Born the daughter of a bearkeeper and an acrobat, the prospects for the new baby girl born in the vast city of Constantinople were not that great. Likely she would become a performer like her parents, and if she was lucky the mistress of a wealthy man who would take care of her. At that time an actress was little more than a courtesan and debarred from polite society. If she was unlucky, she would die in poverty like so many others. However, fate had more in store for the young girl her parents named Theodora. It would take her to the highest places in the world, far beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.
When she was 5, an accident killed her father and she, her sisters, and her mother begged the faction he worked for in the Hippodrome, the Greens, for help. Despite the fact her father had worked for the Greens, they scornfully dismissed his widow and children. Luckily, the rival faction the Blues stepped in and helped the family survive. Theodora never forgot this public humiliation.
At 12, Theodora joined her elder sister on stage in bawdy comedies and burlesque. By 15, her beauty, grace and natural comedic timing made her the star of the Hippodrome. She also became one of the city’s most notorious courtesans. After her death, one of her contemporaries, Procopius of Caesarea, describes one of her performances in his Secret Histories: “Often in the theater, too, in view of all the people…she would spread herself out and lie on her back on the ground. And certain slaves whose special task it was would sprinkle grains of barley over her private parts; and geese trained for the purpose would pick them off one by one and swallow them.” Notice he didn’t report this until after her death.
It is thought she may have had an illegitimate son at 16 and then a daughter at 18, but this is not known for sure. What is known is she gave up the theater and became the mistress of the governor of North Africa, and traveled with him to Pentapolis. The lovers quarreled and the governor threw Theodora out on her ear. Penniless and in a foreign land, she didn’t have many options. Somehow she raised the money for passage to Alexandria where she met Timothy, the Patriarch of Alexandria, and Severus, Patriarch of Antioch. Both of these men were prominent Monophysites. The Empire was divided spiritually between Monophysitism and Orthodoxy. Monophysites believed Christ had only one nature, however Orthodoxy held that Christ had two natures; one divine and one human. The current Emperor was devoutly Orthodox and the Monophysites had fled to Alexandria for refuge. Under their tutelage, Theodora became a devout Monophysite.
Through these men she also met her ticket home to Constantinople. Macedonia was a dancer and quite possibly a spy. She and Theodora became firm friends and they traveled together to Constantinople. However, this time Theodora was a changed woman. It was perhaps through Macedonia she met Justinian, or perhaps through their mutual support of the Blues, but once she did meet him she made an impression. Justinian was the nephew of the Emperor and the heir apparent. He could have his pick of women, but certain standards were supposed to be applied when it came time for him to pick an Empress. However, Justinian could not get the beautiful and charismatic Theodora out of his mind, and decided to marry “his sweetest delight” and was ready to move heaven and earth to do it. He had one law changed to raise Theodora’s social standing and another passed so actresses could marry, something they could not do previously. His aunt Empress Euphemia especially hated Theodora, possibly because her humble beginnings mirrored Euphemia’s own. Justinian didn’t care, and the two were married. In 527, Justinian was crowned Emperor and Theodora became Empress of the Romans.
Justinian and Theodora were the power couple of the age. She didn’t just rest on her laurels, but used her position as Empress to improve the lot of women. She set up safe houses for prostitutes, worked against child slavery and championed anti-rape laws. Not to say she could not be ruthless when it was called for, as anyone who made the mistake of catching her emnity would find out, but she seemed to remember her humble roots. She never forgot the ones that took care of her and remained loyal to the Monophysites and the Blues her entire life.
But most of all they were a partnership. She and Justinian supported each other throughout the trials empire. In 532, the Nika revolt broke out plunging the city into riots and violence. Justinian and his advisers were preparing for the court to flee when Theodora announced she was not going.
She said, “Every man who is born into the light of day must sooner or later die; and how could an Emperor ever allow himself to be a fugitive? May I myself never willingly shed my imperial robes, nor see the day when I am not addressed by my title. If you, my Lord, wish to save your skin, you will have no difficulty doing so. As for me, I stand by the ancient saying: the purple is the noblest winding-sheet.”
That tore it. Justinian could not turn tail and run now. The revolt was put down by force of arms, and Justinian’s reign was saved. Together they weathered one of the first outbreaks of the black plague and rebuilt Constantinople into incomparable beauty, so much so that it was only referred to as “the City” because there could be only one city worth the name. The two of them kept their partnership until Theodora’s death in 548. She was buried in the Church of the Holy Apostles, and Justinian joined her there at his death ten years later.