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Theodora: Actress, Empress, Saint (Women in Antiquity) by David Potter: A Book Review

Theodora: Actress, Empress, Saint (Women in Antiquity)
Author: David Potter
Genre: Nonfiction, Biography, History
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Release Date: November 4, 2015
Pages: 288
Source: Publisher/Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.
Synopsis: Two of the most famous mosaics from the ancient world, in the church of San Vitale in Ravenna, depict the sixth-century emperor Justinian and, on the wall facing him, his wife, Theodora (497-548). This majestic portrait gives no inkling of Theodora's very humble beginnings or her improbable rise to fame and power. Raised in a family of circus performers near Constantinople's Hippodrome, she abandoned a successful acting career in her late teens to follow a lover whom she was legally forbidden to marry. When he left her, she was a single mother who built a new life for herself as a secret agent, in which role she met the heir to the throne. To the shock of the ruling elite, the two were married, and when Justinian assumed power in 527, they ruled the Eastern Roman Empire together. 

     Their reign was the most celebrated in Byzantine history, bringing wealth, prestige, and even Rome itself back to the Empire. Theodora was one of the dominant political figures of her era, helping shape imperial foreign and domestic policy and twice saving her husband from threatened deposition. She played a central role trying to solve the religious disputes of her era and proactively assisted women who were being trafficked. An extraordinarily able politician, she excited admiration and hatred from those around her. Enemies wrote extensively and imaginatively about her presumed early career as a prostitute, while supporters elevated her, quite literally, to sainthood.

     Theodora's is a tale of a woman of exceptional talent who overcame immense obstacles to achieve incredible power, which she exercised without ever forgetting where she had come from. In Theodora: Actress, Empress, Saint, David Potter penetrates the highly biased accounts of her found in the writings of her contemporaries and takes advantage of the latest research on early Byzantium to craft a modern, well-rounded, and engaging narrative of Theodora's life. This fascinating portrait will intrigue all readers with an interest in ancient and women's history.

     My Review: Empress Theodora was one of the most powerful women in the Byzantine Empire. However, history has not been favourable to her because she has garnered much negative criticism because of Procopius, a writer writing works about his times. Procopius is the only primary source about Theodora. In this biography of Theodora, the biographer sheds some light on his subject focusing on her positive aspects. While she does have some faults, Empress Theodora did have some accomplishments.

     Empress Theodora is a remarkable woman. Unlike many royalty in her day, she actually had to work herself up the ropes to become Empress. She was the daughter of a bear trainer and she became an actress. However, it was because she was of lowly birth that she was able to emphasize with the lower social class. She made many friends who were of her social status, and when she became empress she helped them. She also helped many women in the lower social class.

     Theodora was loyal to all those around her. It was her loyalty to her husband Justinian that they worked together to rule their empire. While both of them had completely different personalities and disagreed on different issues, they still had deep respect for one another. While their relationship was not based on romantic love, they still loved each other intellectually as equals. Together they helped make decisions in their empire and would often listen to each other’s viewpoints on issues.

     Overall, this was a very compelling biography about Empress Theodora. It is clear that the biographer admires his subject because he chooses to highlight her accomplishments. In a man’s world, Theodora was tough and hardworking. She, not Justinian, who wanted to run away, saved her throne. I also thought that the author does a good job in portraying the politics and the social aspects of the time. This biography is very engaging and comprehensive, and I liked how the author shows us how Theodora is portrayed in popular culture. This is a good portrait to those who want to see Empress Theodora in a positive light. This biography is an excellent tribute to a powerful empress who rose from humble beginnings to become one of the most powerful women of her age.

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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