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The Empress Theodora

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The Empress Theodora - Partner of Justinian By James Allan Evans. (University of Texas Press, Austin: 2002. Pg. xvi, 146. B & W Photos, Maps.) ISBN: 0-292-70270-1.

Reviewed by Rochelle Caviness - May 12, 2004

The Empress Theodora has a much maligned history. The only thing that many non-historians know about the Empress was that she was probably a harlot in her youth, and that she married an emperor. Too few know about her achievements, and the role that she played in shaping Byzantine society. In The Empress Theodora - Partner of Justinian James Allan Evans has written a forceful biography of one of the most powerful women to have emerged from the classical period.

Theodora was born in Constantinople to a lower class family. She began working on stage at a young age. She escaped from the live of an actress by becoming the mistress of a rising politician who took her to Africa where he was serving as governor of Libyan Pentapolis. When he tired of her, she made her way to Alexandria, where it is believed that she converted to Christianity. Later she was recruited as a spy for Justinian, which may be how they met. At the time of their meeting, Justinian was already middle-aged, but not yet an emperor. Theodora became his concubine, and later his wife. From the beginning of their relationship, Theodora used her power to influence political decisions, protect her fellow churchman, and to begin to improve the lot of lower class women.

In this monumental work, Evans explores Theodora's early life, and the reasons that she was maligned by many early historians. The bulk of this book, however, is devoted to her life after becoming empress. He explores what her life at court was like, the problems she had dealing with the wealthy members of Constantinople society who never forgot that she used to be an actress, and he shows how she was able to influence the course of Byzantine politics. Also detailed is her involvement in the schism that erupted between the Chalcedonian and Monophysite churches (two Christian sects) and her ongoing efforts to improve the economic and social status of women. Especially those involved in the theater.

In telling Theodora's story, Evans also presents a compelling glimpse of everyday life in Constantinople during Theodora's lifetime (she died in 548, her date of birth is unknown.) During her lifetime, Constantinople was decimated by plague, disrupted by violent uprising, and experienced profound religious disagreements. Throughout, Theodora looms as a powerful and complex woman who was instrumental in shaping the scope and direction of Justinian's reign.

The Empress Theodora - Partner of Justinian presents a well-rounded and unforgettable look at Theodora's life, and the world she lived in. Her life was truly one from which stories are made. Her rise to power was extraordinary, and her innate intelligence allowed her to harness that power in order to introduce needed changes and to promote her own interests.

Authoritative and broad in scope, The Empress Theodora - Partner of Justinian paints an unforgettable picture of a truly fascinating and historically important woman. Well written, and engaging, this book will interest both general readers as well as scholars. It is perfect for use in both college-level women's studies and classical history courses. Endnotes and a detailed bibliography are included that will enable those, who so desire, to delve further into Theodora's life and Byzantine history, in general.

Related Reviews:

Women of Byzantium, by Carolyn L. Connor.
Connor offers a fascinating glimpse into the lives and history of Byzantine women from all walks of life, including empresses, monastic women, commoners, and artisans.

Late Antiquity: A Guide to the Postclassical World, Edited by G.W. Bowersock, Peter Brown, and Oleg Grabar.
Late Antiquity is both an encyclopedia and a book of essays. The text will act as a guide, opening new vistas and encouraging you to pursue further study into a unique period of time. It is also an unparalleled and valuable reference work.

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