“Empress and wife of Justinian I, the courage and statesmanship of Theodora (ca. 500-548) complemented the genius of her husband and significantly contributed to the glories of his reign.”
Little is know about the early life of Theodora, who rose to become one of the most famous women in Western civilization. She was born of humble origins at the beginning of the sixth century—probably in the year 500—and died on June 28, 548. Much of what is known comes from the writings of the sixth-century Byzantine historian Procopius of Caesarea (d. 565), especially his seven-volume Anecdota (commonly called Secret History). Although an important primary source for the life of Theodora and the era in which she lived, Procopius’s Secret Historymust be viewed as written on the level of a modern tabloid, at least with respect to its factual accuracy. However biased, especially in the case of Theodora, it is felt that Procopius correctly portrayed the decadent lifestyle of Constantinople during the first half of the sixth century.
From Procopius and other writings of the era, including official chronicles, some outline of Theodora’s early life prior to her marriage to Justinian I can be constructed. Some of the later chroniclers place her birth on the island of Cyprus, or more likely in Syria. Her father was a poor man named Acacius. Her mother’s name is lost to history. Acacius was the keeper, or guardian, of the bears for the Greens at the hippodrome in Constantinople.
The hippodrome was a gigantic stadium where chariot races and other entertainments were staged, including bear-baiting. The all-important chariot races were sponsored by organizations, or factions, two of which, the Blues and the Greens, attained significant political power. These factions staged additional entertainments for the crowds, including animal contests and stage plays.
Theodora had two sisters, Comitona and Anastasia. Upon the death of her father when she was but a child, Theodora began to work on stage as a mime with her older sister Comitona, and soon became a full-fledged actress. By her late teens, she was a favorite both on the stage, where she delighted in displaying “undraped the beauty of which she was so proud, ” and off, where she followed in the footsteps of her sister as a prostitute and/or courtesan. In the context of the time, “actress” was synonymous with “prostitute.”
Theodora was a smashing success. It is evident from all accounts that she was a stunning beauty. But she was gifted in more than her physical charms. Writes historian Charles Diehl: “She was intelligent, witty, and amusing … [and] … when she wanted to please, she knew how to put forth irresistible powers of fascination.” On the stage, she was noted for what in our day would be euphemistically termed “adult” entertainment. Off the stage she was noted for her numerous lovers and her wild parties. It was said that her reputation was such that respectable people tried to avoid meeting her on the streets of Constantinople for fear of becoming contaminated. Diehl perhaps best sums up her reputation, when he writes: “Belonging to a profession of which virtue is not a necessary attribute, she amused, charmed, and scandalized Constantinople.”
When she was 16, Theodora took as one of her lovers a wealthy man named Hecebolus. When Hecebolus was appointed governor of African Pentapolis, a minor province in north Africa, Theodora accompanied him to his new post. After approximately four years (in c. 521), and for reasons unknown to us, Hecebolus expelled her penniless from his house. For the next year, she traveled through the Middle East, apparently making use of her many gifts and talents as she “worked” her way back to Constantinople.
Theodora settled briefly in Alexandria, the luxurious capital of Egypt, and a favorite haunt of many famed courtesans. While there, she met leaders of the Monophysite religion—including Patriarch Timothy and Severus of Antioch—who were known to preach to women. It was apparently in Alexandria, although some sources say Antioch, that Theodora was converted to this heretical form of Christianity. Having undergone a religious conversion, she renounced her former lifestyle, returned to Constantinople in 522, settled in a house near the palace, and made a living spinning wool. It was also in 522, perhaps in Antioch, that Theodora first met Justinian.
Justinian was 40 years old when he met Theodora, then only half his age. He was the favorite nephew and heir apparent of Justin I (reigned, 518-27). Some modern scholars believe that Justinian actually ruled during his uncle’s reign. In any event, the future emperor fell deeply in love with Theodora, and she with him. Justinian had his uncle confer upon Theodora the rank of patrician. Still, two obstacles stood in the way of marriage. The empress Euphemia, herself of peasant origins, firmly opposed the marriage. Also, there was an old Roman law which forbade high dignitaries to marry “women of servile condition, inn-keepers’ daughters, actresses, or courtesans.”
Soon after Euphemia died in 523 or 524, Justin I issued an edict which decreed that “henceforth actresses who have abandoned their former life may contract a legal marriage, and those upon whom a high dignity has been conferred may marry men of the highest rank.” In 525, the couple were married in the great church of Santa Sophia, built two centuries earlier by Constantine, founder of the Eastern Roman, or Byzantine, Empire. They settled down to a respectable, and by all accounts happy, married life.
