This sequel to Stella Duffy’s Theodora picks up the story two years after the conclusion of the earlier book, when Justinian and his wife are established as Emperor and Empress. It covers the next twenty years of their reign and shows how, as the most powerful woman in the Western world, Theodora must shift her priorities. Nothing less than the safety of the Roman world is at stake, and there are dangers everywhere: in religious dissention; in the war with Persia; and in the presence of those who believe the purple would become them – whether that’s the ambitious John the Cappadocian, or the unfortunate Hypatius, whose claim is picked up by the mob.
And it’s not just Justinian who is shadowed by would-be rivals: Theodora is only too conscious of women like the Goth queen Amalasuntha in Italy, whom Theodora’s detractors believe would make a much more appropriate wife for Justinian. Although she has left the Hippodrome and the hard life of an actress behind her, Theodora discovers that survival in the backbiting world of the Court requires no fewer wits, and no less determination, than it did in her turbulent youth. She has been elevated for the precise reason that she has an insight into the popular mindset that neither Justinian nor his advisers can share, and yet she will soon find her link with the people tested to its utmost.
In both spirit and style, The Purple Shroud is very similar to Theodora; so, if you enjoyed the first book, you’ll find the sequel very satisfying. Overall, I found it less colourful, because Theodora’s notorious youthful escapades are behind us now and the drama in this volume comes not from salacious performances but from the cut and thrust of politics. There were moments where it was a little dry, and I still feel that I’m being told about Theodora more than getting to know her for myself. On the other hand, however, some of the things which I found annoying in the first volume are no longer issues here – the inappropriately colloquial modernisms have gone (or were handled so discreetly that I didn’t notice them) and yet the book still has a very readable, contemporary feel.
Personally, I also thought that the set-pieces in this book were much more effective (spoilers follow so, if you don’t know Theodora’s story already, beware). The scene in the Hippodrome that sparks off the Nika riots, when the Blues and Greens suddenly start cheering one another, made gooseflesh rise on my arms. Duffy has previously given such a clear picture of the factional divisions, that this sudden unity is genuinely alarming. And the chaos that follows, largely sparked off by opportunism and by bored young men looking for a fight, is chillingly plausible. Similarly, Duffy is on great form towards the end of the story, when she deals with Theodora’s illness: the Empress’s physical weakness is bolstered by her mental strength and determination, to the very last moment. A commenter on the last book mentioned the similarities between Theodora and Evita, which I’d also noticed; and the conclusion of this book makes that comparison even more unavoidable and powerful.
There are still things that don’t quite flow for me. With her charitable exercises, her homes for reformed women, and her incognito excursions into the City to sample popular opinion, Theodora still feels a bit too modern – there isn’t much that’s convincingly 6th-century about her attitudes or opportunities. And her great moment, in which she makes a stand in the face of Justinian’s desire to flee the City, seemed a little flat after the thrilling scenes in the Hippodrome. As I said last time, the Empress and the historical period lack the shimmering exoticism that I’ve found in other works on Byzantium, but again it’s entirely a matter of personal taste whether you miss that, or find the book refreshingly accessible because of its absence. For the most part, for me, Theodora comes across as a little too nice to be completely believable in her historical context. Nevertheless, I was pleased to see a flash of dark humour, in the revelation that perhaps her secret torture cells, where prisoners’ feet rot in the constant damp, aren’t completely the stuff of rumour. And I should add that many of my doubts about the book were pushed aside during the final chapters, which I found immensely moving: a sensitive and heartfelt epitaph to a truly remarkable historical figure.
As one of the rare novels about this period, I feel that I have to recommend this and its predecessor: they may not be flawless evocations of the age, and there might be aspects that I don’t quite agree with, but they combine to present a lively picture of Theodora’s life and times – and may well leave you itching to know more. I’ve certainly been left with a renewed urge to finally make a start on John Julius Norwich’s magnum opus and find about more about how the historical Theodora compares to her fictional counterpart.