Empress Theodora Mosaic in the Basilica of San Vitale
Theodora was one of the most powerful and influential women in the history of the Byzantine Empire. She has a true rags to riches story, championed women’s rights and ruled with her husband, the Emperor Justinian.
What is the Byzantine Empire?
In 330AD the Roman Emperor Constantine founded a new capital of the Roman Empire on the site of an Ancient Greek settlement, Byzantium. This new capital became Constantinople, modern day Istanbul. When the Western Roman Empire fell in 476 AD with the sack of Rome, Constantinople thrived and the Eastern Roman Empire continued for 1000 more years. It is this empire we call the Byzantine Empire today.
In the sixth century the Byzantine Empire enjoyed a golden period, reclaiming territory lost during the fall of Rome. During this time, under the rule of Emperor Justinian I, we meet Empress Theodora
After her death one of Theodora’s critics, Procopius, wrote about her in a derogatory way in his book The Secret History. However, it gives us great insight into her life even if we take it with a pinch of salt.
Theodora was born in 497 AD. She started out life as a bear keepers daughter working in the Hippodrome. She was known to be an actress and child prostitute. At the age of 14 she had a child.
At the age of 16 Theodora became the mistress of the governor of modern day Libya, Hecebolus. Ultimately, this didn’t work out. Shortly afterwards Theodora joined an ascetic community in the desert near Alexandria. It was here that Theodora was convert to Monophysitism, a sect of Christianity she championed for rest of her life.
In this period of Roman history Christianity and it’s beliefs were still being defined and decided. The Monophysite movement believed Jesus’ divinity was primary. The state belief was that Jesus was equally divine and human. Monophysitism was considered heretical and its followers were persecuted and killed.
When she was 21 Theordora returned to Constantinople where she met Justinian.
Life with Justinian
Justinian was a peasant’s son born in Macedonia. He was named after his uncle, the emperor Justin. When he was young he travelled to Constantinople to receive an education from his uncle and eventual adoption.
It was in Constantinople that Justinian and Theodora came together. Justinian was 40 when he met Theodora and was entranced by her beauty and intelligence. She first became his mistress and eventually the two were married in 525AD. Justinian altered Roman law to allow actresses to marry into the upper classes in order to make Theodora his wife.
In 527AD Justinian was crowned Emperor and Theodora Empress (Augusta). This actress and prostitute was now the Empress of the Byzantine Empire.
Life as Empress
Theodora because a highly influential political figure during her husband’s reign. In almost all the laws passed during this period her name is mentioned. Theodora championed the rights of prostitutes and those sold into sexual slavery. She also corresponded with foreign ambassadors and rulers.
Under Theodora brothel keepers were banned from Constantinople and every city in the Byzantine Empire. She opened a convent to house vulnerable women and girls. Rape was made punishable by death. Women gained rights in divorce and property law. Adultery in marriage was not punishable by death.
In 532AD there was a revolt against Justinian as a city riot turn. Justinian was ready to flee Constantinople. Theodora rallied her husband to stay and fight. The revolt was squashed and Justinian prevailed.
It is clear that during her life Justinian and Theodora were in love. Justinian changed the laws of the entire Empire so he could marry her. She exercised considerable power when he became Emperor. She ruled alongside her husband as his trusted companion and advisor.
During her whole life Theodora championed the cause of the Monophysitism. She never succeeded in converting Justinian. However, she did succeed in improving their persecution.
Theodora and Justinian built on a large scale throughout their empire. It is during Justinian’s reign that the Hagia Sophia, the crowning jewel of Byzantine Christianity, was built in Constantinople. It is still standing today in Istanbul as a museum. Twenty-three Basilica’s were built in Constantinople alone during their rule.
Theodora died in 548 AD. Her death devastated Justinian. He never remarried before his death in 565.