Theodora (wife of Justinian I)

Dafato Team | Jun 20, 2022

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Theodora (Greek: Θεοδώρα) was a Byzantine empress born around 500 in Cyprus and died in 548 in Constantinople. She ruled jointly with her husband Justinian, whose legitimate wife she became in 525, two years before their coronation.

Theodora's youth is uncertain and has many grey areas. The main source on the first part of her life is the Secret History, a controversial work, both violent and pornographic, in which it is difficult to distinguish the true from the false. She is said to be the daughter of a bear trainer and bellwether, named Akakios, who was attached to the hippodrome of Constantinople. Her mother, whose name is not known to us, was a dancer and actress.

Before becoming empress, Theodora was, according to Procopius of Caesarea, a dancer and courtesan. During a trip to Egypt, she received a solid cultural and religious training, and acquired a first experience of political life at a local level. She then returned to Constantinople where she met Justinian, the future emperor.

Seduced by the personality of Theodora, in whom he sees more than a simple concubine, Justinian decides to associate him with power. Their joint reign, from 527 to 548, constitutes a period of major transformations for the Byzantine Empire. Theodora seems to have had an important influence on Justinian's legislative reforms, especially with regard to women's rights. Even if she does not share the projects of territorial expansions of her husband, she seems to have globally supported him in his policy.

In 532, a major revolt broke out in Constantinople, so much so that Justinian thought of fleeing. Theodora would then intervene to dissuade him, thus allowing her husband to preserve his throne.

The emperor does not hesitate besides to consult it in a general way, including for its plan of reconstruction of the capital following this revolt. Of the remainder, the two spouses leave the image of a welded couple, in spite of some divergences as on the question of the monophysites.

Far from exercising the power in a solitary way, the empress relies during her reign on a vast network of political relations, in the first rank of which is her faithful collaborator Antonina and the chief of the eunuchs Narses.

A multi-faceted personality, she leaves behind the image of a woman with a strong temperament, both skilful and ruthless, and one of the most influential sovereigns of her time. Her career is one of the most remarkable examples of social ascension. Her numerous artistic representations testify to the fascination of authors with her throughout the centuries.

She is a saint of the Orthodox Church and is commemorated on November 14.

The main historical sources on the life of Theodora are the works of her contemporary Procopius of Caesarea, secretary to the general Belisarius. The historian offers three contradictory representations of the empress, praising her during her lifetime before denigrating her once she died.

His first historical work, entitled Histoires ou Discours sur les Guerres, was written during the life of the empress. In the eight volumes which constitute this first work, Procopius is satisfied to write with the manner of a conscientious historiographer, critical without being excessive. Théodora is nevertheless depicted there under positive features. In this one, it draws the portrait of a courageous and most influential empress. It denotes in particular its cultural and moral resources at the time of the difficult moments "when the men do not know any more on which side to turn".

His second work, On the Monuments, is a propaganda book for the imperial regime, specially commissioned by Justinian. Procopius praises Justinian and Theodora, whom he describes as a pious couple and admires the empress, whose beauty he praises.

Perhaps disappointed to have remained on the bangs of power, he wrote a third work between 548 and 550, the Secret History of Justinian, which was not to be published until after his death, and in which he abruptly changes his tone. One finds there an author disillusioned and disappointed by the characters that he was in contact with, starting with the imperial couple. Justinian is portrayed as cruel, venal, profligate and incompetent. Procopius also pours out his hatred on the empress, calling her "the public ruin of the human race".

The Syriac monk John of Ephesus mentions Theodora in the Lives of the Eastern Blesseds and indicates that she had an illegitimate daughter before marrying Justinian.

Other Syriac authors belonging to the Monophysite current (Zechariah the Rhetorician, Evagrius the Scholastic, the bishop John of Amide or the patriarch of Antioch Michael the Syrian) present her as a "pious", a "saint", or as the "devout" empress.

The girl from the racetrack

Like her two sisters, Comito and Anastasia, Theodora was given a Christian sounding name. The Greek radicals theou dôron can thus be translated by "gift of God". As the infant mortality rate at the time was around fifty percent, it can be assumed that this was also a thank you for a successful pregnancy.

Born around 500 in Constantinople, in Paphlagonia or on the island of Cyprus according to the authors, she quickly becomes orphan of her father, Akakios, who dies brutally leaving the family without resources. After the death of Akakios towards 503, the mother of Theodora finds, it seems, a new companion who takes again the function of guard of the bears for the faction of the Greens and is responsible in front of a certain Asterius. From their youngest age, Comito and Théodora are authorized to leave regularly the house to go to Kynêgion where their father then their father-in-law show them the wild animals. There they learned to tame bears, horses, dogs and colorful parrots imported from the Orient. For Theodora, these visits resembled theatrical training, during which she learned to control her posture, her gestures and to show her authority, qualities that would serve her well later on. With her sister, she participated in the juggling and acrobatic acts that kept the spectators waiting between two chariot races or wild animal shows.

This relative peace is however of short duration. Asterios, the choreographer of the Greens of the Constantinople racecourse, "dismisses them from this position", having apparently found someone who had better support and credits within the Greens for the function of bear keeper. From one day to the next, the family found itself without work and therefore without resources to support itself.

According to Procopius of Caesarea, the mother of Theodora decides then to react. The day of the festival, she enters the hippodrome of Constantinople with her daughters. They go in front of the tribune of the Greens and kneel, begging the crowd to help them. Asterios then asks for silence, but against all expectations does not utter a word, thus signifying that they are not worthy of interest. When it is clear that no answer will come from the leader of the Greens, booing begins to rise from the opposite stand, that of the Blues. The girls and their mother get up and go to find the Blues. The equivalent of Asterios in the Blues asks then for silence. Unlike his counterpart, he speaks up. He points out that they are three, like the Trinity dear to the orthodox Blues, and that the white of their dresses reflects purity. Under the cheers of the crowd, he accedes to their request. Theodora's family joined the Blue faction and her mother's new companion found a position, "even though it was not necessarily his position (the one he held before).

