A scarlet woman clothed in a royal purple robe
High up on a wall in the famous Basilica of San Vitale of Ravenna, Italy, a grand mosaic of the empress Theodora is displayed (cover image of this blog’s site). Thousands of visitors flock to gaze up at the splendid display and admire the glamour of the empress however, the mosaic tells only a fragment of the story of the power and in fluence that Theodora possessed over the Eastern Roman Empire in the sixth century CE. She was the wife of Emperor Justinian I (c. 482 – 565) and an empress from 1st August 527 until her death on 28th June 548. Her power and influence resonated in virtually every sphere of the Eastern Roman Empire and yet Theodora came from a humble, lower social class background. Theodora was officially recognized by Justinian as a co-ruling consort, participating and counselling in the Byzantium official and magisterial functions, something uncommon for a woman in this period. In one of the provincial reforms Novel of 535 Justinian states: “After first considering all this for ourselves, then taking our God-given and most pious consort into consultation…” requiring that provincial governors swore loyalty not only to Justinian but also to Theodora.
Several main primary sources tell us about Theodora’s life. The first primary source called Anecdota or sometimes referred to as the Secret History comes from the Byzantine historian Procopius of Caesarea (c. 500- c. 560). Procopius was a well-educated lawyer from a higher class who rose to a prominent position as a legal advisor and a secretary to general Belisarius accompanying him often on his war campaigns. Even though he wrote other important works namely the Wars and the Buildings witnessing to the Justinian reign, the Secret History (henceforth SH) written around 550 takes a rather different approach to present the history of the royal couple. In the later years, Procopius was deeply disillusioned with the royal’s couple governing of the Byzantine empire even going so far as to describe the couple as devils incarnate, full of greed and corruption. In particular, Theodora is described as a malevolent woman, capable of using powers for her gain and interfering in every aspect of the empire. The SH of the sixth century CE can be paralleled with a postmodern celebrity gossip magazine writing about contemporary royal scandals.
Other primary sources that tell us about Theodora are Ecclesiastical History and especially Lives of the Eastern Saints written by John of Ephesus (c. 507 – c. 588). They, however, present Theodora in stark contrast to the SH. She is a pious empress and full of wisdom. John called her “the Christ-loving Theodora, whom God perhaps appointed queen to be a support for the persecuted against the cruelty of the times.” However, it should be noted that John of Ephesus was a Syrian church historian and monophysite bishop who had a high regard for the empress since she was an ardent patron of Monophysitism, a splinter group opposing the Chalcedonian ‘two natures’ orthodoxy. The primary sources that describe Theodora’s life stand in stark contrast to each other and consequently, each should be read with a ‘grain of salt’ in order to get an objective and unbiased image of her life.
Theodora’s father was a bear-keeper, or ursarius, who worked in Constantinople’s Hippodrome supporting the Green faction. After her father’s sudden death, her mother was left with three daughters, (one of them being Theodora who was less than seven years old at the time), and in utter distress of losing her husband’s position, she married another bear-keeper, a supporter of the Blues. Procopius tells us that Theodora was a supporter of the Blues and “…as soon as she came of age and was at last mature, she joined the women of the stage and straightway became a courtesan…” Here Procopius implies she was a courtesan or hetaira which is understood to be a profession of actress, a woman who performed indecent acts on stage and offered sexual services. Her most notorious act on par with the Greek mythology of ‘Leda and the Swan’ is described by Procopius:
“And often even in the theatre, before the eyes of the whole people, …. having only a girdle about her private parts and her groins… she sprawled out and lay on her back on the ground. And some slaves, whose duty this was, sprinkled grains of barley…and geese… picked them off with their beaks, one by one, and ate them”.
The Monophysites being embarrassed by their protectress’ indecent history attempted to create a softer version of Theodora’s past. However, John of Ephesus straightforwardly tells us that she came “from the brothel” or porne confirming Procopius’ allegation of Theodora’s murky background.
