Very little is factually known about Theodora, but the juicy stories of Procopius of Caesarea have secured her the attention of everybody who bears an interest in history or gossip. On the other hand, a grateful Orthodox Church has turned her into sainthood – commemorated every November 14. Whatever the truth, it is a darn good yarn – great copy, they would call it in New York.
She was probably born around AD 500. Procopius relates that her father Acacius was a bear-tamer in the employ of the “Green”, one of the circus parties, and her mother most probably some artist or acrobat. When the husband died, she was left destitute with three young children (Theodora and her two young sisters) to care for, and sought to obtain a livelihood at the circus with the Green party, on behalf of her deceased husband.
Her pleadings ignored by the Green, she found support with the competition, the Blue, of whom she and subsequently her daughter Theodora became fervent supporters. That in itself might not have mattered much in the greater scheme of life in Constantinople, had Theodora not been crowned Empress of the Realm by dint of her marriage in 527 to Emperor Justinian I, who himself had been a fan of the Blue for life.
The importance of the circus factions derived from the fact that these groups – far exceeding the scope of circus games – had become social, almost political gatherings. In the early days of the Republic, there had been four teams – the Red, White, Green and Blue. Yet at the time of Justinian, the Green had long since absorbed the Red, as the Blue had swallowed the White.
Various historians have advanced particulars in which the two great factions presumably differed outside of the racetrack. The Green have been labelled supporters of Monophysitism – of which Theodora was a confessor – and, perhaps, the party of the small people, while the Blue professed the truth of orthodoxy and were murmured to be backed by the rich – which did not sound unlikely given that the Emperor was a fervent supporter of the Blue.
Other views have doubted this view by pointing out that the passions of the games alone were quite sufficient to cause havoc on the grandest scales one might imagine. It is reported that in AD 501 the Green ambushed the competition right in the capital’s amphitheatre and slaughtered three thousand of the Blue. Four years later the defection from the Blue and subsequent win of a race in Antiochia of the Green charioteer Porphyrius caused a public riot.
Be this as it may, in January 532 the kettle boiled over. Emanating from a stupid affair in 531 in which a minor riot had killed a few members of both parties, two of the last perpetrators scheduled to be hanged in early 532 – one Green and one Blue – escaped from custody and took refuge in a church, which was soon beleaguered by an angry mob.
Justinian found himself in a somewhat awkward situation. Another round of the eternal peace negotiations with the Persians was underfoot, and the equally perpetual angriness of the people over the suffocating taxes the fiscus of the treasurer, John of Cappadocia, exerted from the populace had reached an apex. To take pressure out of the situation which threatened to destroy the public peace, Justinian sponsored a day of races to be held on January 13, to calm the ruffled feathers of the capital’s population.
It seems fairly clear that he intended to distract the crowds’ attention with the certain divisiveness of the show, but soon the partisan chants for the two parties gave way to emanations of popular discontent clearly addressed at the highest authority; both factions, Green and Blue alike, clamoured for the Emperor’s mercy for the two murderers until at length a unified cheer of “Nika!” (‘Victory!’, or ‘Conquer!’) arose, the populace rose from their seats and the astonished emperor suddenly realized he faced overthrow.
Scheming senators had long used the reckless tax hikes of the Imperial fiscus to foment discontent among the people. The irate multitudes laid the palace under siege – subsequent fires destroyed much of the city in the next five days, even the Hagia Sophia. On January 19th, the crowds installed Hypatius, consul of the year 500 and nephew of the former emperor Anastasius on the Imperial throne.
Enter the famous story in which Justinian, considering flight, is humiliated by the iron will of Theodora, who emboldens the Imperial household with the winged words that she, herself, would not want to survive the loss of the crown, for “royal purple” she said, “makes for the noblest shroud.”
We do not know who then plotted the way out of the crisis, but the steel will of the Empress
Narses was sent, with a bag full of gold as heavy as he could carry, to the hippodrome to bribe or persuade the leaders of the Blue. He may have argued that Hypatius was a follower of the Green, while Justinian was and had always been their man, a Blue. We do not know what did the trick in the end – words or money – but when the Blue suddenly left the hippodrome, the troops of Belisar and Mundus moved in, killing every Green they could lay hands on and thus ended the rebellion. About 30,000 are said to have been slaughtered.
