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The Empress Theodora

The Empress Theodora
Partner of Justinian

A scholarly, yet highly accessible account of the life and times of the Empress Theodora, who rose from actress in burlesque theater to co-ruler of Byzantium.

August 2002
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172 pages | 6 x 9 | 9 b&w illus., 1 figure |

Even by modern standards, the Empress Theodora (?-548) had a remarkable rise to power. Born into the lowest class of Byzantine society, she worked as an actress in burlesque theater. Yet she attracted the love of the future emperor Justinian, who, to the astonishment of proper society, made her not only his wife but also his partner in government. Justinian's respect for and trust in Theodora gave her power in her own right unmatched by almost any other Roman or Byzantine empress.

In this book, James Allan Evans provides a scholarly, yet highly accessible account of the life and times of the Empress Theodora. He follows her from her childhood as a Hippodrome bearkeeper's daughter to her imperial roles as Justinian's most trusted counselor and as an effective and powerful advocate for the downtrodden. In particular, he focuses on the ways in which Theodora worked to improve the lives of women. He also explores the pivotal role Theodora played in the great religious controversy of her time, involving a breach between sects in the Christian church.

  • Preface
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1. A New Dynasty Takes Power
  • Chapter 2. The Early Life of Theodora
  • Chapter 3. The Early Years in Power
  • Chapter 4. The Nika Revolt
  • Chapter 5. Theodora's Friends and Enemies
  • Chapter 6. Theodora and Foreign Policy
  • Chapter 7. The Theological Dilemma: The Search for Common Ground
  • Chapter 8. Theodora's Quest for a New Strategy
  • Chapter 9. The Coercion of Rome
  • Chapter 10. Afterword
  • Abbreviations
  • Bibliography
  • Notes
  • Index

James Allan Evans is Professor Emeritus of Classics at the University of British Columbia.


Our knowledge of the past is as good as our sources, and that is true of no one more than the empress Theodora. She still looks down at us from the chancel wall of San Vitale in Ravenna: a small woman with an oval face and arresting eyes. Even if we knew nothing about her, her portrait would still be riveting. But, in fact, Theodora is a character from the past who left a mark on history sufficiently indelible that writers, both contemporary and retrospective, took note. Empresses before Theodora had wielded influence and even dominated the court, particularly when weak emperors such as Arcadius and Theodosius II were on the throne, but none had been the acknowledged partner of her husband. Theodora was, to quote Justinian's own words in one of his laws, "our most pious consort given us by God."


Our most important source, the one that most colors our perception of Theodora, is Procopius of Caesarea. He was a member of the general staff of Belisarius, the field marshal who is the best known of all Justinian's officers thanks to the writings of Procopius. He produced a history of Justinian's wars that must have been more or less complete by 545, but before he released it to the small reading public in Constantinople that could appreciate his Attic prose, he continued it to include events up to the middle of the century. The latest can be dated to 551. There he stopped, even though 551 was not a natural stopping place, for the wars Justinian waged continued, and at midcentury Procopius could not see the end of them.


The work falls into three sections: the first two books relate the war against Persia, books three and four the war in Africa, dealing first with the overthrow of the Vandal kingdom and then the pacification of Africa, and books five to seven the war against the Ostrogoths in Italy. Procopius wrote selfconsciously in the tradition of the great classical historians, Herodotus and Thucydides, and it was possibly from Appian that he borrowed his plan of dividing the war into three fronts and dealing with them separately. The focus of the History of the Wars is not Theodora, or even Justinian himself; yet Theodora periodically makes an entrance. It is from the Wars that we have the magnificent description of how Theodora rallied the government when it seemed as if the Nika revolt would force it to flee, and for better or worse, this description has colored the perception of later historians. It is the basis for the romantic concept of Theodora as heroine: a woman with the masculine virtue of coolness under fire while the men around her panicked. But the speech with which Theodora rallied Justinian's court is a rhetorical composition, and whether or not Theodora actually spoke it or anything like it is a matter of opinion.


Procopius added an eighth book to the Wars, but it covers the years after Theodora's death, from where the first seven books break off until the final victory in Italy in 552. He wrote another work for publication as well, a panegyric that describes Justinian's building program. It is an uneven work; the first book deals with Constantinople and the buildings Justinian constructed there, and since it ignores the collapse in 558 of the first dome of Hagia Sophia, the greatest church built by Justinian, we must believe either that it was written earlier or that Procopius had a remarkable ability to turn a blind eye to events that did not contribute to his hagiography. Internal evidence suggests that the last five books were written two or three years later. Theodora, in any event, was dead by the time On the Buildings was composed, and we learn nothing of her role as builder from it, though there is a flattering reference to her beauty. The focus of the panegyric is Justinian and his care for his subjects. Procopius omits Theodora's share in it.


