Theodora (wife of Justinian I)

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Theodora mosaic - Basilica San Vitale (Ravenna) v2.jpg
Depiction from a contemporary portrait mosaic in the Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna
Byzantine empress
Tenure1 April 527 – 28 June 548
Bornc. 500
Died28 June 548 (aged 48)
Constantinople, Byzantine Empire
SpouseJustinian I

Theodora (/ˌθəˈdɔːrə/; Greek: Θεοδώρα; c. 500 – 28 June 548), sometimes enumerated as Theodora I,[1] was Byzantine empress by marriage to emperor Justinian. She became empress upon Justinian's accession in 527 and had commanding or considerable influence over him; she was his most trusted adviser in directing all things pertaining to the empire and the terms of appointing and dismissing anyone in the empire. Along with her spouse, Theodora is a saint in the Eastern Orthodox Church and in the Oriental Orthodox Church, commemorated on 14 November and 28 June respectively. Certain researchers have opined that she was the most powerful and influential woman in Byzantine history.[2]


The main historical sources for her life are the works of her contemporary Procopius. The historian offered three different portrayals of the empress. The Wars of Justinian, largely completed in 545, paints a picture of a courageous and influential empress who saved the throne for Justinian.

Later, he wrote the Secret History. The work has sometimes been interpreted as representing a deep disillusionment with the emperor Justinian, the empress, and even his patron Belisarius. Justinian is depicted as cruel, venal, prodigal, demonic and incompetent; as for Theodora, the reader is given a detailed portrayal of vulgarity and rape, combined with shrewish and calculating mean-spiritedness. Alternatively, scholars versed in political rhetoric of the era have viewed these statements from the Secret History as formulaic expressions within the tradition of invective.

Procopius' Buildings of Justinian, written probably after Secret History, is a panegyric which paints Justinian and Theodora as a pious couple and presents particularly flattering portrayals of them. Besides her piety, her beauty is praised within the conventional language of the text's rhetorical form. Although Theodora was dead when this work was published, Justinian was alive, and perhaps commissioned the work.[3]

Her contemporary John of Ephesus writes about Theodora in his Lives of the Eastern Saints and mentions an illegitimate daughter.[4] Theophanes the Confessor mentions some familial relations of Theodora to figures not mentioned by Procopius. Victor Tonnennensis notes her familial relation to the next empress, Sophia.

Michael the Syrian, the Chronicle of 1234 and Bar-Hebraeus place her origin in the city of Daman, near Kallinikos, Syria. They make an alternate account compared to Procopius by making Theodora the daughter of a priest, trained in the pious practices of Miaphysitism since birth. These are late Miaphysite sources and record her depiction among members of their creed. The Miaphysites have a tendency to regard Theodora as one of their own. Their account is also an alternative to what is told by the contemporary John of Ephesus.[5] Many modern scholars prefer Procopius' account.[4]

Early years[edit]

According to Michael the Syrian, her birthplace was in Mabbug, Syria;[6] Nicephorus Callistus Xanthopoulos names Theodora a native of Cyprus,[7] while the Patria, attributed to George Codinus, claims Theodora came from Paphlagonia. She was born c. AD 500.[8] Her father, Acacius, was a bear trainer of the hippodrome's Green faction in Constantinople. Her mother, whose name is not recorded, was a dancer and an actress.[9] Her parents had two more daughters, the eldest named Comito and the youngest Anastasia.[10] After her father's death, when Theodora was four,[11] her mother brought her children wearing garlands into the hippodrome and presented them as suppliants to the Blue faction. From then on, Theodora would be their supporter.

According to Procopius' Secret History, Theodora followed her sister Comito's example from an early age and worked in a Constantinople brothel serving low and high status customers; later, she performed on stage. In his famous account of Theodora, itself based on Secret History, 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 favourite; and when she passed through the streets, her presence was avoided by all who wished to escape either the scandal or the temptation.[12]

Theodora, in Procopius's account, made a name for herself with her salacious portrayal of Leda and the Swan.[13][14] Employment as an actress at the time would include both "indecent exhibitions on stage" and providing sexual services off stage. During this time, she may have met the future wife of Belisarius, Antonina, who would become a part of the women's court led by Theodora.

Later, Theodora traveled to North Africa as the concubine of a Syrian official named Hecebolus when he went to the Libyan Pentapolis as governor.[15] Abandoned and maltreated by Hecebolus, on her way back to the capital of the Byzantine Empire, she settled for a while in Alexandria, Egypt. She is speculated by some to have met Patriarch Timothy III in Alexandria, who was Miaphysite, and it may be at that time that she converted to Miaphysite Christianity. From Alexandria, she went to Antioch, where she met a Blue faction's dancer, Macedonia, who was perhaps an informer of Justinian.

