Theodora (c. 500–548)

views updated

Theodora (c. 500–548)

Byzantine empress, known for her courage and sharp political skills, who wielded enormous power as the wife of Justinian I and strongly influenced his policies and actions during their joint rule of the world's greatest existing empire. Pronunciation: Thee-oh-DOR-ah. Co-regent of Byzantium (r. 527–548). Born Theodora (meaning "The gift of God") on the island of Cyprus, or more likely in Syria, around 500 ce; died in 548; second of three daughters of Acacius (the keeper of the Green faction's bears in Constantinople's Hippodrome) and a mother of low status; sister of Comitona and Anastasia; married Justinian I, Byzantine emperor (r. 527–565); children: (before her marriage) two illegitimate children, a son John and a daughter whose name is unknown.

Theodora, probably the most powerful Byzantine woman ever, was born into humble circumstances about 500, probably in the province of Syria. Not long after Theodora's birth, her father Acacius landed a show-business position in the Byzantine Empire's capital, Constantinople. There he assumed the position of bear trainer for the "Greens" (an entertainment-political-religious faction)—an occupation which thrust his family into the hubbub of the Hippodrome, the focal point of all the sophisticated city's entertainment and vice. Unfortunately, Acacius died not much later, leaving an unnamed wife and three young daughters (Comitona , Theodora and Anastasia ), the oldest of whom (Comitona) was only six when she, her mother, and her sisters were faced with poverty and few respectable prospects. To keep her family afloat, the widow took up with another bear trainer and hoped to use her influence with the Greens to obtain Acacius' post for her new lover. As luck would have it, however, the Greens had another man in mind for the job. Nevertheless, Theodora's mother tried to bring pressure to bear on those in a position to secure her family's fortunes by adorning her young daughters as suppliants and having them petition the Greens on behalf of their "stepfather" in front of thousands of spectators. The crowd loved the girls and roared on their behalf, but the embarrassed Greens refused to reconsider their decision. As a result, they became the butt of the assembly. This provided an opportunity for the Greens' bitter rivals, the "Blues," whose bear trainer had also recently died. In order to make points with the masses, the Blues came to the rescue, offering Theodora's mother's friend their open position. Theodora never forgot the humiliation of the Greens' rejection (she never forgot a slight), holding it against them for the rest of her life.

And what a life hers was to be. Surrounded by the din, the excitement, and the vice of a Hippodrome childhood, Theodora and her sisters grew up on the busy streets of the world's greatest city. There they were exposed to all of the morality, material covetousness, and superstition of the gutter, and no matter how far they rose above the station of their birth much of this childhood world went along with them. This is not to say that the Byzantine elite shared none of the attitudes commonly found on the streets, for they frequently did. A good example of a common bond between rich and poor was a deep belief in the potency of magic—an art Theodora was associated with her entire life. Nevertheless, throughout her days, Theodora in particular exhibited an audacious sauciness which could only have been picked up in Constantinople's stews, and which frequently grated on the more refined sensibilities of those born to court life.

Soon after the aforementioned unsuccessful supplication, Theodora and her sisters were required to contribute to their family's financial fortunes. When old enough to learn a few seductive dances, they were introduced to the stage at a time when the word actress was a synonym for prostitute. Unfortunately, even in this lowly profession Theodora was initially among the lowest, for she had no special training and merely sold "her attractions to anyone who came along." Her fortunes, however, rapidly improved, for her beauty, wit, intelligence, and manifest enthusiasm for her new occupation attracted the attention of the best heeled of Constantinople's pleasure-loving population. All indications suggest that the poor girl revelled in the attention, the fast-track partying, and the lucrative financial rewards which accompanied her willingness to share her sexual prowess with others. Yet, Theodora's career track had its drawbacks, for she gave birth to two illegitimate children (a son John and a daughter, name unknown) before she was 17. Theodora raised neither and, at least in the case of her son, gave custody to the father (who left Constantinople for Arabia, where the boy was raised).

