Theodora, Empress of Byzantium

Unknown.jpegI’m really conflicted by this book.

On the one hand, how awesome to have a biography of a woman who was so influential in her time and who has continued to be so, intermittently, in art and so on for the last 1500 years! (I know there are other bios.)

On the other hand, Cesaretti has written what would be better described as a “biographical novel” than a strict biography. Partly this is due to necessity – there is little information about Theodora, and much of what we do have comes from a rather prejudiced source; Procopius appears to have despised her. So while I appreciated a lot of the work he did to put Theodora into context, there is a lot of fleshing out that I felt involved a wee bit too much license.

On the plus side, Cesaretti appears to have done a lot of research into what else was going on around the Byzantine empire, and does provide a lot of context for Theodora and her political and religious positions. Obviously this is a woman who cannot be understood without that context, especially around the question of Monophysite v Dyophysite (Christ having one or two natures, versions of which debate wracked the early Christian world for quite a while).

On the negative side, Cesaretti’s style sometimes really bugged me. I have no idea whether this is an artefact of translation, either of words or of Italian style, but I found his repetition of words and ideas unnecessary – it made me quite impatient.

Happily, the book itself is a quite lovely object. I have a hardback version and when I took the slip cover off I discovered the cover itself was white with the design shown above. It has a lovely map (at both the front and back – not sure why you’d repeat it) showing how far Theodora’s husband, the emperor Justinian, expanded the Byzantine empire, and it has quite a few pictures throughout, many of them specific to Theodor or Justinian.

Sadly, getting back to the Procopius issue, it felt like Cesaretti couldn’t quite figure out whether he mostly believed Procopius or not. While Cesaretti keeps pointing out how Procopius denigrates Theodora, especially around her sexuality and her lowly beginnings as an actress (coughprostitutecough, says Procopius), Cesaretti seems to accept the stories of her having sex with lots of men but tries to put a happier spin on it somehow. There’s not really a discussion about how maybe these stories were a way of undercutting her power (because how else to decry a powerful woman than to talk about her getting it on with dozens of men). Now maybe there is reason to think she was promiscuous… but Cesaretti doesn’t outline that case. He just tries to consider her sexuality in a broader context. Which, fine, maybe she really liked having sex. Whatever. But when the information about that is from someone with an axe to grind? Colour me dubious.

I’m not sad I read this book; I did read the whole thing. I think Theodora is an important woman to understand and my understanding of the Byzantine empire more generally is woeful (did you know they invaded Italy to try and take Rome back from the Goths? Me neither). But I probably wouldn’t recommend this to someone who didn’t have a fairly hefty dose of skepticism in their bones.

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