A reference in the late-tenth-century Byzantine lexicon known as the Souda alerted scholars to another composition of Procopius, the Anekdota, or Unpublished Works, but it was known only from the Souda's description until the Vatican librarian Niccolò Alemmani found a copy in his library and published it in 1623. The Souda refers to it as a komodia, a comic burlesque, and it is a satire intended to arouse peevish sniggers, but the humor is as bitter as anything Juvenal ever wrote. The Secret History, as the composition came to be known, was a slashing attack. It compares Justinian's regime with the epidemic of bubonic plague in 542 to the plague's advantage, for half the population survived the plague, but no one escaped the emperor's rapacity.


Its particular targets are Belisarius, his wife, Antonina, Justinian, and Theodora. The Secret History revealed that Theodora's father had been a bear keeper in the Hippodrome and that she had been a burlesque queen. In Late Antiquity, women in the theater were considered no better than harlots, though even among them there were upper and lower classes: the lower class consisted of the women who danced and cavorted in the theater orchestras, and a cut above them were those who performed mimes on the stage. The former practiced common prostitution as a sideline. Antonina's mother had belonged to this group. The latter were courtesans, serving customers of a better class, but they still sold sexual favors, and Theodora was one of their number. She made no secret of it; after she became empress, old female friends from the theater were welcome in the palace. Inevitably salacious stories circulated about her life in the theater, and Procopius retails them gleefully.


The Secret History is a hostile source written by an embitterered man. It would be hard to say whether Procopius' animus against Theodora and Antonina was based more on male chauvinism directed against women in power or on contempt for their origins: at one point the Secret History indicates with venom that Justinian could have had his choice of upper-class women for a wife, and instead he chose a slut from the very dregs of society. Both prejudices were at work, but one feels that if Theodora had come to the throne with the social standing of a woman like Anicia Juliana, who built the church of Saint Polyeuktos in Constantinople in the 520s and whose impeccable connections included the emperor Valentinian III as grandfather and a niece of the old emperor Anastasius as daughter-in-law, Procopius' male chauvinism would have faded noticeably.


Yet clearly a good deal of what the Secret History reports is not fiction. The Ecclesiastical History of Evagrius Scholasticus, a lawyer of Antioch whose history ends with the year 594, repeats the surmise of the Secret History that Theodora and Justinian only pretended to oppose each other on the burning theological question of the day, the rift between the Monophysites and the Chalcedonians over the nature of Christ. It is unlikely that Evagrius found a copy of the Secret History to read. Rather both authors were reporting a notion that was widely held among the Chalcedonians, who distrusted Theodora and grouped her with their enemies. The Monophysites, on the other hand, considered her a refuge in time of need. Yet the protection she gave the persecuted Monophysite monks and clergy was double-edged. She turned the Palace of Hormisdas into a monastery for them, thus protecting them from Chalcedonian fury. But by so doing, she kept them isolated. Justin I's persecution had made martyrs out of the Monophysites. Monks and holy men were forced out of their monasteries and sought refuge in the villages, where they mingled with the laity and spread their doctrines. The Palace of Hormisdas was both a safe house and a quarantine.


As time went on, particularly after the plague that began in 541 in Egypt and Syria and smote Constantinople the next year, Theodora seems to have acted with greater independence: it was in the 540s that she made the momentous move that led to the establishment of separate Monophysite churches in the eastern provinces and Egypt. But for all that, Theodora and Justinian remained collaborators. The fact is that although Rome regarded Monophysitism as a heresy, neither Justinian nor Theodora did. For them the problem was simply a division between two differing theological interpretations, and reasonable persons should be able to bridge it.


