Theodora: Actress, Empress, Whore, by Stella Duffy, Virago, RRP£14.99, 342 pages

Stella Duffy is one of Britain’s most varied writers. Over the past 15 years, she has published 11 novels of crime and literary fiction, eight plays and a plethora of short stories. In this, her first historical work, her incisive eye turns to Theodora, actress and wife of Justinian I, emperor of the Byzantine Empire. The result is a bravura performance: a witty, moving, sexy book that bursts with as much colour and excitement as the city of Constantinople itself.

Duffy forges a path through the contradictory classical sources and shows Theodora as a Constantinople native, forced to work as an actress and courtesan from childhood to support her family. Bright and daring, she becomes wildly popular with the crowds, but moves to Appollonia, in modern-day Libya, with a lover. When the relationship sours, she turns for shelter to a group of nuns in Alexandria who believe Christ to be entirely divine, in opposition to the prevailing Chalcedonian orthodoxy that he possesses humanity. The Patriarch Timothy of Alexandria sees a use for Theodora, and, on her return to the city of her birth, she is thrust into the presence of Justinian, the shy and workaholic heir to the throne.

Historians debate whether Theodora was saint or sinner, great ruler or manipulator. Here, rather than enslaving Justinian with her sexual wiles, she fascinates him with her organisational abilities. In her, he recognises a partner who will please the people and quiet the anti-Chalcedonians.

This is a book that engages with big ideas about religion, spirituality and the role of women and yet it is also a joyous and energetic read. The pace is brisk, the dialogue is earthy and contemporary and Duffy is wonderful on the theatre and its backstage rivalries. Throughout it all Constantinople is the star, and its rich smells, bustling streets and handsome buildings are beautifully evoked.

Duffy is currently writing about Theodora’s 20-year reign and her efforts to improve the lives of women and reform the rape laws. On the strength of this book, a sequel can hardly come quickly enough.

Kate Williams is the author of ‘Becoming Queen’ (Arrow Books)

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