By the age of 20, Theodora had seen and learned much about the ways of the world. Turning her back on her former lifestyle, she was content to eke out a humble living while devoting her life to God. But God had other plans for her. In the short time that she had returned to Constantinople, she would soon cross paths with the most powerful man in the empire; the future Emperor Justinian. Read on to find out how Justinian changed her life.
In 522, the most powerful man in the Byzantine Empire was Justinian, the nephew of the Emperor Justin. He was around 40 and had been in charge of state affairs for some years. Justinian was average looking, a little plump with red rosy cheeks and dark curly hair. What he lacked in stature, he made up for in intellect. In an empire of learned men, Justinian was one of the most learned of them all. It was because of his learning that the old emperor left the state affairs in his hands.
In contrast, Theodora was probably around 20 when she returned to Constantinople. After her religious awakening in Alexandria, she turned her back on her former life as an actress and courtesan. To earn her living, she spun wool and lived in a small house, faceless and unknown. But this was not to be for God had other plans for her.
Theodora Meets Justinian
It is unclear how Theodora and Justinian met, but a link they both shared was their favour for the Blues. The Blues was one of the factions that managed events in the Hippodrome. They also had enough political influence to topple emperors and statesmen. Although Theodora had reformed, she still maintained ties with the Blues to whom she felt indebted. Meanwhile, Justinian was trying to court the favour of the Blues. He needed their support for the throne he hoped to receive from his uncle. It was likely that at one of his social networking sessions, he met Theodora and fell in love with her.
It is not difficult to see why Justinian loved her so deeply. She was beautiful, intelligent and confident. Despite her tender age of 20, she had a worldly wisdom about her that belied her years. But more importantly, Justinian must have sensed an intellectual equal from his time with her. He must have felt that she was someone who could help him to fulfil his ambitions. As he kept on returning to visit her, he grew fonder of her with each passing day. Soon he asked her to be his mistress and Theodora accepted. This fateful decision changed her life forever.
Life and Love as Justinian’s Mistress
As Justinian’s mistress, Theodora moved into the Palace of Hormisdas. It lay near the Bosphorus along the shore of the Sea of Marmara. This must have been shocking to many who knew of Theodora’s past. But given the power Justinian had, it would have been foolish to say much. Meanwhile, the couple must have enjoyed themselves admiring the view of the sea and discussing their future plans. While they both loved each other dearly, they were also ambitious and looked ahead to the bright future they had.
In the meantime, Justinian did all he could to make Theodora happy. Firstly, he showered her with gifts and made sure she was financially secure. Next, he got the emperor to make her a patrician, raising her standing and status in society. Then, treating her as an equal and trusted confidant, he sought her opinion on all matters of state. It was a prudent move for her input was always intelligent and pragmatic. And despite being orthodox in his Christian faith, Justinian tried to be more tolerant for Theodora’s sake. Realizing that she backed the Monophysites, he got the emperor to stop their oppression and to better their lives.
It was a huge turnaround for Theodora who had known little happiness or security for much of her life. Her meteoric rise from the lowest rung of society to her high standing must have been hard to believe. In the past, her views counted for nothing and she struggled to earn a decent living. Now she had all the love, wealth, power and influence she could ever hope for. She even had the ability to protect those who were close to her, like the Monophysites.
But did Theodora love Justinian? Even if she did not love him initially, his sincerity moved her in the end. There is no mention by any known source of infidelity on her part. For the rest of her life she remained faithful to Justinian and supported him through every crisis he faced. There was also a ruthless side to her. She had no qualms about destroying anyone who dared to threaten her or Justinian.
Obstacles to Marriage
But until the lovers were married before God, they would not be content. Unfortunately, for all his power, Justinian faced a few problems that seemed hard to resolve.
Firstly, there was the Roman law which forbade the upper class from marrying a courtesan. Polite society viewed this occupation as the lowest of the low, not worthy of mingling with the elite. The second and more serious obstacle was his aunt, the Empress Euphemia. Although the empress was a former slave herself, she refused to sanction the marriage because of Theodora’s past. While Justinian could easily alter the law, he could not oppose his aunt outright. So the lovers had to bide their time.
The Empress Theodora
Luckily, they did not have to wait long. Euphemia passed away sometime around 523. God was on their side after all. Justinian swiftly got the emperor to alter the law that stood in the way of their marriage. Now anyone could marry a reformed courtesan. But the couple did not rush to get married at once. Showing restraint, they patiently observed a period of mourning for the dearly departed empress.
But the dead would not return and life had to go on. Around 525, the Patriarch Epiphanius married Justinian and Theodora in the Hagia Sophia. On that joyous day, the people joined in the celebrations and paid their respects to the newlywed couple. They knew that these two would one day be their future rulers. True enough, when the emperor died in 527, Justinian ascended the throne and crowned Theodora his empress and co-ruler. The former courtesan now found herself the new empress of the Byzantine Empire. But it was a role that suited her well.
Reflections of the Vizier
Theodora’s rise was as sudden as it was unexpected. No one could have foreseen that she would one day become empress. It was true that she had great beauty. But without the intelligence and substance to go with it, she would never have won and kept the heart of Justinian. Before this, she had no say in anything. Now all her survival skills would come into play as she worked hard to keep the throne secure for herself and her husband.
Bridge, Anthony. Theodora: Portrait in a Byzantine Landscape. Chicago: Academy Chicago Publishers, 1993.
Norwich, John Julius. Byzantium: The Early Centuries. England: Penguin Books, 1990.