Even as an empress who enjoyed the finer things in life, Theodora never forgot her humble roots. Coming from the lowest rung of society, she knew how appalling the conditions could be for the poor and the helpless. Now that she had power, she fought hard to improve the lot of women in the empire. She would go through any lengths to change their lives for the better. Read on to find out how Theodora championed the rights of women.
What Theodora Did for Actresses
Theodora knew she could not be everywhere at once, so she focused on getting her husband to pass laws to protect women. As the Byzantine Empire was a patriarchal society, many of its laws hampered the lives of women; especially those who were poor. Take actresses for example. Socially, they were the lowest member of society and had little rights. Many girls became actresses simply because there were few other options opened to the poor. Worsening matters, the law forbade them to change their profession or to leave their employer. Thus an actress had no means of escaping her fate.
But Theodora changed all that. Having been a former actress herself, she knew the way the industry worked. Thus, she altered the laws that made it difficult for actresses to change their way of life. Now if they chose to leave their profession, they could do so. As soon as the law came into effect, around 200 actresses quitted their jobs.
What Theodora Did for Prostitutes
Another big issue for Theodora was prostitution. Poverty and slavery were rampant in the empire. This made it easy for unscrupulous businessmen to purchase young girls for pittance from poor families. Due to the high demand for prostitutes; especially in the large cities, the businessmen quickly made a handsome profit. There was however no escape for the girls who were essentially sex slaves. A legal contract bound them to their masters so they had to work till they outlived their usefulness. At this stage, they found themselves thrown out of the brothels and left to survive on their own. On a rare occasion a customer might take pity on a girl and wish to marry her to save her from her wretched existence. But her master might refuse to let her go since she was legally bound to him.
Theodora was well aware of this disgusting practice. She made it her mission to root out the industry and the men who made a fortune from it. Through persistent efforts, she worked to undermine and abolish the industry. Finally, in 535, November 14, she managed to pass a law that made brothels and pimping illegal throughout the empire. Having won and gotten her way, Theodora purchased the freedom of as many prostitutes as she could to compensate the brothel owners. Finally, she built a convent to care for and reform these women. Located on the Asiatic shore of the Bosphorus, the convent was aptly named Metanoia; meaning repentance.
What Theodora Did for Women in General
Naturally, Theodora was not content to stop there. Through Justinian, she made sure that daughters received their fair share of inheritance. She made sure that if a husband were to die; his wife’s dowry would become her property again. She also made sure that children of female slaves were not slaves like their mother. All these measures improved the position of women in Byzantine society.
Theodora and Marriage
In her bid to champion and protect women however, Theodora could be a little over zealous. There were stories told, probably by her enemies, of how she sided with wives against husbands. Even if the wives were in the wrong, they knew that with Theodora’s backing, they could control their husbands. If a husband divorced his wife for adultery, all the wife had to do was to appeal to Theodora. The empress would either get the husband to take his wife back or pay a larger alimony to settle the divorce. During her reign, husbands behaved well towards their wives because they knew their wives had a powerful backer.
Theodora believed firmly in the sanctity of marriage and despised promiscuity. She was therefore prepared to go to great lengths to make society conform to her ideals. The empress had no qualms about using her power to force people to stay married even if it was an unhappy marriage. As a result, not everyone was happy with the state of affairs due to Theodora’s meddling.
Reflections of the Vizier
Theodora did much to improve the lives of women during her reign. Because of her, women in Byzantine society tended to be better of compared to women in other civilizations. As the empress had risen from the lowest rung of society, she understood the plight of women and did her best to help them. But not everyone benefitted. Theodora had strict views about the sanctity of marriage and had no qualms about imposing them on others. This did not work out well for all, especially for couples who no longer loved each other. But as a whole, the women of her times were lucky to have Theodora as empress.
Bridge, Anthony. Theodora: Portrait in a Byzantine Landscape. Chicago: Academy Chicago Publishers, 1993.
Norwich, John Julius. Byzantium: The Early Centuries. England: Penguin Books, 1990.