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Theodora: Empress of Byzantium by Paolo Cesaretti: A Book Review

Theodora: Empress of Byzantium
Author: Paolo Cesaretti
Genre: Nonfiction, Biography, History
Publisher: Vendome Press
Release Date: 2004
Pages: 384
Source: Personal Collection
Synopsis: Theodora of Byzantium, rising from the lowest ranks of Byzantine society, became one of the most important and powerful women in history. In this gripping biography, Theodora's full story is revealed for the first time, according her a well-deserved place in the pantheon of great women.

     Theodora's meager beginnings as the daughter of a bear-keeper could not have foretold her astonishing future as the wife of Justinian, the powerful ruler of the Byzantine empire. An actress at the time who was chastised for her scandalous performances, she eventually caught the attention of the young Justinian, who was no doubt charmed as much by her beauty as by her cunning.

     Justinian and Theodora ruled the empire together from their rich and bustling seat of power in Constantinople, making decisions regarding the fate of their kingdom that would reverberate for centuries to come. Time and time again, Theodora's wisdom and counsel to the emperor saved Justinian's empire and assured their place in history.

     Hailed by European reviewers as "Book of the Year" upon its publication in Italian, Paolo Cesaretti's book gives a balanced portrait of an intriguing figure who, in the face of those who tried to defame her, rose from the ranks of the poor to build an empire at the side of her ambitious husband.

     Paolo Cesaretti, a professor of Byzantine studies, teaches at University of Chieti, Italy. In addition to many books on a variety of subjects related to Byzantine art and history, he regularly contributes to important Italian publications including Corriere della Sera.

         My Review: The first that I ever came across Empress Theodora was when I was a sophomore in high school, and we read her speech from Procopius's History of the Wars, where she is said to persuade her husband to stay rather than fleeing by saying, “Purple is a noble shroud.” I was then reintroduced to Theodora in my freshman college seminar, where we studied Byzantine art. Because of this, I wanted to find out more about her.  Paolo’s Ceasaratti’s Theodora: Empress of Byzantium is a very comprehensive biography of Empress Theodora. 

     Because I did not know much about her, it was fascinating how she rose up from humble beginnings to become an empress of the Byzantine empire. Theodora was the daughter of a bear trainer and a dancer and an actress. After the death of her father, Theodora had to become the main breadwinner of her family. She then became an actress, and later catches the eye of Justinian, who at the time was heir to the Byzantine Empire. They had to wait until Justinian became emperor because he was not allowed to marry an actress.

     There is very little information about the empress. Most of the information we have of Empress Theodora comes from Procopius, who is biased against Theodora and greatly disliked her. However, the author has made a great attempt to write a full biography of her. This author focused on Theodora's rise to become an empress and as a brave, intellectual ruler. For it was her advice that Justinian listened to and followed, when there was a revolt in Constantinople. The author also focused on her contributions to help women’s rights, for example women can divorce and own land. It also showed Empress Theodora as a woman who was deeply religious and pious. 

     Overall, this book portrays Empress Theodora as a complex but intriguing figure in history. She is shown as a woman that had made great contributions to women’s rights in her empire. She is also a woman that ruled equally with Justinian, and whom Justinian relied on as a partner and for inspiration. Therefore, I believe that Empress Theodora deserve great attention and study, for she is a woman of admirable accomplishments.

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

 

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