Book Review: Theodora
The 6th century Byzantine empress Theodora has been the subject of luridly energetic fictional representations for centuries – indeed, the process may well have started while she was still alive, since the historian Procopius might have been penning his infamous Secret History while she was still on the throne, governing the Roman Empire in the East alongside her husband, the equally-legendary Justinian. Certainly it was the Secret History, finished after Theodora’s death and only generally published centuries later, that started all the easiest and most seductive fantasies about the woman. Procopius portrays her as the illiterate daughter of a stadium bear-keeper and a sluttish mother who trained her from childhood not only for the lascivious ways of the theater and racetrack but also for the groping hands of paying customers.
In all that she was no different from thousands of similar young women before, during, and after her time. But this particular bear-keeper’s daughter somehow managed to attach herself first to one powerful man and then to another, and then to a third – and finally to a bookish young insomniac named Justinian, who was the nephew of Justin, the new Emperor at Byzantium. It’s easy to infer that she had the same effect on Justinian that she’d had on those earlier men, and that it couldn’t possibly have been all sexual – although those historical dramatizers, from Procopius to Pottinger to Rhangabe to Sardou to the inimitable Robert Graves (who managed to turn Theodora’s fascinating story into the most boring sub-plot of his most boring book, Count Belisarius), haven’t been able to resist the siren call of giving us history’s greatest seducer.
The reality had to be both simpler and more interesting, and Stella Duffy, in her crackerjack new novel about Theodora, is well aware of the most likely version:
For the first time in her life, she was enjoying a relationship with a man as her friend. She was not fighting him for control of her body or her spirit, and though his status was so much higher than hers, he was not interested in being in charge. There had been a few times in the past weeks when she’d tried to manufacture an argument with him, simply because it was what she was used to. Justinian very quickly made it clear that he had no intention of playing those games, he did not want to subdue her or shut her up, he was not interested in training her. If Theodora was to be his wife, she would need to train herself, he was a busy man and he simply needed his partner to step up – as his equal.
In tackling this particular character’s story, Duffy is hardly alone in recent times. Paul Wellman’s fat 1953 pot-boiler had one Boston critic over-enthusing about “a stunning story of a great woman,” although the book itself (now entirely forgotten) is full of surprising off-note moments of quite observation, as when our scheming empress studies Justinian’s face during a rare moment of sleep:
At last she turned to him. In the innocence of sleep the man’s face was almost childlike. There were the powerful jaw of the ruler, the strongly buttressed forehead, the big masculine nose. But the mouth, by day set habitually in lines of sternness, now was relaxed and sweet, and the brown curls were tousled like a little boy’s. A rush of feeling went over her. She wanted to kiss that mouth, further to rumple the careless hair. But at the same time she did not want to wake him.
Jack Oleck, in his leaner and lighter 1971 novel Theodora, gives us a slightly more innocent Theodora, one creeping closer to being some kind of Dickensian street-waif caught up in momentous events:
“We will be married,” he said. “There can never be any other woman for me in any case.”
“Married!” For an instant, joy flooded Theodora’s heart. But what Justinian was proposing was impossible.
Justinian did not cease his pacing. “I know. The law forbids me to marry a courtesan. But laws can be changed.”
Duffy’s fictional creation is at once a big step further down that road to innocence and a complex, intriguing detour from it. This Theodora is no fool, certainly, and as she herself puts it, “I’m used to subduing the needs of my own body.” She’s impulsive (Duffy tries hard to make this trait lovable, without success), but her most intelligent observers never fail to notice that she possesses self-control in equal measure, as when an officious priest forces her to kneel on the marble floor and then leaves her to the agony of that position:
‘Any other penitent would have been begging me to allow them off their knees by now, confessing countless sins, real and imagined, simply so I would allow them to stretch their aching muscles and ease the pain that must now be shooting through you, but you stay here and you bear it. You endure physical pain, as I imagine some of the martyrs must have done, taking it into themselves, absorbing it. But those martyrs were already penitent, they had already bowed down. You are too fond of your own strength, just as you have been too fond of your skills, your abilities on stage and off. I know your faith is strong, and who am I to discount the blessings given you in the desert? What is vital, though, is that you allow yourself to be less strong than your faith.
That last part never happens, of course: this is the 21st century after all – the religious elements of Theodora’s life (which in her own times would have been paramount, discussed hourly) are given far less emotional resonance in Theodora than the merely personal or political. Purists might quibble with such a shift in emphasis, but fans of secular drama will applaud – especially if that secular drama is I, Claudius, which echoes through parts of this book so lovingly that you wish you could see a young Sian Philips in the title role. Or perhaps not quite the title role? The character guilty of the most Livia-style scheming in these pages is the Palace eunuch Narses, who gets a great many of the most snappy lines – as when he confronts Theodora about the rumors that she poisoned the old empress:
“You are an interloper and, in truth, you’re not the most beautiful girl Justinian has ever met. Nor the prettiest, tallest, fairest, or even the youngest, not any more.”
Narses was at the door before Theodora had a chance to reply.
‘Yes?’ he answered without turning back to her.
‘You know I didn’t kill her?’
Narses spoke quietly, his hand on the door, his face turned away. ‘I know for a fact that you didn’t kill her.’
It’s not quite “Don’t touch the figs,” but it’ll do in a pinch. And alongside the scheming and palace intriguing there’s that other mainstay of all Theodora novels (and Harold Lamb’s quasi-novel/quasi-history), the tangled and surprising deepening of the relationship between Theodora and Justinian. Duffy departs from most of her predecessors by doing her best to make both of them intensely human, and she succeeds at this nowhere better than in their frequent conversations. The give-and-take in those scenes feels bracingly natural, two very intelligent young people sometimes blunderingly figuring out how to talk to each other:
Justinian’s eyes could not have been wider. ‘And what do you think they’ll say about you, Theodora?’
‘I don’t care what they say about me. That’s the point. I have never – unlike the Empress – pretended to be anything but what I am. I know what I am, what I have been, and so does everyone else. She, though, she behaves like she was born into this life, when she started out has his concubine.’
‘And became his wife. That isn’t unusual.’
‘Yes, I know it’s normal, but I tell you, the next time she dares to look down on me or Antonina or any other woman I know – “dancing girls” for fuck’s sake – she’ll get a mouthful from me.’
‘Because that would show her how well-bred you are?’
‘Because that would show her what I think about women like her. Euphemia never worked a day in her life.’
Justinian’s voice was quiet. ‘The Empress was born into slavery.’
‘Fine, a day in her adult life – maybe she worked as a child, but now she takes her name from him, her role from him, everything from him.’
Readers who are borne along by Duffy’s exuberant storytelling will find themselves at a rather abrupt halt at book’s end, and readers with any knowledge of Theodora’s life will feel certain at least one sequel is coming. That’s good news; if Duffy can work these kinds of dramatic wonders with the least dramatic parts of her subject’s life and times, it’s pleasant to imagine what she’ll be able to do when she’s got more fire and brimstone at her disposal.
While we wait for that sequel, this particular volume is recommended with pleasure.