DIR Logo

An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Emperors

map DIR Atlas

Theodora (Wife of Justinian I)

James Allan Evans

University of British Columbia

mosaic of Theodora


If we except the chroniclers, there are hardly any sources for Theodora that are written without parti pris. The most important, Procopius of Caesarea, who is our only source for the lurid details of Theodora's early life, presented a different Theodora in each of his three works, the History of the Wars of Justinian in seven books to which an eighth was added later, the Anekdota or Secret History, to give it its popular name, an essay purportedly written immediately after the first seven books of the Wars were published and containing data which were too defamatory to circulate openly, and the De Aedificiis or Buildings which is a panegyric on Justinian's building program throughout the empire. All these works were written or at least completed after Theodora's death in 548. In the Wars, Procopius credits the regime's success at suppressing the 'Nika' revolt of 532 to Theodora's courage and imagines a splendid scene which may have some basis in fact, where she declares that she, at least, will not flee the capital city. The Anekdota is full of scurrilous details about Theodora's early life as an actress and courtesan, and her intrigues at court. In the De Aedificiis, however, the picture is uniformly flattering. The emperor and empress shared a common piety (1.8.5), he claims, and her loveliness was such that it was impossible to convey it in words or portray it by a statue (1.11.9). (Even in the Anekdota 10.11, he concedes that she was attractive, though short and rather sallow in complexion.)

Procopius' viewpoint differs in these three works, understandably in the De Aedificiis, which was an encomium and intended to please the emperor, but they do not actually contradict each other. The lurid details of Theodora's early life find corroboration of sorts in an unexpected source: the Syriac historian John of Amida, better known as John of Ephesus (PO 17, i, 188-89) for he became the Monophysite bishop of that city, refers to Theodora almost casually as "Theodora from the brothel" (ek tou porneiou). John is a friendly witness for he looked on Theodora as the protector of the Monophysites and the fact that the words appear in Greek in his Syriac text may indicate that he is simply reproducing without malice a sobriquet from the Constantinople streets. And Justinian's law code (Codex Justinianus V.4.23)[[1]] provides another morsel of evidence. This is the law which Procopius[[2]] claims was promulgated by Justin I at Justinian's instance, in order to legalize the marriage privileges of a penitent ex-actress. It declares that a former actress who was admitted to the patriciate would henceforth have all former blemishes wiped out and was free to marry anyone. Thus we are probably right to consider Procopius a trustworthy witness for Theodora's early career, albeit a malicious one when he was writing not for publication.

The death of the emperor Anastasius in 518 and the accession of Justin I marked the end of a period of tolerance and accommodation for the Monophysite heresy,[[3]] and the Monophysite monks and churchmen in the eastern provinces faced a tidal wave of persecution.[[4]] Only Egypt was safe. But Theodora was converted, it seems, to the Monophysite heresy shortly after the persecution began, and remained a devout Monophysite until her death and her reputation has been colored by odium theologicum. When a copy of the Anekdota was found in 1623 in the Vatican Library, thereby introducing it to the world of scholarship, Catholic churchmen were delighted to find such explicit proof of the wickedness of the empress, and the Vatican librarian Alemannus, who was the Anekdota's first editor, remarked that nothing was too execrable to be believed of this enemy of the Council of Chalcedon.[[5]] On the other hand, Monophysite sources, mostly in Syriac, laud her piety and devotion. Theodora and Justinian were frequently on opposite sides of the great theological contention about the Trinity. Yet, both sought common ground, and Justinian seems never to have doubted the fundamental loyalty of his wife.

Theodora's Early Life

The origin of Theodora's family has prompted some speculation: Syria, Cyprus, and Paphlagonia have all been suggested but we meet her first in Procopius' Anekdota as the second of three daughters of one Acacius, the bear-keeper for the Green faction in the Hippodrome at Constantinople. As such he looked after the trained bears and other animals for the entr'actes between the chariot races. It was usual for a son to follow his father in this post, but when Acacius died suddenly, he left no son. However, his widow remarried quickly and hoped that her new husband would take over the post of the old one. However the final decision rested with the chief ballet dancer to make, and he accepted a bribe to appoint another man. Destitute, Theodora's mother brought her children wearing garlands into the Hippodrome where the Greens, Blue, Reds and White sat in their reserved sections, and presented them as suppliants to the crowd. The Greens rejected them. But the Blues who had just lost their own bear-keeper, took pity and appointed Theodora's stepfather to the vacant post. Theodora, naturally enough, remained an aficionado of the Blues. Whatever Theodora's differences might be on theology with Justinian, they agreed upon what faction to support in the Hippodrome.

