Theodora: From humble beginnings to powerful empress who changed history
It is often said that ‘behind every great man is an even greater woman’. Justinian I was one of the most powerful emperors of the Byzantine Empire. During his reign, he sought to revive the empire’s past glory, and was rather successful, as much of the lands once under Western Roman rule, including Italy and North Africa, came under Byzantine control. Justinian’s greatness was not restricted to military matters alone, as he instituted important judicial reforms, and was responsible for the re-building of the famous Hagia Sophia (the previous structure having been burnt to the ground during the Nika Riot in 532 AD). Behind the Emperor Justinian, however, was an equally powerful woman, the Empress Theodora.
Mosaic of Justinian I in the Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna. ( Wikmedia)
Empress Theodora was the wife of the Emperor Justinian. According to Procopius’ Secret History , written shortly after the death of the empress in the middle of the 6 th century A.D., but published only after the 17 th century, Theodora was of humble birth. Her father was said to be a bear trainer in the Byzantine capital, Constantinople, whilst her mother was said to have been an actress and a dancer. Procopius proceeds to say that Theodora used to work as a prostitute in a low status brothel and performed on the stage in Constantinople. The writer also provides explicit detail of Theodora’s antics on the stage, including dancing with nothing but a ribbon. How much truth is there in the Procopius’ portrayal of Theodora, however, is matter of contention.
Theodora is said to have worked as a prostitute and performed on the stage in Constantinople. ‘The Empress Theodora at the Colosseum’ by Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant, 1845-1902 ( Wikimedia)
When Theodora was 16, she accompanied a Syrian official called Hecebolus to the Libyan Pentapolis, as he was appointed as governor of that province. Four years later, she returned to Constantinople. On her return journey, she settled for a time in Alexandria, and converted to Christianity. When Theodora retuned to Constantinople, she gave up her old profession, and became a wool spinner in a house near the royal palace.
It was during this time that Theodora caught the attention of Justinian, who was at that point of time the heir to the Byzantine throne. Justinian, however, could not marry Theodora, as a Roman law prevented him from doing so. Furthermore, his aunt, the Empress Euphemia, would not allow her nephew to marry a former actress. It was only after the death of Euphemia in 525 AD that Justinian’s uncle, the Emperor Justin I repealed the law, and Justinian was able to marry Theodora. By 527 AD, Emperor Justin was dead, and Justinian was proclaimed as the Byzantine Emperor, whilst Theodora became his empress.
Mosaic of Theodora at the Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna. Photo source: Wikimedia.
As empress, Theodora was a capable individual who had a huge influence on many of her husband’s reforms. Most notable, perhaps, are the reforms that pertain to the legal rights of women. For instance, laws were passed that prohibited forced prostitution, expanded the rights of women in divorce and property ownership, gave mothers some guardianship rights over their children, forbade the killing of adulterous wives, and instituting the death penalty for rape. Perhaps Theodora was an early feminist who championed the rights of women. Whilst Theodora was sympathetic towards women who were less fortunate, it seems that she was ruthless towards women of higher standing, especially those who threatened her position. Alternatively, her reforms may be viewed as a product of her own life experiences.
Empress Theodora by Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant, 1845-1902 ( Wikimedia)
Theodora’s ‘finest hour’ was perhaps during the Nika Riot. During the riots, a new emperor was proclaimed by the mob, and Justinian and his supporters were prepared to flee. During a meeting of the Imperial Council, Theodora gave a speech that spoke against leaving the palace, and convinced Justinian that it was better to die an emperor (‘the royal purple is the noblest shroud’) than to live as an exile. Theodora’s courage and decisiveness won the day, and Justinian chose to remain in the capital, rather than flee. What followed was not the noble death of Justinian and his entourage, but a brutal suppression of the riot. According to Procopius, 30,000 rioters were attacked and slaughtered by Justinian’s generals in the hippodrome. Indeed, Justinian’s throne was saved, but at a bloody price.
Featured image: ‘Theodora’ (1902) by Georges Jules Victor Clarin ( Wikimedia)