The Power Game in Byzantium by James Allan Evans is about a historical period of the Empire during the reign of Justinian (527-565). It describes how the city grew to be very Christian; where the sacraments of the Christian church imprinted a person’s life from birth to death, baptism, confirmation, confession, the Eucharist, marriage; and how holy unction marked the milestones of life (pg.15). The city’s churches offered daily services; festivals marked the chief events of Christ’s life, and where the Virgin Mary had her own cycle of festivals too (pg.16). Christian worship left little space for secularism; to be non-Christian was to be an outsider (pg.16). The Byzantine Empire was an autocracy, the emperor ruled as the vicegerent of God on earth (pg.91). The church was an economic powerhouse (pg.16); and men discussed the finer points of theology in the market place, for without theological correctness there could be no salvation (pg.17).
Women born into the lower ranks of society were able to play the power game as well as men by using political power to advance their interest, lead lives outside contemporary societal norms, and influence the workings of government (pg. xi). This was the case of Theodora and Antonina. Theodora’s story was a rags-to-riches; she was a survivor who rose from the dregs of society (she was an actress) to become an empress ascending to power and becoming a woman of influence. The patrician status was conferred to her, a status also held by Justinian (pg. 48). It was no secret that Theodora was not a proponent of the Chalcedonian Creed and of the Monophysite clergy. She emphasized pomp and circumstance; the trappings of despotism (pgs. 50 and 53); her monogram, and that of Justinian, appeared on the capital’s surmounting columns; became a grande dame; made donations to churches, monasteries, hospices (pg. 54); gave the Establishment a lesson in humility by forcing people to pay homage to her (pg. 55); help found churches, dethrone a pope (pg.11); alter the balance of power in marriage; defend women’s rights (pg. 59); gave refuge to victims (pg. 61); had her own network of informants (pg. 62); play matchmaker (pg. 64); closed Constantinople’s brothels (pg. 93) to stop prostitution, but when that did not work, rescued girls were sent to Metanoia, a convent for repentance (pg. 93); was known to be ruthless (pg.172); taught herself to read and write (pg. 208); and died from “crab” or cancer (pg. 198).
Antonina, thought to be one of Theodora’s agents (pg. 62), and Zosté Patrikia (pg.64), also belonged to the entertainment business; they ranked beneath the female mime players who performed on stage (p.12). These two women had a special bond (of influence), and it was Theodora who facilitated the meeting between Antonina and Belisarius (pg.64). They married, but later she would fall in love with Theodosius, her adopted step-son, and had an affair until Theodora forced the reconciliation with the husband (pg.156). She shoved a pope off his papal throne and installed another; was efficient, ruthless and untroubled by any religious scruples (pgs. 102 and 103); engineered the fall of John the Cappadocian which helped Theodora when Justinian felt sick during the bubonic plague (pg.163), accompanied Belisarius in different invasions (he held the title of Master of the Soldiers and was later appointed Count of the Stables); and helped further her husband's career and increase his wealth (pg.168). It is not known how she died, but the author suggested that it was probably of old age because the passage of time and human forgetfulness shrouded her final days in obscurity (pg. 210).
What are the lessons learned from The Power Game in Byzantium? The book is a magnificent journey into the power games in Byzantium; the interplay between religion, war, and politics; and the role of women in the making and remaking of society. The author is skilled in the use of historical and secondary data source analysis and utilizes important sources to illuminate the expansion and reconquest (of Italy, Rome, and parts of Africa), the supremacy of Constantinople, and the preference for Christianity. It is a masterful and brilliant work which this reviewer truly enjoyed.