- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 12, 2004

THEODORA: EMPRESS OF BYZANTIUM

By Paolo Cesaretti

Translated from the Italian by Rosanna M. Giammanco Frongia

Vendome, $27.50, 377 pages, illus.

Paolo Cesaretti is passionate about the woman who is the subject of his biography “Theodora: Empress of Byzantium” and there is every reason to understand why. As the wife of Justinian, the mighty ruler of the Byzantine empire from 527 to 548, Theodora was not born to royalty but came to it — if contemporary sources are to be believed — by way of her intellect, cunning and unrepentant sexuality.

Theodora was Justinian’s helpmate during a reign that included bloody battles, merciless slaughter, and religious persecution as well as visionary acts of reform and judiciousness. She is indisputably one of the most powerful women in history. Nevertheless, Theodora is an elusive figure, with her name often shrouded in opprobrium.

Now, Mr. Cesaretti, professor of Byzantine studies at the University of Chieti in Italy and a world-renowned expert on the Byzantine era, has taken up Theodora’s cause. Weaving his narrative along a chronological course, Mr. Cesaretti animates the details of his heroine’s life and times with a full-fledged assault on those who leveled the most scurrilous claims against her.

For Mr. Cesaretti, it was Procopius, the otherwise scrupulous ancient historian, who set an eternity of bad press in motion. In his book the “Secret History,” he crafted a dubious account of Theodora’s early life as the daughter of a bear trainer and an even more dubious account of what he perceived to be her “wanton” sexual behavior.

With regard to what Procopius wrote about Theodora’s sexuality, much was transparently ridiculous. Nevertheless, over the ages it came to be taken as fact and Mr. Cesaretti aims to show why this should not be so. He takes particular glee in dismantling Procopius’ most savage accounts of the young Theodora, particularly his report that she took part in 70 “couplings” per night.

Startling and salacious to the core, the passages from Procopius’ writings that Mr. Cesaretti quotes at length, especially in the early part of the biography, will make even the most jaded modern reader blush. Nor does Procopius escape the biographer’s wrath. On one occasion he is referred to as the “unfailing denigrator.” On another, he is called the “corrosive historian.”

But there is considerably more to this book than the rebuttal of the sensational and scandalous. Mr. Cesaretti’s exhaustive descriptions of Theodora’s life, beginning in Constantinople after her father’s death, her early years as an actress struggling with her sister against the demands of her imperious mother and onward through her first significant liaison with a powerful man, Hecebolus, make for fascinating reading.

At the point at which Justinian (Procopius called him “the Lord of the Demons”) enters her life, the narrative gains new gusto as it shifts from a woman wronged to a woman in charge, and throughout, it is enriched by Mr. Cesaretti’s lush prose. Rosanna M. Giammanco Frongia’s fluid and confident translation must share credit for the sensual portrait of Theodora and the panoramic landscape of sixth-century Byzantium that emerges here.

Mr. Cesaretti offers a particularly evocative portrait of Constantinople and maps the strategies in which Theodora took part in order to help Justinian secure for himself the rule over a “second Rome.” He powerfully depicts the battles that were raged against the Goths and Vandals and shows how an act of suppression turned deadly when 30,000 people were slaughtered in Constantinople’s stadium. Theodora’s hand is always present and it was she who protected Justinian from the Nika riots.

Mr. Cesaretti is also good at showing how Theodora has been perceived over time in books, paintings and plays. He writes that “Many controversial, mythical versions of Theodora’s character have appeared in modern times. There have been sentimental, lascivious, and cruel Theodoras created in turn by Edward Gibbon (1737-1794), Donatien-Alphonse-Francois de Sade (1740-1814), Victorien Sardou (1831-1908), Charles Diehl (1895-1985).

“Whether ancient or modern, the literary fables spring to life when they are read in their historical context, especiallly the history of the political, legislative, military, social, religious and cultural issues so important to Theodora and her contemporaries.”

Mr. Cesaretti goes on to note that the contradictory historical and literary sources offered by Procopius cannot stand without examination. Nor can Theodora be separated from the prejudices of the ages in which she was judged.

And he notes that “In the absence of solid data, literary myths have flourished: Syrian Monophysite legends, the various Western medieval versions, and that of Robert Graves in his Count Belisarius (1938).

“In the Byzantine Middle Ages there were numerous folk tales about a ‘house of Empress Theodora’ in Constantinople. In that house, people said, the reformed actress spent her days ‘spinning wool.’ It’s an evocative and edifying image, but the house belonged to another Empress Theodora, who lived in the ninth century.”

There is no doubt that Theodora’s more than modest beginnings could not have foreshadowed where her life would lead. It is also hard to gauge just how beautiful she was or how seductive she was. But there is no doubt that while she remains elusive, she continues to captivate.

In the book, Mr. Cesaretti tells readers that Theodora succeeded in catching the eye of Justinian, something she probably groomed herself to do, but the details of that first encounter are not entirely clear. Furthermore, in the very meeting that took place between the two who would remain husband and wife for the next 26 years, the biographer indulges in some invented diaologue and speculative scene-creating that he uses elsewhere in the book. It is perhaps the book’s weakest element.

The author is clearly at his best when he sticks to the concrete. His observations about the surpassing mosaic of the pair rendered by San Vitale of Ravenna illustrate this. He writes, “Others have suggested that the portrait in Ravenna depicts Theodora’s otherworldly destiny …” To the contrary, he notes that in it “she became a sacred icon.”

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