Theodora: Actress, Empress and Saint. David Potter. Oxford University Press. November 2015. 288 pp. ISBN#: 9780199740765.
Theodora, Empress and Great Love of Emperor Justinian in the early 500s, came from a family of circus performers which meant being actors and actresses. She would later fall in love, follow this lover and later be abandoned by him. Later as a secret agent she meets Justinian and they marry. At first Theodora doesn’t realize she is marrying the heir to the throne but in true feisty style Theodora adjusts to the change and proves to be a very wise ruler, often controlling the kingdom while Justinian was obsessed with creating a new code of laws that would last forever.
David Potter tells the story of Theodora by recounting the writings of historians famous in her lifetime. This makes for some very ironic, suspicious and avid reading as the reader faces many accounts that were probably not true but which reveal a modicum of the truth amid the exaggerations and outright falsities.
Procopius was one such writer who speculates that Theodora opened a home for former prostitutes because she was one in her younger years. His accounts seem to place an unduly large amount of space denigrating her and at times reveal prurient texts and scenes that perhaps say more about him than the object of his writing. Yes, she later opened a home for former prostitutes who would be able to learn a career that would not place them in so much danger. Another writer treats her with exaggerated respect and his treatment almost seems like a biography of a different, wholly loved and honored historical ruler.
A large part of the book is concerned with the Chalcedonian and anti-Chalcedonian factions concerned with interpreting the nature of Jesus Christ as fully divine or partly divine and partly human. One can underestimate the rivalry between these two groups but in reality it was as intense as the Green, Blue and other factions which affected politics, religion and culture in Theodora’s younger years. Theodora had a great deal to do with lessening the conflicts and potential violence always waiting to explode.
Although this is a biography of Theodora, it is also an explication of the culture and history of the Byzantine era. The author introduces the reader to the layout of the city, the structure of the games so important to Byzantine citizens, the entertainment offered through the denigrated actors and actresses, the yearning of the poor to escape their rigidly set social structure, the faith that ruled the country and empire, and Theodora’s role in all of the aforementioned subjects as well as the chaos that was to emerge during her rule.
Honoring her and Justinian in the icons or mosaics of Byzantium seems right after reading this book in which fact and fiction reveal a dynamic, intelligent, and very smart woman who is featured as an honored saint to this day. Well-researched, fascinating look at a remarkable woman!
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