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The Purple Shroud Reader’s Guide

By Stella Duffy

The Purple Shroud by Stella Duffy


Questions and Topics for Discussion


Born the daughter of a bear trainer and raised in the slums of early sixth–century Constantinople, Empress Theodora was a performer, prostitute, and religious convert who became the beloved wife of the Emperor Justinian. Her amazing trajectory from poverty to power was chronicled in Stella Duffy’s fascinating previous novel, Theodora: Actress, Empress, Whore. Now, Duffy has returned with The

Purple Shroud, a sweeping and richly detailed novel of passion and intrigue that follows the final act in Theodora’s incredible life: her years as empress, wife, and champion of the people.

Theodora is Augusta and coregent of the Roman Empire, a world rife with religious feuding and vulnerable to attack from neighboring nations. Within the ruling seat of Constantinople, rival political factions are battling in the streets and tax hikes are fomenting rebellion. Theodora’s role as the people’s empress and her instinct for the needs of her citizens are crucial in guiding her husband—and the empire—through this time of instability. Known as a savior to prostitutes and children at risk, Theodora is a tough woman whose charity is inspired by memories of her own painful youth, but it is those same years she spent as a young girl who would do anything to survive that now fuel Theodora’s fierce hold on power and her ruthlessness toward her enemies—those within the palace walls and beyond.

Duffy’s novel is a riveting look behind the scenes of history, building on the limited facts known about Theodora to create the empress as a multidimensional heroine and a fascinating and fearless woman. Theodora’s life would seem impossible were it not true, and The Purple Shroud is riveting in its scope and pace. Through political riots, the rebuilding of Constantinople, the unification of the Christian church, international espionage, and even murder, Theodora’s years as Augusta are some of

the most exciting and productive in the empire’s history. Yet while devoted to protecting Justinian and her people, Theodora’s feelings toward royal life are conflicted. A woman who values her freedom and independence, Theodora is also a prisoner to the power she seeks to maintain as she watches her private needs and desires overwhelmed by her public responsibilities.

Moving from the theaters, brothels, and bazaars of Theodora to the luxuries of the imperial palace in The Purple Shroud, Duffy’s heroine still finds herself surrounded by corruption, ambition, and betrayal. In royal life as in the Hippodrome, sex, money, and power are firmly interwoven and Theodora must use all three in order to achieve her goals. As Duffy so skillfully makes clear, while the stage may have changed, Theodora’s role remains the same: performer, seductress, survivor.


Stella Duffy was born in London and raised in New Zealand. She has published numerous novels, short stories, and newspaper articles; her work has twice been longlisted for the Orange Prize and she won Stonewall Writer of the Year in 2008 and in 2010. In addition, she is a playwright, stage performer, and director. She currently lives in London.


Q. In discussing your previous book, Theodora: Actress, Empress, Whore, you mentioned that having such little historical detail available about Theodora allowed you “a great deal of leeway.” This was especially true for Theodora’s youth of which little is known, but this novel includes military, political, and religious events that are authentic historical fact. Did you find that you had the same level of freedom when writing this novel as with the first?

I didn’t have the same freedom, for exactly these reasons, and therefore, in some ways, this was a harder book to write. The job with the first novel was to take a little–known life and to extrapolate backward— from the facts of her adulthood—what might have happened in her childhood and youth to create the woman who became Empress Theodora. The job of the second novel was to take an enormous wealth of information about Justinian’s reign, Theodora’s work as empress, the Nika rebellion, the schism in the Church, the wars in both the east and the west, and try to find a strong enough fictional through line in all the politics and politicking that would still give the information necessary, but do so in an accessible, understandable, and entertaining way—while keeping Theodora as the lead character. This is still a work of fiction, after all, but hopefully one with enough of the intense political and religious machinations in the background to provide a real flavor of the imperial court while not overpowering the central story of Theodora and Justinian. And there’s still plenty I made up: the little matter of Theodora’s friendship with Anthemius, the story of the hangman sparking off the riots, those things that happen in the deep dark dungeons of the palace . . .

