7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
A LOST OPPORTUNITY,
This review is from: Theodora: Actress, Empress, Whore (Paperback)This is a fictional biography inspired by the tempestuous life of Byzantine empress Theodora. The story starts with Theodora's training as a child dancer and follows her from her difficult childhood to her success as an actress and her marriage to Justinian. Sadly, the story ends there and the book only covers the 'actress' and 'whore' part of the title, which is a shame as her reign as an empress was one of the most significant and adventurous times of Byzantine history.
Byzantine empress Theodora was one the most influential women in history, a remarkable woman whose fascinating life is the ideal subject for a historical novel. Sadly, this historical novel doesn't do its heroine justice. The novel is not gripping at all, as it is written like a boring documentary, with long tedious narratives, followed by short simplistic dialogues.
The characters are not believable or likable which makes the reader unable to sympathise with them or care about what happens to them. Especially Theodora is underdeveloped, one-dimensional and just plain boring. Duffy's Theodora is a heartless slut, whose only concern is to survive. She is presented as a ruthless whore who treats all her relationships with men as prostitution, including her relationship with Justinian, and only has romantic feelings for her fictional female sexual partners.
The greatest lost opportunity is the lack of atmosphere. Byzantium is the ideal backdrop for a novel, as it combined the culture, images, sounds, and smells of both the West and the East. Sadly, the Byzantium of this book is as colourless and boring as everything else in the novel; even the extended descriptions cannot add to the atmosphere as they are soulless as the descriptions of a bad documentary.
I don't normally expect a historical novel to be completely accurate, as I realize that it is fiction and not history. However, there are so many inaccuracies and sloppy research behind this story, that it does not make any sense even to someone familiar with the history. Furthermore, what I found disturbing is the attempt to legitimise this 'fictional' account of Theodora's time with a map and an extended bibliography.
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Showing 1-5 of 5 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 10 Apr 2012 04:41:21 BDT
You give this book only 2 stars. One reason for this low rating is the following passage:
"there are so many inaccuracies and sloppy research behind this story, that it does not make any sense even to someone familiar with the history."
I would like you to document this claim. Please make a list of inaccuracies, and please point out some cases of sloppy research. Since you talk about "so many," I expect to see at least five-ten examples.
I my own review of the book, I note one factual mistake, the age of Hagia Sophia at the time when Theodora was married to Justinian. If you can document many others, I would like to know about them.
In reply to an earlier post on 11 Apr 2012 01:25:05 BDT
Last edited by the author on 11 Apr 2012 01:27:09 BDT
Hello Torben Retboll,
First of all, your extended and thorough review was excellent and very informative, although I strongly disagree with your favourable opinion of the book.
As you say the sloppy research is only one reason for my low rating; in fact it is only a minor reason. I found the novel badly written, with boring narratives, colourless atmosphere and underdeveloped, one-dimensional characters. I like historical novels and I never expect accuracy, as novels are fiction and not history, I do however expect the reader to be able to understand what is happening, and I felt that in this case, that was not possible.
Although I studied some Byzantine history, I am not an expert. Clearly you seem a lot more knowledgeable on the subject, so here is a list of things that bothered me:
The rivalry between the Blues and Greens is not fully explained. As it was a dominant political issue, that eventually led to the Nika revolt (I am assuming that is mentioned in the sequel), I felt that explaining its origins, political and religious implications was essential for the reader.
A great part of the novel revolves around Theodora's religion, her fictional work as Timothy's spy (where did that come from?) and generally the religious dispute that dominated the time's politics. I felt that the research behind this and its treatment in the novel were inadequate and messy. Consequently it was practically impossible for a reader unfamiliar with the history of the time to understand what each religion stood for, which the main differences were and how they effected the politics of Byzantium. In fact, I am relatively knowledgeable on this subject and still I had a hard time making sense of it in the book.
Theodora was probably an actress and possibly a courtesan. She had several lovers (at least according to Procopius), but why exactly is she presented as having female sexual partners? What evidence supports this?
I am very concerned about the presentation of theatrical training which dominates the first part of the novel. As far as I know there is no evidence of actor's training of that time and I doubt that the book provides an accurate representation. However if you can provide any documentation regarding this, I would be grateful.
Another thing is names; names are a mess in this novel. Sometimes the names are spelled in Greek and sometimes in Latin, which is really confusing. Not to mention Theodora herself, who under no circumstances would ever be called Theo, which basically means God.
I disagree with placing her birthplace in Constantinople, which is not likely according to sources. I would again be grateful for any documentation.
And of course you are correct about Hagia Sophia's dates.