The scene at the hippodrome, as narrated by Procopius, is interpreted differently by historians. For Virginie Girod, this scene is above all a means for Procopius to highlight the modest origins of Theodora as well as the loose morals of her mother, who was forced to engage in a public display of begging. For the Byzantinist Paolo Cesaretti, it constitutes on the contrary a turning point in two ways in the life of Theodora. The example of her mother, who had known to resist under difficult conditions, would have deeply marked the young girl, just like the contemptuous attitude of Astérios and the faction of the Greens. The political decisions that Theodora will take against the Greens, once in power, would be the fruit of a stubborn revenge of their refusal to help her mother. More nuanced, James Allan Stewart Evans nevertheless notes that Theodora, once she became empress, would later favor the Blue faction, which would tend to confirm that her family had indeed switched from the Greens to the Blues during her childhood.

Actress and courtesan

When the three sisters became teenagers, their mother, who was a dancer and actress at the time, gradually introduced them to the world of theater, "as each one seemed mature for the task. Theodora accompanied Comito, the eldest, when she took her first steps. Together, they set up a small variety theater, based essentially on gestures and physical interventions, and few words.

In 512, Théodora is 12 years old and is not yet mature sexually. Procopius does not hesitate however to grant to him a very precocious sexual activity. In the Secret History of Justinian, he notes that :

"Theodora let herself go to repulsive couplings of men with certain wretches, slaves moreover, who, following their masters to the theater, found in this abomination a relief to their misfortune - and she also devoted to the lupanar a lot of time to this unnatural use of her body."

Virginie Girod wonders about the sources used by Procopius of Caesarea in this extract. It is likely, according to the historian, that it is a way like any other to denigrate the future empress. Indeed, the portrait of the wanton young girl indulging in lust from childhood is reminiscent of that of the Roman poet Juvenal with regard to the empress Messalina, also depicted as a debauchee. In ancient times, attacking a woman on her virtue in order to sully her reputation was a fairly common practice.

In his writings, Procopius suggests that Theodora was a low-class prostitute who frequently worked in brothels where the most miserable clients went. Less virulent than Procopius, the Byzantine monk John of Ephesus also indicates that she came from the world of the porneion (houses of prostitution). These allegations are however to be taken with precaution. Indeed, the theater was an art blamed by the official culture of the time, actresses being perceived as prostitutes. As confirmed by the historian Joëlle Beaucamp in her work on the status of women in Constantinople, the fact of showing oneself in public was for the society of the time to offer one's body to a multitude of clients, which would explain the identification between the actress and the prostitute.

After assisting her sister for some time, Theodora launched her own acting career at the age of 14. She would then have officiated as a dancer or acrobat within a troop of the Blue faction moving between various amphitheatres belonging to the faction. Because of her young age, she would have had the secondary role of rank dancer, complementing the corps de ballet.

Contrary to her sister Comito, she would not have had the expected success. In his writings, Procopius describes her as a failed artist, relying mainly on her beauty to attract the good graces of the public:

"She could not play either the flute or the harp; she could only offer her beauty, lavishing herself with all her body to whoever was there."

According to him, she danced on stage practically naked, a simple loincloth around her loins, and left all her clothes on during rehearsals, while she practiced discus throwing among the other dancers and athletes.

The young woman enters then in a company of mime. She would then have occupied the first role in various burlesque spectacles, of which an erotic version of the loves of Zeus and Leda. This role seems to put her in the spotlight, so much so that her first detractor, Procope, recognizes her certain qualities: "She was very witty and salacious, so that she soon knew how to show herself off. Nobody ever saw her shy away".

At that time, it was not uncommon for young actresses to be invited by their admirers to host lustful parties in a recreational manner. Like her sister Comito, who was also a courtesan, it is therefore likely that Theodora also entered into this form of elitist prostitution intended for the most fortunate clients. In exchange, the two sisters probably obtained the protection of rich admirers who rewarded them with gifts of all kinds: clothes, jewels, servants, apartments.

During this period, Theodora met another actress, named Antonina, with whom she remained friends throughout her life. She will be the closest collaborator of Theodora, once arrived at the power.

Journey around the Mediterranean

At the age of 16, Theodora becomes the mistress of a high Syrian civil servant, named Hékébolos, with whom she will remain during four years. She leaves with him in North Africa, when he takes his functions of governor of the Libyan province of Pentapolis. The couple settled in Apollonia, the capital of the province, in the north-east of the current Libya. Far from its circle of knowledge of Constantinople, Théodora seems to be bored there. Moreover, she supports more and more badly to be confined to the role of concubine. Whereas she hoped to become the official wife of Hékébolos, this one presents it like his "accompanist" even like his "domestic". Whatever the content of their disputes on this subject, Hekebolos then takes a radical decision: he "drove her out". This unhappy experiment nevertheless makes it possible Théodora to acquire a first experiment of the political life, by playing the role of intermediary near local political personalities, even by negotiating certain business for the account of her lover.

Abused and abandoned by Hekebolos, she decides to leave for Constantinople, but first stops in Alexandria. To finance her journey, Procopius claims that she would have prostituted herself in the cities she passed through. Nevertheless, most historians remain rather perplexed on this subject, the details on this period being rather vague. It is simply possible that Theodora used the solidarity networks that existed within the Blue faction to support herself. According to the historian Paolo Cesaretti, she first turned to the Church, invoking the right of asylum. As is customary, she was then questioned by a prelate, whose role was to receive her repentance and verify the sincerity of her plans. The prelate then invited her to go to the Patriarchate's headquarters in Alexandria to receive religious instruction. This is how she would have gone to the Egyptian city, having with her a letter of presentation for a female convent.

Understanding that her beauty alone would not be enough for her social ascension, she learns to read and write, and acquires a philosophical culture. Thanks to religious and ecclesiastical networks, she approaches the patriarch Timothée IV of Alexandria, a monophysite, who will remain her spiritual father, he who "knew how to make vibrate the metal of his heart". It is on the occasion of this meeting that she would have converted to the Monophysite Church, even if for Cesaretti, this conversion is explained more by personal reasons than by pure conviction.

