Theodora of Byzantium, Empress

Theodora lived in the sixth century and had a truly remarkable life trajectory in which she showed great courage and resilience. Born into a working-class family, she later became the wife of Justinian I and when he was crowned emperor in 527 she was made empress of the Eastern Roman Empire. In her ennobled role, she set to work and introduced a number of very modern-sounding measures to support women and improve education and well-being.


Theodora's life history is unfortunately not very well-known and the main source, by the writer Procopius, is so filled with slander and vile against her that it is unreliable. On a personal vendetta against her immense social rise, he seems to have known her (possibly been her lover) before her imperial status and resented her for her success. 

Theodora was born some time between 490 and 500. Her father Acacius was a bear trainer in the Hippodrome so she presumably grew up in Constantinople. A middle child, she had an elder sister Comito and a younger sister Anastasia. Sadly, her father died in her childhood and although her mother remarried, the family struggled with poverty. Consequently, Comito and soon also Theodora became Hippodrome performers and off-stage allegedly sex workers. Distressingly, Theodora is reported by Procopius as having started working before she reached her teens. Theatre performers and dancers until at least the 19th century were ascribed prostitution alongside their stage professions. Some undoubtedly took wealthy lovers or performed sex work but some did not. Nell Gwynn, long-time lover of King Charles II in the 1600s, started her career both in the theatre and was a mistress. Whether Theodora's early life story is true we will never know.

She became a kept mistress of an administration worker and travelled with him to Libya, although the relationship soon ended and she settled in Alexandria for a while and then travelled on to Antioch. She had at least one illegitimate daughter there, with Procopius even alleging that she was married. In Antioch, she met a Constantinople Hippodrome dancer, Macedonia. Whether influenced by Macedonia or not, Theodora and her daughter at some point went to Constantinople.


There, Theodora somehow met Justinian. They started a relationship and Justinian was besotted with and extremely loyal to her. He clearly thought he had met his match and he would later realise he had, and more. Justinian was then not emperor yet. He had not been raised to be emperor either but had become the heir presumptive of Emperor Justin and his wife Euphemia. Euphemia was strongly against Justinian's relationship with Theodora and it was indeed against Byzantine law to marry an actress as a man of senatorial rank.

After Euphemia died in 524, Justinian forced a legal change to be passed which would allow him to wed Theodora, and they married shortly after. Justinian acknowledged Theodora's illegitimate daughter and she later married into the royal family of former emperor Anastasius.

In 527, Justinian succeeded to the throne and had Theodora crowned as Augusta, the empress. According to Procopius, Justinian had a high opinion of his wife's judgment and council and even referred to her as his "partner in my deliberations" [Novel 8.1 (AD 535)].

Justinian and especially Theodora due to her Hippodrome background had experiences with the unruly and politically involved circus factions and sought to reduce violence instigated by them. Together with enforcing higher taxation of the aristocracy, they created a perfect storm of enemies and saw themselves confronted by the public and the court alike. A large riot took place in Constantinople - the Nika revolt - and the imperial family had to seek refuge in the palace and consider fleeing the city altogether. Theodora would not have this.


Procopius reports that she declared:


"My lords, the present occasion is too serious to allow me to follow the convention that a woman should not speak in a man's council. [...] It is impossible for a person, having been born into this world, not to die; but for one who has reigned, it is intolerable to be a fugitive. May I never be deprived of this purple robe, and may I never see the day when those who meet me do not call me Empress. If you wish to save yourself, my lord, there is no difficulty. We are rich; over there is the sea, and yonder are the ships. Yet reflect for a moment whether, when you have once escaped to a place of security, you would not gladly exchange such safety for death. As for me, I agree with the adage, that "royal purple" is the noblest shroud."


While she showed great bravery in this, her alleged resistance to flight caused the council to decide to order the army to fight back against the rioting factions instead which resulted in great loss of life among the public.


Justinian and Theodora worked with the magistrates to restore order, overseeing them and improving bureaucratic processes and codifying the law. Theodora was active in this alongside her husband and officials had to swear an oath to be lawful and incorruptible to both the emperor and her.

Theodora made it her mission to rectify the evils she is reported to have suffered as a child. She freed women who had been sold into forced prostitution and gave them money and garments to start a new life. She had a convent built for former sex workers to live in peace and support themselves. Lobbying her husband, she tried to end sex work altogether and in 528, Justinian ordered the closure of all such establishments, compensating the owners for their financial losses while also providing the women again with clothes and money. Justinian's changes to the legal system further went on to make divorce a legal option to women, to allow them ownership over property, improved their rights to guardianship over children and removed capital punishment from the charge of adultery. Theodora provided shelter to persecuted Christian minority groups in the palace and seems to have altogether played an active role in governing together with her husband.

She lived to see her daughter married and also secured a wealthy husband to her sister, securing her from further work in the Hippodrome.


Unfortunately, Theodora died in 548 aged around 48 to 51, according to sources of cancer. Still by 559, Justinian came to light candles on his late wife's tomb.



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