Cultural, Linguistic and Literary Approaches to Narratives of Femininity
Edited By Tiina Mäntymäki, Marinella Rodi-Risberg and Anna Foka
Beyond Deviant: Theodora as the Other in Byzantine Imperial Historiography
← 28 | 29 → Anna Foka
This chapter focuses upon the depiction of Theodora in Procopius’ Secret History as a sexually deviant young performer and her actions of cruelty and violence in her political and social career as an Empress. Immense sexuality and cruelty in her contemporary context was constructed as different modalities of the same deviant example. I will show how the paradigm of Theodora, in Secret History, can be read as both making visible coercive social, political and religious power structures as well as disenfranchising femininity in early Byzantium.
In the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna, a church that is most famous for its wealth of Byzantine mosaics (Bustacchini, 1988: 26), there are two powerful images dating from the sixth century CE: the depiction of Emperor Justinian I and his wife Theodora. The two figures are placed in separate mosaics, in a form sometimes referred to as ‘rhythmical composition’; they are arranged in a symmetrical manner where Emperor and Empress stand respectively amongst military and religious officials, and women of the court, thus embodying political and religious power. These mosaics have often been cited as conveying the spirit of Byzantium (Treadgold, 1997: 708–23 and 1998). Contemporary historians have left us a contradictory set of impressions about the imperial couple. The rulers were described as on the one hand, deeply religious and known throughout history for their acute political, religious and military ambitions (Cameron, 2006: 721; Maas, 2005). On the other hand,...
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