John of Ephesus, whose connection with Ephesus was tenuous (he was ordained bishop of Ephesus by Jacob Bara'dai, the titular Monophysite bishop of Edessa, modern Urfa, in 558), was born in a village near Amida, nowadays Diyarbakir, about 507 and at age three or four became an oblate in the nearby monastery of the stylite saint Maro whose ministrations had saved his life when he was an infant. At Maro's death John was fifteen, and he moved to a monastery at Amida where the monks were Monophysite. The persecution unleashed in 521 by Justin I at the direction of Pope Hormisdas, drove the monks from their monastery, and they were not allowed to return until the persecution paused in 530, a respite for which they could thank Theodora. John, however, was no longer interested in the contemplative life. He traveled from monastery to monastery, visiting Egypt in 534 and Constantinople in 535. He knew and liked Theodora, and in 542 Justinian selected him to convert the remaining pagans in Asia Minor, on condition that he convert them to the Chalcedonian faith. Probably, however, he did not conceal his own Monophysite beliefs, for when Jacob Bara'dai passed through the area, he consecrated seven bishops there. John's own bishopric was nominally Ephesus, which was the metropolis of Asia, and hence John's alternate sobriquet is John of Asia. He spent no time in Ephesus. His native tongue was Syriac, but he was at home in Greek.


John wrote an ecclesiastical history in three parts, of which the third survives in a manuscript found in the mid-nineteenth century at the desert monastery of Saint Mary Deipara in Egypt. It covers the years 571-86. The second section, which probably started with the emperor Theodosius II, partially survives at second hand in the the Chronicle of Zuqnin, also known as the Chronicle of Pseudo-Dionysius of Tel-Mahre, in the Chronicle of Michael the Syrian, and in the Chronography of Elias Bar Shinaya (975-1049), a Nestorian priest who became the metropolitan bishop of Nisibis in Mesopotamia and wrote his chronicle in Syriac, which survives in one mutilated manuscript in the British Library. The universal Chronicle once attributed to Dionysius of Tel-Mahre was written at the end of the eighth century by an unknown author at the monastery of Zuqnin in northern Mesopotamia. From it we have a verbatim quotation of John's long, vivid description of the plague that struck the empire in 541-42. As for Michael the Syrian, who was a well-educated monk elected Jacobite patriarch of Antioch in 1166, his universal Chronicle is the longest and most ambitious Syriac chronicle that we have. It survives in one privately owned manuscript in Urfa. These are muddled sources, but they preserve Syriac tradition and give us occasional glimpses of Theodora.


It is John's Lives of the Eastern Saints that best furnishes impressions of Theodora as seen by Monophysite eyes. This tract recounts the lives of fiftyeight holy men and women. Occasionally Theodora intrudes in the stories. It is from John's report of Stephen, deacon to Mare, bishop of Amida, that we have a reference to Theodora "who came from the brothel." The words are in Greek in the midst of John's Syriac text, which may indicate that they are a later insertion, but probably not. It is more likely that John is reproducing a popular epithet he heard on the streets of Constantinople, where the details of Theodora's early life were common knowledge. He repeated it without malice. In John's writings there is no hint of the prurience that we sense in Procopius' Secret History. But the reference corroborates at least some of the malicious gossip that the Secret History reports.


The Syriac sources are friendly, but even so, the essential toughness of the empress is not concealed. The Syriac chronicle of Zacharias of Mytilene reports Theodora's insistence that the nephews of the old emperor Anastasius, Hypatius and Pompeius, be executed after the Nika riots. Justinian was more inclined to mercy. The Latin and Greek sources, when they are not hostile, tend to be either neutral or brief. John the Lydian, who hated the praetorian prefect John the Cappadocian, should have been an admirer, but he makes only one mention of her in his On the Magistracies. Justinian, said John, had failed to notice John's many iniquities, and his courtiers were afraid to speak out, but Theodora realized that John was ruining the state and warned her husband. Theodora, we are told, was vigilant and particularly sympathetic toward those who suffered wrong. The Lydian's portrayal of Theodora reflects the public persona she cultivated. In fact, it was her own authority that she was vigilant to protect, and, recognizing John the Cappadocian as a threat, she baited a trap for him and brought him down. Even after he was humbled she continued to pursue him. Theodora did not forgive easily.


We get another brief glimpse of Theodora exercising ruthless power in the Book of the Popes (Liber Pontificalis), a series of brief papal biographies from Saint Peter to the late ninth century. Similarly, in the Variae of Cassiodorus Senator, 468 ornate letters, formulae (model letters), and edicts that Cassiodorus produced in the service of the Ostrogothic rulers of Italy, we get a fleeting impression of Theodora carrying on an obscure negotiation with the Ostrogothic king Theodahad and his queen, Gudeliva. It gives some substance to the charge in the Secret History that Theodora arranged the murder of Theodoric the Ostrogoth's daughter, Amalasuintha, but the language is cryptic. The charge remains unproved. But the letter gives a glimpse of the double-pronged diplomacy of Justinian and Theodora, which proceeded on two levels, the official level of the emperor and the covert, slightly underhand level of the empress.


