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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Theodosian Empresses, 20 Jan 2014
By 
Keen Reader "lhendry4" (Auckland, New Zealand) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Theodosian Empresses: Women and Imperial Dominion in Late Antiquity. (Paperback)
This book was recommended to me by another reviewer (thanks E L Wisty).

The book grew from the author's PHD dissertation. The thesis largely is that the emperors from Theodosius the Great onwards deliberately and forcefully used women as part of their deliberate dynastic strategy to enforce their rule on the Empire (generally the Eastern part of the Empire where they were more often in command). The author contends that Theodosius' daughter-in-law Aeliea Flaccilla, granddaughter Aelia Eudoxia, great-granddaughter Aelia Pulcheria and great-granddaughter-in-law Aelia Eudocia claimed, and were entitled to a share in the emperor's sovereignty, and that they did not fail to use that power. That power, says the author was combined with piety (utilising the growth of the Nicene creed of Christianity throughout the Eastern Empire and the increasing push to eliminate paganism) to promote a unique kind of imperialistic rule.

I'm glad I found the (simplified) genealogical table of the Theodosian House tucked away on page 133 before I got into the book, as it did make referencing easier while reading. I always think genealogical tables offer a good visual imagery for the reader, and make it more evident why actions may sometimes have taken place - for the participants in historical episodes, their relationships were present on a daily basis, so for the reader at this remove to have those visually presented often assists in a deeper level of understanding of motives and contexts.

The author cites the writings of such as Gregory of Nyssa, and the use of the imperial women on coinage to bolster his argument. Augustus referred to his wife Livia as Augusta, and Caligula had his sisters commemorated on coinage, but I'm quite sure neither Emperor really considered those women to be co-equal with them as imperial rulers or `holders of the sceptre'. Marriages were part of dynastic strategy, such as the marriage of Theodosius I to Galla in 387, but that had always been the case.

It seems to me that the key point really that the author should have noted is not so much that women in the Theodosian lineage (by blood or marriage) were exalted to basilissa status, but that the Church saw them as an opportunity to ensure the success throughout the Empire of the Nicene creed. Writers such as Gregory of Nyssa were able to write approvingly of the humility, piety, the tapeinophrosynē (a specific virtue) of the women who brought the dynasty closer to the everyday people. The women may have been a link between the imperial line and the people, not so much as a result of being exalted to the status of a co-equal ruler with the Emperor, but rather as a symbol of the Emperor's desire to be at one religiously and culturally with his people, evidenced through the piety of the imperial women. This can be seen for example in the relationship between Aelia Eudoxia and John Crysostom, and their struggle for supremacy in the eyes of the people of Constantinople - church or the house of Theodosius. The common link was not the power demonstrated by the rank of the women, but unity of religion, which bolstered the imperial house in the culture of the East and reinforced its hold on its people.

This is a good book, and definitely well worth reading, but like E L Wisty I don't wholeheartedly agree with the author's main thesis. However, any book that gets you thinking about core and broader ideas in history is, in my opinion, a worthwhile read.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An interesting account about four Theodosian empresses, 19 Mar 2013
By 
Torben Retboll (Thailand) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Theodosian Empresses: Women and Imperial Dominion in Late Antiquity. (Paperback)
Kenneth G. Holum is Professor of History at the University of Maryland. His book about the four Theodosian empresses was published in 1982 (hardcover). A paperback version appeared in 1989. The main text is divided into seven chapters.

At the end of the book we have a bibliography and an index. References to ancient sources and modern works are given in footnotes (not endnotes).

There are 19 illustrations, 12 of which are coins. Every coin has two sides: obverse and reverse. In this book both sides are shown. When there are 12 coins, it means there are 24 pictures. There is also a statue of an Augusta, a statuette of an Augusta, and a portrait of an Augusta. The portrait is seen from four different angles.

In addition, we have a plan of Constantinople and a genealogical table (a family tree). Finally, we have a detail of a large silver disc discovered in Spain (known as the Missorium of Theodosius) and a small ivory panel, known as the Translation of Relics Ivory from Trier.

The illustrations are well-chosen, but unfortunately they are only in black-and-white. It is a shame. If you are going to look at a picture of gold coin, you can see so much more if the picture is in colour.

Holum likes to show off his considerable erudition: in the (sometimes very extensive) footnotes he quotes from French and German scholars in the original language. Greek and Latin sources are also quoted in the original language. Why? I think the reason is that this book began its life as a Ph.D. dissertation for the University of Chicago.

Eventually, the dissertation was turned into a published book, but it seems that many of the original footnotes were kept intact. In the main text, however, Greek and Latin quotes are usually translated into English. Three of the seven chapters are divided into three sections by two subheadings. In this way they are more reader-friendly. But four chapters do not have any subheadings. This is old-style writing and publishing: each time there are about 30 pages without a single break!

In this book the focus is on four Theodosian empresses: Flacilla, Eudoxia, Pulcheria, and Eudocia, who reigned in the east. Each empress gets one chapter. As Holum says on page 3, "These were indeed a colorful lot, and their careers merit detailed investigation."

