The Unknown Empress: Theodora As a Victim of Distorted Images

The Unknown Empress: Theodora As a Victim of Distorted Images

By Tuomo Lankila

Language and the Scientific Imagination : Proceedings of the 11th Conference of the International Society for the Study of European Ideas (ISSEI), 28 July – 2 August 2008 at the Language Centre, University of Helsinki, Finland

Introduction: Recently, an American movie director, caused consternation in Argentina calling Eva Perón a combination of prostitute and saint. Evita was of humble social origins, made a scandalous career in show business, became a mistress of a strong-willed officer about 20 years her senior. She promoted, as a partner in power, her own social, political and spiritual causes. Common people adored and hated this woman, elite resented her. Her untimely death from cancer in the full flower of her mature beauty gave an ultimate tragic touch to her legend, and signified the start of the decline for her husbands’ rule.

We could replace Evita’s name with that of the empress Theodora (ca. 497-548), the most famous woman of the Early Byzantine period, and all ingredients of the biography and legend would remain. Surprisingly, Theodora too is still capable of arousing a passionate controversy. We have had a long tradition of attempts to replace her historical image with an idealized, uncritical glossy picture or to denigrate her utterly. In this paper I will deal with the two most important and representative recent examples of these opposing tendencies. The first one originates outside the academic world and achieves importance from the high authority of its source. The other one is an ambitious study published by an American scholar a few years ago. These contributions are also diametrically opposed on their assessment of the work of the last great historian of antiquity, Procopius of Caesarea. Every debate about Theodora necessarily turns into discussion of Procopius for natural reason that he is our main source of information of the age of Theodora and her husband, emperor Justinian. We could even say that in the same way as Thucydides has created the Peloponnesian Wars as a historiographical construct for us, Procopius has created Justinian’s era.

Let us first try to set Procopius in context of the other sources of his time. Procopius has always baffled interpreters because it seems that he has three different images of Theodora, corresponding to each of his works, a book of panegyric (The Buildings), a book of history (The Wars), and a book of slander (The Anecdota or so called Secret History).

In the contemporary sources we have also glimpses of the self-image which Justinian’s regime tried to convey; for example explicit mentions of Theodora in legislation and in some other official settings. The most representative of these is perhaps the dedicatory inscription of the church of St. Sergius at Constantinople which celebrates “the God-crowned Theodora whose mind is adorned with piety, whose constant toil lies in unspairing efforts to nourish the destitute”. In addition there are also fragments of the diplomatic correspondence of the age which understandably enough, because of the nature of the genre, upheld a respectful image of the Empress.


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