Empress Theodora: Biography, Facts & Quotes

Instructor: Gaines Arnold
Empress Theodora rose from the humblest of circumstances to become one of the most influential women in the history of the Byzantine Empire. This lesson explores her life and accomplishments during her reign with her husband, Justinian I.

A Different Type of Queen

Throughout history, kings and queens have often been members of a privileged class who inherit their crowns through parents and family members. But there have been extraordinary exceptions.

Although ancient Rome was established as a republic, it evolved into an empire ruled by emperors and dictators. Rome was dominated by powerful rulers even after it was split into eastern and western empires during the Fourth Century AD. But the difference was that in the eastern or Byzantine Empire, rulers often came from common people and rose through the ranks of government to become emperors and empresses. Such was the case with Justinian I and his wife, Empress Theodora.

From Bearkeeper's Daughter to Empress

Theodora was born in 497 AD to a man who kept bears in the Byzantine capitol of Constantinople (modern Istanbul, Turkey) and a woman whose name is lost to history. She and her two sisters grew up in the lowest reaches of society among the actors, actresses, animal keepers and other performers at the Hippodrome , a large arena for racing and other types of entertainment. From all accounts, her early life was a hard struggle for survival. When she was five, Theodora's father passed away which had the potential to make her life even more difficult. But, her mother quickly married another man and through maneuvering with the theater's political factions was able to get him the bearkeeper's job her husband had previously held.

When she was 12, Theodora began acting with her older sister, Comito. Her beauty and knack for comedy soon made her a regular on the stage, and she began to draw large crowds. At 14, she gave birth to a daughter which was common among actresses at the time. Actresses supplemented their wages as courtesans, or prostitutes, to the wealthy of the city and it was not uncommon for a young actress to have many unwanted pregnancies and estranged children. Theodora continued the life of actress and courtesan until she was 20 at which time she moved to present day Libya to be the mistress of Hecebolus, the governor of that province.

Theodora's time with Hecebolus was short, and in less than a year, and she moved on to Alexandria, Egypt. She started following the prominent Christian sect of the city, Monophysitism and changed her way of life. After studying with some great religious teachers, she returned to Constantinople and lived a humble life as a spinner. During this time she met her husband to be, Justinian, and they became friends and lovers.

Justinian ascended to power by helping the Emperor Justin, his uncle, codify the law of the empire. Justinian changed a law that forbid marriages between actresses and men of the nobility so that he could marry Theodora and have her at his side when he rose to the throne.

During Justinian's reign, Theodora was very active in politics. From 527 AD to 548 AD, she helped to give women in the lower classes rights that they had never enjoyed before, and she actively pursued those who in the upper classes who had historically held power. According to historical records, she was a just ruler and was beloved by the people of the empire.

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