Theodora (6th century)

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Empress of the Byzantine Empire
Meister von San Vitale in Ravenna 008.jpg
Theodora, detail of a Byzantine mosaic in the Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna
Byzantine Empress
Tenure 9 August 527 – 28 June 548
Predecessor Euphemia
Successor Sophia
Born c. 500
Died 28 June 548 (aged 48)
Burial Church of the Holy Apostles
Spouse Justinian I
Issue illegitimate:
Dynasty Justinian

Theodora (Greek: Θεοδώρα; c. 500 – 28 June 548), was empress of the Byzantine Empire and the wife of Emperor Justinian I. She was one of the most influential and powerful of the Byzantine empresses. Some sources mention her as empress regnant with Justinian I as her co-regent. Along with her husband, she is a saint in the Eastern Orthodox Church, commemorated on November 14.[1]


The main historical sources for her life are the works of her contemporary Procopius, scribe for General Belisarius. The historian offered three contradictory portrayals of the Empress. The Wars of Justinian, largely completed in 545, paints a picture of a courageous and influential empress.

Later he wrote the Secret History, which was not published for over a thousand years. The work revealed an author who had become deeply disillusioned with the emperor Justinian, the empress, and even his patron Belisarius. Justinian is depicted as cruel, venal, prodigal and incompetent; as for Theodora, the reader is treated to a detailed and titillating portrayal of vulgarity and insatiable lust, combined with shrewish and calculating mean-spiritedness; Procopius even claims both are demons whose heads were seen to leave their bodies and roam the palace at night. Yet much of the work covers the same time period as The Wars of Justinian.

Procopius' Buildings of Justinian, written about the same time as the Secret History, is a panegyric which paints Justinian and Theodora as a pious couple and presents particularly flattering portrayals of them. Besides her piety, her beauty is excessively praised. Although Theodora was dead when this work was published, Justinian was alive, and probably commissioned the work.[2]

Her contemporary John of Ephesus writes about Theodora in his Lives of the Eastern Saints. He mentions an illegitimate daughter not named by Procopius.[3]

Various other historians presented additional information on her life. Theophanes the Confessor mentions some familial relations of Theodora to figures not mentioned by Procopius. Victor Tonnennensis notes her familial relation to the next empress, Sophia.

Michael the Syrian, the Chronicle of 1234 and Bar-Hebraeus place her origin in the city of Daman, near Kallinikos, Syria. They contradict Procopius by making Theodora the daughter of a priest, trained in the pious practices of Miaphysitism since birth. These are late Miaphysite sources and record her depiction among members of their creed. The Miaphysites have tended to regard Theodora as one of their own and the tradition may have been invented as a way to improve her reputation and is also in conflict with what is told by the contemporary Miaphysite historian John of Ephesus.[4] These accounts are thus usually ignored in favor of Procopius.[3]

Early years

Theodora, according to Michael Grant, was of Greek Cypriot descent.[5] There are several indications of her possible birthplace. According to Michael the Syrian her birthplace was in Syria; Nicephorus Callistus Xanthopoulos names Theodora a native of Cyprus, while the Patria, attributed to George Codinus, claims Theodora came from Paphlagonia. She was born in 500 AD.

Her father, Acacius, was a bear trainer of the hippodrome's Green faction in Constantinople. Her mother, whose name is not recorded, was a dancer and an actress.[6] Her parents had two more daughters.[7] After her father's death, her mother brought her children wearing garlands into the hippodrome and presented them as suppliants to the Blue faction. From then on Theodora would be their supporter.

Both John of Ephesus and Procopius (in his Secret History) relate that Theodora from an early age followed her sister Komito's example and worked in a Constantinople brothel serving low-status customers; later she performed on stage.[8] Lynda Garland in "Byzantine Empresses: Women and Power in Byzantium, AD 527–1204" notes that there seems to be little reason to believe she worked out of a brothel "managed by a pimp". Employment as an actress at the time would include both "indecent exhibitions on stage" and providing sexual services off stage. In what Garland calls the "sleazy entertainment business in the capital", Theodora earned her living by a combination of her theatrical and sexual skills.[4] In Procopius' account, Theodora made a name for herself with her salacious portrayal of Leda and the Swan.[9]

During this time she met the future wife of Belisarius, Antonina, with whom she would remain lifelong friends.

