Wife of JUSTINIAN I (527-565), empress of Byzantium from 4 April 527 until her death on 28 June 548 (Malalas, 1831, pp. 422, 484). A woman of great personal influence, especially in ecclesiastical matters, she favored the Monophysites and is remembered as their saintly protector.
Her reputation, however, is tainted by a shady past as an entertainer of the Hippodrome performing in shows of extreme sexual explicitness (Procopius, 1961, p. 9) and as a member of a brothel, a fact attested by the otherwise trustworthy witness John of Ephesus (Lives of the Eastern Saints, p. 189). After various adventures, including a trip to Alexandria, and several abortions and illegitimate children, she caught the attention of the patrician Justinian, who married her after the death (523) of the existing empress, who had opposed the match, and after securing a relaxation of the law forbidding senators to marry actresses. The new law rehabilitated reformed actresses and any children of subsequent marriages. However, the marriage of Theodora and Justinian was childless, despite attempts to enlist divine aid through the prayers of Saint Sabas.
The general view of Procopius concerning Theodora is very hostile, and the details of his account of her early life are no doubt exaggerated but not totally false, since Theodora made no attempt to conceal her background. On the contrary, she founded in Constantinople a famous convent to house reformed women like herself, and the contemporary monophysite tradition was proud to see her as its supporter. Only much later was an expurgated version of her life put forward excluding mention of her origins.
Theodora clearly exercised a great influence over Justinian and public affairs, and is named with Justinian in some official sources; but her power was wielded behind the scenes by virtue of her personality rather than by right. She is accused by Procopius of interfering in public affairs at all levels, especially to further or protect her favorites. She is alleged by him to have been a close friend of Antonina, the forceful wife of the general Belisarius, and to have acted with her to promote or to hinder his career at various times—implying that she exercised an influence over the conduct of Justinian’s war policy. Her most famous secular intervention was during the Nika Revolt (532), when she is said by Procopius to have urged the wavering Justinian to stand firm with the words “The empire is a fair winding sheet” (Bridge, 1978, p. 76). She is also said to have secured the final disgrace of the minister John the Cappadocian.
Theodora’s main influence, however, was in the ecclesiastical sphere and particularly in support of monophysitism. She gave shelter to many monophysite clergy in the palace of Hormisdas, including some exiles reportedly hidden without Justinian’s knowledge until her death. She also encouraged the mission of Jacob Baradaeus to ordain monophysite priests in Syria. She sponsored missions in the monophysite interest to Nubia, with important long- term consequences for the development of Christianity in that area. For these activities she was much revered by the Monophysite church, as is most clearly shown in the Lives of the Eastern Saints by her contemporary, John, bishop of Ephesus. Procopius, another main source for Theodora, is totally out of sympathy with these actions and represents them as designed to cause maximum trouble in the empire.
Theodora is said to have been small and pale and, though not beautiful, very much concerned with her appearance. Only one certain portrait survives, in the famous mosaic from San Vitale at Ravenna, where she is shown in imperial dress; it bears out Procopius’ description. Though she could bear no heir for Justinian, she had at least two children by previous liaisons; through one of them, a daughter, she allied herself to the highest aristocratic circles, probably to the surviving family of Emperor Anastasius. Her sister, Comito, married Sittas, one of Justinian’s leading generals, and Theodora’s niece, Sophia, perhaps the daughter of this marriage, was married to Justin the curopalates (administrator of imperial palace), nephew of Justinian. She became empress when he succeeded to the throne. Theodora was thus able to promote the interests of her family, aided by the large endowments given her by Justinian. She died of cancer in 548 while probably still in her forties, leaving Justinian a lonely man to reign for seventeen more years.
- Bury, J. B. History of the Later Roman Empire, 2nd ed., Vol. 2, pp. 27-35. London, 1923.
- Cameron, A. “The House of Anastasius.” Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies 19 (1978):269ff.
- Daube, D. “The Marriage of Justinian and Theodora. Legal and Theological Reflections.” Catholic University Law Review 16 (1967):380ff.
- John of Ephesus. Lives of the Eastern Saints 13. Patrologia Orientalis 17. Louvain, 1923. Malalas, J. Chronographia. Bonn, 1831.
- Procopius of Caesarea. Secret History. Ann Arbor, Mich., 1961. Stein, E. Histoire du Bas-Empire, ed. J.-R. Palanque, Vol. 2, pp. 235-39. Amsterdam, 1949.
- Popular books about Theodora include the following:
- Bridge, A. Theodora: Portrait in a Byzantine Landscape. London, 1978. Less sensational, concentrates on the ecclesiastical side. Vandercook, J. W. Empress of the Dusk. New York, 1940.
- The romanticized view of Theodora comes from the influential works of Charles Diehl, Theodora, impératrice de Byzance (Paris, 1904) and Figures byzantines (Paris, 1920).