When Justinian sought to marry Theodora, he was prevented by a Roman law from Constantine's time that barred anyone of senatorial rank from marrying actresses. In 524, Byzantine emperor Justin passed a new law, decreeing that reformed actresses could thereafter legally marry outside their rank if approved by the emperor.[16] The same law stated that daughters of these actresses would also be free to marry a man of any rank, which would have allowed Theodora's illegitimate daughter (whose name has been lost) to marry one of the relatives of previous emperor Anastasius. Soon after Justin's law was passed, Justinian married Theodora.[15]


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

When Justinian succeeded to the throne in 527, two years after the marriage, Theodora was crowned augusta and became empress of the Eastern Roman Empire. According to Procopius, she shared in his decisions, plans and political strategies, and participated in state councils, and had great influence over him. Justinian once called her his "partner in my deliberations,"[17] in Novel 8.1 (AD 535), an anti-corruption legislation, where provincial officials had to take an oath to her as well as the emperor.

The Nika riots[edit]

In January 532, two rival political factions in the Empire, the Blues and the Greens, incited a riot during a chariot race in the Hippodrome. The riots stemmed from many grievances, some of which had resulted from Justinian and Theodora's own actions.[18]

The rioters set many public buildings on fire, and proclaimed a new emperor, Hypatius, the nephew of former emperor Anastasius I. Unable to control the mob, Justinian and his officials prepared to flee. According to Procopius, at a meeting of the government council, Theodora spoke out against leaving the palace and underlined the significance of someone who died as a ruler instead of living as an exile or in hiding, saying, "royal purple is the noblest shroud".[19]

As the emperor and his counsellors were still preparing their project, Theodora reportedly interrupted them and claimed:

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 the royal purple is the noblest shroud.[20]

Her determined speech convinced them all, including Justinian himself, who had been preparing to run. As a result, Justinian ordered his loyal troops, led by the officers, Belisarius and Mundus, to attack the demonstrators in the hippodrome, killing (according to Procopius) over 30,000 rebels.

Some scholars have interpreted Procopius' account as framed to impugn Justinian with the implication that he was more cowardly than his wife, and that the wording of her speech is devised by Procopius, changing the term "tyranny" from an ancient saying to "royal purple", possibly reflecting Procopius' desire to link Justinian to ancient tyrants.[21]

Despite his claims that he was unwillingly named emperor by the mob, Hypatius was also put to death by Justinian. In one source, this came at Theodora's insistence.[22]

Later life[edit]

Following the Nika revolt, Justinian and Theodora rebuilt Constantinople, including aqueducts, bridges and more than twenty-five churches, the most famous of which is Hagia Sophia.

Theodora was said to have been punctilious about court ceremony. According to Procopius, the imperial couple made all senators, including patricians, prostrate themselves before them whenever they entered their presence, and made it clear that their relations with the civil militia were those of masters and slaves:

Not even the 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]

They also supervised the magistrates, to reduce bureaucratic corruption.[citation needed]

The praetorian prefect Peter Barsymes was her close ally. John the Cappadocian, Justinian's chief tax collector, was identified as her enemy, because of his independent and great influence, and was brought down by a plot devised by Theodora and Antonina. She engaged in matchmaking, forming a network of alliances between the old powers, represented by emperor Anastasius' family and the pre-existing nobility, and the new, who were Justinian's and her relatives. 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 couple would eventually fall in love with each other. 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 gave reception and sent letters and gifts to Persian and foreign ambassadors and the sister of Khosrow I.[23]

She was involved in helping underprivileged women, sometimes "buying girls who had been sold into prostitution, freeing them, and providing for their future."[24] She created a convent on the Asian side of the Dardanelles called the Metanoia (Repentance), where the ex-prostitutes could support themselves.[15] 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). On the other hand, chronicler John Malalas who wrote positively about the court, declared she "freed the girls from the yoke of their wretched slavery."[25] A century later, John of Nikiu, influenced by Malalas' positive portrayal, noted that Theodora "put an end to the prostitution of women, and gave orders for their expulsion from every place."

Justinian's legislations also expanded the rights of women in divorce and property ownership, instituted the death penalty for rape, forbade exposure of unwanted infants, gave mothers some guardianship rights over their children, and forbade the killing of a wife who committed adultery. Though her involvement in these legal reforms is not recorded,[26] Procopius, in Wars, mentioned that she was naturally inclined to assist women in misfortune, and according to Secret History, she was accused of unfairly championing the wives' causes when their husbands charged them with adultery (SH 17).

