Stella Duffy's stirring historical novel Theodora is published in paperback this month.
It is a paperback pick in the Telegraph this week, which has given it a glowing review. Excitingly, rights have been sold to HBO, so you may see Theodora on screen.
Stella has written today's blog post on how she came to discover and write about Empress Theodora.
In September 2006 I had never heard of the Empress Theodora or the Emperor Justinian or even the Ravenna mosaics, which the Italians considered the eighth wonder of the world for some time. (In my defence I’d claim a lack of Euro-centricity rather than sheer ignorance, I grew up in the central North Island of New Zealand, we had the Pink and White Terraces as our eighth wonder, and I’m guessing not many Italians have heard of them either.) The proud Ravenese organisers of the GialloLuno NeroNotte festival, who had brought me to their city, were horrified. So the festival, which was already lovely, readings in gorgeous places, photo shoots in atmospheric cloisters, and an aperitif every evening in a pretty little square – none of which is my usual day, despite the misleading impression most media like to give of the writer’s lot – organised a trip to see the mosaics.
A near-empty church, a few tourists, and an astonishing, vibrant, gleaming, fifteen-hundred-year-oldmosaic of Theodora. Yes, she was standing opposite her husband, and yes Jesus and various saints were dotted about as well, but this was a woman in purple, with a halo, with her own courtiers, taking up a massive space, just to the side of the Christ mosaic. I figured she had to matter. The Italians pushed me in the direction of the gift shop, I bought a bunch of postcards and the booklet about Theodora. One of those postcards has been on my whiteboard for coming up four years now. The booklet was neatly written, cleanly translated, and took maybe five minutes to read. Combined with the mosaics, it has lead to four years of work so far, and – depending how long the final drafts of the sequel take – six months more to go.
Theodora’s life is astonishingly rich, and while working on it I’ve found myself précis-ing her story plenty of times – it turns out (luckily for my book!) I’m not the only one who’s never heard of Theodora. Born to the bear-keeper of the Constantinople Hippodrome in about 500AD, her father died when she was five, her mother re-married another animal-keeper, when he didn’t get her dead husband’s job she rehearsed her three little girls in the gestures of supplication which would have been understood by anyone in the theatre-literate audience of the time, dressed them up, and took them along to the Hippodrome where they begged for help in front of the crowd, which may have been anything up to the capacity of thirty thousand. Theodora was somewhere between five and seven years old at the time. She became an actress, a dancer, a mime, a comedian – none of our modern terms fully cover what her work would have been in those days, perhaps a physically-trained comedy improviser is the closest we might have today, and by the age of fifteen she was the star of the Hippodrome. She was also, as almost all actresses were at the time, a child prostitute.
I started my working life in theatre, while my main job is writing, I have not stopped making theatre – and I have never called myself an actress. Plenty of theatre makers use ‘actor’ for both men and women, and have done since the late 70’s, it has long been recognised that the word actress can have a derogatory aspect to it, and the truth is that as soon as women were allowed on stage it very quickly also became a term that meant courtesan, whore, prostitute – which, in the case of Theodora and very many young women like her, was exactly what they were.
Theodora had a child at fourteen, her older sister Comito, a famed singer, became mistress to several wealthy men, like many young actress-prostitutes it’s probable both sisters had several abortions. Theodora walked away from her astonishing career at eighteen, leaving Constantinople to be mistress of the man newly appointed Governor of (modern day) Libya. When they broke up, soon after, she was accepted into a religious community in the desert near Alexandria, experiencing a religious conversion to the branch of early Christianity that was attacked by the contemporary Roman state. Theodora travelled on to Antioch where there are suggestions that she worked with Macedonia, a dancer and a spy for the Roman government. At twenty-one she returned to Constantinople, met Justinian, who was yet to become Emperor, and they became a couple. A strong legal mind (Justinian’s codifying of Roman law still impacts on lawyers training today), he had one law changed to raise her status to patrician, and another created to allow her to marry – ex-actresses could not legally do so at the time. They married against the wishes of Justinian’s aunt the Empress Euphemia and, when his uncle died and Justinian became Emperor, ‘Theodora-from-the-Brothel’ became Empress of Rome.
