Posts Tagged ‘Empress Theodora’

Over these several months, we are covering the stories of only a few of the thousands of women who served in God’s kingdom during Medieval times.Like their female forebears in the Patristic Era 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.[1]

We began our journey through the Middle Ages with the story of Genovefa of Paris (423-502). Next, we learned about Clothilde, the Queen of the Franks (470-545) who was a contemporary of Genovefa’s. Then we took a break from Medieval Christianity on the mainland continent of Europe to look at Christianity in Ireland and her most famous saint – Brigid of Kildare (451-523). We will now turn to the east to the Byzantine Empire and recount the story of Empress Theodora.[2]


Empress Theodora (497-548)

Theodora was one of the many powerful empresses of the Medieval era. She was by all accounts a most extraordinary woman. Some regard her as the most powerful woman in Byzantine history. Emperor Justinian considered her his most trusted advisor. She used her influence to promote religious and social justice. The rights of women were greatly expanded while Theodora was empress.

Theodora was born as the middle child of three sisters. Her father died when she was only 5 years old. After her mother remarried, Theodora began a career on stage working with her older sister, Comito (sometimes spelled Comitona). She may have started her training as an actress around age 10. Theodora worked as a mime – a role that was open to women in those days. Theodora was part of the chorus for a few years before she started getting solo roles. After she gained enough experience, Theodora probably joined a troupe of male and female performers.

By about 517 AD Theodora had most likely given up her acting career. Theodora became the concubine of a man named Hecebolus, who was a high-ranking official in the government. Concubinage was a legal alternative to marriage; concubines had rights and privileges and were not considered common prostitutes. Hecebolus would be expected to take no other lovers and if there were children, they would be hers if there was a split. Theodora had a daughter around this time.

Living in a large palace with Hecebolus, Theodora learned how to manage a large staff. She learned how to build a network of support and always remained loyal to her friends. She learned something of how the empire was run not knowing at this time in her life that later when she became the Empress, she would use her education to help her husband Justinian reign.

Around 521, Hecebolus dismissed Theodora. Alone and with a young child, she set out to make a new life. Theodora was bright, headstrong, and energetic She began to make her own way. She refused to just join the ranks of unmarried women with children, dependent on the charity of others. She headed out for Alexandria and soon left there for Antioch in Syria and eventually made her way to Constantinople around 522.

Somehow Theodora came to Justinian’s notice. Attracted to her beauty, wit, and intelligence he fell in love rapidly and completely. He immediately made her his mistress. Laws were changed so that they could marry. It is safe to say that Theodora took to her new life like a duck takes to water. Her new home was now the imperial palace. This totally self-confident woman took her place among the patricians with ease and did not hesitate to interact with them as equals. She had grace and style and was accepted among the wealthy and influential at the palace.

While Justinian was the emperor and had the ultimate authority for ruling, it was well-known that Theodora had great influence that resulted in many reforms. Justinian treated her as his intellectual partner. Theodora’s name appears in the records of nearly all of the new laws that were passed including those that expanded the rights of women in divorce and property ownership. Perhaps remembering her own difficult childhood, in 534 she saw to it that legislation was passed to prevent parents from forcing their daughters to appear on stage. In fact, she fought for the right for women to live chastely without the danger of being forced into servitude. In regulations for admission to a monastery that were passed a year later, Justinian went so far as to state that, “in the worship of God, there was no distinction of gender or status, for all ‘are justly considered the same’ in Christ.”[3]

Theodora also established a hostel for women who wanted to escape their lives as prostitutes. She found a former imperial palace where 500 women could be cared for and she encouraged women who were victims of forced prostitution due to poverty. In an ancient form of sex-trafficking this included women who were brought to Constantinople and exploited by brothel owners. Justinian and Theodora went so far as to expel the brothels in the city. Thousands of women were thankful for their new lives.

Theodora’s wise actions also saved Justinian’s throne for him on several occasions. One event has become known as the “Nika Revolt”.

In January 532 two political factions in Constantinople known as the Blues and the Greens set aside their normal rivalry to unite and oppose Justinian. They sought to put their own emperor on the throne. On January 13, when chariot races were scheduled at the Hippodrome the crowd that showed up was very restless. Justinian should have cancelled the event and he would have headed off trouble. Instead, by the end of the day rioting started, things got out of hand and many buildings were burned down including the beautiful new Church of Hagia Sophia built by Justinian and Theodora. The rioters demanded changes and marched along shouting “Nika!” (“Victory!) as their watchword.

Justinian’s advisors urged him to flee. Theodora intervened. She convinced Justinian that flight was not in their best interest. She wisely pointed out that sometimes force must be used. Justinian resolved to end the destructive rebellion. His army went to the Hippodrome where many were gathered and put to death most of them. A number of high-ranking officials that had sided with the rebels were exiled and their property confiscated.

Theodora’s intervention changed history. And by this time if anyone doubted her ability to rule, they had been proven mistaken.

Even more threatening to Justinian’s reign than the Nika revolt was the Great Plague of 542. The Bubonic plague raged throughout the Mediterranean, Egypt, Ethiopia for three years. They did not have antibiotics to treat this disease in the sixth century. They did their best with bathing, bed rest, and prayer. People considered the plague to be the vengeance of God.

It took four months for the plague to run its course in Constantinople. Estimates are that there were between 5 and 10 thousand deaths in a single day. The full toll was probably in the hundreds of thousands, amounting to nearly half the population. The economy was ruined. Rich and poor alike were afflicted so revenues from taxes declined enormously. Transportation came to a standstill. Dead bodies were everywhere so sanitation concerns mounted for the living. Government workers went unpaid. Justinian himself fell ill, though he recovered.

While Justinian was recovering from the plague Theodora ruled wisely. Though lacking absolute power, she did what needed to be done to make sure that she and Justinian would continue to be emperor and empress. These qualities of intelligence, toughness, and loyalty would be enough to help her hold the title for the rest of her life.

Theodora had risen to the highest height possible – Empress of Byzantium. She proved that neither birth nor education can guarantee power, but steadiness, loyalty, and a firm resolve to do what was right. She knew how to talk to people as well as to listen. Most of her friends found her to be tough but very endearing.

Theodora died on June 28, 548, possibly from cancer. Her daughter had married well, and Theodora’s descendants would go on to occupy positions in the highest levels of society in Constantinople for many years.

Her relationship with Justinian was not based on passion alone, but each one’s loyalty was first to the other. Justinian regarded her as his most trusted advisor. When Theodora was buried, he made a proclamation of his undying love. He claimed that she changed his life and helped to shape the empire. “As she had transformed herself, so she had transformed her world.”[4]

Theodora was buried in the Church of the Holy Apostles, one of the churches that she and Justinian had built in Constantinople. She is considered a saint in the Orthodox Church today.


[1]See posts on this blog site from January 22, 2019 through June 4, 2019 for “Women in the Patristic Era”.

[2]There were two Theodora’s – our subject for this week was married to Justinian (6thcentury) and reigned in Constantinople. Later we will talk about the Empress Theodora of Byzantium of the 9thcentury.

[3]David Potter. Theodora: Actress, Empress, Saint (Oxford University Press, 2015). P. 107.

[4]Ibid. p. 203

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