Most Western history consigns the centuries following the collapse of the Roman Empire to the Dark Ages, not spending much time discussing the growing strength of the East during that period, centered on the new Rome of Constantinople (later Byzantium, now Istanbul). The names of Byzantium's leaders are less well-known to Westerners, and the fact that one of those leaders was a woman might be news to many of us. It certainly was to me.
Drawing on historical records and existing biographies of Theodora, Empress of Byzantium, Stella Duffy brings her to life in this vivid fact-based, dramatically-embellished novel. Theodora.s background was humble, and her family's poverty forced her and her sisters to work in the popular theatre from an early age. After a few years, Theodora became an on-stage success as a comic actress. She also succeeded offstage as a sought-after private entertainer; in those days, actresses were generally expected to be prostitutes as well, but both professions came with certain social constraints. Theodora found an unexpected way around those barriers: religion. In a city where newer beliefs mingled freely with older pagan practices, nurturing a genuine Christian faith offered opportunities for political influence, ultimately bringing her to the attention of Justinian, Consul and heir to the Emperors throne, who came to see her as a partner and trusted advisor in governing the realm.
Theodora's is a fascinating story, and Duffy depicts the woman as equally fascinating--lively, passionate, strong-minded, and wise to the ways of the man's world in which she lives. She is surrounded by equally fascinating characters, some real--her eventual husband Justinian, the church patriarchs--and others perhaps not, such as her female friends (and lovers) Stella the dwarf and Macedonia the spy. Speaking of lovers: as one might expect in a novel centered on an actress/prostitute, there are quite a few sexy scenes, but they aren't graphic. The novel's voice is quite modern and frank, and that extends to the dialogue, much of which seems anachronistic. That may irritate some readers, but its less likely to be a drawback for those who, like me, only occasionally read historical fiction.
If the historical Theodora was even half as interesting as Stella Duffy makes her, she was still quite a remarkable woman--of her time, yes, but also considered from the perspective of ours. I'm glad to have made her acquaintance.