Sophia (empress)

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Empress of the Roman (Byzantine) Empire
Born 6th century
Died c. 601
Spouse Justin II
Issue Justus, Arabia
Full name
Aelia Sophia
Dynasty Justinian Dynasty
Father Sittas (historical theory)
Mother Comito (historical theory)

Aelia Sophia (c. 530 – c./aft. 601) was the Empress consort of Justin II of the Byzantine Empire, and regent during the incapacity of her spouse from 573 until 578. She was specifically interested in economic matters and was involved in financial matters during Justin's reign.


According to the Ecclesiastic History of John of Ephesus, Sophia was a niece of Theodora,[1] the Empress consort of Justinian I. John of Ephesus did not specify the identities of her parents. According to the Secret History of Procopius, Theodora had only two siblings: her older sister Comito and younger sister Anastasia;[2] either one could be the mother of Sophia.[1] Procopius identifies Comito as a leading hetaera of her age.[2] John Malalas records that Comito (b. ca 500) married general Sittas in 528.[3] Sittas may thus be the father of Sophia.[4] Whether Anastasia ever married is unknown.[1]

During the reign of Justinian I (527–565), Theodora arranged for Sophia to marry his nephew Justin.[5] According to the Chronicon of Victor of Tunnuna, Justin was a son of Dulcidius and Vigilantia.[6] Her father-in-law is also known as Dulcissimus in genealogical resources.[6] Vigilantia and her brother, Justinian I, were children of Petrus Sabbatius and a senior Vigilantia, who was a sister of Justin I.

Empress consort[edit]

Justinian I had several nephews but seems to have never appointed an heir. On the night of 13 November 565 – 14 November 565, Justinian I lay on his deathbed. Justin was his kouropalates and thus the only viable heir within the Great Palace of Constantinople. He managed to gain the support of the Byzantine Senate and was proclaimed emperor within the palace walls before the other members of the Justinian Dynasty were notified.[1] The events were recorded by the court poet Flavius Cresconius Corippus.

In his works, Corippus often translates her Greek name "Sophia" to its Latin equivalent "Sapientia". The meaning of both is "Wisdom", and the poet uses it as both a divine name and title for her. The accession speech of Justin makes specific mention of Sophia co-ruling with her husband, the presumption being that she already exercised political influence over him. Corippus records Sophia being in charge of the arrangements for the funeral of Justinian and claims she wove his shroud with scenes depicting the triumphs of his reign.[1]

The main challenge to the new reign was another Justin, cousin to the new emperor. This namesake cousin was a son of Germanus and his first wife Passara. He had distinguished himself as a military commander and was thus seen as a better choice from a military point of view. According to Evagrius Scholasticus, the Emperor and Sophia initially welcomed their kinsman to Constantinople but before long had him exiled to Alexandria. In 568, the other Justin was murdered in his bed. John of Biclaro attributed the murder to supporters of Sophia. Evagrius claims that the head of the deceased was sent to the imperial couple who spitefully kicked it around.[7] Evagrius is mostly negative in his account of Justin and Sophia, so should not be taken as an impartial source.

In 568, Narses was removed from his position as prefect of Italia. According to Paul the Deacon, Sophia sent a message to the senior general that she had a more suitable position for a eunuch like him, as an overseer of the weaving girls of the gynaikonitis (women's quarters). Narses chose to retire to Naples, instead of returning to Constantinople as Justin had ordered him to do; Paul attributes this to the message from Sophia, implying that Narses was afraid of her.[7]

Sophia also influenced the financial policies of Justin. Having inherited an exhausted treasury, they set about repaying the various debts and loans of Justinian to bankers and money-lenders. According to Theophanes, Sophia was in charge of financial records and payments, and restored the credibility of the royal treasury. The imperial couple tried to reduce expenses and increase treasury reserves. Evagrius, John of Ephesus, Gregory of Tours, and Paul the Deacon all mention this while accusing both Justin and Sophia of greed.[1] She did research their debts and repaid them, which gained her contemporary praise.[8]

Sophia took the name Aelia following the practices of the empresses of the Theodosian dynasty and the House of Leo. The name had not been used by the two preceding empresses of her own dynasty. She was the first Empress consort depicted on Byzantine coinage with royal insignia equal to her husband. They were also depicted together in images and statues, while the name of Sophia alone was given to two palaces, a harbor, and a public bath built in her honor.[1]

In 569, Justin and Sophia together reportedly sent a relic of the True Cross to Radegund. The event was commemorated in Vexilla Regis by Venantius Fortunatus. They also sent relics to Pope John III in an attempt to improve relations: the Cross of Justin II in the Vatican Museums, a crux gemmata, and a reliquary of the True Cross perhaps given at this point, has an inscription recording their donation and apparently their portraits on the ends of the arms on the reverse. The religious policy of the couple was controversial, however. According to John of Ephesus and Michael the Syrian, husband and wife were both initially monophysites who converted to Chalcedonean Christianity to gain favor with their uncle Justinian. During their reign, they attempted but failed to reconcile Chalcedonian and Monophysitic Christianity, which ended in renewed persecution of the latter. Meanwhile, their own beliefs were still in question.[1]


