Archive for April, 2020

Empress Theodora of Byzantium – Part 2

In previous posts we reviewed the history of Byzantium from the middle of the eighth century until 842 AD. We saw that two empresses were very influential in guiding the government – Irene and Euphrosyne during most of that time. Now a third very powerful empress enters the picture – Theodora. In our last post we looked at Theodora’s background and the early years of her marriage to Theophilos. We continue now with the rest of the events in her life during her rulership.

When Theophilos died in 842 AD, he left Theodora with five children ranging in age from the eleven- year-old Thekla down to Michael age two. Theodora’s main goal was to protect the throne from usurpers. This was not an unfounded fear since between 802 AD and 820 AD there were no fewer than four changes in the rulership, mostly military coups, but all by non-royal persons. As we have noted, ambitious men had shown no compunction about taking the throne by force using assassination. Theodora would remember that even her children’s great grandmother, Empress Irene was forced off of the throne and into exile.[1] Theodora knew that if male rulers could be overthrown by vicious means, ruthless men would think nothing of taking advantage of a woman.

Theodora reacted quickly and began her stratagem by having a coronation ceremony proclaiming the accession of Michael III. She had gold coins struck to commemorate the event. It was typical to have coins struck to let everyone know, especially in the surrounding territories that a change in rulership had occurred. In this coin set, Thekla as big sister, is shown with Michael who holds the cross. Theodora is on the reverse. With these official coins, Theodora clearly demonstrated that she was the Regent and now the kingdom would now be ruled by her.  Her family was in control.

Theodora was now free to restore the veneration of icons. She needed a good reason to reverse the decades-old laws for iconoclasm. She received the help of the church in declaring that iconoclasm was a sin. Revering icons was now to be seen as holy and right. Those who held to iconoclasm were now seen as sinners. However, she had a problem. What to do about Theophilos? She did not want her husband’s image ruined. So, she came up with a plan. She put about the story that Theophilos had actually been converted shortly before his death and repented on his deathbed. She convinced the people of her husband’s change of heart and the way was clear for the restoration of icons as part of true and holy worship.

A new liturgy was performed for the first time in March 843. The timing was significant as the first Sunday in Lent in the Orthodox church. Theodora knew the power of having important events occur on major holy days. Those who had held the iconoclast position were to use this occasion to repent. Those who refused to accept the new iconophile position were condemned and cast out of the church. New prelates took their places and the work of changing over the worship service began. Eventually by 867 AD most of the churches had installed images for veneration.

Theodora ruled from 842 – 856 while Michael was too young to assume the throne. She proved to be adept at managing the government. Most of the civilian organizations remained in place. Theodora appointed ministers who supported her of course. In her foreign policy she maintained peace as much as possible. Theodora was also interested in missionary activity. She desired to take the gospel to the Slavic peoples and sent missionaries there. Historians have recorded that in the main her rulership was prudent, beneficial, and successful.

All the while, Theodora did not neglect her work as the mother of four girls and one boy. Michael received special tutors of course who gave him the instructions he would need as the future ruler. We do not know specifically what education the girls would have received, but we can assume that they would have been given whatever education was appropriate for crowned princesses.

As Empress Regents before her had done, Theodora arranged the marriage for her son. In spite of her disapproval, Michael had already taken a mistress, named Eudokia Ingerine. Theodora ignored her son’s wishes and chose a different Eudokia, whose father was from Decapolis. Eudokia Dekapolitissa was married to Michael and crowned in 855.

Michael had his friend, Basil, marry his mistress Eudokia Ingerine so she would be “acceptable” to everyone though they all knew that she was Michael’s concubine. When the mistress Eudokia Ingerine conceived and bore Michael a child, Constantine, around 859, Basil claimed the son as his own. No one was fooled however about the paternity of this child or the child born in 866 to Eudokia Ingerine. Michael was so busy with his mistress that he failed to produce any legitimate children with the rightful empress, Eudokia Dekapolitissa. In the end Michael would legally die childless. Since Theodora worked so hard to preserve the throne for her family, we have to wonder if it wouldn’t have been better to have allowed her son marry his mistress. But how could Theodora have foreseen that Michael would prove to be so stubborn?

