Theodora: Actress, Empress, Whore

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What a great subject! There can be few figures as controversial as Theodora, saint to some, sinner to others, whore to most. Stella Duffy has chosen well with the story of the rise of the actress-prostitute to Empress of the 6th-century Roman Empire. Theodora’s course hardly seemed set fair for sovereignty, and Duffy does a great job of realising her secular transition. Brutally trained to perform lewd acts on and off stage, the most Theodora could have hoped for was a safe berth as someone’s mistress. As everyone knows, that’s what happened, only the man was Emperor Justinian and he married her.

Duffy is not so strong on Theodora’s spiritual development. Her simplification of the complex controversy concerning Christ’s human and divine natures is adequate for the purposes of the story. The events that place Theodora in the situation where conversion is possible are plausible enough. It is the personal aspects of the experience that are muddled. Theodora’s acceptance of Christianity is accompanied by a vision of the pagan deity Isis. Fortified by her new faith, she proceeds to Antioch where she gets so drunk she passes out, takes a lesbian lover, and turns to “necessary whoring” on behalf of her teacher Timothy. An odd conversion indeed. I don’t know if the church fathers really were pimps in the cause of Christ, but if they were, I hope the church is properly ashamed of it.

Set largely in a Constantinople teeming with life, much of it low, Duffy’s is a vivid romp through Byzantine bedrooms. It’s also a sympathetic representation of a woman doing her best in a man’s world, and a valiant attempt to rescue her from the malice of male historians like Procopius. Be warned, though: if you are offended by obscenities this is not the book for you.

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Publisher

Published

Genre

Period

Century

Price
(UK) £15.99

ISBN
(UK) 1844082156

Format
Hardback

Pages
344

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