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Theodora (Wife of Justinian)

1911 Encyclopedia Britannica

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The wife of the emperor Justinian (q.v.), was born probably in Constantinople, though according to some in Cyprus, in the early years of the 6th century, and died in 547. According to Procopius, our chief, but by no means a trustworthy authority for her life, she was the daughter of Acacius, a bear-feeder of the amphitheatre at Constantinople to the Green Faction, and while still a child was sent on to the stage to earn her living in the performances called mimes. She had no gift for either music or dancing, but made herself notorious by the spirit and impudence of her acting in the rough farces, as one may call them, which delighted the crowd of the capital. Becoming a noted courtesan, she accompanied a certain Hecebolus to Pentapolis (in North Africa), of which he had been appointed governor, and, having quarrelled with him, betook herself first to Alexandria, and then back to Constantinople through the cities of Asia Minor. In Constantinople (where, according to a late but apparently not quite groundless story, she now endeavoured to support herself by spinning, and may therefore have been trying to reform her life) she attracted the notice of Justinian, then patrician, and, as the all-powerful nephew of the emperor Justin, practically ruler of the empire. He desired to marry her, but could not overcome the opposition of his aunt, the empress Euphemia. After her death (usually assigned to the year 523) the emperor yielded, and as a law, dating from the time of Constantine, forbade the marriage of women who had followed the stage with senators, this law was repealed. Thereupon Justinian married Theodora, whom he had already caused to be raised to the patriciate. They were some time after (527) admitted by Justin to a share in the sovereignty; and, on his death four months later, Justinian and Theodora became sole rulers of the Roman world. He was then about forty-four years of age, and she some twenty years younger. Procopius relates in his unpublished history ('AvbcSora ) many repulsive tales regarding Theodora's earlier life, but his evident hatred of her, though she had been more than ten years dead when the Anecdota were written, and the extravagances which the book contains, oblige us to regard him as a very doubtful witness. Some confirmation of the reported opposition of the imperial family to the marriage has been found in the story regarding the conduct of Justinian's own mother Vigilantia, which Nicholas Alemanni, the first editor of the Anecdota, in his notes to that book, quotes from a certain "Life of Justinian" by Theophilus, to which he frequently refers, without saying where he found it. Mr Bryce, however, discovered in Rome what is believed to be the only MS. of this so-called life of Justinian; and his examination of its contents makes him think it worthless as an authority (see Theophilus).

Theodora speedily acquired unbounded influence over her husband. He consulted her in everything, and allowed her to interfere directly, as and when she pleased, in the government of the empire. She had a right to interfere, for she was not merely his consort, but empress regnant, and as such entitled equally with himself to the exercise of all prerogatives. In the most terrible crisis of Justinian's reign, the great Nika insurrection of 532, her courage and firmness in refusing to fly when the rebels were attacking the palace saved her husband's crown, and no doubt strengthened her command over his mind.

Officials took an oath of allegiance to her as well as to the emperor (Nov., viii.). She even corresponded with foreign ambassadors, and instructed Belisarius how to deal with the popes. Procopius describes her as acting with harshness, seizing on trivial pretexts persons who had offended her, stripping some of their property, and throwing others into dungeons, where they were cruelly tortured or kept for years without the knowledge of their friends. The city was full of her spies, who reported to her everything said against herself or the administration. She surrounded herself with ceremonious pomp, and required all who approached to abase themselves in a manner new even to that half-Oriental court. She was an incessant and tyrannical match-maker, forcing men to accept wives and women to accept husbands at her caprice. She constituted herself the protectress of faithless wives against outraged husbands, yet professed great zeal for the moral reformation of the city, enforcing severely the laws against vice, and immuring in a "house of repentance" on the Asiatic side of the Bosphorus five hundred courtesans whom she had swept out of the streets of the capital. How much of all this is true we have no means of determining, for it rests on the sole word of Procopius. But there are slight indications in other writers that she had a reputation for severity.

In the religious strife which distracted the empire Theodora took part with the Monophysites, and her coterie usually contained several leading prelates and monks of that party. As Justinian was a warm upholder of the decrees of Chalcedon, this difference of the royal pair excited much remark and indeed much suspicion. Many saw in it a design to penetrate the secrets of both ecclesiastical factions, and so to rule more securely. In other matters also the wife spoke and acted very differently from the husband; but their differences do not seem to have disturbed either his affection or his confidence. The maxim in Constantinople was that the empress was a stronger and a safer friend than the emperor; for, while he abandoned his favourites to her wrath, she stood by her proteges, and never failed to punish anyone whose heedless tongue had assailed her character.

