Theodora: Actress, Empress, Saint

Theodora: Actress, Empress, Saint

Theodora: Actress, Empress, Saint

Theodora: Actress, Empress, Saint

Synopsis

An authoritative portrait of one of the ancient world's most intriguing and powerful women. Despite very humble beginnings, Theodora rose to become empress of the Byzantine Empire at the acme of its power and influence. Raised in a family of circus performers in Constantinople, she later caught the attention of the future emperor Justinian while performing as a courtesan. The two were married soon thereafter, to the shock of the ruling elite. When Justinian assumed power in AD 527, they ruled the Empire together until her death twenty years later. Their reign was the most celebrated in Byzantine history, bringing wealth, prestige, and even much of the Italian peninsula back to the Empire. As Justinian's most trusted advisor, she discernibly influenced his rule. Her interest in social causes, for example, is seen in added legal protections for women and the lower classes. Theodora's most lasting impact was her unwavering support for the Christian sect of Monophysitism. Although her husband was orthodox, Theodora maintained her religious independence at considerable risk to herself. In Syria today, where the sect still thrives, she is revered as a saint. In Theodora: Actress, Empress, Saint, renowned historian David Potter provides a fresh new account of her fascinating life and times. He penetrates the highly biased writings of her contemporaries and takes advantage of the latest research on early Byzantium to craft the most authoritative and engaging biography of Theodora to date. It will be of interest to all readers of women's history and ancient history.

Excerpt

On Monday the eleventh of August, ad 559, Emperor Justinian entered Constantinople. Many dignitaries greeted him as he rode through the Charisios Gate on the city’s northwest side. Before going any farther, before traversing avenues so crowded that there was barely room for his horse to pass, Justinian stopped. He turned in to the great Church of the Holy Apostles, close by the city gate. There he lit candles in memory of his empress, who had died eleven years earlier. They had had no children together, nor would he have any in the future, nor even remarry. She had been his “gift from God,” the great love of his life.

The story of Justinian and his empress Theodora is one of the most remarkable in the long history of the Mediterranean world. She had been an actress—not a respectable profession in sixth-century Constantinople. He was born into a south–central European family of peasants. She had sustained him through two great crises when it seemed that their rule might end. She was tough; she was smart, very smart—even those who hated her would grant her that. She was passionate. She was extremely beautiful. Beauty and passion were two of her qualities that even those who hated her would acknowledge. She championed the downtrodden and protected the weak; she was steadfastly loyal to her friends. Her enemies feared her, and with good reason.

We may still see her in all her splendor in the astonishing mosaics that decorate the Church of San Vitale in Ravenna. We can feel the intensity of her being as we gaze into her eyes. She dominates the scene, far outstripping her husband, who faces her. Outside the church the same is true, even in the twenty-first century: “Ah, Teodora,” said the . . .

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