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.

Back in her home town she took up with another rising political star, Justinian, the nephew and adopted son of the then emperor, Justin. This time the pair did marry, but only after Justin’s disapproving wife had died and the elderly emperor was persuaded to change the law to allow women who had left the theatrical profession and embraced an honourable life to petition the emperor for a status upgrade, enabling them to marry where they chose.

After Justinian succeeded to his uncle’s throne in 527, Theodora devoted much of her time to charitable deeds, repairing churches, building monasteries and tackling child prostitution. On one occasion she had the pimps arrested, interviewed them in person and offered to buy back the girls, whom she returned to their families with fresh clothes and a little cash. Later, she and Justinian expelled brothel-keepers from the city and established a hostel called Repentance for former sex-workers, who were also given a small stipend. This was unusual campaigning ground for a Roman empress, but as Potter points out, Theodora’s real innovation was to treat prostitution as a matter of social justice rather than personal morality, and to address the role economic inequality played in the adoption of that career. Her good works have led some to compare her with Eva Perón, another champion of the poor from a humble background, who acted her way up the socio-political ladder until she met and married, despite considerable opposition, the heir apparent.

But though Evita may have used Christian symbolism in the formation of her public image – the stories of Mary Magdalene and the Virgin Mary especially – she did not interfere in doctrinal matters. Theodora, on the other hand, took a great interest in Christian theology, particularly Christology, a contentious area at the time. Her husband supported the thesis put forward by the Council of Chalcedon in 451 (and still subscribed to by the Western and Eastern Orthodox Churches) that Christ has two natures, human and divine, and that he died on the cross as a human; Theodora was a dedicated Miaphysite and took the view that endures in the Syriac and Coptic Orthodox Churches that Christ has a single nature, which united human and divine. Her interest in the matter was not merely intellectual: she offered sanctuary to Miaphysite priests, monks and bishops, and supported their activities, and she seems to have been instrumental in the appointment of Miaphysites as patriarchs of Constantinople and Alexandria. She even sent a Miaphysite missionary to Sudan ahead of a Chalcedonian appointed by her husband.

It was not unusual for Roman emperors of this period to take a close interest in theological matters, but it was uncommon for the emperor and his wife to disagree publicly: their enemies saw their adoption of separate Christological positions as a strategy designed to prevent subjects of different doctrinal persuasions from uniting against them. Justinian and Theodora made a good team, with his skills in the fields of policy and law matched by her social and diplomatic talents. Theodora’s family also benefited from the partnership: her niece Sophia, Comito’s daughter, married the man who would succeed Justinian as Justin II. When Theodora died in 548 Justinian mourned her deeply, and though he lived another 17 years he never remarried.

On this much there is general agreement, and it is already more than we know about almost any other ancient woman. But a very different portrait of Theodora is sketched in one of the strangest texts surviving from antiquity, Procopius of Caesarea’s so-called Secret History. Procopius is the only ancient historian whose work we possess to have published an account of a living emperor’s reign. In the mid-520s he was personal secretary to Justinian’s greatest general, Belisarius, who reconquered the western Roman provinces and defended the eastern front against the Persians. Around 550 Procopius published the Wars, which recorded those campaigns and their political contexts at great length. The narrative is at times critical of Justinian and Belisarius, but there were parts of the story he couldn’t tell while they were alive and so he gathered the material he had left out in a second volume. Perhaps he intended to reveal its existence after they died, or perhaps, as Potter suggests, he wanted ‘something to show people if, as seemed possible, the widowed Justinian should suddenly be overthrown’. Procopius seems to have died before the emperor, however, and the work was never formally published. The first mentions of it occur only in the tenth century, when it was referred to as the Anecdota, or unpublished writings. Remarkably, the complete text survived in a manuscript that ended up in the Vatican library, where the archivist Niccolò Alamanni discovered it by chance in 1623.

Alamanni’s publication of what he called the Secret History, more than a millennium after its composition, caused a sensation. The distinctive prose style confirmed Procopius’ authorship, but the work was very different from the Wars: it is a vicious attack on Belisarius, his wife, Antonina (another actress), her friend Theodora and Justinian himself. All four are accused of outlandish crimes, and the women of outrageous sexual licence, but it is Theodora who comes off worst.

The most notorious chapter was discreetly omitted from Alemanni’s original publication, and is about Theodora’s youth. As a child, we learn, she not only entered the theatrical profession but became a prostitute. Even when she was too young to accommodate men in what Procopius considers the normal fashion, she apparently offered them anal sex, and catered to slaves as willingly as their masters. Her stage performances were also unusual: one involved the teenage Theodora lying down dressed only in a regulation undergarment (probably rather more scanty than the ‘shorts and a sports bra’ in which Potter courteously clothes her), attendants scattering barleycorn about her private parts, and a pack of trained geese pecking it off.

