Theodora (6th century)

Theodora (6th century)

Theodora (Greek: Θεοδώρα) (c. 500 - June 28 548), was empress of the Byzantine Empire and the wife of Emperor Justinian I. Like her husband, she is a saint in the Orthodox Church, commemorated on November 14. Theodora is perhaps the most influential and powerful woman in the Byzantine Empire's history.


The main historical sources for her life are the works of Procopius. However the historian has offered three rather contradictory portrayals of the Empress. The The Wars of Justinian paints a picture of a courageous and influential empress. The Secret History focuses on her first on her early life as an actress and courtesan and secondly on her intrigues at court. The work is full of "lurid details" but arguably serves as the most detailed life account of Theodora. The Buildings of Justinian is a panegyric which paints Justinian and Theodora as an equally pious couple and presents particularly flattering portrayals of them. Besides her piety, her beauty is excessively praised. While the historical details in all three do not directly contradict each other, there is a lack of a more balanced portrayal of Theodora in all three. All the works were completed following her death. [ [ James Allan Evans, "Theodora (Wife of Justinian I)"] ]

Various other historians presented additional information on her life. Theophanes the Confessor mentions some familial relations of Theodora to figures not mentioned by Procopius. Victor Tonnennensis notes her familial relation to the next empress, Sophia. Nicephorus Callistus Xanthopoulos traces her origin to Cyprus. "Patria", attributed to George Codinus, claims Theodora came from Paphlagonia. Michael the Syrian, the Chronicle of 1234 and Bar-Hebraeus place her origin in the city of Daman, near Kallinikos, Syria. They contradict Procopius by making Theodora the daughter of a priest, trained in the pious practices of Monophysitism since birth. John of Ephesus mentions an illegitimate daughter not named by Procopius. [Prosopography of the Later Roman Empire, vol. 3]

Early years


Theodora, of Greek Cypriot descent, [From Rome to Byzantium: The Fifth Century A.D., Michael Grant, Published by Routledge, p.132. Does the Future Hold for Mankind, R. A. Bowland, Xlibris Corporation, p.77. "A Complete History of the Lives, Acts, and Martyrdoms of the Holy Apostles", William Cave, Published 1810 Solomon Wiatt, p.131. The Genuine Epistles of the Apostolic Fathers, Clement, Polycarp, Ignatius, Hermas, William Wake, William Adams, William Cave, 1834 Parsons and Hills, p. 214. Europe: A History, Norman Davies, 1996 Oxford University Press, p.242. The Prosopography of the Later Roman Empire 2 Volume Set., J. R. Martindale, 1992 Cambridge University Press, p.1240. A dictionary of Christian biography, literature, sects and doctrines; being a continuation of 'The dictionary of the Bible', Henry Wace, William Smith, 1882 J. Murray, Stanford University, p.539 ] was born according to some historians on the island of Crete in Greece, but others list her birthplace as Syria. Nicephorus Callistus Xanthopoulos names Theodora a native of Cyprus. "Patria", attributed to George Codinus, claims Theodora came from Paphlagonia. The Patria claims she was later employed in Constantinople, spinning wool. Michael the Syrian, the Chronicle of 1234 and Bar-Hebraeus place her origin in the city of Daman, near Kallinikos, Syria. They contradict Procopius by making Theodora the daughter of a priest, trained in the pious practices of Monophysitism since birth. She was introduced to Justinian during one of his visits to the eastern provinces and later married. These are Monophysite sources and record her depiction among members of their creed. The Monophysites have tended to regard Theodora as one of their own and the tradition may have been invented as a way to improve her reputation. These accounts are usually ignored in favor of Procopius. [Prosopography of the Later Roman Empire, vol. 3]


Her father, Acacius, was a bear trainer of the hippodrome's Blue faction in Constantinople. Her mother, whose name is not recorded, was a dancer and an actress. [ The Prosopography of the Later Roman Empire 2 Volume Set., J. R. Martindale, 1992 Cambridge University Press, p.1240 ] After her father's death, her mother brought her children wearing garlands into the hippodrome and presented them as suppliants to the crowd. Most of the information from this earliest part of her life comes from the "Secret History" of Procopius, published posthumously. Critics of Procopius (whose work reveals a man seriously disillusioned with his rulers) have dismissed his work as a severely biased source, vitriolic and pornographic, but have been unable to discredit some of its facts.