At the age of 16, she traveled to North Africa as the companion of a Syrian official named Hecebolus when he went to the Libyan Pentapolis as governor.[10] She stayed with him for almost four years before returning to Constantinople. Abandoned and maltreated by Hecebolus, on her way back to the capital of the Byzantine Empire, she settled for a while in Alexandria, Egypt. She is said to have met Patriarch Timothy III in Alexandria, who was Miaphysite, and it was at that time that she converted to Miaphysite Christianity. From Alexandria she went to Antioch, where she met a Blue faction's dancer, Macedonia, who was perhaps an informer of Justinian.

She returned to Constantinople in 522 and gave up her former lifestyle, settling as a wool spinner in a house near the palace. Her beauty, wit and amusing character drew attention from Justinian, who wanted to marry her. However, he could not: He was heir of the throne of his uncle, Emperor Justin I, and a Roman law from Constantine's time prevented government officials from marrying actresses. Empress Euphemia, who liked Justinian and ordinarily refused him nothing, was against his wedding with an actress. However, Justin was fond of Theodora. In 525, when Euphemia had died, Justin repealed the law, and Justinian married Theodora.[10] By this point, she already had a daughter (whose name has been lost). Justinian apparently treated the daughter and the daughter's son Athanasius as fully legitimate,[11] although sources disagree whether Justinian was the girl's father.

Life as royalty

File:Theodora mosaik ravenna.jpg
Empress Theodora and attendants (mosaic from Basilica of San Vitale, 6th century).

The Nika riots

Theodora proved herself a worthy and able leader during the Nika riots. There were two rival political factions in the Empire, the Blues and the Greens, who started a riot in January 532 during a chariot race in the hippodrome. The riots stemmed from many grievances, some from Justinian's and Theodora's own actions.[12]

The rioters set many public buildings on fire, and proclaimed a new emperor, Hypatius, the nephew of former emperor Anastasius I. Unable to control the mob, Justinian and his officials prepared to flee. At a meeting of the government council, Theodora spoke out against leaving the palace and underlined the significance of someone who died as a ruler instead of living as an exile or in hiding, reportedly saying, "royal purple is the noblest shroud".[13]

Her determined speech convinced them all, including Justinian himself, who had been preparing to run. As a result, Justinian ordered his loyal troops led by two reliable officers, Belisarius and Mundus, to attack the demonstrators in the hippodrome. His generals attacked the hippodrome, killing (according to Procopius) over 30,000 rebels. Despite his claims that he was unwillingly named emperor by the mob, Hypatius was also put to death, apparently at Theodora's insistence.[14] Historians agree that it was Theodora's courage and decisiveness that saved Justinian's reign. Justinian never forgot that it was Theodora who had saved his throne.

Later life

Following the Nika revolt, Justinian and Theodora rebuilt and reformed Constantinople and made it the most splendid city the world had seen for centuries, building or rebuilding aqueducts, bridges and more than twenty five churches. The greatest of these is Hagia Sophia, considered the epitome of Byzantine architecture and one of the architectural wonders of the world.

Theodora was punctilious about court ceremony. According to Procopius, the Imperial couple made all senators, including patricians, prostrate themselves before them whenever they entered their presence, and made it clear that their relations with the civil militia were those of masters and slaves.

Not even the government officials could approach the Empress without expending much time and effort. They were treated like servants and kept waiting in a small, stuffy room for an endless time. After many days, some of them might at last be summoned, but going into her presence in great fear, they very quickly departed. They simply showed their respect by laying face down and touching the instep of each of her feet with their lips; there was no opportunity to speak or to make any request unless she told them to do so. The government officials had sunk into a slavish condition, and she was their slave-instructor.

They also carefully supervised the magistrates, much more so than previous emperors, possibly to reduce bureaucratic corruption.

Theodora also created her own centers of power like the Hagia Sophia. The eunuch Narses, who in old age developed into a brilliant general, was her protege, as was the praetorian prefect Peter Barsymes. John the Cappadocian, Justinian's chief tax collector, was identified as her enemy, because of his independent influence.

