Saint Theodora: The Pimp-Hunting Heretic Stripper Empress Crowned by God

Theodora is one of those incandescent figures in human history who managed to change the world through sheer personality, propelling herself from the bottom of the world to the throne of a superpower.

Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant, “La Emperatriz Theodora.” Oil on canvas, 1887. (source)

She was known as a prostitute, an actress, a spy, an empress, and ultimately a saint. Theodora of Byzantium has been a lot of things over the years, as the wife of Emperor Justinian I and in her own right one of the most iconic and controversial figures in the history of the Byzantine Empire. But it may be that one of her most important labels is one that none, perhaps, would have dared call her to her face: heretic.

In many ways, Theodora ticks exactly the right boxes for a thrilling hagiography. The woman has it all: A lurid backstory that serves as the launching point for a dramatic conversion experience. An iconic love story, in which a girl from humble beginnings becomes not merely the wife, but the partner, of an Emperor. A shining reputation for works of compassion, as a champion of the unfortunate who constantly looked for ways to serve those who could not help themselves.

There’s just one hitch in this saint’s tale: Theodora was committed to a belief system that the church had banished from the bounds of orthodoxy. She was a Monophysite (a heretical sect condemned half a century before her birth, at the Council of Chalcedon) married to an Orthodox Christian king.

Her concern for the unfortunate extended to those who shared her heresy. An inscription in what used to be the church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus calls her “the God-Crowned Theodora whose mind is adorned with piety and whose constant toil lies in unsparing efforts to nourish the destitute.” She may have housed many of her Monophysite allies in that very church.

Theodora never forgot her previous lives. As Empress, she worked against the Byzantine sex trade, prosecuting a strategy that belied her roots: punishing the pimps and protecting the women and girls who the trade made into victims.

Theodora’s unique life and character — her loyalty to friends and allies, her compassion for the unfortunate, her powerful personality that allowed her to live as an equal with the Emperor of Byzantium, her devout and heretical faith — enabled her to serve as a positive influence on freedom and justice in the Byzantine empire.

The Lurid Backstory

As David Potter writes in his biography of the empress, primary sources for Theodora are so dubious as to be nonexistent: “We cannot be certain we have a single word she spoke.” The woman whose voice reverberated across the known world now speaks to us only through others, some of whom loved her, some of whom hated her.

“Theodora, Slave Empress,” directed by Riccardo Freda, 1954.

Both of them can teach us something. For instance, Byzantine scholar James Evans lends credence to Procopius’ virulently anti-Theodoran work Secret History when it relates Theodora’s past in less-respected professions of Byzantine society because John of Ephesus, who adored her, also describes her as Theodora ‘‘who came from the brothel.”

Before the brothel, however, Theodora was a child of the circus. When she was born in 495 as the second of three daughters, Theodora’s father worked as an an ursarius, or bear trainer for the Greens, one of the two major factions in the Constantinople chariot-racing scene. The Greens and their rivals, the Blues, feuded in the circus and in the streets much like present-day football hooligans; but when Theodora’s father died and her mother remarried, the Greens refused to give her father’s old job back to the family. So the family found refuge with the Blues, and Theodora remained a fierce supporter of the Blues all her life.

Following her mother and sister, Theodora took to the stage. Theater performers and circus people both lived at the bottom of the Byzantine hierarchy — and Theodora’s stage career, if we believe her critics, did not lack for the sort of risque spectacle that people had come to expect from the Byzantine stage. Procopius’ account, according to Evans, does not skimp on the sexy details, describing the future empress’ alleged penchant for stripteases, marathon sex parties and rather shocking comic acts involving geese eating grain off of her crotch. After that last one, she would apparently spring to her feet and acknowledge the applause without embarrassment. “It seems she was also a contortionist who could bend her back until her mouth was level with her groin,” Evans writes. “Procopius invites our disapproval.”

Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant, “The Empress Theodora at the Colisseum,” oil on canvas.

The line between acting and prostitution was rather fluid in Theodora’s world, and it is not hard to see how she could have ended up on both sides. Some of her lovers came from the Byzantine world’s more rarefied echelons. After a brief, failed liaison with a Roman official in Libya, she ended up in Alexandria, where Evans suggests she encountered Monophysite clerics and became devout. Potter says that her association with the heresy happened later, when she lived in Antioch. In any case, “she became an enthusiastic amateur theologian,” Evans writes, “and her devotion to Monophysitism was never to waver.”