Procopius additionally tells us in vivid detail about Theodora’s lifestyle before becoming an empress. According to his narrative, she excelled as a comic and an X-rated performer, she was shunned by all respectable people, had many abortions and also had several children, an illegitimate daughter and possibly a son. Furthermore, Procopius also reminds us that after Theodora’s promiscuous travels across Alexandria and the whole East on her way back to Constantinople she was acquainted with men of the ruling class due to her profession and there she met Justinian. Procopius further informs us of rumours in which manner Theodora approached the notables,
“ On one occasion she entered the house of one of the notables during the drinking, and they say that in the sight of all the banqueters she mounted to the projecting part of the banqueting couch where their feet lay, and there drew up her clothing in a shameless way, not hesitating to display her licentiousness.”
Procopius also portrays the encounter between Theodora and Justinian, “But when she came back to Byzantium once more, Justinian conceived for her an overpowering love; and at first he knew her as a mistress, … she seemed to the man the sweetest thing in the world…” Theodora was already in her late thirties and fifteen years senior to Justinian however, the accumulated life experience of her promiscuous past had shaped her character and given Theodora the necessary talents to influence behind the scenes through the process of intrigue, manipulation, and plotting.
Some modern scholars such as Charles Diehl (1904) and Robert Browning (1971) concluded that on her way back from Alexandria, Theodora met the Monophysite patriarch Timothy where she underwent a religious conversion which changed her entire life. Unfortunately, their conclusions stand on a seventh-century Egyptian chronicler John of Nikiu who only in passing mentions that Theodora called patriarch Timothy her “spiritual father” however, the source does not give any further detail on her conversion. Procopius in SH does not even mention that Theodora converted. Therefore, Cameron states, that Procopius’ presentation of Theodora may be one-sided in many ways however, “at least it is neither trivial nor sentimental.” 
Theodora’s Influence on Socio-Cultural Status of Women or her Family Members?
Even before Theodora became an empress she has already influenced Justinian to change the most ancient Roman law on the status of actresses or courtesans enabling higher rank men to marry them. Procopius narrates that empress Euphemia ( ca. 518 – ca. 524), although she was herself a barbarian by birth and an ex-slave, opposed such marriages , and that it was only after her death that the emperor Justin (ca. 450 – 527), compelled by Justinian, changed the law. The Justinian Law 5.4.23 states that the error of actresses due to the weakness of their gender (imbecillitas sexus) grants them forgiving statute (sanctio) under the condition that they abandon dishonourable living, repent and exchange it with honourable pursuits in life, they are free and their children to marry the higher rank men with the instant removal of their blemished (macula) past. The Law was patterned to accommodate Theodora’s past, moreover, it primarily assured that Theodora’s family and her friends could enter into the highest society of the Empire, and it was so. Theodora’s elder sister Komito married Sittas, a commander in chief for Armenia, while her old friend Antonina married Belisarius, the first commander of the Justinian army. Likewise, Theodora’s illegitimate daughter married into a wealthy family of the emperor Anastasios, while one of Theodora’s grandsons Anastasios, married Antonina and Belisarius’ daughter Joannina. Another grandson of Theodora also called Anastasios, although apparently wealthy from his father’s side, was a monophysite monk and a candidate for the patriarchal see of Alexandria who later founded a sect called the Athanasiani. John of Ephesus tells us that Theodora had a third grandson called John, an ambassador and consul who married into a wealthy and prosperous monophysite family. Finally, in culmination, although Theodora did not herself produce an heir, she ensured that her niece Sophia, one of her sister’s daughters, succeeded to the throne as empress. Although the passing of the law undoubtedly helped underprivileged women, this was only a side effect of its purpose, as the law primarily ensured that Theodora and her nearest and dearest climbed towards the highest society of the Byzantine Empire.
