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Unsung Heroes: Empress Theodora

2011 August 31

Today’s hero had some really quite impressive career advancement over the course of her life. Starting as a small time actress (and most likely prostitute – the entertainment industry of the time was apparently incredibly sleazy), she moved on to wool spinning, a job path she took to its logical conclusion as… Empress? Oh, and then Saint. Who makes a career move like that? The Empress Theodora (500 – 528 AD) of the Byzantine Empire, that’s who.

One of three children, Theodora was the daughter of an actress and a bear trainer of the Green faction1. Following her father’s death she was presented to the Blue faction and became a supporter of theirs. Being a supporter of the Blue faction would prove to be significant later in her life.

The details of her time as an actress or prostitute are somewhat unclear, with a lack of reliable resources on the topic. Procopius spends a lot of his Anekdota providing snippets of a sordid past, and John of Ephesus calls her “Theodora ek tou porneiou”, or “Theodora from the brothel.” Historian Lynda Garland, however, argues that there’s little reason to believe Theodora worked in what we’d recognise as a modern brothel. Instead, she claimed, it was more like a stage-house in which the acting involved lewd displays and off-stage sexual activities with clients were standard. Either way, it was definitely a low status job.

Sepia tone photograph of actress Sarah Bernhardt standing in front of a door, in the role of the Empress Theodora in Victorien Sardou's play Theodora. 1882.

Sarah Bernhardt in Victorien Sardou's play 'Théodora', 1882.

Around about 516 AD, Theodora leaves the theatre/brothel and travels to North Africa. By the time she returns to Constantinople four years later she’ll have made the acquaintance of several high ranking officials throughout the Empire, converted to Monophysite Christianity, and decided to take up a career as a wool spinner. Well, possibly. It’s also possible that the ‘wool spinning’ was a detail added to her life by writers in the 11th century. It was seen as a more virtuous career, one that would partially forgive the ‘sins’ of her earlier life, and thus may have been fabricated to give her respectability.

Whether she was a wool spinner or not, it was around the time of her return to Constantinople that she became associated with the young Justinian, the adopted heir of Justin I. It’s unclear quite how they met, but quite likely it was through a dancer, Macedonia, a member of the Blue faction and informer to Justinian who was himself a Blue faction supporter.

Marriage between Theodora and Justinian was initially problematic. Byzantine laws prevented the heir from marrying an actress, and Emperor Justin’s wife Euphemia would not grant Justinian permission to pursue this. Following her death however the Emperor, being fond of both Justinian and Theodora, changed the law, allowing an actress to repent her past and be considered a clean slate of virtue. Thus the pair were married, and in 527 ascended to the position of Emperor and Empress.

Of course, just becoming the Empress of the Byzantine Empire, though undeniably one hell of an achievement, does not automatically make a person awesome. Theodora gets awesome because of what she did while she was in power. For one thing, she was by all accounts Justinian’s intellectual equal, taking a hand in the forming of Byzantine policy. They may have gotten together because of basic lust, but a sharp mind kept her respected and on the throne (despite being a follower of the Monophysite heresy).

The Blue and Green factions mentioned earlier? About five years into the reign of Justinian and Theodora, they caused trouble in something halfway between a political uprising and a football riot (though with chariot racing instead of football). An event known as the Nika Riots (which is one of history’s most fascinating incidents) saw half of Constantinople burned to the ground, and thousands killed. Justinian and his officials were on the brink of abandoning the city and fleeing for safety when Theodora, so the sources claim, made a stand.

Those who have worn the crown should never survive its loss. Never will I see the day when I am not saluted as empress. Royalty makes a fine burial shroud.

– Attributed to Empress Theodora

Spurred into action by Theodora, Justinian rallied his forces, the riots were put down, and order restored. Over the following years Theodora and Justinian would engage in a large scale public works programme to rebuild the city, including rebuilding the Hagia Sophia in its current form as one of the architectural wonders of the world.
When not putting down rebellions, Theodora was instrumental in passing laws aimed at increasing the rights of many women in the Byzantine Empire. This included the institution of the death penalty for rape, the increasing of property rights and the rights to guardianship of children, and the closing of brothels followed by the opening of a convent to support former sex workers.

Theodora died of unknown causes in 548 AD. Afterwards Emperor Justinian worked to keep the peace and protect her small community of Monophysites, despite being a Chalcedonian Christian himself. Both of them were eventually canonised by the Eastern Orthodox Church.

So there’s Theodora. Given to a sports team as a child, grew up in the sleazy Byzantine entertainment industry, ended up one of the most powerful women in the world and eventually a saint. How’s that for an achievement?

For further reading there’s the expensive but well researched Byzantine Empresses: Women and Power in Byzantium, AD 527-1204 by Lynda Garland, and the more affordable The Empress Theodora: Partner of Justinian by James Evans. There’s also the works of Procopius, but those are skewed by the political issues of the time.

  • Unsung Heroes: spotlighting fascinating people we never learned about at school. Rob Mulligan also blogs at Stuttering Demagogue. Stay tuned for future Heroes, or send your own in to [email protected]!
  1. These factions will be important later. They were somewhere between a sports team and a political affiliation, and pretty important in Byzantine society. There were four teams, named for the colours of their uniforms, though by the time of Theodora only the Blues and Greens were particularly influential. []
3 Responses leave one →
  1. Jenny D permalink
    August 31, 2011

    For a more fictional account of those times, Guy Gavriel Kay has written two books called “Sailing to Sarantium” and “Lord of Emperors”. He’s basically taken the story of Justin and Theodora, added in some magic and a lot of other characters, and set it in his fictional universe. As I understand it, the story is mostly historically correct, including the Green and Blue factions, and Alixana (being Theodora’s fictional alter ego) was a very intelligent and impressive person.

  2. Cheryl Morgan permalink
    August 31, 2011

    Also a new novel, Theodora, by Stella Duffy.

    • Miranda permalink*
      August 31, 2011

      Yes, I heard about that! So maybe not all that unsung. But then again, I think Byzantium’s a bit unsung as “having heard of it outside of classics lessons which most schools don’t offer” goes. So we were like “ah, let’s do Theodora!”

      Plus I love that Sara Bernhardt shot!

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