As soon as they were old enough, Theodora's mother put her children on the stage. The eldest, Comito, scored a great success and Theodora, the middle child, followed her on stage, playing a little slave attendant for her sister. Theater was considered the embodiment of immorality in the sixth century and by the end of the seventh century, the Church would succeed in banning it entirely. The staple fare was the mime, involving obscene burlesque, and on the evidence of Procopius, Theodora made a name for herself with her portrayal of Leda and the Swan: she stripped off her clothes as far as the law allowed, for complete nudity was banned, and lay on her back while some attendants scattered barley on her groin. Then geese, evidently playing Zeus in several guises, picked up the barley with their bills. She also entertained notables at banquets and accepted a multitude of lovers. Procopius pretends that her appetite for sexual intercourse was voracious and relates stories about her that sound like men's locker room humor, but nonetheless they were probably tales current on the streets of Constantinople. It is certain that Theodora had a daughter before her marriage to Justinian and Procopius also reports a son, who presented himself at court, claiming that his father on his deathbed had told him that the empress was his mother, and whereupon Theodora, having heard his story, disposed of him. We may reasonably doubt the truth of this tale, for it assumes that Theodora was unashamed of a bastard daughter, even arranging a good marriage for her, but was determined that her bastard son be consigned to oblivion. The "son" may have been an imposter, or, perhaps more likely, the report was complete fiction.

In due course, however, she became the mistress of a Syrian Hecebolus who was a native of Tyre, and accompanied him when he went to the Libyan Pentapolis as governor. For Theodora, this represented an escape from her profession, for a law of 409 (Cod. Just. XI 41.5) barred local authorities from transferring actors from their cities, thereby lessening the attraction of popular festivals, and if Hecebolus had not been a man of some standing with "clout", Theodora might have encountered legal obstacles to her desertion of the stage. But she soon failed to please. Abandoned and maltreated by Hecebolus (Anek. 9.27; 12.30), she made her way to Alexandria. We may have an authentic comment from her on Hecebolus years later: in 535 Justinian issued a constitution (Nov. 8.1) which prohibited the purchase of public office, for it was an inducement to corruption. Justinian states explicitly that he consulted Theodora before he made this reform. She may have had Hecebolus in mind as a typical public servant, for it is not unlikely that he bought his office and recouped the purchase price by corrupt practices. But we must not wander too far into the realm of imagination.

In Alexandria she seems to have met the patriarch, Timothy III, a Monophysite whose position was powerful enough that he was able to give refuge to Monophysite churchmen such as Severus, the patriarch of Antioch, when the persecution initiated by Justin I drove them from their sees. At least Monophysite legend had it that she considered 'Bishop Timothy' her spiritual father, and this 'Timothy' may well have been Timothy III who became patriarch in 517, one year before Justin I's accession.[[6]] Actresses were normally denied the sacraments until they were on their deathbeds, and so we cannot tell how Theodora met her bishop, if, in fact, they did actually meet. But her conversion was sincere and lasting. She remained a devout Monophysite until her death.

From Alexandria she went to Antioch and there she was befriended by the Blue faction's star ballet dancer, Macedonia, who also, it appears, had a second occupation as an informer of Justinian's, who was now, after Vitalian's death, the magister militum praesentalis in Constantinople. Macedonia passed on to her patron the names of notables who represented a threat to him. Procopius (Anek.12.29-32) relates a fantastic tale that Theodora revealed to Macedonia a dream which she had, that she would come to the capital where the Lord of the Demons would bed her, marry her and make her mistress of limitless wealth. How a confidence like that can have increased Macedonia's faith in Theodora is hard to understand. But it may have been Macedonia who provided Theodora with an introduction to Justinian.[[7]] Possibly she presented Theodora to him as a person whom it would be useful to know, and as a fellow aficionado of the Blues. In any case the two met, fell in love, and what is more remarkable, accepted each other as intellectual equals. They were always more than sexual partners. A tradition of the eleventh century relates that on Theodora's return to the capital, she lived in humble lodgings and spun wool, which was a virtuous occupation. She did not forget her erstwhile associates but there was no question of her returning to her former life. If Justinian wanted her, he had to marry her.

For that, new legislation would be necessary, for the laws forbade a patrician to marry an actress. Justin, who seems to have been fond of Theodora was willing to oblige, but Justinian encountered an unexpected obstacle in the empress Euphemia. Justin had bought his wife as a slave many years before he became emperor, and her slave-name Lupicina rouses suspicion for it was commonly found among prostitutes. Yet once she became empress, she took the more respectable name of Euphemia, and guarded the respectability of her office jealously. She liked Justinian, and ordinarily refused him nothing, but she would not hear of him marrying an actress. But once she was dead (ca. 523), Justin promulgated the necessary legislation and it appears in the Justinianic Code (Cod. Just. V.4.23). It freed truly penitent actresses from all blemishes and returned them to their pristine condition. Soon after, the patriarch Epiphanius joined Justinian and Theodora in wedlock in the cathedral church of the Holy Wisdom.

