Who was Theodora of Constantinople? No, she was not a perfectly coiffed princess in a recent Disney film (which was, admittedly, my first thought). She was not the exquisitely beautiful, sweetly innocent, charmingly naive young thing of fairy tales, surrounded by doting mice and tittering blue birds. According to Stella Duffy in her book Theodora, this Empress of Rome was a penitent whore, a reformed actress, and a thief. Yet, as I read, I found myself admiring the whore, respecting the actress, and honoring the thief.
Born into a family of entertainers, Theodora is taught from a young age the arts of acrobatics, dance, song, charm, and seduction. She is prepared for the stage and for the brothel. She soon becomes a star of the empire and a concubine to a governor. She aspires for greater things in her life, yet her reputation as a whore threatens to always stand in her way. Over the course of many years, she finds her way to faith and penitence, and eventually to redemption, love, and respect. Throughout her arduous travels, frightening predicaments, and many sorrows, Theodora’s strength, charm, and dedication are admirable.
The more of Stella Duffy’s book I read, the more I wanted to know. I googled Theodora and Justinian; I looked at pictures of the Hagia Sophia and the Chalke Gate; and I examined maps of the region. I discovered an entire time, place, and story I knew very little about. So I learned. That is why historical fiction is one of my favorite genres.
It must be stated that Theodora is a work of fiction. The characters of Theodora, Justinian, Narses, and many more were real. The setting of 6th century Constantinople was clearly well-researched and beautifully descriptive. Yet, much of the plot, the character development, and the motivations come straight from the author’s mind. As with many other women of history, much of the real Theodora’s life is unknown and unrecorded. Whatever the truth of her life may have been, this fictional tale was certainly worth reading.
This was a paid review for BlogHer Book Club but the opinions expressed are my own.