For a time Theodora was the toast of the town, her apparent lack of modesty shocking even the most worldly. Before long, however, she realized that her moment in the spotlight would not last forever. Security demanded a more permanent liaison with someone of established station. Theodora found her opportunity in the person of Hecebolus, a middling bureaucrat of Tyrian extraction. When he was posted as the governor of Pentapolis (a region consisting of five cities in modern-day Libya), she accompanied him as his mistress. Yet this relationship proved short-lived, for once in Africa the two fell out for reasons unknown, and Theodora was unceremoniously sent packing with no resources to speak of. From Pentapolis, Theodora made her way to Alexandria, the second city of the Byzantine Empire. There she remained for a time, plying her trade. Nevertheless, it was also there that she became deeply involved with religiosity and religious issues—for the first time in her life as far as is known.

Alexandria supported one of the oldest and most respected Christian communities in the world, with its bishops and monks among the Church's most influential theologians and administrators. Although Christianity was about 500 years old when Theodora visited Alexandria, it by no means had become the monolithic institution which many imagine it to have been. Even before (but especially after) the legalization of Christianity in the 4th century, intense arguments had been waged within the Church concerning a variety of issues. In this debate, regional differences had long been potent, and remained so in Theodora's time for two reasons. First, as populations converted to Christianity, they tended to interpret the Church's message in terms of their previous religious inclinations, which were frequently quite distinct in character. And second, these populations tended to support those (local) theologians who argued for their particular interpretations of sacred literature. As a result, well-developed and subtly divergent theological positions began to distinguish the beliefs of different Christian populations, and these then petrified into traditions. By the 6th century, these divergent traditions were already of some antiquity.

On the other hand, since the reign of Constantine I the Great (d. 337) there had been a tendency by the imperial government to merge the Church's organization into the existing political infrastructure of the empire to accomplish several goals, including the streamlining of bureaucratic administration. As a result, there existed imperial pressure for leaders of the Church to define one orthodoxy of belief—which could thereafter be imposed throughout the empire to help keep it all together and to help make it run smoothly. Just as there was to be one Roman Law and Government, there would be one Roman Christian Church, both to be ruled by the emperor, who would rely on bishops for theological advice and administrative assistance. Naturally, local and imperial notions of orthodoxy frequently clashed, with the unfortunate consequence that almost as long as there had been a legally recognized Christian Church, there had been imperial persecutions of those who, for one reason or another, refused to toe the "orthodox" line as it was at any one time defined by the emperor and those bishops who had his ear.

Since the 4th century, the Egyptian Church had been the source of many problems to those in Constantinople who would define orthodoxy. In Theodora's day, the main issue pitting Constantinople against Alexandria had to do with Christ's nature. As the orthodox forces in Constantinople understood Jesus, he was both God and Man. In Alexandria, however, there were many ecclesiastics (and many, many more everyday Christians) who believed that Jesus had but one nature, and that a divine one. Both sides argued from Scripture, but the religious establishment in Constantinople had the confidence of several emperors, who, as a result, denounced the Monophysites (as they were known) as heretics. When Theodora visited Alexandria, the Monophysites there led by one Timothy, who had a lasting effect on Theodora when the two personally met, were being persecuted. Whether she was won over by the kindness shown to a woman of suspect reputation, whether she embraced the arguments of the Monophysites, or whether she rallied to the cause of the underdog, we will never know, but Theodora came to favor the Monophysites, and later when in a position to do so became their patron, although politics frequently forced her to be discreet in her support. In the meantime, as if heeding an irresistible call, Theodora left Alexandria to make her way through the east from city to city "following an occupation which a man better not name," ultimately to return to her home in Constantinople. Perhaps the most important event during this phase of Theodora's life came in the Syrian city of Antioch where she met Macedonia , a dancing girl associated with the Blue faction of that city who was also reputed to be well versed in magic. Theodora befriended Macedonia, and the two thereafter remained close.