Theodora participated in Justinian's legal and spiritual reforms, and her involvement in the increase of the rights of women was substantial. She had laws passed that prohibited forced prostitution and closed brothels. She created a convent on the Asian side of the Dardanelles called the Metanoia (Repentance), where the ex-prostitutes could support themselves.[10] She also expanded the rights of women in divorce and property ownership, instituted the death penalty for rape, forbade exposure of unwanted infants, gave mothers some guardianship rights over their children, and forbade the killing of a wife who committed adultery. Procopius wrote that she was naturally inclined to assist women in misfortune.[15]

Procopius' Secret History presents a different version of events. For instance, rather than preventing forced prostitution (as in Buildings 1.9.3ff), Theodora is said to have 'rounded up' 500 prostitutes, confining them to a convent. This, he narrates, even led to suicides as prostitutes sought to escape 'the unwelcome transformation.' (SH 17)

Religious policy

Bust of a Byzantine empress, possibly Theodora. 6th century. Museum of Ancient Art in the Castello Sforzesco in Milan, Italy.

Theodora worked against her husband's support of Chalcedonian Christianity in the ongoing struggle for the predominance of each faction.[16] In spite of Justinian being Chalcedonian, Theodora founded a Monophysite monastery in Sykae and provided shelter in the palace for Monophysite leaders who faced opposition from the majority of Chalcedonian Christians, like Severus and Anthimus. Anthimus had been appointed Patriarch of Constantinople under her influence, and after the excommunication order he was hidden in Theodora's quarters for twelve years, until her death. When the Chalcedonian Patriarch Ephraim provoked a violent revolt in Antioch, eight Monophysite bishops were invited to Constantinople and Theodora welcomed them and housed them in the Hormisdas Palace adjoining the Great Palace, which had been Justinian and Theodora's own dwelling before they became emperor and empress.

In Egypt, when Timothy III died, Theodora enlisted the help of Dioscoros, the Augustal Prefect, and Aristomachos the duke of Egypt, to facilitate the enthronement of a disciple of Severus, Theodosius, thereby outmaneuvering her husband, who had been plotting for an Chalcedonian successor as patriarch. But Pope Theodosius I of Alexandria, even with the help of imperial troops, could not hold his ground in Alexandria against Justinian's Chalcedonian followers. When he was exiled by Justinian along with 300 Monophysites to the fortress of Delcus in Thrace, Theodora rescued him and brought him to the Hormisdas Palace. He lived under her protection and, after her death in 548, under Justinian's.

When Pope Silverius refused Theodora's demand that he remove the anathema of Pope Agapetus I from Patriarch Anthimus, she sent Belisarius instructions to find a pretext to remove Silverius. When this was accomplished, Pope Vigilius was appointed in his stead.

The Chalcedonians argued that Theodora fostered heresy and thus undermined the unity of Christendom.

In Nobatae, south of Egypt, the inhabitants were converted to Monophysite Christianity about 540. Justinian had been determined that they be converted to the Chalcedonian faith and Theodora equally determined that they should be Monophysites. Justinian made arrangements for Chalcedonian missionaries from Thebaid to go with presents to Silko, the king of the Nobatae. But on hearing this, Theodora prepared her own missionaries and wrote to the duke of Thebaid that he should delay her husband's embassy, so that the Monophysite missionaries should arrive first. The duke was canny enough to thwart the easygoing Justinian instead of the unforgiving Theodora. He saw to it that the Chalcedonian missionaries were delayed. When they eventually reached Silko, they were sent away, for the Nobatae had already adopted the Monophysite creed of Theodosius.


The Empress Theodora at the Colosseum, oil painting by Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant

Theodora died of what Victor of Tonnena described as "cancer" on 28 June 548 at the age of 48.[17] Later accounts frequently attribute the death to breast cancer, although it was not identified as such in the original report where the use of the term "cancer" probably referred to "a suppurating ulcer or malignant tumor".[17] Justinian wept bitterly at her funeral.[18] Her body was buried in the Church of the Holy Apostles, in Constantinople.

Both Theodora and Justinian are represented in mosaics that exist to this day in the Basilica of San Vitale of Ravenna, Italy, which was completed a year before her death.

Lasting influence

Her influence on Justinian was so strong that after her death he worked to bring harmony between the Monophysites and the Chalcedonian Christians in the Empire, and he kept his promise to protect her little community of Monophysite refugees in the Hormisdas Palace. Theodora provided much political support for the ministry of Jacob Baradaeus, and apparently personal friendship as well. Diehl attributes the modern existence of Jacobite Christianity equally to Baradaeus and to Theodora.[19]

Olbia in Cyrenaica renamed itself Theodorias after Theodora. (It was a common event that ancient cities renamed themselves to honor an emperor or empress.) The city, now called Qasr Libya, is known for its splendid sixth-century mosaics.

