Theodora: Actress, Empress, Whore
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In her new novel Theodora, celebrated author Stella Duffy traces the extraordinary life of Theodora of Constantinople, one of history's most fascinating yet forgotten women, following her from child performer to Empress of Rome.
Sixth-century Constantinople was a difficult place to be a poor child. After the death of her father, five-year-old Theodora must help support her family by dancing and singing with her theater troop. Neither as beautiful as her sister Anastasia nor as talented a singer as her sister Comito, the young Theodora nevertheless demonstrates a remarkable spirit and determination, traits that will carry her from the depths of poverty to the pinnacle of the Roman Empire.
By her mid-teens, Theodora's audacity and bawdy wit on the stage have brought her celebrity, but her early years of struggle are marked by strict acrobatic training and the expectation that she would also be available for purchase by the wealthy men who watched her shows. Jaded and exhausted, when Theodora's lover Hecebolus is named governor of a distant region of the empire, she jumps at the chance to go with him. Moved in equal part by love and ambition, Theodora recognizes this as her one chance to leave her old life behind.
Soon tossed out in favor of another mistress, Theodora is left to fend for herself in a foreign city with little but her wits to get her back to Constantinople. She seeks refuge in a religious community when she hears that they are sending a group to Constantinople, planning to be among this group and faking her devotion, but she finds herself drawn to Christianity. After a fast in the Egyptian desert, Theodora has an epiphany that not only changes her life but alters the course of world history. Inspired by her new devotion, Theodora commits herself to the cause of her religion, a less popular sect of Christianity in danger of being outlawed in the Roman Empire. In a surprising twist, she is asked by her church's patriarch to use her charms to gain the trust of Justinian, nephew and presumed successor to the Emperor Justin. As an adviser to Justinian, Theodora uses her access to plead for her own branch of the faith. Working closely over the course of many months, Theodora and Justinian find themselves falling in love.
Theodora is a story of adventure, passion, faith, and bravery, and Stella Duffy weaves the sparse documentation of Theodora's life into a rich and absorbing novel, filled with exotic locations and historical figures. The novel not only addresses the complex relationship among sex, politics, and power, but through the figure of Theodora, sheds light on the life of women in the last days of the Roman Empire. And while she was sainted by the Orthodox Church, Theodora and her rise from the squalor of ancient Constantinople to wear the purple robes of a Roman empress is a story largely ignored by history. Now, thanks to Duffy's fascinating novel, she is rescued from obscurity and available to readers everywhere.
Stella Duffy was born in London and raised in New Zealand. She has published numerous novels, short stories, and newspaper articles, and she is a playwright, stage performer, and director. She currently lives in London.
Q. 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!
Q. 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.
Q. 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.
Q. 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…
Q. 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.
Q. 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.
Q. 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.
Q. 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!
Q. 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.
Q. 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!)
- Theodora's rise to power is impressive. Can you think of any examples from today's culture where a woman has advanced to a position of power through her beauty, sexuality, or wit? Can you think of any men who have followed a similar path?
- Before reading this novel, had you ever heard of Theodora, or of Justinian and his empire? What expectations did you have about life in sixth-century Constantinople?
- There is a key moment in the third chapter when Theodora saves her sister Anastasia by improvising a bear-baiting routine. What does this scene tell us about Theodora? Does it foreshadow later events in the novel?
- Religionboth the movement from pagan beliefs to Christianity as well as the rivalry between different sects of Christianityruns throughout the novel. What is at the heart of the religious struggle in Constantinople? Do you see any parallels in the modern world? Why do people of opposing (and sometimes even similar) beliefs find it so hard to co-exist?
- Of all the characters in the novel, which women does Theodora have the closest relationship with? How is each a reflection of various aspects of Theodora's personality? Do these women have anything in common?
- Theodora's sexuality serves a variety of purposes: personal pleasure, financial and political gain, even survival. Find examples in the novel to illustrate these points.
- Theodora's religious epiphany is a grueling but vital moment in the novel, both compelling and difficult to read. Religious or otherwise, have you ever had a moment of sudden clarity about your life or experienced a dramatic shift in your beliefs? Are there other moments where Theodora comes to view her life through a different lens?
- On page 314, Theodora asks Narses to track down the slave trader she suspects of selling Mariam, even though four years have passed since she first saw the young pilgrim girl. Why? How are Theodora's feelings toward Mariam connected to her feelings about her own daughter Ana?
- Prior to the Theodora's wedding, Armeneus tells her what happened to Chrysomallo after Theodora left the Pentapolis. Why did she react as strongly as she did? Did her response surprise you?
- In what ways do Justinian and Theodora have a modern marriage? Why are they such an effective political couple? What strengths does each possess?
- Consider your own life. What is your greatest achievement? How did you accomplish it? What did you have to overcome to achieve your success?