Whatever she may have been in her youth, once married to Justinian, Theodora conducted herself with the nobility of character worthy of one of history’s greatest female personalities. It is significant that no contemporary source, however hateful of her, ever accuses her of unfaithfulness to Justinian, and no historian since records anything that would call into question her moral conduct after her marriage. Apparently, Theodora gave birth to a daughter, either before she met Justinian, or early in their marriage, but the girl did not live. No other children were ever born to the imperial couple.
In April 527, Justin I became mortally ill. On Easter Sunday, April 4, he crowned Justinian co-emperor, granting him the title ” Augustus, ” and Theodora “Augusta.” Following the ceremony, they went to the hippodrome to receive the acclamations of the populace. One can only imagine what thoughts must have passed through Theodora’s mind as she returned, now mistress of the Roman world, to that place where life’s circumstances forced her into the life of a prostitute. On August 1, 527, Justin I died. It is from that date that the beginning of Justinian’s reign is dated, although modern scholars believe that he actually reigned in fact as early as 518.
The imperial team of Justinian and Theodora, which lasted until the latter’s death in 548, was one of history’s remarkable combinations. Although they did not officially rule as joint monarchs, they in fact did. It is not correct to suggest that Theodora dominated her husband. Neither is it correct to suggest that by intrigue or otherwise she pursued goals of which he was ignorant. Rather, they complemented each other, even when, as in the case of religious issues, they pursued opposite goals. Justinian championed the cause of Christian orthodoxy, while at the same time he allowed Theodora to pursue the objective of religious tolerance for the Monophysite heretics with whom she identified.
Theodora rightly foresaw that the future of the Empire lay in the Middle East, while Justinian spent much of his reign in a futile attempt to reconquer the old Roman Empire in the West. In the area of women’s rights, she achieved legislation which prohibited forced prostitution as well as alterations in the divorce laws which made them more favorable to women. Justinian allowed Theodora to share his throne, not simply because he adored her, but because he recognized in her the qualities of a true sovereign. Until her death, writes Diehl: “He never refused her anything, either the outward show or the real exercise of supreme power.”
Theodora proved during the Nika Revolt of January 532 that she was a true statesman. The revolt started on Tuesday, January 13, as the chariot races were to begin in the hippodrome. The two factions, Blues and Greens, set aside their traditional rivalry and made common cause against the government. Before the day was over, many public buildings were in flames. By the evening of the next day, the crowd was proclaiming a new emperor. Failing to regain control of the situation, Justinian prepared to abandon his throne and flee.
At a meeting of the Imperial Council on Sunday, January 18, Theodora sat silently listening to the men present debating whether or not Justinian should attempt to flee. Preparations were made, and a ship sat ready in the harbor to carry the emperor and empress to safety. Then Theodora rose and—as quoted in Browning’s Justinian and Theodora—made what must be considered one of the greatest short speeches ever recorded:
Whether or not a woman should give an example of courage to men, is neither here nor there. At a moment of desperate danger one must do what one can. I think that flight, even if it brings us to safety, is not in our interest. Every man born to see the light of day must die. But that one who has been emperor should become an exile I cannot bear. May I never be without the purple I wear, nor live to see the day when men do not call me “Your Majesty.” If you wish safety, my Lord, that is an easy matter. We are rich, and there is the sea, and yonder our ships. But consider whether if you reach safety you may not desire to exchange that safety for death. As for me, I like the old saying, that the purple is the noblest shroud.
After Theodora sat down, there were moments of nervous silence as the men present looked at one another. Any thought of fleeing fled before the courage of the empress. We are told by the chroniclers that it was two loyal generals, Belisarius and Mundus, who first broke the silence. They began to discuss military plans.
Having assembled their German mercenaries, and joined by a third general, they proceeded to the hippodrome. After securing the exits so that none could escape, they fell upon the rebellious crowd of Blues and Greens. Soon the cries for Justinian’s removal were changed to cries for mercy mingled with the screams and groaning of the dying. When the generals finally called a halt to the killing, the benches of the hippodrome were drenched with the blood of an estimated 30, 000 to 40, 000 rebels.
