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Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Theodora by Stella Duffy

In September 2006 I had never heard of Theodora, Justinian or the Ravenna mosaics, so the literary festival I was visiting organised a trip to see the mosaics.
A near-empty church, a few tourists, and an astonishing, vibrant, 1500-year-old mosaic of Theodora. I figured she had to matter. In the gift shop, I bought a bunch of postcards and the booklet about Theodora. One of those postcards has been on my noticeboard for coming up four years now. The booklet took maybe five minutes to read and, combined with the mosaics, lead to four years of work, with at least another six months to go on the edit for the sequel.
Theodora’s life is astonishingly rich. Born to the bear-keeper of the Constantinople Hippodrome in about 500 AD, her father died when she was five. 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. A physically-trained comedy improviser is perhaps closest, and by the age of 15 she was the star of the Hippodrome. She was also, as almost all actresses were at the time, very likely a child prostitute. Theodora walked away from her amazing career at 18, leaving Constantinople to be mistress of the man newly-appointed Governor of (modern day) Libya. When he dumped her, soon after, she joined a religious community in the desert near Alexandria, experiencing a religious conversion. She travelled on to Antioch where there are suggestions that she worked with Macedonia, a dancer and a spy for the Roman government.
At 21 she returned to Constantinople, met Justinian, who was yet to become Emperor, and they became a couple. Justinian 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. When his uncle died and Justinian became Emperor, ‘Theodora-from-the-Brothel’ became Empress of Rome.
It’s a powerful rags to riches story, made richer still by the contemporary view of her, which seems to have been somewhere between Victoria Beckham/Yoko Ono on a bad day, and Princess Diana on a good one. All of which made her a joy to write – while there’s loads of history written about the time, Theodora herself has remained largely hidden. Yet there was enough in her life that I do understand, especially the theatre and comedy which I continue to work in, to make some informed guesses about her character. So that’s what I’ve written, a character in a story. And I’ve had a great time doing so, because I’ve spent the past four 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.


Ellie said...

That whole era is endlessly fascinating. I am so ignorant about it. Theodora sounds like someone who'd be causing a commotion in almost any age she lived in!

Eliza Graham said...

Erm, that's me, Eliza, again, operating under my daughter's nom de guerre.

Holly V said...

This one is definitely going on my "to read" shelf!

Alis said...

She sounds amazing, Stella - thanks for this post!