10 Facts About Theodora: Byzantine Empress, Courtesan and Feminist

Léonie Chao-Fong

6 mins

11 Feb 2020

Theodora (497-548) was a Byzantine empress, wife of the emperor Justinian I and the most powerful woman in Byzantine history.

Born from humble origins, Theodora reigned over the Byzantine Empire alongside her husband from 527 until her death in 548. They would rule together in a golden period of Byzantine history.

Highly intelligent and political astute, she would use her influence to promote religious and social policies and significantly expand the rights of women.

Here are 10 facts about the ‘Golden Queen’ of the Byzantine Empire.

1. She led an unconventional early life

Theodora was the daughter of Acacius, a bear-keeper who worked for the Hippodrome of Constantinople. Little is known of her early years.

Her mother, whose name is not recorded, was a dancer and actress. After Acacius’ death, her mother remarried and began Theodora’s acting career.

Mosaic of Theodora

Mosaic of Theodora at the Basilica of San Vitale (Credit: Petar Milošević / CC).

Along with her two sisters, Comitona and Anastasia, Theodora would become an actress, dancer, mime artist and comedian. By 15, she was the star of the hippodrome.

At the time, much of what was called “acting” would have involved sexual or indecent performances on stage. Theodora would have been – as most actresses were – a child prostitute.

According to the salacious writings of the 6th century Byzantine historian, Procopius of Caesarea, Theodora worked in a brothel serving low-status customers before performing on stage.

Off stage, Theodora was said to have had numerous lovers and held wild parties. On stage, she was said to have gained fame particularly for a lurid portrayal of Leda and the Swan.

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2. She abandoned her acting career aged 16

At the age of 16, Theodora walked away from her acting career to become mistress to a Syrian official named Hecebolus, the governor of what is now known as Libya.

She accompanied Hecebolus on his travels to North Africa, and stayed with him for almost 4 years before returning to Constantinople.

Abandoned and maltreated by Hecebolus, she later settled for a while in Alexandria, Egypt, where she made a living as wool spinner.

Constantinople Hippodrome

Hippodrome of Constantinople, where Theodora worked during her childhood (Credit: Paul K / Flickr).

3. She converted to an early form of Christianity

After her relationship with Hecebolus broke down, Theodora joined an ascetic community in the desert near Alexandria, where she converted to a branch of early Christianity, Monophysitism.

Monophysite Christianity held that Jesus Christ’s nature was purely divine, whereas orthodox Christianity believed that Jesus’ nature was both human and divine.

During her reign with Justinian, she would be known to explicitly work against her husband, who was the leader of the Byzantine church and protector of orthodoxy.

She would protect and house monks who adhered to monophysite beliefs, even using the Great Palace of Constantinople to do so. Justinian was said to have moved significantly in favour of monophysitism towards the end of his life.

Theodora is credited with supporting, and ultimately achieving the adoption, of Monophysitism in Nubia around 540 CE.

4. She and Justinian were an unlikely match

Justinian I

Mosaic of Justinian I at San Vitale in Ravenna (Credit: The Yorck Project).

After her conversion, Theodora travelled to Constantinople where she met Justinian, who was 20 years her senior.

A farmer’s son from present-day Serbia, Justinian moved to the capital to work for his uncle Justin, and to help in his rise to power and eventual ascension to the throne.

Justinian was said to have been taken by Theodora’s intelligence and beauty, and made her his mistress before marrying her in 525.

When Emperor Justin I died in 527, Theodora was crowned empress of Rome, in the same coronation ceremony as her husband.

5. Justinian changed the law to marry her

Theodora’s background meant she was not legally allowed to marry Justinian. Roman law from Constantine’s time prevented anyone of senatorial rank from marrying actresses.

In order to legalise their marriage, Justinian had a law changed to raise her status and created another to allow her to marry.

Their marriage was against the express wishes of Justinian’s aunt, the empress Euphemia, who was herself a former slave and prostitute.

The couple were said to have matched each other in intelligence, ambition and energy. Together, they heralded a new era for the Byzantine Empire and its people.

6. She wielded significant influence in political affairs

Mosaic of empress Theodora

Mosaic of Empress Theodora in San Vitale in Ravenna (Credit: Public domain).

Justinian treated his wife as his intellectual partner, and in doing so Theodora was able to have a major impact on the political decisions of the Byzantine Empire.

Although she was never made co-regent, many believed that it was she who ruled Byzantium and not her husband.

Theodora’s name appears in almost all the legislation passed during the period, and she received foreign envoys and corresponded with foreign rulers – roles usually taken by the ruler.

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7. She was an ardent supporter of women’s rights

Theodora could in many ways be described as an early feminist. She is remembered as one of the first rulers to recognise the rights of women.

As empress, she set up a house where prostitutes could live in peace. She worked for women’s marriage and dowry rights, championed anti-rape legislation, and was supportive of young girls who had been sold into sexual slavery.

Her laws banished brothel-keepers from Constantinople and all other major cities of the empire. She expanded the rights of women in divorce and property ownership, banned forced prostitution, and gave women guardianship rights over their children.

However although she did a great deal to help women and girls in need, Theodora was known to attack women of higher standing who threatened her position, including the empress Euphemia.

8. She oversaw the rebuilding of Constantinople

Hagia Sophia

The current building of Hagia Sophia was constructed between 532 and 537 on the orders of Justinian I and Theodora (Credit: Rabe! / CC).

During her and her husband’s reign, Constantinople was rebuilt and reformed to become the most splendid city the world had seen for centuries.

Aqueducts, bridges and churches were built and rebuilt – the greatest of them was the Hagia Sophia, considered the epitome of Byzantine architecture and one of the world’s greatest architectural wonders.

9. Her death dealt a severe blow to Byzantine politics

Theodora died in 548 at the age of 48, possibly or cancer of gangrene. Her death had a visible impact on Justinian, who never remarried.

Bust of Theodora

Bust of Theodora at the Museo d’arte antica, Milan (Credit: © José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro / CC).

After a period of deep mourning, Justinian would rule for another 17 years. Theodora’s importance in Byzantine political life can be demonstrated by the fact that little significant legislation dates from the period between her death and that of her husband’s in 548.

Theodora’s daughter (from before her marriage to Justinian) would go on to have three sons, all of who became prominent figures in Byzantine politics.

10. She was overlooked and misunderstood by historians

Despite playing a key role in Byzantine history, Theodora was largely overlooked by historians and scholars.

Most of what we know about her comes from Procopius’ ‘Secret History’, which was written after her death and regarded by many as exaggerated gossip.

In it, “Theodora-from-the-Brothel” is described allowing geese to peck grain from her lower torso, dancing naked but for a ribbon, and has her saying she regrets that God gave her only three orifices for pleasure.

She is described as being vulgar, jealous, filled with insatiable lust as well as possessing cold-blooded self-interest, shrewishness and mean-spiritedness.

Procopius went on to describe her husband Justinian as a headless demon, and he clearly saw the couple in a negative light. He also took issue with Antonina, the wife of Justinian’s general Belisarius, who was portrayed as constantly scheming with Theodora.

Featured image: The Empress Theodora at the Colosseum by Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant (1845-1902)