Media portrayals

Sarah Bernhardt in the title role of Sardou's Théodora in 1884.



  • The Glittering Horn: Secret Memoirs of the Court of Justinian. Pierson Dixon (1958). A historical novel about the court of Justinian with Theodora playing a central part.
  • Count Belisarius. Robert Graves. A historical novel by the author of I, Claudius which features Theodora as a character.
  • The Purple Shroud. Stella Duffy (2012). A historical novel, about Theodora's years as empress.
  • Theodora: Actress, Empress, Whore. Stella Duffy (2010). A historical novel, about Theodora's years up until she became empress.
  • The Secret History: A Novel of Empress Theodora. Stephanie Thornton (2013). A historical novel, about Theodora's rise to empress.
  • The Bearkeeper's Daughter. Gillian Bradshaw (1987). A young man out of Theodora's past arrives at the palace, seeking the truth of certain statements made to him by his dying father.
  • Theodora and The Emperor. Harold Lamb (1952). Historical novel that focuses on the life of Theodora, her relationship with Justinian, and her many accomplishments as Empress.
  • The Sarantine Mosaic. Guy Gavriel Kay (1998). Historical fantasy modelled on the Byzantium empire and the story of Justinian and Theodora.



Video games


  2. "Roman Emperors - DIR Theodora".<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. 3.0 3.1 Prosopography of the Later Roman Empire, vol. 3, ed. J.Martindale. 1992.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Garland. Page 13.
  5. From Rome to Byzantium: The Fifth Century A.D., Michael Grant, Published by Routledge, p.132
  6. The Prosopography of the Later Roman Empire 2 Volume Set., J. R. Martindale, 1992 Cambridge University Press, p.1240
  7. Garland. Page 11.
  8. Lua error in Module:Citation/CS1/Identifiers at line 47: attempt to index field 'wikibase' (a nil value).
  9. Procopius, Secret History 9
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 Chisholm 1911.
  11. Diehl, Charles. Theodora, Empress of Byzantium ((c) 1972 by Frederick Ungar Publishing, Inc., transl. by S.R. Rosenbaum from the original French Theodora, Imperatrice de Byzance), 69–70.
  12. Dielh, ibid.
  13. Safire, William, ed, Lend Me Your Ears: Great Speeches in History, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1992, p. 37
  14. Diehl, ibid.
  15. Garland. Page 18.
  16. "Theodora – Byzantine Empress". Retrieved 11 April 2008.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  17. 17.0 17.1 "Breast Cancer".<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  18. Diehl, ibid., p.197.
  19. Diehl, ibid., p.184.
  20. Place Settings. Brooklyn Museum. Retrieved on 2015-08-06.


Scholarly literature

  • Hans-Georg Beck: Kaiserin Theodora und Prokop: der Historiker und sein Opfer. Munich 1986, ISBN 3-492-05221-5.
  • Henning Börm: Procopius, his predecessors, and the genesis of the Anecdota: Antimonarchic discourse in late antique historiography. In: Henning Börm (ed.): Antimonarchic discourse in Antiquity. Stuttgart 2015, pp. 305–346.
  • James A. S. Evans: The empress Theodora. Partner of Justinian. Austin 2002.
  • James A. S. Evans: The Power Game in Byzantium. Antonina and the Empress Theodora. London 2011.
  • Hartmut Leppin: Theodora und Iustinian. In: Hildegard Temporini-Gräfin Vitzthum (ed.): Die Kaiserinnen Roms. Von Livia bis Theodora. Munich 2002, pp. 437–481.
  • Mischa Meier: Zur Funktion der Theodora-Rede im Geschichtswerk Prokops (BP 1,24,33-37). In: Rheinisches Museum für Philologie 147 (2004), pp. 88ff.
  • David Potter: Theodora. Actress, Empress, Saint. Oxford 2015, ISBN 978-0-19-974076-5.
  • Lynda Garland: Byzantine Empresses: Women and Power in Byzantium, AD 527–1204. London 1999.


External links

Royal titles
Preceded by
Byzantine Empress
Succeeded by