Thursday, February 9, 2012

Theodora: Actress, Empress, Whore

Theodora: Actress, Empress, Whore is a 2010 novel written by Stella Duffy on the life of Empress Theodora of the Roman (Byzantine) Empire, wife of Justinian I from her early years of being a dancer to her ascension as Roman Empress.

The novel starts while Theodora is in her youth being trained as a dancer with her two sisters, Comito and Anastasia. Her father, Acacius, died when he was mauled to death by his favorite bear and her mother, Hypatia, has recently remarried and seeking a job for her new husband. Hypatia brings her three daughters to the Hippodrome to present them to the Green faction requesting that her previous husband's job be transferred to her new husband. The Greens coldly turn Hypatia away causing her to switch allegiances and become a supporter of the Blue Faction.

Theodora is frequently beaten by her eunuch dance instructor, Menander. Although she is a mediocre singer and at best an adequate dancer, her greatest charm is her quick wit and sharp tongue that more than often the not got her in trouble with Menander. However, it came to her advantage when during their debut performance Theodora's younger sister, Anastasia, bit a man who had gotten to close to her causing an uproar among the men. With lightening speed, Theodora changes the atmosphere by playing a bear taming game with Anastasia much to the amusement of the crowd.

When she is twelve, Theodora is introduced to a dwarf by the name of Sophia. The two share much in common and they become close friends. It is Sophia who introduces Theodora into the world of sex and works as her pimp when Theodora begins working at the brothel. Theodora debuts as a solo actor and becomes famous for portrayal of Leda and the Swan.

After Anastasia's death in childbirth, Theodora decides to leave Constantinople with her lover Hecebolus leaving behind everything and everyone she knows, including her young daughter Ana.  Her only companion is her friend Chrysomallo who she knows from Menander's dance studio. They travel together to North Africa where Hecebolus is govenor and settle into a life where Theodora is mistress of the household but not Hecebolus's wife. She spends 4 years at Hecebolus's side before she is replaced by Chrysomallo, who is pregnant with his child. Abandoned and mistreated by Hecebolus, Theodora decides to return back to Constantinople.

After spending 40 days fasting in the desert like Christ did, Theodora converts to the Monophysite faith.Theodora settles for a while in Alexandria, Egypt. There she meets Patriarch Timothy III,who sends her on the final trek of her journey back to the capital. He has great plans for her to help further the Monophysite faith and with the help of a man named Narse everything goes as planned.

Narse introduces Theodora to the Emperor Justin's nephew, Justinian.With Narse's help, Theodora is able to obtain a position in Justinian's inner circle, working as a planner for his upcoming celebration in honor of becoming Consul. After getting to know Theodora, Justinian decides to marry the ex-actress as a way to connect with the people. Their marriage however is illegal as a law states a man of importance can not marry an actress. This law could easily be altered to allow Theodora and Justinian to marry, as Justin is quite fond of Theodora, were it not for Justin's wife, Euphemia, which is rather hypocritical of the Empress as she came from humble beginnings herself.

All opposition to the match ended in 525 AD after the Empress Euphemia died. Theodora and Justinian married that very year. They ascended to the purple in 527 with the death of the Emperor Justin. By this point, Theodora and Justinian had become exceptionally close, she being his closest companion during his grief over his Uncle's death. The book ends with crowds cheering on their new Emperor Justinian and their new Empress Theodora.  

I give this book a 3/5. The book had a very strong beginning that sucks the reader in and wanting more. However about half way through it becomes very dry and rather dull. The book is a bit of a left down from what the synopsis  promised as it ends at Theodora's ascension and does not go on to describe Theodora's great work as a Byzantine Empress. A book that started out with great promised, just failed to deliver at the end.