Friday, September 23, 2011

Review: Theodora : Actress, Empress and Whore by Stella Duffy

Author: Stella Duffy
Publisher Format: e-galley ; 352 pgs
Year of publication
Subject: early life of Theodora, wife of Emperor Justinian
Setting: Constantinople, Antioch, Syrian dessert, Alexandria
Genre: historical fiction/biography
Source: Net Galley

A fascinating read.  I knew very little about any of the politics or personages of this period of history (6th century Byzantium).  While I knew about the schism between the Eastern (Constantinople) and Western (Rome) branches of Catholicism, and the reason for the rift, this well-written novel brought the vibrance of the era to life.  Framing the story around the life of Theodora, the daughter of an animal trainer who was "given" to a eunuch master to train on the stage at the age of 5, we follow her tortuous life from acrobat, to poetic declaimer, to that of a highly prized prostitute when she reached the age of 13.

We learn of laws that forbade women who had performed on the stage to marry, although many were highly coveted as courtesans, mistresses or concubines.  Theodora herself, became the mistress of a regional governor in one of the north Africa provinces of the empire; then after being "dumped", she began a journey back to her home (Constantinople).  Along the way, she experiences a religious conversion in the desert, and is eventually recruited and sent back as the emissary of one of the battling religious factions.

The exciting page turning continues as she eventually meets and marries Justinian (only after the law was changed to allow the repentant former actress to do so) and becomes the adored and adoring Empress upon his ascending the throne.  It was a fascinating read, giving us glimpses of lives we'd only heard about.  I understand HBO is going to make this a series, but I'd not wait for that.  Pub date is Sept 27, 2011, and I'll be lined up to get a permanent copy for my library.  It's colorful, well-written, and keeps the reader up late to see what happens next.

Duffy indicates that she is writing fiction, and makes no claims for the historical accuracy of the story, but her research is evident and the basics are factual enough that it makes an exceptional introduction to the period.  She also gives us an excellent bibliography for future reading.  I'm going to be sure to take a look at several of them.  It's definitely a time-frame I want to learn more about.

Many thanks to Penguin Publishing for making this review copy available through Net Galley.


  1. Years ago I read a book about Justinian and wished at that time there was a good one about Theodora.

  2. I enjoyed the story and learning some history that was new to me. (I still hate the cover though.)

  3. This does sound good Tina. I do enjoy Net Galley as well.


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