The Iconic Love Story

Many legends surround the moment when Justinian and Theodora met, including a charming tale involving the now-retired actress working in Constantinople as a pious wool spinner. But Evans and Potter seem to prefer a more swashbuckling version, in which Theodora comes to the middle-aged emperor’s attention through her work in Antioch as a spy and informer for the Blue faction, of which Justinian was also a fan. This story is interesting because it suggests that from the beginning, Justinian was aware of his future wife as a canny, clever, perceptive ally — all of the qualities that would manifest themselves in the Empress.

Indeed, it was during her years in Antioch, Potter suggests, that Theodora became Theodora:

The Theodora who emerged from her years in Antioch would be a powerful and unique personality. She would be renowned as exceptionally smart, exceptionally beautiful, and exceptionally tough. And it was during this period that she would put her past as actress, courtesan, and concubine behind her for good to become the woman who would rule an empire.

We begin to see Theodora’s influence on the Empire even before Justinian became Emperor, when in 524 he prevailed on his predecessor Justin to change the law so that actresses could marry high-ranking men. By this point he had already promoted Theodora to the social rank of patrician, and they were married in time for her to be acclaimed Theodora Augusta at Justinian’s coronation on April 1, 527. “The people,” Evans writes, “who had attended her performances in the theater, now clamored to be her subjects.”

Empress Theodora. Mosaic at the Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy. (source)

As Emperor and Empress, Justinian and Theodora portrayed themselves — and, usually, genuinely operated — as equals. In one law, Justinian describes her as “our most reverend partner granted us by God,” Evans observes, adding that Byzantine governors swore loyalty not just to Justinian, but to Justinian and Theodora. Visitors at court had to kiss the feet of both emperor and empress.

Her power, as Evans notes, derived from his: “If she was influential, it was because Justinian respected her.” But this did not mean it was not real power. In a time when devotion to the Virgin Mary as Theotokos (“God bearer’) was on the rise, Theodora’s role was seen as “the earthly equivalent of Mary’s.”

Theodora took an active role in governing as well, and sometimes an independent one. “Theodora had her own connections with foreign courts,” Potter writes, “her own sources of information.” She was the first empress toattend meetings of the council of ministers, and she ruthlessly held onto her status in the often-unstable inner circle of Justinian’s court. Perhaps her finest hour came during the chaotic Nika revolts in Byzantium, when the Blues and the Greens rose up against the Imperium and Justinian was ready to flee for his life. In one of history’s most famous speeches, Theodora is said to have spoken up in council and convinced him to stay in the city and quell the uprising:

It is impossible for a person, having been born into this world, not to die; but for one who has reigned it is intolerable to be a fugitive…. If you wish to save yourself, my lord, there is no difficulty. We are rich; over there is the sea, and yonder are the ships. Yet reflect for a moment whether, when you have once escaped to a place of security, you would not gladly exchange such safety for death. As for me, I agree with the adage that the royal purple is the noblest shroud.

Although Theodora and Justinian were always on the same team, they were not always on the same side. Evans nicknames Theodora “His Majesty’s loyal opposition.” The couple would hold debates in the Senate, arguing on different sides of a question, but Evans notes the suspicion that they agreed before going in which one of them would win. “Justinian realized, one suspects, that it was an advantage for an autocrat to have a secondary power center in the state so long as it was firmly in the hands of a loyal wife.”

The Works of Compassion

Much as she may have enjoyed being Empress, Theodora never forgot her origins.

Theodora in the game “Civilization V,” 2010.

“There is every reason to think that while she was contemptuous of the traditionally wealthy, she felt a deep compassion for the poor, the deserted, and the destitute,” wrote Potter. This, for Theodora, was a key aspect of her public image: “She wanted to be known for more than piety and good works,” Evans wrote. “Her special concern would be for the unfortunate.”

One of her major causes was to rescue women forced into the sex trade. She pulled prostitutes off the street in Constantinople and put them in a safe place: a converted palace designed as a refuge for women fleeing sex work. Evans: “This ‘Convent of Repentance’ was given an endowment and adorned with costly buildings so that none of its inmates would want to return to their old life or have to do so for financial reasons.”

She also worked to improve the laws regarding child prostitution. She rounded up pimps who bought children from destitute parents, paid them for each girl, and banned them from going back into the sex trade. While he acknowledges a theatrical element to this event, Potter praises Theodora’s actions in this case as “genuinely original in treating the prostitutes as victims and the issue as social rather than moral.”