The fact that Theodora had empathy towards the poor and unfortunate women working in brothels is indisputable. There was an emphasis under Justinian and Theodora’s reign from 530 to 538 to clear the city of Constantinople of prostitution. For example, she took a close interest in legislation against young girls being forced into prostitution and serious action against brothel-keepers and pimps. Procopius tells us in his other work Buildings that the imperial couple “…cleansed the state of the pollution of the brothels, banishing the very name of brothel-keepers,…” According to Procopius, she founded a famous “Convent of Repentance” for prostitutes where over five hundred women were moved from the streets to start a new life, however, Procopius writes, “And some of them threw themselves down from a height at night and thus escaped the unwelcome transformation.” It seems that not all women were interested in the new regime. Here we see that Theodora’s keen interest in such issues resonated with her past which she was attempting to expunge during her reign. Furthermore, it was traditionally expected for empresses to help the underprivileged of any kind including prostitutes therefore, as Cameron states Theodora’s influence over the legislation on women’s issues were in fact “the traditional actions of a great lady.” She was doing precisely what was expected of her in the role of an empress.
Theodora’s Influence on Religious Affairs
Theodora’s influence over religious affairs was possibly her strongest enterprise. She firmly supported Monophysitism in the eastern provinces. She was considered their protectress and was instrumental in sheltering a large number of monophysite priests, nuns, and bishops during the orthodox persecution from 536 to 537. The Palace of Hormisdas was full of altars and monks living in cells and when the top-ranking monophysite cleric Theodosius bishop of Alexandria was expelled from Constantinople in 537, Theodora provided necessary financial resources to maintain his needs and keep the Monophysite church alive. Her greatest success was the establishment of the eastern church in Syria under Jacob Baradaeus. She sheltered the missionary Jacob who eventually travelled to Syria and founded the Jacobite church, which still exists today. It would seem as though Theodora acted against the religious policies applied by the champion of the Chalcedonian orthodoxy, the emperor, however, the picture was more complex. For example, when the renowned Cappadocian monk Saba visited the palace Theodora prostrated herself in front of him, as a typical gesture of respect towards the ascetic saints and asked for a blessing of an heir. Saint Saba refused the request stating that the child would learn monophysite doctrine for the detriment of orthodoxy. She did not display animosity or bigotry towards the orthodoxy, however, Saba’s refusal “greatly grieved the empress”. On the other hand, John of Ephesus tells us that Justinian also had a high regard towards the monophysite monks since he visited the Palace of Hormisdas with Theodora and was blessed by them. Procopius tells us that Theodora and Justinian played the political game of publicly opposing each other to keep both opponents happy. Justinian ruled a religiously divided empire. On one side it was orthodoxy mainly covering Greece, Asia Minor, and Palestine while on the other side monophysite spread across Egypt, Syria and the eastern boundary. To have a friendly relationship with Monophysites, even undercover, would have only benefited the emperor. Theodora’s influence and power triumphed by her closely teaming up with her husband. Procopius says that “…for they did nothing whatever separately in the course of their life together.” It was the collaborative marriage teamwork that assured Theodora’s power.
Theodora’s Influence on Military Affairs
In the 532 Nika revolt, Justinian was in danger of losing the throne, however Theodora’s influence saved the day. Justinian was accused of high taxation and the corruption of high officials, such as John the Cappadocian, by the factions (the Blues and Greens) who managed the hippodrome sports events. The riots reached the point where Constantinople was on fire in an attempt to usurp the Justinian throne. As the imperial treasure was loaded on a ship for the emperor’s escape, Theodora boldly stood in front of the officials and delivered a powerful speech reversing the situation. According to Procopius in Wars, Theodora stepped into a masculine role, or one could say Theodora did ‘manly deeds’ and said:
“As to the belief that a woman ought not to be daring among men or to assert herself boldly… My opinion then is that the present time, above all others, is inopportune for flight, even though it bring safety…. May I never be separated from this purple, and may I not live that day on which those who meet me shall not address me as mistress (δέσποιναν). If, now, it is your wish to save yourself, O Emperor, there is no difficulty. For we have much money, and there is the sea, here the boats… For as for myself, I approve a certain ancient saying that royalty is a good burial-shroud.”
