Theodora: from prostitution to empress of the eastern Roman empire

The extraordinary tale of Theodora, an actress and prostitute whose rags-to-riches tale made her arguably the most powerful woman in Byzantium

Theodora was an Eastern Roman empress by marriage to emperor Justinian.(Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)

When faced with death, the Byzantine emperor Justinian was a cowardly figure. The same could not be said of his wife, Theodora.

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During a revolt in Constantinople in the year 532, Justinian was ready to make a run for it, but the audacious empress implored him to stay to save his reign. She arose from her throne and uttered the phrase “If you wish to save yourself, my lord, there is no difficulty… As for me, I agree with the saying that royal purple is the noblest shroud”.

But Theodora had not always been so majestic. Born in the hippodrome to a bear keeper and actress, she came from the lowest rung of society. Nonetheless, Theodora’s involvement with politics began at a young age.

Theodora’s involvement with politics began at a young age

Her family were members of the Green faction, supporters of the corresponding Green hippodrome team, whose followers from the working classes possessed a degree of political influence. Their rivals were the Blues, a team backed by the upper and ruling classes, who also held considerable political leverage.

Her father died when she was young, so Theodora’s mother quickly remarried in order to avoid destitution. She attempted to get her new husband into the vacant bear-baiting position by parading her downtrodden children in front of the Greens.

However, her emotional appeal was ridiculed and laughed at. Sensing an opportunity to steal support from their rivals, the Blues gave Theodora’s stepfather a job, saving the family from poverty. From this moment, Theodora’s loyalty remained with the Blues, a switch that would define her destiny.

Shunned by society

As she grew up, Theodora took to the stage to earn money. Her childhood was spent performing circus tricks with her sister, and as she blossomed into a teenager, she moved onto more risqué performances. Soon, Theodora was known throughout the Empire for her interpretation of Leda and the Swan, the infamous Ancient Greek myth of Zeus turning himself into a swan to sleep with a young woman.

Theodora provided a colourful version of the story by scattering grain on her nether regions and encouraging geese to peck it from her. Off stage, wealthier clients would pay for her sexual services, and though it provided a source of income, it meant she was shunned by society.

Wealthier clients would pay for her sexual services, and though it provided a source of income, it meant she was shunned by society.

At the tender age of 16, Theodora believed she’d found an escape from her former life when she journeyed with civil servant Hecebolus to his new posting in Libya. Here she lived as his mistress for four years, but he abused her and eventually threw her out onto the streets, penniless. Her determination saw her through, and she scraped together enough money to get herself and her infant daughter to Alexandria.

She encountered two influential religious leaders, who identified as Monophysite Christians. These so-called ‘heretics’ stood at loggerheads to the mainstream Orthodox Church, as they believed that Jesus never had a mortal form, and was an entirely divine being. Theodora’s interactions with them moved her so much that she converted, and remained steadfastly committed to Monophysitism.

Back to Constantinople

Theodora’s luck began to change when she befriended Macedonia, a dancer and member of the Blue faction. With her help, Theodora was able to return to Constantinople, and even land a respectable job as a wool-spinner. Macedonia also introduced Theodora to future emperor Justinian, a valuable Blue ally.

He was instantly infatuated with her beauty and wit, and desired to make her his wife as soon as possible. However, Theodora’s past haunted her, and an old Roman law prevented high society from marrying former actresses. Justinian took advantage of his elderly uncle the Emperor in AD 525, and changed the law to let ‘truly repentant’ actresses wed those of high rank. They married almost immediately.

Two years later, Justinian and Theodora sat as rulers of the mighty Eastern Roman Empire. Theodora proved her worth during the Nika riots of 532. A fight between the Blues and Greens at the hippodrome culminated in a violent uprising, in which the teams both attempted to overthrow the dynasty and proclaim the unwitting commander Hypatius as emperor. Theodora was ruthless. After convincing her husband to remain in the city and face the rioters, they sent loyal soldiers to the place where she grew up. The exits were sealed off, and in the massacre that ensued, 30,000 people were slaughtered. Hypatius was brought to the palace, and though Justinian was willing to spare the rioters’ figurehead, Theodora wanted to make an example of him, and he was promptly executed.

What were the Nika Riots?

The most violent riots in the history of Constantinople, and all because of chariot racing

A week of rioting in January AD 532 ended with Constantinople wrecked, tens of thousands dead, and Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian I almost overthrown. The Romans took chariot racing very seriously. Chariot teams were split into colour-coded factions – Blue, Green, Red and White – with loyal groups of supporters, called demes. Violence among them was common enough at races in the Hippodrome (like football hooliganism today), but after one particularly bloody fight Justinian set an example by executing the ringleaders. Job done, except two escaped – one Blue and one Green – and sought sanctuary in a church, which inadvertently united the demes against the emperor.

With tension mounting, the next race turned even uglier than normal. All factions took up the cry Nika (‘Win’ or ‘Victory’) against Justinian and poured into the streets for a full week of rioting, during which the mob declared a new emperor and the original Hagia Sophia fell victim to the flames. Order was only restored when Justinian sent in his troops to trap the demes in the Hippodrome and cut them down in the thousands.

In the aftermath, the royal couple set about restoring the stability of the Byzantine world. Theodora’s work as empress was characterised by an increase in women’s rights and religious tolerance. She fought for laws that banned pimps, proscribed the death penalty for rape, and gave mothers custody rights over children. She also ensured religious protection for Monophysites within the palace walls, even though Justinian himself was Orthodox.

Theodora died at age 48, probably of breast cancer. In her memory, Justinian continued to protect Monophysites throughout the Empire, despite his personal beliefs. The couple’s mark on Constantinople is still visible today at Hagia Sophia, the breathtaking church they built together after the Nika revolts – a lavish display of their wealth and influence over the Empire.

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This article was first published in the January 2017 issue of BBC History Revealed magazine