Sophia (c. 525–after 600)

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Sophia (c. 525–after 600)

Empress of Byzantium and Rome. Born around 525; died after 600; daughter of Sittas and Comitona (sister of Empress Theodora); niece of Empress Theodora (c. 500–548); married Flavius Justinus or Justin II (son of Emperor Justinian I's sister, Vigilantia), emperor of Byzantium and Rome (r. 565–578); children: son Justus; daughter Arabia.

Empress Sophia was born around 525, the daughter of Sittas and Comitona who was the oldest of three sisters. Comitona, Anastasia , and the future empress Theodora were the daughters of Acacius, a keeper of bears at the Circus of Constantinople, and an unnamed actress-dancer. As such, the family was of lowly status but in contact with many of the most elevated members of the imperial court of the late Roman Empire. With her sisters, Comitona began a career as an "actress" (with an apparently lewd stage show). However, her prospects vastly improved after her sister Theodora caught the attention of Justinian I, whose mistress and eventual wife she became. Justinian brought Theodora and her sisters to court, where they came to enjoy a quantum leap in status, especially after Justinian became emperor in 527. It is not known whether Comitona was as attractive or as beguiling as her famous sister, but not long after Theodora's status as Justinian's wife and empress was legitimized, Comitona herself married a high official named Sittas (probably in 528). Sophia seems to have been born several years before her parents' union was officially sanctioned by church and state, but this was a time and place where unsanctioned liaisons were common, even among the mighty.

Sophia's father probably was of Gothic origin, and he began his career as a member of Justinian's bodyguard. Just prior to his marriage to Comitona, Sittas (with the famous Belisarius) commanded two plundering incursions into Armenia. Almost certainly it was the military competency demonstrated during these missions which induced Justinian to honor Sittas by allowing him to become the emperor's brother-in-law. Probably in 529, an additional indication of Justinian's favor came in Sittas' appointment as the first ever "Master of Soldiers" for Armenia. Sittas' performance in his new capacity justified Justinian's faith in his ability, for he again met with military success: so much so, in fact, that Justinian began to employ his talents against the Sasanid Persians—the Roman Empire's most powerful eastern rival. In 532, Sittas became a diplomat as well as a general, for in that year he helped to negotiate a peace with the Persians which the otherwise hard-pressed (at the time) Justinian very much desired. By 536, there existed two additional indications that Sittas' star was rapidly rising: first, he was elevated into the ranks of the prestigious patrician order (a status which Sophia would also attain, although it is not known whether she did so as a result of Sittas' success or as the result of her own rise to power), and second, he was assigned a new command, this time against the Bulgars. When he was absent from Armenia and the east, however, the Roman position there deteriorated. As a result, it was not long until Sittas was reassigned to Armenia. Before he could reestablish Rome's domination in the region, however, he was killed during a treacherous ambush planned by some whom he thought to be allies (539).

Sophia thus reached a marriageable age only after her father's death. Yet, she did so at a court where Sittas' memory was held in extreme reverence. This, plus the fact that Justinian and Theodora had no children of their own, led Sophia to develop an especially close relationship with her imperial uncle and aunt. Upon the urging of Theodora, when it came time for Sophia to marry (probably about 542), Justinian arranged for her to be given to Justin (II), the son of the emperor's sister, Vigilantia . This union was important to Theodora for two reasons. First, it enhanced the status of Justin, whom Theodora wanted Justinian to name as his successor in lieu of Germanus (Justinian's cousin and closest living relative, whom Theodora loathed). And second, Sophia's marriage created a second link between Justinian's family and Theodora's, thereby reinforcing Theodora's influence and helping to insulate her from political detractors. Although Theodora died (548) long before Justinian (565), her influence over him in the matter of succession was never overcome by those who preferred Germanus to Justin. Thus, when Justinian died and Justin II became an Augustus (emperor) of the Roman world, Sophia officially began her reign as an Augusta.

Justin II and Sophia had two children: a son Justus and a daughter Arabia . Unfortunately, Justus died before the imperial accession of his parents, leaving Justin II with no direct heir. Arabia reached adulthood and married a Baduarius, who served as a military commander under his father-in-law, especially against the Lombards. Apparently the relationship between Justin II and Baduarius was occasionally rocky. In the end, however, that did not matter. Baduarius died (probably in 576) fighting the Lombards in the vain attempt to keep them from seizing northern Italy from the eastern Empire. Thus, he predeceased Justin II and could not become his imperial successor. Baduarius and Arabia had a daughter, Firmina .

Although Justin II demonstrated promise when his uncle, the imperial predecessor, still lived, and although the early years of his reign generally knew the benefits of competent rule, by 574 Justin began to exhibit signs of mental illness. Thereafter, he increasingly became isolated from both his subjects and imperial affairs, and Sophia began to assert herself in the running of the empire. Sophia apparently was conventionally religious (unlike her aunt who stirred up religious controversy), so she met with little opposition over matters of the spirit. She demonstrated a strong will and an ambitious nature—qualities not unlike those which had emancipated Theodora from the sordid world of the circus and catapulted her to the heady heights of the imperial palace.

