THEODORA: ACTRESS, EMPRESS, SAINT by David Potter

David Potter, Theodora: Actress, Empress, Saint. Oxford University Press, 2015.

An excellently readable biography of sixth-century Byzantine empress Theodora, who began her life as the daughter of an actress and the bear-master of one of Byzantium’s factions, became an actress herself, bore a daughter out of wedlock to a wealthy man, left (or was abandoned) by him, somehow met Justinian, nephew of the then-emperor Justin, and married him – in order to do this, the law barring actresses from marrying respectable men had to be changed.

She and Justinian had no children, but she was one of the pillars of his reign, though they tended to be on opposite sides of the major theological-political question of their day (regarding the outcome of the council of Chalcedon and whether Jesus Christ had one (divine) nature or two (human and divine)). During the crisis of the Nike riots, she is reported as convincing Justinian to stay and fight rather than fleeing, saying “Power is a splendid shroud.”She predeceased him by more than a decade, but he never remarried.

Potter’s biography is lucidly clear and eminently readable. He does great work in tying the (complex) sources together into a plausible narrative of Theodora’s life and her personality. But I think more context for her later life (during the rest of Justinian’s reign before her death) would have been very useful: as it stands, the biography feels very much weighted towards her rise, rather than her reign.