Theodora the Blessed (c. 810–c. 860)

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Theodora the Blessed (c. 810–c. 860)

Empress of Byzantium. Name variations: Thecla or Thekla; St. Theodora; Theodora of Paphlagonia; Theodora the Blessed. Born around 810 in Paphlagonia; died around 860 in Byzantium; sister of Bardas (Bardus); married Theophilus I, emperor of Byzantium, in 829 (died 842); children: Mary (or Maria); Thecla; Anna; Anastasia (fl. 800s); Pulcheria; Constantine; Michael III (b. around 836), later known as Michael the Drunkard, emperor of Byzantium (r. 842–867).

Theodora served as empress and regent of the Byzantine Empire and was made a saint by the Eastern Orthodox Church. She was born around 810, a princess of Paphlagonia, a region of the Byzantine empire situated on the Black Sea, and was chosen to be the wife of the emperor Theophilus I, whom she married around 830. Theophilus was an iconoclast and harsh on matters ecclesiastical; thus his marriage to Theodora was ironic, as she was an iconodule. Nonetheless, the marriage proved to be a wise decision for Theophilus, for the intelligent Theodora, noted for her courage and thoughtfulness, became quite popular. Though theirs was reputedly a happy marriage, the emperor was unaware that his wife and five daughters continued to venerate icons.

Empress Theodora was widowed in 842. Although her son Michael was proclaimed the new emperor as Michael III, he was still a young child, having been born around 836. Thus a regency was established to rule in his name until he came of age, and Theodora was chosen to act as regent. This was not surprising given that, unlike a stranger who might wield power for his own benefit, a mother could usually be trusted to act in her son's best interests, and Theodora had shown herself capable of handling the burden of rule in her years as Theophilus' empress-consort. (There is some indication that her eldest surviving daughter Thecla might have shared the regency.)

Theodora's main achievement during her 14 years as regent was the restoration of religious orthodoxy. In previous years, various religious sects and heresies had been allowed to exist within the empire largely unchecked. Theodora, devoutly orthodox in her own beliefs, set to work at once to eliminate these threats to the Church. However, she showed considerable patience and moderation in doing so; she refused to sanction violence against the heretics as a means of stamping them out, and did not wish to incite fanatical hatred of them on the part of Orthodox citizens. Instead, she took cautious, slow steps to encourage all citizens to keep the Orthodox faith, and these efforts were rewarded by a decline in the popularity of such sects. She carried on the government with a firm and judicious hand, replenishing the treasury, and repelling the Bulgarians during an attempted invasion.

But when it came to her son, Theodora made some important mistakes which would ultimately end her reign. To ensure her power, she neglected her son's education, encouraged him to pursue a life of pleasure, and refused to allow him to co-rule with her, probably because she regarded herself as more qualified to reign. The licentious Michael resented her, despite the fact that she kept the empire peaceful and prosperous during her regency. Michael grew up under the influence of his uncle Bardas. Though Theodora tried in vain to counter her brother's authority, Bardas triumphed by murdering her advisor Theoctistus; he then had the senate proclaim Michael an independent ruler, ending Theodora's regency in 856. Convicted of intrigues, she was banished along with her daughters to a monastery. Theodora died about four years later, and was proclaimed a saint for her zeal on behalf of image-worship.

Laura York , M.A. in History, University of California, Riverside, California

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Theodora the Blessed (c. 810–c. 860)

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