Michael attempted to have himself proclaimed ruler around 856 though he hadn’t reached his majority. He was easily led by his uncle Bardas who convinced him to murder Theodora’s chief advisor which weakened her power. She remained the Empress mother ruling for two more years in spite of it. Eventually after a stand-off, Michael took control and expelled Theodora from the palace in late 858. He sent his sisters the princesses to various monasteries to remove the threat that Theodora would circumvent his leadership by having one of them married and placed on the throne. Michael’s uncle, Bardas then became the real power behind the throne.

Theodora was in exile in Gastria until around 863, when she was released and allowed to live in comfort in the palace of a friend. She maintained relative peace there in prayer and meditation. She must have watched the developments at the palace in Constantinople with some trepidation, knowing that Michael was too easily led by ambitious men. Did she long to be back there advising him and working toward maintaining the throne for her family?

Things went along well for Michael and Bardas until conspirators, with Michael’s consent, brutally murdered Bardas in 866. Michael’s friend Basil now thought that he could seize the throne. He talked Michael into crowning him as co-emperor. Theodora must have seen that this was the beginning of the end for her family’s dynasty. At this stage she could do nothing about it. It was too late. Could she have had more influence with her son if she would have allowed him to have the wife of his choice? Theodora inadvertently lost the throne for her family by not compromising with Michael.

Not surprisingly, Basil took steps to secure the throne for himself. He invited Michael and Eudokia Ingerine to a dinner party in September 867. One historical account relates that Basil got Michael drunk then used the same assassins he used to murder Bardas to murder Michael in his bedchamber. Basil then had himself proclaimed sole emperor. He reigned as Basil I from 867 until 886. By all accounts he was actually a very able administrator. Theodora buried her son while Basil began his reign.

There are varying accounts of Theodora’s last years. Most probably she lived quietly in a monastery hoping that Basil would not kill her or her daughters. It is uncertain how much longer she lived. Perhaps her daughters were with her when she died. She asked them to bury her near her mother, Theoktiste at Gastria monastery. A tenth century record from the Gastria monastery indicates that Theodora and three of the daughters, Thekla, Anastasia, and Pulcheria were buried there.  Anna chose to be buried near step-grandmother Euphrosyne in her monastery.

Theodora accomplished much during her reign. She had a reputation as a fearless leader when dealing with the enemies of Constantinople. She stood up to the Arabs who thought they could take advantage of a woman, negotiating a long-lasting peace. She managed the financial resources of her nation well. For fourteen years she protected the throne for her son.

But Theodora is mostly remembered as the Byzantine ruler who overturned the religious practices of many generations. She made sure that iconoclasm would be ended once and for all. The Orthodox church commemorates Saint Theodora annually on February 11 by reading an account of her life and the Orthodox venerate icons of her. Every year on the first Sunday of Lent she is also honored for bringing the Triumph of Orthodoxy -the return of the veneration of icons – to the church.

Theodora’s restoration of icons led to the development of icon painting which has been prized and esteemed in culture for centuries. Today millions appreciate the beautiful art in churches, shrines, and museums. Whether the icons are objects to be used for instruction or reverence they are part of the lasting Orthodox culture.

The three empresses Irene, Euphrosyne, and Theodora each contributed to the return of a central tenet of the Orthodox faith – the power of the use of images in worship. Irene began the restoration of icons by setting the precedent for changing the law. Euphrosyne began an iconophile revival in 787. Theodora used her power to bring all of the past and present resources to bear on getting images back into the worship service which still exists today. These three women ruled one of the largest and longest-lasting dynasties in the world for nearly a century (780 to 867 AD). Their accomplishments truly changed history for all time.


