Who was Theodora?
Theodora was the wife of the Byzantine emperor Justinian I. She is considered as one of the most powerful women in the history of the Byzantine Empire. She was the emperor’s most trusted consultant. It is said that she used her influence over the king to endorse policies related to religion and social issues which served her interests. We come to know about Theodora’s life from historical documents like that of Procopius’s ‘The Wars of Justinian’. The book portrays the empress as a very strong and dominant personality. On the other hand, ‘Secret History’ by the same historian, shows her as a shrewd and mean queen who used her sexuality to control the emperor. Other documents record her as a very beautiful and pious woman. History remembers Theodora as an empress who fought for women rights and passed laws to prohibit the trafficking of young girls. She also made significant changes to the divorce laws. The most important event that happened during her reign was the Nika revolt where she proved herself to be a commendable leader by giving a moving speech about the honor of a ruler. It is believed that she died of cancer at the age of 48.
Childhood & Early Life
Very little is known about Theodora’s early life. Historians are of the opinion that she was either born on the Crete Island, off the coast of Greece or she was of Syrian origin, in 497 AD.
Her father Acacius was a bear trainer in Constantinople. Her mother was a dancer and an actress. She had two siblings.
She followed her sister’s footsteps and started working in a Constantinople brothel. She earned her living as an actress. At that time, being an actress also meant that the woman would have to provide sexual services outside the stage.
When she was 16, she became a companion of Hacebolus, a Syrian official and went to North Africa. After leaving him, she spent a few years in Alexandria, Egypt, where she converted into the non orthodox religion, Monophysitism.
After returning to Constantinople, in 522, she settled down as a wool spinner. It was during this time that she caught the attention of Justinian.
Justinian could not marry her because of the Roman law which prohibited aristocrats from marrying actresses. However, in 525, the Emperor Justin I revoked the law and Justinian could marry Theodora. Her daughter was also accepted by the emperor.
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Theodora was an intelligent and able empress. She proved her worthiness during the Nika riots, in January 532 AD.
The rioters proclaimed that the nephew of the previous emperor, Hypatius be made the new king. The mob set government buildings on fire and created difficult situation for the emperor. Unable to control the protesters, Justinian decided to run away but Theodora spoke against fleeing at a meeting. She condemned the idea of living in exile and spoke in favor of dying bravely as a ruler.
Encouraged by her bold speech, Justinian ordered his army to attack the protesters and they were successful in their attempt. The protesters were killed and at Theodora’s assertion, Hypatius was also executed. Historians say that Justinian acknowledged the courage of his wife forever and accepted the fact that it was her determination that saved the Byzantine throne.
After the revolt was successfully resisted, Theodora and Justinian I, rebuilt the entire Constantinople. Many bridges, aqueducts and churches were established along with Hagia Sophia, which is a splendid example of the innovativeness of Byzantine architecture.
She is best remembered for the reforms she introduced for empowering women. She closed down brothels and passed anti-prostitution laws. For the jobless sex workers, she created the Metanoia convent.
She also introduced death sentence for rape, increased the rights of women in divorce and child guardianship and revoked death sentence for an adulterous woman. Historians say that she had a natural proclivity towards unfortunate women.
She supported the Monophysite sect and was against her husband’s support of Chalcedonian Christianity. To extend her support towards the Monophysites, she founded a monastery in Skyae.
She also provided shelter to Monophysite leaders like Severus and Anthimus, inside the palace. Other Monophysite bishops were housed in the Hormisdas Palace, at her command.
Theodora rescued Aristomachos, the disciple of Severus, when he was exiled by Justinian I. She gave him shelter at the Hormisdas palace and he lived there safely till her death.
She even outmaneuvered her husband in converting the inhabitants of Nobatae (south of Egypt) to Monophysite Christianity. The duke of Thebaid realized that it would be safer to go by Theodora’s wishes rather than her tolerant husband’s and so delayed the arrival of Chalcedonian missionaries and let the people be converted into Monophysite religion.
Personal Life & Legacy
Theodora died of what is perceived to be, cancer on 28th June, 548. She was buried in the Church of Holy Apostles, in Constantinople. She was only 48 years old at the time of her death.
Her mosaic was created in the Basilica of San Vitale of Ravenna, Italy, a year after her death.
The ancient city of Olbia in Cyrenaica renamed itself Theodorias after her name.
Her fascinating life has been the subject of many books such as ‘The Glittering Horn: Secret Memoirs of the Court of Justinia’, ‘The Bearkeeper's Daughter’.
She is the Byzantine leader in a video game based on the ancient civilizations.