Once returned to the capital, Theodora seems not to have fully renewed her association with its elite. At least by day she modestly spun wool, and thus adopted a traditionally respectable feminine occupation. Shortly thereafter (c. 522), however, she met and probably seduced Justinian (I), about 15 years her senior. Jusintian, though a rising star at court, was still maneuvering against influential rivals to be named the heir of his uncle, Justin I, the reigning emperor of Byzantium. Whatever else might be said of their relationship in its early stages, it is clear that Theodora captivated the ambitious, arrogant, intelligent, vain, competent, and absolutist Justinian from the start. Whether Theodora was similarly smitten is unknowable, but, despite scurrilous gossip, it is clear that henceforth the one man in her life was Justinian. Emotional and physical considerations aside, however, this was a political coupling made in heaven: Justinian was well situated and had great potential; Theodora was a savvy manipulator whose talent for network building and intrigue would help Justinian secure his heart's desire—the imperial throne.

Justinian's infatuation with Theodora was manifestly displayed through lavish gifts which she appreciated with an intensity only those who have been destitute can ever know. Perhaps an even greater token of his love, however, was less material. Although he was very religious and intensely orthodox when Justinian learned of Theodora's Monophysite sympathies, he went out on a limb (considering both that the emperor was also orthodox and that Justinian had yet to

secure his status as heir-apparent) and persuaded Justin to curtail the existing persecution of that religious faction. (Later, however, when he was emperor, Justinian reinstituted the attacks on religious deviants, for he hoped to use orthodoxy to unify the empire and thus diminish existing opposition to his concurrent diplomatic and economic policies.) An invitation for Theodora to move into Justinian's palace and become his mistress followed, but before such a move could be possible socially there was a need to elevate her legal status, for nobody in the imperial inner circle could be an acknowledged intimate of anyone less than a Patrician. As a result, Theodora was officially enrolled as one of the empire's aristocracy. Justinian's subsequent desire to marry Theodora demanded even more maneuvering, for not only did there exist social prejudice against such a union (for example, Justin I's wife Lupicinia-Euphemia was appalled by the thought), there also existed a law which forbade any Senator from legally marrying a courtesan, no matter how much distance she had put between herself and her past. Not to be dissuaded, the increasingly influential Justinian (no doubt prodded by Theodora) was eventually able to convince his aging predecessor to grant him a special dispensation from this restriction, a request which was not granted as long as Justin's wife was alive, but which was accorded soon after her death in 523. Subsequently, Justinian and Theodora were legally married with full ecclesiastical approval and participation as soon as an appropriately splendid wedding could be planned. What the court thought of this development went unreported, but scarcely an eye blinked at Theodora's metamorphosis. The resulting reality, however, can be simply stated—Theodora had suddenly become the wife and confidante of the man who would soon be named heir to the most powerful state in the world. She had overcome her lowly birth.

Thereafter, Justinian and Theodora expanded their dominance over the imperial court as virtual colleagues. Undoubtedly her street smarts, finely honed after years of living by her wits, proved a valuable resource amid the cutthroat realities of imperial politics. Although lacking the patina accompanying lofty social origin, Theodora was not all that much different from the narcissistic elite, a member of which she had become. For three years, Theodora helped Justinian ward off the vicious, if civilized, attacks of rivals, in the process learning the ins and outs of "Byzantine" politics. Among the skills she honed in this formative period were political blackmail and intimidation. She also seems to have ordered the occasional (necessary, of course) physical mutilation and political assassination. Theodora could be generous to a fault, or maliciously ruthless. Those loyal to her and her husband's interests were appropriately rewarded. Those who were not could experience the secret dungeons from which most who entered would never leave. Theodora was no sentimentalist and was capable of sacrificing even her own flesh and blood if circumstances seemed to demand it. Consider the example of her first born, her illegitimate son John, who had been reared by his father in Arabia. When John was in his teens, his father died, but not before revealing on his deathbed who John's mother was: by this time, Theodora was the empress of the Byzantines. The boy traveled to Constantinople, where in a private audience he presented himself to his mother. For whatever reason—perhaps Theodora feared Justinian's personal rejection if he learned of her son, or perhaps she feared that John would constitute an unwanted player in the future succession—John's audience with Theodora was the last anyone ever saw of him. His fate remains unknown, although the historian Procopius clearly hints that John was executed at the order of his mother. It should be realized, however, that Procopius was an unremittant enemy of Theodora.