She then stops in Antioch, where she meets Macedonia, a dancer who has become a fortune-teller, and whose relations include Justinian, the emperor's nephew, of whom she is in fact an informer. She seems to have a certain influence within the Syrian metropolis, being able to co-opt certain people or on the contrary to signal them as dangerous to the imperial court. Indeed, according to Procopius, "a letter from her to Justinian was enough to easily suppress such a notable of the East and to make confiscate his goods". Theodora meets it by the intermediary of the faction of Blue. Between the two women, the current passes quickly. Even if it is not certain that Macedonia pointed out Theodora in one of its reports to Justinian, it grants its support, so that Theodora can accelerate its return in the Byzantine capital.

Meeting with Justinian

She returned to Constantinople in 522, where she settled in a house near the palace. She benefits then from the assistance of Macedonia, who had sympathized with her, to open the doors of the imperial citadel. Provided with a letter of Macedonia, Théodora is admitted to the palace to meet the new consul, who is not other than Justinian, magister militum praesentalis since 520, which has just inaugurated its assumption of office by sumptuous plays with the hippodrome.

Few details exist concerning their meeting. It is almost certain nevertheless that they did not speak the same language, Justinian practicing Latin (the language of the administration) whereas Theodora practiced Greek (main language of communication in the Empire). This difference is even less surprising since, as explained by the historian Pierre Maraval, Justinian had received training mainly in Latin during his youth, unlike Theodora.

Courteous, Justinian probably agrees that they exchange in Greek. Conscious that her linguistic knowledge remains inferior to those of the other members of the court, Théodora explains to him that she did not study as much as she would have liked. Justinian answers her: "you are master of it in an innate way".

Justinian fell under the spell of the beauty, wit, and energetic personality of the former actress. Procopius reports that she inflamed Justinian's heart "with her erotic fire". This is how she became the mistress of the future emperor. Theodora is then 22 years, Justinian 40.

Wedding and coronation

Under the spell, the future emperor thought of only one thing: to marry her. Nevertheless, he knows that the task will not be easy. An ancient law forbids high officials to marry former courtesans. Justinian must also face the opposition of his entourage. His mother, Vigilance, as well as his aunt, the empress Euphemia (from her birth name Lupicina), were opposed. Although the two women are themselves of modest origin, none wants to see Theodora entering the family.

Justinian thus advances gradually his pawns. It obtains initially of his uncle, the emperor Justin Ier, that is granted to Theodora the rank of patrician, then makes abrogate on November 19, 524 the prohibition for the old actresses to contract a marriage.

His mother and the empress having died with a few days of interval, Justinian makes pressure on his uncle to obtain his agreement. Faced with the obstinacy of his nephew, the old emperor agrees. From then on, nothing is opposed to their union. Neither the senate, nor the army nor the Church openly oppose it, probably on August 1.

In the Secret History, Procopius displays his incomprehension towards this union. According to him, Justinian would have done better "to take for wife a woman who is of better birth and who would have been brought up with the variation, a woman who would not have ignored the modesty".

For Virginie Girod, the decision of Justinian can however be explained if one takes into account his modest origins. Son of peasant, the future emperor could have concluded an advantageous alliance with a woman resulting from a powerful family of the aristocracy in order to obtain its support. Nevertheless, it is not impossible that Justinian feared being looked down upon by his own wife, not being himself a patrician by birth. Theodora being also of modest origin, this risk did not exist. She came from the street, was intelligent and shared the same ambitions as him. In his writings, Procopius notes, a little depressed, that Justinian "did not consider it unworthy to make his own good of the common shame of all mankind and to live in the intimacy of a woman covered with monstrous defilements.

When Justin I died at 77 years in 527, Justinian was crowned emperor. A rare privilege, Theodora puts on the purple at the same time as him in the Basilica of Saint Sophia, which fully associates her with the Empire and makes her a full empress. She also takes the title of Augusta.

Political and religious role

Most Byzantine chroniclers (Procopius of Caesarea, Evagrius the Scholastic and John Zonaras) agree that Theodora was not only Justinian's wife but a sovereign in her own right, having had a real influence on the work of her husband.

Once on the throne, she often advised Justinian, especially in the religious field. She shared his political plans and strategies, and participated in his councils of state. Justinian designated her as his "partner" in his deliberations. He did not hesitate to mention her explicitly at the time of the publication of several laws by naming her as "his gift from God".

The emperor also made sure that the same tributes were paid to the empress as to himself. When a new high official entered the service of the Empire, he had to swear an oath to both sovereigns:

"I swear by Almighty God that I will always keep my conscience pure toward our divine and most pious rulers, Justinian and Theodora, his spouse in power, that I will render them loyal service in the performance of the task entrusted to me in the interest of the sovereign empire."

Symbol of this complementarity within the imperial couple, Procopius reports that "they did nothing without each other". Even if it is unlikely that Justinian consulted Theodora on technical aspects of his military affairs, as Cesaretti notes, she advised him in the choice of his collaborators and those who surrounded him. She has her own court, her official entourage and her own imperial seal.

As Justinian's advisor, she had a definite influence on the provisions of the Corpus juris civilis, urging him to incorporate a number of laws to improve the status of women(→ see below: Improvement of the Status of Women).

In order to fight against corruption, it also encourages Justinian to improve the remuneration of the civil servants while reinforcing the link of dependence of the latter towards the imperial power.

Théodora is less happy in the choice of her favourites, privileging those who are devoted to her even if they are incompetent, and some of her interventions are clumsy to say the least. Thus, after having covered the excesses of Antonina, the wife of Belisarius, she fell out with her after having forced her daughter Jeanne to marry Anastasius and made recall from Italy the general Belisarius at a critical moment.

In the religious sphere, while Justinian leaned toward orthodoxy and a rapprochement with Rome, Theodora remained throughout her life favorable to the Monophysites and succeeded in bending imperial policy, at least until her death (→ see below: Protection of Monophysites).

