Who Was Empress Theodora?

Empress Theodora, a wife and closest advisor of emperor Justinian is rightly regarded as the most powerful woman in Byzantine history.

Mar 24, 2023By Vedran Bileta, MA in Late Antique, Byzantine, and Early Modern History, BA in History

who was empress theodora


Empress Theodora is undoubtedly one of the most remarkable historical figures and the most powerful woman in Roman history. Born into a humble family, Theodora managed to climb to the top of the social hierarchy, becoming the empress of the Roman Empire (also known as the Byzantine Empire). But Theodora was more than a mere wife of emperor Justinian. In the treacherous world of court politics, Theodora was Justinian’s closest ally and most valuable advisor. In fact, Theodora wielded immense power, ruling as equal to her husband. She was instrumental in maintaining a fragile balance within the Christian religion, one of the most important pillars of the Roman state. In addition, Theodora used her high status to protect the low-born women, spearheading the reforms that were ahead of their time. Intelligent, talented and a political maverick, it is no wonder that many considered Theodora a threat to established social order, trying to tarnish her name and vilify the most powerful woman the Roman world had ever seen. 


The Empress Theodora Was of Humble Origins

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Theodora: Detail from the 6th-century mosaic Empress Theodora and Her Court in the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna


Little is known of empress Theodora’s early life. No wonder, as the empress’ position gained many enemies who tried to tarnish her name, distorting the facts. However, we know that Theodora was born into a humble family. Her father, Acacius, worked as a bear keeper in the Hippodrome, a grand arena for chariot racing and other forms of entertainment in the imperial capital of Constantinople. Along with her two sisters, Comito and Anastasia, Theodora became an actress, dancer, mime artist and comedian. By 15, she was the star of the Hippodrome. However, in the Roman world, Theodora’s profession was considered scandalous and disreputable, often linked to prostitution. Thus, after Theodora became the empress, her enemies used her early life to tarnish her name, inventing all sorts of salacious stories, including the particularly lurid portrayal of Leda and the Swan.


Justinian Changed the Law to Marry Theodora

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The detail of the mosaic showing the emperor Justinian I, 6th century CE, Basilica di San Vitale, Ravenna


After a short stay in North Africa (where allegedly she was the governor’s mistress). Theodora returned to Constantinople, where she met her future husband, future emperor Justinian. Justinian was also a man of low birth. However, he was also high ranking imperial official and an heir to the Empire. Thus, he was the most desired bachelor in the whole of the Roman Empire. And he chose Theodora for his wife. In fact, Justinian fell madly in love with Theodora, and he convinced his uncle, emperor Justin, to change the law so he could marry her. Already before ascending the throne, Theodora and Justinian were making enemies, as breaking the social norms angered Justinian’s fellow senators. Justin’s wife, empress Euphemia, also opposed the marriage, but her death removed the obstacle to the union. 


Theodora Saved Justinian’s Throne

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Reconstruction of Constantinople in the year 1200

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Immediately after becoming an empress, Theodora became Justinian’s closest ally and advisor. One of her most memorable acts in the early reign happened during the infamous Nika Riots in 532 (Nika Riots answers). After the riot, initiated by the circus factions, turned into a full-fledged rebellion and direct challenge to Justinian, the emperor considered fleeing the capital. Theodora, however, was determined to stay and fight. According to historian Procopius, the empress chastised her husband, famously saying that “Royal purple makes a fine burial shroud.” Encouraged by Theodora, Justinian decided to stay and fight, dispatching his general Belisarius and Mundus to quell the rebellion in blood. The result was 30.000 dead civilians, a massacre unprecedented in Roman history. After securing the throne, Justinian and Theodora rebuilt the capital and laid down the plans for the Reconquest of the Roman West.


The Empress Kept Christianity United

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View of Hagia Sophia, Justinian’s grand cathedral and one of the largest domed buildings in the world


As the empress, Theodora wielded immense political power. She was known for her intelligence, charisma, and strategic thinking, and she often advised her husband on matters of state. The empress also had a keen sense of justice and championed the poor and marginalized. But most importantly, Theodora played a leading role in keeping Christianity, a major pillar of the state, united. A devout Christian, Theodora strongly advocated the Miaphysite doctrine, which emphasized the unity of Christ’s divine and human natures. The problem was that this went directly against the orthodox view that Christ had two natures – one human and one divine. However, while such a view had official imperial support, including Justinian’s, the emperor allowed Theodora to protect the Miaphysites, thus maintaining religious balance within the Empire. A rare feat, as since Constantine the Great made Christianity an official religion of the Empire, the Roman emperors had a hard time keeping peace among the various Christian factions.


Theodora was a Protector of Women

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


Besides being an influential political figure, Theodora also championed the poor and marginalized, especially low-born women and those involved in disreputable professions. The empress used her lofty status to pass laws protecting women from abuse and exploitation. She did her best to ensure women had greater control over their property and financial affairs. Theodora set up a house in Constantinople where prostitutes could live in peace and supported young girls who had been sold into sexual slavery. Such things were groundbreaking for a time, and we can rightly consider Theodora, a trailblazer. Perhaps even a first feminist. The empress also worked to improve women’s lives in the monasteries and convents. 


Empress Theodora Was The Most Powerful Woman in the Roman World

who were the most famous byzantine empresses theodora
Detail from the 6th-century imperial mosaic depicting Empress Theodora and her retinue, Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna


The immense power wielded by empress Theodora is encapsulated in the glittering mosaics of San Vitale in Ravenna, the imperial basilica built following Justinian’s reconquest of Italy. There we can see the empress in her full regalia, surrounded by her retinue and ladies in waiting. Her equal position to her husband is reflected in Theodora’s mosaic placed opposite to that of Justinian. The two mosaics were completed in 547, only a year before Theodora’s death, possibly of cancer, at the age of 48. Her death had a visible impact on Justinian, who never remarried. While Justinian would rule for 17 more years, Theodora’s absence left a mark on the ruler, as not much significant legislation was done past 548. Ironically, most of what we know about Theodora comes from Procopius’ “Secret History,” written after the empress’ death and nowadays regarded by historians as exaggerated gossip.


Procopius might have stolen the accolades for most-lasting and colorful literary portrait of the Empress but, in the visual arts, there is a formidable rival to how Theodora is remembered in history.

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By Vedran BiletaMA in Late Antique, Byzantine, and Early Modern History, BA in HistoryVedran is a doctoral researcher, based in Budapest. His main interest is Ancient History, in particular the Late Roman period. When not spending time with the military elites of the Late Roman West, he is sharing his passion for history with those willing to listen. In his free time, Vedran is wargaming and discussing Star Trek.