Thus the new dynastic family in Constantinople was sprung from a union of Illyrian (or perhaps Thracian) peasant stock from the Balkans on the one side and the theater on the other. This was a society which was remarkably mobile in spite of its apparently rigid class structure. Justin had used his good fortune to further his family's status: he had brought Justinian, the son of his sister, to Constantinople, seen to his education and adopted him (the name Justinianus is the cognomen which Justinian took upon adoption: his birth name was Flavius Petrus Sabbatius), and he was only slightly less generous to another nephew, Germanus, a brilliant army officer who made a splendid marriage into the Constantinopolitan branch of the aristocratic Anicii. Theodora also provided an entrée for her friends from the theater. Her sister, Comito, became the wife of a rising young officer, Sittas, who was to die young while campaigning in Armenia. Her niece married the nephew of Justinian, Justin II, who succeeded Justinian in 565. These two parvenus on the throne would have been only human if they took some satisfaction from the sight of scions of Constantinople's great families bowing and scraping before them. Theodora in particular was punctilious about court ceremonial. Procopius (Anek. 30.23-6) complains that Justinian and Theodora made all senators, including patricians, prostrate themselves before them whenever they entered their presence, and made it clear that their relations with the civil militia were those of masters and slaves. With his next breath Procopius complains that the emperor and empress made their magistrates dance attendance upon them, and made a point of supervising them carefully, whereas previously magistrates had a greater degree of independence and could get on with their work. What Procopius fails to add is that these magistrates used their independence to enrich themselves and that one reason for the dissatisfaction with the regime, which both Procopius and John Lydus express, is that it tried, with no marked success, to wipe out bureaucratic corruption.[[8]]

Theodora as a partner in power

Procopius in his Anekdota indicates that what attracted Justinian to Theodora was pure, undiluted lust. They did, we can be sure, marry for love and they hoped for children. When Mar Saba, the stoutly Chalcedonian archimandrite of the lauras in the Judean desert, came to Constantinople in 531 with a petition on behalf of the Palestinians who had suffered in the Samaritan revolt, Theodora asked for his prayers that she might conceive, but the old monk refused, saying that the son she bore would be a greater calamity for the empire than the old Monophysite emperor Anastasius! Theodora never did conceive. The daughter born to an unknown father before her marriage is the only child that was certainly hers.

She had Justinian's ear while he was still the heir-in-waiting, but it was the 'Nika' revolt which demonstrated her steel. A riot early in 532 rapidly escalated into a full-scale revolt which almost toppled the regime. Procopius (Wars 1.24.33-37) describes the panicky debate in the palace whether to flee in their ships or to stay where they were. Then Theodora rose to speak. Her speech, which is a nice piece of rhetoric, balances a speech made by a senator to the insurgents, advising cautious action against the emperor. Theodora begins with the acknowlegement that urging acts of daring was not considered womanly but nonetheless she took a tough line and urged defiance. Her husband might flee if he wished, but she would stay, for she liked the ancient maxim which said that royalty made a good shroud. The ancient maxim had actually said that tyranny made a good shroud, and Procopius' art may have enhanced Theodora's great scene. We cannot take it at face value, even though Procopius may have been present at the time and witnessed it. But Justinian whose hesitation up until this point had if anything made the situation worse, recovered his nerve and took the offensive. He ordered his loyal troops led by two reliable officers, Belisarius and the Gepid prince Mundo, to attack the demonstrators in the Hippodrome. The resulting massacre would make Tiananmen Square look like a very minuscule atrocity indeed.

Theodora knew how to be ruthless and no one should sentimentalize her. One source[[9]] for the 'Nika' revolt reports that Justinian might have shown compassion for the nephews of Anastasius, Pompeius and Hypatius, the latter of whom the mob had chosen as their replacement for Justinian, but Theodora did not approve of mercy where the security of the regime was in question. It was her will that Pompeius and Hypatius be put to death. Justinian might later restore their property to their heirs, but by then they were no danger to the regime.

Theodora enjoyed the perquisites of imperial power, and her marriage with Justinian, which seems to have been a union of mutual respect, was so unusual by contemporary standards that it provoked reactions which reveal as much about the mind-set of the times as about the married couple. The reader of Procopius' appraisal of Theodora (Anek. 10) will find a mother lode of clues to the group psychology of the small cadre of bureaucrats who ran the empire and for whom Theodora represented a center of power that did not fit their notional horizons. 'Those who believe that the female mind is totally depraved by the loss of chastity, will eagerly listen to all the invectives of private envy or popular resentment, which have dissembled the virtues of Theodora, exaggerated her vices, and condemned with rigour the venal and voluntary sins of the youthful harlot,' wrote Edward Gibbon.[[10]] Gibbon, who never failed to relish 'venal and voluntary sins', particularly those practised by women, mentions a selection of Theodora's, excerpted for the most part from the Anekdota: her 'private hours were devoted to the prudent as well as the grateful care of her beauty,' the 'most illustrious personages of the state' who sought audiences, were kept waiting and then 'they experienced, as her humour might suggest, the silent arrogance of an empress, or the capricious levity of a comedian.' He notes her 'immense avarice' to secure great wealth which might be excused by the fact that her good fortune depended entirely upon Justinian's longevity and if he were to die before her, she could retain her status only with her private assets. 'But the reproach of cruelty, so repugnant even to her softer vices, has left an indelible stain on the memory of Theodora,' added Gibbon, and he proceeded to give examples. They come from the Anekdota, and Procopius' chief criterion for including them in that 'satire', as Gibbon called it, was that they should be malicious. Yet Theodora never shared her husband's reputation for being easy-going.