Eusebius of Caesarea in the fourth century set the fashion for world chronicles, and they acquired great popularity in Late Antiquity. They were written in Greek, Latin, and, as we have seen, Syriac. We have the world chronicle of John Malalas, the Chronicon Paschale, the chronicle of Theophanes Confessor, and that of Victor, bishop of Tonnena in Africa, who supplies our only report of how Theodora died, to name only those that are most important for our subject. The name Malalas comes from malal, the Syriac word for rhetor, so that we may infer that John Malalas was a lawyer. He was educated in Antioch and probably was a civil servant there, but at some point early in Justinian's reign, he moved to Constantinople. Perhaps for that reason, the eighteenth book dealing with Justinian's reign seems well acquainted with official propaganda and is colored by it. The Chronicon Paschale, or Easter Chronicle, so called because of its unknown author's interest in determining the date of Easter, belongs to the seventh century, and Theophanes (ca. 760-817) wrote a Chronographia that is as good as its sources. Unfortunately we are not always certain what those sources were. Procopius and Malalas, certainly, for Justinian's reign. Perhaps others.


Procopius dominates. The Secret History colors our assessment of Theodora. It tells how she rose from the theater to the throne and how she used the power she acquired. Her acumen was respected by Justinian, whose law code was one of the greatest legacies of the ancient world to its modern counterpart. Yet the Secret History is clear evidence of the bitter, visceral hatred she could inspire. Malicious gossip is a weapon of the disempowered, and to the social strata to which Procopius either belonged or wanted to belong, Theodora represented the threat of social revolution. Her lower-class origins, which she flaunted—she brought old friends from the theater into the palace—gave offense, but even more offensive was her insistence on receiving obeisance. Her emphasis on court ceremonial was punctilious. She took delight in seeing members of the old elite groveling before her. Justinian was not much better; his was a family of Thracian peasants brought into high society by the emperor Justin whom luck mingled with cunning had brought unexpectedly to the throne. Together Justinian and Theodora represented change in a society that distrusted innovation. Theodora was a parvenue in a culture where status mattered, self-educated in circles where schooling in the Greek classics was the mark of breeding, and a Monophysite in a court where orthodoxy was defined by the Chalcedonian Creed. The great French Byzantinist Charles Diehl romanticized her; Sarah Bernhardt depicted her on stage in a play by Victorien Sardou that improved upon history: the stage Theodora had a lover and was strangled on Justinian's orders, a far more romantic end than the bare bones of history supplies. Theodora, to quote Robert Browning, "remains an enigmatic and rather alarming figure, a woman enjoying immense power in an age which had no institutional structure for such exercise of power. Later tradition tended to close its eyes to her."


I began writing this book in 1998-99, while I was a Whitehead Visiting Professor at the American School of Classical Studies in Athens, where I could use the resources of the Gennadius Library and of the British School of Archaeology. But the idea came to me earlier, in I997, while I was a visiting professor of history at the University of Washington. My Age of Justinian had just appeared, but it seemed to me that Theodora played a peculiar role in Justinian's age as both supporter and opponent of the emperor, and it deserved examination. Was the regime of Theodora and Justinian a dyarchy in which the emperor and the empress promoted divergent policies? Was it true that they had two different visions of statecraft, Justinian dazzled by a longing to restore the ancient Roman Empire and Theodora convinced that the empire's heart belonged to the east, and its strength lay in the provinces of the Orient? What kept these two very different strong-willed persons in partnership? Conjugal affection is somewhat out of style as an explanation, and sexual attraction (Procopius suspected animal lust) is time-sensitive: it rarely lasts forever. Yet the partnership of Justinian and Theodora remained firm even after Theodora's death. The imperial team complemented each other, even in their differences, and both were utterly loyal. Perhaps the glue of the partnership was mutual respect.


Finally, what did Theodora accomplish? Perhaps her one lasting achievement was an inadvertent one: she helped to make the rift between Monophysite and Chalcedonian permanent. But whether the rift would have been bridged without her interventions is a question that belongs to the special genre of "Might-Have-Been History," and that is not history at all.




“There is no other book that gives Theodora as extensive or as penetrating treatment as this one. . . . The task is worthwhile, because Theodora is a figure of historical importance and great interest and perhaps the only Byzantine woman about whom the sources say enough to make even a short book feasible.”
Warren Treadgold, author of A Concise History of Byzantium


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