The main source of information on Theodora, wife of the Byzantine emperor Justinian is Procopius of Caesarea, the official historian. He, however, presents two very different views - in his "De Aedificiis", the authorised history of Justinian's building programme, he portrays a pious woman, too lovely to ever be accurately portrayed in painting or statue, and in his "Anekdota" a wanton, lascivious whore who delighted in intrigue - although even here he concedes she was attractive. There is probably some accuracy in both accounts, although the "Anekdota" is decidedly malicious.

Theodora's Early Life

Whatever else Theodora was, she was hardly noble. Theodora's father was the bear keeper for the Green faction at the Hippodrome in Constantinople; he looked after the animals who provided the entertainment between chariot races, and she was the second of three daughters. Traditionally this job was passed down through a family, but when Theodora's father died suddenly he left no son. His widow remarried quickly and presented her new husband to the Greens as a replacement, but the family were left broke and homeless because the man responsible for filling the job had accepted a bribe from someone else.

Theodora's mother presented herself and her daughters at the Hippodrome as suppliants for justice, and though she had no success with the Greens, the Blue faction had just lost their own bear keeper, so the family changed allegiances.

As soon as the girls were old enough their mother put them on the stage. In the sixth century theatre was the embodiment of immorality, and the word 'actress' was synonymous with 'prostitute'. Performances consisted of obscene burlesque, and Procopius claimed that Theodora made her name playing Leda, in the story of Leda and the swan, stripping as far as the law allowed (complete nudity was illegal), and lying on the stage while attendants sprinkled barley on her groin. Several geese were then released to represent Zeus, and picked the barley off of her with their bills. Evidently, the show was a sensation.

According to Procopios, in his Secret History, she was the lowest kind of whore, with no accomplishments other than a talent for comedy and mimicry, and a colossal sexual appetite. He says: "Often she would go picnicking with ten young men or more, in the flower of their strength and virility, and dallied with them all, the whole night through. When they wearied of the sport, she would approach their servants, perhaps thirty in number, and fight a duel with each of these; and even thus found no allayment of her craving." He hints at all kinds of perversions, saying " ...those who were intimate with her were straightway recognized from that very fact to be perverts, and any more respectable man who chanced upon her in the Forum avoided her and withdrew in haste, lest the hem of his mantle,touching such a creature, might be thought to share in her pollution."

Procopios states she conceived regularly but aborted, and she is only known to have had one child, a girl who she arranged a good marriage for when the girl was old enough. The Secret History also claims there was a son, who she disposed of later when he became an embarrassment, but given her treatment of her daughter, this is probably a complete fiction. The use of abortifacents however might have explained her inability to have a legitimate child after she had married Justinian.

In time she became the mistress of Hecobolus, who was later made governor of Tyre, and went with him. He, however, mistreated and abandoned her, and she made her way back to Constantinople, by way of Alexandria. Procopius claims "...she found herself destitute of the means of life, which she proceeded to earn by prostitution, as she had done before this adventure. She came thus to Alexandria, and then traversing all the East, worked her way to Constantinople; in every city plying a trade (which it is safer, I fancy, in the sight of God not to name too clearly) as if the Devil were determined there be no land on earth that should not know the sins of Theodora.". However, in other accounts she met the Patriarch Timothy, a churchman of the Monophysite sect in Alexandria. Certainly she converted to the Monophysite faith and was a staunch advocate of the sect when Justinian tried to reconcile it with the Orthodox faith later, after the persecutions of Justin.

Marriage to Justinian

How Theodora came to meet Justinian on her return to Constantinople isn't known, although it's possible that they were introduced by Macedonia, who was the principle dancer of the Blue faction (which Justinian supported), and was also one of his informers while he was consul of the city. However they met, Justinian fell in love with Theodora, making her his mistress and raising her to Patrician rank. At that point, however, he was unable to marry her, as the law forbade actresses from marrying, or even from receiving the sacraments of the church, except on their deathbed.

Procopius, of course, attributes the attraction purely to lust. Given that Justinian campaigned long and hard to have the law that prevented actresses from marrying revoked, however (succeeding after the death of the Empress Euphemia), then married Theodora, this is patently ridiculous. It is made even more unlikely if one considers the fact that he always treated her as an intellectual equal who ruled with him, rather than being merely his consort. Indeed, Procopius himself says " ... no thought of shame came to Justinian in marrying her, though he might have taken his pick of the noblest born, most highly educated, most modest, carefully nurtured, virtuous and beautiful virgins of all the ladies in the whole Roman Empire.... Instead, he preferred to make his own what, had been common to all men, alike, careless of all her revealed history, took in wedlock a woman who was not only guilty of every other contamination but boasted of her many abortions.". If her history is as Procopius relates it, something much more solid than lust prompted the marriage.

Sharing Power

It was the 'Nika' revolt in 532 which demonstrated the level of Theodora's influence and personal strength. This was a riot which quickly escalated into a full-scale revolt and almost toppled the regime. Things had got so out of hand that Justinian was considering fleeing the city. Then Theodora spoke - acknowledging that encouraging acts of daring was considered unwomanly, but even so, she urged defiance. Justininan could flee if he wished, but she would stay, for she liked the ancient maxim which said that 'Imperial Purple made a good shroud'. While the scene may well have been embellished Justinian recovered his nerve and took the offensive. Troops attacked the crowd at the Hippodrome, and put down the revolt in a display of brutality unparalleled in modern society. Reports say that more than 30,000 were killed.

