As the wife of Emperor Justinian I of the Byzantine Empire, Theodora wielded incredible power. However, her path to becoming a ferocious empress was anything but predictable. Depending on who you ask, Theodora was an X-rated Cinderella, a Machiavellian villain, or a feminist icon. So, was this Empress friend or foe? Read on and decide for yourself.
Theodora is one mysterious lady. Historians believe that she was born in the year 500 AD. Despite that tidbit of knowledge, nobody is 100% certain about her origins. Different writers name her birthplace as Syria, the island of Cyprus, or Paphlagonia. Unless her ghost comes back and holds a press conference, we’ll probably never know the truth.
But even though Theodora’s childhood wasn’t newsworthy, she quickly got to work on earning her now-scandalous reputation.
Most biographies agree that Theodora's father had a truly kick-butt profession. Her dad, Acacius, was a bear trainer who worked in Constantinople’s Hippodrome (in modern speak, a sports arena crossed with the circus). Her mother, meanwhile, was probably an actress and a dancer. It’s safe to say that Theodora would combine her father’s daredevil spirit with her mother’s sultry skills.
When Theodora was just five years old, she endured a horrible tragedy: Her father’s passing. His demise didn’t just cause young Theodora emotional pain. It also threw the family into turmoil. Without Acacius around to provide, Theodora and her sisters had to get to work so that the family could survive. So what did the girls do? Why, follow in their mother’s controversial footsteps, of course.
Theodora and her sister took to the stage. They became actresses and dancers, entrancing enormous crowds with their beauty and charisma. However, there was a dark side to our heroine’s first job. You see, back in the day, being “an actress” was often a code word for another, far more risqué occupation. Some historians wonder if Theodora and her sister became courtesans.
According to an ancient writer named Procopius, our girl Theodora first gained fame on the stage with an especially lewd act. It consisted of a dance sequence which re-enacted the Greek myth where the god Zeus seduces Queen Lydia while in the form of a swan. "What's so scandalous about that?", you're probably wondering. Oh, buckle up.
Allegedly, Theodora would use a goose onstage instead of a swan, all while encouraging it by sprinkling bits of barley “into the calyx of this passion flower, whence geese, trained for the purpose, would next pick the grains one by one with their bills and eat". If you’re wondering what the “calyx of this passion flower” is, it’s a polite way of describing Theodora’s nether regions. If that doesn’t get the people going...
According to another of Procopius’s stories, Theodora had more than one Showgirls-esque trick up her sleeve. She would also dance for her audiences while twirling a ribbon around her body. Here’s the spicy part: Theodora performed this routine while wearing only the ribbon.
Justice for Theodora: She wasn’t just a seductress. She had a funny side too. When she was young, our girl worked as a mime and a comedian. Basically, think of Theo as what would happen if Kristen Wiig and Madonna had a time-travelling baby. However, as we’ll see, Theodora’s life was far from just fun and games.
Oof, living in the ancient world and being a lady was a rough deal. When Theodora was just 14 years old, she was forced to grow up way too fast. She had a child—when she was still a child herself. To this day, we don’t even know the name of Theodora’s baby daughter—just that she was definitely born outside of wedlock.
It looks like Theodora handed off her baby to some relatives (no judgment, she was a friggin’ child herself) and got right back to her bad girl ways. The next record of Theodora occurs when she’s an 18-year-old mistress to one of Ancient Rome’s governors. Theodora’s new sugar daddy was a man named Hecebolus and though he was prestigious, it’s safe to say that he was not a nice guy...
All we know about Theodora and Hecebolus’s relationship is that A) it happened and B) four years later, it ended in a huge mess. The reason for their split varies from “We don’t know!” to “He treated her like garbage and then, out of nowhere, abandoned her". Cool, cool, cool, so bad boyfriends and ghosting have been around since ancient times. Love it.
But hey, on the bright side, Theodora didn’t let the breakup get her down. Instead, her story really gets wild after the end of her relationship with the governor.
After splitting up with her sugar daddy, Theodora did a complete 180 degree turn and joined a religious commune. While chilling at her ancient bible camp, Theodora began to worship a kind of early Christianity called Myaphisitism. Like many a born-again Christian, Theo disavowed her past as a racy entertainer and devoted herself to God. Well...for now...
Theodora was an ardent Myaphisite for the rest of her life—but don’t get it twisted, she was still a bad girl at heart. After an undetermined amount of time, she left the commune and moved to the bustling city of Antioch, where she met a woman named Macedonia. Macedonia was a dancer/spy—and she quickly got Theodora to pitch in with her espionage efforts.