Lupicinia-Euphemia (d. 523)

Byzantine empress. Name variations: Lupicina-Euphemia. Died in 523; married Justin I (Flavius Justinus), Byzantine emperor (r. 518–527); children: adopted son Justinian I (a nephew of Justin's), Byzantine emperor (r. 527–565).

Before being purchased as a slave by Justin I, Lupicinia-Euphemia was a prisoner of war and camp cook. Justin legally married her long before he ascended to the throne as emperor of Byzantium in 518; by then, both were probably in their 60s. Lupicinia-Euphemia was known for her piety.

Theodora and Justinian were well paired, both being political animals to the bone, and both with the talent to bring their ambitions to fruition. Acting in concert, the two systematically maneuvered to secure a formal declaration of his status as heir-apparent, and their efforts paid off when Justinian was so designated in 525. This victory elevated Justinian and Theodora to the positions respectively of Augustus and Augusta when Justin died two years later. Whatever ambitions Theodora might have aspired to, our sources emphasize her love of pleasure and physical comfort (she was even reported as going to the extreme of bathing every day), and whatever crimes she might have committed, she was neither more effete nor worse than her contemporaries—just more successful and therefore more envied.

Much of Theodora's success came as a result of making friends with the right people, and making sure that the right people were in the right places at the right time. In this sense, she was especially efficient in tapping the influence that women could bring to bear upon the imperial court. Before her success in this regard can be fully appreciated, however, power at the Byzantine court must be understood. Although the empire had a well-established legal tradition and an elaborate government whose very existence was vindicated insofar as it (theoretically) dispensed good justice, and although the emperor's authority was (theoretically) given to him by God so that he could oversee the apportioning of this good justice, the fact of the matter was that the empire was ruled by an autocrat whose word, just or unjust, was law. Power in this society, however allocated "constitutionally," was in reality a function of access to the official (always male—women remained legally barred from holding public office) in charge of any situation. Theodora realized that, as a result, any woman could in reality exert more influence than any male counterpart, if that woman could get closer to the wielder of power than any rival. Who was closer to the emperor than his bedmate? Who was closer to the emperor's most trusted administrators and generals than his wife?

Upon her arrival at court, Theodora seems immediately to have sensed the realities of power. As a result, she meticulously constructed a network of allies, mostly women, through whom she hoped to extend her influence. And Theodora's friends at court were carefully selected. On one level there were those, like Macedonia, who would do anything they were bidden and who were quite efficient in that capacity. Some from Theodora's past were also tapped. Such was the case of her sister Comitona, whom Theodora saw married to a Sittas, an old acquaintance of Justinian's and a competent general. Others of better birth, such as Antonina , an associate of Theodora's in magic as well as politics and the wife of the exalted general Belisarius, were in the long run less trustworthy. Theodora showered Antonina with honors and even helped to reconcile her with her alienated husband, but the obedience and feigned friendship lasted only as long as Theodora was alive; at the first opportunity, true colors were shown. Late in her life, Theodora arranged the marriage of her grandson (the son of her unnamed, illegitimate daughter—Theodora had no children with Justinian) to the daughter of Antonina and Belisarius, seemingly to tie the two houses together and to align Belisarius' great wealth to her family. Although the young couple loved each other, at the first opportunity after Theodora's death, Antonina forced their divorce, objecting to the social origins of her daughter's husband, a blood relative of Theodora but not Justinian—and everyone who mattered knew the circumstances of his conception.

If you wish safety, my Lord, that is an easy matter. We are rich, and there is the sea, and yonder our ships. But consider whether if you reach safety you may not desire to exchange that safety for death. As for me, I like the old saying, that the purple is the noblest shroud.

