Continuing our series on powerful women, we are now on to No. 2:
- The only Chinese Female “Emperor,” Wu Zetian
- The Byzantine Empress Theodora
- The 5th Pharoah of the 18th dynasty of Ancient Egypt, Hatshepsut
- Eleanor of Aquitaine, wife of Louis VIII of France and Henry II of England
- Spanish queen, Isabella Ist of Castile, wife of Ferdinand of Aragón
- Queen Elizabeth Ist, the “Virgin Queen” of England
- Hapsburg Empress, Maria Theresa of Austria
- Catherine the Great of Russia
- Queen Victoria, the longest-reigning English queen
- Chinese Empress Dowager Cixi
Here is the story of
Byzantine Empress Theodora, c. 500 – 28 June 548, From Actress to Empress
It is thought that Theodora came from a Greek Cypriot family. 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.
Theodora, detail of a Byzantine mosaic in the Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna
Theodora grew up on the outskirts of the Byzantine Empire. After her father’s death, Theodora took the stage as an actress to help support the family. During this time, the profession was considered scandalous—being an actress was synonymous with being a prostitute—but Theodora took every opportunity to move up in a very rigid class system. (www.brooklynmuseum.org)
At the age of 16, Theodora traveled to North Africa as the companion of a Syrian official named Hecebolus when he went to the Libyan Pentapolis as governor. She stayed with him for almost four years before returning to Constantinople via Alexandria where it is said that she converted to Miaphysite Christianity under the influence of Pope Timothy III of Alexandria.
When she reached Constantinople, having renounced her former lifestyle, Theodora set up business as a wool spinner. It was during this time that she attracted the attention of Justinian, the heir to Emperor Justin I. Justinian was almost 20 years older than Theodora.
Justinian I, detail of a contemporary portrait mosaic in the Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna.
Justinian wanted to marry this intelligent, beautiful woman but there was a Roman law which forbade officials of senatorial status from marrying actresses. His suit was also frowned upon by Empress Euphemia, Emperor Justin’s wife. It appears that Euphemia did not mind their relationship but would not agree to their marriage.
Empress Euphemia died in 525 and Justin, who had become fond of Theodora, repealed the law and allowed Justinian and Theodora to marry. History tells us that at this time Theodora had a daughter who Justinian treated as his legitimate child but it is not clear whether or not she was actually his daughter.
Two years later, Emperor Justin I died and Justinian and Theodora became Emperor and Empress. From the first, Theodora played an almost equal role with her husband in governing the Byzantine Empire.
Justinian was a very successful ruler, regaining territories lost by the Western Roman Empire. A still more resonant aspect of his legacy was the uniform rewriting of Roman law, the Corpus Juris Civilis, which is still the basis of civil law in many modern countries. His reign also marked a blossoming of Byzantine culture, and his building program yielded such masterpieces as the church of Hagia Sophia.
Although she was never coregent, Theodora’s superior intelligence and deft handling of political affairs caused many to think that it was she, rather than Justinian, who ruled Byzantium. Her name is mentioned in nearly all the laws passed during that period. She received foreign envoys and corresponded with foreign rulers, functions usually reserved for the emperor. (Britannica.com)
A little history on the politics of Byzantium in Theodora’s time:
The chariot races were important in the Byzantine Empire, as in the Roman Empire, as a way to reinforce social class and political power, including the might of the Byzantine emperor, and were often put on for political or religious reasons. Emperor Justin I is said to have preferred chariot races to the more vicious fights between gladiators or men and beasts and the Blues and Greens were the two main factions supporting their charioteers.
Chariot races in the Roman era (Wikipedia)
The Blues and the Greens in Constantinople were more than simply sports teams. They gained influence in military, political, and theological matters, although the hypothesis that the Greens tended towards Monophysitism and the Blues represented Orthodoxy is disputed. The Blue-Green rivalry often erupted into gang warfare, and street violence had been on the rise in the reign of Justin I (r. 518–527).
It was Theodora’s actions during the Nika riots of 532 AD when the Green and Blue factions united and attempted to overthrow the emperor that cemented her in history as a powerful, influential woman.
The Blues and the Greens started a riot in January 532 during a chariot race in the hippodrome. The riots stemmed from many grievances, some of which had resulted from Justinian’s and Theodora’s own actions. Justinian feared for his life and was advised to flee Constantinople. (Wikipedia)
Theodora had other ideas. Her influence in political affairs was decisive. She persuaded Justinian not to flee as it was better to die an Emperor than an Exile, saying “royal purple is the noblest shroud.”
But Theodora worked behind the scenes as well. History tells us that she sent Narses, a popular eunuch, into the Hippodrome armed with only a bag of gold coins. Narses entered the Hippodrome alone and unarmed to face the murderous mob that had already killed hundreds. Narses went directly to the Blues’ section, where he approached the important Blue leaders and reminded them that Emperor Justinian supported them over the Greens. He also reminded them that the man they were crowning to replace Justinian, Hypatius, was a Green. Narses then distributed the gold. The Blue leaders spoke quietly with each other and then they spoke to their followers. Then, in the middle of Hypatius’s coronation, the Blues stormed out of the Hippodrome. (armstrongeconomics.com)
Justinian’s Generals Belisarius and Mundus then entered the hippodrome and slaughtered around 30,000 rebels.
Coming from humble beginnings, Theodora was a great champion of women’s rights. Through Justinian, she made sure that daughters received their fair share of inheritance. She made sure that if a husband were to die; his wife’s dowry would become her property again. She also made sure that children of female slaves were not slaves like their mother. All these measures improved the position of women in Byzantine society.
Socially, actresses were the lowest members of society and had little rights. Many girls became actresses simply because there were few other options opened to the poor. The law forbade them to change their profession or to leave their employer. Thus an actress had no means of escaping her fate. Theodora had laws passed with allowed actresses to change their profession and better themselves.
Theodora was one of the first rulers to recognize the rights of women, passing strict laws to prohibit the traffic in young girls and altering the divorce laws to give greater benefits to women. Her importance in Byzantine political life is shown by the fact that little significant legislation dates from the period between her death in 548 and that of Justinian in 565. (Britannica.com)
Her importance in Byzantine political life is shown by the fact that little significant legislation dates from the period between her death in 548 and that of Justinian in 565. (Britannica.com)
A great woman by all accounts!