Theodora (wife of Justinian I)

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Depiction from a contemporary portrait mosaic in the Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna
Byzantine empress
Tenure1 April 527 – 28 June 548
Bornc. 490
Died28 June 548 (aged 58)
Constantinople, Byzantine Empire
SpouseJustinian I
ReligionNon-Chalcedonian Christianity

Theodora (/ˌθəˈdɔːrə/; Greek: Θεοδώρα; c. 490 – 28 June 548)[1] was a Byzantine empress and wife of emperor Justinian. She was from humble origins and became empress when her husband became emperor in 527. She was one of his chief advisers. Theodora is a saint in the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Oriental Orthodox Church, commemorated on 28 June.

Early years[edit]

Theodora was of Greek descent,[2] but much of her early life, including her place of birth, is unknown. Procopius's Secret History is the foremost source of her life before marriage, but is often regarded as slanderous.[3] According to Michael the Syrian, her birthplace was in Mabbug, Syria;[4] Nicephorus Callistus Xanthopoulos says Theodora is a native of Cyprus,[5] and the Patria, attributed to George Codinus, claims Theodora came from Paphlagonia. She was born c. AD 490.[6] Her father, Acacius, was a bear trainer for the Hippodrome's Green faction in Constantinople. Given her father's profession, modern scholars argue that it is highly probable that Theodora was a native of the capital – this is furthered in Procopius' narrative. Her mother, whose name was not recorded, was a dancer and an actress.[7] She had two sisters, an elder named Comito and a younger named Anastasia.[8] After her father's death, her mother remarried but the family lacked a source of income because Acacius's position was given away by Asterius, a Green faction official who accepted a bribe in exchange. When Theodora was four, her mother brought her children wearing garlands into the Hippodrome, presenting them as suppliants to the Green faction, but they rebuffed her efforts. Consequently, Theodora's mother approached the Blue faction which took pity on the family and gave the position of bear keeper to Theodora's stepfather.[9]

According to Procopius' Secret History, before the onset of adolescence, Theodora began her work as a prostitute by joining alongside her older sister Comito when she performed onstage[10] and worked in a Constantinople brothel, serving low and high-status customers. Later, she performed on stage. In his account of Theodora, Edward Gibbon wrote:

Her venal charms were abandoned to a promiscuous crowd of citizens and strangers of every rank, and of every position; the fortunate lover who had been promised a night of enjoyment was often driven from her bed by a stronger or more wealthy favorite; and when she passed through the streets, her presence was avoided by all who wished to escape either the scandal or the temptation.[11]

Procopius wrote that Theodora made a name for herself with her pornographic portrayal of Leda and the Swan, where she would have birds eat seeds from her nude body.[12][13] Employment as an actress at the time would have included performing "indecent exhibitions" on stage and providing sexual services off stage. During this time, she may have met Antonina, the future wife of Belisarius who also became a part of the women's court led by Theodora.

One time when she [Theodora] went to the house of a notable to entertain during drinks, they say that when the eyes of all the diners were upon her she mounted the frame of the couch by their feet and unceremoniously lifted up her clothes right there and then, not caring in the least that she was making a spectacle of her shamelessness. Even though she put three of her orifices to work she would impatiently reproach Nature for not making the holes in her nipples bigger than they were so that she could devise additional sexual positions involving them as well. She was often pregnant, but by using almost all known techniques she could induce immediate abortions.

— Procopius, The Secret History 9:17–19 (trans. Anthony Kaldellis) (ca. 550 AD)[14]

The accuracy of Procopius's portrayal of Theodora's early career is unclear. Sexual promiscuity was ascribed to many female actresses and performers of the time and the Secret History's lengthy and pornographic descriptions of Theodora's behavior are perceived as slanderous slut-shaming and unreliable by many modern historians.[14] Procopius relied on gossip, propaganda and prejudice to describe events of which he had no first hand knowledge.[15] However, some contemporary authors such as John of Ephesus, also describe Theodora as having come "from the brothel" but this translation of pornae, which most commonly means "prostitutes" is used by John Ephesus to refer to actresses, suggesting that porneion which commonly means "brothel" in classical Greek was used to describe her past as an actress and not the place she came from.[16] Therefore, the association of Theodora with a brothel may only reflect her time on stage as an actress, instead of her being a prostitute.[3] Consistent with the Christian principles of repentance and forgiveness, John wrote of her redemption as a positive tale.[17]

