In the 6th Century, the Empress Theodora, was the most powerful and influential woman in the Byzantine Empire. She ruled the empire jointly with her husband Justinian and took an active part in state affairs. But for all her power, she was not born into the privileged class. In fact she came from the lowest rungs of society as an actress and courtesan. Read on to find out how her early years shaped her life.
The Origins of Theodora
Theodora was born around 500 to Acacius and his unnamed wife. Acacius was the bear-keeper of the Hippodrome for the Greens in Constantinople. The family’s place of origin was unknown as the sources contradict each other. Some possible locations include Crete, Cyprus and even Syria. The second child in the family, Theodora had an elder sister named Comito and a younger one named Anastasia. The children spent their childhood in the Hippodrome where their father worked. It was not an ideal place to grow up, but they had little choice in the matter. The family belonged to the lowest rung of society.
The Greens and the Blues
The Hippodrome served as the entertainment centre of Constantinople. There were circus acts with clowns, jugglers, acrobats and animals. But the most popular event was the chariot races. During these races, the common folk, the clergy, the elite and the imperial family all gathered to cheer on their preferred teams.
By the time Theodora was born, there were only 2 factions; the Greens and the Blues. These 2 factions served as a supporter’s club managing the Hippodrome and its entertainment. But they also had a certain amount of political influence. Here in the Hippodrome the Greens and the Blues could convey the voice of the people to the emperor. They even had enough power to topple unpopular emperors and ministers. But due to the intense rivalry they had with each other, they spent more time fighting each other and causing havoc in the city. The members of these factions consisted mainly of the dregs of society which made living in the Hippodrome a harsh environment. This was where Theodora grew up.
When Theodora was around 4 or 5, disaster struck; her father died unexpectedly. This left the family without an income. Rather than allow her daughters to starve, Theodora’s mother quickly found another man to live with and tried to get him the vacant slot for bear-keeper of the Greens. Unfortunately, someone had already placed a large bribe for the position. Left with no choice, she decided to make a direct appeal to the members of the Greens for help.
During an interval before one of the races, the poor woman and her daughters stood before the Greens to explain the family’s situation. With her girls in front of her, she begged them to employ her consort so that they could live. But the Greens merely jeered at and shooed them away. This public humiliation would forever shape Theodora’s views towards the Greens. Despite her young age, she would never forget or forgive this insult. Luckily for the family, the Blues stepped in and offered her step-father a job. They did so not out of kindness but to outdo their hated rivals. This act would earn them Theodora’s lifelong support.
In the eyes of Byzantine society, an actress was no better than a prostitute; the lowest member of society. Roman law also forbade high ranking officials from marrying actresses. But for the sake of earning a living, this is what Theodora and her sisters did.
When Theodora was around 12, she followed her sister Comito onstage to help her with her acts. During her time as her sister’s assistant, Theodora grew used to the stage. She even managed to get minor parts in plays due to her ability to make audiences laugh with her antics. By the time she was 15 or 16, everyone knew the beauty, grace and charm of Theodora. She had blossomed into a talented comedian with a natural wit and impeccable timing.
But Theodora was popular because of her willingness to strip on stage during her comic take on well-known plays. This drew huge crowds from all over Constantinople to see her. Additionally, she was also famous for her sexual services as a courtesan which she used to earn more income. At the age of 18, despite her frequent abortions, she had an illegitimate daughter. She might have had a son at the age of 16, but this is uncertain.
Theodora at Pentapolis
In the end, Theodora never liked her lifestyle. When she was around 20, she took off with her lover Hecebolus for North Africa and left everything behind. Hecebolus was heading to Pentapolis to assume his new position as its governor. By going with him, Theodora probably hoped to begin a new life. Unfortunately, things did not go as planned. The lovers soon quarrelled and Hecebolus threw her out. Theodora found herself penniless and a long way from home in a foreign land. This unexpected turn of events was probably the lowest point in her life. But Theodora was undaunted. She was above all a survivor and she would return to Constantinople by any means necessary. This she set out to do.
Theodora, Alexandria and Monophysitism
Theodora’s first stop was Alexandria. Somehow, she managed to raise enough money to pay for her passage to Alexandria which was 500 miles from Pentapolis. She probably travelled by sea since the land route would have been too difficult for her.
In 520, Alexandria was a major city, commercial centre and international marketplace. As people from all over the Mediterranean came to the city to trade, its warehouses were full of exotic goods. Constantinople depended on Alexandria for foodstuffs to keep its citizens happy. The city was also an important Christian centre where all the monks, holy men and clergy gathered.
It was an interesting time for there was much unrest going on in the region. Ever since the time of Constantine the Great, Byzantine emperors had been trying to enforce religious unity throughout the empire. But Christianity itself remained deeply divided. The Christians in Egypt, Syria and Palestine believed in Monophysitism whereby Christ had only one nature. But the Orthodoxy insisted upon by the emperors held that Christ had two natures; one divine and one human.
Life Altering Encounters
Although recent emperors tolerated Monophysitism, with the ascension of Justin, Orthodoxy was favoured once more. As the persecutions began, many from Syria and Palestine fled to Egypt. The imperial government did not dare to offend the Egyptians due to their dependence on its food supply. Thus Alexandria found itself filled with refugees. It was in the midst of these troubles that Theodora arrived. During her short stay in the city, she met two men who would change her life forever.
The first was Timothy, the Patriarch of Alexandria and a Monophysite. Somehow Theodora managed to meet him despite his busy schedule and he impressed her deeply with his intellect and kindness. For the rest of her life, he was the only person whom she would call her spiritual father.
The second was Severus, Patriarch of Antioch. He too was a Monophysite who had fled to Alexandria to seek refuge. He was a brilliant man who had a colourful career as pagan, lawyer, monk and heretic. Theodora herself had thus far led a short but colourful life too. She was also very intelligent and eloquent. Severus must have seen her potential and taken her under his wing. Under his guidance, Theodora learned his brand of Monophysitism and how to hold her own in theological debates. This would have a huge impact on the empire when she became empress. It was also during this time that she became a Monophysite and devoted herself to a more spiritual life.
Return to Constantinople
Although Theodora must have enjoyed her time in Alexandria with Severus, all good things had to end. After staying for a few months, she left the city for Antioch where she became firm friends with the dancer Macedonia. Macedonia had friends in high places and this may have been the link to Theodora’s destiny. But there is no firm evidence for this.
In 522, Theodora finally returned to Constantinople. But by this time, she was a changed woman. She did not go back to her old way of life. Instead, she found a humble place to stay and earned her living by spinning wool. This was indeed a far cry from her earlier life. Yet fate had other plans for her, for she would soon meet the man who would lead her to her destiny.
Reflections of the Vizier
By the age of 22, Theodora had experienced many things in life. She came from the gutter, lived in a cutthroat world and left all that behind after her spiritual encounters in Alexandria. Few could have gone through what she had to turn out the way she did. Theodora was special and different. Her time in Alexandria had unlocked her potential. And soon all these qualities would be adored by the future emperor Justinian.
Bridge, Anthony. Theodora: Portrait in a Byzantine Landscape. Chicago: Academy Chicago Publishers, 1993.
Norwich, John Julius. Byzantium: The Early Centuries. England: Penguin Books, 1990.