These youthful indiscretions are as nothing compared to her conduct as empress: according to Procopius she destroyed the political and religious classes with a combination of spells, spies and secret dungeons. Turning her powers of invention from sex to torture, she forced one man to stand for four months on the edge of an animal trough in a windowless dungeon with his neck in a noose, eating, sleeping and defecating in that position, until he went mad and was released to die. She fabricated charges against her enemies, often of sodomy rather than slander so that they would be castrated. She aggressively arranged marriages among the city’s upper classes, and arbitrarily cancelled them, on one occasion while the bride and groom were in their wedding chamber. Even her supposed good deeds went wrong: the prostitutes in her hostel were desperate to escape and return to their chosen profession, some throwing themselves from the walls in distress.

Potter must be right to dismiss much of the Secret History as ‘old gossip’, but episodes like Theodora’s stage act with the geese seem too public to be entirely fictional, and in a few cases more sober sources corroborate Procopius’ account: even Theodora’s fellow Miaphysite John of Ephesus said that she came ‘from the brothel’ (porneion), and Potter’s argument that the word could have referred simply to her past as an actress is too generous. There are other things Procopius could not possibly have known, and some he simply made up, though he does admit that his figure of 10,000 x 10,000 x 10,000 deaths at Justinian’s hands is only a ‘rough estimate’. At times he distances himself from particularly outlandish claims, such as the assertion that visitors to the palace saw the emperor transform into a demon – his head would disappear, apparently, or turn into shapeless flesh – but he does hold the pair’s destructive tendencies responsible even for the natural disasters that befell their realm.

Like all good biographers, Potter uses Theodora’s life to shine a light on her times. Whether or not we dismiss Procopius’ salacious stories as misogynist rhetoric, the positive facts associated with Theodora reveal the imperial regime’s surprising interest in social relations, a new religion and the role and rights of women. It was in Justinian’s reign, for instance, that women were first allowed to divorce on the grounds of their husband’s adultery. Even when laws were passed to benefit particular people, such as the one that allowed Theodora to marry Justinian, they made space for further progress. Potter paints an evocative picture of a world in flux, where emperors could start life as soldiers, farmers or accountants, and where merit, beauty and piety could get you political power and great wealth. He also introduces us to some other eminent personalities of the period, including Porphyrius, an enormous sperm whale that patrolled the Bosphorus for decades, terrorising sailors and sinking boats.

The book is marred by typographical errors, factual inaccuracies (Apamea is not modern Aleppo, which is almost a hundred miles away) and inadequate maps, but its only real weakness is the amount of speculation involved. Much of it is harmless. What did Theodora eat? Did she come from a loving family? How often did she have sex with her husband? We simply don’t know, and it is not entirely clear why we should care. But Potter also accepts too readily one of the accusations made against Theodora by Procopius – that she presided over every branch of the state, appointing magistrates, judges and priests.

Procopius had good reason to make these claims: by accusing Justinian of turning important state business over to his wife he undermined the emperor’s competence. But his claims have been treated as scholarly fact for far too long: as early as the 1780s Edward Gibbon declared that ‘in the exercise of supreme power, the first act of Justinian was to divide it with the woman whom he loved, the famous Theodora, whose strange elevation cannot be applauded as the triumph of female virtue.’

Theodora’s opinion no doubt mattered to her husband, and she does seem to have exchanged letters with kings as well as bishops; there may even be some truth in the story published in the Wars that she persuaded her husband to remain in the city in the face of mass riots in 532. But Justinian also made plenty of decisions and appointments against her wishes, there is very little real evidence for power-sharing, and it isn’t likely that she was much involved in the drafting of laws. Justinian advertised the fact that he had consulted with her over a law banning the purchase of high office, but if she had been regularly involved why did he mention her just once? Or if her involvement was supposed to be a secret, why mention her at all?

Strong women were common enough in the Byzantine empire, they just weren’t often discussed. Pulcheria, the sister of Theodosius II, became his regent at the age of 15 and chose and then married his successor when he died; when the Emperor Zeno died his wife, Ariadne, appointed his successor after consultation with the people in the hippodrome, then married him; Theodora’s own niece, Sophia, acted as regent to her husband during his regular episodes of insanity. But without any independent basis for power, Theodora herself was not, as Potter describes her, ‘a ruler in her own right’. One of the best pieces of evidence for her comparative lack of political importance is the almost complete absence of contemporary images of her. Pulcheria, Ariadne and Sophia all appeared on imperial coinage, and as Potter himself notes, ‘images helped reinforce the notion that an empress was a powerful figure’ – but only a single portrait of Theodora survives from her lifetime.