She presented herself, however, as the friend of the unfortunate. The great inscription on the entablature of the church of Sts. Sergius and Bacchus in Constantinople proclaims her as the 'God-crowned Theodora whose mind is adorned with piety and whose constant toil lies in unsparing efforts to nourish the destitute.'[[11]] She shut down brothels in the capital and removed the prostitutes to a convent on the Asian side of the Dardanelles called the Metanoia (Repentance).[[12]] She intervened on behalf of women who were wronged.[[13]] And there is a clutch of legislation promulgated by Justinian which improves the status of women and where we may suspect Theodora's influence.

It may be argued that these reforms merely mark the culmination of a trend which had been taking place over the previous centuries, but nonetheless they belong to Justinian and if he could consult his wife about administrative corruption, which he indicates that he did, it seems likely that he would seek her input on legislation affecting women's rights, too. Justinian forbade exposure of unwanted infants, who were far more frequently girls than boys, though apparently he failed to put a stop to the custom, for in 529 we find a new law which gave anyone who rescued an exposed child the right to give him/her either free or slave status.[[14]] The laws concerning tutela (guardianship) of women had undergone modification since the days of the Roman Republic when women remained under lifetime tutela: women were still excluded from acting as guardians in the third century, but in 390, widows were allowed to be guardians of their children and grandchildren if they did not remarry and if there were no other legitimate male guardians. Justinian extended the right of guardianship to the natural mother.[[15]] He eased the punishments for adultery: in Novel 117.15 he reminded his subjects that while a husband might kill his wife's lover with impunity, he might not kill his wife and, for that matter, before he killed the lover, he must send him three written warnings, duly witnessed![[16]] A woman should not be put into prison where male guards might violate her; if detention was necessary she could go to a nunnery. A woman's right to hold property, he ruled, should be no less than a man's. And the ante-nuptial donation, which had developed in Late Antiquity as a counter-dowry given by the husband to his wife, should be equal in value to the dowry.[[17]] Justinian's measures protecting women give us ground for suspecting Theodora's counsel and influence, and, from their dates, it is clear that her influence did not end with her death.

Within the civil and military militia, Theodora created her own centers of power. The eunuch Narses who in old age developed into a brilliant general, was her protégé. So was the praetorian prefect Peter Barsymes. John the Cappadocian she identified as an enemy. He was Justinian's efficiency expert and both Procopius and John the Lydian bear witness to his unpopularity. He was sacrificed to the mob during the 'Nika' revolt but he was soon back at his former post as praetorian prefect. But he paid Theodora scant respect, and even worse from her viewpoint, he had Justinian's ear. Theodora was jealous of his influence and with the help of her friends, particularly her crony, Antonina, the wife of Belisarius, she set a trap for him and he fell into it. The bait she used was the prospect of imperial power. On her instructions, Antonina intimated to John's naïve daughter that Belisarius was unhappy and ready to rebel, and that he would welcome John as a fellow conspirator. This proposition involved disloyalty, but Theodora had assessed her victim correctly. John did not balk at disloyalty to the emperor when the reward was power. Even after John had fallen, Theodora's vengeance followed him. Officers of the civil and military militia learned that if they carried out Justinian's commands negligently, he might be angry but he would eventually forgive them. But let them flout Theodora and they could expect condign retribution and no forgiveness.

Theodora's Religious Policy

In the Menelogion (Liturgical Calendar) of the Greek Orthodox Church, under November 14 there appears "The Assumption of the Orthodox King Justinian and the memory of Queen Theodora". Theodora was not orthodox and contemporary orthodox churchmen recognized her as an enemy. Yet religious differences never seem to have caused a rift between Justinian and Theodora, and Procopius (Anek. 10.15; 27.13) may be expressing the view of his class in Constantinople when he reports that the "rift" was a hoax devised by this evil pair to encourage strife among the Christians.

The Arabic History of the Patriarchs of the Coptic Church of Alexandria is better taken as a document of Monophysite folk tradition than as an accurate record of events: it overlooks Justin I entirely, for instance, and attributes the persecution of the Monophysites that began with Justin's accession to Justinian and regards Theodora not only as defender of Monophysite churchmen but also as an emigrant from Alexandria herself.[[18]] Severus, who had been a protégé of the old emperor Anastasius, had to flee to Egypt, as did many other Monophysite churchmen and monks: in fact, Alexandria became a crucible for the various strands of Monophysite theology, and Severus' beliefs were rapidly challenged there by radical sectarians who made him appear a relative moderate. Theodora may have met Severus in Alexandria. She was still only a reformed actress, but her encounter with Monophysite refugees had important results.

