Disclaimer: ARC via Netgalley.
I first heard of Theodora when I was trying to find out information about Eastern Empresses after watching a mini-series about Charlemagne. She wasn’t the Empress I was looking for, but she sure sounded interesting. The problem with Theodora is that she is so far in the past that finding accurate sources about her is difficult. The most famous is The Secret History by Procopius, but to say the author has issues with women would be accurate.
So it is to David Potter’s credit that he is able to draw an interesting picture and to make Theodora alive as any good biography of a modern subject. Potter does draw upon Procopius but he is careful in his use of The Secret History and fully discusses its use as a source before moving into his biography.
It would be fair to say that one can only guess at Theodora’s motives for doing some of what she did, such as her shelter for other women actresses or prostitutes, but Potter does a good job of making his case by showcasing what life was like at the time. In many ways, this ability to paint a time and place with words and accurate historical detail, without making the book dry as old paper. Additionally, Potter is able to challenge Procopius’ portrait of Theodora without making the Empress into boring woman, unlike a biography of Lucrezia Borgia, which disproved the poisoning stories, but made Borgia into such a boring figure that I wished she had murdered someone. Potter shows that Theodora was not the Empress slut that Procopius suggests/claims, but also makes her more fascinating because of what she actually did.