Later, Theodora traveled to North Africa as the concubine of a Syrian official named Hecebolus, who became the governor of the Libyan Pentapolis.[18] Procopius alleges that Hecebolus mistreated Theodora, with their relationship dissolving after a quarrel in Africa. Theodora, "destitute of the means of life," settled in Alexandria, Egypt, where some historians speculate that she met Patriarch Timothy III, a Miaphysite, and converted to Miaphysite Christianity.[12] From Alexandria, she traveled to Antioch, where she met a Blue faction dancer called Macedonia who may have served as an informer for Justinian; according to Procopius, Macedonia and Justinian often exchanged letters. Afterwards, Theodora returned to Constantinople where she met Justinian.

Justinian wanted to marry Theodora but Roman law from Constantine's time barred anyone of senatorial rank from marrying an actress. Equally, giving up this profession did not impact the legality of the marriage as anyone who had been an actress would furthermore be regarded as such. The empress Euphemia, consort of the emperor Justin, also strongly opposed the marriage. Following Euphemia's death in 524, Justin passed a new law allowing reformed actresses to marry outside of their rank if the marriage was approved by the emperor.[19] Shortly thereafter, Justinian married Theodora.[18] According to Procopius, these laws were created specifically for Justinian and Theodora.[3]

Theodora had an illegitimate daughter whose name and father are unknown. It also appears that she was married and had children with another Monophysite.[3] The same law that allowed Justinian and Theodora to marry, let Theodora's daughter marry a relative of the late emperor Anastasius. Procopius's Secret History claimed that Theodora also had an illegitimate son, John, who arrived in Constantinople several years after Justinian and Theodora's marriage.[20] According to Procopius, when Theodora learned of John's arrival and claims of kinship to her, she secretly had him sent away and he was never heard from again. Some historians, including classics scholar James Allan Evans, believe that Procopius's account of John is unlikely to be factual because Theodora publicly acknowledged her illegitimate daughter and, therefore, would have acknowledged an illegitimate son had one existed.[21]


Depiction of Justinian from a contemporary portrait mosaic in the Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna

When Justinian succeeded to the throne in 527, Theodora was crowned augusta and became empress of the Eastern Roman Empire. According to Procopius, she helped her husband make decisions, plans, and political strategies; participated in state councils; and had great influence over him. Justinian called her his "partner in my deliberations" in Novel 8.1 (AD 535), anti-corruption legislation where provincial officials had to take an oath to the emperor and Theodora.[22] Sources generally agree on her character being vindictive but loyal and determined. She secured her influence though instilling fear in her subjects with little care for the consequences.[3]

As Justinian's partner, Theodora shared his vision of the Byzantine Empire. His vision was straightforward – there could be no Roman Empire that did not include Rome within its control. Since childhood, he was taught that there was one God and one legitimate Empire. As the only Christian Emperor and Empress, they believed it was their role to duplicate the heavenly structure on Earth.[23] Being relatively young as an Emperor and Empress, compared to their recent predecessors, neither Justinian nor Theodora was content to maintain the status quo. Their goals and projects, whether building new churches and public buildings or raising troops for expansive military campaigns, required a large amount of funding. Justinian and his chief financial minister, John the Cappadocian, ruthlessly pursued additional taxes from the aristocracy, who bristled at the lack of respect for their patrician status.[24]

The Nika riots[edit]

A marble portrait head of empress. Mid-sixth century A.D. Based on the mosaic portrait of Theodora in the Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna and her description given by chronicler Procopius, the head is identified as a portrait of Theodora.
Marble sculpture of an empress, probably Theodora, in the Castello Sforzesco. Mid-sixth century A.D.[25]

