To put the remarkable life of Byzantine Empress Theodora (500 AD – 548 AD) into perspective, imagine a woman who combined the legislative know-how of Ruth Bader Ginsburg with the sexual notoriety of Sasha Grey. Not just a celebrated erotic performer or a renowned leader, Theodora managed to excel at both roles in her less than fifty years on earth.
Theodora was born into a performing family: her father trained bears for the spectacles at Constantinople’s hippodrome and her mother was a dancer. As was the case throughout the ancient world, the roles of woman performer and prostitute overlapped, and it’s well established from both favorable and less-than-favorable contemporary biographies that young Theodora participated in sex work. Theodora wasn’t a brothel worker or a streetwalker, though—she was a star performer and a much sought-after courtesan. Stories are told of her scandalous reenactment of the story of Leda and the Swan that involved the long-necked bird eating seeds from between her legs.
In her late teens, Theodora became the mistress of the governor of Libya and further established herself in influential political circles. Traveling throughout the Near East and Northern Africa, Theodora met a number of colorful figures including Macedonia, a dancer who was rumored to be a spy for Emperor Justin I. It was most likely through her friendship with Macedonia that Theodora met the man who would become her husband: the future Emperor Justinian. By all accounts, Justinian fell madly in love with Theodora and it’s a matter of historical record that he went to great lengths to make her more than simply his mistress. He was forbidden by law from marrying an actress, but was able to convince his uncle the Emperor to revise these statutes to allow him to legitimize his relationship with Theodora. Justinian went so far as to recognize Theodora’s daughter borne from another man as legitimate.
Up to this point in her life, Theodora had mainly been characterized by her charm, wit, and beauty, but another side of the woman was about to emerge. In 532, riots broke out in Constantinople due to ongoing tensions between political factions in Constantinople, leading to widespread violence and destruction of property. Justinian, who had at this point assumed the role of Emperor, was preparing to flee the city when Theodora declared her intent to stand her ground with words that would become notorious: “Royal purple is the noblest shroud.” Her aggressiveness led the Emperor to renew his effort to quash the rebellion (at the cost of 30,000-or-so rebel lives). In turn, the Empress’ reputation as an authoritative ruler was cemented.
The next step in Theodora and Justinian’s campaign to reunify Constantinople and, by extension, retain control over the Byzantine Empire, was a massive urban development effort that included the construction of the Hagia Sophia. The largest cathedral in the world for a thousand years and a magnificent example of ancient engineering, Hagia Sophia still enchants visitors today with its expansive domes, towering minarets, and ethereal light.
Historians report that Theodora demanded an extreme level of formality in her court that complemented the grandiosity of the building plans on which she and her husband had embarked. Not one to let lesser officials mistake their station in relation to her power, she would let them languish for hours waiting for an audience and demand prostration when they were finally admitted to her presence.
Theodora’s strength wasn’t only demonstrated through traditionally masculine acts of urban planning and performances of power. She actively campaigned for better treatment of women in her kingdom, personally working to free prostitutes who were kept enslaved in brothels. Through her husband’s legislative power, she influenced the passing of laws that expanded the definition of rape to include crimes against women of lower classes and increased the severity of penalties against convicted rapists. Statutes were adjusted to allow actresses and prostitutes to give up their profession at will, much as the Empress herself had done.
After Theodora’s death from cancer at age forty-eight, Justinian continued to push through reforms that favored women’s rights. The impact of her deeds (and likely her larger-than-life personality) continues to be felt in the Eastern Orthodox Church, where she has been added to the congregation of saints.
Theodora was a complex woman and one who doesn’t easily fit into any one of the molds she might be forced into by those with a point of their own to make: she was not entirely prostitute, gentlewoman, authoritarian, or feminist. Instead she embodied a combination of all these roles and in so doing became one of the most powerful women in the history of the world.