According to Cameron, this speech was most likely Procopius’ rhetorical set-piece focusing on Theodora’s holding onto the ‘imperial purple robe’ however, even if half of the speech was truly spoken by Theodora it reveals how much influence she had over Justinian. She had the capacity to think ‘outside the box’ and calculate potential risks, in this case, the loss of the crown, and this is something that both, Theodora and Justinian, were determined to keep. Therefore, it is most likely that due to Theodora’s influence, Justinian decided to defend the imperial honour which resulted in 30,000 rioters being trapped and slaughtered in the hippodrome. Theodora certainly displayed a character of determination and outspokenness and by influencing Justinian to reconsider, she changed the course of history.
Theodora’s Influence Today
Every year, on the 14th of November Theodora, is remembered together with Justinian as a saint by the Eastern Orthodox Church and her influence has continued to reverberate up into modern times. There have been numerous fictional theatrical plays, novels, and books written in an attempt to recapture the empress’ life. Today, if you go to visit the mosaic of Theodora in the Basilica of San Vitale and gaze up in wonder of the mysterious power and influence she had over the empire you can also buy numerous souvenirs with her image and name on them and even enjoy a slice of cake called Torta Teodora, created by local Ravenna pastry chefs in honour of the enduring empress Theodora.
To cite this article:
Gillham, Dina, “Theodora” in Women of Power and Influence in Late Antiquity (blog). 20 February 2023. https://blogs.helsinki.fi/power-influence-women-late-antiquity/theodora/
Blog header image copyright www.gilpivert.fr (2016).“The Empress Theodora and Retinue.” Mosaic panel, Basilica di San Vitale, Ravenna, 547 C.E. Flickr.com https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/
Bishop Of Nikiu. The Chronicle Of John. Edited by R.H. Charles. London: Williams & Norgate, 1913.
Brooks, Edmund Wright, ed. “John of Ephesus. Lives of the Eastern Saints (II).” In Patrologia Orientalis. Paris: Firmin-Didot, 1924.
Frier, Bruce W., and Fred H. Blume. The Codex of Justinian: A New Annotated Translation, with Parallel Latin and Greek Text. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016.
Miller, David, and Peter Sarris. The Novels of Justinian : A Complete Annotated English Translation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018.
Procopius. History of the Wars. Edited by H. B. Dewing and Loeb Classical Library LCL048. Volume 1. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1914.
———. On Buildings. Edited by H. B. Dewing and Glanville Downey. Loeb Class. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1940.
———. The Anecdota or Secret History. Edited by Translated by H. B. Dewing. Loeb Classical Library 290. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1935.
Browning, Robert. Justinian and Theodora. Westport: Praeger, 1971.
Cameron, Averil. Procopius and the Sixth Century. London: Routledge, 1996.
Cesaretti, Paolo. Theodora. New York: The Vendome Press, 2012.
Constantinou, Stavroula, and Mati Meyer, eds. Emotions and Gender in Byzantine Culture. Cham, Switzerland: Springer International Publishing, 2019. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-96038-8.
Diehl, Charles. Théodora, Impératrice de Byzance. Paris: E. De Boccard, 1904.
Evans, James A. The Power Game in Byzantium : Antonina and the Empress Theodora. London: Continuum, 2011.
Evans, James A. The Empress Theodora : Partner of Justinian. Austin: University of Texas, 2002.
Foss, C. “The Empress Theodora.” Byzantion 72, no. 1 (2002): 141–76.
Garland, Lynda. Byzantine Empresses: Women and Power in Byzantium AD 527-1204. London: Routledge, 2014.
Greatrex, Geoffrey. “Procopius of Caesarea.” Edited by David G. Hunter and Paul J. J. van Geest. Brill Encyclopedia of Early Christianity Online, 2018. Consulted online on 18 January 2023 <http://dx.doi.org.libproxy.helsinki.fi/10.1163/2589-7993_EECO_SIM_036467> First published online: 2018
Menze, Volker. “Justinian.” Edited by David G. Hunter and Paul J.J. van Geest. Brill Encyclopedia of Early Christianity Online, 2018. Consulted online on 18 January 2023 <http://dx.doi.org.libproxy.helsinki.fi/10.1163/2589-7993_EECO_SIM_00001850> First published online: 2018
Pazdernik, Charles. “‘Our Most Pious Consort Given Us by God’: Dissident Reactions to the Partnership of Justinian and Theodora, A.D. 525-548.” Classical Antiquity 13, no. 2 (1994): 256–81.