Two major party factions were at odds before, during, and after Justinian and Theodora's reign – the Blues and the Greens. Street violence between the parties was a regular event. When Justinian became emperor, he was determined to make the city a more lawful and orderly community. However, his efforts were not perceived as being even-handed since both his and Theodora's favor were believed to align with the Blues; Justinian was thought to prefer the Blues due to their more moderate stances, while Theodora's family was abandoned by the Greens after her father's death and consequently given support by the Blues as a child. Consequently, the Greens felt isolated and frustrated.[26] During a riot between the two factions in early January 532, the urban prefect Eudaemon arrested a group of both Green and Blue felons and convicted them of murder. They were sentenced to death but two of the felons, one Blue and one Green, survived the hanging when the scaffold collapsed. At the Hippodrome where the public was permitted to entreat the emperor on issues, the two factions united in a chant asking for mercy for both parties. Justinian recognized the danger of these factions uniting against Theodora and himself and retreated to the palace.[27]

The rioters set many public buildings on fire and proclaimed a new emperor, Hypatius, the nephew of the former emperor Anastasius I. Unable to control the mob, Justinian and his officials prepared to flee. According to Procopius, Theodora was the one who persuaded Justinian and his court from fleeing and take the offensive instead.[3] Procopius wrote that Theodora spoke against leaving the palace at a meeting of the government council, underlining the significance of someone who dies as a ruler instead of living as an exile or in hiding.[28]

According to Procopius, Theodora interrupted the emperor and his counselors, saying:

My lords, the present occasion is too serious to allow me to follow the convention that a woman should not speak in a man's council. Those whose interests are threatened by extreme danger should think only of the wisest course of action, not of conventions. In my opinion, flight is not the right course, even if it should bring us to safety. It is impossible for a person, having been born into this world, not to die; but for one who has reigned, it is intolerable to be a fugitive. May I never be deprived of this purple robe, and may I never see the day when those who meet me do not call me Empress. If you wish to save yourself, my lord, there is no difficulty. We are rich; over there is the sea, and yonder are the ships. Yet reflect for a moment whether, when you have once escaped to a place of security, you would not gladly exchange such safety for death. As for me, I agree with the adage, that "royal purple" is the noblest shroud.[29]

Her speech motivated the men, including Justinian. He ordered his loyal troops to attack the demonstrators in the Hippodrome, resulting in the deaths of over 30,000 civilian rebels. Other reports claim greater numbers of victims, with the numbers increasing with the distance from Constantinople; the scholar and historian Zachariah of Mytilene estimated the dead at more than 80,000.[30] Despite his claims that he was unwillingly named emperor by the mob, Hypatius was put to death by Justinian. In one source, this came at Theodora's insistence.[31]

Some scholars interpret Procopius' account intended to portray Justinian as more cowardly than his wife, noting that Procopius probably fabricated her speech. Changing the term "tyranny" to "royal purple", possibly reflects Procopius' desire to link Theodora and Justinian to ancient tyrants.[32]

Later life[edit]

Mosaic from Our Lady of Saidnaya Monastery depicting the Virgin Mary holding the Child Christ on her lap. On her right side stands Justinian. On her left side stands Theodora. After the Muslim conquest of the Levant, the gold background was replaced with a plain white one and the Greek text was modified into Arabic.

Following the Nika revolt, Justinian and Theodora rebuilt Constantinople, including aqueducts, bridges, and more than 25 churches, the most famous of which is Hagia Sophia. Recognizing the danger of allowing dissent to grow, Justinian and Theodora monitored their administration's actions to ensure positive impacts for the common people. However, they soon felt secure enough to reinstate the two ministers that were dismissed to appease the rebels: John the Cappadocian as financial minister and Tribonian as the primary legal minister. Justinian and Theodora retained a distaste for the aristocrats that had attempted to unseat them. In retaliation for their disloyalty, the nineteen senators who participated in the attempted Nika coup had their estates destroyed and their bodies were dumped in the sea. Those who remained experienced higher taxes and other wealth capture schemes created by John the Cappadocian to fund Justinian and Theodora's rebuilding plans.[33]

Theodora was said to have been interested in the court ceremony. According to Procopius, all senators, including patricians were required to prostrate themselves whenever entering the Imperial couple's presence.