Historians believe that while living with Macedonia, our heroine took part in some Mission: Impossible-style intrigue. Apparently, the provinces that surrounded Constantinople were getting annoyed about how much the city ran things. In an effort to regain power, people were hungry for all kinds of insider info. Enter: A bustling city full of spy networks, of which Theodora may have been part.
By now, you probably figured out that Theodora was a bit of a controversial lady. However, it seemed like no matter what you thought about her behavior, everyone could agree on one thing about her: She was a stunner. Theodora had long, dark hair, large, almond-shaped eyes, and olive skin. In a mosaic from her lifetime, she’s depicted as a beautiful woman with a willowy frame. So when the Emperor saw her, well, who can blame him for swooning?
This is the part where Theodora’s story really kicks into high gear. By this point, she’s been a courtesan, a performer, a convert, and a spy—but now, she was ready for her most audacious role: Empress. In 522, Theodora met Justinian, the Emperor of Eastern Rome, and immediately entranced him. Their romance was like an ancient version of Pretty Woman, and believe me when I say that not everyone was happy about the mismatched couple...
Justinian adored his new, hot girlfriend and since both his parents had already passed on, you’d think that the Emperor wouldn’t have any trouble upgrading Theodora from “main squeeze” to “royal bride". Well, you’d be wrong. Justinian’s aunt Euphemia hated the idea of her nephew marrying a woman with such a sordid past. But there was another reason for Aunt Euphie’s disapproval...
It turns out that Aunt Euphemia was a biiiiit of a hypocrite. You see, her background wasn’t too different from Theodora’s. When she was a young woman, Euphemia came from a lower class background—and she made money by selling intimate services, just like the woman she now judged for daring to do the same. It was a real “pot, meet kettle” moment—but Euphemia didn’t see it that way.
Aunt Euphemia made it her mission to keep Justinian from putting a ring on Theodora’s finger. But the joke’s on her! She kicked the bucket too soon to do anything about it. Euphemia passed in either 523 or 524, clearing the way for Justinian and Theodora’s royal wedding. However, Theodora soon learned that an old lady’s disapproval wasn’t the only thing standing in between her and the throne.
It turns out that the law itself banned an emperor from marrying someone like Theodora. But luckily for our girl, Emperors don’t have to follow the law. They have the power to change it. As a sign of Justinian’s devotion to Theo (and a sign that Theodora must have had some next level bedroom skills), Justinian literally changed the law so that they could get married. And that’s how, in 525, a lowly courtesan became the Empress of Ancient Rome. I bow down to Theodora.
Despite any snide comments people might make about a social-climbing actress becoming the Empress of the Byzantine Empire, Theodora was far from simple eye candy. Her hubby Justinian referred to her as his “partner in my deliberations". In fact, many historians think that Justinian was putting Theo’s contributions lightly. According to scholars, Theodora may have been the real brains behind Justinian’s rule.
Let’s start with the good news. When Theodora came into power, she used it to make some truly amazing changes. Clearly, she never forgot about her own difficult childhood because she made pimping a criminal offense and banished brothels from the empire’s cities. And that was just the beginning. Theodora also stuck up for girls who, like her, had been victimized. She created convents where vulnerable women could be safe and independent.
But some of her changes weren’t so heartwarming—they were vengeful.
Theodora worked hard to help women who’d been victimized—but she worked even harder to punish the men who harmed them. Rapists were no longer safe in Ancient Rome. If you were caught attacking a woman—or even if you stood by and failed to stop the brutality—then you could be executed. Plus, after the punishment was doled out, Theodora made it a law that the victim would receive all her attacker’s property.
And if you think that’s intense, just you wait...
In 532, Theodora took her kick-butt reputation to the next level. This was the year that Theodora’s husband made an appearance to celebrate a high-profile race. Unfortunately, the emperor’s stint as a Fast and Furious-esque race starter couldn’t have gone worse. You see, the audience wasn’t very happy with Justinian or, to be specific, his tax hikes. For them, his appearance at the races was a perfect opportunity to raise some chaos.
The crowd quickly transformed into a furious mob. In what's now called "The Nika Revolt," they ran out of the stadium, set old churches and landmarks on fire, and destroyed anything standing in their way. Heck, even old gangs put aside their long-standing rivalries and teamed up to take Justinian and Theodora down. The rebels yelled “Conquer!” as they rode through the streets and besieged the palace for five long days.