Potter, David. Theodora: Actress, Empress, Saint. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.
Stewart, Michael E. Masculinity, Identity, and Power Politics in the Age of Justinian : A Study of Procopius. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University, 2020.
 Volker Menze, “Justinian,” ed. David G. Hunter and Paul J.J. van Geest, Brill Encyclopedia of Early Christianity Online, 2018, and also Lynda Garland, Byzantine Empresses: Women and Power in Byzantium AD 527-1204 (London: Routledge, 2014), 12. The cause of Theodora’s death is considered to be metastasized cancer. In C. Foss, “The Empress Theodora,” Byzantion 72, no. 1 (2002): 153.
 Charles Pazdernik, “‘Our Most Pious Consort Given Us by God’: Dissident Reactions to the Partnership of Justinian and Theodora, A.D. 525-548,” Classical Antiquity 13, no. 2 (1994), 266 and The Empress Theodora,”, 150.
 David Miller and Peter Sarris, The Novels of Justinian : A Complete Annotated English Translation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), Novels 8.1, p., 130.
 Geoffrey Greatrex, “Procopius of Caesarea,” ed. David G. Hunter and Paul J. J. van Geest, Brill Encyclopedia of Early Christianity Online, 2018.
 Averil Cameron, Procopius and the Sixth Century (London: Routledge, 1996), 8.
 Procopius, The Anecdota or Secret History, translated by H. B. Dewing. Loeb Classical Library 290. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1935), introduction, viii, 12.13-23. See also Cameron, Procopius and the Sixth Century, 57, 83.
 Foss, “The Empress Theodora,” 159. Procopius, Secret History, 15.9, 30.23.
 Foss, “The Empress Theodora,” 154.
 Edmund Wright Brooks, “John of Ephesus. Lives of the Eastern Saints (II),” in Patrologia Orientalis (Paris: Firmin-Didot, 1924), 529.
 Garland, Byzantine Empresses: Women and Power in Byzantium AD 527-1204, 13; Foss, “The Empress Theodora,” 154.
 There were two main circus fractions in Constantinople, the Blues and the Greens and they played an important role in the management of the imperial races. These fractions provided the necessary equipment such as horses and chariots for the races and the necessary entertainment for the crowd. More on this can be found in David Potter, Theodora: Actress, Empress, Saint (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 8-12.
 Procopius, Secret History, 8.33-9.12.
 Ibid., 9.7-12.
 Garland, Byzantine Empresses: Women and Power in Byzantium AD 527-1204,13.
 Procopius, Secret History, 9.20-22; Foss, “The Empress Theodora,”154.
 In the subsequent centuries the Monophysites recreated a softer version of Theodora’s past such as that she was a daughter of a monophysite priest who opposed her marriage to a Chalcedonian emperor Justinian. More on this can be found in Garland, Byzantine Empresses: Women and Power in Byzantium AD 527-1204, 13; Foss, “The Empress Theodora,” 165. The quote from John of Ephesus can be found in Brooks, ed., “John of Ephesus. Lives of the Eastern Saints (II),” in Patrologia Orientalis, PO 17.1, p. 189.
 Cameron, Procopius and the Sixth Century, 72; Garland, Byzantine Empresses: Women and Power in Byzantium AD 527-1204, 37. Details of her unconventional lifestyle according to Procopius and how she became an empress can be read in Procopius, Secret History, 8.33-9.34.
 Garland, Byzantine Empresses: Women and Power in Byzantium AD 527-1204, 13-14; Foss, “The Empress Theodora,”166-9. Procopius, Secret History, 9.23-34 .
 Procopius, Secret History, 9.17-19.