Procopius narrates: "He [Justinian] took a wife: and in what manner she was born and bred, and, wedded to this man, tore up the Roman Empire by the very roots, I shall now relate. Acacius was the keeper of wild beasts used in the amphitheater in Constantinople; he belonged to the Green faction and was nicknamed the Bearkeeper. This man, during the rule of Anastasius, fell sick and died, leaving three daughters named Comito, Theodora and Anastasia: of whom the eldest was not yet seven years old. His widow took a second husband, who with her undertook to keep up Acacius' family and profession. But Asterius, the dancing master of the Greens, on being bribed by another, removed this office from them and assigned it to the man who gave him the money. For the dancing masters had the power of distributing such positions as they wished." [ [ Procopius of Caesarea, The Secret History, chapter 9. 1927 translation by Richard Atwater.] ] James Allan Evans, a modern historian, notes that animal acts appeared as entr'actes between chariot races. The post of animal trainer for the various factions often passed from father to son. But Acacius left no son and the second husband of his widow had a weaker claim to the position. [ [ James Allan Evans, "Theodora (Wife of Justinian I)"] ]

"When this woman saw the populace assembled in the amphitheater, she placed laurel wreaths on her daughters' heads and in their hands, and sent them out to sit on the ground in the attitude of suppliants. The Greens eyed this mute appeal with indifference; but the Blues were moved to bestow on the children an equal office, since their own animal-keeper had just died. When these children reached the age of girlhood, their mother put them on the local stage, for they were fair to look upon; she sent them forth, however, not all at the same time, but as each one seemed to her to have reached a suitable age. Comito, indeed, had already become one of the leading hetaerae [high class prostitutes] of the day." [ [ Procopius of Caesarea, The Secret History, chapter 9. 1927 translation by Richard Atwater.] ] Evans notes that Theodora would later favor the Blues as an empress. Which could point to them having earned her loyalty through saving her family from the threat of unemployement and poverty.; [ [ James Allan Evans, "Theodora (Wife of Justinian I)"] ]

Life and reputation on stage

"Theodora, the second sister, dressed in a little tunic with sleeves, like a slave girl, waited on Comito and used to follow her about carrying on her shoulders the bench on which her favored sister was wont to sit at public gatherings. Now Theodora was still too young to know the normal relation of man with maid, but consented to the unnatural violence of villainous slaves who, following their masters to the theater, employed their leisure in this infamous manner. And for some time in a brothel she suffered such misuse. But as soon as she arrived at the age of youth, and was now ready for the world, her mother put her on the stage. Forthwith, she became a courtesan, and such as the ancient Greeks used to call a common one, at that: for she was not a flute or harp player, nor was she even trained to dance, but only gave her youth to anyone she met, in utter abandonment. Her general favors included, of course, the actors in the theater; and in their productions she took part in the low comedy scenes. For she was very funny and a good mimic, and immediately became popular in this art. There was no shame in the girl, and no one ever saw her dismayed: no role was too scandalous for her to accept without a blush." [ [ Procopius of Caesarea, The Secret History, chapter 9. 1927 translation by Richard Atwater.] ] Evans points that "Theater was considered the embodiment of immorality in the sixth century and by the end of the seventh century, the Church would succeed in banning it entirely." By the 6th century, theatrical performances were mostly limited to mime plays, "obscene burlesque". [ [ James Allan Evans, "Theodora (Wife of Justinian I)"] ]

"She was the kind of comedienne who delights the audience by letting herself be cuffed and slapped on the cheeks, and makes them guffaw by raising her skirts to reveal to the spectators those feminine secrets here and there which custom veils from the eyes of the opposite sex. With pretended laziness she mocked her lovers, and coquettishly adopting ever new ways of embracing, was able to keep in a constant turmoil the hearts of the sophisticated. And she did not wait to be asked by anyone she met, but on the contrary, with inviting jests and a comic flaunting of her skirts herself tempted all men who passed by, especially those who were adolescent. On the field of pleasure she was never defeated. 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. Once, visiting the house of an illustrious gentleman, they say she mounted the projecting corner of her dining couch, pulled up the front of her dress, without a blush, and thus carelessly showed her wantonness. And though she flung wide three gates to the ambassadors of Cupid, she lamented that nature had not similarly unlocked the straits of her bosom, that she might there have contrived a further welcome to his emissaries." [ [ Procopius of Caesarea, The Secret History, chapter 9. 1927 translation by Richard Atwater.] ] While Evans considers tales of entertaining notables at banquets and accepting multitudes of lovers to be mostly factual, the image of Theodora's "voracious" appetite for sexual intercourse may have more to do with rumors and lewd jokes than the actual extent of her activities. [ [ James Allan Evans, "Theodora (Wife of Justinian I)"] ]

