Legacies of a Powerful Woman: The Life and Afterlife of Empress Theodora

Semester: 

Spring

Offered: 

2023

Alexander Riehle (Department of the Classics)
Freshman Seminar 64W         4 credits (spring term) Enrollment:  Limited to 12

One of the most controversial women of ancient and medieval history is Theodora, wife of Justinian I and empress of the Roman Empire in the 6th century CE. She has been variously portrayed as a hypersexual prostitute and power-hungry, vindictive manipulator, or as a saint, protectress of the needy, champion of women’s rights and revolutionary. Who was this woman really and why did she provoke such conflicting responses? In this seminar, we will explore the historical sources on Theodora’s life and especially the rich and colorful afterlife she enjoyed throughout the ages up to the present, with a particular focus on her reception in popular culture and the arts. We will read historical accounts and present-day fiction, examine ancient and modern artwork, watch film and listen to music. On this basis, we will discuss how Theodora has been used to project a variety of different ideas about women, gender and sexuality. The seminar will feature visits to the Harvard Art Museums and Houghton Library for hands-on explorations of ancient material artifacts and medieval manuscripts.

Prerequisites: The only prerequisite for this seminar is a general interest in history and culture. All required readings are in English.

See also: Spring 2023