 Ibid., 9.27-35.
 Foss, “The Empress Theodora,” 169; Garland, Byzantine Empresses: Women and Power in Byzantium AD 527-1204, 12.
 Charles Diehl, Théodora, Impératrice de Byzance (Paris: E. De Boccard, 1904); Robert Browning, Justinian and Theodora (Westport: Praeger, 1971).
Bishop Of Nikiu, The Chronicle Of John, translated by R.H. Charles. (London: Williams & Norgate, 1913), 90.87, p. 144. Foss and Cameron state that there is not enough substantial evidence to prove that Theodora actually converted, this was an attempt by modern scholars to create a softer romanticized version of Theodora. More on this in Foss, “The Empress Theodora,” 166 and Cameron, Procopius and the Sixth Century, 68-9.
 Cameron, Procopius and the Sixth Century, 69.
 Procopius, Secret History, 9.49-53; Garland, Byzantine Empresses: Women and Power in Byzantium AD 527-1204, 14.
 Bruce W. Frier and Fred H. Blume, The Codex of Justinian: A New Annotated Translation, with Parallel Latin and Greek Text (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016),Vol. 1, 5.4.23 , p. 1117-9; Garland, Byzantine Empresses: Women and Power in Byzantium AD 527-1204, 14.
 Garland, Byzantine Empresses: Women and Power in Byzantium AD 527-1204, 37-8; Cameron, Procopius and the Sixth Century, 80-1.
 New laws and reforms were passed not only against prostitution but also for women’s rights in marriage and divorce. There is no evidence that Theodora personally approved these laws however, it would stand to reason, from a woman who had personal experience of living in unfortunate circumstances that she was closely monitoring and influencing the outcome of these legislations. More on this in Garland, Byzantine Empresses: Women and Power in Byzantium AD 527-1204, 16-7.
 Procopius, On Buildings. Translated by H. B. Dewing and Glanville Downey. Loeb Classical Library 343. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1940), 1.9.6, p.75; Foss, “The Empress Theodora,” 150.
 Procopius, Secret History,17.6.
 Cameron, Procopius and the Sixth Century, 68.
 Foss, “The Empress Theodora,” 143; Garland, Byzantine Empresses: Women and Power in Byzantium AD 527-1204, 25-6.
 Foss, “The Empress Theodora,” 144; Garland, Byzantine Empresses: Women and Power in Byzantium AD 527-1204, 24.
 Cameron, Procopius and the Sixth Century, 79.
 Foss, “The Empress Theodora,” 144.
 Foss, “The Empress Theodora,” 147; Garland, Byzantine Empresses: Women and Power in Byzantium AD 527-1204, 23.
 Ibid., 23.
 Brooks, ed., John of Ephesus, Lives of the Eastern Saints (II), Vol. 18, p.680.
 Procopius, Secret History,10.13.15. Theodora also tried to install a monophysite pope in Rome with the help of her friend Antonina. This was another religious influence that Theodora attempted. For more on this venture visit Garland, Byzantine Empresses: Women and Power in Byzantium AD 527-1204, 36; Foss, “The Empress Theodora,” 145-6.
 Ibid., 171.
 Procopius also recorded that Theodora meddled in foreign affairs by killing the Gothic queen Amalasuntha using the imperial agent Peter the Illyrian who worked for the emperor and the empress. If this is the case, again Justinian also benefited from it. More on this in Foss, “The Empress Theodora,” 171-2.
 Garland, Byzantine Empresses: Women and Power in Byzantium AD 527-1204, 31-2.
 Foss, “The Empress Theodora,” 152-3.
 Procopius, History of the Wars. Translated by H. B. Dewing. Loeb Classical Library LCL048., Volume 1 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1914), 1.24.33-9.
 Cameron, Procopius and the Sixth Century, 69.
 Garland, Byzantine Empresses: Women and Power in Byzantium AD 527-1204, 32.
 Good list of various artistic works about the character of Theodora can be found in Potter, Theodora: Actress, Empress, Saint, 205-213.