"Frequently, she conceived but as she employed every artifice immediately, a miscarriage was straightway effected. Often, even in the theater, in the sight of all the people, she removed her costume and stood nude in their midst, except for a girdle about the groin: not that she was abashed at revealing that, too, to the audience, but because there was a law against appearing altogether naked on the stage, without at least this much of a fig-leaf. Covered thus with a ribbon, she would sink down to the stage floor and recline on her back. Slaves to whom the duty was entrusted would then scatter grains of barley from above into the calyx of this passion flower, whence geese, trained for the purpose, would next pick the grains one by one with their bills and eat. When she rose, it was not with a blush, but she seemed rather to glory in the performance. For she was not only impudent herself, but endeavored to make everybody else as audacious. Often when she was alone with other actors she would undress in their midst and arch her back provocatively, advertising like a peacock both to those who had experience of her and to those who had not yet had that privilege her trained suppleness." [ [ Procopius of Caesarea, The Secret History, chapter 9. 1927 translation by Richard Atwater.] ] Evans points that the performance of Theodora with the geese could be a portrayal of Leda and the Swan, a tale from Greek mythology. The geese here playing the role of Zeus in the original tale. [ [ James Allan Evans, "Theodora (Wife of Justinian I)"] ]

"So perverse was her wantonness that she should have hid not only the customary part of her person, as other women do, but her face as well. Thus 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. For to those who saw her, especially at dawn, she was a bird of ill omen. And toward her fellow actresses she was as savage as a scorpion: for she was very malicious." [ [ Procopius of Caesarea, The Secret History, chapter 9. 1927 translation by Richard Atwater.] ]


"Later, she followed Hecebolus, a Tyrian who had been made governor of Pentapolis, serving him in the basest of ways; but finally she quarreled with him and was sent summarily away. Consequently, 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. [ [ Procopius of Caesarea, The Secret History, chapter 9. 1927 translation by Richard Atwater.] ] Evans points that her motivation in following Hecebolus could be in seeking a way to escape her profession. A law established in 409 under the reign of Theodosius II, "barred local authorities from transferring actors from their cities". In effect also limiting the ability of actors to travel to other cities. Theodora "might have encountered legal obstacles to her desertion of the stage" and relied on the protection of Hecebolus to manage overcoming them. She is said by later sources to have met the Patriarch Timothy III in Alexandria, who was Monophysite, and it was at that time that she converted to Monophysite Christianity. [ [ James Allan Evans, "Theodora (Wife of Justinian I)"] ]

Procopius later narrates Theodora finding an ally during the period of her travels. "There was a certain dancer named Macedonia, who belonged to the Blue party in Antioch, who came to possess much influence. For she used to write letters to Justinian while Justin was still Emperor, and so made away with whatever notable men in the East she had a grudge against, and had their property confiscated. This Macedonia, they say, greeted Theodora at the time of her arrival from Egypt and Libya; and when she saw her badly worried and cast down at the ill treatment she had received from Hecebolus and at the loss of her money during this adventure, she tried to encourage Theodora by reminding her of the laws of chance, by which she was likely again to be the leader of a chorus of coins. Then, they say, Theodora used to relate how on that very night a dream came to her, bidding her take no thought of money, for when she should come to Constantinople, she should share the couch of the King of the Devils, and that she should contrive to become his wedded wife and thereafter be the mistress of all the money in the world. And that this is what happened is the opinion of most people." [ [ Procopius of Caesarea, The Secret History, chapter 12. 1927 translation by Richard Atwater.] ] Procopius previously portrays Justinian as a demon in human form. "Indeed, how was this man likely to be anything but an evil spirit, who never knew honest satiety of drink or food or sleep, but only tasting at random from the meals that were set before him, roamed the palace at unseemly hours of the night, and was possessed by the quenchless lust of a demon?" [ [ Procopius of Caesarea, The Secret History, chapter 12. 1927 translation by Richard Atwater.] ]

