The Purple Shroud: A Novel of Empress Theodora

Written by Stella Duffy
Review by Barry Webb

Ah, Justinian and Theodora! Two giants of history who stood astride an empire mostly Greek that still thought of itself as “Rome.” Duffy does a fine job of weaving all the threads, domestic and foreign, tearing this empire apart within the tapestry of a fictional biography of the actress/whore who became empress of the world’s mightiest empire. The book’s opening is dreadful — three full pages of Theodora being dressed by her servants, with the only “hook” being the fastenings of her clothing. The main point of the opening is to show how much Theodora hated being empress and what a burden it was, but the rest of the book demonstrates how much she loved her position and to what lengths she would go to keep it.

Once through the opening three pages, I found that the book soared at times. All in all, this is an excellent piece of Historical Fiction with a capital H, or perhaps we should say “historical dramatization.” It is exceptionally well researched and rich with historical detail, even recounting the tidbit about the menorah the Roman general Titus took from the Jerusalem temple to Rome in the 1st century A.D. being returned to “Rome” (i.e., Constantinople) after the Goths had taken most of Italy. At times the author turns the “show don’t tell” myth upside down — but to great effect. There are a lot of expository sections, but for the most part they work. The goals and personalities of the two principles, Justinian and Theodora, are very well sketched, and the ending is heartrending. Recommended.