Not even government officials could approach the Empress without expending much time and effort. They were treated like servants and kept waiting in a small, stuffy room for an endless time. After many days, some of them might at last be summoned, but going into her presence in great fear, they very quickly departed. They simply showed their respect by lying face down and touching the instep of each of her feet with their lips; there was no opportunity to speak or to make any request unless she told them to do so. The government officials had sunk into a slavish condition, and she was their slave-instructor. [citation needed]

The couple also made it clear that their relationship with the civil militia was that of master to slave. They also supervised the magistrates to reduce bureaucratic corruption.[citation needed]

The praetorian prefect Peter Barsymes was Theodora's close ally. She considered John the Cappadocian, Justinian's chief tax collector, as her enemy because of his independence and great influence. Theodora and Antonina devised a plot to bring down John. She engaged in matchmaking, forming a network of alliances between new and old powers, including Emperor Anastasius' family, pre-existing nobility, and the new monarchy of Justinian's family. According to Secret History, she attempted to marry her grandson Anastasius to Joannina, Belisarius' and Antonina's daughter and heiress, against her parents' will. Although the marriage was initially rejected, the couple eventually married. The marriages of her sister Comito to general Sittas and her niece Sophia to Justinian's nephew Justin II, who would succeed to the throne, are suspected to have been engineered by Theodora. She also gave reception and sent letters and gifts to Persian and foreign ambassadors and the sister of Kavad.[34]

Theodora was involved in helping underprivileged women. In a well-known instance, she compelled General Artabanes, who intended to wed Justinian's niece, to reclaim the wife he abandoned.[6] She sometimes would "buying girls who had been sold into prostitution, freeing them, and providing for their future."[35] She created a convent on the Asian side of the Dardanelles called the Metanoia (Repentance), where the ex-prostitutes could support themselves.[18] Procopius' Secret History maintained that instead of preventing forced prostitution (as in Buildings 1.9.3ff), Theodora is said to have "rounded up" 500 prostitutes, confining them to a convent. They sought to escape "the unwelcome transformation" by leaping over the walls (SH 17). This can be seen as an attempt to escape or take their own lives. Whilst the existence of this house was indeed factual, there is no evidence supporting that the actions of these women did run or harm themselves, they came from none other than Procopious, which is something to be mindful of. This can be interpreted as a way for Procopious to diminish the good deeds of Theodora.[36] On the other hand, chronicler John Malalas wrote positively about the convent, declaring that Theodora "freed the girls from the yoke of their wretched slavery."[37] As well as helping ex prostitutes, Theodora tried to eradicate prostitution all together. In 528, Theodora and Justinian ordered the closure of the brothels and the arrest of their keepers and procurers. She paid their owners back the purchase fee, freeing the prostitutes from their captivity. To facilitate the start of their new lives, she supplied the liberated women with clothing and gifted each of them a gold nomisma.[6] The biased perspectives of Procopius towards Theodora display his failure to understand the policy changes Theodora and Justinian advocated possibly reflected remorse she had regarding her past choices and aimed to shield young women from repeating her own errors.[38]

Justinian and Theodora's legislations also expanded the rights of women in divorce and property ownership, instituted the death penalty for rape,[39] forbade exposure of unwanted infants, gave mothers some guardianship rights over their children, and forbade the killing of a wife who committed adultery. In Wars, Procopius mentioned that Theodora was naturally inclined to assist women in misfortune and, according to Secret History,she was accused of unfairly championing the wives' causes more so when they were charged with adultery (SH 17). The code of Justinian only allowed women to seek a divorce from their husbands due to either abuse or a wife catching their husband in obvious adultery. Regardless, women seeking a divorce had to provide clear evidence of their claims.[40] Procopius describes Theodora as causing women to "become morally depraved" due to her and Justinian's legal actions.[41]

Religious policy[edit]

Saint Theodora
Empress Theodora and attendants (mosaic from Basilica of San Vitale, 6th century)
Venerated inEastern Orthodox Church
Oriental Orthodox Church
Major shrineChurch of the Holy Apostles, Constantinople modern-day Istanbul, Turkey
Feast14 November in the Eastern Orthodox Church, 28 June in the Syriac Orthodox Church
AttributesImperial Vestment