[1] See posts on Empress Irene, February 18 and 25 on this blog site.

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Theodora – The Empress Who Changed History

Most church history books leave out the stories of the thousands of women who had a part to play in God’s kingdom. Over the course of the last few months on this blog we have seen that even in the earliest centuries, women evangelized, prayed, taught, preached, went on pilgrimages, reigned over kingdoms, founded monasteries, and took care of the poor. These women contributed greatly to the Kingdom of God, not so they could be remembered, but so they could serve the Lord Jesus by serving others.

We have been presenting a series on women in the Medieval Era. We’ve covered mostly stories about women who lived in the West because we have much more information about them. However, there does exist a fair amount of information about the Byzantine Empire, so in the last several weeks we have taken a trip towards the East to look at the lives of three Byzantine empresses – Irene, Euphrosyne, and Theodora (9th century). These three women were powerful, courageous and opportunistic. Through their leadership they put into place the laws that altered history. They dared to challenge the ban on images (iconoclasm) and restore the use of icons in worship that is still a part of the Easter Orthodox church today.


Note on Icons:

In the early church when copies of the Scriptures were scarce, leaders felt that the pictures of saints helped the common folk to learn the story of the gospel. At this time, images were being used in both the Eastern and Western churches. Indeed, Pope Gregory the Great (Rome) said that religious images were the “Bible of the illiterate”.  Some theologians were against using images in worship. They pointed out that starting in the Old Testament, images had been forbidden by God. These theologians reasoned that God had given us a written word for a purpose. They worried that the images would be too easily worshipped in place of God.

Artists continued to produce beautiful paintings and drawings with a religious theme. Most people just revered them, but in Byzantium by the eighth century the church decided that using images in the worship service was idolatry.

In 730 AD Leo III issued an order imposing iconoclasm (the ban of icons) on the Eastern Orthodox church. All icons were to be destroyed and those people found with them were to be punished. In 754 AD Constantine V further established iconoclasm when he declared that the only true image of Christ was in the Eucharist (the host at communion). By the time Irene arrived in Constantinople in 769 AD, iconoclasm was the law of the land. In our last few posts we have seen how Empress Irene and then Euphrosyne worked to restore the icons in worship. When Theodora became empress there was still a clash going on between iconoclasts and iconophiles. In the ninth century Theodora would enact the final laws that would ensure the adoration of icons in worship that would last until today.


Theodora – Byzantine Empress (815 – 867)

Let’s see how this third empress – Theodora – fits into the 8th and 9th century history of Byzantium. We saw in an earlier post that Irene became the sole ruler of Byzantium as Empress mother/Regent of Byzantium when her husband Leo IV died in 780 AD.[1] Irene’s one son, Constantine VI was too young to ascend to the throne and so Irene assumed power. She would prove to be an effective and popular ruler, much loved by her people.

In 787, Irene found the future wife for her son, Mary of Amnia. Constantine VI and Mary were married, and they had two daughters – Irene (named after her paternal grandmother) and Euphrosyne. When Mary did not have a son, Constantine VI divorced her and sent Mary and his two daughters into exile on the island of Prinkipo. Granddaughter Irene died during their banishment. Euphrosyne grew up in her confinement believing that she would live in a monastery until she died.

While Mary and the girls were in exile, Empress Irene and Constantine VI fought for control of the throne with Irene gaining control. The populace welcomed Irene mostly because of Constantine’s divorce. They did not protest when Constantine was exiled in 797. Irene reigned for five more years. In October 802 there was a military supported coup d’etat. Irene was forcibly removed from the throne. The finance minister, Nikephoros assumed the throne, and it seemed to be the end of the dynasty that had begun with Justinian in the sixth century.