Q. As a playwright, you’re able to witness your audience’s reaction to your words; you also have the opportunity to make adjustments to the script based on those reactions. How does the more isolated experience of writing fiction compare? Do you receive feedback from readers and, if so, does this feedback influence your writing?

I love writing fiction as much for the isolation as anything else—just as I love writing theater for the collaboration. While there is always collaboration in fiction, working with my agent and editors, it is much less than in theater. I do listen to what readers have to say, and I care greatly that they enjoy my work and want to read more, but I would never try to write for a reader because there are so many different types of readers. For example, while some readers found some of the swearing in the first book disconcerting, others thought (as I did) that it was entirely appropriate for backstage life and the world of prostitution. Similarly, a few readers found the utterly modern language used by the characters to be odd in a historical novel, but many more preferred it to a cod–English version of what they might have been speaking in Theodora’s Constantinople. My own preference is certainly for the modern vernacular, not least because the people would have been speaking Latin, Greek, some Syriac, some Coptic—among many other languages—and not one of them would ever have said that far more usual historical novel staples of “thee” and “thou.”

Overall the reaction to both of these novels (The Purple Shroud was published a few months earlier in the UK than in the United States) has been brilliant and enormously supportive, especially from readers who have read and enjoyed my contemporary fiction, which has been hugely encouraging—so much so that I am now embarking on my third historical novel.

Q. Theodora experiences the extremes of the social spectrum, being both prostitute and empress in one lifetime. Interestingly, whether she’s in the depths of poverty or the rarefied heights of royal life, she still must remain wary of others and look out for her own interests—there is a never a moment when she can truly feel safe. In writing her character, did you find constants that ran through Theodora’s ever–changing life?

Much of the work of the first novel was to set up a character who might react in the ways we have some evidence for during Theodora’s years in power. So I wanted to make sure she was very aware of status—as a young women in the theater of the time this would have drummed into her as a performer and a comedian, and status–play is a vital component of life in the imperial court, as well. I also chose to make Theodora’s conversion a real one. Some historians have argued that her taking faith must have been a cynical move, partly motivated by a desire for power. For me, this undercuts both the nature of faith and how those of us with it take it hugely seriously in our lives (I’ve been a practicing Buddhist for twenty–six years), and at the same time it also undercuts Theodora’s political acumen. I’m sure she could have found a far more useful branch of early Christianity to adopt had she merely been aping faith for the sake of politics. The fact that she believed the same as those who were attacked by the state was vital for my construction of a believable character, and so it was really important to have this line through both books. I also loved writing the conversion scene in Theodora—it’s certainly not a usual thing, to take a narrative detour for several chapters at a desert retreat and to take the character on an essentially inner journey, but I felt it was really important. I’ve been very gratified to receive feedback from readers of many faiths, all who have found this part of Theodora’s life engaging.

In terms of Theodora’s inability to feel truly safe, I think there is one place she does feel at home—and that’s with Justinian, when they are the two of them, as man and woman, not as August. I think those of us lucky enough to have strong long–term relationships, whether with romantic partners or with friends, are aware how valuable these relationships are, and—in strictly writing terms—it feeds a novel to have friendships and strong relationships through which to both elucidate character and introduce narrative.

Q. How would you characterize Theodora’s relationship with Narses? Socially, they aren’t equals and yet there is a mutual respect and a shared history that colors their interactions. Could you also tell readers a little more about the real Narses on whom the character is based?

Theodora and Narses pick up their relationship where her bond with her teacher Menander left off. The actual Narses was indeed a eunuch, a famed general, and known for his extensive knowledge of court protocol. It was very useful then to have him be Menander’s ex–lover so that Theodora could continue her occasional verbal sparring, her status–play, and to have someone who often knows better to rub up against.

