Byzantine Empress Theodora: The Legacy of a Powerful Woman

Empress Theodora is regarded as one of the most influential women in history. Though from poor and humble beginnings, she managed to become empress and ruler of the Byzantine Empire.

Jan 15, 2023By Tsira Shvangiradze, MA Diplomacy and Int'l Politics, BA Int'l Relations
empress theodora life and legacy
Empress Theodora at the Coliseum by Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant, 1889, via Schiller and Bodo


Empress Theodora of the Byzantine Empire is a relatively little-known political figure who deserves to be part of common knowledge. Theodora’s strong commitment to her beliefs and principles, diplomacy, and political skills made her one of the most influential Empresses of the Byzantine Empire. Her husband and emperor, Justinian I, treated her as an equal partner, which is almost unmatched in history, especially in the first century when the role and status of women were highly marginalized.


Their partnership flourished and expanded the Byzantine Empire and laid the foundation for the development of human rights, especially women’s rights. Born to the peasant class, Empress Theodora made sure that her power was redirected to the improvement of the social policies and legal system of the poor and weak. Her juridical reforms and new laws introduced more transparency and morality in the empire and provided a framework for the protection of the most vulnerable member of society.


Empress Theodora’s Early Life as an Actress

constant empress theodora portrait
Empress Theodora by Jean-Joseph Benjamin Constant, 1887, via Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Buenos Aires


Relatively little is known of Theodora’s early life. The information primarily comes from the  Historian Procopius’ Secret History, written in 558. The work represents Procopius’ claims about the public actions and private lives of the emperor Justinian I and Empress Theodora.


Theodora was born in 500 CE and had Greek origins. In Secret History, Procopius reveals that her father, Acacius, was a bear keeper at the Hippodrome in Constantinople. The name of Theodora’s mother is not recorded, but what is known is that she was a dancer and actress. Theodora had two sisters, Anastasia and Comito. After Acacius’s death, her mother remarried and taught the daughters how to perform on stage. At the age of 15, Theodora became an actress. However, acting at that time was largely associated with adult entertainment and prostitution.


theodora retinue mosaic fragment
Empress Theodora and her retinue, fragment dignitaries of Byzantine Court, via Indian Culture

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At the age of 18, Theodora met Hecebolus, a senior official in the Roman government, became his concubine, and traveled to North Africa after Hecebolus took over the Libyan Pentapolis. However, their relationship appeared to be short-lived. Hecebolus mistreated and abused Theodora and eventually abandoned her.


Theodora settled in Alexandria, Egypt. It is believed that during her stay in Alexandria, she met the Miaphysite Patriarch Timothy III, joined the ascetic community near the city, and got closely acquainted with Monophysitism. Monophysitism is a Christological term according to which Christ has only one nature: the divine. In the Orthodox Byzantine Empire, the Monophysites were frequently persecuted.


Strong in her religious beliefs, Theodora returned to Constantinople in 522 and made a living as a wool spinner. During this time, she met Justinian, the heir to the throne of the Byzantine Empire and her future husband.


Imperial Marriage: Becoming the Byzantine Empress

corpus juris civilis printed photo
Printed vellum page from Corpus Juris Civilis, 1468, via Library of Congress, Washington DC


Even though it is unknown how Justinian met Theodora, historical sources reveal that he was impressed by Theodora’s beauty, and she became his mistress. However, a Roman law from Constantine’s reign prohibited nobles from marrying actresses. The ruler of the Byzantine Empire at that time was Justin, the uncle and predecessor of Justinian.


Influenced by the heir to the throne, Justinian, Emperor Justin passed new legislation, decreeing that rehabilitated actresses could afterward legitimately marry outside their status if permitted by the emperor. By the same regulation, the daughters of these actresses were likewise permitted to wed men of any status, allowing Theodora’s illegitimate daughter (whose name has since been forgotten) to wed a member of the royal family. According to Procopius, Theodora gave birth to a daughter when she lived in North Africa with Hecebolus. At the same time, Theodora’s status was elevated to a patrician as patricians could only marry patricians. In 524, Justinian married Theodora soon after Justin’s law was passed.


Two years after their marriage, in 527, Justinian ascended to the throne, and Theodora elevated to the position of the empress of the Eastern Roman Empire. She actively participated in state councils and shared her visions, preferences, and political strategies with her husband and Emperor.


In Novel 8.1, a law against corruption, Justinian referred to her as his “partner in my deliberations” and had provincial officials take an oath to the empress as well as the emperor.  Despite never being appointed as a co-regent, Theodora maintained greater authority due to her brilliance and impeccable political sense. She was a determined woman with a great capacity for leadership. Her counseling for a forceful (and militant) response during the Nika riots in 532 resulted in the riot’s suppression and probably saved the empire.


The Nika Riots

wagner chariot race painting
The Chariot Race in the Hippodrome by Alexander von Wagner, 1882, via Manchester Art Gallery


In January 535, the Blues and the Greens, two opposing political groups in the empire, sparked a riot while a chariot race was taking place in Constantinople’s Hippodrome. Competitors in different sporting events, especially chariot racing, were divided into factions differentiated by the color of the uniform in which they competed. By Justinian’s reign, the only factions with significant influence were the Blues and Greens. The two factions funded the races and seized important political power, as they were cooperating with the imperial forces to keep order during games. At the same time, they were supported by the royal families, including those who claimed the Byzantine throne.


