By Valentina Grub
At the turn of the sixth century, amidst the teaming streets, heavy with the smells of an ancient metropolis, swarms of people pressed forward into the Hippodrome of Constantinople. Here, four-horse chariots would race around the U-shaped course at break-neck speeds; death was not an infrequent result of the daredevil tactics frequently employed by desperate charioteers. There were two teams, the Blues and the Greens, each of which was affiliated with a different political faction, and the rivalry between the two factions was murderous. In between races, crowds thousands strong would be entertained by a variety of performers, including dancing or baited bears. The keeper of the bears for the Green team had three daughters; his middle daughter would one day become the Empress of the Byzantine Empire.
This woman was named Theodora. She was born in Constantinople, the capital of an ever-growing nation that was carved out of the eastern part of the collapsed Roman empire. Until Theodora was five, her life was relatively stable. However, when her father died the survival of his widow and three daughters was in peril. Theodora’s mother quickly remarried in order to secure her late husband’s job for her new spouse, which seems to have been a not uncommon practice. However, the Green team refused. In desperation, Theodora’s mother took her daughters to the Hippodrome, and in front of thousands of people she pleaded her cause to the opposing team. The Blues, the more elitist and conservative of the two teams, were eager to improve their haughty image, and so gave Theodora’s step-father the job as bear keeper. Scholars suggest that Theodora’s mother’s impassioned, theatrical plea reveals that she had been an actress, a profession that her two elder daughters would follow her in.
By the time a decade had passed, Theodora had become an actress. Nightly she would be onstage, performing a variety of titillating scenes, while offstage she cultivated many profitable relationships. Around the age of seventeen, she became the mistress of Hekebolos, who was the governor of Libya. At the time, Libya was designated as the vast territories west of the Nile; the governor of such a large and fertile area was one of the most powerful men in the empire. In an effort to prolong their relationship, she followed him to Libya. But once there, he spurned her, and she was left without funds, thousands of miles away from her friends and family, and quite possibly pregnant. She slowly worked her way back to Constantinople, and by the time she arrived back home she had a daughter.
Upon returning to Constantinople, she met Justinian, a senator who was fifteen years her senior and the nephew of the Emperor Justin. Though Justinian was Justin’s heir, he, like Theodora, was not noble. He was of peasant origin, and he surrounded himself with non-aristocratic advisors. He fell madly in love with Theodora. Not content to be lovers, they were married a year later. This was no easy feat, as those of the senatorial rank were prohibited from marrying those of lower status. Justinian then passed a law retracting this prohibition, paving the way for many more marriages between men and women of unequal rank. In an effort to quell critics who focused on her exotic past, another law was written, in effect making her “unblemished” and her daughter legitimate. On April 1, 527, Justinian was crowned emperor, and four months later Theodora was crowned empress.
In spite of their detractors, not only were Justinian and Theodora husband and wife; they were also co-rulers. All official oaths invoked both their names, and Justinian described her in an edict as “the most pious consort given to Us by God.” There is also, arguably, evidence of Theodora’s influence on legislation. During his reign, Justinian passed a law which made the abduction and rape of a woman, even a slave, punishable by death. Panderers and pimps who preyed on young girls were banished, and women were allowed to reclaim their dowry in the event that their marriages ended. In addition to her impact on courtly matters, Theodora founded numerous nunneries and poorhouses for destitute women and prostitutes.
Theodora’s courage is exemplified by her counsel during the Nika Riots. In January 532, the city erupted into violence when the ever-warring Blue and Green factions banded together against the excessive and cruel head tax-collector, and by extension, Justinian. As half the city burned and tens of thousands were killed, Justinian prepared to flee. Theodora, however, urged him to stay, saying “those who have worn the crown should never survive its loss. Never will I see the day when I am not saluted as empress.” Justinian stood his ground and subdued the riot, though at a great cost to his people, of whom over 30,000 were killed.
Throughout her reign, she fully participated in governmental meetings, and had several spies in her employ. She incarcerated her enemies, yet also helped to maintain the precarious balance between Orthodoxy and Monophysitism, two dominant early Christian denominations. The key difference between the two creeds was that, in the Orthodox Church, now known as the Eastern Orthodox Church, Jesus Christ was believed to be both human and divine, while the Monophytes (still evident in the Oriental Orthodox Churches) believed that he was entirely divine. This difference in dogma led to a long series of debates and theological disputations.
Though Theodora has been a well-known figure throughout history, only recent scholarship has shown what a remarkable woman Theodora was. From her death until the 20th century, her memory and reputation was sullied with allegations of sexual perversion. Almost all the information about her life comes from The Secret History, a chronicle by the contemporary historian Procopius. In it, he asserts that Theodora’s initial fame was due to a certain act she performed naked onstage, involving geese and grain; she was a prostitute that catered to both heterosexual and homosexual men; she performed numerous abortions on herself, and a son she supposedly bore was saved from infanticide by an unnamed father (who was not Justinian). However, while there is corroborating evidence that she had a daughter, nowhere in the chronicles is a son mentioned. This is evidence of a male author who wrote to shame and discredit a powerful woman by using her reproductive and sexual past against her. This is particularly evident in the claim of her son who was saved by his father; here, Procopius infers that only a pious man could save his son from the evils of this lascivious woman. He also claimed that Theodora’s hold over Justinian was due to sorcery and her demonic nature. Again, Procopius strips Theodora of any power by ascribing it to supernatural influences. It is still unclear why Procopius, while never a close ally during Theodora’s life, so vehemently disgraced Theodora’s reputation after her death.
Though Theodora had a legitimized daughter, whose name is lost to history, she had no children with Justinian. Much like the powerful empresses that came before her, Pulcheria and Ariadne, Theodora wielded political power by her right as consort, and through her own political shrewdness. As David Stone Potter points out, “these empresses did not need to have children to be powerful.” Even today, when women are often judged on both their career and reproductive successes, Theodora’s strength, determination, and achievement are evident in the equal parts admiration and enmity she inspired. Theodora’s story is almost mythical, a rags-to-riches narrative that offers women an inspiring vision of perseverance and love.
Diehl, Charles. Theodora, Empress of Byzantium . Frederick Ungar Publishing (translated by S. R. Rosenbaum from the original French Theodora, Imperatice de Byzance),1972. Pg. 87.
Evans, James Allen. The Power Game in Byzantium: Antonia and the Empress Theodora. London: Continuum, 2011.
Garland, Lynda. Byzantine Empresses: Women and Power in Byzantium AD527-1204. London: Routledge, 2002. pgs 11-38.
Potter, David Stone. Theodora: Actress, Empress, Saint. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.