Since Justinian was not the recognized head of any of the sects of the Christian church, his focus was on reducing or eliminating the friction between the various Christian sects and the Empire. As a Christian emperor, he believed he should be in harmony with the head(s) of the Church. Because Justinian was a Chalcedonian and Theodora was a Miaphysite (Non-Chalcedonian), Justinian worked to heal the divide between the Constantinople church and the Roman church. He wanted a united Church that would “partner” with one Emperor (himself); the Emperor would manage human affairs and the priesthood would manage the divine affairs of God. Since the Emperor was accountable to the law, Justinian ensured that the law recognized the Emperor as the law incarnate – with universal authority of divine origin. Consequently, he used the law to micromanage the implementation of religion through laws aimed at its very execution.[42]

Theodora worked against her husband's support of Chalcedonian Christianity in the ongoing struggle for the dominance of each faction.[43] As a result, she was accused of fostering heresy and undermining the unity of Christendom. However, Procopius and Evagrius Scholasticus suggested that Justinian and Theodora were merely pretending to oppose each other.

Theodora founded a Miaphysite monastery in Sykae and provided shelter in the palace for Miaphysite leaders who faced opposition from the majority of Chalcedonian Christians, like Severus and Anthimus. Anthimus had been appointed Patriarch of Constantinople under her influence and, after the ex-communication order, he was hidden in Theodora's quarters until her death in twelve years. When the Chalcedonian Patriarch Ephraim provoked a violent revolt in Antioch, eight Miaphysite bishops were invited to Constantinople; Theodora welcomed them and housed them in the Hormisdas Palace, Justinian and Theodora's dwelling before they became Emperor and Empress. Theodora persistently provided sanctuary for persecuted Miaphysites within the Palace, accommodating such a significant number of monks that, in one incident, several hundred gathered in a grand chamber, causing the floor to collapse.[44] Furthermore, the Empress was instrumental in building the Church of Sergius and Bacchus, located next to Hormisdas palace. The dedicatory inscription, which remains visible to this day, proudly proclaims: ‘May he [Sergius] increase the power of the God-crowned Theodora whose mind is adorned with piety, whose constant toil lies in unsparing efforts to nourish the destitute.’ [45]

When Pope Timothy III of Alexandria died, Theodora enlisted the help of the Augustal Prefect and the Duke of Egypt to make Theodosius, a disciple of Severus, the new pope. Thus, she outmaneuvered her husband who wanted a Chalcedonian successor. However, Pope Theodosius I of Alexandria and the imperial troops could not hold Alexandria against Justinian's Chalcedonian followers; Justinian exiled the pope and 300 Miaphysites to the fortress of Delcus in Thrace.

When Pope Silverius refused Theodora's demand that he remove the anathema of Pope Agapetus I from Patriarch Anthimus, she sent Belisarius instructions to find a pretext to remove Silverius. When this was accomplished, Pope Vigilius was appointed in his stead.

In Nobatae, south of Egypt, the inhabitants were converted to Miaphysite Christianity about 540. Justinian was determined that they should be converted to the Chalcedonian faith, with Theodora equally determined that they should become Miaphysites. Justinian made arrangements for Chalcedonian missionaries from Thebaid to go with presents to Silko, the King of the Nobatae. in response, Theodora prepared her missionaries and wrote to the Duke of Thebaid, asking that he should delay her husband's embassy so that the Miaphysite missionaries would arrive first. The duke was canny enough to thwart the easygoing Justinian instead of the unforgiving Theodora. He made sure that the Chalcedonian missionaries were delayed; when they eventually reached Silko, they were sent away. The Nobatae had already adopted the Miaphysite creed of Theodosius.


Theodora's death is recorded by Victor of Tonnena, with the cause uncertain; however, the Greek terms used are often translated as "cancer". Victor notes the death date was 28 June 548 and her age as 48, although other sources report that she died at 51.[46][47] Later accounts attribute the death to breast cancer but this was not identified in the original report, where the use of the term "cancer" probably referred to a more general "suppurating ulcer or malignant tumor".[47] She was buried in the Church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople. During a procession in 559, Justinian visited and lit candles for her tomb.[48]


The main historical sources about her life are the works of her contemporary Procopius. Procopius was a member of the staff of Belisarius, a field marshal for Justinian, who is perhaps the best-known officer of Justinian's officers because of Procopius's writings.[49] Procopius wrote three portrayals of the Empress. The Wars of Justinian, largely completed in 545, paints a picture of a courageous woman who helped save Justinian's attempt at the throne.

