THEODORA

Theodora by Tim Sullivan

Today’s fierce female is Theodora, Empress of the Byzantine Empire from 527-548 C.E.

Born to a bear tamer, Theodora became an actress in her early teens, which was then a profession closely associated with sex work. When she caught the eye of the heir to the throne, Justinian, he pled with his uncle, the Emperor to repeal the law stating anyone of his rank could not marry an actress. He relented, and they were wed.

Justinian became Emperor, and Theodora almost immediately established herself as a leader, with contemporaneous accounts going so far as to label them as co-regents. When riots broke out in the city between warring political factions, Justinian ordered his staff to flee Constantinople. In case there was any doubt who was actually in charge around here, Theodora delivered the following address in response:

“My lords, the present occasion is too serious to allow me to follow the convention that a woman should not speak in a man’s council. Those whose interests are threatened by extreme danger should think only of the wisest course of action, not of conventions.

In my opinion, flight is not the right course, even if it should bring us to safety. It is impossible for a person, having been born into this world, not to die; but for one who has reigned it is intolerable to be a fugitive. May I never be deprived of this purple robe, and may I never see the day when those who meet me do not call me empress. 

If you wish to save yourself, my lord, there is no difficulty. We are rich; over there is the sea, and yonder are the ships. Yet reflect for a moment whether, when you have once escaped to a place of security, you would not gladly exchange such safety for death. As for me, I agree with the adage that royal purple is the noblest burial shroud.”

Like, um, sir, you can head on out, I will be right here in my purple shroud governing or dying, whatever it takes, thanks. 

Following the rebellion, Empress Theodora presided over the rebuilding of the city, which included the creation of the Hagia Sophia, one of the great architectural wonders of the world. Perhaps inspired by her humble beginnings, she bought hundreds of women slaves who had been forced into prostitution and freed them, made rape punishable by death, closed brothels, made pimping a crime (but not sex work), and allowed women the right to divorce and own property. 

She died in 548 C.E. Without her, her husband accomplished almost nothing in the remaining seventeen years of his reign. 

No additional quotes from the adorable Theodora, but here’s what Procopius of Caesarea had to say about her at the time:

“Nor, indeed, did a single member of the Senate, seeing the state tying itself to this smear of a woman, decide to disapprove the action and denounce it, though all of them would be prostrating themselves before her as if she were a goddess. Nor did any priest make known his displeasure, despite the fact that they would all be addressing her as Mistress. And the populace, who used to be her audience, immediately now and with upturned hands as though in prayer disgracefully demanded both to be in fact, and to be called, her slave. Nor did any soldier rise up in fury now that he would have to be enduring the dangers of campaigning — on behalf of the interests of Theodora. Nor did any other person challenge her; rather, all of them passively let this pollution happen in the belief, I suppose, that it was simply their ordained fate.”


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