Sophia grew as her husband diminished, principally in the always contentious arena of court politics. She especially concerned herself with the problem of her husband's successor, since after 574 Justin II was decreasingly competent. Sophia's ally in the factional rivalry which developed over the succession was Tiberius (II Constantine), the commander of the Imperial Bodyguard, whom Justin II named as his caesar (junior emperor) in 574 upon the recommendation of Sophia. Tiberius was a handsome man. In fact, he was so good looking that many suspected that Sophia coveted more than his political and military insight. Fueling such suspicion was the fact that after Tiberius' promotion to caesar, Sophia refused to allow Tiberius the right to bring his wife Ino-Anastasia to live at the palace. Indeed, it is probable that Sophia maneuvered to marry Tiberius after it became clear that Justin II's health was mortally declining. However, it is more likely that the passion which drove her to Tiberius was a lust to retain imperial power and influence, rather than a physical desire for his body.

Regardless, before Justin II died Sophia became the first late Roman Augusta to be portrayed on imperial coins—a symbolic recognition of her imperial significance. This honor was appropriate since Sophia was especially engaged in the economic affairs of the empire as an advocate of debt relief. This fiscal concern for the plight of the poor was coupled with an enthusiasm for the dispensing of charity. Indeed, charity was an imperial virtue expected of emperors and empresses, but even so, Sophia was zealous in shouldering this responsibility.

Between 574 and 578 Sophia, with Tiberius at her side, dominated the imperial court and its day-to-day business. When it became clear that Justin II had little time to live, Sophia urged her decrepit husband to appoint Tiberius as a full Augustus. Justin II did as Sophia advised—and just in time, for a little more than a week after the promotion of Tiberius, Justin II died. Then, Sophia received a shock. Although she was expecting Tiberius to marry her (after the appropriate period of mourning), he did not. While continuing to honor Sophia after his accession (referring to her in public as "Mother"), Tiberius brought his wife Ino-Anastasia and two daughters to the palace, removing Sophia from its central apartment. Clearly, Tiberius had no intention of allowing Sophia to remain an empress in practice as well as in name under his watch (she did, however, retain the title of Augusta).

This "betrayal" incited Sophia to attempt to replace Tiberius on the throne with a Justinian who was the son of Justin II's one-time imperial rival, Germanus. Unfortunately for Sophia, however, Tiberius learned of her plans and nipped them in the bud. He seems to have considered the impetuous Justinian as no threat, for Sophia's would-be agent was pardoned. On the other hand, Tiberius punished Sophia as befit one with her status and past: he removed her entirely from the central court and placed her under house arrest in a residence of her own. Nonetheless, although Tiberius controlled access to Sophia, he never ceased to show her respect in public and he continued to permit her the use of the title Augusta. In fact, Tiberius seems to have truly respected Sophia's political instincts, for when his own health rapidly declined in 582, mandating the appointment of a successor, he called in Sophia to petition her advice. Sophia favored one Maurice Tiberius, and largely because of her recommendation, Tiberius soon appointed that man as his imperial heir.

Ino-Anastasia (fl. 575–582)

Byzantine empress. Flourished around 575 to 582; married Tiberius II Constantine, Byzantine emperor (r. 578–582); children: Constantina (who married Maurice Tiberius [Mauritius], Byzantine emperor [r. 582–602]); another daughter.

Constantina (fl. 582–602)

Byzantine empress. Name variations: Constantia. Flourished between 582 and 602; daughter of Tiberius II Constantine, Byzantine emperor (r. 578–582), and Ino-Anastasia; married Maurice Tiberius (Mauritius), Byzantine emperor (r. 582–602); children: nine.

Constantina, the daughter of Emperor Tiberius II Constantine and Empress Ino-Anastasia , was given in marriage to Maurice Tiberius, a Cappodocian who had risen in prominence in the army and assumed the throne by this union. The couple had nine children. Maurice's military reforms would play an important part in saving the empire in future years, but when he gave an unpopular order to his troops campaigning against the Avars north of the Danube, it caused a revolution. As Phocas I entered the city, Maurice Tiberius and Constantina fled with their children. Maurice was captured and ordered to watch as Phocas beheaded all of the children, including an infant. Phocas then beheaded Maurice. The fate of Constantina is unknown.

Within a fortnight of this announcement, Tiberius was dead, Maurice was an Augustus, and Sophia had returned to her freedom. Little is known about Sophia during Maurice's reign, but it seems likely that her incarceration under Tiberius had taught her a lesson about the appropriate behavior expected of an aging Augusta. Apparently Sophia got along well with Maurice's wife Constantina (daughter of Tiberius and Ino-Anastasia), which would never have been the case if Sophia was perceived as interfering over-much in imperial politics. The last we know of Sophia concerns a ceremony on Easter in 601, when she and Constantina presented a richly decorated crown to Maurice which thereafter graced Hagia Sophia as an imperial symbol. Thus, Sophia seems to have lived harmoniously for about 20 years at the court of her own husband's successor, once removed. Whether Sophia lived to see the imperial overthrow of Maurice by Phocas in 602 is not known, but if she did it is not likely, given her age and the length of time she had been removed from the center of politics, that there was much she could have done to prevent that coup.

William S. Greenwalt , Associate Professor of Classical History, Santa Clara University, Santa Clara, California

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Sophia (c. 525–after 600)

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