Evans notes that Justinian had succeeded Vitalian as magister militum in praesenti and that Macedonia seems to have served as one of his informants. The modern historian dismisses tales of dreams and demons. He notes that Macedonia serves as the first known link between Theodora and Justinian. There are theories that the informant was the one who introduced the later imperial couple to each other. However Procopius is silent on the subject and the connections remains a conjecture. [ [ James Allan Evans, "Theodora (Wife of Justinian I)"] ]

Mistress and wife of Justinian

"Thus was this woman born and bred, and her name was a byword beyond that of other common wenches on the tongues of all men. But when she came back to Constantinople, Justinian fell violently in love with her. At first he kept her only as a mistress, though he raised her to patrician rank. Through him Theodora was able immediately to acquire an unholy power and exceedingly great riches. she seemed to him the sweetest thing in the world, and like all lovers, he desired to please his charmer with every possible favor and requite her with all his wealth. The extravagance added fuel to the flames of passion. With her now to help spend his money he plundered the people more than ever, not only in the capital, but throughout the Roman Empire. As both of them had for a long time been of the Blue party, they gave this faction almost complete control of the affairs of state. It was long afterward that the worst of this evil was checked." [ [ Procopius of Caesarea, The Secret History, chapter 9. 1927 translation by Richard Atwater.] ]

"Now as long as the former Empress was alive, Justinian was unable to find a way to make Theodora his wedded wife. In this one matter she opposed him as in nothing else: for the lady abhorred vice, being a rustic and of barbarian descent, as I have shown. She was never able to do any real good, because of her continued ignorance of the affairs of state. She dropped her original name, for fear people would think it ridiculous, and adopted the name of Euphemia when she came to the palace. But finally her death removed this obstacle to Justinian's desire. Justin, doting and utterly senile, was now the laughing stock of his subjects; he was disregarded by everyone because of his inability to oversee state affairs; but Justinian they all served with considerable awe. His hand was in everything, and his passion for turmoil created universal consternation." [ [ Procopius of Caesarea, The Secret History, chapter 10. 1927 translation by Richard Atwater.] ] Evans notes that the new law can be found in in the Corpus Juris Civilis. [ [ James Allan Evans, "Theodora (Wife of Justinian I)"] ]

In fact it is included in Book 5, title 4, chapter 23. "Deeming it the proper subject of imperial benevolence to investigate and at all times foster the advantages of our subjects, we think that the errors also of women, through which, on account of the frailty of their sex, they may choose a mode of life unworthy of their honor, should be corrected by proper restraint, so that they may not be deprived of the hope of a better condition, but may look forward to that and thus more easily avoid an inconsiderate and dishonorable alliance. For we believe that we can thus imitate, as much as it possible for us to do, the benevolence and great clemency of God to the human race, who contescends always to pardon the daily sins of men, to receive our rependance and to lend us back to a better condition:if we fail to do this in the case of those subjected to our sway, we shall be unworthy of forgiveness." [ [ Annotated Justinian Code. Book 5, title 4, chapter 23. 1943 translation by Fred H. Blume] ]
*"Thus since it would be unjust that slaves should be able to receive their freedom by imperial indulgence and be restored to their natural rights so as to live, upon bestowal of imperial beneficence of that kind, as if they had never been slaves and had always been free born, but that women, who have been on the stage, but who have changed their mind and have abandoned a dishonorable profession, should have no hope of imperial beneficence which might lead them back to the condition in which they might have lived if they had not sinned, we grant them by this beneficent imperial sanction the right that, if they abandon their dishonorable conduct, and embrace a better and honorable mode of life, they may supplicate our majesty, and they will unhesitatingly be granted asn imperial rescript permitting to enter into a legal marriage." [ [ Annotated Justinian Code. Book 5, title 4, chapter 23. 1943 translation by Fred H. Blume] ]
*"Persons who marry them need not fear that such alliance will be invalid under the provisions of our former laws, but may be confident that such matrimony shall be as valid as if their wives had not previously lived any dishonorable life, whether the husbands possess a title or are otherwise forbidden to marry women that have been on the stage, provided that such alliance must be proven by marriage documents, and not otherwise." [ [ Annotated Justinian Code. Book 5, title 4, chapter 23. 1943 translation by Fred H. Blume] ]
*"Such women shall be entirely cleansed of all stain as if they had been returned to their natal condition. No dishonor shall adhere to them, and we want no difference to exist between them and those who have not sinned in a similar matter". [ [ Annotated Justinian Code. Book 5, title 4, chapter 23. 1943 translation by Fred H. Blume] ]