In this case though, it is Narses who, ultimately, has to bow to Theodora’s power. I think many of us find the Svengali idea as appealing as it is disturbing—the idea that any one teacher could know everything pupil needs to learn, or that one person could be all the mentor we might need. Narses is able to play that role for Theodora, but, as she ages and grows into her power, he is also able to reflect that power back to her. In giving up his status to hers, he allows us to see her in a different light, to see what he sees—a woman not merely dressing up as powerful, but living her power.

Like Justinian, Narses is older than Theodora, and I think it can take women, even now, a longer time to find our place, to step into our own strength. As I find myself standing firmly—and happily—in middle age (I’m fifty next year), I’m loving the strength that middle age gives me as a woman. I was a hopeless teenager, and not that happy in my twenties either—not pretty/thin enough to find the demands of those years comfortable—despite the fact that they’re sold to us as being all–vital. It took my thirties and forties to really find myself as a woman, as a writer, and as an artist, and now it feels like the next thirty years might be spent in consolidating place and building on it—hopefully to produce work that both uses that newfound strength and stretches me at the same time. It feels like I am beginning to live in my own power. In The Purple Shroud, I really see Theodora (especially given the shorter span of her life) as living in her power, not just as an empress, but as a woman. It is in her choice to see what feels like destiny as mission, to take what she has been given—by life or fate—and to use that to its greatest advantage. That is not to say that I think all her choices in this novel are the right choices, but I do see her as making them from a position, as the book progresses, of intent rather than of desperation. A life of engagement, not just survival.

Q. Theodora is a valuable companion and consort to Justinian because of her ability to understand her people and their affection for her—strengths that are equally valuable in rulers and elected officials today. What other traits do you believe make for a great leader?

Compassion is all. Strength is great, and oratory is vital, intelligence is useful, and so is understanding of foreign policy, moderation, national pride without jingoism, and an overview of history. But without compassion a leader cannot understand what it means to be alienated, disaffected, damaged, downtrodden. And if they can’t understand that, then they will never know what it means to truly lead—to take care not only of one’s own nation, but to have empathy with others, understanding that we may not all be the same in action or belief or ability, but we are all the same as human beings and we all deserve the same basic rights—those rights being, in my opinion, health and education. If everyone in the world received the same standard of health care and education we’d see poverty disappear overnight. I wonder sometimes about the cures for cancer, the great inventions, the unimagined dreams that we’ll never see because those living in poverty (in all nations) don’t receive the same level of education and support as those rising to the top. For me it’s all about fairness. And fairness starts with compassion, understanding that others matter as much as we do.

Q. There is an interesting parallel between Theodora’s relationship with Chrysomallo in the first novel and her relationship with Pasara in The Purple Shroud, especially with regard to Theodora’s reluctance to forgive them. Why do these women affect her so much?

On a purely writerly level, it’s very useful to give a character a nemesis, someone who will fight against them, cause them problems, be a reason for our lead character to show their own dark side. As a woman, I think we all know there are the two types of women—those who are women’s women and those who are men’s women. Theodora has often been portrayed as the latter, only concerned with men, with herself in

relation to the sexuality and the power of men. In reading about her though, it seems to me that her work creating Metanoia, writing On Pimps and Prostitutes, she is more likely to have been the former: a woman who loved men, loved Justinian, but who enjoyed and valued the company of other women. This makes her far more interesting—and much less of a cliché—to write, and it also means that when she is hurt by other women (as she is by Chrysomallo and Pasara) her anger and hurt go much deeper, again, making it more interesting to write and, I hope, to read. Chrysomallo’s betrayal is the more usual “you stole my man,” but Pasara’s scenes were particularly interesting to work on because they involved strong status relationships dealing with class and gender, both of which still impact us hugely in our present world.