According to Procopius, she did not appreciate the theses of Origen who was accused of having supported the belief in reincarnation and the pre-existence of the soul before birth. Also, before dying, Theodora pushes Justinian to convene the second council of Constantinople of 553, which condemns origenism.

Intervention during the Nika sedition

While the throne wavered in January 532 during the Nika sedition, she saved the situation with a courageous and energetic attitude, which contrasts with that of Justinian, preferring to "die in the purple" than to give in to the mob.

That year, the two political factions of the racecourse, The Blues and The Greens, started a riot during a chariot race and besieged the Palace. While the emperor and most of his advisors were already considering fleeing in the face of the spreading riot, Theodora interrupted them and delivered a rousing speech in which she categorically rejected the idea of fleeing, as this would mean abandoning any claim to sit on the imperial throne. In his Discourse on the Wars, Procopius reports that she takes the floor and declares:

"My Lords, the present situation is too serious for us to follow that convention that a woman should not speak during a council of men. Those whose interests are threatened by a danger of the utmost gravity should think only of the wisest course of action and not of convention. When there is no other way of salvation than to flee, I would not want to flee. Are we not all doomed to death from the moment of our birth? Those who have worn the crown must not survive its loss. I pray to God that I may not be seen a single day without the purple. May the light go out for me when they stop greeting me with the name of Empress! You, autokrator (pointing at the Emperor), if you want to flee, you have treasures, the ship is ready and the sea is free; but fear that the love of life will expose you to a miserable exile and a shameful death. Me, I like this ancient word: that the purple is a beautiful shroud!

It is difficult to know if Theodora pronounced her words exactly. The historian Paolo Cesaretti sees in certain passages the literary style of Procopius of Caesarea. The expression "the purple is a beautiful shroud" would have its source in classical antiquity. It would be a reference to Denys of Syracuse or to the work of the orator Isocrates who lived in Athens in the fifth century BC. Pierre Maraval is also hesitant about the veracity of these words, pointing out that only Procopius refers to them.

Nevertheless, a number of historians, such as Virginie Girod and Georges Tate, agree that it is likely that Theodora did indeed intervene, as she was probably the only one capable of convincing Justinian to stay. Although Procopius was not present at the Palace at the time of the events, he was the secretary of general Belisarius, who was present at the side of Justinian and Theodora. With the benefit of this source closest to power, it is possible, as Cesaretti notes, that Procopius gave a transcription of Theodora's speech that is close to reality (although perhaps embellished).

According to Henry Houssaye, the virile eloquence of Théodora revives the courage of the officers remained faithful to the emperor. After consulting with his wife, Justinian then sent Narses to negotiate with the leaders of the Blue at a high price their withdrawal from the insurrection. With his help and that of Belisarius, the sedition is finally crushed.

Improvement of the status of women

The first part of the reign of Justinian and Theodora is marked by the publication in 528 of the first part of the Justinian Code, a legal work compiling all the imperial constitutions from Hadrian to Justinian. The objective of this body of law is to unify and synthesize all existing Roman laws, some of which were obsolete and in contradiction with each other. Five years later, a series of ordinances, the Novelles, were published to complete or amend certain provisions of the Justinian Code.

Theodora participates directly in the realization of these legal works. Wishing to give a new status to women within the family, she added or modified a certain number of laws in order to improve the condition of women: protective measures for actresses and courtesans, lighter sentences for women in case of adultery, law against the "white slave trade", possibility for wives to ask for a divorce. It also ensured that daughters could claim their right to inheritance and passed measures to protect their dowries in favor of widows.

This former courtesan also made Justinian take strong measures against the owners of brothels, spent large sums of money to help prostitutes, buying some of them back and founded a house for repentant sinners. She also passed a law that forbade pimping, which did not prevent it from continuing.

Because of her action in favor of women's rights, Theodora is perceived by some historians as one of the pioneers of feminism. Others, on the other hand, see in the legal work of Justinian and Theodora the fruit of a slow cultural evolution of the Byzantine society, then marked by Christianity. For Girod, the rise of Christian morality, one of the foundations of which is equality before God, undoubtedly favored the evolution of the legislation of the time. The prohibition of pimping would thus only be the continuation of laws dating back to the 5th century which prohibited prostituting a woman against her will. In the same line, Cesaretti notes that the redefinition of the role of women was part of the creation of a new society, based on Christianity and the predominance of the mononuclear family. For example, the abolition of "divorce by mutual consent" in 542 would be an illustration of this difference with modern feminist currents, whose objective is, on the contrary, to dissociate the family from Christian thought.

Protection of monophysites

If Théodora supports mainly her husband in his political aims, she is opposed to him on the religious question.

Since the Edict of Thessalonica in 380, the Christian faith had become the official religion of the Roman Empire. All other cults, with the exception of Judaism, were forbidden. Nevertheless, Christianity was far from being unified within the Empire. Since the beginning of the fifth century, Christians had been divided over the question of the nature of Christ, both divine and human. The debate had led to the emergence of two major currents. On the one hand, the dyophysites, supported by the pope, affirmed that Christ had two natures, one human and the other divine. On the other hand, the Monophysites, who were in the majority in the eastern regions of the Empire, maintained that Christ had only one nature and that his human nature had been absorbed by his divine nature.

In 451, the Council of Chalcedon had tried to settle the question by imposing dyophysitism as the official doctrine, but in vain. The Monophysite Christians of the East, especially in Alexandria and Palestine, refused to submit to it, which triggered revolts when a Dyophysite patriarch or bishop was appointed in these regions.

The imperial couple is itself divided on the question, Justinian defending the official dyophysite doctrine, Theodora supporting the monophysite dissidents. This is their main divergence, even if the historian Virginie Girod thinks that the two emperors have certainly used it for political purposes, posing as defenders of their respective faith in order to maintain peace in the Empire.

Monophysites being persecuted in the Empire, the empress poses as their protector, being able to go until playing the role of mediator between them and Justinian. To the great astonishment of her husband, she welcomed many monophysite monks and bishops in the palace of Hormisdas in Constantinople, transforming it into an improvised monastery that could accommodate up to five hundred religious. She also openly protected the most important representatives of the Monophysites in the East, such as the patriarch of Alexandria Theodosius, the patriarch of Constantinople Anthimus as well as James Baradeus, risking herself to be excommunicated.

