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Theodora (502-548)


In 330 the Roman emperor Constantine I founded a second Roman capital at Byzantium (present-day Istanbul). In recognition of its founder, the city was named Constantinople. When Rome fell in 476, what remained of the once great Roman Empire became known as the Byzantine Empire, with Constantinople as its capital. Disputes between rival political and religious groups almost immediately threatened the existence of this empire.

Theodora was the wife of Justinian I who was crowned Emperor of the Byzantine Empire in 527 AD. As his wife, she ruled by his side, as his partner, and her intelligence helped to advance the Empire.

The exact place of her birth has not been agreed upon. While some historians say she was born on the island of Crete off the coast of Greece, others speculate that she might have been born in Syria.

Detail of mosaic,
Ravenna, Italy
6th century AD

theodora.jpg (27008 bytes)

Whichever the case, she was brought up as the daughter of a bear trainer who worked at the Hippodrome (a huge stadium-like circus), in Constantinople. She worked there as a mime, and later as a full time actress. At the time, acting was not a highly esteemed occupation especially for women, so the term 'actress' was considered synonymous with the term 'prostitute'. While on stage she was remembered for her daring entertainment skills, off stage however, she lived a normal youthful life and was most remembered for her wild parties.
Converts to Monophysitism

When she was 16, Theodora traveled to northern Africa as the companion of an official named Hecebolus. She stayed with him for almost four years before heading back to Constantinople. On the way, she settled briefly in Alexandria, the luxurious capital of Egypt. While there, she adopted the beliefs of Monophysitism. This form of Christianity held that Jesus of Nazareth was wholly divine, not both human and divine as orthodox Christian believed. Because they went against accepted Church teachings, Monophysites were scorned by other Christians.

After her conversion to Monophysitism, Theodora gave up her former lifestyle. She returned to Constantinople in 522, settled in a house near the palace, and made a living spinning wool. It was here that she drew the attention of Justinian. He was 40 years old at the time, almost twice her age. Justinian wanted to marry her, but as heir to the throne of his uncle, Emperor Justin 1, he could not. An old Roman law forbade government officials from marrying actresses. Justin finally repealed this law the following year, and Justinian and Theodora were married in 525.

On April 4, 527, Justin crowned Justinian and Theodora emperor and empress. When Justin died in August of that year, the couple assumed control of the Byzantine Empire. Although they did not officially rule as joint monarchs, they in fact did. Justinian allowed Theodora to share his throne and influence his decisions because he recognized her abilities and intelligence.

Determined speech saves Empire

It was during the Nika revolt that Theodora proved her leadership. Two rival political groups existed in the empire - Blues and Greens. Disagreements over Monophysitism and orthodox Christianity had further separated them. In January 532, while staging a chariot race in the hippodrome, these two groups started a riot. They set many public buildings on fire and proclaimed a new emperor. Unable to control the mob, Justinian and many of his advisors prepared to flee. At a meeting of the government council, Theodora courageously spoke out against leaving the palace. She thought it was better to live as nothing. Her determined speech convinced all. Justitianís generals then attacked the hippodrome, killing 30.000 rebels. Historians agree that her courage saved Justitianís crown.


Throughout the rest of her life, Theodora and Justinian transformed the city of Constantinople, building it into a city that for many centuries was known as the most wonderful cities in the world. They built aqueducts, bridges, and more than 25 churches, the most significant of these being the Hagia Sophia - 'Church of Holy Wisdom'. To women, Theodora may well be considered a noble pioneer of the women's liberation movement. She passed on laws prohibiting forced prostitution and established homes for prostitutes, passed rights that granted women more rights in divorce cases, instituted the death penalty for rape and established laws allowing women to own and inherit property. She also provided safe shelter for Monophysite leaders who faced opposition from the majority orthodox Christians, even though her husband Justinian was an orthodox Christian.

Increases rights of women

Theodora influenced Justinian's legal and spiritual reforms. She had laws passed that prohibited forced prostitution and that granted women more rights in divorce cases. She also established homes for prostitutes. Even though Justinian supported orthodox Christianity, Theodora continued to follow Monophysitism. She provided shelter in the palace for Monophysite leaders and founded a Monophysite monastery in Sycae, across the harbor from Constantinople. After her death, Justinian worked to find harmony between the Monophysites and the orthodox Christians in the empire.

Empress Theodora died on 28th June, 548. Her body was buried in the Church of the Holy Apostle, one of the splendid churches that she and Justinian had built in Constantinople. Beautiful mosaics in Empress Theodora's remembrance exist to this day at the Church of San Vitale at Ravenna in Northern Italy. Even after her death, her spirit lived on, and in this way she was able to have influence on the Empire. Through what she had began, Justinian was able to bring harmony between the Monophysites and the Orthodox Christians, and the status of women in the Byzantine Empire was elevated high above that of the women in the Middle East and Europe


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