Tuesday, May 10, 2016


David Potter, Theodora: Actress, Empress, Saint. Women in antiquity. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015. Pp. ix, 277. ISBN 9780199740765. $29.95.

Reviewed by Kenneth G. Holum, University of Maryland (kholum@umd.edu)

Version at BMCR home site


The present one included, five books have appeared since the turn of the millennium focused on Theodora, Late Roman empress (d. 548), and we also have a plethora of broader studies of imperial women, most recently Anja Busch, Die Frauen der theodosianischen Dynastie (2015). The subject of women and power is now an established research topic that brings with it two questions. First, did empresses actually wield emperorship, descended from magisterial power accessible only to males, or did they rule only through influence ? Second, do we know enough about any empress to make the study of a single one advisable, or to write anything like biography, or is the result actually narrative history of a reign with special and somewhat awkward attention to a Theodora, a Sophia, or a Pulcheria?

Potter's approach to the second question is to put the woman "in the world in which she lived" (213). "World" here means the imaginative universe of angels and demons, and of contentious Christological debates over the Council of Chalcedon (451). It means the social world in which by merit a man or woman could advance to the highest rank from no rank at all. It means also locating Theodora in the palaces and streets that she inhabited and the costume she wore, and recovering her daily habits and diet. These help Potter to extrapolate an authentic personality and to create an engaging, up-to-date narrative of Justinian's reign, enriched by focus on one of its most fascinating figures.

Summarizing the book's chapters indicates how well Potter's Theodora succeeds. In chapter 1, "Constantinople," he has Theodora, born ca. 495, wandering as a child the streets of the imperial city, learning from its monuments about the past of the Empire and its neighbors. Thus even the hypothetical "general reader" for whom this book is intended will be able to situate her in time and place. That reader will also learn about the circus factions, Greens and Blues, and that Theodora's father, bear trainer for the Greens, made enough to keep her fed.

Chapter 2, "Telling Nasty Stories," is key to the entire book, addressing the account of Theodora in the Secret History of Procopius, who was apparently "hung up on sex" (26). Weaving in passages on other famous prostitutes, Procopius depicts her as a mime actress and sex worker whose beauty eventually caught Justinian's eye and joined him to her in a demonic domination of the Roman state. Prurient interest does help explain scholarly fixation on Theodora! Nevertheless, although Procopius embellished freely, gold is "mixed with the manure" (61). Such was indeed Theodora's background, but tellingly, Procopius could not pin a single lover on her during her marriage. Chapter 3, "Sex and the Stage," exploits the scholarly advances of Ruth Webb and others to illuminate Theodora's theater career, during which she took rich lovers on the side—solipsistic males well known from the contemporary verses of Agathias and Paul the Silentiary. Potter accepts as a "powerful case" John Scarborough's view that in the extant treatise of Aetius of Amida, Theodora is "Aspasia" discoursing knowledgeably on gynecological issues, including methods of inducing abortion. Escaping this hazardous life, she attracted Hecebolus, provincial governor in the Pentapolis (Libya), and remained his concubine until about 518, when she bore a daughter, name unknown, and he threw her out.

In chapter 4, "Factions and Networks," we learn that when passing through Antioch, Theodora met Macedonia, agent of the Blue Faction, who would introduce her to Justinian. Through this woman Theodora became part of a social network, that of the circus factions, which extended throughout the eastern Empire and which an emperor could exploit to collect information and disseminate patronage, but the network most in view in Potter's discussion here was that of the Syrian church and of the anti-Chalcedonian (Monophysite) bishop Severus of Antioch. What attracted Theodora to this vastly influential figure was evidently his concern for the poor, and her status as a single mother, but she also embraced the anti-Chalcedonian Christology. Following closely on, chapter 5, "Patrician," profiles Justinian, the future emperor, as even-tempered, with a sense of duty, profoundly loyal, tending to asceticism, and engaged in the Christological issues, but on the side of Chalcedon. He was "head over heels" (91) in love with Theodora, whom he married in 521-522 after Emperor Justin, Justinian's uncle, had issued a law (CJ 5.4.23) for that purpose, permitting a reformed actress to marry. Promoted to patrician in 523, Justinian was destined to succeed to the emperorship, and Theodora would share his rank. Even during Justin's reign, though, her connections facilitated conflict resolution in anti-Chalcedonian Syria and the East.

Chapter 6, "The Succession," concludes with the elevation of Justinian and Theodora to the emperorship, as Augustus and Augusta, in 527. In the meantime, emphasizing Theodora's links with the anti-Chalcedonian East, the couple had constructed the extant Church of the Syrian martyrs Sts. Sergius and Bacchus near their residence in the Hormisdas Palace. Potter reconstructs the exalted environment in which Theodora now dwelled: her personal wealth, her serving women and eunuchs, her bodyguard, her garments, her regime of baths and a healthy diet, as recommended by the contemporary Herophilus the Philosopher. He also introduces the kind of men she would have encountered, learned and talented government functionaries like the jurist Tribonian and John the Lydian of the prefect's office. Chapter 7, "Augusta," covers the next five years, 527-532, when Theodora belonged to the inner circle, even attending the imperial consistory, communicating independently with Persian courtiers and with the Ostrogothic king in Ravenna, ordering pimps arrested and brought before her in her own audience hall to account for their conduct, employing her vast wealth to build and maintain monasteries, poorhouses, and hospitals—the kind of projects that Liz James called "a public culture of sovereignty."1

