Goose Girl

Josephine Quinn

  • Theodora: Actress, Empress, Saint by David Potter
    Oxford, 277 pp, £17.99, January 2016, ISBN 978 0 19 974076 5

One problem with writing about the lives of Greek and Roman women is that the Greek and Roman men who wrote about them first tended to be more interested in writing about other men. As a result, famous ancient women are usually famous because they had more famous male relatives. The protagonists of the ten books so far published in Oxford University Press’s series on ‘Women in Antiquity’ include a bishop’s mother (Monica), a tribune’s sister (Clodia Metelli), an emperor’s mother-in-law (Faustina I), a king’s daughter (Arsinoe) and, with some double counting, no fewer than eight politicians’ wives. Galla Placidia, the last empress of the western Roman Empire, was the daughter of one emperor, mother of another, aunt of a third, sister of two more and married not only an emperor, but before him the king of the Goths.

There are a few exceptional cases of women who stood out for their own achievements, and whose lives are relatively well recorded. In this series they include the Greek philosopher Hypatia, the Egyptian queen Cleopatra, and an anonymous Roman aristocrat known to us as ‘Turia’, whose bravery defending her family during the Civil Wars that ended the Roman Republic was recorded in a funeral speech given by her husband and inscribed on her tombstone.

Theodora and attendants, from a sixth-century mosaic in the Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna
Theodora and attendants, from a sixth-century mosaic in the Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna

David Potter’s contribution to the series is a life of the sixth-century Byzantine empress Theodora, the wife of Justinian, who ruled the eastern Roman provinces from Constantinople for almost forty years. Justinian had been a soldier from Illyrian peasant stock, but from the imperial throne he codified Roman law, built the great church of Hagia Sophia and briefly reunited the old Roman Empire by seizing Africa and Italy from the Vandals and Ostrogoths. He was also an unelected dictator who abolished the republican institution of the consulship, relabelled Roman citizens his ‘subjects’, and had thirty thousand of his opponents slaughtered in Constantinople’s hippodrome. Theodora’s life story is at least as remarkable as her husband’s, and her reputation just as mixed.

She was born around 495 ce in Constantinople, where social and political life revolved around the rival chariot racing teams, the Greens and the Blues. Her father was the bear-keeper, or ursarius, of the Greens; and when he died, her mother, a theatre performer, married again and got her husband the same job for the Blues. The ursarius was probably in charge of all the animals and beast-fighting for his faction; it was a prestigious and well-paid position. Theodora was able to get an unusually good education, and she remained a voracious reader, though she was apparently long-sighted and needed texts recopied in large letters. As Potter points out, the ability to read might have been helpful to Theodora and her elder sister, Comito, when they entered showbusiness themselves – Comito as a singer and Theodora as a comic actress.

Acting could be a lucrative career too: fifth-century Egyptian records show that performers could be paid more than six times as much as daily labourers. By her mid-twenties Theodora had lived in all the great imperial capitals of the East. She accompanied a wealthy lover called Hecebolus to his posting as governor of Cyrenaica (imperial officials were not permitted to marry actresses or other disreputable sorts). According to Potter’s plausible timeline she had a daughter with Hecebolus before the relationship ended, at which point she returned to Constantinople via the Egyptian capital of Alexandria and Syrian Antioch.

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