The outcome was providential in the sense that Justinian now had an excuse to have Hypatius executed and all senators he suspected of having supported the revolt exiled and their fortunes confiscated – thereinafter his reign was never in doubt again – neither was the political leverage of Theodora.
She was certainly of low birth, no matter what we think of the pornographic epithets she regularly receives in Procopius’ “Secret History”. Justinian himself, of whom we know much more, was quite a no-nonsense man, hence we may legitimately doubt how far the erotic entanglements of Theodora indeed had the effect Procopius ascertains – but of
What seems more likely is – given the sultry atmosphere of oriental Imperial courts – and bedchambers – that the Empress employed her interpersonal abilities in the perennial fights for influence amongst the court advisors.
It was rumoured that in her youth she had worked together with her sister Komito in a number of the better brothels of the capital, and later travelled with – adult entertainment groups, one might say – through Asia minor and Africa before she arrived – around AD 520 – in Constantinople, where she made the acquaintance of a Mr. Petrus Sabbatius, who was the nephew of Justin I, who two years ago had met the good fortune of being crowned Emperor of the Romans. Two or three years later she married Justinian – as Mr. Sabbatius now was called, being heir apparent to the empire – an act which necessitated the enactment of a special legal act of dispensation from the general proscription of senators marrying – er – actresses.
We must keep in mind that invective writings for political purposes were par for the course in antiquity, one of the more famous examples or victims being Julia the Elder [see blog entry], sole child of Emperor Augustus, who stood accused of serial adultery, even prostitution, by half a dozen Roman historians. Lust and wickedness are ascribed to Theodora in great detail by the quill of Procopius – as Tom Holland relates (In the Shadow of the Sword, Doubleday Books 2012, ISBN 978−0−385−53135−1, pp. 188 – 9):
Even her bitterest critics – of whom there were many – grudgingly acknowledged that Theodora, consort and beloved of the emperor, was a woman of exceptional abilities. Shrewd, far-sighted and bold, she ranked, in the opinion of Justinian’s cattier critics, as more of a man than her husband ever did.
Rumour had it that at the height of the deadly riots of 532, Constantinople ablaze and Justinian twitchily contemplating flight, she stiffened the imperial backbone by declaring, with a magnificent show of haughtiness, that “purple makes for an excellent shroud.” ( supra)
Steel of this order, in a woman, was unsettling enough to the Roman élite; but even more so were the origins of the empress. Theodora, like an exotic bloom sustained by dung, had her roots, so it was darkly whispered, deep in filth. Dancer, actress and stand-up comic, she had also – long before puberty – been honing on slaves and the destitute a career even more scandalous.
Her vagina, it was said, might just as well have been in her face; and, indeed, such was the use to which she put all three of her orifices that “she would often complain that she did not have orifices in her nipples as well.” The gang-bang had never been held that could wear her out. Most notorious of all had been her trademark floor-show, which had seen her lie on her back, have her genitals sprinkled with grain, and then wait for geese to pick the seeds off one by one with their beaks. Such were the talents, so her critics sneered, that had won for her the besotted devotion of the master of the world. Yet, this sorely underestimated both husband and wife.
She had been promoted to “Augusta” and co-Emperor by her husband in AD 532 at the for Justinian most beneficial occasion of his own ascent to Emperor following his uncle’s death.
It is certain that until her death of cancer in AD 548 she remained her husband’s closest advisor, together with but far outshining Belisarius, Narses, and John of Cappadocia. About the relations of Belisarius and his wife Antonina, who was a dear friend of Theodora and was rumoured to be second only to the empress in carnal knowledge, Procopius also has to relate much.
As mentioned above, Theodora was a Monophysite and hence this minority, which still exists in some Oriental Orthodox Churches, received protection as long as she lived.
(© John Vincent Palatine 2019, Paintings, except where noted, by