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Mosaic of Theodora - Basilica of San Vitale, RAVENNA (built A.D. 547), Italy. UNESCO World heritage site. (Petar Milošević/ CC BY-SA 4.0)

Formidable Byzantine Roman Empress Theodora - Saint Or Sinner?

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The hooded gaze of an inscrutable Theodora (c.497- 548 AD) greets hundreds of thousands of visitors each year as they pay their respects to her mosaic at the  Basilica of Saint Vitale in Ravenna , Italy. Encircled in glittering gold and bedecked in crown jewels, her visage befits the powerful Byzantine Roman empress she once was. More partner than figurehead, Theodora is considered to have been one of the most powerful and influential of all empresses.  Yet while her image on the mosaic is discernible, due to the incoherent misogynist and classist ramblings of an ancient chronicler the image she presents to history is somewhat less so. Alas, much of what is known about Theodora comes from the poisonous pen of Procopius of Caesarea, a primary Justinian (483 - 565 AD) historian.  Prior to  Anecdota or  Secret History,  Procopius had written nothing but praise about the Justinian administration, so the book came as something of a surprise to the academic community when it was re-discovered centuries after it was written in 550 AD. Brimming with hyperbole and invective against the royal couple whom Procopius characterizes as “demons,”  Secret History,  at times, reads like the tabloid press. No character, however, is more impugned than that of the empress. Like all ancient chroniclers when reporting about powerful women, Procopius focuses on her sexuality. He repeatedly refers to the time—-when as a child and young adult—-she performed on stage and engaged in the oldest of professions.  But according to Procopius, licentiousness was not her only sin, she was also cruel, spiteful, vindictive, and tyrannical. Regrettably, Procopius’s fiery invective against Theodora has influenced subsequent historians who have let his slander cloud their judgment on this complicated empress. 

Young woman Contemplating, with a mask lying at her feet by Benjamin-Constant (Public Domain)

Young woman Contemplating, with a mask lying at her feet by Benjamin-Constant ( Public Domain )

Raising Theodora

Notwithstanding, Procopius’s poison pen, who was Empress Theodora? While her work in the sex trade is unconfirmed, her humble origins are not. In an era not known for social mobility, how did the daughter of a bear keeper rise to the highest office in the land? And why was her reign in many ways more remarkable than that of her husband, Justinian?

Her father’s death when she was five years old left her family in desperate need. Although her mother quickly remarried, when the bear keeper post vacated by her late husband was denied to her new husband, the family remained financially in the lurch.

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Mary Naples ’ master’s thesis: “Demeter’s Daughter’s: How the Myth of the Captured Bride Helped Spur Feminine Consciousness in Ancient Greece,” examines how female participants found empowerment in a feminine fertility festival.  Visit www.femminaclassica.com 

Top Image Mosaic of Theodora - Basilica of San Vitale, RAVENNA (built A.D. 547), Italy. UNESCO World heritage site. ( Petar Milošević CC BY-SA 4.0 )

By: Mary Naples

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