The same law also includes regulations making children produced by said marriages legitimate, gives the former actresses rights to inherit estates and transfer property to others prior to their marriage and allows women who hold titles to marry beneath their station. The daughters of actresses also had legal limitations. The future daughters of former actresses benefiting from this law had no such limitations. Already living daughters of former actresses could petition the emperor to remove such legal restrictions from them. The law extended the right to petition also to daughters of active actresses. The law also retroactively acknowledged already existing marital alliances between partners of unequal status, legitimizing their status. Justin makes a point however that the marital alliances permitted by the law should not be "nefarious" or "incestuous" [ [ Annotated Justinian Code. Book 5, title 4, chapter 23. 1943 translation by Fred H. Blume] ]

"It was then that he undertook to complete his marriage with Theodora. But as it was impossible for a man of senatorial rank to make a courtesan his wife, this being forbidden by ancient law, he made the Emperor nullify this ordinance by creating a new one, permitting him to wed Theodora, and consequently making it possible for anyone else to marry a courtesan. Immediately after this he seized the power of the Emperor, veiling his usurpation with a transparent pretext: for he was proclaimed colleague of his uncle as Emperor of the Romans by the questionable legality of an election inspired by terror. So Justinian and Theodora ascended the imperial throne three days before Easter, a time, indeed, when even making visits or greeting one's friends is forbidden. And not many days later Justin died of an illness, after a reign of nine years. Justinian was now sole monarch, together, of course, with Theodora." [ [ Procopius of Caesarea, The Secret History, chapter 10. 1927 translation by Richard Atwater.] ]

"Thus it was that Theodora, though born and brought up as I have related, rose to royal dignity over all obstacles. For 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: a maiden, as they say, with upstanding breasts. 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." ... "However, not a single member of even the Senate, seeing this disgrace befalling the State, dared to complain or forbid the event; but all of them bowed down before her as if she were a goddess. Nor was there a priest who showed any resentment, but all hastened to greet her as Highness. And the populace who had seen her before on the stage, directly raised its hands to proclaim itself her slave in fact and in name. Nor did any soldier grumble at being ordered to risk the perils of war for the benefit of Theodora, nor was there any man on earth who ventured to oppose her. Confronted with this disgrace, they all yielded, I suppose, to necessity, for it was as if Fate were giving proof of its power to control mortal affairs as malignantly as it pleases, showing that its decrees need not always be according to reason or human propriety. Thus does Destiny sometimes raise mortals suddenly to lofty heights in defiance of reason, in challenge to all out cries of injustice; but admits no obstacle, urging on his favorites to the appointed goal without let or hindrance. But as this is the will of God, so let it befall and be written." [ [ Procopius of Caesarea, The Secret History, chapter 10. 1927 translation by Richard Atwater.] ]


"Now Theodora was fair of face and of a very graceful, though small, person; her complexion was moderately colorful, if somewhat pale; and her eyes were dazzling and vivacious. All eternity would not be long enough to allow one to tell her escapades while she was on the stage, but the few details I have mentioned above should be sufficient to demonstrate the woman's character to future generations." [ [ Procopius of Caesarea, The Secret History, chapter 10. 1927 translation by Richard Atwater.] ]

Ascent to the Byzantine throne

Justinian was crowned "augustus" (emperor) and Theodora "augusta" on April 4 527, giving them control of the Byzantine Empire. A contemporary official, Joannes Laurentius Lydus, remarked that she was "superior in intelligence to any man". [Lynn Hunt "et al.", "The Making of the West: Peoples and Cultures", Boston Bedford, 2001, p. 263.] Justinian clearly recognized this as well, allowing her to share his throne and take active part in decision making. As Justinian writes, he consulted Theodora when he promulgated a constitution that included reforms meant to end corruption by public officials.cite web|url= |title=Theodora - Byzantine Empress | |language=English |date= |accessdate=2008-04-11]

The imperial status of Theodora also proved profitable for her relatives. Her sister Comito became the wife of a rising young officer, Sittas, though he was to die young while campaigning in Armenia. Her niece Sophia married the nephew of Justinian, Justin II, who succeeded his uncle in 565.

Partnership in power


According to Procopius: "What she and her husband did together must now be briefly described: for neither did anything without the consent of the other. For some time it was generally supposed they were totally different in mind and action; but later it was revealed that their apparent disagreement had been arranged so that their subjects might not unanimously revolt against them, but instead be divided in opinion."

