Theodora, future empress of the Byzantine Empire, was born in 500 AD, the daughter of a bear-keeper. Her father, Acacius, was employed by the Green faction at Constantinople’s Hippodrome[i]. Her mother was a circus performer, possibly an acrobat. This alone would have been enough to bar Theodora from the upper echelons of society. But as a child Theodora joined her sister on the stage playing low burlesque.Theodora’s father died when she was six and her mother remarried hoping that the role of Green’s bear-keeper would be given to her new husband. The job had already been awarded to another applicant. Theodora’s mother took her three daughters to the Circus and appealed to the audience. The Greens ignored the appeal, but the Blue faction supported the indigent widow; possibly to highlight the uncharitable actions of the Greens. The Blues found Theodora’s stepfather a job and from then on all her loyalties were for the Blue faction and she became an inveterate hater of the Greens.
A talented mimic, Theodora soon attracted followers and graduated to the role of courtesan. Procopius claimed that, while still too young for heterosexual sex, Theodora acted as a catamite substitute for slaves, who were too poor to afford the real thing. Procopius was antagonistic towards Theodora and her husband and probably used back streets titillating gossip for use in his polemical Secret History.
At sixteen Theodora became the mistress of a civil servant, named Hecebolus, and accompanied him to Pentapolis in North Africa, where he was in charge of the regional government. It is uncertain how long she stayed in Africa with Hecebolus, but she did not re-appear in Constantinople until about ten years later. While there the couple had a violent quarrel and she was dismissed. Procopius claims that she paid for her journey home with sexual favours, which may well be true for a young woman stranded in a foreign country and no resources to call upon.‘From then on she provided in her customary fashion by making her body the tool of her lawless trade.’[ii]
Theodora stayed for a time in Alexandria. It has been suggested that she was struck by a religious experience while in the city, possibly coming into contact with the leading churchmen. Alexandria was a centre for Miaphytisism[iii] and it may have been at this time that Theodora picked up her strongly held beliefs in this sect. Her life style altered dramatically upon her return to Constantinople, her experiences abroad having matured her.
Sometime in or around 520 AD, after her return from Pentapolis, Theodora met the emperor Justinian. Justinian was co-emperor with his uncle Justin, who adopted the young Petrus Sabbatus, probably while he was an officer in one of the imperial palace regiments. At the same time Justinian assumed the name, by which he would become known to history.
Coins showing the head of the Emperor Justin
The emperor Justin was the successor of the emperor Anastasius. Justin was of peasant origin and prior to his accession had been the Commander of the Excubitors[iv]. Justin became emperor in July 518. It is possible that Justinian engineered his uncle’s accession to the imperial purple.‘Justin on the strength of this command succeeded to the throne, though he was by now a doddery old man, totally illiterate – in popular parlance, he didn’t know his ABC – an unheard of thing in a Roman.’[v]
Almost immediately after his accession Justin made Justinian a Patrician and Count of the Domestics, a powerful position which gave him access to the centre of power. From now on Justin relied heavily on his nephew, willing to be guided by him in all things. Both Justin and Justinian were supporters of the Blues faction.Justinian celebrated his consulship in 521 AD with an amazingly extravagant games at the Hippodrome. The equivalent of 3,700 lbs of gold was spent on the decorations alone. In Anastasius’ reign fiscal rectitude had been the order of the day and Justinian wanted to show his uncle’s new subjects that a glorious new era was dawning.
‘He had no sooner seized upon his uncle’s authority than he began to squander public money in the most reckless manner and with the greatest satisfaction.’[vi]
Justinian brokered the repair of the breach with Rome, resulting from the ex-communication of the Patriarch Acacius in 484 AD. In March 519 AD a papal embassy arrived in Constantinople and two days later Patriarch John declared the churches indivisible.
The Empress Theodora and attendants from a mural in Ravenna
Justinian was captivated by Theodora and made her his mistress; fathering a child on her[vii]. Justinian wanted to marry Theodora but there were two impediments. There was a law forbidding those of high rank to marry actresses. The second impediment was Justinian’s wife, a peasant girl named Lupicina, who took the name Euphemia on her husband’s accession to the throne. Euphemia, surrounded by high ranking women, felt able to look down on Theodora’s lowly beginnings.Justinian was freed by Euphemia’s death in 524 AD and within weeks Justin had approved a law allowing retired actresses, who had been given high dignities, to marry anyone they chose. This law may have scandalised the upper reaches of society. It certainly scandalised Procopius
‘He forced the emperor to abrogate the laws by establishing a new one. From that moment on he lived with Theodora as his legal spouse thereby enabling everyone else to get engaged to a courtesan.’[viii]Theodora married Justinian later in the year and on 4th April 527 the couple were crowned co-emperor and empress. Four months later Justin died. Theodora was now co-ruler of the Byzantine Empire, able to make decisions in her own right.
BibliographyByzantium – The Early Centuries – John Julius Norwich, Folio Society 2003
The Secret History – Procopius – Folio Society 1990En.wikipedia.org
[i] There were four factions, named after colours, at the Hippodrome; all rivalling for supremacy, but by this period only the Blues and Greens had any real influence.
[ii] Secret History - Procopius
[iv] One of the crack imperial palace regiments
[v] Secret History – Procopius
[vi] Secret History - Procopius
[vii] The child died in infancy
[viii] Secret History - Procopius