The attachment of Theodora to the cause monophysite reaches its paroxysm in spring 537, when it intervenes personally in order to remove the pope who had opposed to her to replace him by another, closer to its religious convictions.

Replacement of the pope

As the cradle of the Papacy, Italy held a central place in Justinian's plans for conquest. After the reconquest of North Africa by Belisarius in 534, Justinian sought a pretext to intervene militarily to bring it back into the fold of the Roman Empire. In spring 535, the political situation gives him the opportunity.

On the death of the Gothic king of Italy, Theodoric the Great, in 526, his daughter Amalasonte became regent on behalf of her brother, Athalaric, who was ten years old. In order to ensure her power, she married his cousin Theodat. Quickly, she tries to get closer to Byzantium in order to contract an alliance and to obtain its protection.

On the recommendation of Théodora, Justinian then appoints a new ambassador, Peter the Patrice, and sends it in 534 to the ostrogothic court of Ravenna in order to negotiate an agreement. The discussions did not have time to succeed. Before he arrived, the Gothe nobility, who disagreed with Amalasonte's policy, killed her in the spring of 535 and placed her cousin Theodat on the throne.

In the Secret History, Procopius accuses Theodora of having organized the assassination of Amalasonte by jealousy with the complicity of Goths. According to him, Amalasonte, fearing for her life, would have wanted to take refuge in Constantinople. Seeing in her a rival, Theodora would then have asked Peter the Patrice to set a trap for her and to make her disappear against a strong sum of money. The thesis of Procopius comprises nevertheless several incoherences. Pierre le Patrice arrives indeed in Italy after the death of Amalasonte. It could not thus be used as intermediary with the Goth nobles led by Théodat to organize its assassination.d'autre part, the question of Italy did not seem to form part at this time of the priorities of the empress. She worked for the rapprochement between Roman dyophysites and monophysites of the East, with the collaboration of Anthimus, the patriarch of Constantinople, who was monophysite.

At the Byzantine court, the deposition and assassination of Amalasonte were interpreted as an act of rebellion against the emperor. The Goths were no longer perceived as representatives of the Empire but as enemies. Everything is in place for a military intervention.

When he learned that the imperial troops led by Belisarius were on the march, the new king of the Goths, Theodat, sent Pope Agapet I to Constantinople to try to find a diplomatic solution. In February 536, the latter is received by Justinian with all the honors due to the head of the Church of Rome. Seeing that his visit was doomed to failure, Justinian being decided to re-establish the authority of the Roman Empire in Italy, Agapet then directed the discussions on the question of the two natures of Christ, subject of discord between the Dyophysite Christians of Rome and the Monophysite Christians of the East. Tensions appear then between the emperor and the pope, Agapet accusing the patriarch of Constantinople, Anthime, of being an intruder and a heretic. After threatening the pope with banishment, Justinian finally gave in. In March 536, Anthimus was removed from office and replaced by a Dyophysite patriarch, to the great fury of the empress.

Agapet then returned to Rome where he died shortly after of illness, after only ten months of reign. On her side, Theodora seems irritated by the behavior of Justinian, to whom she reproaches to have yielded too easily to the pope. It then thinks being able to turn over the situation by supporting the appointment of a monophysite pope in Rome. In this optic, she sends Vigile, a papal nuncio who is part of her close relations, in Italy. Unfortunately for the empress, Vigilius arrived too late. In July 536, a new pope, named Silvère, was elected with the blessing of the Goths. Nevertheless, he soon found himself in an uncomfortable position. Because of the conflict with the Goths, the Byzantines refused to officially recognize his nomination. To complicate matters, the Goth king to whom he owed his appointment died after being overthrown by the local nobility. It is thus without protection that the pope sees the Byzantine troops led by Belisarius approaching Rome in autumn 536. Silvère then began discussions with the Byzantine general and opened the gates of the city to him on 9 December 536.

If the capture of Rome is a major success for the projects of reconquest of Justinian, Theodora, it, does not forget its priority: to make sure that the papal throne is occupied by somebody likely to get along with the monophysite Christians of the East. She therefore decided to write to the pope to ask him to give the position of patriarch of Constantinople back to the Monophysite Anthime. The answer of Silvère is lapidary: "Never I will rehabilitate a heretic condemned for his wickedness".

For the empress, the cup is full. During the winter 536-537, it decides to take the things in hand and to replace the pope Silvère by Vigile. It writes to the general Bélisaire by ordering to him to remove Silvère, but this one hesitates. He had just learned that a large Gottlieb army was on its way to besiege Rome and had to prepare to defend the city. He sees himself badly treating in addition to the complications on the religious level.

Theodora thus decides to call upon her friend Antonina, the wife of Belisarius, who was present in Italy beside her husband and with whom she maintained a separate correspondence. According to the Liber Pontificalis, Antonina persuaded Belisarius to have Silvester arrested for high treason, using false testimony that he had secretly exchanged letters with the Goths. According to Liberatus of Carthage, Vigilus himself had in fact fabricated compromising letters for Silvère in order to promote his own appointment. One day of March 537, Silvère is invited to come to meet Belisarius on the hill of Pincio. Separated from his retinue, the pope was accompanied to a private room. To his great surprise, he was received by Antonina. This one would then have said to him: "Then, lord pope Silvère, what did we make you, to you and to all the Romans? Why are you in such a hurry to hand us over to the Goths?

As a result of this meeting, Silvester was deposed and Vigilus was consecrated pope. After being briefly forced into exile in Asia Minor, Silvère was placed under house arrest in Ponza where he died a few years later.


In 542, a violent epidemic of bubonic plague spread in the eastern regions of the Empire and reached Constantinople. Justinian himself fell seriously ill, apparently infected by the disease. Theodora then supplanted him in the management of the affairs of the Empire. Anxious to ensure continuity of imperial power, she held brief meetings with the main ministers of the empire during the period of convalescence of her husband.