"Thus they split the Christians into two parties, each pretending to take the part of one side, thus confusing both, as I shall soon show; and then they ruined both political factions. Theodora feigned to support the Blues with all her power, encouraging them to take the offensive against the opposing party and perform the most outrageous deeds of violence; while Justinian, affecting to be vexed and secretly jealous of her, also pretended he could not openly oppose her orders. And thus they gave the impression often that they were acting in opposition. Then he would rule that the Blues must be punished for their crimes, and she would angrily complain that against her will she was defeated by her husband. However, the Blue partisans, as I have said, seemed cautious, for they did not violate their neighbors as much as they might have done." [ [ Procopius of Caesarea, The Secret History, chapter 10. 1927 translation by Richard Atwater.] ]

"And in legal disputes each of the two would pretend to favor one of the litigants, and compel the man with the worse case to win: and so they robbed both disputants of most of the property at issue. In the same way, the Emperor, taking many persons into his intimacy, gave them offices by power of which they could defraud the State to the limits of their ambition. And as soon as they had collected enough plunder, they would fall out of favor with Theodora, and straightway be ruined. At first he would affect great sympathy in their behalf, but soon he would somehow lose his confidence in them, and an air of doubt would darken his zeal in their behalf. Then Theodora would use them shamefully, while he, unconscious as it were of what was being done to them, confiscated their properties and boldly enjoyed their wealth. By such well-planned hypocrisies they confused the public and, pretending to be at variance with each other, were able to establish a firm and mutual tyranny." [ [ Procopius of Caesarea, The Secret History, chapter 10. 1927 translation by Richard Atwater.] ]

Events of the reign

Theodora proved herself a worthy and able leader during the Nika riots. There were two rival political factions in the Empire, the Blues and the Greens, which started a riot stemming from many grievances in January 532, during a chariot race in the hippodrome. The rioters set many public buildings on fire and proclaimed a new emperor. Theodora proved herself ruthless, as it was her will that Pompeius and Hypatius, the nephews of Anastasius I, be put to death when the mob had chosen Hypatius to replace Justinian. Unable to control the mob, Justinian and his officials prepared to flee. At a meeting of the government council, Theodora spoke out against leaving the palace and underlined the significance of someone who died as a ruler instead of living as nothing. Her determined speech convinced them all. As a result, Justinian ordered his loyal troops led by two reliable officers, Belisarius and Mundus, to attack the demonstrators in the hippodrome. His generals attacked the hippodrome, killing over 30,000 rebels. Historians agree that it was Theodora's courage and decisiveness that saved Justinian's reign.

Following the Nika revolt, Justinian and Theodora reformed Constantinople and made it the most splendid city the world had seen for centuries, building or rebuilding aqueducts, bridges and more than twenty five churches. The greatest of these is Hagia Sophia, considered the epitome of Byzantine architecture and one of the architectural wonders of the world.

Theodora was punctilious about court ceremony. According to Procopius, the Imperial couple made all senators, including patricians, prostrate themselves before them whenever they entered their presence, and made it clear that their relations with the civil militia were those of masters and slaves. They also carefully supervised the magistrates, much more so than previous emperors, possibly to reduce bureaucratic corruption. Theodora also created her own centers of power. The eunuch Narses, who in old age developed into a brilliant general, was her protege, and so was the praetorian prefect Peter Barsymes. John the Cappadocian, Justinian's chief tax collector, was identified as her enemy, because of his independent influence.

Theodora participated in Justinian's legal and spiritual reforms, and her involvement in the increase of the rights of women was substantial. She had laws passed that prohibited forced prostitution and closed brothels. She created a convent on the Asian side of the Dardanelles called the "Metanoia" (Repentance), where the ex-prostitutes could support themselves. She also expanded the rights of women in divorce and property ownership, instituted the death penalty for rape, forbade exposure of unwanted infants, gave mothers some guardianship rights over their children, and forbade the killing of a wife who committed adultery.

Religious policy

Theodora worked against her husband's support of Chalcedonian Christianity in the ongoing struggle for the predominance of each faction. In spite of Justinian being Orthodox Christian, Theodora founded a Monophysite monastery in Sykae and provided shelter in the palace for Monophysite leaders who faced opposition from the majority Orthodox Christians, like Severus and Anthimus. Anthimus, had been appointed Patriarch of Constantinople under her influence, and after the excommunication order he was hidden in Theodora's quarters for twelve years, until her death. When the Chalcedonian Patriarch Ephraim provoked a violent revolt in Antioch, eight Monophysite bishops were invited to Constantinople and Theodora welcomed them and housed them in the Hormisdas Palace adjoining the Great Palace, which had been Justinian and Theodora's own dwelling before they became emperor and empress.