Later, he wrote the Secret History. The work has sometimes been interpreted as representing disillusionment with Emperor Justinian, the empress, and his patron, Belisarius. Justinian is depicted as cruel, corrupt, extravagant, and incompetent; while Theodora is shrewish and openly sexual. Procopius' Buildings of Justinian, written after Secret History, is a panegyric that paints Justinian and Theodora as a pious couple. It presents particularly flattering portrayals of them; her piety and beauty are praised. It is important to note that Theodora was dead when the work was published, and, Justinian most likely commissioned the work.[50]

Her contemporary John of Ephesus writes about Theodora in Lives of the Eastern Saints and mentions an illegitimate daughter.[51] Theophanes the Confessor mentions some familial relations of Theodora that were not mentioned by Procopius. Victor Tonnennensis notes her familial relation to the next empress, Sophia. Bar-Hebraeus and Michael the Syrian both say Theodora was from the city of Daman, near Kallinikos, Syria. These later Miaphysite sources account say that Theodora is the daughter of a priest, trained in the pious practices of Miaphysitism since birth. The Miaphysites tend to regard Theodora as one of their own. Their account is also an alternative to that of contemporary John of Ephesus.[52] Many modern scholars prefer Procopius' account.[51]

Critiques of Procopius[edit]

Modern historians point out that Procopius is not necessarily a reliable source for understanding Theodora and her historical impact. Procopius is believed to be aligned with many of the senatorial ranks that disagreed with the changes and policies that Justinian and Theodora imposed upon the empire. In the Secret History (12.12-14), Procopius asserts that many in the senatorial class were being "strangled" by tax collectors due to Justinian's (and Theodora's) policy of collecting and retaining the attractive properties and furniture of the wealthy, while "generously" giving back properties that had high taxes to their original owners.[53] At one point, Procopius compares Justinian's rule to the bubonic plague (6.22-23), arguing that the plague was a better option since half the population escaped unscathed.[54]

In the Secret History, Procopius also criticizes Justinian's and Theodora's rule as the antithesis of the rule of "good" emperors and empresses. His portrayal of their emotional balance and power is significantly different. Justinian was even of temperament, "approachable and kindly", even while ordering the confiscation of people's property or their destruction. Conversely, Theodora was described as irrational and driven by her anger, often by minor affronts or insults. For example, Procopius describes two separate incidents where she uses the judicial system to publicly accuse men of having sexual relations with other men. This was considered an inappropriate forum for persons of standing and, in Procopius's narrative, was unappreciated by the people of Constantinople. When one of the accusations is ruled as unsubstantiated, Procopius writes that the entire city celebrated.[55]

One modern researcher suggests that Procopius's writings in the Secret History amount to an apocryphal tale of the dangers of “the rule of women”. Procopius's perspective as a conservative intellectual was that women, with their wily vices, served to vanquish men's otherwise virtuous leadership instincts. Procopius details two examples of Theodora's engagement in the Byzantine Empire's foreign policy that support his perspective. First, Theodora is quoted in a letter to the Persian ambassador, declaring that Emperor Justinian did nothing without her consent. The Persian king used this as an example to his nobles of a failed state since no “real state could exist that was governed by a woman.” Similarly, the Gothic King Theodahad wrote a letter to Theodora, confirming that “you exhort me to bring first to your attention anything I decide to ask from the triumphal prince, your husband.” Before issuing a degree, Justinian is quoted as saying he discussed it with “our most august consort whom God has given us.” All of these examples offend Procopius's sense of propriety. It was not that women could not lead an empire, Procopius believed that only women demonstrating masculine virtues and strengths were appropriate as leaders. The strength of the feminine Theodora was not hers; rather, it was the lack of strength demonstrated by Justinian that created the impression of strength by Theodora.[56]

