Theodora is an excellent read for those who prefer books other than New York Times bestsellers and a great choice for lovers of historical fiction. Set in Constantinople under the rule of the Emperor Justin the novel explores the human story of Theodora with many details of history, geography, politics, and the royal family. Theodora loves the city of Constantinople, the surrounding sea, the smells, and especially the church of Hagia Sophia where she always feels safe from harm.
Theodora grew up poor, the middle child of a bear handler and went on to become a dancing star, comic, and actress of the Hippodrome. Theodora’s story has been largely marginalized in the history books of the ancient world, mainly because she was female. Duffy does much to flesh out the real woman behind the myths.
When Theodora’s father, the chief animal handler was killed by his bear and dies the family of three girls is thrown into poverty. The three girls are sent to the eunuch, Menander, the strictest dance teacher in The City. Theodora was cheeky and she longed for Menander’s approval above all else, so she was also the most likely to incur his wrath. She was not beautiful in the traditional sense, she didn't have the most beautiful voice or the best skill at dancing but her comic routines and her seductions were legendary. At 12 years of age Theodora saves a floundering production by ad libbing and soon becomes the leading lady of the Hippodrome. That means that she is expected to make most of her money flat on her back. Theodora befriends the diva of her new troupe, Sophia, a dwarf and pimp. Her friendship with Sophia assures that Theodora gets men who are generous and kind to her in the bedroom. Sophia’s affection for Theodora makes her transition to courtesan a smooth one.
One day Theodora unwittingly falls in love with a gentleman who is very good to her but refuses to pay for her services. As their relationship continues Hecebolus becomes Governor of the Pentapolis, the Five Cities at the tip of Africa. Theodora leaves everything behind, including her daughter and her coveted position in the Hippodrome hierarchy to move to Africa with Hecebolus and serve as his concubine. When Hecebolus impregnates her lady's maid Theodora leaves him and remembers all the people of Constantinople telling her she was making a mistake to go with Hecebolus and give up her coveted station in life.
Theodora wants to get back to the city of Constantinople at all costs but she has no means. She travels to Alexandria and tries to make it on her own. The woman who she is renting a room from sends her a monastery to see the Alexandrian Patriarch who she thinks will give her passage to Constantinople if she plays the part of a penitent. The patriarch does not want her to go back to the city. He wants long and hard service from her to prove she is indeed penitent. The patriarch has her join a pilgrimage to the desert where she does lots of soul searching and in the end does become a new and changed Theodora. From the desert outside of Alexandria she is sent to Antioch where another patriarch grooms her to return to the city. Justin is the new Emperor and his nephew Justinian is his understudy. Justinian is an academic who studies more than he eats or sleeps. Justinian’s focus is bringing harmony once again to Constantinople. He is especially interested in reuniting the sects that stress Christ’s divinity and the sects that emphasize Christ’s humanity. The Antioch patriarch wants to use Theodora to befriend Justinian and aid him in his religious task. Theodora is upset to learn that holy men believe that the ends justify the means just as unholy men do. Theodora now is a true penitent but she also remembers how to act. She is targeted to befriend Justinian because he is not interested in sex and women and because Theodora is such a seductress. Theodora does befriend Justinian and they become best friends. They spend lots of time together and she plans dialogues with competing factions, celebrations with the military, and special occasions at Hagia Sophia. Soon Theodora is such an indispensable aid to Justinian that he moves her into the palace and gives her servants but their friendship remains chaste. The Emperor Justin likes Theodora very much and he works with Justinian to replace a law that will not allow entertainers to marry but gives them patrician status if they prove penitent. The law is approved and Justinian asks Theodora to marry him. Soon Justin and his wife die and Justin and Theodora become the new Emperor and Empress. Because Theodora was one of the common people and had a huge following, her wedding and then later wearing of the crown is extremely popular with the population of Constantinople who see her as one of their own. Justinian was an outsider brought in with his uncle to govern and Theodora is his perfect insider helpmate.
There is a bibliography in the back of the book for readers who want to find out more about Constantinople, Justinian, and Theodora. I give the book 5 of 5 stars. The book is highly readable and engaging.
Review by Kathleen Richardson