by David Potter
Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 2017. Pp. x, 278.
llus., maps, personae, chron., notes, biblio., index. $31.95. ISBN: 0199740763
Prof. Potter (Michigan), author of a number of works in Roman History, takes a very revisionist look at the life of Theodora (c. AD 500-548), consort to the Emperor Justinian. Displaying an extraordinary mastery of the ancient sources, he rescues Theodore from the common reputation of powerful women in history, to demonstrate that she was an intelligent, capable ruler, a fitting colleague for Justinian.
Potter sifts out the real woman hidden behind the image of the ruthless and ambitious prostitute created by hostile contemporaries, most notably Procopius of Caesarea, who was offended perhaps more by the fact that a woman could play a role in running the Empire as by her commoner origins and alleged sexual acrobatics.
Potter’s account is part biography, part a history of the Empire in the mid-sixth century, a time of imperial resurgence, and part a study of contemporary cultural, religious, and social life. So while it’s true that young Theodora had been an actress and certainly had lovers, Potter also notes that even when smearing her, Procopius and his kind often provide evidence that their salacious tales are drawn from stories about other powerful women across ancient history. What emerges is an intelligent, strong willed woman, as tough as any male ruler of the day, who merits considerable respect as an able partner to Justinian in running the Empire.
Well written, Theodora: Actress, Empress, Saint, a volume in the Oxford series “Women in Antiquity”, is not only a ground breaking biography of Theodora, but an excellent history of the Empire in the sixth century.
Note: Theodora: Actress, Empress, Saint is also available in paperback and several e- and audio-editions