—Theodora to Justinian, as he prepared to flee the city

Above and beyond Theodora's importance to Justinian as a political ally and intriguer—a status not to be under-appreciated given the factional rivalries which divided the imperial court—she played two great roles at Justinian's side. The first occurred in 532, shortly after a round of the recurrent Persian wars had been unsuccessfully concluded. Some background: Justinian was a truly great emperor who left his marks, both good and bad, on history. He, working closely with Theodora, had three great passions during his reign—a grandiose building campaign which culminated in the magnificent and still standing Hagia Sophia in Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul); an ambition to streamline and codify Roman law, resulting in the famous Code which exerted, and continues to exert, much influence on constitutional developments throughout Europe; and a wish to conquer the western Mediterranean from the Germans who then held it and thereby reconstitute the Roman Empire, a mission entrusted to Belisarius—whose work was of only limited and short-lived success. All of these interests were very costly, as was the maintenance of an increasingly glorious court. Expenses forced Justinian to engage in an unpopular financial policy of inventing new taxes, increasing old ones, and regularly absorbing private estates and their fortunes into the imperial fisc (treasury). As a result, he—and Theodora, whose love of high living was increasingly resented by those who had to pay for her extravagance—became unpopular among both rich and poor. This unpopularity was only increased by the emperor's attempts to introduce a number of oriental customs into court procedure which ritually emphasized the chasm of status between the Augustus and the Augusta, and the rest of society. For example, whereas Patricians before had approached the emperor as near equals, during Justinian's reign they received audience only after prostrating themselves on the floor with arms extended in suppliancy before their ruler. When in 532 the Persian war was less than satisfactorily concluded, the resentment of those who had been forced to pay more for failure boiled over into the Nika riot which almost cost Justinian his throne.

This civil disturbance involved a rare alliance between Constantinople's Blues and Greens, and as such, we must consider exactly what these factions had become. When Constantinople had been founded in the 4th century, the city had been divided into four wards. Each of these was given local leadership and to each of these ward governments was delegated certain civic and defense responsibilities. These wards were referred to by the colors "Blue," "Green," "Red," and "White." As time went on, the inhabitants of these four wards began to identify increasingly with their color, since the local organization had a neighborliness which the vastness of the imperial city as a whole did not. Constantinople's population thus split into four constituencies which vied among themselves for civic pride. Of course, there is only so much satisfaction gained by having the cleanest streets or best-maintained walls in the city. As a result, more exciting ways of vying with one another developed—especially in the fields of sport and entertainment. Each color began to sponsor its own circus and its own entries in the most popular sport of the day—chariot racing. Enormously popular spectacles evolved, with increasing amounts of money spent by each color to provide the best entertainments in the city. The desire to defeat the other colors, especially in the all-important chariot races run in the Hippodrome, caused the colors to begin recruitment programs for the best drivers and horses far beyond the capital. Associate clubs of similar colors began to spring up around the empire, with partisanship fed by the increasing numbers involved. Over time, the expenses became enormous, and since consistently the two most successful colors had been the Blues and the Greens, the Whites and the Reds threw in their respective towels. Actually, mergers were arranged, with the Whites joining the Blues and the Reds uniting with the Greens. This restructuring left only the Blues and Greens, but the new, simplified polarity only heightened the fanaticism of those involved. Just as World Cup soccer occasionally provides the opportunity for the violent expression of nationalism, so too did the dedication of the fans of the Blues and Greens spill over into occasional rioting.

Over time, this partisanship was fueled and made more complex by other social factors. For example, across the empire various professions tended to favor one color over the other. Sailors, for instance, gravitated to the Blues, as did farmers to the Greens—both groups seeing symbolic links between their vocations and their color. Also, the rivalries of the different approaches to Christianity tended to see their differences as associated with their preference of color. Justin and Justinian were both very orthodox in their beliefs and fanatic supporters of the Blues. It was only natural, therefore, for the Monophysites, when they were experiencing persecution, to root for the Greens. Add to these considerations the complexities of political opinion, and the importance of the Blues and the Greens to their contemporaries becomes more understandable. Unfortunately, open melees between the two were increasing in number during the 6th century, making the streets of Constantinople increasingly unsafe.