In chapter 8, "Revolution," Potter refuses to blame harsh measures of the prefect John the Cappadocian for the Nika riots of 432, or the recent "madness" of the circus factions, as in Zachariah of Mitylene and Procopius, putting forward instead the "bloody-minded, stupid incompetence on the part of Justinian and his senior staff" (146). We will never know whether Theodora actually forestalled the emperor's flight with the famous words "power is a splendid shroud," because Procopius was not present when she spoke, yet we may assume that these words attributed to her were acceptable to those who were. In chapter 9, "War and Religion," covering the years 532-536, we learn that Justinian financed peace with Persia and the rebuilding of riot-damaged Constantinople in part by confiscating the estates of implicated senatorial families. Theodora's daughter later married the scion of one of these same families, again a hint that she stood in the wake of 532 at the head of a powerful "network (159) that could influence the government. These were years of events with which Theodora may have had little to do but which nonetheless cannot be ignored. Her enemy John the Cappadocian returned as prefect to restore fiscal soundness; the architect Anthemius of Tralles designed Hagia Sophia; and the quaestor Tribonian labored on the body of Roman law. In Rome, the monk Dionysius Exiguus calculated updated tables for setting the date of Easter, adopting a new era that we still use, making Rome's 754th year into Anno Domini 1, and in Constantinople, Count Marcellinus, among others, trumpeted a new line, that the West needed to be reconquered from the barbarians. We do require Theodora to explain the appointment of Belisarius to lead the reconquest of Africa, because he was a general of only modest reputation, but Theodora was notoriously close to his wife. Also in these years, "Theodora's faction" (173) supported the anti-Chalcedonian side in the efforts to achieve unity on the vexed issue of Christology. She harbored Bishop Severus of Antioch and unruly Monophysite ascetics from Syria in the imperial Hormisdas Palace, sent the imperial eunuch Narses to impose a Monophysite bishop on Alexandria, and secured the election of the moderate Anthimus as bishop of Constantinople, but her efforts collapsed when the Roman pope Agapetus intervened, as did other unruly ascetics, Chalcedonians, from Palestine and from Constantinople itself. Theodora protected her friends, but otherwise appears to have compromised.

Chapter 10, "Plots and Plague," covers 537-542, from the dedication of Hagia Sophia to the consequences of the plague that struck Constantinople in the latter year and engulfed much of the Empire. After her death, the poet Paul the Silentiary praised the church as the joint work of emperor and empress, but Theodora's own initiative is transparent in legislation protecting women from forced work as actresses and enabling divorce of adulterous husbands, and in her foundation called Metanoia, "Repentance," for victims of sex trafficking. Probably she had little to do with the Gothic war that broke out in 536 and continued after her death, but we know that in 541 she sent the eunuch Narses again, with troops, to arrest John the Cappadician, who was allegedly plotting usurpation. She survived the plague apparently unscathed, and with support from her network brought down Belisarius, who had responded to news that Justinian had fallen ill by plotting to replace him.

Chapter 11, "Last Years," has her promoting the anti-Chalcedonian cause until her death, allegedly of cancer, in 548. Promoting bishops like John of Ephesus, she deserves credit for fixing the institutional framework of the Syrian Orthodox Church and hence for the persistence of Christological division in the Eastern Empire. We find in chapter 12, "Legacy," that in 2000 the Syrian church, praising her anti-Chalcedonian stance, beatified Theodora; but along with Justinian, she had long been a saint in Chalcedonian Eastern Orthodoxy. Both traditions rejected the former prostitute of Procopius.

An attempt at biography, this book does flesh out a personality without undue awkwardness. In her conduct during the Nika rioting in 532, for instance, Theodora's actions revealed "strength of character," as well as "devotion to family and friends, and a ruthlessness of action" (143). As of 536 Theodora remained true to her anti-Chalcedonian faith, comfortable with holy men, and still much attached to Justinian, but no longer in a physical way. How would Potter know this? The inference gains credence from the couple's evident embrace of asceticism, and other personality traits can similarly be inferred. From her own experiences, Theodora "felt deep compassion for the poor, the deserted, and the destitute" (122). As for the first question, did she have an actual role in government? Clearly yes, but in a law of 535 (Novels 8.1) Justinian declares significantly that he "took his consort as a partner in his deliberations" on sale of offices, an issue that directly affected neither religion nor women, but the law was issued in the name of Justinian alone. The soldiers she dispatched with Narses may have been private retainers. More generally, Potter discerns a woman who was sufficiently "smart, tough, and vigorous" to form a social network, in effect "a governing party based on loyalty to herself and to the emperor" (194-95). Comprising a broad spectrum of priests, soldiers, courtiers, and the elite, this network, through Theodora's influence with Justinian, did control access to power.

This reviewer found few blemishes. The scale of map 1, Constantinople, is too small to be readable. Potter shows little interest in exploiting empress iconography, not even of the Ravenna mosaic, in which the chlamys that Theodora wears is not an "underdress" (129), but the decorated military cloak that was a primary insigne of imperial power. For the general reader, moreover, the account of economy and society in chapter 4 must seem a muddle, nor are Christologies explained with much sympathy. Modern Aleppo in Syria was ancient Beroea, not Apamea, and there is no "desert" near modern Beit Guvrin in Israel, which lies in a fertile upland. Nor were Samaritans a "Jewish sect" (130), though like Jews they were Israelites. Generally, though, the book is carefully and clearly written, engaging, and well-founded on the astonishingly prolific scholarship of the past two decades.


1.   Liz James, Empresses and Power in Early Byzantium, Leicester, 2001, p. 157.

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