Theodora of Constantinople, who ruled as Empress of Byzantium from AD 527-548, is quite possibly the least known, least understood and most maligned woman of antiquity. In terms of her achievements as co-ruler of the Eastern Roman Empire, she’s also one of the most significant.

I became aware of Theodora through my interest in the history of architecture. I was reading about the vast Hagia Sophia basilica in Istanbul, built in the astoundingly short period of five years from 532 to 537 at the behest of Theodora’s husband Emperor Justinian. In learning about Justinian, how he supervised every detail of the mind-boggling structure that was to be his legacy, I kept encountering tales of his helpmate, soul mate, and the love of his life, Theodora. I saw how even contemporary historians who favored her, such as John of Ephesus, called her “Theodora from the brothel.”

The Hagia Sophia

The Hagia Sophia

The brothel? My curiosity was piqued. How could an ex-prostitute rise so high to rule an Empire? As I pursued her story, my interest accelerated.

Theodora was the bear-keeper’s daughter in the circus, a pantomime artist, an erotic dancer and a courtesan. She was also, as her most invective-prone detractor, the court historian Procopius admits, “fair of face and of a very graceful, though small, person; her complexion was moderately colorful, if somewhat pale; and her eyes were dazzling and vivacious.”

Yet beauty alone couldn’t snare the man who, since his uncle’s ascension to the throne in 518 (a coup engineered by Justinian), had been the virtual ruler of the Empire. Powerful men took such women as concubines, not wives. To engender heirs for their dynasty, an aspiring Emperor looked for a virtuous noblewoman or, as they said at the time, “a maiden with upstanding breasts”; not to mention someone with a substantial dowry, connections to foreign sovereigns (so handy for appropriating neighboring kingdoms) and flawlessly aristocratic lineage.

Theodora not only had none of these advantages, she had nothing else to recommend her; no money, an abysmal social standing, and her most conspicuous disadvantage: a notorious past that was universally known. There could be no worse choice for Justinian on rational grounds.

Fortunately for the history of the Western world, irrationality triumphed. As they say in Latin, omnia vincit amor: love conquers all. When the bachelor Justinian encountered Theodora she was a reformed penitent, working as a humble spinner of wool. She was also exceptionally intelligent, devoted to Justinian and determined to leave her mark on the era.

on-writing

 

During their reign and their love affair, which was marked by mutual respect if, at times, disagreement over theological matters, Theodora proved a fierce advocate for the less fortunate members of society. Yet, due to the vituperative, defamatory (and lascivious) picture painted of her by Procopius in his Secret History, Theodora remains in the popular imagination, if at all, a stereotypical she-devil.

When I read Procopius’s lurid account of her early life in the circus and her portrayal as a treacherous evil-doer as Empress, I was seized by a desire to tell her side of the story. Theodora was a pantomime artist, but I wanted to give her a voice, to let her speak to the ages.

After years of research into ancient and modern sources that supply the bare facts of her life and accounts of the history of the Empire under Justinian, I felt ready to fill in the gaps.

I invented a narrator; a friend and confessor to whom Theodora and other players in the story could confide. I imagined what the main characters’ thoughts, feelings, actions and dialogue might be like. I tried to describe visually the scenes in that vanished world, of which most people today are completely ignorant.

I have to say, I was impressed by Theodora. True, she was a hedonist, a sensualist, a lover of luxury. Coming from her impoverished background, that’s not hard to understand. But she was also a staunch defender of tolerance for one’s individual ideology and a philanthropist who built churches and convents. Justinian publicly praised her “unsparing efforts to nourish the destitute.”

The entry gate to Aphrodisias

The entry gate to Aphrodisias

As one acquainted with abuse at the hands of men, Theodora did much to enhance women’s status. She closed the brothels in Constantinople, relocating the women to a convent where they could learn a useful trade. In the words of John Malalas, a contemporary chronicler, Theodora penalized brothel keepers, “freeing the girls from the yoke of their wretched slavery.”

She also used her influence to aid wronged women and urged legislation to improve their legal rights. A child’s natural mother (regardless of whether legally a wife) was granted guardianship. Women could not be sent to prison where guards would violate them but instead were remanded to a nunnery. They were granted property rights equal to men’s, and even though a husband could kill a wife’s lover with impunity, he was not permitted to kill his wife. An advocate for helpless children, she also made sure that the practice of abandoning unwanted infants (most often girls), exposing them to death, was outlawed.

In short, although Theodora is vilified as a demon by Procopius, who accuses her of unbridled lust, shameful behavior and deceit, it’s just as likely that she was a strong, fearless and brilliant innovator. People who upset the status quo are often viewed as a threat to conventional morality.

If people are aware of her today at all, it’s most likely because she appears as a bejeweled queen in a glorious mosaic in the church of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy. My portrait in words takes inspiration from that mosaic. Both are composed of varicolored shards: white, black, and shades in between. Some are opaque, some are lustrous, but all fuse to form the outline of a woman who was, by some lights a sinner, and by others a saint. To me, Theodora was a fully-fledged human being who deserves recognition.

-Carol Strickland

Aesclepion portico

Aesclepion portico

For more information on Theodora’s role, see an essay by the eminent Byzantine historian James Allan Davis at the University of British Columbia: http://www.roman-emperors.org/dora.htm