A true rags to riches story, Theodora (500 – 548) would go from actress to Empress – becoming the most powerful women in the Byzantine Empire as Emperor Justinian’s “most reverend partner granted Us by God“.
Now we don’t have loads of information about Theodora’s life prior to becoming Empress, and have to rely on scant (often biased) primary sources which offer conflicting information about Theodora’s background. The main source about her life is from the scholar Procopius of Caesarea, who wrote the main contemporary historical texts of this period. It’s generally thought that Theodora was a native of Constantinople (modern day Istanbul) which is described by the historian James Allan Evans as “a cosmopolitan city where wealth and poverty rubbed shoulders and palaces, workshops, monasteries, and churches crowded the streets“. Theodora was the second daughter of Acacius; a bear trainer at the Constantinople Hippodrome, he died when she was young and her mother remarried. There were not many options available to Theodora and her sisters. It was the theatre or the convent, and Theodora became an actress who was particularly gifted at comedy. At this time though acting was synonymous with sex work and the two went hand in hand, so it is highly likely that Theodora was also a sex worker. In terms of her theatrical displays, she was most famous for her performance of ‘Leda and the Swan’ which is the story of how the Olympian God Zeus seduced Leda in the form of a swan. Supposedly this involved Theodora coating herself in breadcrumbs attracting swans to come over to her and eat the crumbs!
Things changed though when she met and fell in love with Hecebolus. She abandoned the theatre, travelling with him to North Africa where he took up a political post. It was against the law for an actress to leave the theatre, but Theodora got away with it because Hecebolus was of a high standing. Unfortunately she was mistreated by him, so made the journey home to Constantinople four years later. On her return journey something significant happened to her in Alexandria where she converted to Monophysitism Christianity. This is the generally agreed biography of Theodora’s life, but it’s worth saying we have to bear this with a pinch of salt. As the academic Peter Frankopan discusses on the ‘You’re Dead To Me’ podcast, many contemporary scholars were unhappy with Theodora as she didn’t fit into traditional gender roles of female passiveness and they were looking to criticise her. What we do definitely know though is that in 525 she married Justinian who she had met on her return to Constantinople. Two years later he became Emperor of the Byzantine Emperor making Theodora Empress in the process.
So as interesting as Theodora and her story is, why was she a trailblazer?
Ultimately Theodora was a woman in support of her fellow women, particularly those in difficult circumstances. The 6th century is not renowned for its equality (go figure) and was very much a patriarchal society. Women had no real rights during this time and were at the mercy of men. Theodora utilised her powerful position to implement positive change on the lives of women in her Empire, particularly in regards to sex work. She herself had become a sex worker at a young age due to lack of other opportunities, and knew first hand how difficult this was. There was thousands of women in the Empire living on the poverty line, selling their only asset to make ends meet. There were thought to be over 500 sex workers working just outside the Constantinople Imperial Palace alone. Theodora did not aim specifically at the courtesans and dancing girls, her primary focus were the destitute sex workers. Theodora created the Convent of Repentance, where she sent sex workers as a refuge. She endowed it significantly so that the women living there would have no financial reason to be forced to return to their old profession.
Theodora never hid her background, and old friends of hers from her theatre days resided at the Imperial Palace and she helped arrange good marriage for their daughters. This shocked the establishment, but Theodora refused to conform and forget her past life and how she could change things for the next generation. Theodora wasn’t perfect (let’s face it who is?) and she didn’t get to the root of the problem, which was poverty and the dowry system, yet we shouldn’t underestimate the effect of her policies on the women she protected. She worked with Justinian as an equal (which confused some of their contemporaries greatly) on legal reform, with some of these laws being specifically about actresses. One key change was that no one could stop a women leaving the theatre, anyone who tried would be stopped by the local governor and bishop. There is other legislation like this and you can see Theodora’s influence throughout it all.
Theodora’s focus on women and laws protecting them was bold and long needed. She didn’t have to try and protect other women, she could have retired to a life of luxury in the domestic sphere, but she made change. She didn’t always succeed, but Theodora made a real effort to promote women’s rights and for me at least that makes her one hell of a trailblazer.
What do you make of Empress Theodora? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!
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‘The Empress Theodora: Partner of Justinian’ by James Allan Evans
Encyclopedia Britannica: https://www.britannica.com/place/Byzantine-Empire/The-6th-century-from-East-Rome-to-Byzantium#ref255128
Justinian and Theodora: BBC Radio 4 ‘You’re Dead To Me’ Podcast.
‘Theodora: Actress, Empress, Whore’ and ‘The Purple Shroud’ by Stella Duffy. This is historical fiction rather than a factual account, but it’s amazing and I’d highly recommend!
Empress Theodora: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theodora_(6th_century)