Theodora (c.497-548) was born in Constantinople – modern day Istanbul. In her remarkable life she became probably the most powerful woman in Byzantine history. Little is known about her early years, and it is hard to sort fact from fiction in such a colourful story.
The daughter of a bear keeper at Constantinople’s hippodrome, Theodora was put to work there herself at an early age as an actress, dancer, mime artist and comedian. Performing for hundreds of spectators, by the age of 15 she was a successful performer. She was also (as most actresses of the time were) prostituted, and gave birth to her first child aged just 14.
At 18, she left the hippodrome to travel with her lover Hecebolus to what is now Libya, where he was governor. After they parted ways, Theodora joined an ascetic community in the desert near Alexandria and converted to the early Christian sect of Monophysitism. Its followers were persecuted by the Romans, disagreeing as they did on the finer points of Jesus’s divinity.
Following her conversion she is said to have worked as a spy in Antioch before returning to Constantinople and meeting her future husband Justinian, nephew and heir to the Emperor Justin.
Justinian and Theodora wished to marry, but it was against the law for former actresses to marry high-ranking men, such was their low status at the time. Justinian had the law changed to enable their union, and when Justin died in 527 Theodora became Empress of Byzantium.
As Empress, Theodora worked for women’s rights in marriage, dowry and divorce. She worked to legislate against pimps, banished brothel-keepers from Constantinople and passed anti-rape and trafficking laws. She set up a house for formerly prostituted women to live in peace and security and managed to end the persecution of the Monophysites in 533.
In 532 she persuaded Justinian against his male advisers to stay and defend his throne during the Nika revolt. In a rousing speech she is quoted in Browning’s Justinian and Theodora:
“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.”
It is testament to her power and influence that her name is mentioned on almost every law passed during the period of her reign. It is also notable how few significant pieces of legislation were passed between her death and that of her husband in 565.
She died in 548 aged about 50, possibly from cancer or gangrene. The best-known representation of Theodora is the mosaic portrait in the Church of San Vitale in Ravenna.
Written for Sheroes of History by Poppy O’Neill
Find out more…
There are a couple of books about Empress Theodora you could read to find out more. A novelised version of her life is Theodora: Actress, Empress, Whore by Stella Duffy, for a non-fiction account see Theodora: Actress, Empress, Saint by David Potter.
This is the first video of a 4-part series on YouTube about Justinian & Theodora – watch them all for the full story and to discover more about their legacy: