Book Review by Ian Hughes
Adding to the rapidly-extending corpus of books on Late Antiquity comes the Oxford publication on the Late Roman/Early Byzantine Empress, Theodora, wife of Justinian. The author of the book, David Potter – Francis W. Kelsey Collegiate Professor of Greek and Roman History and Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Greek and Latin at the University of Michigan – here attempts to find the real person behind the scheming woman portrayed by Procopius in his ‘Secret History.
The Contents of the book clearly illustrate that Potter is approaching his theme using a roughly chronological approach:
1. Constantinople 2. Telling Nasty Stories 3. Sex and the Stage
4. Factions and Networks 5. Patrician 6. The Succession
7. Augusta: The First Five Years 8. Revolution
9. War and Religion 10. Plots and Plague 11. Last Years
12. Legacy - Dramatis Personae - Timeline
Obviously, the greatest difficulty faced by Potter in assessing Theodora’s life is the paucity of reliable information. The main source is Procopius, who gives some positive information concerning Theodora in his History of the Wars, published during the ruling couple’s lifetime, but who then vilifies Theodora in his Anecdota (Secret History), published after their passing. Although in Chapter 2, Telling Nasty Stories, Potter highlights the ‘scandalous’ nature of the latter, there is little specific analysis and refutation of any of the gossip which Procopius portrays as truth in his work. Instead, Potter notes the dubious nature of the Anecdota but later uses some aspects of the tale to his advantage whilst ignoring or discounting those stories which do not agree with his perception of Theodora. Whether his decision is justified is up to the individual to decide.
As noted, the reader is treated to a step-by-step approach to the life of Theodora, starting with her birth and early life as an ‘actress’, through to her assumption of the role of Empress. Using anecdotal, hypothetical and descriptive methods Potter takes the reader through a proposed lifestyle of Theodora in each of her ‘roles’. This includes descriptions of the cities in which she lived – especially Constantinople – and of the people who inhabited them.
In some respects this at times results in a disjointed narrative, where Theodora is simply a shadowy figure in the background whilst the actions and lives of others is used to illuminate and give context to the conditions in which she will have lived. This is especially the case when it comes to Theodora’s early life. Here, it is the descriptions of the cities and the depiction of the rivalries between the racing factions of the Blues and the Greens which dominates the story: Theodora is only portrayed rarely, usually in a context where her life would be comparable to one of those under scrutiny.
Partly due to the realities of the time, and partly to the survival of the evidence, religion plays a very large role in the text. The emperor Justinian is portrayed as ‘mildly’ Chalcedonian in his religious sympathies (following the decisions reached at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 CE), but his main focus was an attempt to create religious unity and the halting of religious violence. On the other hand, Theodora is portrayed as anti-Chalcedonian in sympathies, using her position to influence the choice of bishops in Eastern cities and so creating a set of divisions which would far outlast her. Despite their apparent division on religious matters, Potter manages to emphasise that the two rulers worked together in most respects to ensure the continuation of a Christian Empire. These discussions and descriptions take up a significant part of the book.
Apart from the religious aspects of life in Eastern Rome, the main thrust of Potter’s ‘later-Theodora’ is the woman who introduced legislation. Possibly a lesser-known aspect of Theodora’s life, a variety of laws concerning women working as ‘actresses’, on prostitution, on sex-trafficking and on divorce were passed during Justinian’s reign and are seen as an attempt by Theodora to right wrongs which she had personally either seen or suffered. Although instituted in Justinian’s name, it is hard to believe that Justinian would have promulgated these laws without the input and dominating influence of his wife.
Throughout the book Potter manages to bring to light the various plots and machinations at the court of ‘Byzantium’ that has resulted in convoluted and dangerous political manoeuvrings now being known as ‘Byzantine’. In these descriptions the author convincingly argues that Theodora was able to intrigue successfully against those who were scheming against her. This is allocated to her ability to build herself a power base amongst the dominant men in the capital – despite the fact of her lowly origins – due to her ability to inspire loyalty and trust in those around her. The fact that she survived for so long and is portrayed by many as a saint attests, according to Potter, to the strength and allure of her personality, especially when the vicious nature of the accusations against her are taken into account.
Possibly the only down side to the book is that the author sometimes allows ‘explanation’ and ‘exemplar’ to become digression, sometimes straying far from the indicated subject. As a by-product, the reader is introduced to a huge number of ancillary characters many of whom share the same or a similar name ranging over a large period of time. It is clear that Potter acknowledges these difficulties, since at the end of the book are two sections – Dramatis Personae and Timeline – aimed at addressing these issues.
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The book is superbly researched, with an excellent grounding in events from this period. Yet Potter is hampered by the main problem faced by anyone attempting to write a ‘biography’ of an individual from so far back in time. There is so little direct and incontrovertible evidence concerning Theodora that the author is forced to rely on inference, implication and interpretation rather than ‘fact’. Due to this, much of the book is taken with assessing contemporary events and deciding whether the sources’ few depictions of Theodora’s actions are consistent with the outcomes and each other. In turn this leads to a vast array of characters whose actions may have influenced Theodora’s reactions. Sadly, unless the reader has some background knowledge of the period this can lead to confusion and the need to reread sections in conjunction with the sections on named people and chronology in the hope of clarifying the situation.
Yet despite these caveats the book is a worthwhile read. Although there is a limited amount of material specifically on the title character, the vast amount of background information gives the reader access to the milieu in which Theodora was working, and allows Potter to at least speculate intelligently on Theodora’s actions and motives.
Ian Hughes has a MA in Ancient History and Society from Cardiff University and is the author of Belisarius: The Last Roman General; Stilicho: The Vandal Who Saved Rome; Imperial Brothers: Valentinian, Valens and the Disaster at Adrianople; and Patricians and Emperors: The Last Rulers of the Western Roman Empire.
Book Review of Theodora: Actress, Empress, Saint - Related Topic: Byzantine Emperor List