David Potter’s Theodora: Actress, Empress, Saint is a mesmerizing biography of one of history’s most influential, and most wrongfully-maligned, women leaders. Much of the previous scholarship on Theodora relied on the works of her contemporaries, who were often more inspired by personal and political vendettas than truth. Potter’s research moves pass the direct works of her contemporaries and takes advantage of a great deal of new scholarship on the Byzantine Empire. The end result is a rich, detailed, and nuanced look at the Empress.
Potter work shines a light on how Theodora established her influence and used it to enact progressive reforms, particularly for women. It is under Theodora and Justinian’s reign that women are truly first seen as full citizens deserving of rights and not just the property of their fathers or husbands. The many religious and civil reforms established were revolutionary in the time period.
Like many historical works, Theodora does assume some baseline knowledge about the region from the reader. However, Potter does a fine job of articulating complex points in an approachable manner. Even if a reader only has a casual interest in ancient history, there are very few points in the book where one would be lost. Overall, Theodora is a wonderful addition to our collective knowledge of both the time period and the amazing woman who influenced it.
Reviewer Note: Review copy obtained through NetGalley