I hope that this clarifies what I meant by "inaccuracies and sloppy research". Again, that was only a minor reason for my low rating.
In reply to an earlier post on 13 Apr 2012 04:11:34 BDT
Last edited by the author on 13 Apr 2012 04:27:44 BDT
When you say the novel is badly written, I can only say: this is your opinion. When you explain that this point is the major reason why you give the book a low rating, again I can only say: this is your opinion.
Regarding "inaccuracies and sloppy research," there is more to say, because now we are dealing with facts and not so much with opinions. Let me try to respond to the examples which you mention in your message.
(1) The Blues and the Greens: Duffy mentions the factions; she explains that Theodora's family had supported the Greens for a long time. When her father died, the Greens refused to help the family. At that point the Blues took them in, and Theodora never forgot this fact. Duffy does not give a long and detailed report about the factions, because she does not have to. If you want the long and detailed report, you must turn to the book which I mention in my review: Alan Cameron, Circus Factions: Blues and Greens at Rome and Byzantium. I
In the sequel, Duffy must cover the Nika rebellion in 532, and in connection with this rebellion she will have to give a bit more information about the factions. But I do not think it is fair to blame her for not giving more information about the factions in the first volume.
The factions are also mentioned by James Allan Evans in his recent book about Antonina and Theodora: The Power Game in Byzantium: Antonina and the Empress Theodora. On page 46 he says: "Like all street gangs, they could be politicized, but the view which historians once held that the Blues were Chalcedonians and the Greens Monophysites has been abandoned."
(2) Religion. Duffy mentions the Chalcedonian creed, the opponents she calls anti-Chalcedonians. She does not use the word Monophysites, perhaps because she wants to keep it simple, and perhaps because this term is not contemporary (however it is practical). I do not think it is fair to blame Duffy for not giving a long and detailed account of this topic, because she does not have to.
You object to the idea that Theodora could work as a spy for Timothy. The idea of working as a spy is not impossible. In his recent book Evans mentions Macedonia who lived in Antioch (pp. 45-47). He says Macedonia was a spy for Justinian, and this might explain how Justinian and Theodora met: "What really happened must have been that Macedonia recruited Theodora into Justinian's secret service."
(3) Did Theodora have female lovers? I do not know of any evidence to support this idea. I think this is a product of the author's fantasy - this is a case of poetic license. Remember this is a work of fiction; and the idea is not impossible.
(4) Training in the entertainment business. There is some evidence for this. One book is Gayle Kassing, History of Dance: An Interactive Arts Approach, published in 2007. Kassing covers dancing in ancient Rome on pp. 58-63.
There is more on this topic in Ruth Webb, Demons and Dancers: Performance in Late Antiquity, published in 2009. In this book Theodora is mentioned several times, and the topic of training is also mentioned several times.
On page 261 note 28 the author mentions an epitaph for a five-year-old dancer which states the boy's name, age, profession, and the name of his owner or trainer, Julia Hostilia.
(5) Theodora's birthplace. As I explain in my review, we do not know where or when Theodora was born. The year 500 is accepted by many modern observers. There is no reson to dispute it. The place of birth is uncertain. The problem is covered by Evans in his recent book on pp. 8-9. Duffy says Theodora was born in Constantinople. There is no evidence for this, but we cannot say that it is not true. It is possible.
You say there are many inaccuracies and many cases of sloppy research in the book. I have tried to respond to the examples that you mention. As you can see, I do not think that your examples can support your claim.
In reply to an earlier post on 17 Apr 2012 19:48:20 BDT
Hello Torben Retboll,
I believe we both agree that historical fiction is a work fiction and not history and therefore doesn't have to be completely accurate. Also, as each reader's opinion is subjective, in this case we agree to differ; you liked it, which is your opinion, and I didn't like it, which is my opinion. Both opinions are acceptable and respected. In fact this is what product's reviews here are all about; providing various views for each product in order to help prospective buyers.
I am grateful for the two books on dancing you mentioned, and I will read them as soon as possible.
I still claim that the research for both the religious dispute and the rivalry between the Blues and Greens is sloppy, or at least their treatment in this novel is. Clearly you are familiar with the subject and you didn't need further explanations, the majority of readers however are not, and since they are not required to study history in order to enjoy a historical novel, I feel that without sufficient explanation both subjects did not make any sense. I don't necessarily think that a "long and detailed account" was necessary; just a few sentences would suffice.
