DECEMBER 29, 2013 BY
by John Scarborough
Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies: Vol 53, No 4 (2013)
Aetius’ gynecological Tetrab. Book 16, showing his detailed knowledge of contraceptives, abortifacients, and surgical procedures, is consistent with the sparse testimony that he held a public position and may have been court doctor to Theodora and her entourage.
When ancient and medieval sources speak of prostitutes’ expertise, they frequently address the question of how they managed to keep free from pregnancies. Anyone unschooled in botanicals that were contraceptives or abortifacients might pose a question similar to that of an anonymous writer in twelfth-century Salerno who asks medical students: “As prostitutes have very frequent intercourse, why do they conceive only rarely?” Procopius’ infamous invective, describing the young Theodora’s skills in prostitution, contains a similar phrase: she “became pregnant in numerous instances, but almost always could expel instantly the results of her coupling.” Neither text specifies the manner of abortion or contraception, probably similar to those recorded in the second century by Soranus of Ephesus.
Procopius’ deliciously scandalous narrative is questionable in terms of specific details, but the Anecdota does reflect the circumstances of the common profession of prostitution in sixth-century Byzantium. Moreover, Theodora emerged from the lowest class (a daughter of a bear keeper in the hippodrome, so we are told, 9.2–3), whose young women often plied talents quite different from those of the higher ranks who might become learned in the Classics or in the finer points of managing a well-appointed household; and John of Ephesus, who mostly admired the empress and was writing independently of Procopius, admits that she came “from the brothel.” That Theodora caught the eye of the middle-aged Justinian, that he took her in marriage, and that her influence in Byzantine history was a consequence of her feminine charms fused with a steely intellect, is the stuff of history and fiction.