Q. Why is it so important to Theodora to secure Justinian’s succession?

I think it’s important for Theodora as much as it is for Justinian. There is, of course, the political angle— that the Roman Empire was crumbling, the Church was seemingly impossible to unite—when we know we cannot control the present we sometimes feel we might be able to control the future. Further, I suspect Theodora knew she was dying, and I believe that many of us, in those circumstances, try to tie up our affairs, to create a future, even when—especially when—we cannot be in it. I imagine Theodora would have felt that very strongly. There is also a powerlessness, a feeling that we all experience, in terms of the future. We will all die. We will all die leaving behind everything we have created in life. For many people, having children allows them to feel that they are at least leaving something behind. For others it is their work that they hope will go on. Theodora was very much a self–made woman and I imagine she was therefore even more impelled to create a future as well as a present. Her descendants may not be around to speak for her, but the Hagia Sophia, with Theodora and Justinian’s initials carved in the finials, is still there—and still glorious.

Q. Have you done much research on what happened to Justinian and Constantinople after Theodora passed away? What do you think Theodora’s lasting legacy is in that part of the world?

Much of the research for both novels was, naturally, about Justinian and his legacy. And many historians tell us that Justinian ruined Rome with his desire to maintain the empire in both the West and the East and also with the building program he and Theodora instigated. The historians may be right about the last days of Rome, but Europe was very much already on a different path, as was Persia, so the chances of holding it all together from the middle seem very slim. At the same time, toward the end of Justinian’s life, the Prophet Mohammed was beginning his work, some of which resulted in the bringing together of various Arab tribes. I see this then as a very special time in history where everything might have come together—had early Christianity and nascent Islam found a way to reach out to each other, or had the West and the East not pulled further apart, or had Justinian and Theodora given more support to those who wanted independence from Rome, in a foreshadowing of the recent Arab Spring, it might all have been very different. Of course, we can say this about any period of history, but the brutality of the Crusades, and the lasting legacy of Rome’s interference in what is now the constant conflict of Israel/Palestine, does lead me to wonder what might have come from that part of the world if different choices had been made. On a more character–led note, we know that Justinian did not remarry after Theodora’s death, that he visited her grave regularly for very many years, and that her niece Sophia married and ruled with his nephew Justin—the couple that Theodora sets up for succession in The Purple Shroud. The fact that Justinian did not remarry, not even to have children and secure his familial succession, has always indicated to me that his marriage, far from their marriage being merely one of political convenience as some commentators have suggested, it was a true love match as well. After all, it’s a rare man who remains single for twenty years after his wife’s death, let alone one with an empire to hand off.

Q. Theodora says that “purple makes the perfect burial shroud” (p. 127), a quote that is taken from historical record and which provides the title of the book. Can you discuss the quote and why you felt it was so significant?

There are many parts of Theodora’s life I had to invent or extrapolate from a few clues. This is an event we know happened, and it was widely reported that not only did Theodora says these—or very similar—words, but that her stepping up to do so changed the outcome of the riots and the government’s post–riot choices. Because it is based on a very real event, it felt vital that I get it as “right” as possible. I have no idea who was there or what exactly was said, but words that change the course of a life, words that empowered Justinian to stay on when he was ready to flee, words that determined the rest of Theodora’s own life . . . they felt immensely important as a turning point in the book, both for the narrative and for Theodora’s character.

As a writer, such a scene is a gift—hard to do, and I was worried about doing it justice, but I’m happy now with the scene I’ve written, happy that it acknowledges Theodora’s strength under fire, her indomitable nature, and especially her gift of oratory. She would have known, and spoken, both Latin and Greek, and my research tells me that both languages can be employed for different aspects of high rhetoric. I fully suspect someone as wise as Theodora would therefore have used both languages in order to drive home her point, as I have her do in the scene. We can’t know if she truly was a great speaker, especially when the only contemporaneous accounts are more concerned about her lurid past, but if this scene really happened (and by all accounts it did), and if Justinian and his court were persuaded to stay on by her words, then it must have been an amazingly powerful moment. It was important then for me to give it a strong place in the book, and also to make it Theodora’s moment, not as the archetypal tart–with–a–heart, nor as a Lady Macbeth “screw your courage to the sticking place” moment, but as a woman with power in her own right, and as a wife who valued her role as the emperor’s consort. Theodora the actress knew the power of words, Theodora the empress had a larger stage on which to use them. Yes, it’s about a choice to stay in power, but more than that, I think it’s also about a choice to stick with the chosen course. We’ve said we’ll do this, so we will . . . whatever the outcome.