Theodora was ruthless too. Reports say that Justinian was inclined to show mercy to Hypatius, the man the crowd chose to replace him in the 'Nika' revolt, and his brother Pompeius, but Theodora was adamant that they should die to protect the regime. Their property could be restored to their heirs, but they were not to be allowed to threaten the status quo.

Theodora enjoyed imperial power, and the ceremony and perks that went along with it. Edward Gibbon, in "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire' notes her 'immense avarice' to secure great wealth - necessary to her, as her position depended on Justinan's and she needed to protect her future in case he should die first - her early history showed her how insecure the future of a widow was. Procopius makes many allegations of cruelty and injustices perpetrated by Theodora, which are not confirmed by independent reports, but she definitely wasn't considered easy-going in the way that Justinian was.

Even so, she was a champion of the unfortunate. She closed brothels in Constantinople moving the prostitutes to a convent called the Metanoia (Repentance). She intervened on behalf of women who were mistreated and there is a trenche of legislation during the rein of Justininan improving the status of women which undoubtedly was influenced by Theodora. Her influence is also evident in a law which forbids the purchase of public office, and reflected her experiences and observations during her time as Hecobolus' mistress.

Some of the legislation passed includes:

  • Forbidding the exposure of unwanted infants -- far more often girls than boys,
  • Easing the punishments for adultery-- while a husband might kill his wife's lover with impunity, he might not kill his wife (and before he killed the lover, he must send him three written warnings, duly witnessed)
  • Ensuring that a woman should not be put into prison where male guards might rape her; women who required detention might go to a nunnery.
  • Instituting equal rights for a woman to hold property.

Theodora also created her own centers of power within the military. The eunuch Narses, a brilliant general was her protégé.

John the Cappadocian, Justinian's unpopular efficiency expert, was her enemy. During the 'Nika' revolt he was relieved of his position to appease the mob but later he was reappointed to his post as praetorian prefect. However, he paid Theodora litttle respect, and she was jealous of his influence with Justinian. and she set a trap to get rid of him and he fell into it. On her instructions, Antonina, the wife of the triumphant general Belisarius hinted to John's daugher that Belisarius was ready to rebel, and that he would welcome John as a fellow conspirator. The carrot of imperial power that was held out was too tempting for John to resist and his lack of loyalty was revealed, and punished.

Theodora's Religious Policy

While Theodora was Monophysite, and Justinian Orthodox, religious differences never seem to have caused a problem between them.

When Justinian ascended to the throne Theodora did what she could for the Monophysites. It was Theodora who arranged for monks of a monastery at Edessa who were expelled in the dead of winter by their bishop, to return home; after seven years in exile.

Her influence in religious affairs reached its height in the early 530s. By 531, it was clear that Justin's harsh measures against heresy had failed. In Antioch, the persecutions of the patriarch Ephraim had provoked a violent revolt. The persecution was suspended and eight Monophysite bishops were invited to Constantinople. Theodora welcomed them and housed them in the Hormisdas Palace which had been her and Justinian's home before they became emperor and empress. Theodora visited them every two or three days, sometimes bringing Justinian with her, and the church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus was built for Monophysite use.

Then Theodora and Justinian invited Severus, a prominent Monophysite churchman to the capital, and in the winter of 534-5 and Theodora introduced him to the patriarch Anthimus.. She may have known that Anthimus was not unsympathetic to Monophysite views but as anyone else knew, his orthodox credentials were impeccable. When Severus and Anthimus met, the latter was soon won over. In Rome, Pope John II was not a hard-line prelate. A solution must have seemed in sight.

Then suddenly it all fell apart. The death of, Timothy III in Egypt was followed by a rise in extreme Monophysite theology, In Rome, Pope John II died and his successor Agapetus arrived in Constantinople in 536. With Justinian's campaign to recover Italy from the Ostrogoths underway, he could not afford to alienate the Pope and, Agapetus replaced the Monophysite Anthimus and on 13 in Egypt with the solidly Chalcedonian Menas. A synod presided over by Menas excommunicated Anthimus, Severus and their followers and the two churchmen were exiled. Severus returned safely to Egypt where he died in 538, and Anthimus disappeared. After Theodora's death in 548, he was discovered living in the women's quarters of the palace in Constantinople. Disputes between Monophytism continued throughout and beyond Theodora's life.

At the end of his life Justinian converted to Monophysitism himself, choosing the extreme form taught by Julian of Halicarnassus, though by then Theodora was long dead. She had died of cancer in 548.

Theodora was remarkable both in her rise to power, and how she used it once she achieved it. More than any other woman in the Byzantine Empire she left her mark on the age.

Sources:

  • Procopius , Anekdota
  • Bridge, Anthony, Theodora. Portrait in a Byzantine Landscape. London, 1978.
  • Browning, Robert, Justinian and Theodora. 2nd ed., London, 1987.
  • Capizzi, Carmelo, Giustiniano I tra politica e religione. Messina, 1994.
  • Diehl, Ch., Théodora, impératrice de Byzance, Paris, 1904.
  • Evans, J. A. S., 'The "Nika" rebellion and the Empress Theodora," Byzantion, 47 (1977), 380-382.
  • Holmes, W. G. The Age of Justinian and Theodora, 2 vols. London, 1912.

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