After the coup d’etat of 802, when Empress Irene was forced off of the throne, Nikephoros I reigned from 802 to 811. He did not succeed in any great accomplishments. He was killed by Bulgars after a battle with them in 811. The throne was fought over, and Michael I became emperor, but reigned only 2 years. Three junior military officers plotted to oust him. Each one wanted to be emperor, but Leo the Armenian prevailed, becoming Leo V. He reigned from 813 – 820. What goes around comes around and another military coup saw Leo assassinated and a conspirator named Michael ascended to the throne as Michael II.

Michael II began his reign in 820 at about age forty. He knew that he was not royalty. One wonders if he was worried about plots against him since he was now the fourth emperor in a row who attained the throne through treachery and murder rather than legal hereditary descent. Anyway, he decided to fix the problem by marrying someone who was royalty. Enter – Euphrosyne. Euphrosyne had been raised with iconophile sympathies. She kept her feelings to herself. She had no children. When Michael died and her stepson, Theophilos became emperor in 829, Euphrosyne arranged a marriage for him.

Euphrosyne found a number of eligible girls and apparently let Theophilos choose between the finalists. He chose Theodora.

Theodora was born in Paphlagonia to Marinos and Florina. They were from the village of Ebissa. Marinos held some sort of position in the military. He died around 830 leaving Florina with six children. Theodora was probably the fourth. There were no dates recorded, but if Theodora was in her mid to late teens when she married Theophilos in 830 AD she was probably born around 815 AD.

We know very little about Theodora’s childhood. She was most likely brought up as a typical young woman learning domestic duties. She may have been taught to spin thread and weave cloth. That was the trade of many people in Paphlagonia. Other trades that she would have been familiar with were farming and fishing. The Orthodox faith was practiced by the people of Paphlagonia. Theodora would have been familiar with all of tenets and practices of her religion. Her parents were iconophiles and so Theodora was sympathetic to the use of images in the worship service.

Theophilos chose Theodora to be his bride and the two were married. Theodora was crowned Empress on June 5, 830. For the next ten years her life was filled with the joy of having children. Her first three children were daughters, Thekla, Anna, and Anastasia. Theophilos was very proud of his daughters, even featuring all of them on a royal coin, but he was especially overjoyed when his son, Constantine was born in 834. Unfortunately, the next year Constantine got away from his nurse somehow and fell into a palace cistern and drowned. Theophilos and Theodora were devastated.

The emperor and empress held out hope for another son but had two more daughters, Maria and Pulcheria. Sadly, Maria died in 839. Finally, on January 9, 840 Theodora had another son and he was named Michael III. Theophilos had Michael christened and crowned at the Christmas feast. This was in keeping with the tradition of having important events occurring on the day of the birth of Jesus.

During this decade Theodora was mostly occupied with the children. Privately, she remained committed to icons. She often took her daughters to visit their grandmother, Euphrosyne for iconophile instruction.[1] At this time iconoclasm was the law of the land and many iconophiles were severely punished. Theophilos tried to stop iconophile veneration by having all of the icons in Constantinople destroyed. Church leaders who objected to this were exiled. Others were tortured with beatings and imprisonment. Theodora did what she could to relieve their suffering. She often approached Theophilos to convince him to have mercy on men who were being tortured for their faith. On several occasions Theodora succeeded in having Theophilos change the death penalty to exile or imprisonment.

Besides working on the home front to destroy icons, Theophilos was busy fighting battles to protect Constantinople from her enemies and to enlarge his territory. The

results were mixed. Then on the eve of peace negotiations with one of his enemies he learned that he was dying of dysentery. He called for Theodora and Michael to explain his wishes. On January 20, 842, not yet twenty-nine years old he died. The heir, Michael III was just two years old. Theodora realized that she needed to protect Michael’s throne for at least fourteen more years. She began a regency that lasted until 856 AD.

Next time, in Part 2 we will learn how Theodora ruled Byzantium and made lasting changes for the Orthodox church.


[1] See post on March 24, 2020, “Euphrosyne – Byzantine Empress – Part 2”

[1] See posts on February 13, 2020 (Irene Part 1) and February 25, 2020 (Irene Part 2) on this blog site.

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