In Egypt, when Timothy III died, Theodora enlisted the help of Dioscoros the Augustal Prefect and Aristomachos the duke of Egypt, to facilitate the enthronement of a disciple of Severus, Theodosius, thereby outmaneuvering her husband who had been plotting for a Catholic successor as patriarch. But Pope Theodosius I of Alexandria, even with the help of imperial troops, could not hold his ground in Alexandria against the Julianists and when he was exiled by Justinian along with 300 Monophysites to the fortress of Delcus in Thrace, Theodora rescued him and brought him to the Hormisdas Palace where he lived under her protection, and after her death in 548, under Justinian's.

When Pope Silverius refused Theodora's demand that he remove the anathema of Pope Agapetus I from Anthimus, she sent Belisarius instructions to find a pretext to remove Silverius. When this was accomplished, Virgilius was appointed in his stead.

Conclusively, Theodora's policy on theological matters was separatist. One could argue, as the Chalcedonians did, that Theodora fostered heresy and thus undermined the unity of Christendom. But it would be equally fair to say that Theodora's policy delayed the alienation of the eastern church, and might have postponed it indefinitely but for external events she could not control or foresee.

Another incident, which shows how far Theodora could go to thwart her husband on religious matters, is the case of Nobatae, south of Egypt, whose inhabitants were converted to Monophysite Christianity about 540. Justinian had been determined that they be converted to the Chalcedonian faith and Theodora equally determined that they should be Monophysites. Justinian made arrangements for Chalcedonian missionaries from Thebaid to go with presents to Silko, the king of the Nobatae. But on hearing this, Theodora prepared her own missionaries and wrote to the duke of Thebaid that he should delay her husband's embassy so that the Monophysite missionaries should arrive first; otherwise he would pay for it with his life. The duke was canny enough to thwart the easygoing Justinian instead of the unforgiving Theodora. He saw to it that the Chalcedonian missionaries were delayed. When they eventually reached Silko, they were sent away, for the Nobatae had already adopted the Monophysite creed of Theodosius.


Theodora died of an unspecified cancer on June 28 548 before the age of 50, 17 years before Justinian. Her body was buried in the Church of the Holy Apostles, in Constantinople. Though it has been argued that the sole source for her illness, Victor of Tonnena, may not use the word "cancer" in its modern medical sense, yet cancer seems to be best guess. (There is no documentation to suggest that she died of breast cancer, as some scholars have suggested.) Justinian wept bitterly at her funeral. [Diehl, "ibid.", p.197.]

Both Theodora and Justinian are represented in mosaics that exist to this day in the Basilica of San Vitale of Ravenna, Italy, which was completed a year before her death.

Known family members

John Malalas records that Comito, her older sister, married Sittas in 528.PLRE, vol. 3, "Sittas"] Sittas may thus be the father of Sophia, Theodora's niece. [ [*.html#note192 J. B. Bury, "History of the Later Roman Empire from the Death of Theodosius I to the Death of Justinian" (1923)] ] . Whether Anastasia, her younger sister, ever married is unknown. [ Lynda Garland, "Sophia, Wife of Justin II"] ]
Theophanes the Confessor names Georgius (George) and Ioannes (John) as relatives of Theodora. [Prosopography of the Later Roman Empire, vol. 3]