Religious policy[edit]

Saint Theodora
Mosaic of Theodora - Basilica San Vitale (Ravenna, Italy).jpg
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

Theodora worked against her husband's support of Chalcedonian Christianity in the ongoing struggle for the predominance of each faction.[27] As a result, she was accused of fostering heresy and thus undermined the unity of Christendom. However, Procopius and Evagrius Scholasticus suggested instead that Justinian and Theodora were merely pretending to be opposed to each other.

In spite of Justinian being Chalcedonian, 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 excommunication order he was hidden in Theodora's quarters for twelve years, until her death. When the Chalcedonian Patriarch Ephraim provoked a violent revolt in Antioch, eight Miaphysite bishops were invited to Constantinople and Theodora welcomed them and housed them in the Hormisdas Palace adjoining the Great Palace, which had been Justinian and Theodora's own dwelling before they became emperor and empress.

In Egypt, when Timothy III died, Theodora enlisted the help of Dioscoros, the Augustal Prefect, and Aristomachos the duke of Egypt, to facilitate the enthronement of a disciple of Severus, Theodosius, thereby outmaneuvering her husband, who had intended a Chalcedonian successor as patriarch. But Pope Theodosius I of Alexandria, even with the help of imperial troops, could not hold his ground in Alexandria against Justinian's Chalcedonian followers. When he was exiled by Justinian along with 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. She housed Anthimus secretly in her palace until her death in 548.

In Nobatae, south of Egypt, the inhabitants were converted to Miaphysite Christianity about 540. Justinian had been determined that they be converted to the Chalcedonian faith and Theodora equally determined that they should be Miaphysites. Justinian made arrangements for Chalcedonian missionaries from Thebaid to go with presents to Silko, the king of the Nobatae. But on hearing this, Theodora prepared her own missionaries and wrote to the duke of Thebaid that he should delay her husband's embassy, so that the Miaphysite missionaries should arrive first. The duke was canny enough to thwart the easygoing Justinian instead of the unforgiving Theodora. He saw to it that the Chalcedonian missionaries were delayed. When they eventually reached Silko, they were sent away, for the Nobatae had already adopted the Miaphysite creed of Theodosius.


Theodora's death is recorded by Victor of Tonnena, with the cause uncertain but the Greek terms used are often translated as "cancer". The date was 28 June 548 at the age of 48,[28] although other sources report that she died at 51.[29] Later accounts frequently attribute the death to specifically breast cancer, although it was not identified as such in the original report, where the use of the term "cancer" probably referred to a more general "suppurating ulcer or malignant tumor".[28] Her body was buried in the Church of the Holy Apostles, in Constantinople. During a procession in 559, Justinian visited and lit candles for her tomb.[30]

Theodora and Justinian are represented in mosaics that exist to this day in the Basilica of San Vitale of Ravenna, Italy, which was completed a year before her death.

Lasting influence[edit]

The Miaphysites believed her influence on Justinian to be so strong that after her death, when he worked to bring harmony between the Miaphysites and the Chalcedonian Christians in the Empire and kept his promise to protect her little community of Miaphysite refugees in the Hormisdas Palace, the Miaphysites suspected Theodora's memory to be the driving factor. Theodora provided much political support for the ministry of Jacob Baradaeus, and apparently personal friendship as well. Diehl attributes the modern existence of Jacobite Christianity equally to Baradaeus and to Theodora.[31]

Olbia in Cyrenaica renamed itself Theodorias after Theodora. (It was a common event that ancient cities renamed themselves to honor an emperor or empress.) The city, now called Qasr Libya, is known for its splendid sixth-century mosaics.

Media portrayals[edit]

Sarah Bernhardt in the title role of Sardou's Théodora (1884)


  • The artwork The Dinner Party features a place setting for Theodora.[32]
  • The jewellery line Nika of Sassi Fine Jewellery is inspired by a jewel that might have belonged to Theodora and the event of the attack of the royal palace in 532 [1]