The definition of “feminine” behavior in the sixth century as used by Procopius is not how modern writers would use it. Feminine behavior in the sixth century would be described as “intriguing” and “interfering” according to researcher Averil Cameron. Procopius found Theodora's efforts to assist “repentant” prostitutes not the actions of a benefactress but instead attempts to interfere with the status quo which he found objectionable. This is also why he includes her speech during the Nika insurrection where she interferes with the actions of the men as they contemplate escaping the rioters. Procopius's intent in describing that scene is to demonstrate that Theodora does not stay in her appropriate role.[57] At his core, Procopius wanted to preserve the social order. Henning Börm, chair of Ancient History at the University of Rostock in Germany, described this social order as a “social hierarchy: people stood over animals, freemen stood over slaves, men stood over eunuchs, and men stood over women. Whenever Procopius denounces the alleged breach of these rules, he is following the rules of historiography."[58]

Although Procopius demonstrates bias, his aggrandized tales and retelling of salacious rumors (compared alongside other historians of the era) provide a glimpse into the changing values and norms of the period, rather than a straightforward biographical study of Theodora's life and character.[21] For example, the portrayal of Justinian and Theodora as demons in the Secret History reflects a common belief held by people during this period. Some stories reflect what educated people wanted to believe about the imperial household, with a good empress being pious and chaste and a bad empress being sexually promiscuous and greedy.[59] Events that were unexplainable by rational means were either a product of divine providence or the result of evil demons. When Procopius cannot explain the actions of the Emperor and Empress according to his beliefs, he falls back on the principle of outside influences being the likely explanation.[60]

Averil Cameron says that describing Procopius as a historian is incorrect. In her view, Procopius is more aptly described as a reporter. He focuses on events and their details far more than analyzing motives and causes. Consequently, his portrayals lack nuance and harshly describe events from a palette of black and white. His rigidity and inability to embrace change make him a suspect voice when pursuing a deeper understanding of how and why events occurred as they did.[61] This may also explain why Procopius' writings are significantly different from the accounts of other contemporary authors. While other writers describe the daily theological battles between the different Christian sects and the efforts of the government to align and subdue them, Procopius remains almost silent on these topics. He maintains an intense and political focus on his writing that prevents a balanced and holistic perspective. This intensity results in his portrayal of Justinian and Theodora as near caricatures. By exaggerating their faults and ignoring their successes, the reader is compelled to see them as villains or heroes.[62]

Lasting influence[edit]

The Miaphysites believed Theodora's influence on Justinian was so strong that, after her death, he worked to bring harmony between the Miaphysites (Non-Chalcedonian) and the Chalcedonian Christians and kept his promise to protect her little community of Miaphysite refugees in the Hormisdas Palace. Theodora provided much political support for the ministry of Jacob Baradaeus. Diehl attributes the modern existence of Non- Chalcedonian Faith equally to Baradaeus and to Theodora.[63]

Olbia in Cyrenaica was renamed Theodorias after Theodora. (It was common for ancient cities to rename themselves to honor an Emperor or Empress.) Now called Qasr Libya, the city is known for its sixth-century mosaics. The settlement of Cululis (modern-day Ain Jelloula) in what is now Tunisia (Africa Proconsularis) was also renamed Theodoriana after Theodora.[4]

Theodora and Justinian are represented in mosaics in the Basilica of San Vitale of Ravenna, Italy, which were completed a year before her death after 547 when the Byzantines retook the city. She is depicted in full imperial garb, endowed with jewels befitting her role as empress. Her cloak is embroidered with imagery of the three kings bearing their gifts for the Christ child, symbolizing a connection between her and Justinian bringing gifts to the church. In this case, she is shown bearing a communion chalice. In addition to the religious tone of these mosaics, other mosaics depict Theodora and Justinian receiving the vanquished kings of the Goths and Vandals as prisoners of war, surrounded by the cheering Roman Senate. The Emperor and Empress are recognized for both victory and in generosity in these large-scale public works.[64]

Media portrayal[edit]

Théodora (1887), by Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant, Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes



