THE EMPRESS THEODORA by James Allan Evans (Review)

Acasius fathered three daughters, Comito, Theodora and Anastasia, but died before the eldest, Comito, reached the age of seven. His death need not have been a calamity if he had had a grown son to take up his vocation, for the post of bear keeper for the Greens would have passed to him, but as it was, the little family faced destitution.
For women such as Theodora and her sisters, the alternatives were the stage or the convent. They chose the stage, or, perhaps to be more accurate, their mother made the choice for them.
Comito soon became a star. Theodora made her stage debut as her sister’s attendant, dressed as a slave girl. Procopius, who is our only source for Theodora’s life as an actress, claims that even at this early age she submitted to the buggery of slaves who accompanied their masters to the theatre, but once she matured into a woman she became a prostitute. The mentality of the age assumed that all actresses were trollops, and even if Theodora had not sold her favors, it would have been taken for granted that she did. Yet there is no reason to think her an exception to the rule. She had nothing to sell except a lovely body, for she could neither dance nor play an instrument, and when she did make an attempt to entertain at banquets, the only act she could offer was a striptease … …

Theodora was Empress of Byzantium, of the East, of the Roman Empire while it was still an Empire, but she did not rule, as some other empresses did “when male power faltered“: her husband, Justinian was “one of the ablest emperors in Byzantine history,” and, “except for a few brief weeks when he caught the plague, he was in charge.” Yet her influence was so great that she could be said to have been making all the decisions that mattered to her. Was it, as Procopius of Caesarea claimed, purely sexual, that Theodora was a prostitute when Justinian, already a middle-aged man, married her, and “skilled at titillating” middle-aged men?

Procopius account of Theodora is biased and flawed. He was a mysogynist, he looked down on women, but he also looked down on people with lowly origins, and origins could not get much lowlier than Theodora’s. Nevertheless, her background does seem to have been more or less as he described it. Why else her programme of leglislation designed to protect actresses (the law as it had stood when she was an actress meant they were little more than slaves) and the conversion of a disused palace into a place of refuge for women who had escaped prostitution, lavishy endowed so that “none of its inmates would want to return to her old life or have to do so for financial reasons“? She can hardly be portrayed as a reformer of penitent whores, and this was more an act of defiance than piety. “Theodora knew what it was like; respectable women had once avoided her in the marketplace.” Now she never avoided anyone. Well-known prostitutes were among the companions she brought into the Emperor’s palace, and her most intimate friend, Antonina, had a background almost identical to her own. Antonina’s father and grandfather were circus charioteers, and her mother “one of the despised strippers who displayed their charms in theatre orchestras.” And Antonina had been – and remained – an agent first and foremost (of Theodora, of Belisarius) as had Theodora herself, in Egypt and in Antioch, before meeting Justinian: indeed, that is probably how she met him – and Antonina.

The author of this biography does us proud on Theodora’s background and personal life, but he is also concerned with politics, and politics then and there meant above all else, theology – the disputes about the person of Christ which raged throughout the East between the Chalcedonians and the Monophysites. Which view prevailed depended on the beliefs of the Emperor and the extent of the influence of Rome (which was uniformly pro-Chalcedonian). The differences between the two are clearly explained as are the reasons why Justinian supported the Chalcedonians – and Theodora the Monophysites. Clever politics (keeping everyone happy) or what they each sincerely believed? The author makes an interesting point about their backgrounds, one which had not previously occurred to me in this context:

The difference between them went back to their early beginnings. Justinian was born in a Latin-speaking enclave in the Balkans and as a boy learned to respect the authority of the pope and accept Rome’s right to define orthodoxy. An anathema from the pope was something to be feared. Not so Theodora. She spent her youth in the theatre, which monks and priests abominated and where they were sometimes ridiculed in return, and she was converted in Alexandria where Rome’s interdicts had little effect. She knew that if the split between the Monophysites and the Chalcedonians was to be mended, it could not be altogether on Rome’s terms, and she saw nothing wrong with compelling a pope to bend a little.

It was probably both then, clever politics and what they each believed. Though Theodora never reigned, she was quite capable of standing up to her husband – and replacing him when necessary as she did at two of the most difficult moments they faced together.

The first was during the Nika Revolt in 532, when Theodora faced down the revolutionaries while her husband was all for fleeing the capital. There is a whole chapter on this, a great chapter.

The second when the plague arrived in Europe in 542, “emptying villages except for a handful of survivors who were left to cope with the great mass of corpses […] Then the plague reached Constantinople …” Justinian fell ill. Theodora “provided what governmental direction there was,” knowing that when her husband died she was unlikely to survive the power struggle that would follow.

In the event, he survived her by seventeen years.

A great story. A great woman. After all, anyone a Catholic Cardinal compares unfavourably with Eve and Delilah and Herodias and the maidservant who tempted Peter must have something going for her: “but it is not enough to revile her with names of that sort,” the good cardinal, quoted by Evans, continues, “for she surpassed all human women in impiety. Rather let her take from the devils in Hell a designation such as that which mythology gives to the furies.” etc. etc.