She was soon in a better position to help. Severus' Chalcedonian successor in Antioch, Paul 'the Jew' (519-21), undertook a cleansing of the churches and monasteries of the Orient. The fragments of John of Ephesus' Ecclesiastical History[[19]] supply a vivid record from the perspective of the persecuted. Monks and nuns were driven from their monasteries and some had to spend their nights like wild beasts wandering on the hillsides, enduring snow and winter rains in the winter. Paul's tenure was short but his successor as patriarch, Euphrasius, was moderate only by comparison. He perished in the earthquake which befell Antioch in 526, and Monophysite tradition had no doubt that his death was not only hideous, but appropriate. His successor, Ephraim of Amida, had been a military officer, a former Magister Militum per Orientem, and he did not hesitate to use military force.

During all this time Theodora's influence at court grew. But Justinian was not yet emperor, and, dependent as he was on his nephew, Justin clearly did not want to be hurried. In 526 Pope John visited Constantinople where he went through a coronation ceremony with Justin, but not Justinian. But within a few months, Justin's health was clearly failing, and on 1 April, 527, he crowned Justinian as his co-emperor, and four months later, he died. The Monophysites now had a sturdy friend at the center of power. Theodora did what she could. When the monks of the monastery called 'Orientalium' at Edessa were expelled in the dead of winter by their Chalcedonian bishop, they wandered from place to place until they found refuge for between six and seven years at a monastery called En-Hailaf, and then Theodora arranged for their return home. Mare, the deposed metropolitan of Amida, and his clergy nearly perished in exile at Petra until Theodora got permission from Justinian for them to go to Alexandria and, when Mare died, it was Theodora who arranged for his bones to be returned to Amida.[[20]]

Her influence in religious affairs reached its height in the early 530s. By 531, it was clear even to a convinced orthodox theologian like Justinian that Justin's harsh measures against heresy had failed. In Antioch, the persecutions of the Chalcedonian patriarch Ephraim had provoked a violent revolt.[[21]] At summer's end, the persecution was suspended and eight Monophysite bishops were invited to Constantinople. Early in the next year, the regime survived the 'Nika' revolt and Theodora emerged from it with greater influence than before. When the bishops arrived, accompanied by a mini-mob of not less than five hundred holy men,[[22]] Theodora welcomed them and housed them in the Hormisdas Palace adjoining the Great Palace which had been Justinian and Theodora's own dwelling before they became emperor and empress. Theodora visited them every two or three days, sometimes bringing Justinian with her, and the church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus was built for Monophysite use.

In the spring of 532, while construction crews were repairing the devastation of the 'Nika' revolt in Constantinople, Justinian sponsored a three-day conference of bishops in the Hormisdas Palace. Five bishops debated on each side. But the 'Tome' of Leo proved the sticking-point. In the spring of the next year, Justinian published his own confession of faith: a Chalcedonian-flavored declaration which managed to avoid mention of the 'Tome' of Leo. Then Theodora and Justinian invited Severus to the capital, and in the winter of 534-5, Severus came, though without enthusiasm.[[23]] Upon his arrival, Theodora introduced him to the new patriarch Anthimus, who had been appointed to the see of Constantinople upon the death of Epiphanius in 535.Theodora may have known that Anthimus was not unsympathetic to Monophysite views but, if so, she kept her information secret. As far as anyone else knew, his orthodox credentials were impeccable.[[24]] Yet, when Severus and Anthimus met, the latter was soon won over. In Rome, Pope John II was not a hard-line prelate. A solution must have seemed just around the corner and Theodora could take much of the credit for it.

Then suddenly it fell apart. In Egypt, Timothy III died, and Theodora enlisted the help of Dioscoros the Augustal Prefect and Aristomachos the duke of Egypt to facilitate the enthronement of a disciple of Severus, Theodosius, thereby outmaneuvering her husband who had been plotting for a Catholic successor as patriarch. But on the very day that Theodosius was installed, a violent uprising organized by the extreme Monophysites, the Aphthartodocetists, drove him from Alexandria and invested in his place the Aphthartodocetist archdeacon Gaianas, who held the patriarchate for 103 days, until imperial troops, led by Narses, acting under Theodora's orders with which Justinian acquiesced, replaced Theodosius on his episcopal throne. Severus, whose theology Theodosius shared, now belonged to the moderate Monophysite party, outnumbered in Egypt by the Aphthartodocetists a.k.a. Julianists a.k.a Gaianists, who were disciples of Julian of Halicarnassus, an erstwhile friend of Severus who had been his companion in exile, where he carried Monophysite doctrine to the extreme that he claimed Christ's body was incorruptible. Gaianas was consigned to exile in Sardinia but his theology swept Egypt.

