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Reviewed: The Colour of Power by Marié Heese, Human & Rousseau

The Colour of PowerVisiting the Roman ruins of Glanum near the town of St Rémy in Provence last year, I was struck by how sophisticated the city had been in 300 AD.

An aqueduct had been built to channel mountain water to the settlement to power grain mills, the remains of hot and cold baths and advanced sewerage was evident, all ringed with soaring, beautifully carved pillars and arches. There are ruined fountains, courtyards and the stone slabs of temples. Of course, the site is plain and bare now but one could imagine a thriving, civilised community.

In her book The Colour of Power Heese fills in the mosaic of Roman life with vivid shades. It is the story of Theodora, Empress of Byzantium, who ruled with her husband Justinian in Constantinople far to the east of Provence in 600 AD. Their empire was vast, stretching from Greece and Turkey down through Syria, Palestine, Egypt and along the north African coast. Theodora herself was Syrian-born but moved to Constantinople (now Istanbul) with her family.

It is depressing to be reminded that throughout history women have relied on beauty, sexual favours and scheming to advance, and Theodora was no different. The daughter of an actress and a poor bear-keeper, she was blessed with exquisite looks and became an actress and high-class prostitute before luring the Emperor Justinian to the altar.

Heese recreates her life sympathetically and this ancient world comes alive with detail. Heart-stopping chariot races, jewels of jade and pearl, court gossip and military strategy all combine in an irresistible toga-ripping tale.

The historical jury still seems to be out on whether Theodora was a wise and adored matriarch or an insatiable nymphomaniac. In Heese’s hands she is an intriguing, living figure and the world she ruled over as corrupt and dangerous as, well, as it is in that region today. Plus ça change, as they say.

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