How could a woman go from being prostitute to empress? Believe it or not the answer is – love. But I’ll get to that later. First let me tell you about Theodora’s early life.
She was born around 500AD, into a world where the old Roman Empire was in the process of dying, giving birth to the new Byzantine Empire. No one knows the exact date or her birth which is not surprising when you consider her humble origins. Her father was a bear trainer in the Constantinople Hippodrome and her mother was a dancer. Her father died when she was still a child, forcing her and her sisters to become dancers and actresses too. In this world an actress was the equivalent of a prostitute. Theodora would dance for the nobles and then entertain them in private. We don’t know the exact age she started this profession, but I do know that by today’s standards she was way too young.
At the age of sixteen, she became the escort to a wealthy man named Hecebolus. By all accounts she was beautiful, witty, and intelligent. When he was appointed to the position of governor to the minor North African province of Pentapolis, she accompanied him. We don’t know exactly what happened in their relationship, but after four years Hecebolus threw her out of his house, penniless. This had to have been a low point for Theodora. She was in a foreign land, far from home, with nothing but the clothes on her back. Once again, she was forced to rely on her looks and charm to provide an income. She travelled through the Middle East making her way back to Constantinople.
Now this is where the records become a little shaky. Some sources say she was in Antioch others say Alexandria, Alexandria, at that time, was the capital of Egypt. Wherever it happened at some point in her early twenties Theodora met Pope Timothy, the thirty-second pope of the Eastern Church. She converted to Monophysite Christianity. This is a form of Christianity that was considered heretical in Constantinople. She renounced her previous life as a courtesan, and returned to Constantinople in 522AD, making her living spinning wool. It was here that she met Justinian and fell in love.
I should mention this is not as surprising at it might seem at first glance. Justinian wasn’t emperor yet, but he was heir to the throne. And he had also been born into poverty. It was Justinian’s uncle, Justin I, who as an illiterate soldier worked his way to the position of emperor. Justin took Justinian under his wing, educated him, and named him heir. So Justinian probably understood, all too well, the circumstances that had forced Theodora to become a courtesan.
The biggest obstacle standing in their way was a law forbidding a high-class official such as Justinian from marrying a low class courtesan. Justin I changed this law and the couple were married in 525AD. Justinian became emperor in 527AD following the death of his uncle. Theodora ruled alongside him. I don’t think it was that she revelled in the power. I think she was a good judge of character, astute and Justinian knew he could always count of her to have his best interests at heart.
In 532 AD when anger over high taxes, religion, and political corruption caused a riot, Justinian was advised by his officials to leave the city. It was Theodora who counselled him to remain and quell the uprising. He took her advice and successfully crushed the revolt.
In her time as empress she championed women’s causes passing laws that prohibited forced prostitution. She also expanded the rights of women in divorce and property ownership, gave mothers guardianship rights over their children, forbade the killing of a wife who had committed adultery, stopped the killing of unwanted infants by exposure, and instituted the death penalty for rape. She also closed brothels and created convents where ex-prostitutes could support themselves by other means.
Together with Justinian, she restored the empire gaining back some of the territories lost to the Germanic tribes in the West. They also built bridges, aqueducts, and churches, including Hagia Sophia which is still standing today.
Theodora died in 548AD of cancer. Justinian never remarried, dying seventeen years later in 565 AD.
Not everyone loved Justinian and Theodora. The couple most certainly had their detractors, but even those who hated Theodora never accused her of immoral behaviour, or of not supporting her husband. Personally, I like the fact that she used her power to help women and children, changing laws to make their lives better. She was a woman who squeezed her lemons into lemonade and for that she is an excellent example for us all.