The race began on January 13, 535. By the end of the races, the chanting had changed from “Blue” or “Green” to a unified Nίκα. (“Nika,” meaning “Conquer!”) and the crowd began to assault the royal palace. For the next five days, much of the city was under fire.


tominz circus maximus painting
Chariot Race in the Circus Maximus by Alfredo Tominz, 1890, via Berardi Galleria d’arte


The reason behind the revolt was the increase in taxes, as Justinian had ambitious plans to extend the Byzantine territories and implement extensive architectural projects. Unable to contain the situation, most political officials advised Justinian and Theodora to flee the city. The rioters freed prisoners and set fire to the buildings and important facilities. The Hagia Sophia and several other important monuments were quickly engulfed in fire, along with a sizeable area of the city.


On January 18, Theodora attended the Imperial Council meeting discussing the Nika riot. She addressed the council with the following words:


Whether or not a woman should give an example of courage to men is neither here nor there…I think that flight, even if it brings us to safety, is not in our interest. Every man born to see the light of day must die. But that one who has been emperor should become an exile I cannot bear.”


Theodora’s advice to stay and try to save the city using extensive military resources had probably saved the Byzantine Empire from political chaos. Justinian and Theodora rebuilt Constantinople after the Nika uprising and constructed aqueducts, bridges, and more than twenty-five churches, the most well-known of which is Hagia Sophia.


Social Reforms & the Medieval Origins of Women’s Rights

benjamin constant justinian painting
The Emperor Justinian by Jean Joseph Benjamin Constant, 1886, via the Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota


The origins of women’s rights can be attributed to Empress Theodora. Probably her experience as a young woman marginalized by the institutional system of that time pushed her to work on the improvement of women’s rights in the Empire. She elaborated on The Corpus Juris Civilis, a series of juridical reforms included in Roman law, and laid the foundation for a framework for Western legal heritage for women’s rights, including the English Common Law, the American Constitution, and even contemporary international public law.


Additionally, under Empress Theodora, rape became punishable by death. No matter their position or status, everyone present during the rape was affected by this rule, and the rapist’s property was handed over to the victim.


Empress Theodora ensured women had voices during divorce settlements, outlawed forced prostitution, and enabled women to inherit and possess property. On the Asian side of the empire, Dardanelles, Empress Theodora established sanctuaries for prostitution and rape victims and provided shelter and food for those without homes.


empress theodora court members painting
Empress Theodora and Members of Her Court, early 20th century (original dated 6th century), via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Empress Theodora remained a steadfast defender of the non-Orthodox Christians of the Empire and tried to mitigate the ill-treatment of the Monophysites. Even though her husband appeared to be a devout Orthodox Christian, Empress Theodora’s influence and power on Justinian made the reconciliation process possible. Empress Theodora protected Monophysites and assisted them in finding safer places to pray and perform religious rituals. She established a Miaphysite monastery in the ancient city of Sykae and influenced the appointment of a Miaphysite leader, Anthimus, as the Patriarch of Constantinople.


However, Procopius’ Secret History casts a shadow over these merits of Theodora. The work describes the harsh conditions in the shelters that forced some women to seek escape by leaping over the walls. Nevertheless, other perspectives, notably from chronicler John Malalas, claim that Theodora “freed the girls from the yoke of their wretched slavery.” Later works by the Egyptian Coptic bishop John of Nikiu note that Empress “put an end to the prostitution of women, and gave orders for their expulsion from every place.”


At the same time, many believed that she was brutal in eliminating her political rivals, including anyone who threatened her, her husband, or their authority. One well-known instance is her revenge against Belisarius, a valiant general, because of his potential as Justinian’s successor in the event of his death.


However, it is vital to keep in mind that these assumptions do not have supporting evidence other than the accounts of Procopius’ Secret History. It is widely known that Procopius felt resentment for Empress Theodora, labeling her and her husband as the worst Byzantine Empire officials ever.


It’s perhaps crucial to be mindful of the fact that all of the information we have on Theodora was written by men and that in Byzantine culture, any woman who played a role other than that of a traditional obedient woman would have been disapproved of or even overtly demonized.


Empress Theodora’s Lasting Legacy

empress theodora mosaic detail
Theodora: Detail from the 6th-century mosaic “Empress Theodora and Her Court” in the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna, via World History Encyclopedia


In 548, Empress Theodora died, probably due to cancer or gangrene. Justinian was shattered by her loss, and he never remarried. Empress Theodora and Justinian did not have any children. However, her illegitimate daughter and grandsons were granted top positions in the administration by Justinian.


Despite his personal religious preferences, Justinian continued to defend the Monophysites as Empress Theodora would have done. Even though he continued to be a capable leader after she died, it was obvious that the emperor was never as powerful as he had been when Theodora had been by his side and they had reigned the empire together. This is illustrated by the fact that after Theodora’s death, Justinian passed hardly any new important laws but continued to be an advocate for women’s rights.


One of the magnificent churches the emperor and empress had built in Constantinople, the Church of the Holy Apostles, served as the final resting place for Empress Theodora. Beautiful mosaics of Theodora and Justinian still exist today in the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna, northern Italy, which was finished a year before she passed away.

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By Tsira ShvangiradzeMA Diplomacy and Int'l Politics, BA Int'l RelationsTsira is an international relations specialist based in Tbilisi, Georgia. She holds a MA in Diplomacy and International Politics and a BA in International Relations from Tbilisi State University. In her spare time, she contributes articles in the field of political sciences and international relations.