In other words, it looked like Theodora’s time in the sun was just about finished. Well, until she struck back.
As Justinian’s advisers urged the royal couple to get out of Dodge, Theodora politely declined to wimp out. Instead, she made a rousing speech, urging her husband and his men to, well, man up. In Theodora’s words, it looked like it was up to “a woman” to “give an example of courage to men". Call the burn unit, because Theodora just destroyed these guys.
Theodora wasn’t done either. When her husband begged her to run away from the angry crowd, she steadfastly refused, saying "Never will I see the day when I am not saluted as empress". Even when Justinian said they could escape by sea, Theodora passed on his offer. She declared, “Purple makes a fine winding [burial] sheet". The translation of that is basically “I’d rather be buried as an Empress than live as a commoner". Inspired by his wife’s indomitable spirit (and dedication to the luxurious Empress lifestyle), Justinian got his act together and fought back.
Justinian and Theodora hatched a clever plan. They pitted the rioters against each other and executed the rebellious senators who’d assisted their coup. In a grisly version of this story, Theodora ordered that her men herd 30,000 rebels back into the stadium where the riot began and mercilessly cut them down. According to one source, she insisted on the bloodshed. Message received, loud and clear: Don’t mess with Theodora.
Theodora maybe went a little overboard on the whole revenge thing. The rebels had “elected” a new emperor from the crowd, refusing to listen to the poor guy when he said, “Hey guys, actually, I’m not so down with this, can I maybe just leave?” Evidently, Theodora wasn’t interested in his pleas either. She had the would-be king executed.
Don’t judge Theodora’s bloodlust too harshly. Despite her violent streak, the Empress was also deeply religious. When a group of people from her faction of Christianity, got exiled, she stepped up to help them. She got one of the men re-settled in Egypt and helped another hide within her own properties for over a decade. He was still safely hiding at the time of Theodora’s demise!
But if you got on Theodora’s bad side, you’d better watch out. And no one knew this better than her rival, John of Cappadocia.
Apparently, Theodora wasn’t happy when the tax collector, John the Cappadocian started cozying up to her husband. Fearing a rival influence over the Emperor, Theodora decided to take John down. She started by complaining to her husband, but when that didn’t work, she switched gears. Theodora teamed up with Antonina, the wife of a prominent general, and hatched a plan to entrap her competition.
Theodora ordered her new BFF Antonina to arrange a “secret” meeting with John, where the two would plan an attack against the Emperor. The whole time, two of Justinian’s allies would be close by, ready to hear if John would take the bait. If he did, it was game over. Theodora had ordered the men to execute John if he agreed to betray the Emperor. So, would he bend to Antonina’s plan?
Short answer: Heck yes! John was determined to gain power and he’d do anything to get his way, including betraying the Emperor. As soon as Justinian’s allies overheard John’s enthusiastic response to Antonina’s plan, they leapt into action. However, Theodora’s plot hit a snag when John managed to evade capture. But don’t worry, she got her way in the end.
When the Emperor heard that John was only too happy to betray him, he ordered his men to find the traitor and send him into exile.
John wasn’t the only rival that Theodora defeated. Remember how she was into a specific sect of Christianity? Well, it turns out that she’d do pretty much anything to convert more people to her cause. She teamed up with a like-minded man and plotted to fire the old Pope and replace him with her new friend. There was just one problem with this plan...
Theodora managed to get the old pope exiled to the southern coast of Turkey, only for her plan to unravel in catastrophic fashion. Her husband heard what Theodora had done and he was deeply unimpressed. Justinian ordered that the pope come back and receive a fair trial—however, he didn’t realize that Theodora had yet another trick up her sleeve.
Theodora ordered her henchman to intercept the old pope and hand him off to her newly-appointed pope. Long story short: Instead of receiving that fair trial, the poor old pope got exiled yet again. This time, he was off to a barren island—and he wouldn’t return. The ex-pope suffered a horrific fate and starved to death after a few months.
As much as Theodora could go out of her way to get back at her enemies, credit where credit’s due: she also worked hard to keep her friends safe. Case in point: Her BFF and ally, Antonina. When Antonina’s husband publicly accused her of sleeping with their adopted son (!), Theodora stood up for her friend. She made sure that Theodora wouldn’t be punished—and historians generally side with her. Chances are that Antonina’s husband made up his ridiculous accusation so he could divorce his wife.
