Empress Theodora

Biography of Byzantine Empress Theodora

Sarcophagus of Theodora in Arta
Sarcophagus of Theodora in Arta. Vanni Archive / Getty Images

Known for: Theodora, empress of Byzantium from 527-548, was probably the most influential and powerful woman in the empire's history.

Dates: 6th century: Born about 497-510. Died June 28, 548. Married Justinian, 523 or 525. Empress from April 4, 527.

Occupation: Byzantine Empress

How do we know about Theodora?

The major source for information on Theodora is Procopius, who wrote about her in three works: his History of the Wars of Justinian, De Aedificiis, and Anekdota or Secret History.

All three were written after Theodora's death. The first credits Theodora with the suppression of the Nika revolt, through her courageous response, and possibly therefore with Justinian's continued rule. De Aedificiis is flattering to Theodora. But the Secret History is quite nasty about Theodora, especially her early life.  This same text describes her husband, Justinian, as a headless demon, and is clearly at points an exaggeration.

Early Life

According to Procopius, Theodora's father was the bear and animal keeper at the Hippodrome, and her mother, remarrying soon after her husband died when Theodora was five years old, started Theodora's acting career, which evolved into a life as a prostitute and mistress of Hecebolus, whom she soon left.

She became a Monophysite (one who believed Jesus was predominantly of divine nature, rather than the belief which won the church's endorsement, that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine).

Still working as an actress, or as a wool-spinner, she came to the attention of Justinian, nephew and heir of the emperor Justin. Justin's wife may also have been a prostitute working in a brothel; she changed her name to Euphemia upon becoming empress.

Theodora first became the mistress of Justinian; then Justin accommodated his heir's attraction to Theodora by changing the law that forbid a patrician from marrying an actress.

That there is an independent record of this law being changed lends weight to at least the general outline of Procopius' story of Theodora's lowly origins.

Whatever her origins, Theodora had the respect of her new husband. In 532, when two factions (known as the Blues and the Greens) threatened to end Justinian's rule, she is credited with getting Justinian and his generals and officials to stay in the city and take strong action to suppress the rebellion.

Theodora's Impact

Through her relationship with her husband, who seems to have treated her as his intellectual partner, Theodora had a real effect on the political decisions of the empire. Justinian writes, for instance, that he consulted Theodora when he promulgated a constitution which included reforms meant to end corruption by public officials.

She is credited with influencing many other reforms, including some which expanded the rights of women in divorce and property ownership, forbid exposure of unwanted infants, gave mothers some guardianship rights over their children, and forbid the killing of a wife who committed adultery. She closed brothels and created convents where the ex-prostitutes could support themselves.

Theodora and Religion

Theodora remained a monophysite Christian, and her husband remained an orthodox Christian.

Some commentators -- including Procopius -- allege that their differences were more a pretense than a reality, presumably to keep the church from having too much power.

She was known as a protector of members of the Monophysite faction when they were accused of heresy. She supported the moderate Monophysite Severus and, when he was excommunicated and exiled -- with Justinian's approval -- Theodorus helped him to settle in Egypt. Another excommunicated Monophysite, Anthimus, was still hiding in the women's quarters when Theodora died, twelve years after the excommunication order.

She sometimes explicitly worked against her husband's support of Chalcedonian Christianity in the ongoing struggle for the predominance of each faction, especially at the edges of the empire.

Death of Theodora

Theodora died in 548, probably of cancer.

At the end of his life, Justinian, too, is supposed to have moved significantly towards Monophysitism, though he took no official action to promote it.

Although Theodora had a daughter when she married Justinian, they had no children together. She married her niece to Justinian's heir, Justin II.

Books About Theodora

  • Bridge, Anthony. Theodora: Portrait in a Byzantine Landscape. 1978. Reprint, 1993.
  • Browning, Robert. Justinian and Theodora. 1987.
  • Diehl, C. Theodora: Empress of Byzantium. 1972.
  • Garland, Lynda. Byzantine Empresses: Women and Power in Byzantium AD 527 - 1204. 1999.
  • Holmes, W. G. The Age of Justinian and Theodora. 1912. 2 volumes.
  • Procopius. The Secret History. G. A. Williamson, translator. 1966.
  • Procopius. The Secret History. Richard Atwater, translator. 1927. Reprint, 1961.
  • Underhill, Clara. Theodora: The Courtesan of Constantinople. 1932.

Some other women of Byzantium: Irene of Athens (~752 - 803), Theophano (943? – after 969), Theophano (956? - 991), Anna of Kiev (963 - 1011), Anna Comnena (1083 - 1148).