Empress Theodora, Who Transformed the World

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Empress Theodora; mosaic from the Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy, sixth century

In the year 500 CE, the Roman Empire was still alive and strong in its eastern territories. It spanned the Balkans, the eastern Mediterranean, and the Middle East. It was almost as large as the Ottoman Empire at the height of its power. At Constantinople (later the Turkish Istanbul), under the rule of the emperor Anastasius, the extremes of north and south, east and west met. Blue-blooded remnants of the Western Roman ancien régime—men and women who had known the great philosopher-senator Boethius—would have stood in the throne room of the imperial palace beside wild Syrian hermits from the eastern frontiers. The war whoops and garbled Latin of the “Gothic dance” performed in the Hippodrome were a reminder of a world whose contacts stretched to the north as far as Finland and Scandinavia. At the same time, the emperor and his advisers peered southward to the equator, as would the Ottoman sultans in the last days of their own empire.

Above all, this empire was in the grip of social, cultural, and religious transformations that had changed the ancient structures of the Roman state from the bottom up. Much as the somewhat prim, post-British India of the 1950s has given way to the India of Bangalore and Bollywood, but also to the sinister massing, along its margins, of fanatical religious parties, so had the venerable institutions associated with the surviving Roman Empire begun to waver and to take on strange new shapes.

This is the age to which David Potter introduces us in his biography of the empress Theodora (who died in 548) and of her equally remarkable consort, the emperor Justinian (who reigned from 527 to 565). He has placed the story of this odd couple firmly against the background of the great, roiling empire in which it took place. In recent decades, historians and archaeologists have collaborated with interpreters of the literature of the Christian East who are no longer content to read only in Greek and Latin, but who have reached out to rich fields in Syriac, Coptic, and Armenian. They have given us a new Byzantium—a wider, more concrete, and altogether more exciting view of the Roman Empire of the East in its last centuries. As the author of Constantine the Emperor (2013), a memorable study of power in action, Potter can be trusted to have brought the best out of this new scholarship.

He begins with a daring move. He abandons what used to be our principal source for the life of Theodora—the vicious account of the empress and the emperor in the Secret History of Procopius of Caesarea (who wrote in the 550s). He rightly dismisses this as no more than a collection of “nasty stories.”

It is some measure of the triviality that a purely classical tradition…

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