Speaking of said angry hubby, Theodora got back at him too! Our girl was a schemer at heart and if you went after her pals, you’d better watch out. When Antonina’s husband, who was a general, needed reinforcements and supplies on the battlefield, rumor has it that Theodora was the one who made the Emperor say, “Hard pass” to his request. Ice cold, Theo.
Theodora’s petty diva behavior didn’t stop there either. Some sources (and full disclosure, one of these sources is notorious for being biased against Theo) say that she had a bit of an ego and absolutely had to be in control. Apparently, Theodora would make anyone who ranked below her fall down on their stomachs if she did so much as enter a room.
Theodora was also, allegedly, a bit of a busy body. She loved making networks of people who were loyal to her and would reward her allies with prestigious marriages. Some of Theodora’s match-making schemes seem fairly well-intentioned, like the time she paired her rebellious sister with a fancy general. However, another one of her “love matches” was a waking nightmare.
Allegedly, Theodora forced her grandson to marry a young aristocratic girl, even though the girl’s parents weren’t down with that idea. More importantly, neither was the girl! (So much for Theodora being so hung ho about independent women). Thankfully, the couple eventually fell for each other but still…the ends don’t justify means, Theodora.
Here’s one final entry on the “Theodora, why???” list. According to an ancient source who openly hated her, Theodora may have been behind the assassination of the Goth queen Amalasuntha. Allegedly, Theodora became jealous of Amalasuntha’s beauty, cunning, and her close relationship with Theo’s husband. In an effort to nip a potential affair in the bud, Theodora ordered her men to gank Amalasuntha.
And like a true drama queen, of course Theo set the stage. She arranged for Amalasuntha to perish in the middle of a luxurious bath.
However, let’s not let the rumors overshadow Theodora’s many incredible achievements. Along with her husband, she built up Constantinople with stunning churches and buildings, including the famous Hagia Sophia. And she was also the reason that women received new rights, like the ability to own property and divorce no-good husbands.
Sadly, though, Theodora’s time had to come to an end. This unlikely Empress passed on June 28, 548 AD, at either 48 or 51 years of age. Theodora’s cause of death is hard to determine because of translation issues, but the original Greek term means either a tumor or an ulcer. Most historians believe that Theodora passed of mammary cancer.
But somehow, the real tragedy only occurred after her demise.
Theodora’s bereaved husband, Justinian, was famously heartbroken when he lost his beloved wife. He “wept bitterly” at Theodora's funeral and, as a sign of his unending devotion, he never remarried. If you want to pay Theodora a visit, her body lies in the Church of the Holy Apostles in, of course, Constantinople. However, even death doesn’t mark the end of Theo’s story.
Even when she was gone, people could tell that Theodora was the real mastermind behind her husband’s rule. You see, after she passed, Emperor Justinian hardly did any politicking. It was a not-so-subtle sign that Theodora ran the show all along. But then, just as her reputation was shaping up, a barn-burner of a book came out and shred it to pieces.
Okay, here’s the part where we talk about a guy named Procopius. He’s our main source for anything related to Theodora and he really seemed to have a problem with keeping his stories straight. He wrote three books about Theodora and they all sound like they’re about a completely different woman. These writings are a huge part of why it’s so hard to figure out whether she was a saintly heroine or a bad girl on a revenge quest. So, are you ready to learn about some old books? Because here we go.
Procopius’s first book about Theodora came out in 545 AD, when she was still alive, so no surprises here, he flattered the most powerful woman in the country. Then, after she passed, but while Justinian was still alive, he wrote another complimentary book about the Emperor's late wife. But once Justinian kicked the bucket, Procopius published his next book—and he finally got to tell the "real" story of what went down in the palace...
Procopius really saved his wildest story for last. The Secret History claims that Theodora was a complete sociopath. All she cared about was gaining power and staying in control of her husband. But here’s the problem with this version of events: Historians don’t buy it! Procopius had sour grapes and he probably embellished or fully made up a bunch of dirt to discredit Constantinople’s leaders.
Doubt it? Procopius actually claimed that Theodora and Justinian would regularly separate their heads from their bodies and demonically fly around Constantinople and terrorize their subjects. Yeah, I’ll raise an eyebrow at some of his other claims too.
Before we end our time with Theodora, I’ve saved the very best fact for last. Get this: Along with her husband, Theodora is a saint in the Eastern Orthodox Church. The date honoring her is November 14th of each year. Name another courtesan/actress/spy/possible murderess who became an official saint, I dare you.
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