How Theodora Ruled the Empire

Bust of Theodora by Giovanni Dall’Orto

The Empress Theodora was not merely a consort with no real power. She ruled the Byzantine Empire jointly with her husband Justinian. It was a good arrangement because Justinian had many projects on hand which held his attention. He needed to share his power with someone whom he could trust. That person was his beloved wife Theodora, who proved to be able at handling state affairs. While Justinian busied himself with his wars and building, Theodora managed the day to day running of the empire. Find out how she used her power.

The Rise of Theodora

By suppressing the Nika Riots, Justinian removed the greatest threat to his power. This left him free to send his armies to conquer North Africa and Italy. Never one to focus on only one thing at a time, Justinian engaged in a great building project to replace the ones destroyed by the Nika Riots. The most famous of these was the great church known as the Hagia Sophia. But that was not all. The emperor was also involved in the revision of the legal code. All of these matters took up much of his time, so he left the daily management of state affairs in the hands of Theodora. Firstly, he trusted and loved her enough to do so. Secondly, she had proven to be shrewd, intelligent and able. It was her advice that helped him to survive the Nika Riots after all.

How Theodora Restored the People’s Faith

The aftermath of the Nika Riots was a delicate time. Although Justinian had managed to keep his throne, his prestige had suffered greatly. This however, did not stop him from busying himself with his endless projects. Meanwhile, Theodora was busy with state affairs. As empress, she liked to hold court outside of Constantinople whenever she could. Her favourite place was Hieron. During her stay at the small town on the Asiatic shore of the Bosphorus, a grand train of imperial officials followed her. But these excursions were not merely for pleasure. The splendour of her procession served to remind the people of imperial power.

Theodora’s experiences had taught her much about people. She knew that they needed to be awed from time to time, if not they easily forgot who was in charge. This display was all the more crucial after the Nika Riots when Justinian’s prestige at an all time low. With this is mind, the empress appeared with her officials at Chrysopolis, a town on the Asiatic shore of the Bosphorus. Given the town’s proximity to the capital, any unrest here spelt trouble for the government. The sight of Theodora handling state affairs with the aid of around 2,000 officials calmed the people’s fears and restored their confidence in the government. Once more the empress saved the throne for her husband.

Part of Theodora’s duties also involved entertaining guests. She was amply suited for this task because she was a superb hostess and had great taste in food. All her guests, both local and foreign, praised the dinners and parties she held. This helped to maintain the prestige of the empire in the eyes of both allies and foes. Since Justinian cared little about his food, he was content to leave these matters to his wife.

Champion of the Monophysites

Theodora always remembered her friends and kindness shown to her. During the lowest point of her life, the Monophysite Christians of Alexandria had taken her in. There, she met the exiled Patriarch of Antioch, Severus, who converted her to Monophysitism. She never forgot her experiences in Egypt and now that she was empress, she was determined to repay the kindness shown to her. This was no easy task for the Monophysites were the most persecuted Christian sect of the day.

From the start, Theodora worked hard to protect them. Firstly, she got Justinian to stop their persecution by pointing out that it was futile. The persecutions produced no benefits and only alienated his citizens, causing unrest in the empire. Justinian had to agree because no matter how he oppressed the Monophysites, they still clung to their beliefs. When the persecutions ceased, the Monophysites rejoiced and gave thanks to God and Theodora.

But the empress did not stop there. She welcomed and offered her protection to Monophysites who flocked to Constantinople. Soon, with the blessings of the empress, Monophysite monks took up residence in the Palace of Hormisdas as well. Although the favour shown to the heretics shocked the Orthodox bishops, they could do little about it.

Now, as long as there was a Christian sect that did not follow the official Orthodox doctrine of the empire, there could be no unity in the realm. To this end, Theodora tried to arrange a compromise. She got Justinian to extend an invitation to her revered tutor Severus to visit the capital for a discussion of religious doctrine. But Severus, suspicious of Justinian, declined on the account of his old age. Instead, he sent his disciples in his stead. Although a council convened between the Orthodox Christians and the Monophysites, both sides failed to reach an agreement. Still it was a great step forward to have gotten both parties to discuss their views amicably. Ever the shrewd realist, Theodora was prepared to bide her time for peace in the Church.

Here we see how Theodora quelled unrest in the empire. She had the vision and the determination to bring two rival Christian sects together for a discussion of doctrine. A few years ago, this would have been unthinkable due to the persecution of the Monophysites. Even though Theodora favoured the Monophysites, her actions were a step forward in bringing peace to the Church.

Theodora’s Piety and Charity

Because religion played a large part in the culture of the Byzantines, protocol required Theodora to attend endless feasts and ceremonies. Yet she did not find these duties a chore for her faith was sincere. She worshipped piously and always made it a point to pray each morning for guidance and wisdom. She also had a deep respect for all holy men who had turned their back on the world. She revered them greatly and was willing to put up with their eccentric ways. But her protection nevertheless extended to all Christians.

The empress founded many monasteries, churches, hospitals, orphanages and shelters for the old, poor and handicapped. Her donations to help the needy were always lavish. All these actions raised the standing and prestige of the imperial government in the eyes of the people. Through these common touches, Theodora reached out and embraced the citizens of the empire.

Reflections of the Vizier

Theodora proved to be well suited for her role as empress. Her greatest asset was her knowledge of people. She knew how to restore their confidence and win them over. But she also had a sincere desire to improve their lot since she had risen from their ranks. Above all, she was realistic, patient and determined in trying to reach her goals. The way she handled the persecution of the Monophysites was proof of these qualities. Without Theodora to help him run the empire, Justinian would not have had the time to devote to his many projects. Not only did he owe his empire to his wife, even his title of “the Great” was the result of Theodora’s willingness to shoulder the burden of rule.

References

Bridge, Anthony. Theodora: Portrait in a Byzantine Landscape. Chicago: Academy Chicago Publishers, 1993.

Norwich, John Julius. Byzantium: The Early Centuries. England: Penguin Books, 1990.

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  1. Flavah says:

    I have read the entire series of articles re: Theodora. I found the material engaging and well-written. Kudos!

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