In spite of her relative knowledge, it is probable that the empress had to intervene on legislative and military questions. She arranges nevertheless so that nothing filters and axes them on exclusively technical questions. In spite of the exceptional situation which places it in a position of power without sharing, it does not take any measure which would have been contrary to the will of her husband, including on the monophysites. Until the restoration of Justinian, she seems on the contrary to have wanted to incarnate a balanced face of the power at the same time dyo and monophysites, visiting indistinctly the churches and the hospices to visit the sick.

Paradoxically, this situation makes become aware with Théodora of the fragility of its position. She and Justinian having no heir, the names of the pretenders to the throne begin to circulate within the imperial court. If Justinian dies, the throne will be the object of all the covetousness and nothing says that the army will support it. Within this one, the unease is palpable. In addition to the tensions on the front line, the soldiers are unhappy with the delays in the payment of salaries. For some generals, an internal solution like Theodora is not an option.

Two officers of the Eastern front, being part of the network of informers of Theodora, go up to him that they would have heard that Belisarius and Bouzes, another military of high rank, would not accept another emperor "like Justinian". Whether the rumors were true or not, the empress decided to react. An investigation is opened on the two men. Belisarius was recalled to Constantinople but was not worried, unlike Bouzes who was locked up.

The restoration of Justinian in 543 is a relief for the empress. In spite of the absence of evidence, it keeps nevertheless a resentment against Belisarius that she suspects to have wanted to take advantage of the situation. In order to calm the anger of his wife, Justinian orders to remove Belisarius of his office of strategist of the East and to dismantle his personal guard. Paolo Cesaretti sees there a humiliation for Bélisaire and the testimony of the implacable character of the empress.


Theodora died on June 28, 548, 17 years before Justinian, of a disease whose symptoms resemble those of breast cancer. She is buried in the church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople. Deeply affected, Justinian will never recover from the death of his wife. During the last years of his reign, the emperor shut himself up in solitude, showing himself in public only during rare official ceremonies. The historian John Steiner writes: "In losing Theodora, Justinian had lost the strong will that she had brought him. More than him, it had been the statesman of the reign ".

Separation of his grave

In 1204, the tombs of Theodora and Justinian as well as those of other Byzantine rulers resting in the Church of the Holy Apostles were looted by the Crusaders during the sack of Constantinople, the latter hoping to recover the wealth deposited on the bodies.

Two centuries later, in 1453, the Ottomans took Constantinople, ending the Byzantine Empire. The Church of the Holy Apostles was already in bad shape. Sultan Mehmet II ordered to destroy it in 1461 and built instead the Fatih Mosque. The sarcophagi are then emptied and reused for other purposes. The remains of the late empress disappear forever.

In spite of his acerbic criticisms, Procopius recognized to Theodora an undeniable charm: "She was at the same time beautiful of face and graceful, although small, with large black eyes and a brown hair. Her complexion was not quite white but rather matt; she had a burning and concentrated look". Describing one of his full-length statues, he wrote: "The statue has a beautiful appearance but is not equal in beauty to the empress, for it was absolutely impossible, at least for a mortal, to render the harmonious appearance of the latter.

A complex personality

With regard to her beauty, her "witty and salacious" talent was recognized by all, including her detractors. "She was extremely lively and mocking" wrote Procopius. One day, a patrician of a certain age requested an audience with the empress in order to complain. He had indeed lent large sums of money to an official of the imperial service, but the latter had not returned the sum due. The empress did not answer, contenting herself with intoning a melody, soon accompanied by the eunuchs who surrounded her. The song was a bit mocking, with lyrics such as "Comme ta kêlé est grosse", which can be translated as "Comme ton trou (celui de tes finances) est grand" or "Comme tu nous casses" (How big is your hole), depending on whether one means "kêlé" or "koilê" (hole). In spite of his insistence, the patrician did not obtain anything more and returned empty-handed.

In addition to her will and ambition, Theodora had innate qualities such as memory and a sense of timing, qualities that she would refine during her acting career. Her specialty was to play down conflicts and violent clashes through irony.

The author Jean Haechler describes her as an empress of rare ability, both calculating and cunning. Her culture and intelligence caught the attention of Justinian who decided to associate her with power. According to the historian Joëlle Chevé, the latter would have found in her a partner to his measure, having the energy and the will indispensable to the function of a future sovereign.

Nevertheless, these qualities also went hand in hand with the vices proper to the exercise of imperial power. At the time, the rulers used all the means they seemed necessary to establish their authority, without worrying about moral considerations. The couple of Theodora and Justinian is no exception. In the image of Justinian, she shows herself to be both clever and treacherous, authoritarian to the point of tyranny, ambitious and ruthless. Engaged in a struggle of influence with the prefect of the Eastern courts John of Cappadocia, she does everything to precipitate his fall. It also makes move away Germanos, the brother of Justinian, fearing that this one does not claim the throne, she and Justinian not having an heir.

Merciless with the opponents or those which misunderstand its orders, it protects those which serve it well, which is worth to him the nickname of "the faithful empress". She comes to the aid of her friend Antonina, married to Belisarius, when the latter compromises herself in an extra-marital relationship with a young Thracian, which does not prevent the empress from "showing her teeth" to her childhood friend for having shown herself incapable of separating private pleasures from the public virtues required of the ladies of the court.

Contrary to Paul le Silentaire who compares her to a saint, Henry Houssaye is more moderate, admitting in a more reasonable way that "if Theodora had none of the virtues of a saint, she had several of those of a sovereign".

The black portrait of Procope

The principal criticisms that Procopius addresses to him relate to the years which preceded his arrival at the throne, and during which it would have led a life of debauchery.

In his Secret History, Procopius makes of Theodora a real erotomaniac and a woman with an overflowing sexual appetite:

"Never was there a person more addicted to all forms of pleasure; ; She spent the whole night in bed with her commensals, and when all were exhausted, she passed on to their servants, but even so, she could not satisfy her lust."