While I agree, I would like to ask: what about Galla Placidia? She was also a Theodosian empress, although she was from the west. She had a dramatic and turbulent life, but in this book she is only mentioned in passing. She does not get her own chapter, as the other four empresses do. This is a shame.

[See Hagith Sivan, Galla Placidia: The Last Roman Empress, 2011.]

Holum's account is based on a hypothesis: the Theodosian empresses were not only part of the imperial family, they ruled the empire. Holum thinks his hypothesis is confirmed: "Ultimately, these women did achieve authentic imperial dominion" (page 3).

I do not agree. Instead of a hypothesis, it might be more useful to ask some questions: (1) Were the Theodosian empresses part of the imperial power structure? (2) Were they sometimes able to get their way? (3) Did they rule the empire?

While the answer to question 1 and 2 is yes, the answer to question 3 is no, and Holum himself provides the evidence: when an empress was able to get her way, there was usually some kind of trick involved, such as the episode in 402 when an infant emperor (Theodosius II) granted a petition (page 55). His father Arcadius later accepted the decision because "the lady empress nagged him incessantly."

Chapter V is about Nestorius, who was bishop of Constantinople 428-431, and the church council in Ephesus in 431. Nestorius managed to offend almost every social class in Constantinople and to insult the empress Pulcheria. In order to solve the conflict the emperor called a church council in Ephesus. If you think this was about theological interpretations, think again. If you think Christianity at the time was about respect for others and tolerance for the ideas of others, think again.

The important players arrived with a large group of followers who tried to intimidate their opponents. The council was a farce: one council reached one decision. Then a counter-council reached the opposite decision. Since the bishops could not agree, the emperor would have to decide. He had hired Nestorius in 428, and he stood by him all the way, but in 431 he realised that he had to go. According to Holum, this is proof of his hypothesis (page 147): "Remarkably, Pulcheria defeated both the bishop and her brother the emperor." The phrase "Pulcheria's victory at Ephesus" is used twice (pp. 175, 179).

I do not agree. We have to ask some questions here: why did this happen? Was it because of something she did? Or because of something someone else did? As Holum himself shows, many other elements wanted the same outcome as she did. We cannot know how much or even if Pulcheria contributed to the downfall of Nestorius. He might have been fired even if Pulcheria never said a word about him and never did a thing to oppose him. While Holum believes this episode shows that Pulcheria exercised real power, I think it is a case of wishful thinking.

Holum has written an interesting book about the four Theodosian empresses who reigned in the east. But he forgot one Theodosian empress who reigned in the west, and the structure of the book - seven long chapters with very few subheadings - is a bit old-fashioned. Sometimes the going gets a bit tough. Moreover, the illustrations are only in black-and-white, and in spite of what the author claims, his hypothesis is not confirmed.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The nature of female basileia, 8 Jan 2013
By 
E. L. Wisty "World Domination League" (Devon, UK) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Theodosian Empresses: Women and Imperial Dominion in Late Antiquity. (Paperback)
The author Kenneth Holum begins with a preface recounting the well known incident of Justa Grata Honoria sending a plea accompanied by her ring to Attila. This has attracted the attentions of many modern revisionists, to the effect that since a) Honoria was a woman and b) the histories were written by men, said histories must therefore be a) sexist and b) wrong.

Attila in return sent a demand to emperor Valentinian III that he restore Honoria's "sceptre of empire", to which certain unnamed "men of the court" retorted that "rule of the empire does not belong to women". Holum sets out a grandiose assertion that he will demonstrate that in this period imperial women possessed equal authority to men, and that the reply of the men of the court was incorrect.

Frankly I don't think that he proves such a claim - 'demonstrating' the contention of the women possessing equality of power with the men largely revolves around depiction of the women in coinage and statuary, plus the odd inscription - but this work is however a fascinating insight into the authority wielded by certain women of the Theodosian dynasty, mainly concentrating on Eudoxia wife of Arcadius, Pulcheria daughter of Eudoxia and sister of Theodosius II and Eudocia wife of Theodosius II, all of whom held the title of Augusta.

Holum does provide several new insights. The commitment of Pulcheria and her sisters to virginity is seen by him not as an expression of Christian virtue but an explicit political stratagem to strengthen the power of the Theodosian dynasty by preventing outside influence by marriage into the family. He also dismisses the usual story repeated by so many regarding the background to the marriage of the pagan Athanais, renamed Eudocia on baptism, to Theodosius II, with a compelling argument that this was a counter-stratagem arranged by certain nobles to oppose Pulcheria and exert influence upon the emperor.

Holum's writing style is very readable and entertaining, if perhaps a little too eager to show off his erudition (plenty of unnecessary Latin and Greek quotes, plus his frequent, untranslated, quotes from French and German secondary sources in the footnotes). This is a valuable and recommended book on imperial power, particularly that of the women, in the late 4th and first half of the fifth century, even if it doesn't quite fulfil the initial claims.
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