  • Count Belisarius. Robert Graves (1938). A historical novel by the author of I, Claudius which features Theodora as a character.
  • In one of the episodes of Hendrik Willem van Loon's 1942 fantasy novel Van Loon's Lives
  • Theodora and the Emperor. Harold Lamb (1952). Historical novel 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. Pierson Dixon (1958). A historical novel about the court of Justinian with Theodora playing a central part.
  • The Female. Paul Wellman (1953). The rise of Theodora from prostitute to empress.
  • Theodora von Byzanz. Ein Mädchen aus dem Volk wird Kaiserin (1957). Friedhelm Volbach (under the pseudonym Rudolph Fürstenberg). German historical novel.[33]
  • The Bearkeeper's Daughter. Gillian Bradshaw (1987). A young man out of Theodora's past arrives at the palace, seeking the truth of certain statements made to him by his dying father.
  • The Sarantine Mosaic. Guy Gavriel Kay (1998). Historical fantasy modelled 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. Christopher Golden and Nancy Holden (1999). A Buffy the Vampire Slayer novel which mentions Theodora working with the vampire Veronique towards immortality in 543 AD.
  • Theodora: Actress, Empress, Whore. Stella Duffy (2010). A historical novel, about Theodora's years up until she became empress.
  • The Purple Shroud. Stella Duffy (2012). A historical novel, about Theodora's years as empress.
  • The Secret History Stephanie Thornton (2020). Theodora's life story rendered into a novel.


Gianna Maria Canale in the title role of Theodora (1954)


Video games[edit]



  1. ^ Karagianni 2013, p. 22.
  2. ^ The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. "Theodora". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 8 September 2022.
  3. ^ "Roman Emperors – DIR Theodora".
  4. ^ a b Prosopography of the Later Roman Empire, vol. 3, ed. J. Martindale. 1992.
  5. ^ Garland, p. 13.
  6. ^ James Allan Evans (2011). The Power Game in Byzantium: Antonina and the Empress Theodora. A&C Black. p. 9. ISBN 978-1441120403.
  7. ^ Michael Grant. From Rome to Byzantium: The Fifth Century A.D., Routledge, p. 132.
  8. ^ Giorgio Ravegnani (2016). Salerno Editrice (ed.). Teodora. p. 26. ISBN 978-88-6973-149-5.
  9. ^ The Prosopography of the Later Roman Empire 2 Volume Set., J. R. Martindale, 1992 Cambridge University Press, p. 1240.
  10. ^ Garland, p. 11.
  11. ^ Anderson, Zinsser, Bonnie, Judith (1988). A History of Their Own: Women in Europe, Vol 1. New York: Harper & Row. p. 47. ISBN 978-0-06-015850-7.
  12. ^ E, Gibbon (1776). The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: 1776–1788. UK: Strahan & Cadell, London. pp. Chapter xl. ISBN 9780140433951.
  13. ^ Procopius, Secret History 9.
  14. ^ Claudine M. Dauphin (1996). "Brothels, Baths and Babes: Prostitution in the Byzantine Holy Land". Classics Ireland. 3: 47–72. doi:10.2307/25528291. JSTOR 25528291. Archived from the original on 23 September 2016.
  15. ^ a b c Bryce 1911, p. 761.
  16. ^ Grau, Sergi; Febrer, Oriol (2020-08-01). "Procopius on Theodora: ancient and new biographical patterns". Byzantinische Zeitschrift (in German). 113 (3): 769–788. doi:10.1515/bz-2020-0034. ISSN 1868-9027.
  17. ^ Diehl, Charles (1963). Byzantine Empresses. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
  18. ^ Dielh, ibid.
  19. ^ Safire, William, ed, Lend Me Your Ears: Great Speeches in History, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1992, p. 37[ISBN missing]
  20. ^ William Safire, Lend Me Your Ears: Great Speeches in History, Rosetta Books
  21. ^ Moorhead, John (1994). Justinian. London. p. 47.[ISBN missing]
  22. ^ Diehl, ibid.
  23. ^ Procopius, Secret History 30.24; Malalas, Chronicle 18.467
  24. ^ Anderson & Zinsser, Bonnie & Judith (1988). A History of Their Own: Women in Europe Vol 1. New York: Harper & Row. p. 48.[ISBN missing]
  25. ^ John Malalas, The Chronicle of John Malalas, 18.440.14–441.7
  26. ^ Garland. p. 18.
  27. ^ "Theodora – Byzantine Empress". Retrieved 11 April 2008.
  28. ^ a b Harding, Fred (2007). Breast Cancer. ISBN 978-0955422102.
  29. ^ Anderson & Zinsser, Bonnie & Judith (1988). A History of Their Own: Women in Europe, Vol. 1. New York: Harper & Row. p. 48.
  30. ^ Constantine Porphyrogennetos, The Book of Ceremonies, 1, Appendix 14.
  31. ^ Diehl, ibid., p. 184.
  32. ^ Place Settings. Brooklyn Museum. Retrieved on 2015-08-06.
  33. ^ Library of Congress Copyright Office (1959). Catalog of Copyright Entries. Third Series: 1958: January-June. Copyright Office, Library of Congress. p. 665. Retrieved 24 September 2022.

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

[Category:500 births]]