As for the events of 532, the failure against Persia and a simmering anger over increased taxes led to an explosion which temporarily united the Blues and the Greens. Everyone in power, but especially Justinian's finance ministers, became targets during the riots which swept the city. Justinian was so paralyzed with fear by the escalation of violence and looting which was even beginning to occur in and around the palace that he was just about to take the advice of some and flee the capital to save his own skin—a flight which might possibly have cost him his throne, for the mob had temporarily united behind the imperial claims of the nephew of Anastasius I (predecessor of Justin I). At a meeting of the Imperial Council on Sunday, January 18, Theodora sat silently listening to the men present debating whether or not Justinian should attempt to escape. Preparations were made, and a ship sat ready in the harbor to carry the emperor and empress to safety. Then Theodora rose and—as quoted in Browning's Justinian and Theodora—made what must be considered one of the greatest short speeches ever recorded:

Whether or not a woman should give an example of courage to men, is neither here nor there. At a moment of desperate danger one must do what one can. I think that flight, even if it brings us to safety, is not in our interest. Every man born to see the light of day must die. But that one who has been emperor should become an exile I cannot bear. May I never be without the purple I wear, nor live to see the day when men do not call me "Your Majesty." If you wish safety, my Lord, that is an easy matter. We are rich, and there is the sea, and yonder our ships. But consider whether if you reach safety you may not desire to exchange that safety for death. As for me, I like the old saying, that the purple is the noblest shroud.

Thus fortified by Theodora, Justinian ordered Belisarius, who commanded some troops near the city, to intercede. The general did so, taking to the streets with troops and rounding up the rioters in the Hippodrome. What followed was gruesome, for to reinstate order, Belisarius ordered the massacre of about 30,000 rioters. At this cost, Justinian retained his throne.

The second great service Theodora provided Justinian involved the law. During Theodora's lifetime, Justinian seldom issued a law which did not invoke the name of his wife, and it seems certain that Theodora was one of the important stimuli to Justinian's great recodification of Roman law. She appears to have been especially interested in the rights of women, paying special attention to access to property through inheritance, to the usufruct of dowries, and to the division of estates after divorce. As such, some of the traditional inequalities which had long put women at the economic disposal of men were redressed, and although it would be mistaken to think that equality reigned thereafter, it is clear that most women received more protection as a result of Theodora's influence over Justinian than they had enjoyed before.

Nevertheless, in the minds of the masses, Theodora's and Justinian's reputations suffered on account of the empire's increasing financial woes and the increase of taxes. She had no offspring with Justinian to honor her memory and to insist that others do so as well, and when she died in 548, Theodora's memory was soon blackened. The historian Procopius began the process when her wrote about her in a scandalous manner in his Secret History, composed in 550. Nevertheless, the fact that he deferred putting his thoughts on paper until two years after her death is a testimony to the power she wielded when she was alive. Justinian's greatest achievements were already behind him when Theodora died, although he lived and reigned for 17 more years. Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in his legal activity, which virtually dried up after his wife—who in her busy life had done much and seen just about every injustice there was to be seen—died.


Evagrius. A History of the Church. Bohn's Ecclesiastical Library, 1861.

Procopius. The Secret History. Penguin, 1966.

suggested reading:

Bridge, A. Theodora. Chicago, IL: Academy Chicago, 1978.

Browning, R. Justinian and Theodora. Revised ed. London: Thames & Hudson, 1987.

Diehl, C. Theodora: Empress of Byzantium. Reprint. NY: Frederick Ungar, 1972.

Ostrogorsky, G. History of the Byzantine State. Oxford, 1968.

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

About this article

Theodora (c. 500–548)

Updated About content Print Article