Procopius mentions a marital alliance between Theodora and general Belisarius. "For the two entered forthwith into a relationship by marriage and Joannina, the only daughter of Belisarius, was betrothed to Anastasius, grandson of the Empress." [ [*.html The Secret History of Procopius, Chapter 4. 1935 translation by H. B. Dewing] ] H. B. Dewing , a 1930s historian and translator, commented "On the subject of Theodora's offspring, both Greek and Latin authors are silent except Procopius, who makes mention of her grandson Anastasius. This notice is corroborated by the Syriac Historia Ecclesiastica of John of Ephesus (German transl., p55): "The blessed John, who was sprung from the family of the Emperor Anastasius and also was a son of the Empress Theodora's daughter." And on p196 of the same work there is mention of "Athanasius, son of the Empress Theodora's daughter." Also, in a German rendering of John of Ephesus, p269, Schoenfelder notes: "Athanasius appears in Bar-Hebraeus as an intermediary between Ascosnagh and Philoponus: he says: 'At that time the Empress Theodora had a grandson, by name Athanasius. . . .'. Also Michael the Syrian., p197: "Athanasius, grandson of the Empress Theodora." " [ [*.html The Secret History of Procopius, Chapter 4. Introduction by H. B. Dewing] ] The daughter of Theodora is never named in sources despite the mentions of at least two of her sons. [Prosopography of the Later Roman Empire, vol. 3] In 1838, Nicolas Alemann suggested that this was a legitimate daughter of Theodora and Justinian. However this would mean the grandchildren of Theodora had a valid claim to the throne. Something no extant source mentions. The daughter was probably illegitimate and the identity of her father remains uncertain. Her husband seems to have been one of the many relatives of Anastasius I. [ [ Profile of Justin I and his family in "Medieval Lands" by Charles Cawley] ] Justinian apparently treated the daughter and the daughter's son Athanasius as fully legitimate [Diehl, Charles. Theodora, "Empress of Byzantium" ((c) 1972 by Frederick Ungar Publishing, Inc., transl. by S.R. Rosenbaum from the original French "Theodora, Imperatice de Byzance"), 69-70.] , although sources disagree whether Justinian was the girl's father.

Procopius also mentions an illegitimate son of Theodora. "She had accidentally become pregnant by one of her lovers, when she was still on the stage; and perceiving her ill luck too late tried all the usual measures to cause a miscarriage, but despite every artifice was unable to prevail against nature at this advanced stage of development. Finding that nothing else could be done, she abandoned the attempt and was compelled to give birth to the child. The father of the baby, seeing that Theodora was at her wit's end and vexed because motherhood interfered with her usual recreations, and suspecting with good reason that she would do away with the child, took the infant from her, naming him John, and sailed with the baby to Arabia. Later, when he was on the verge of death and John was a lad of fourteen, the father told him the whole story about his mother. So the boy, after he had performed the last rites for his departed father, shortly after came to Constantinople and announced his presence to the Empress's chamberlains. And they, not conceiving the possibility of her acting so inhumanly, reported to the mother that her son John had come. Fearing the story would get to the ears of her husband, Theodora bade her son be brought face to face with her. As soon as he entered, she handed him over to one of her servants who was ordinarily entrusted with such commissions. And in what manner the poor lad was removed from the world, I cannot say, for no one has ever seen him since, not even after the Queen died." [ [ Procopius of Caesarea, The Secret History, chapter 17. 1927 translation by Richard Atwater.] ]

Lasting Influence

Her influence on Justinian was so strong that after her death, he worked to bring harmony between the Monophysites and the Orthodox Christians in the Empire, and he kept his promise to protect her little community of Monophysite refugees in the Hormisdas Palace. Theodora provided much political support for the ministry of Jacob Baradaeus, and apparently personal friendship as well. Diehl attributes the modern existence of Jacobite Christianity equally to Baradaeus and to Theodora. [Diehl, "ibid.", p.184.]

Theodora is considered a great female figure of the Byzantine Empire, and a pioneer of feminism, because of the laws she passed, increasing the rights of women. As a result of Theodora's efforts, the status of women in the Byzantine Empire was elevated far above that of women in the Middle East and the rest of Europe.


Further reading

* Diehl, Charles. "Theodora, Empress of Byzantium" ((c) 1972 by Frederick Ungar Publishing, Inc., transl. by S.R. Rosenbaum from the original French "Theodora, Imperatice de Byzance"). Popular account based on the author's extensive scholarly research.
* Gibbon, Edward. "The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire". (See volume 4, chapter 40 for Gibbon's account of Theodora.)
* Graves, Robert. "Count Belisarius". (A historical novel by the author of "I, Claudius" which features Theodora as a character.)
* Bury, J. B. "The Later Roman Empire". (Volume 2 deals with the reign of Justinian and Theodora)
* [ Procopius "The Secret History" at the Internet Medieval Sourcebook]
* [ Procopius "The Secret History" at LacusCurtius]

External links

* [ De Imperatoribus Romanis - Theodora (Wife of Justinian I)]
* [ Gibbons' "The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: The Fall of the Roman Empire in the East"]
* [ Then again - The Empress Theodora]
* [ Litopia - Empress Theodora]
* [,M1 Her profile in the Prosopography of the Later Roman Empire]
* [ Profile of her older sister Comito in the Prosopography]

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