Theodora bore to Justinian no son, but one daughter - at least it would seem that her grandson, who is twice mentioned, was the offspring of a legitimate daughter, whose name, how ever, is not given. According to Procopius, she had before her marriage become the mother of a son, who when grown up returned from Arabia, revealed himself to her, and forthwith disappeared for ever; but this is a story to be received with distrust. That her behaviour as a wife was irreproachable may be gathered from the fact that Procopius mentions only one scandal affecting it, the case of Areobindus. Even he does not seem to believe this case, for, while referring to it as a mere rumour, the only proof he gives is that, suspecting Areobindus: of some offence, she had torture applied to this supposed paramour. Her health was delicate, and, though she took alI possible care of it, frequently quitting the capital for the seclusion of her villas on the Asiatic shore, she 'died comparatively young. Theodora was small in stature and rather pale, but with a graceful figure, beautiful features, and a piercing glance. There remains in the apse of the famous church of S. Vitale at Ravenna a contemporaneous mosaic portrait of her, to which the artist, notwithstanding the stiffness of the material, has succeeded in giving some character.

The above account is in substance that which historians of the two centuries and a half prior to 1885 accepted and repeated regarding this famous empress. But it must be admitted to be open to serious doubts. Everything relating to the early career of Theodora, the faults of her girlhood, the charges of cruelty and insolence in her government of the empire, rest on the sole authority of the Anecdota of Procopius - a book whose credit is shaken by its bitterness and extravagance. If we reject it, little is left against her, except of course that action in ecclesiastical affairs which excited the wrath of Baronius, who had denounced her before the Anecdota was published.

In favour of the picture which Procopius gives of the empress it may be argued (1) that she certainly did interfere constantly and arbitrarily in the administration of public affairs, and showed herself therein the kind of person who would be cruel and unscrupulous in her choice of means, and (2) that we gather from other writers an impression that she was harsh and tyrannical, as, for instance, from the references to her in the lives of the popes in the Liber Pontificalis (which used to pass under the name of Anastasius, the papal librarian). Her threat to the person whom she commanded to bring Vigilius to her was "nisi hoc feceris, per Viventem in saecula excoriari to faciam." Much of what we find in these lives is legendary, but they are some evidence of Theodora's reputation. Again, (3) the statute ( Cod., v. 4, 23) which repeals the older law so far as relates to scenicae mulieres is now generally attributed to Justin, and agrees with the statement of Procopius that an alteration of the law was made to legalize her marriage. There is therefore reason for holding that she was an actress, and, considering what the Byzantine stage was (as appears even by the statute in question), her life cannot have been irreproachable.

Against the evidence of Procopius, with such confirmations as have been indicated, there is to be set the silence of other writers, contemporaries like Agathias and Evagrius, as well as such later historians as Theophanes, none of whom repeat the charges as to Theodora's life before her marriage. To this consideration no great weight need be attached. It is difficult to establish any view of the controversy without a long and minute examination of the authorities, and in particular of the Anecdota. But the most probable conclusions seem to be - (i) that the odious details which Procopius gives, and which Gibbon did not blush to copy, deserve no more weight than would be given nowadays to the malignant scandal of disappointed courtiers under a despotic government, where scandal is all the blacker because it is propagated in secret; (2) that apparently she was an actress and a courtesan, and not improbably conspicuous in both those characters; and (3) that it is impossible to determine how far the specific charges of cruelty and oppression brought against her by Procopius deserve credence. We are not bound to accept them, for they are uncorroborated; yet the accounts of Justinian's government given in the Anecdota agree in too many respects with what we [know aliunde to enable us to reject them altogether; and it must be admitted that there is a certain internal consistency in the whole picture which the Anecdota present of the empress. About the beauty, the intellectual gifts, and the imperious will of Theodora there can be no doubt, for as to these all our authorities agree. She was evidently an extraordinary person, born to shine in any station of life.

Her fortunes have employed many pens. Among the later serious works dealing with them may be mentioned M. Antonin Debidour's L'Imperatrice Theodora: Etude Critique (Paris, 1885), which endeavours to vindicate her from the aspersions of Procopius; and among more imaginative writings are Sir Henry Pottinger's interesting romance Blue and Green (London, Hurst and Blackett, 1879), M. Rhangabe's tragedy Oeo&opa (Leipzig, 1884), and M. Sardou's play Theodora, produced in Paris in 1884. See also Dr F. Dahn's Prokopios von Ccisarea (1865), and, in addition, the works cited under JusTINIAN. (J. BR.)

Bibliography Information
Chisholm, Hugh, General Editor. Entry for 'Theodora (Wife of Justinian)'. 1911 Encyclopedia Britanica. https://www.studylight.org/​encyclopedias/​eng/​bri/​t/theodora-wife-of-justinian.html. 1910.
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