Her reputation as a depraved woman was such, according to him, that people turned away from her when they passed her in the street "so as not to be soiled by the contact of her clothes, by the air she breathed".

When she began her acting career, he described her performances as "beyond indecent" and called her "the supreme creator of indecency. She was also violent towards other actresses because she was jealous of their success. Finally, he reproaches her for her gluttony and her food whims. According to him, she would have been willingly "tempted by all kinds of food and drink.

After having praised the qualities of the empress in the work Discourses on the Wars, he abruptly changes tone in the Secret History, depicting her as an idle and superficial woman, unfit to govern: "Of her body, she took care more than it was necessary She always slept for a long time And although she fell into all sorts of practices of intemperance during such a long part of the day, she estimated to be able to govern the whole Roman Empire".

In this last work, the punishments and executions are no longer means for the couple to ensure their power but the particular sign of the cruelty of an empress, who would have used them for her own entertainment in the underground of the palace.

However, Procopius' exaggerations, if the work is really his, are certainly due to a political opposition to a woman who, according to a probably exaggerated rumor, ruled her husband and thus the whole empire. According to Procopius, "the emancipation of women in any form whatsoever is an absolute evil" and to see a woman of modest origin rule independently was hardly acceptable. Attacking a woman on her virtue was a convenient way to discredit her. This thesis is notably defended by the historian Pierre Maraval. The malice of Procopius would be, according to him, the reflection of the hatred of the elite towards an empress who did not come from the aristocratic environment, and who was a former actress, a profession considered dishonorable at the time.

Whether or not there is some truth in Procopius' allegations, some of them are surprising, to say the least, as some historians have pointed out. In his writings, the Frenchman Henry Houssaye wonders in particular about this reputation of debauched woman that would have had Theodora during her youth. If Theodora was really this woman whose reputation was such that people turned away from her in the street, how to explain that Justinian chose to present her publicly and make her his wife while he was not yet emperor? For the author, there was a risk of compromising his popularity as well as his ambitions to the throne.

The historian Joëlle Chevé is also perplexed by this reputation of debauchery, pointing out that no other Byzantine chronicler, including religious writers who were opposed to the empress because of her support for the Monophysites, repeated these accusations in their writings.

Antonina, the "right-hand man

During her reign, Theodora regularly relied on the services of her long-time friend, Antonina, whom she had known during her acting career. The two women trusted each other and had a close relationship. In time, Antonina became Theodora's "right hand" in the exercise of power.

According to Procopius, the empress appreciated its effectiveness, in particular to eliminate the political opponents. The career of some pontiffs and ministers of the empire was thus broken for having obstructed the will of the augusta. Woman of influence, Antonina also played a decisive role in the replacement of the pope Silvère by Vigile, that Theodora wanted to support because of its sympathy for the monophysites.

On the personal level, Antonina was married to the general Belisarius, which presented several advantages for the empress. Theodora was wary of this talented general who had brilliantly led several military campaigns in Africa and Italy. She feared that this sudden glory would make him want to proclaim himself king in Italy with the blessing of the Goths, or even to overthrow Justinian. The fact that Antonina was married to Belisarius allowed her to keep an ear on the possible political ambitions of her husband.

Antonina followed Belisarius during his various campaigns and maintained a separate correspondence with the empress. The latter was thus informed of the situation. As secretary of Belisarius, Procopius reports in his writings the content of some of their exchanges. When Belisarius was recalled from Italy and sent to fight the Persians who had reopened hostilities in 541, Theodora would have shared her concerns with Antonina. She questioned it on the possibility of a return of the Goths in Italy. Anxious to defend the Monophysites, she also asked him how she interpreted the behavior of the pope Vigilus, whom she had supported and who had however shown himself reluctant to show of opening in the religious field. According to Procopius, Antonina was evasive. She was especially afraid that the empress would confiscate the wealth that her husband had amassed during his campaigns and that she administered with her lover Theodosius. "Weaver of lies", she diverted the attention of the empress on the minister John of Cappadocia, whom she accused of cutting in the expenses and not to provide enough men and resources to her husband, what confirmed Théodora in her opinion that this one represented a threat for the Empire.

Narsès, the favorite

In power, Théodora also surrounded herself with men of confidence, among which one finds in first place Narsès, the chief of the eunuchs of the Palace.

The Byzantine historian Agathias the Scholastic describes him as a clever man with the ability to adapt to his time. Coming from a noble family in Armenia, his loyalty and intelligence had enabled him to become at the age of 50 the chamberlain of the emperor Justinian. His advanced age, about that of Justinian, made him an ideal interlocutor for the young empress. The augusta appreciated his experience and his discretion. It is thus that he became her favorite.

At ease on the battlefields, Narsès was also at ease in court intrigues. He would have been in particular the coordinator of a network of personal spies of the empress, in complement of the civil servants of the palace. His support in its fight against Jean of Cappadocia and his decisive role at the time of the revolt of Nika were worth to him to gain definitively the confidence of Théodora.

John of Cappadocia, the rival

Among the political adversaries of Theodora, the most known is John of Cappadocia, the prefect of the prétoire of the East (kind of prime minister of the time), who had gained the confidence of Justinian thanks to his financial competences and his capacities of reformer. He had nevertheless committed the imprudence to take Theodora of top and to try to discredit it near the emperor. Ambitious, it also hoped to be able to widen its attributions and to make of the prefecture of the prétoire a counter-power. Perceiving the threat, the empress organizes then a machination to discredit it.

The governor being a distrustful person and difficult to approach, she decides to set a trap for him. She asks her childhood friend, Antonina, to approach the daughter of John of Cappadocia, Euphemia, and to gain her trust. Playing the comedy, Antonina makes believe to Euphémie that she shares his hatred of the empress. She also affirms to him that her husband, Belisarius, estimates to have been badly rewarded by Théodora and Justinien, and that he will support the first initiative which would make it possible to overthrow them. The young girl reports all to her father and convinces him to meet discreetly Antonina in his country house. This appointment is in fact a trap, because Théodora hid in the house two men of confidence, of which one two is not other than Narsès, chief of the eunuchs of the palace. Théodora asks him to purely and simply remove Jean de Cappadoce if this one is guilty of treason.

