An Early First Lady

Theodoraby David Potter

Oxford University Press. 288p $29.95

The most recent installment in Oxford University Press’s Women in Antiquity is everything that one would hope for in a book designed to offer “an accessible introduction to the life and historical times of women from the ancient world.” For those who are unfamiliar with her, the Byzantine empress Theodora (A.D. 500-48) is an especially illuminating figure by which to bring so many aspects of the ancient world into focus.

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Born into a family of circus performers, Theodora was a mime, a prostitute and then a high-placed concubine before meeting and marrying the future emperor Justinian, who was the longest reigning emperor in Roman/Byzantine history. With Justinian’s accession to power in 527, Theodora governed alongside her husband at the zenith of Byzantine imperial strength. She played an active role in almost every facet of Justinian’s rule: she inspired legislation, brokered alliances between factions, inspired his stiff resolve in the wake of riots and played a key role in harboring religious minorities. While Justinian did not always follow her advice, her influence in determining political, military and religious policy was likely greater than any other woman of the late-ancient era.

Not surprisingly, she was hated by a great number of people in high circles, and she was among the targets of a scathing Secret History, which purported to expose the backdoor shenanigans of the sixth-century’s most powerful family. For all of these reasons, Theodora is one of the most intriguing women in history.

Potter’s study includes an introduction plus 12 chapters that use specific biographical details and analysis as a segue to a broader social history of the late Roman/early Byzantine world. So, for example, chapters devoted to her early life become vehicles for broader discussions ranging from ancient medicine to prostitution to travel to the dynamic politics of urban mobs. In these early chapters especially, Potter provides a compelling account of urban life for the working class. While much of what he suggests about Theodora’s early life is predicated upon conjecture, Potter shows himself to possess an impressive knowledge of the early Byzantine social world, and he communicates it with graceful prose.

Later chapters similarly depart from Theodora for insightful interludes concerning imperial and ecclesiastical networks, the rivalries and associations between the various ranks of the army, court ceremony and even church architecture. Throughout, Potter makes the Byzantine world come alive for a modern reader in ways that are both familiar and strange.

The challenge in telling Theodora’s story, as is the difficulty with any person of the past who does not leave a literary record, lies in navigating the extant historical sources. In Theodora’s case, the problem is not so much a paucity of sources as it is the striking divergence of views of Theodora that we find in the sources.

The most infamous account is that of the historian Procopius, whose Secret History (written ca. 551) details the sexual exploits of the teenage Theodora before moving on to describe the various ways in which she had seemingly single-handedly destroyed the Roman world. For Procopius, Justinian and Belisarius (Justinian’s chief general and Procopius’s boss) were the weakest of men who sat idly by while their wives brought on the ruination of the empire.

Potter proves himself a careful exegete of the propagandistic mythmaking in the Secret History while noting that Procopius’s diatribe does contain certain kernels of reliable information. Where he is on less certain ground—as any historian would be—is knowing exactly where the line is between fact and fiction. And, for this reviewer, there appears to be some inconsistency in Potter’s reliance on Procopius.

Alternative accounts of Theodora’s activity survive in a host of other, less salacious and often sympathetic sources. Especially noteworthy is the information we glean from non-Chalcedonian saints’ lives. Among the most intriguing aspects of Theodora’s career is her patronage of the Christian minority community that did not toe her husband’s Christological party line. In some modern renderings, Theodora is more responsible for the ultimate survival of the Miaphysite church than any of its ancient bishops or theologians. Potter discusses the religious debates, players and Theodora’s interventions in intricate detail. But it would seem that he, like the rest of us, is left somewhat in the dark as to why she was initially drawn to the community and why she was willing to grant safe haven to its leaders for so long.

Potter devotes considerable time to other aspects of Theodora’s political involvement, including her role in developing Justinian’s response to the famous Nika riot of 532 (which nearly toppled his rule), her hand in bridging political alliances between would-be imperial contenders and her role in crafting legislation designed to protect prostitutes and their children. The latter is especially noteworthy in that it shows Theodora to have cared a great deal about the young women who suffered in Byzantine society in a way that she personally understood.

The book closes with a masterful discussion of the modern accounting of Theodora in literature and drama and the extent to which Procopius’s sexual fantasies, masquerading as censure, continue to dominate all historical reflection concerning a woman so omnipresent and yet unknown.

In sum, this is a wonderful introduction to a world and to a woman who has been the source of legends for nearly 1,500 years.

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