One of my favorite heroines is Empress Theodora, wife of Justinian I. An amazing woman who changed countless lives for the better, by seizing her purpose with both hands. Theodora was born around 497 AD. According to the writings of Procopius, her father Acacius was the bear trainer in the Hippodrome in Constantinople, while her mother was a dancer and actress. Life in the Hippodrome was colorful and exciting.
However, hardship fell on the family when Theodora’s father died. Her mother remarried but her new husband was not offered her old husband’s job, leaving the family almost destitute. Her resourceful mother sent Theodora and her sister out wearing garlands as supplicants to the crowd. The Blue Faction took the girls under their wing, and Theodora was to be a supporter of the Blue Faction for the rest of her life.
Later, the girls started working as gymnasts and Theodora also performed as a comedian. It was from this time that some of the more scurrilous rumors originated, regarding Theodora’s behaviour. Theatres at the time were considered hotbeds of immorality and were later banned completely. It was said that she was a prostitute who entertained multiple lovers at the same time. According to Procopius, at one stage she had 40 lovers in one night, and complained that God had only given her three orifices to use. However, he also accused her husband of being a demon with no head so he probably wasn’t a guy to allow facts to get in the way of a good story. We do know that she was famous for her very racy portrayal of Leda and The Swan. As Leda, she removed as much clothing as she legally could, lay down and scattered seeds over her almost naked body and allowed geese to feed from her. It is also extremely likely that she would have taken lovers to supplement her income.
When she was 16, Theodora became the mistress of Hecebolus, who was a Syrian official. Their relationship was to last 4 years and she travelled with him to Egypt but he became abusive and eventually abandoned her. At some point before returning to Constantinople, she converted to Monophysite Christianity, which believed that Jesus was fully divine, not half human, half divine. Once back in Constantinople, she became a wool spinner, a far cry from her former career as an entertainer. It is said that Justinian fell in love with her at first sight when he saw her at her spinning wheel. However, it is far more likely that they met through a mutual friend who performed at the Hippodrome and was also one of Justinian’s spies.
At 40 years old, Justinian was much older than Theodora’s 21. He was a quiet, devout man with a sharp legal mind, who adored Theodora’s witty, light hearted personality and her beauty. However, due to her former career as an actress, he was forbidden to marry her, according to law. His uncle, Justin I had no problems with amending the law but the objection came from Justin’s wife, Empress Euphemia who had been a slave and concubine before becoming Empress. Possibly the whole topic touched a little too close to home. When Euphemia died in 525 AD, Justin repealed the law, allowing all penitent actresses to be freed from the stains of their past.
Theodora soon showed everyone what a heroine she was. In 532, a riot started in the Hippodrome between the Green and the Blue factions, later known as the Nika riots. Some of the rioters grievances arose from complaints against Justinian and Theodora. Many public buildings were set on fire and the rioters proclaimed the nephew of the former Emperor Anastasius I, Hypatius as the new emperor. Justinian and his officials, seeing no way to get the mob back under control, wanted to flee the capitol. However, our heroine, Theodora absolutely refused to flee. She declared that ‘purple makes a fine shroud’, stating it was better to die as a ruler than live in exile. Inspired by her speech, Justin changed his mind about fleeing and instead, ordered his troops to storm the Hippodrome, killing thousands of rebels, including his rival, Hypatius. After his victory, he made Theodora his co-ruler, making her the most powerful woman in the Empire. He trusted her absolutely and never forgot that it was she who had saved his throne. His writings show that he sought her input on many reforms, including measures to reduce corruption by public officials.
The Byzantine Empire flourished under their rule. Theodora and Justinian rebuilt much of Constantinople, building more bridges and over 25 churches, including the beautiful Hagia Sophia, one of Istanbul’s most famous landmarks. Theodora also used her power to make considerable improvements to the lives of women. Many of her changes will seem incredibly modern when you remember this was 1500 years ago. She shut down brothels and came down hard on enforced prostitution. Rape became punishable by death and it was no longer legal to kill a wife for committing adultery. She opened a home to help former prostitutes and granted women more rights in property ownership, divorce and guardianship of their children. She also banned exposure, the practice of leaving unwanted infants outdoors to die. As a result of her changes, women in Byzantium had far better lives than women in the rest of Europe and the Middle East.