Biography of Empress Theodora, Byzantine Feminist

Sarcophagus of Theodora in Arta
Vanni Archive / Getty Images

Empress Theodora (circa 497—June 28, 548), wife of Emperor Justinian I, is regarded as the most powerful woman in Byzantine history. Because of her intelligence and political savvy, she was Justinian’s most trusted adviser and used her influence to promote religious and social policies in line with her interests. She significantly expanded the rights of women.

Fast Facts: Empress Theodora

Known For: Most Influential Woman in the Byzantine Era

Born: Circa 497, on Cyprus or in Syria 

Father: Acacius

Died: June 28, 548, in Constantinople, modern-day Turkey

Spouse: Justinian I

Early Life

Little is known of her early years. According to the historian Procopius—whose historical work, according to one source, resembles that of a tabloid newspaper but is the best available—her father, Acacius, was a bear keeper at the Hippodrome in Constantinople, a gigantic stadium where chariot races and other entertainments were staged, including bear-baiting. He died when she was 5.

Her mother remarried and started Theodora's acting career. Theodora had two sisters, Comitona and Anastasia, and as a child she worked on stage as a mime with older sister Comitona before becoming a full-fledged actress, though in that day much of what was termed acting would later be euphemistically called "adult" entertainment. Offstage she was known for having numerous lovers and wild parties and for prostitution.

She became the mistress of a wealthy man named Hecebolus, who for reasons unknown threw her out in roughly 521. She found religion, renounced her former lifestyle, and made a living as a wool spinner, returning to Constantinople in 522.

Marriage

When Justinian somehow met her, he was attracted by her beauty and intelligence and made her his mistress, then married her in 525. Because of her disreputable background, special legislation was required to legalize such a marriage. (The independent record of this law being changed supports Procopius' account of Theodora's lowly origins.)

Justinian's uncle and adoptive father, Emperor Justin I, died on Aug. 1, 527, the date that Justinian's reign is usually said to have begun, though modern scholars believe that he actually took over the government as early as 518. When Justinian took the throne, Theodora became the empress.

Theodora exercised considerable influence, though she was never made co-regent. Because of her intelligence and unerring political sensibility, many believe that she, rather than Justinian, ruled Byzantium. Her name appears in nearly all the laws passed during that period, and she received foreign envoys and corresponded with foreign rulers, roles usually taken by the ruler.

Nika Revolt

Her influence in political affairs is illustrated by the Nika Revolt of January 532, which involved the Blues and the Greens, two Constantinople political factions that sponsored chariot races, animal contests, and stage plays in the Hippodrome and had attained substantial political power. The Blues and Greens had set aside their traditional rivalry to unite and oppose the government and establish a rival emperor.

The revolt started on Jan. 13, as the chariot races were to begin, and before the day was over, many public buildings were in flames. Justinian had failed to head off the situation, and most of his advisers urged him to flee. Preparations were made, and a ship sat ready in the harbor to carry the emperor and empress to safety.

At a meeting of the Imperial Council on Jan. 18, Theodora sat listening to the men debate fleeing the city. Then, according to Robert Browning's "Justinian and Theodora," she stood and addressed them:

"Whether or not a woman should give an example of courage to men is neither here nor there. ... 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." 

She suggested that Justinian, his generals, and the other officials stay and save the empire. After she sat down, the men looked at each other and the generals began to discuss military plans. Belisarius, one of her husband's generals, eventually herded the rebels into the Hippodrome, where they were slaughtered.

Religion

Theodora was a monophysite Christian, believing that Jesus Christ's nature was purely divine, while her husband reflected orthodox Christianity, which holds that Jesus' nature was both human and divine. Some commentators, including Procopius, allege that their differences were more 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—Theodora helped him to settle in Egypt. Another excommunicated monophysite, Anthimus, was still hiding in the women's quarters when Theodora died, 12 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. At the end of his life, Justinian was said to have moved significantly toward monophysitism, though he took no official action to promote it.

Death and Legacy

Theodora died in 548, possibly from cancer or gangrene. Her death illustrated how important she was in Byzantine political life: Little significant legislation dates from the period between her death and 565 when Justinian died.

Theodora had given birth to a daughter, either before she met Justinian or early in their marriage, but the girl didn't live long. No other children were born to the imperial couple.

Through her relationship with her husband, who treated her as his intellectual partner, Theodora had a major impact on the political decisions of the empire. Justinian wrote that he had consulted Theodora when he promulgated a constitution that included reforms meant to end corruption by public officials.

She is credited with influencing many other reforms, including expanding the rights of women in divorce and property ownership, prohibiting forced prostitution, giving mothers some guardianship rights over their children, and forbidding the killing of a wife who committed adultery. She closed brothels and created convents, where the ex-prostitutes could support themselves.

Sources