I have been fascinated with the story of the Empress Theodora for years. I knew that she was an actress who’d caught the eye of the Emperor Justinian I but that was really all I knew apart from the amazing mosaics of her (an early form of portraiture). Unfortunately my eye wandered to other fascinating Queens of the East, Zenobia, and Cleopatra and that trio of Roman Empresses of the early Christian era, Livia, Messalina and Agrippina. However, last year when I was invited to participate in H2’s series HOW SEX CHANGED THE WORLD (which recently aired) my interest in Theodora was once again. She was actually one of the women that I was supposed to talk about but it ended up not happening. Time passed and I once again forgot about Theodora until yesterday when I was killing time in Barnes and Noble looking at all the books that I wish that I could afford to buy. After all, one can never have too many books!
I noticed that there was not just one but two historical novels out about Theodora. The latest being THE SECRET HISTORY: A NOVEL OF EMPRESS THEODORA by Stephanie Thornton which just came out yesterday. The other novel was THEODORA: ACTRESS, EMPRESS, WHORE: A NOVEL by StellaDuffy. It’s no wonder that Theodora’s story has captured the imagination of writers recently. As Duffy’s book states in the title, Theodora was an actress and courtesan who became Empress of one of the most powerful empires on earth when she married Justinian I. It is the classic story of from rags to riches with a sad ending. It many ways, Theodora’s story reminds me of the story of Eva Peron, another actress who became the wife of a powerful man whose legend ended up overshadowing that of her husband.
Of course when writing about Theodora, one has to sift through the legends and scurrilous rumors to find what the truth is. The main historical sources for Theodora’s life are the works of her contemporary Procopius who offers a contradictory portrait of the Empress. His initial history was complimentary but later on he wrote The Secret History which wasn’t published for over a thousand years. It appears that Procopius had become disillusioned with Justinian and Theodora and did a hatchet job on the royal couple. He depicts Justinian as cruel, venal, and incompetent and paints an even worse portrait of Theodora. Unlike his portrayal of her in The Buildings of Justinian where he praises her piety and her beauty, in The Secret History Procopius offers the reader a more salacious portrait of a woman who is both calculating and shrewish, vulgar and insatiable. The truth lies somewhere in between those two portraits.
Theodora came from humble origins. She was born in Syria in 497 AD. Her father, Acacius, was a bear trainer for the Green faction in the Hippodrome in Constantinople, her mother was a dancer and an actress, so Theodora was born in a trunk so to speak. Life was touch, but full of excitement, the crowds at the Hippodrome cheering the gladiators, the dancers and the animal acts. But life became even rougher when her father died. They didn’t have health insurance or benefits that we enjoy in our modern age. Although her mother remarried, her new husband was not offered was not offered her previous husband’s position. The family was left destitute but Theodora’s mother was a clever woman. She sent Theodora and her sisters to the Hippodrome wearing garlands as supplicants to the crowd. The Blue faction took them under their wing to score points over the Green faction rejected them. From then on, Theodora would be a supporter of the Blue faction.
Soon Theodora and her sisters were performing themselves. They performed gymnastics routines at the Hippodrome and Theodora performed comic monologues. Theatre in the 6th Century was considered to be the embodiment of immorality and it would later be banned entirely. Later on when she became Empress, there were rumors that Theodora worked as a prostitute in a brothel servicing low-status costumers, that she once entertained 40 lovers in one night, making use of all three orifices and that she complained that she wished the holes in her nipples were bigger so that she could have a fourth! It was said that she ‘gave her youth to anyone she met, in utter abandonment.’ What is true is that Theodora became famous for her portrayal of Leda and the Swan. She would take off as many clothes as the law would allow, while attendants scattered barley on her body, and then geese would pick up the barley in their bills. She also entertained nobles at banquets and no doubt took lovers to supplement her meager income as an actress.
At the age of 16, Theodora became the mistress of a Syrian official named Hecebolus for 4 years, traveling with him to Egypt but he became abusive and abandoned her. At some point, she converted to Monophysite Christianity (they believed that Christ was divine, not half human and half divine) before returning to Constantinople. She changed professions, taking a house near the palace, where she worked as a wool spinner. According to tradition, Justinian espied her at her spinning wheel and fell in love at first sight. However, she may have met him through the star ballet-dancer for the Blue faction named Macedonia who worked as an informer for Justinian.
Justinian was 40 when they met, devout and studious. He fell in love with her because of her wit, beauty, and amusing character but he was prohibited from marrying her. Apparently there was some law preventing patricians from marrying actresses. While his uncle Justin I was willing to amend the law, his wife the Empress Euphemia was against the idea. Apparently it brought up old memories; Euphemia had been a slave before she became Empress. Once Euphemia passed on in 525 AD, Justin was free to repeal the law. The law freed truly penitent actresses from all blemishes and restored them to their pristine state.
Theodora soon showed what she was made during what came to be known as the ‘Nika’ riots. In 532, the Blues and the Greens started a riot in the Hippodrome during a chariot race. The rioters had many grievances, some of which stemmed from Justinian and Theodora’s own actions. The rioters set many public buildings on fire, and proclaimed Hypatius (who was the nephew of the former emperor Anastasius I) as the new emperor. Unable to control the mob, Justinian and his officials suggesting fleeing the capitol but Theodora declared that she would not flee. She pointed out the significance of dying as a ruler rather than living in exile or hiding. She famously declared that ‘purple makes a fine shroud.’ Because of her speech, Justinian ordered his troops to storm the Hippodrome, killing 30,000 rebels including Hypatius. After his victory, Justinian gave Theodora real power, making her his co-ruler and the most powerful woman in the Byzantine Empire. He never forgot that his was Theodora who had saved his throne. Theodora became Justinian’s right-hand, and his honored counselor.
Together she and Justinian rebuilt and reformed Constantinople, building bridges and aqueducts, bridges and more than 25 churches including the Hagia Sophia. Byzantine Empire prospered for 19 years under their rule. As Empress, Theodora used her power to close brothels, crack down on forced prostitution, she opened a convent where ex-prostitutes could support themselves, made rape punishable by death, forbade killing wives for committing adultery, also expanded the rights of women in divorce and property ownership. She also forbade the exposure of infants, and gave mothers some guardianship rights over their children. Procopius wrote that she was naturally inclined to assist women in misfortune. As a result of her efforts, women in the Byzantine Empire had far more status than women in the Middle East and the rest of Europe.
According to Procopius, the Imperial couple made all senators prostrate themselves before them whenever they entered their presence. They carefully supervised the magistrates, much more so than the previous Emperors, no doubt to reduce bureaucratic corruption. Like any good Empress, she got rid of her enemies. She was very conscious of the fact that if Justinian died before her, she would be in a very precarious position since they didn’t have children. She had one illegitimate daughter from a previous arrangement. She married her family off advantageously. Her niece married Justinian’s nephew and came to the throne after Justinian’s death. She also did what she could to protect the Monophysite Christians in the Empire.
Theodora died of cancer on June 28 548 at the age of 48. Her body was buried in the Church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople. Justinian was bereft at her death. So powerful was her influence over him that he worked to bring harmony between the Monophysite Christians and the Chaledonians. Today, Theodora is considered a saint by the Greek Orthodox Church and a pioneer of feminism.
Great article - thanks!