Q. What books would you recommend for readers who want to delve further into Theodora’s life?

There are many historical accounts of the period; some I found particularly useful were Judith Herrin’s Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire; Paolo Cesaretti’s Theodora, Empress of Byzantium; and The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Justinian edited by Michael Maas. For a very different account of Justinian’s role as emperor, have a look at James J. O’Donnell’s The Ruin of the Roman Empire. William Rosen’s Justinian’s Flea is both entertaining and gloriously gory in its story of the plague. Don’t bother with Procopius’s Secret History unless for a laugh; he really is terribly misogynistic. Fans of Robert Graves’s Count Belisarius may like to know that some of Theodora’s animosity towards the great general was born of my own feeling that Graves was more than a little in love with the Belisarius he created. (Just as I have been more than a little in love with the Theodora I’ve created . . .)

Q. As a writer, you move easily across genres and are often working on multiple projects at once. As a reader, are you the same way? What genres or authors are you currently enjoying?

I have never read one genre in preference to another, just as I like to take on a wide variety of work, I also love a wide variety of reading. I’m currently reading historian Tom Holland’s In the Shadow of the Sword about the very early days of Islam, just after Theodora’s time, but very much in her part of the world. I’ve also just finished, and loved, Jake Arnott’s intricate and immensely wide–ranging novel The House of Rumour.

Q. What novels or other projects are you working on now?

I’m working on a new novel, the very early stages of the first draft, set in Edwardian London. I’m also directing a new play later this year and have two ongoing film projects (one a new drama and one an adaptation of my own novel) and a stage play of my own I’m developing.

  • Compare Theodora to other great female rulers such as Cleopatra or Elizabeth I. Do these women have anything in common? What risks or challenges do female rulers face that male rulers do not?

  • During the Nika riots, Theodora reminds Justinian that he once told her that, “The purple was bigger than either of us” (p. 126). Explain this statement. How is it demonstrated in the novel?

  • Theodora is often caught in the psychological space between her two lives: her coarser Hippodrome self and her role as empress. Find examples in the book where this battle is most clear. Does one side ultimately win?

  • The rags–to–riches story line, such as Theodora’s, is a favorite in popular culture. Why? Can you think of any popular novels or films that use this plot?

  • Scholars have suggested that Theodora can be seen as an early feminist because of her attitudes toward women, children, and prostitutes. Do you agree? How do you define feminism?

  • Which of the characters did you enjoy the most? Which did you find the least appealing?

  • Reread the scene between Theodora and Pasara on Parsa’s deathbed (pp. 224-28). What was your reaction to Theodora’s behavior? Was she justified?

  • What did you know about Byzantine and Roman culture and history before reading this novel? Have Duffy’s novels prompted you to explore the topic further? If so, in what way?

  • Theodora is a complex and compelling character. If you were casting the novel as a film or TV series, which actress would you choose to play her? Who would you cast as Justinian?

  • Theodora frequently describes her royal life in claustrophobic terms; on page 41, for example, she refers to the palace as a “sumptuous prison.” What does she mean? Considering what her life would have been like otherwise, do you have sympathy for her frustration? Would you feel the same way?

  • Did you read Duffy’s previous novel about Theodora’s early life, Theodora: Actress, Empress, Whore? How did this influence your understanding of the novel?

  • If you could, would you travel back in time to experience Theodora’s Constantinople? What would you do while there?
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