In Rome, Pope John II died and his successor Agapetus arrived in Constantinople in 536 on a mission for the Ostrogothic king, Theodahad. Agapetus had a high card: Belisarius' campaign to recover Italy from the Ostrogoths was just getting under way and Justinian could not appear as an opponent of the Chalcedonians without alienating the support and good will of the Italians. Shortly after his arrival on 1 March, Agapetus denounced Anthimus and on 13 March, Anthimus was deposed and replaced by the solidly Chalcedonian Menas, director of the hospice of Sampson. On 22 April, Agapetus died, but a synod presided over by Menas excommunicated Anthimus, Severus and their followers and on 6 August, the emperor confirmed the excommunication and directed that neither of the two heretical prelates should live in any of the great cities of the empire; rather they should dwell in isolation and the works of Severus should be burned. But with Theodora's help, Severus returned safely to Egypt where he died in 538, and Anthimus disappeared. After Theodora's death in 548, he was discovered living quietly in the women's quarters of the palace which were Theodora's domain.

She soon received another patriarchal refugee, Theodosius I. Even with the help of imperial troops, he could not hold his ground in Alexandria against the Julianists. Word was brought to Theodora and she (according to the History of the Patriarchs of the Coptic Church) "calmly, wisely and humbly, went in to the prince and informed him of all that had happened, without his sanction, to Father Theodosius, patriarch in the city of Alexandria," and Justinian gave Theodora the power to do what was necessary. So an investigation was held into the disputed ordinations of Theodosius and his Julianist rival, Gaianas, and Theodosius was vindicated. But for all Justinian could do, Theodosius would not accept the creed of Chalcedon even though Justinian brought him to Constantinople and argued the matter with him on six occasions. So Justinian deposed him and exiled him together with 300 Monophysites to the fortress of Derkos in Thrace. Theodora soon came to his rescue, however, and brought him back to the relative comfort of the Hormisdas Palace where he lived under her protection, and after her death in 548, under Justinian's, for on her deathbed Theodora had Justinian swear that he would protect her little community of Monophysite refugees there, and he kept his promise.

Pope Agapetus died in Constantinople before he could return to Italy. Theodora's choice as his successor was a deacon who had accompanied Agapetus to Constantinople, Vigilius, who had apparently intimated that he was prepared to be more malleable. But the election was held before Vigilius could reach Rome, and the new pope was the son of Pope Hormisdas, Silverius, who had the support of the Ostrogothic king Theodahad. Events were moving rapidly in Italy: Belisarius, leading an imperial invasion force, was advancing from the south, Naples fell, and the Ostrogoths, disgusted with Theodahad's flaccid leadership, deposed him and replaced him with Witigis. He decided that his best strategy would be to secure his northern frontier against the Franks before he attended to the Byzantines, and he evacuated Rome, having first received a loyalty oath from Silverius. Once the Goths had departed, Silverius invited the Byzantine forces into the city. That might have given him some claim for consideration. But for Theodora he was only an impediment to her theological strategy.

Procopius (Wars 5.25. 13-14) mentions briefly that Belisarius deposed Silverius under suspicion of treason and sent him to Greece and the Anekdota (1.14) promises to describe Theodora's skullduggery, but it is an unfulfilled promise. However, the Liber Pontificalis describes how Silverius refused Theodora's demand that he remove the anathema of Agapetus from Anthimus, and when he refused, she sent Belisarius instructions to find a pretext to remove him. Belisarius and his wife Antonina saw to it that Silverius was deposed, and Vigilius appointed in his stead. Theodora now had her man on the papal throne but as it turned out, he was not malleable enough.

The next incident in the saga of Justinian's continuing effort to find common ground for the Chalcedonians and Monophysites was the 'Three Chapters' dispute. It arose from an effort to clear the Chalcedonians of any suspicion of Nestorianism by condemning the teaching of three long-dead theologians and it gave rise to a protracted struggle which pitted the churches of Italy and Africa against Constantinople. Ironically, for the Monophysites the dispute was largely irrelevant. Vigilius waged an epic struggle with Justinian and eventually lost, but in the process, the 'Three Chapters' incident revealed the gulf that was widening between East and West. Vigilius was not an unyielding prelate but he knew that if he compromised, Italy and Africa would disown him, which in fact, did happen when he did, in the end, surrender. The pope in the sixth century was anything but an absolute potentate in matters of faith. Theodora died while the dispute was still raging. But before she died she made a last contribution to the growing schism in Christendom.

