute, especially as those professions were often entwined at the time), Theodora was living in a world that brought spirituality and the physical together on a day-to-day basis. In my opinion it is the split between our own physical and spiritual/emotional sides that can cause us great personal problemsas individuals and as a society. This material interests me enormously, so of course I was delighted to find it was a major question in Theodora's time. I do understand some writers find religious matters difficult to tackle, and I certainly tried to use it lightly in the novelI didn't want to either offend anyone or to push it too farbut it did matter to Theodora, so in writing about her, it had to matter to me. As for the sexualityit always amazes me how many writers are prepared to write full and bloody chapters on a battle or a murder, or fill a novel with the crime sprees of a serial killer, yet they shy away from dealing with matters of sexuality. If it's true to the storyand it is in this casethen it's true for me to deal with it.
Theodora gives birth to a daughter while still quite young and keeps the girl out of her life entirely. As a strong woman living in difficult circumstances, what is at the heart of Theodora's rejection of motherhood? With that question in mind, why does she tentatively embrace Ana into her life again by the end of the novel?
In my version of her story, Theodora had little girlhood of her own; it would have been very difficult for her to provide mothering for her daughter, a child born when she was only fourteen, when she had no real model for mothering herself. Women did marry young, they did have children young; these days we live with an almost-cult of motherhood. The modern cult of perfect-mother as High Priestess actually means our own mothers can never be good enough and we can never be good enough mothers, whereas it's highly likely it never crossed Theodora's mind if she was a good mother or not in real life. That said, I do like touching on the question, a little at least, as I know it's one the modern reader is interested in.
The novel follows Theodora until her coronation, but her life as Empress of Rome must have been equally fascinating. What happened to her after the events of the novel? What kind of a ruler was she?
For this answer you're just going to have to read the sequel, The Purple Shroud!
Your novels and short fiction are eclectic, covering a broad range of topics and styles, and you are also deeply involved with the theater. Do these creative outlets feed into each other?
Yes, absolutely. I love to work alone, with a novel, to play with characters and ideas and languageI adore the work of engaging with language. I'm also drawn to working on a story, rather than a particular period or type of character, which is why I've written so many different types of novels. Similarly, I love to work with others, to create in a company, to find a way through a knotty problem with others helping me, and me helping them. This has been especially useful for working on Theodora the performer. I've worked in comedy companies, I've known and worked with hugely famous comedians, I know a little of what it's like to be alongside that, and so I also appreciate some of the anxiety involved in hugely successful work as a performer. All of which helped to feed the character of Theodora-the-performer.
What are you currently working on?
The sequel to this novel, two new theater projects, two film projects, and a couple of short stories. (I like a lot of projects!)
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