When faced with death, the Byzantine emperor Justinian was a cowardly figure. The same could not be said for his wife, Theodora. During a revolt in Constantinople in the year 532, Justinian was ready to make a run for it, but the audacious Empress implored him to stay to save his reign. She arose from her throne and uttered the phrase “If you wish to save yourself, my lord, there is no difficulty. As for me, I agree with the saying that royal purple is the noblest shroud”.
But Theodora had not always been so majestic. Born in the hippodrome to a bear trainer and actress, she came from the lowest rung of society. Nonetheless, Theodora’s involvement with politics began at a young age. Her family were members of the Green faction, supporters of the corresponding Green hippodrome team, whose followers from the ranks of the working class possessed a degree of political influence. Their rivals were the Blues, a team backed by the upper and ruling classes, who also held considerable political leverage.
Her father died when she was young, so Theodora’s mother quickly remarried, in order to avoid destitution. She attempted to get her new husband into the vacant bear-baiting position by parading her downtrodden children in front of the Greens. However, her emotional appeal was ridiculed and laughed at. Sensing an opportunity to steal support from their rivals, the Blues gave Theodora’s stepfather a job, saving the family from poverty. From this moment on, Theodora’s loyalty remained with the Blues, a switch that would forever define her destiny.
As she grew up, Theodora took to the stage to earn money. Her childhood was spent performing circus tricks with her sister, and as she blossomed into a teenager, she moved onto more risqué performances. Soon, Theodora was known throughout the Empire for her interpretation of Leda and the Swan, the infamous ancient Greek myth of Zeus transforming himself into a swan to sleep with a young woman. Theodora provided a colourful version of the story by scattering grain on her nether regions and encouraging geese to peck it from her. Off stage, wealthier clients would pay for her sexual services, and whilst it provided a source of income it meant she was shunned by society.
3rd century mosaic depicting Leda and the swan
At the tender age of 16, Theodora believed she’d found an escape from her former life when she journeyed with civil servant Hecebolus to his new posting in Libya. Here she lived as his mistress for four years, but he abused her and eventually threw her out onto the streets. Though penniless, Theodora’s determination saw her through, and she scraped together enough money to get herself and her infant daughter to Alexandria.
Shortly after arriving, she met two influential religious leaders, who identified as Monophysite Christians. These so-called ‘heretics’ stood at loggerheads to the mainstream Orthodox Church, because they believed that Jesus never had a mortal form, and was an entirely divine being. Theodora’s interactions with them moved her so much that she converted, and remained steadfastly committed to Monophysitism.
Back to Constantinople
Theodora’s luck began to change when she befriended Macedonia, a dancer and member of the Blue faction. With her help, Theodora was able to return to Constantinople, and even land a respectable job as a wool-spinner close to the palace. Macedonia also introduced Theodora to future Emperor Justinian, a valuable Blue ally. He was instantly infatuated with her beauty and wit, and desired to make her his wife as soon as possible. However, Theodora’s past haunted her, and an old Roman law prevented those of high rank from marrying former actresses. Justinian took advantage of his elderly uncle the Emperor in AD525, and had the law changed to allow ‘truly repentant’ actresses to wed those of high rank. The couple married almost immediately.
Two years later, Justinian and Theodora sat as rulers of the mighty Eastern Roman Empire. Theodora proved her worth during the “Nika” riot of 532. A fight between the Blues and Greens at the hippodrome culminated in a violent uprising, in which the teams both attempted to overthrow the dynasty and proclaim the unwitting commander Hypatius as Emperor. Theodora was ruthless. After convincing her husband to remain in the city and face the rioters, they sent loyal soldiers to the place she grew up in. The exits were sealed off, and in the massacre that ensued, 30,000 people were slaughtered. Hypatius was brought to the palace, and though Justinian was willing to spare the rioters’ figurehead, Theodora wanted to make an example of him. He was promptly executed.
Mosaic of Theodora in the Basilica San Vitale, Italy
In the aftermath, the royal couple set about restoring the stability of the Byzantine world. Theodora’s work as Empress was characterised by an increase in women’s rights and religious tolerance. She fought for laws that banned pimps, prescribed the death penalty for rape and gave mothers custody rights over children. She also ensured religious protection for Monophysites within the palace walls, even though Justinian himself was Orthodox.
Theodora died at age 48 of breast cancer. In memory of his wife, Justinian continued to protect Monophysites throughout the Empire. The couple’s mark on Constantinople is still visible today in the great Haghia Sophia, the breath-taking church they built together after the Nika revolts – a lavish display of their wealth and influence over the Empire.