  • The Homecoming (1909) by Arthur Conan Doyle is a short story about Theodora's son's surprise visit to Constantinople.[68]
  • Count Belisarius (1938) is a historical novel by Robert Graves that includes Theodora as a character.
  • Hendrik Willem van Loon's 1942 fantasy novel Van Loon's Lives includes Theodora as a character.
  • Theodora and the Emperor (1952) is a historical novel by Harold Lamb that focuses on the life of Theodora, her relationship with Justinian, and her many accomplishments as empress.
  • The Glittering Horn: Secret Memoirs of the Court of Justinian (1958) is a historical novel by Pierson Dixon about the court of Justinian, with Theodora playing a central part.
  • Paul Wellman's The Female (1953) is a novel about Theodora's rise from prostitute to empress.
  • Theodora von Byzanz. Ein Mädchen aus dem Volk wird Kaiserin (1957) is a historical novel by Friedhelm Volbach (under the pseudonym Rudolph Fürstenberg).[69]
  • The Bearkeeper's Daughter (1987) is a novel by Gillian Bradshaw about young man out of Theodora's past arriving at the palace and seeking the truth of certain statements made to him by his dying father.
    Gianna Maria Canale as Theodora (1954)
  • The Sarantine Mosaic.(1998) is a historical fantasy by Guy Gavriel Kay that is modeled on the Byzantium empire and the story of Justinian and Theodora.
  • In the historical mystery novel One for Sorrow by Mary Reed/Eric Mayer, Theodora is one of the suspects in the murder case investigated by John, the Lord Chamberlain.
  • Immortal (1999) is a Buffy the Vampire Slayer novel by Christopher Golden and Nancy Holden that mentions Theodora working with the vampire Veronique towards immortality in 543 AD.
  • Theodora: Actress, Empress, Whore (2010) is a historical novel by Stella Duffy that is about Theodora before she becomes empress.
  • Stella Duffy's The Purple Shroud. (2012) is a historical novel about Theodora's years as empress.
  • The Secret History (2013) is a historical novel by Stephanie Thornton about Theodora's life.
  • Far Away Bird (2020) is a historical fiction novel by Douglas A. Burton that focuses on Theodora's early life, between the years 512-522 A.D.
Sarah Bernhardt in Sardou's Théodora (1884)
  • Empire in Apocalypse (2023) is a novel by Robert Bruton depicting Theodora as a conniving empress intent on protecting her position of power as her husband Justinian is stricken with bubonic plague.



Video games[edit]


  • The progressive rock band Big Big Train sings of Theodora and the mosaics of Theodora and Justinian in Ravenna, in the song "Theodora in Green and Gold" on their 2019 album Grand Tour.


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General and cited references[edit]

  • Hans-Georg Beck: Kaiserin Theodora und Prokop: der Historiker und sein Opfer. Munich 1986, ISBN 3-492-05221-5.
  • Henning Börm: Procopius, his predecessors, and the genesis of the Anecdota: Antimonarchic discourse in late antique historiography. In: Henning Börm (ed.): Antimonarchic discourse in Antiquity. Stuttgart 2015, pp. 305–346.
  • Bryce, James (1911). "Theodora" . In Chisholm, Hugh (ed.). Encyclopædia Britannica. Vol. 26 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. pp. 761–762.
  • James A. S. Evans: The empress Theodora. Partner of Justinian. Austin 2002.
  • James A. S. Evans: The Power Game in Byzantium. Antonina and the Empress Theodora. London 2011.
  • Lynda Garland: Byzantine Empresses: Women and Power in Byzantium, AD 527–1204. London 1999.
  • Hartmut Leppin: Theodora und Iustinian. In: Hildegard Temporini-Gräfin Vitzthum (ed.): Die Kaiserinnen Roms. Von Livia bis Theodora. Munich 2002, pp. 437–481.
  • Mischa Meier: "Zur Funktion der Theodora-Rede im Geschichtswerk Prokops (BP 1,24,33-37)", Rheinisches Museum für Philologie 147 (2004), pp. 88ff.
  • David Potter: Theodora. Actress, Empress, Saint. Oxford 2015, ISBN 978-0-19-974076-5.
  • Karagianni, Alexandra (2013). "Female Monarchs in the Medieval Byzantine Court: Prejudice, Disbelief, and Calumnies". In Woodacre, Elena (ed.). Queenship in the Mediterranean: Negotiating the Role of the Queen in the Medieval and Early Modern Eras. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. p. 22. ISBN 978-1137362827.
  • Procopius, The Secret History at the Internet Medieval Sourcebook
  • Procopius, The Secret History at LacusCurtius

External links[edit]

Royal titles
Preceded by Byzantine Empress
Succeeded by