In 541, al-Harith, the sheikh of the Ghassanid tribe of Saracens whose friendship was important for the security of the south Syrian frontier, was in Constantinople on other business and took the opportunity to approach Theodora with a request for bishops. Imperial prestige in the east was low at this point. Only the year before, the Persians had sacked Antioch. With Theodora's blessing, Theodosius, who from his refuge in the Hormisdas Palace was now recognized as the spiritual leader of the Monophysites, ordained two monks as nomadic bishops. Nominally Jacob Baradaeus was metropolitan of Edessa and Theodore was metropolitan of Bostra but neither resided in their episcopal seats where they might have been vulnerable to arrest. Instead they moved from camp to camp, in the countryside beyond the reach of the Chalcedonian hierarchy.

Theodosius himself had been reluctant to ordain Monophysite bishops for he was well aware that, with the establishment of a separate Monophysite hierarchy, Christendom would be permanently split in two. That would strike at the heart of imperial unity, and the moderate Monophysites were still steadfastly loyal. But Jacob Baradaeus had no such scruples. His Life, attributed to John of Ephesus, relates how he came to Constantinople, and met Theodora who had already seen him in a dream and was given a dwelling by her where he met a large number of the faithful, among them the Ghassanid sheikh, al-Harith. Once he was consecrated bishop at al-Harith's request, he secretly secured permission from Theodosius to ordain priests and the Life[[25]] says with some exaggeration that he ordained 100,000. Justinian tried to arrest him but he was never caught and in the end, he gave up. Baradaeus has a good claim to be the founder of the Monophysite church.

The final result of Theodora's policy on theological matters was separatist. The split between Chalcedonian and Monophysite doctrines was probably insoluble, for behind both were popular forces which could not be controlled by theological formulas. The 'Tome' of Pope Leo, which was the core of the Chalcedonian Creed, was a reef on which all formulas would founder, for the Catholics would not accept any amendment to it, whereas even the most moderate Monophysite had come to regard it as an evil doctrine. One could argue, as the Chalcedonians did, that Theodora fostered heresy and thus undermined the unity of Christendom. But it would be equally fair to say that it was the non-negotiable position taken by Rome that undermined unity, and that Theodora's championship of the Monophysites delayed the alienation of the eastern church, and might have postponed it indefinitely but for external events she could not control or foresee.

Yet, one incident shows how far Theodora could go to thwart her husband on religious matters. The Nobadae south of Egypt were converted to Monophysite Christianity about 540. Justinian had been determined that they be converted to the Chalcedonian faith and Theodora equally determined that they should be Monophysites. So Justinian made arrangements for Chalcedonian missionaries from the Thebaid should go with presents to Silko the king of the Nobadae. But on hearing this, Theodora prepared her own missionaries and wrote to the duke of the Thebaid that he should delay her husband's embassy so that the Monophysite missionaries should arrive first; otherwise he would pay for it with his life. The duke was canny enough not to thwart Theodora and thus he saw to it that the Chalcedonian missionaries were delayed, and when they reached Silko, they were sent away, for the Nobadae had already adopted the creed of Theodosius.[[26]]

At the end of his life Justinian converted to Monophysitism himself, and he did not choose the moderate Monophysitism of Theodosius who still lived in the Hormisdas Palace, but the extreme form taught by Julian of Halicarnassus. Theodora was by then long dead. She had died of cancer in 548 and though it has been argued that the sole source for her illness, Victor of Tonnena, may not use the word "cancer" in its modern medical sense, yet cancer, possibly breast cancer, seems to be best guess. Perhaps Theodora's long discussions and debates with her husband (both were no mean theologians) on the nature of the Trinity had, in the end, convinced Justinian. She was a remarkable woman who left her mark on her age. How she should be ranked for statecraft remains an open question.


Bridge, Anthony, Theodora. Portrait in a Byzantine Landscape. London, 1978.

Browning, Robert, Justinian and Theodora. 2nd ed., London, 1987.

Capizzi, Carmelo, Giustiniano I tra politica e religione. Messina, 1994.

Diehl, Ch., Théodora, impératrice de Byzance, Paris, 1904.

Evans, J. A. S., 'The "Nika" rebellion and the Empress Theodora," Byzantion, 47 (1977), 380-382.

________. The Age of Justinian: The Circumstances of Imperial Power. London, 1996.

Holmes, W. G. The Age of Justinian and Theodora, 2 vols. London, 1912.


[[1]]Dates between 520 and 523, after the death of the empress Euphemia who, according to Procopius, opposed the marriage of Theodora and Justinian. On the law see David Daube, "The Marriage of Justinian and Theodora. Logical and Theological Reflections," Catholic University of America Law Review 16 (1967), 380-399.

[[2]]Anekdota 9.47-54.

[[3]]On Monophysitism, the best general study is still W. H. C. Frend, The Rise of the Monophysite Movement. Chapters in the History of the Church in the Fifth and Sixth Centuries. (Cambridge, 1972). The label 'Monophysite' was not a contemporary one: the 'Monophysites, in their own literature, always referred to themselves as 'orthodox', whereas the distinguishing badge of the Chalcedonians (who also considered themselves orthodox) was the 'Tome' of Leo.

