Related Posts: Pro­copi­us / Goth­ic Wars / The End of the Legions

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.

Con­stantinople, AD 530

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.

Empress Theodora - painting by Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant
Empress Theodora – paint­ing by Jean-Joseph Ben­jamin-Con­stant

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.

View at the For­um

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.

Chari­ot Race by Sándor-Wag­n­er

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.

Alfredo Tom­inz – Chari­ot Race

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.

The 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 may have well played a role. The plot was based on the spe­cial tal­ents of the gen­er­als Bel­is­ari­us and Mundus, and the thespi­an and rhet­or­ic skills of the eunuch Narses. It may not sur­prise any­one that the plan hatched was based on the metals of Imper­i­al splend­our – gold and iron.


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 course we do not know.

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.

Cleopatra by Giuseppe de Sanctis
Cleo­patra by Giuseppe de Sanc­tis

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.

Leda and the Swan by Carrier-Belleuse, about 1870
Leda and the Swan by Car­ri­er-Bel­leuse, about 1870

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.

Related Posts: Pro­copi­us / Goth­ic Wars / The End of the Legions

(© John Vin­cent Pal­at­ine 2019, Paint­ings, except where noted, by
Jean-Joseph Ben­jamin-Con­stant)

Hits: 886