She even welcomed friends from the old days into the palace itself. “Procopius reports three old friends who had lodgings there,” Evans writes. “Theodora looked after the interests of these entertainers and found husbands for their daughters. This was behavior the upper classes found shocking, and perhaps it was intended to shock.”

Theodora remembered what it was like to struggle for survival by any means necessary. She also remembered the “respectable” women who averted their eyes when they passed prostitutes in the marketplace. “She endowed her convent for penitent whores not only out of compassion,” Evans suggests, “but perhaps defiance too.”

“The God-Crowned Theodora”

All of these elements of Theodora’s life and character — her loyalty to her roots, her partnership with Justinian, her concern for the downtrodden, her passionate religious devotion — show themselves in evidence in her and Justinian’s treatment of the Monophysite situation. Like the contortionist Procopius said she once was, Theodora had to stay flexible to survive as a heretic in a Chalcedonian empire.

The Council of Chalcedon in 451 condemned Monophysitism as a heresy. Somehow, this declaration did not cause Monophysitism to vanish — especially not in the East. Persecution by Justin, Justinian’s predecessor, drove many Monophysite leaders out of office and into hiding. Theodora drew them back out; despite her deep partnership with Justinian, she remained fiercely loyal to the faith of her youth. Theodora’s patronage enabled many Monophysite leaders over the years to spend time in the Palace of Hormisdas in Constantinople — sometimes openly, sometimes in hiding, but safe from Orthodox wrath.

Sarah Bernhardt as Theodora, 1882.

Justinian was a committed Chalcedonian Catholic, but he was more moderate than his predecessor. He and Theodora sought consensus and compromise. They did not always move in perfect synchrony. Justinian, ultimately, felt compelled to defer to the pope. Theodora arranged for her Monophysite missionaries to travel to the non-Christian land of Nubia before her husband’s Orthodox missionaries could make it. Many people suspected that, like some of their other disagreements, Theodora and Justinian’s theological differences were carefully choreographed political theater. Offering Monophysites protection kept them safe — but it also, as Evans notes, kept them away from the people: “The Palace of Hormisdas was both a safe house and a quarantine.”

Still, Justinian and Theodora’s theological détente allowed the two sides to talk to one another, to try to find some common ground. Throughout their lives, in their own ways, both of them sought a way to bridge the divide between the two camps. Theodora saw the conflict, Evans suggests, as more of a “party rivalry” like that of the Greens and the Blues, while Justinian thought it could be solved with “the right formulas.” Justinian offered theological compromises; Theodora tried to work with people. “The fact is that although Rome regarded Monophysitism as a heresy, neither Justinian nor Theodora did. For them the problem was a simply a division between interpretations, and reasonable persons should be able to bridge it.”

In the end, Theodora’s faith lost the struggle for the Empire, but she never gave up the fight. On her deathbed, loyal to the end, she extracted a promise from Justinian to keep her Monophysite friends safe in the Palace of Hormisdas.

Saint, Icon, Feminist Hero

As a saint of the Orthodox Church, Theodora’s shares a November 14 feast day with Justinian. “It is fair to say,” Potter notes, “that Theodora’s reputation has been somewhat tweaked over the centuries to play down her religious stance, as the Eastern Orthodox Church has remained firmly Chalcedonian.” In the year 2000, however, Patriarch Zakka of the Syrian Orthodox Church announced Theodora’s beatification, and paid due tribute in his statement to her anti-Chalcedonian faith.

Theodora also has a seat at The Dinner Party, a major work of feminist art by Judy Chicago, on permanent display at the Brooklyn Museum, which gathers some of the most important (albeit mostly European) women from human history and brings them together at a single table. The online reference for The Dinner Party honors Theodora as a champion of the persecuted, a protector of prostitutes, and an advocate for women’s rights who ruled as an equal with her husband.

Theodora is one of those incandescent figures in human history who managed to change the world through sheer personality, propelling herself from the bottom of the Byzantine world to the throne of a superpower. But even more remarkable once she achieved power, she did not lose herself. The Theodora who ruled with Justinian cared about the same things, and the same people, as the Theodora who scraped together a subsistence living in an indifferent empire. A millennium and a half later, the example of her life continues to fascinate and inspire.

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