[[4]]See J. A. S. Evans, "The Monophysite Persecution under Justin I: The Eastern View," The Ancient World 27/2 (1996), 191-96; Susan Ashbrook Harvey, "Remembering Pain: Syriac Historiography and the Separation of the Churches," Byzantion 58 (1988), 295-308.

[[5]]J. A. S. Evans, Procopius (New York, 1972), pp. 29-30; Averil Cameron, Procopius ("The Great Histories" series, ed. H. Trevor-Roper, New York, 1967) pp. xxvii-xxviii.

[[6]]Anthony Bridges' semi-popular Theodora (London, 1978), pp. 29-33 develops the legend. Still worth reading is Ch. Diehl, Théodora, impératrice de Byzance (Paris, 1904), pp. 36-45. Christophert Haas' Alexandria in Late Antiquity (Baltimore, 1997) does not go beyond the fifth century except in the epilogue, but it is a splendid description of the social conflict and religious turmoil in the city before the Justinianic period.

[[7]]So Diehl, ibid., surmises (pp. 44-45), but without solid evidence.

[[8]]See the excellent chapter on the bureaucracy by T. S. Brown, Gentlemen and Officers: Imperial Administration and Aristocratic Power in Byzantine Italy A.D. 554-800 (Rome, 1984), pp. 109-25.

[[9]]Zachariah of Mytilene, 9.14.

[[10]]The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, ed. David Womersley, (Harmondsworth 1994) II, pp. 567-8. The second volume of this edition comprises volumes 3 (1781) and 4 (1788) of the original publication.

[[11]]J. A. S. Evans, The Age of Justinian, p. 103.

[[12]]Procopius, De Aedificiis, 1.9.1-10. The Anekdota 17.5-6, adds that some of these reformed harlots found their chaste lives so distasteful that they hurled themselves down from the walls of the convent.

[[13]]Evans, The Age of Justinian, p. 104.

[[14]]Cod. Just. 8.51 [52] 3; Eva Cantarella, Pandora's Daughters (Baltimore, 1987), p. 136.

[[15]]Pandora's Daughters, p. 139.

[[16]]Ibid., p. 164.

[[17]]Evans, The Age of Justinian, pp. 207-8.

[[18]]Patrologia Orientalis (henceforth PO) I, p. 459, states that Theodora originally came from Alexandria. This probably refers to her sojourn there after Hecebolus discarded her, but there may have been a tradition which made her a native of the city. At PO I, p. 454, sub nomine Timothy III, patriarch of Alexandria, 517-535, the History describes (inaccurately) how Theodora interceded for Severus, the patriarch of Antioch.

[[19]]Verhandelingen der Koninklijke Akademie van Wetenschappen, Afdeeling Letterkunde I (1889) pp. 217-219. Trans. into Latin by W. J. Van Douwen and J. P. N. Land.

[[20]]John of Ephesus, Lives of the Eastern Saints. PO, t. 17, I, pp. 187-212, esp. 188-89; pp. 194-5.

[[21]]Ernst Stein, Histoire du Bas-Empire II (1949), p. 377. For what follows, see Carmelo Capizzi, Giustiniano I tra politica e religione (Messina, 1994), pp. 62-88; J. A. S. Evans, The Age of Justinian: The Circumstances of Imperial Power, (London/New York, 1996), pp. 105-112; 183-92.

[[22]]John of Ephesus includes an essay on the communities of monks which Theodora gathered in the Hormisdas Palace (Patrologia Orientalis 18 (Paris, 1924), pp. 676-684) which is remarkable for its description of these holy men who filled every nook and cranny and continued their devotions, Many were stylite saints who, fearing persecution, came down from the pillars; others were monks, including archimandrites, expelled from their cells. The sight of them, the smell, and the noise of their hymns and canticles must have been overwhelming.

[[23]]Evagrius, 4.10; Theophanes, A.M. 6002. John of Beith-Apthonia, Life of Severus (in Syriac), Corpis scriptorum christianorum orientalium II, pp. 205-64, relates that Severus left his refuge at Alexandria without a thought for his safety, and emphasizes Theodora's role as his protector.

[[24]]Anthony Bridge, Theodora, pp. 125-6 presents Anthimius' appointment as a victory for Theodora. Or possibly only a piece of good fortune.

[[25]]Verhandelingen der Koninklijke Akademie van Wetenschappen, Afdeeling Letterkunde XVIII (Amsterdam, 1889) pp. 203-215.

[[26]]The story comes from John of Ephesus. See J. B. Bury, History of the Later Roman Empire II (New York, 1958), pp. 328-330.

Copyright (C) 1998, James Allan Evans. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents, including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.

Comments to: James Allan Evans.

Updated:25 July 1998

For more detailed geographical information, please use the DIR/ORBAntique and Medieval Atlas below. Click on the appropriate part of the map below to access large area maps.

 Clickable Image S-EN-O/N-WS-O/S-WN-E

Return to the Imperial Index