Theodora: An Emperor’s Anchor and Women’s Champion

Mosaic portraits of Justinian and Theodora on display at the Church of San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy
Mosaic portraits of Justinian and Theodora on display at the Church of San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy

by Ray Setterfield


January 17, 532 AD — One of history’s most remarkable women issued a call to action on this day. Her resolute determination not only prevented a defeat of the Romans in a critical conflict, but also saved the career and probably the life of her faltering husband – the Emperor Justinian.

She was Theodora, who reigned as Empress alongside Justinian and did so against all the odds considering her astonishing background.

She was the daughter of a bear-keeper who worked at the Hippodrome (circus) in Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul). Her mother was a dancer and actress. It is not known when or where Theodora was born and most of what is recorded about her comes from ‘Secret History’ – a salacious work written by the 6th century Byzantine historian, Procopius of Caesarea.

Some of his writings are regarded as exaggerated gossip, and his tales about Theodora were not penned until after her death, so have to be treated with caution. That said, it seems that, encouraged by her mother, Theodora became an actress and dancer and by the age of 15 was the star of the Hippodrome. In those days “actress” meant prostitute – many of them little more than children – and according to Procopius Theodora served customers in a brothel before performing her act on stage.

That act involved sexual or indecent performances and Theodora became famous, Procopius wrote, for a lurid portrayal of Leda and the Swan in which she lay naked on the stage, her thighs covered with grains of barley which were gradually pecked away by a live goose.

But Theodora was not just beautiful, she was extremely intelligent, determined and ambitious, and at the age of 16 she abandoned the Hippodrome to become mistress of Hecebolus, the governor of what is now Libya. When their relationship broke
down Theodora traveled back to Constantinople where she met Justinian, nephew of the Roman Emperor Justin I.

She became his mistress and despite a 20-year age gap they were married in the year 525. When Emperor Justin died two years later, Theodora was crowned Empress of Rome in the same coronation ceremony as her husband – and immediately set about establishing women’s rights.

She shut down brothels in every major city of the empire, brought in anti-rape laws, established houses where prostitutes could live without fear, helped young girls who had been sold into sexual slavery, outlawed forced prostitution, and declared new rights for women in divorce, child guardianship and property ownership.

But perhaps her greatest moment came five years into Justinian’s rule when rioting broke out at Constantinople’s Hippodrome. Seven of the rioters were sentenced to be hanged but the scaffolding collapsed at the time of their execution and two of the condemned men fled to the sanctuary of a church.

Seeing this as an act of God, the people petitioned Justinian to pardon and free the men. But he refused. As a result, rioting again broke out across the city and continued for several days, Justinian was forced to barricade himself into his palace
and the rioters named a new emperor to take his place.

On the morning of January 17, 532, Justinian’s counselors urged him to flee but they hadn’t reckoned on Theodora. Stirring her terrified husband to action, she is reported to have declared: “If flight were the only means of safety, yet I should disdain to fly. May I never be seen, not for a day, without my diadem and purple. I believe in the maxim of antiquity that kingship is a glorious shroud . . .”

Inspired by her words, Justinian ordered his soldiers into battle leading to 30,000 rioters being killed. And thanks to Theodora, instead of shameful flight he went on to rule for another 33 years.

During those years he and Theodora rebuilt Constantinople’s aqueducts, bridges and churches and transformed the metropolis into the finest city the world had seen for centuries. They built more that 25 churches and convents there.

The greatest triumph was construction of the Hagia Sophia, still considered the epitome of Byzantine architecture and one of the world’s greatest architectural wonders.

Theodora died in 548, aged 48. Historians believe that the cause of death was breast cancer.

Published: December 15, 2020


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