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I n September , in a near-empty church in Ravenna, in north-east Italy, I found myself in front of a vibrant, 1,year-old mosaic of a woman in purple.
She had a halo, her own courtiers, and was taking up an enormous space beside a mosaic of Christ. I knew she had to matter. At the gift shop, I bought the booklet about her, which took five minutes to read.
The woman was the empress Theodora and although I had never seen her before, she has come to dominate my working life. Theodora lived in an era of huge changes in the church, language and statehood.
What had been Roman was about to become Byzantine , and the eastern regions around Syria, the Levant and Egypt were clamouring to use their own languages, hinting at self-determination.
Just 20 years after Theodora's death the Prophet Muhammad would be born. Despite the huge amount of history written about the period, Theodora was largely overlooked. In Procopius's Secret History , which current studies believe was written not long after her death in , she is a kind of Mrs Machiavelli. He calls her "Theodora-from-the-Brothel", lasciviously details her antics on stage — from allowing geese to peck grain from her lower torso, to dancing naked but for a ribbon — and has her saying she regrets God gave her only three orifices for pleasure.