Theodora: Actress, Empress, Saint
David Potter
Oxford University Press
288pp, 25 illustrations
Hardback, £17.99

Byzantine studies have been leaping forward in the last 30 or 40 years. Most of the publications cited in this fascinating and attractively written book were published since the 1980s, and Professor David Potter of the University of Michigan is the ideal person to guide us through the huge amounts of new material. A scrupulous scholar, he lays his findings before us so that we, readers, become participants in the search, free to form our own conclusions, though he is the one who has done all the work.

The popular image of Theodora is the News of the World version: sex, vice, greed and power. But the truth, if we can discover it, may be very different. Finding out is a difficult undertaking because almost everything said about her at the time and, subsequently, was and is probably blatant lies or, at best, unreliable. Potter's method is to explore parallel contemporary events, to 'read between the lines' and to find fragments not fully erased, thereby to discover traces of what was originally there.

This involves not only sifting through documents of court officials, lawyers, military men, bishops, patriarchs, theologians, politicians, but also of social history. He keeps all this discreetly behind the scenes but one has the impression there is a lot. It is fascinating, for example, to learn how much has been discovered about prostitution and sex-workers in Late Antiquity. (Theodora wasn't one, by the way.)

The trick is to keep the story – the discovery of the real Theodora – moving forward while continually having to look aside into some drama or scandal between now forgotten people. The author fills us in as best he can with minimum necessary background though many, I think, will need to consult Google quite often. There is a useful five-page Dramatis Personae but I could have done with an imperial family tree. And the maps could have been much more generous, showing, for example, how the different heretical sects, Arians, Chalcedonians, anti-Chalcedonians, Nestorians and others were dispersed throughout the Empire; and also where the Goths, the Vandals and the Persians were located.

Theodora: Actress, Empress, Saint is certainly not just another book on one of history's more colourful ladies. It is an antidote, above all to Procopius and the image created by his Secret History, the scurrilous work that influenced Gibbon, Montesquieu, Sardou, Sarah Bernhardt, Diehl, Graves and others to whom this new material
was not readily available. Procopius appears as the villain, while Theodora has been his victim for 1500 years. Potter shows us a much more balanced picture although, despite his commendable objectivity, he can't conceal his irritation at the ancient historian's irresponsibility.

So, do we now have the true portrait? It is no criticism of the author if he hasn't drawn Theodora from the life – there just isn't the material for that– but he has succeeded in a more difficult task. Given that history has buried almost everything, and much of what survives is gross distortion, it is an amazing achievement that a convincing human picture emerges from the elements he uncovers and hands to us.

Theodora was talented, she was tough as hell, she was beautiful. She was loyal to her friends, her causes, her family and above all to Justinian, fanatically so. She was intelligent, unconventional and a tigress when she had to fight. She played for high stakes and never wavered when the costs seemed high. She held firm and sincere religious convictions, refusing to compromise even when the emperor held the opposite view. She was, and still is, fascinating. I don't think she was a saint but she was certainly a star.
Dr Richard Temple