Historians agree that Theodora’s timely display of courage saved Justinian his crown. She had proven herself a great statesman and a worthy partner in power. No one was more aware of that fact than Justinian. Far from arousing in him any sense of jealously, her resolute action only deepened his respect and love for her. Throughout the remainder of her life, she was Justinian’s active assistant in all matters of importance. She was not a dark power behind the throne, but shared openly in both the decision-making and the glory of her husband’s reign. Her name appeared linked with his upon church walls and over the gates of citadels. Even in the mosaics that decorated the apartments of the Sacred Palace, writes Diehl, “Justinian had in like manner associated Theodora with him in connection with his military triumphs and the brightest glories of his reign.” Her power was equal to, perhaps at times even greater than, Justinian’s.
Following the Nika Revolt, Theodora and Justinian set about rebuilding Constantinople. They transformed it into the most splendid city in the world, so much so that Europeans during the Middle Ages referred to it as simply “The City.” Constantinople, not Rome, was the center of Christian civilization from the 6th to the beginning of the 12th century. Justinian and Theodora built more that 25 churches and convents in Constantinople. The greatest of them, and indeed the greatest church in all of Christendom prior to the building of St. Peter’s in Rome, was the Hegia Sophia, rebuilt by the imperial couple. With its great dome, 107 feet in diameter, and decorated in rich marbles and mosaics, it dazzled visitors for centuries. One European churchman who visited Constantinople during the high Middle Ages recorded that upon entering the Hegia Sophia he felt as if he had died and entered heaven itself.
Both Justinian and Theodora recognized the importance of religious issues. Complex theological issues dominated the lives of even the common people. They were inseparable from the important political issues of the day. Hence Justinian, who wanted to reconquer the Latin West, stoutly defended the orthodox position in such theological debates as those concerning the nature of Christ. To do so won support among the Christians in the ruins of the old Roman Empire in the West. But it also tended to alienate the Christians in the eastern provinces of the Empire who were attracted to the Monophysite heresy. Monophysitism held that Christ had but one nature, a composite divine-human one. The orthodox position, as defined by the Council of Chalcedon in 451, was that Jesus Christ was at the same time both fully human and fully divine.
While Justinian might use the carrot-and-stick approach to combat Monophysitism, Theodora championed their cause both openly and in secret. No doubt her own convictions, which went back to her conversion under Monophysite influence, were behind her efforts to secure religious tolerance for Monophysitism. But she was motivated also by her belief that the strength of the Empire was in the Middle East. Monophysitism was especially strong in the eastern provinces along the frontier with the revived Persian Empire. To grant toleration to them would be to strengthen and further the unity of the Empire where it faced a powerful enemy. But it also would undermine Justinian’s dream of reuniting the old Roman Empire.
In her efforts to help the Monophysites, Theodora influenced the election of popes, provided refuge within the apartments of her palace for Monophysite leaders, and openly established a Monophysite monastery in Sycae, directly across the Golden Horn from Constantinople. In c. 542, she even influenced Justinian to appoint a Monophysite bishop for the pro-Monophysite Arab client state of the Ghassanids. By such efforts, Theodora was able to keep alive the fire of the Monophysite heresy in the eastern provinces of the Empire.
When Theodora died of cancer on June 28, 548, her body was buried in the Church of the Holy Apostles, one of the splendid churches she and Justinian had built in Constantinople. Her death was a great loss to Justinian. It is tempting to see, as some have, the decline of imperial fortunes during the latter years of Justinian’s reign as the result of his loss of her counsel. But that would be unfair to Justinian’s own genius. Nevertheless, he cherished her memory, as later Queen Victoria did that of her dear Prince Albert. In his latter years, Justinian was in the habit of swearing in the name of Theodora. Those who wished to win his favor learned the importance of reminding him of her virtues. How much she meant to him personally was evident in an incident which occurred on August 11, 559. Following a campaign against the Huns, Justinian was making a triumphal entry into Constantinople. The official record states that “as the procession passed before the Church of the Holy Apostles it halted while the emperor went in to offer a prayer and light candles before Theodora’s tomb.” Four years later at the age of 83, Justinian died. His body was taken to the Church of the Holy Apostles to lie with the one whom he was fond of calling “his sweetest delight.”
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Bury, J. B. A History of the Later Roman Empire from the Death of Theodosius I to the Death of Justinian(a.d. 395-565). 2 vols. Dover Publications, 1958.
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Procopius. History of the Wars, Secret History, and Buildings. Washington Square Press, 1967.
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Vandercook, John W. Empress of the Dusk: A Life of Theodora of Byzantium. Reynal & Hitchcock, 1940. □