Jean de Cappadoce shows up as agreed at the appointment fixed by Antonina. Skilled manipulator, this one makes him take commitments showing his will to overthrow the power. At this moment, the two men of Théodora burst into the room. After a short fight, Jean de Cappadoce manages to escape but makes the mistake of asking for asylum in a nearby church. This one being out of the perimeter of the imperial justice, this gesture is perceived as a proof of guilt.

The suspicions on an alleged plot to overthrow Justinian being nevertheless insufficient to make fall John of Cappadocia, Théodora accuses him to have also made assassinate a bishop with whom he was in conflict. In May 541, John of Cappadocia was arrested and imprisoned, before being sent into exile in Egypt. He returned to Constantinople only after the death of Theodora, but did not play any more political role.

In spite of the qualities that Justinian recognized to John of Cappadocia, his popularity made him shade. It is thus probable that it left the free hands with Théodora in order to get rid of a minister, certainly qualified but too independent with its taste.

She had no children by Justinian but she had a daughter, Theodora, born around 515 (i.e. before their meeting), who married Flavius Anastasius Paulus Probus Sabinianus Pompeius, a member of the family of the late emperor Anastasius, with whom she had three children, Anastasius, John and Athanasius.

The elder sister of Theodora, Comito, married in 528 or 529 with the general Sittas, one of the collaborators of Justinian. From their union is born a girl named Sophie, that Theodora marries to the nephew of Justinian, the future Justin II and who will become in her turn empress of Byzantium.

His influence on Justinian was such that he continued, after his death, to strive to preserve harmony between Monophysites and Dyophysites within the Empire, and he kept his promise to protect the small community of Monophysite refugees in the Hormisdas Palace.

After her death, the city of Olbia in Cyrenaica (region of present-day Libya) was renamed "Theodoria", in honor of the empress. The city, now called Qasr Lybia, is known for its splendid mosaics dating from the sixth century.

Like her husband Justinian, she is a saint of the Orthodox Church and is commemorated on November 14.

Both are represented on the mosaics of the Basilica of St. Vitale in Ravenna, Italy, which still exist today and were completed after their deaths.


The French writer and playwright Victorien Sardou dedicated a five-act drama to her entitled Théodora in 1884. In it, Sardou willingly distances himself from historical reality. While already married to Justinian, Theodora plays a passionate lover who falls in love with a young man named Andreas, with whom she lives an impossible love. Their relationship turns sour. Theodora helplessly witnesses the death of her lover, whom she poisoned by mistake, before being strangled by Justinian.during the performance of the play, the empress is played by Sarah Bernhardt. This play is part of a renewal of the perception of the Byzantine era. Somewhat denigrated under the Enlightenment, it knows a more marked interest while the orientalism develops. Theodora then embodies the image of the fatal and seductive woman. Paul Adam took up this archetype of the Byzantine princess in his novels, such as Les Princesses byzantines in 1893, which were freely inspired by Byzantine history. This revival also concerns history as a science with the appearance of Byzantinologists like Charles Diehl who, in reaction to the play by Sardou, published Théodora, impératrice de Byzance in 1903, proposing a more austere vision of the princess.


Several films relate the life of Theodora since the silent film era. In 1912, the French filmmaker Henri Pouctal adapted Victorien Sardou's play to film. In 1921, the Italian Leopoldo Carlucci directed Theodora (Teodora), a silent film in black and white.

Riccardo Freda dedicated a film to her in 1952, entitled Theodora, Empress of Byzantium, with Gianna Maria Canale in the role of Theodora and Georges Marchal in that of Justinian. The film traces the life of the empress, from her meeting with Justinian to her political struggles against the aristocracy opposed to the reforms of Justinian.

Theodora is also one of the characters in the adventure film For the Conquest of Rome I by Robert Siodmak. In this one, the empress is played by the Italian actress Sylva Koscina.


During the second half of the twentieth century, the character of Theodora inspired the authors of novels. In 1949, the French writer Paul Reboux wrote a historical novel Theodora, saltimbanque puis impératrice. In 1953, Princess Bibesco wrote a novel on the youth of the empress, Theodora, the gift of God. In 1988, Michel de Grèce wrote a novel about her life, entitled Le Palais des larmes. In 2002, Odile Weulersse, associate professor of philosophy, also published a novel, Theodora, empress and courtesan, reissued in 2015 under the title The Dust and the Purple.

In French literature, we can also mention the novel by Guy Rachet, entitled Théodora, which describes her rise to the throne. In 1990, Jean d'Ormesson also wrote a novel, l'Histoire du Juif errant, in which the hero meets Theodora on the occasion of the Nika sedition and advises him to fight. In addition, the story of Theodora told by Procopius of Caesarea is the background to the plot of Jim Nisbet's detective novel, The Syracuse Codex or The Bottomfeeders (2004), published in French under the title Le Codex de Syracuse.

Empress Theodora also appears in science fiction literature, such as Robert Silverberg's Parallel Times (1969), where she allows the hero, the time traveler Jud Elliott III, to indulge his fantasies.

Theodora is finally one of the main characters of the comic series Maxence, by Romain Sardou and Carlos Rafael Duarte published by Le Lombard (2014).


In the pictorial field, many later tributes were paid to her, particularly in the 19th century with the Orientalist vein. This is notably the case of the French painter Benjamin-Constant, who in 1887 made two fictitious portraits of the Byzantine empress:

Other artists have made a portrait of Theodora through the prism of the contemporary actress Sarah Bernhardt, who embodied the role of the latter in the theater. Portraits of the name of Sarah Bernhardt as Theodora are thus born in the early twentieth century through the painters Georges Clairin, in 1902, and Michel Simonidy, in 1903. We will also mention the orientalist architect Alexandre Raymond who, in 1940, devoted 14 drawings in the form of mosaics.

Video games

: document used as a source for the writing of this article.


  1. Theodora (wife of Justinian I)
  2. Théodora (impératrice, épouse de Justinien Ier)

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