The life of Theodora, wife of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I, might sound like a fairy tale not too far from the Cinderella’s one, if it wasn’t known thing that that all happened for real. It is certain that the fictional orphan girl with the evil stepmother was not a prostitute, but it’s also true that she didn’t have to deal a biographer such as Procopius.

The Empress Theodora – Basilica of San Vitale

Above: public domain

In reality Procopius was the historian who talked about life, war and civil works of the Emperor Justinian I, one of the most important sovereigns in the history of the Eastern Roman Empire. As a wise and certainly a bit snob aristocrat, Procopius could not bear his wife Theodora, who got to become the Empress of the Empire despite her extremely humble origin and the licentious behaviour during her early days.

Therefore he chose to write a brief book, without publication, in order to not risk being killed, where he was freeing his hatred over all those people that in his previous books had been treated with grace in the official writings. From Justinian I, Theodora, the general Belisarius and his wife Antonina, friend of the Empress. Even though what Procopius  wrote in his “Secret History”, printed for the first time in 1623, was considered as a false (in its pages Justinian was appointed as a reincarnation of the devil), what he said throughout his book is true, confirmed by other authors from that time too.

1st edition frontispice  of “Secret History” – 1623

Theodora was a beautiful woman who made Justinian I fall in love with her before becoming Emperor. In her past though, she had an adventurous life, not exactly chaste. Procopius defined her as a “talented actress”, which was by itself an offensive expression meaning that she was a prostitute. Furthermore her father Acacius was a bear trainer in the Hippodrome in Constantinople.

Acacius died when his three daughters were still young and her mother introduced them to the theatrical career, path that she had followed for herself as well before the marriage. Theodora specialised in indecent performances and as a courtesan who would give herself to acts against nature, considering her young age. Procopius described her like this:

“she would give herself to obscene male-like intercourse with some miserable men, mainly slaves, who following their masters to theatre they were finding pleasure at their own expenses – and even in the brothel she was spending much of her time to this task against nature with her body.”

Theodora in a painting from the 19th century

Above: public domain

Procopius went even further by telling how Theodora, one reached her adolescence “she entered in the circle of the actresses and started straight away as a courtesan. She did not know how to play the flute or the harp, and she had never even tried the dance. To who the approaching ones, the only thing she could offer was her beauty, making sure to give away her own body.”

Procopius went through detailed calculations on how many intercourse the future empress were consuming every night, on average. His tale was confirmed by another historian of the time who called the sovereign “Theodora from the brothel”, name that she was addressed to in younger times.

When she was 16 she had left Constantinople to accompany her lover, newly nominated as a governor or Libya. Once alone, on her way back home she stepped by to Alexandria. That was an important moment for the future sovereign as there she met the Patriarch Timothy III who allowed her to change life. Once back to the capital, she started earning money as a wool spinner but her beauty didn’t go unnoticed and  Justinian was captured by her. She was just 20 years old and he was 40.

The Emperor Justinian I – Basilica of San Vitale

Above: picture by Petar Milošević via Wikipedia – licence CC BY-SA 4.0

In order to marry Theodora, Justinian convinced his uncle the emperor Justine I, almost about to die, to pass a law which would have allowed a man of noble origin to marry an actress, union considered to be against the common moral.

On the 4th of April of the 527, three days before the death of the uncle Justine I, Theodore was crowned as an empress

Theodora and her court – Basilica of San Vitale

Above: picture by Petar Milošević via Wikipedia – licence CC BY-SA 4.0

The woman had a huge impact on the management of the Empire, even when delicate decisions had to be made. It was her who convinced her husband to not run away from Constantinople during the Nika riots, event lasted 6 days with the intent of destroying Justinian. The emperor managed to calm down the riotous  people giving away part of the royal treasure to the population, especially to the leaders of the riots.

 Justinian and his followers – Basilica of San Vitale

Above: public domain

It was still credit of Theodora if a series of laws where approved through which women were seeing more rights: giving the chance for them to inherit properties, more protection given to them in case of divorce and the guikty party of a rape was from then on punished.

When Theodora died in 548, f perhaps for a type of cancer, Justinian must have felt cut in half since, according to Procopius:

In their life they never did anything which was not along with the other one

The empress, buried in the Church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople, kept on having her name spread around especially thanks to the slander of a Byzantine historian and her beauty, still visible in that that marvellous mosaic that is  the basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna.

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