Justinian dynasty
Justin I 518–527
Justinian I 527–565
Justin II 565–578
with Sophia and Tiberius as regents, 574–578
Tiberius II 578–582
Maurice 582–602
with Theodosius as co-emperor, 590–602
Preceded by
Leonid dynasty
Followed by
Phocas and the Heraclian dynasty

Justin reportedly suffered from temporary fits of insanity and was unable to perform his duties as early as the fall of Dara to Khosrau I of the Sassanid Empire in November, 573.[7] According to Gregory of Tours, Sophia assumed sole power over the Empire at this point. Evagrius Scholasticus reports that Sophia concluded a three-year truce with Khosrau on her own. But as a Regent she required supporters, and she chose Tiberius II Constantine, Comes Excubitorum (Commander of the Excubitors), as her colleague in power.[7]

According to the chronicle of Theophanes the Confessor, Tiberius was officially appointed Caesar by Justin on 7 December 574.[7] He was also adopted by Justin and thus became his appointed heir.[1]

John of Ephesus records that Sophia and Tiberius, effectively co-regents, argued over financial policies: Sophia pursued decreasing royal expenses while Tiberius argued for the necessity of increasing them, particularly for military expenses.

Both the Ecclesiastic history of John of Ephesus and the chronicle of Theophanes the Confessor suggest that Sophia was planning to marry Tiberius at this point.[1] His marriage to Ino Anastasia was seen as an offense to her. Ino and her daughters Constantina and Charito were not allowed to enter the Great Palace of Constantinople. They were instead settled in the palace of Hormisdas, residence of Justinian I prior to his elevation to the throne. According to John of Ephesus, Tiberius joined them every evening and returned to the Great Palace every morning. Sophia also refused to let the ladies at court visit Ino and her daughters as a token of respect to them.[1]

Ino eventually left Constantinople for Daphnudium, her previous residence. According to John of Ephesus, Tiberius left Constantinople to visit Ino when she fell sick.[1] Her daughters are assumed to have joined her in her departure from the capital.

In September 578, Justin II appointed Tiberius as his co-emperor. On 5 October 578, Justin died and Tiberius became the sole Emperor. According to John of Ephesus, Sophia sent Patriarch Eutychius of Constantinople to Tiberius to convince him to divorce Ino, and offered both herself and her adult daughter Arabia as prospective brides. Tiberius refused.[1] Sophia, though still an Augusta, was no longer the Empress consort.

Widowed Augusta[edit]

Sophia retained her rank as Augusta and continued to hold a section of the palace for herself. Meanwhile, her rival Ino Anastasia was also proclaimed an Augusta. The situation was not to Sophia's liking, and John of Ephesus records further arguments over financial policy. Gregory of Tours records that Sophia took part in a conspiracy to depose Tiberius and replace him with another Justinian, younger brother of the Justin murdered in Alexandria.[1]

Tiberius reacted by seizing of much of her property, dismissing her loyal servants, and appointing replacements loyal to him. However her rank and presence in the palace remained. Theophanes records that in 579 Sophia retired to the Sophiai, a palace built in her honor, and says that she held her own minor court and was honored as the mother of Tiberius.

On 14 August 582, Tiberius died. He was succeeded by Maurice, a general betrothed to Constantina. Gregory of Tours reported that Sophia had planned to marry Tiberius to regain the throne, but the marriage of Constantina and Maurice took place in Autumn 582. The ceremony was performed by Patriarch John IV of Constantinople and is described in detail by Theophylact Simocatta. Constantina was proclaimed an Augusta while both Sophia and Anastasia also kept the same title. John of Ephesus mentions that all three Augustas resided in the Great Palace,[1] which would mean either that Sophia's retirement was temporary or that Theophanes misreported her status.

Anastasia was the first of the three ladies to die. Theophanes places her death in 593. Constantina seems to have enjoyed better relations with Sophia than her mother did. Theophanes records them to have jointly offered a precious crown as an Easter present to Maurice in 601. He accepted their gift but then ordered it hung over the altar of Hagia Sophia as his own tribute to the church. According to Theophanes this was taken an insult by both Augustas and caused a rift in the marriage.[9]

The Easter of 601 was also the last time Sophia was mentioned in our sources. Whether she survived to see the deposition of Maurice in 602 is unclear.[1]


Sophia and Justin had at least two children:


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q Lynda Garland, "Sophia, Wife of Justin II"
  2. ^ a b Procopius, "Secret History", chapter 9, translation by Richard Atwater (1927)
  3. ^ PLRE, vol. 3, Sittas
  4. ^ J. B. Bury, History of the Later Roman Empire from the Death of Theodosius I to the Death of Justinian (1923)
  5. ^ Garland. p. 40.  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  6. ^ a b PLRE, vol. 3, Dulcidius
  7. ^ a b c d e James Allan Evans, "Justin II (565-578 A.D.)"
  8. ^ Garland. p. 43.  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  9. ^ Lynda Garland, "Constantina, Wife of Maurice"
  10. ^ John of Biclaro, Chronicle
  11. ^ Prosopography of the Later Roman Empire, vol. 3


External links[edit]

Royal titles
Preceded by
Byzantine Empress consort
Succeeded by
Ino Anastasia