You mention that you expect to see more information about the factions in the sequel, were Duffy must cover the Nika revolt and that it is not "fair to blame her for not giving more information about the factions in the first volume". Where does it say it is the first volume? The book is not called Theodora, volume one, it is called 'Theodora, actress, empress, whore'. Personally, I was not aware of the existence of a sequel until I read your review of the book, definitely not when I read the book, four moths ago. Based on the title I expected to read a book about the time she was an empress, as well as her time as an actress and a whore. And I definitely expected some mention of the Nika revolt. Thank you for mentioning this, as I forgot to include it in my review. I will now update my review because the fact that the book only covers the 'actress' and 'whore' part of the title is a significant omission.
Regarding her birthplace, Constantinople is not mentioned by any source or any historian, as far as I know. You are of course right, we don't know where she was born. There are however several speculations and references that place her birthplace in Cyprus or Syria among other places.
You say that "The idea of working as a spy is not impossible". When it comes to history nothing is impossible, as we were not there to tell. Your explanation is interesting, and although it might explain (again there are no evidence for this) how Theodora possibly found herself in Justinian's secret service, it does not explain her work as Timothy's spy against Justinian.
You say that there is no evidence supporting the idea that Theodora had female lovers, but it is not impossible. Again in a way, nothing in history is impossible. However it is not probable or plausible and indeed it is "a product of the author's fantasy". Which is exactly why most authors of historical fiction include a historical note, explaining their inaccuracies or if you prefer the cases of poetic license in their story.
In reply to an earlier post on 21 Apr 2012 16:49:26 BDT
Last edited by the author on 22 Apr 2012 01:43:40 BDT
Thank you for your message. I notice that you have revised your review to include the new information.
You complain about the title. We are never told that this book is the first of two volumes about Theodora. You are right: this is never mentioned in the book. The first volume stops in 527 at the very moment when Justinian becomes emperor and Theodora becomes empress. Perhaps the title of the book should have been "Theodora (volume one): From Actress to Empress."
I am glad to know that my references were useful to you. Therefore I will give you one more: Charlotte Roueché, Performers and Partisans at Aphrodisias in the Roman and Late Roman Periods: A Study Based on Inscriptions from the Current Excavations at Aphrodisias in Caria (Journal of Roman Studies Monograph) (1993).
I have to say I have not read this volume, but based on reviews I have seen I believe it is relevant in this connection. There is a good review of the book in the internet magazine "Bryn Mawr Classical Review" (04.03.12). The review is written by William J. Slater, who is the editor of another book which may be relevant for you: Roman Theater and Society: E. Togo Salmon Papers I (Salmon conference papers) (1996).
Regarding the circus factions and the conflict between the different Christian denominations I would like to quote Alan Cameron, who is a specialist on this topic:
"It has been claimed, for instance, that there were social and religious differences between the factions. The Blues were upper, the Greens lower class. The Blues orthodox, the Greens monophysite. There is not a scrap of evidence for such hypotheses - and much against."
[Porphyrius the Charioteer, 1973, page 238.]
In my review of "Theodora" I say that Duffy has a good eye for details and I provide one example. In this comment I would like to provide another example:
Vitalian is mentioned on page 226. He is mentioned again on page 332.
Vitalian was the leader of a rebellion against emperor Anastatius. The rebellion began in 513 and lasted for about two years. When the rebellion failed (515), Vitalian went into hiding. In 518 Anastasius died and Justin became the next emperor. Justin called Vitalian back to Constantinople, and he became an important figure for a while. It seems Vitalian was involved when Severus was dismissed from his post as patriarch of Antioch (518). James Allan Evans writes:
"The command came from Vitalian, who hated Severus for personal reasons: Flavian, the patriarch of Antioch of suspect loyalty, whom Anastasius had turned out of office in 512 and replaced with Severus, was Vitalian's godfather. But Severus was warned in time and boarded a ship sailing to Egypt, where the patriarch of Alexandria [Timothy] offered refuge."
[The Power Game in Byzantium, 2011, page 43.]
Duffy does not mention this historical background, but it is clear that she knows it, and since she has mentioned Timothy in Alexandria and Severus in the Egyptian desert, I think it shows a good eye for detail that Vitalian is mentioned, even if it is only in passing: we are told that he was murdered (in 520) shortly before Theodora returned to Constantinople.
Regarding the sequel, I think Duffy will have to provide a bit more information about the circus factions, because they play an important role in the Nika rebellion in 532. She will also have to provide a bit more information about the conflict between the different Christian denominations, because the conflict continues while Justinian is emperor.
Justinian persecutes the anti-Chalcedonians, while Theodora tries to help them by hiding some of them in the Hormisdas Palace in Constantinople (this paradox is explained in Evans, The Power Game in Byzantium: Antonina and the Empress Theodora, pages 109-110).
It will be interesting to see how Duffy deals with events such as these in the sequel which is scheduled for publication later this year.
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