It’s a classic and powerful rags to riches story, made richer still by Theodora’s achievements in power. As Empress she worked the paper On Pimps, an attempt to stop pimps making their money from child (and older) prostitutes. Well aware of the impossibility of marriage and a safe life for women who wanted to give up working in prostitution, she set up a house where they could live in safety. Once Empress, Theodora worked for women’s marriage and dowry rights, anti-rape legislation, and continued working for the many young girls sold into sexual slavery, often for the price of a pair of sandals). It’s tempting to consider Theodora an early feminist, but her story is more complicated that that. There are many hints of nastiness from poisoning to torture, forced marriage to religious fanaticism, and like so many women in power there are reports of her attacking other women who might threaten her position – and it’s these complications, along with the fact that there has been so little written about her other than as Justinian’s partner (he himself named her, unusually, his ‘consort’), that made me want to write about her. Hers is a time of huge changes in the Church, long before the split into Roman and Orthodox, there were acrimonious schisms between those who believed in the Christ as primarily human, others as primarily divine, still others as a mix(but not a mingling!) of the two, Christianity hadn’t yet (entirely) shunted women aside. In language and statehood there was also massive unrest – what had been Rome was about to become the Byzantine, the eastern Roman regions around Syria, the Levant, and Egypt were clamouring to use their own languages both in faith and in their calls for self-determination. This was the world into which the prophet Mohammed was about to be born, just twenty years after Theodora’s death. Some of the research was pretty dry, other historians, like Professor Judith Herrin writing on women, made it powerful and alive. In the Orthodox church both Justinian and Theodora are saints. In more modern academic works she is often presented as, if not entirely an abject money-grubbing power-monger, then certainly not the nicest of women – the contemporary view of her seems to have been somewhere between Victoria Beckham/Yoko Ono on a bad day, and (the sainted) Diana Spencer on a good one. She’s the kind of woman Julie Burchill and Camille Paglia would probably have written about adoringly in the 90’s.
All of which has made her such a joy to write – while there’s loads of history written about the time, the state of Rome, the Emperors, there’s comparatively little about Theodora. Graves has her in Count Belisarius of course, and in The Secret History Procopius makes her his Mrs Machiavelli, but aside from a few other novels, and the occasions she makes fleeting appearances in the background of other stories, Theodora has remained hidden. And yet she’s an ideal candidate for fiction – a known life with huge gaps in detail and, more usefully for a novelist, the need to invent reasons, desire, impetus for her actions. Did she run away to Libya for love as well as status? What was the truth of her religious conversion? Was she a spy or a saint, a slut or a theatrical genius, what actually happened with the geese onstage at the Hippodrome – the scenario that led contemporary writer Procopius to label her Theodora-from-the-Brothel? Was Macedonia her friend or her lover? Let alone all the questions about what really went on in the Imperial Palace.
I loved history as a child, devoured my mother’s Georgette Heyer and Mary Renault novels, studied Modern History at high school – the Easter Rising, the Treaty of Versailles, and the New Deal were ingrained on my fifteen-year-old’s brain – I liked that history might give us ideas about how and why we got here, but by the time I was at university I could only manage one paper on medieval history. Like most eighteen-year-olds I was more interested in the new and the now, and like most very political eighteen years olds, I wanted truths, not possibility. I’m still interested in telling truths but, twelve novels on, I’ve learned it’s impossible to tell the full truth of any story, that what is often more useful is to take instead an angle, a position, and tell the story from there instead. The whole truth is probably beyond any recounting, and to tell a story well often requires that some elements are embellished for character, others left out for pace or for plot.
I write fiction, make theatre, my highest aim is actually quite simple – and yet so difficult to achieve – to offer the reader or audience something they can recognise as a truth. I’m sure there are genius Roman and Byzantine historians out there who will delight in telling me exactly what I’ve got wrong, friends who write historical fiction tell me that’s par for the course – but there’s enough in Theodora’s life that I do know about, from theatre and comedy, to society’s disapproval of non-conformist desire, to feeling like (and being) an outsider, for me to make some fairly informed guesses about her character. So that’s what I’ve written, a character in a story. And wonderfully, in a world that still clings to the weird belief that an artist needs to suffer to make work, I’ve had a great time doing so, because I’ve spent the past three years writing about the juiciest woman character this side of Lady Macbeth. Theodora is the kind of hero you couldn’t make up without being accused of over-doing it, and yet can’t tell her story without making a lot of it up. A perfect balance for fiction.
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