Theodora: The Most Powerful Woman You Never Heard Of

BlogHer Original Post

Theodora was many things. She was a girl trying to make a living. She was an actress who pushed boundaries and captivated audiences. She was Theodora-of-the-Brothel. She was a strong woman who knew her own mind and how to make her own way. As the title of Stella Duffy's novel, Theodora: Actress, Empress, Whore states, Theodora was all those things -- but she was much, much more. She was possibly the most powerful woman in the history of the Roman Empire, and chances are, you've never heard of her before.

The Empress Theodora at the Colosseum, by Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant

Image Credit: public domain -- The Empress Theodora at the Colosseum, by Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant

I can't say that I knew much about Theodora before reading Duffy's novel. I studied both pre-history and modern history, making her lifetime both before and after my focus of study. Theodora's name was one that was glossed over in my history books, identifying her as the wife of Justinian I and little else. Her name was the bare bones of who she was, what she did. That's what I love about historical fiction -- it fills in the bare bones of history and makes historical figures come alive. In Duffy's novel, Theodora was very much alive.

Duffy dips us into different times in Theodora's rise from actress to empress. When we meet Theodora, she is a willful child, being punished by Menander, her teacher and master. The lessons she learns from him serve her well through her life, but even he would not make her blindly obedient. Theodora had far too much spirit, and her spirit would save her, and others, throughout her life.

We see Theodora rise to be one of the most beloved actresses of the Hippodrome, and Duffy makes us understand why she would leave it to go to Africa as Hecebolus' consort. When the relationship sours and she finds herself largely friendless in a foreign city, we understand why she chooses to find sanctuary within in the church. Theodora wasn't expecting to have a religious conversion, but it put her on the path back to Constantinople and her future with Justinian.

Theodora's ascent from whore to empress wasn't quick, and Theodora isn't a novel that you'll rush through, hurriedly skimming and turning each page. It's a novel you ease yourself into and then slowly enjoy, preferably with a side of good bread, even better cheese and great red wine. It took years for Theodora to grow into herself, to learn that praise could be as rewarding to her as pain and punishment. As Theodora is rewarded, so is the reader. Perhaps the only disappointment is that we only get to see Theodora reach the crown and not the great things she does with it.

We'll be discussing Stella Duffy's Theodora: Actress, Empress, Whore in BlogHer Book Club. Please join us!

BlogHer Book Club Host Karen Ballum also blogs at Sassymonkey and Sassymonkey Reads.

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