Sunday, April 19, 2009

Theodora, Empress

I have a treat for you today.  It is a guest blog written by my friend, who calls herself Crazybrigit. Theodora is a controversial figure and so people might take issue with how Brigit has presented her but I like her perspective. Enjoy.

   Once upon a time there was a pretty girl who had two sisters, one older and one younger. They lived in a big, rich city, but her parents were rather poor. When their father died and their mother married another man, the girls had to earn their living. With neither skills nor education, there were few jobs they could do so, finally, they became prostitutes and actresses, the scum of the earth. One of them, though, had a brilliant future waiting for her against all odds. A new tv series scenario? An adult novel? No,  just some  facts from the life of the most influential and powerful woman in the Byzantine Empire's history, empress Theodora, who, like her husband, Justinian, is a saint in the Orthodox Church, commemorated on November 14.
     Fairy tales sometimes become reality but not without a price. The way to the throne and sainthood was for Theodora long and certainly not pleasant or easy. Let me cite directly from “Historia Arcana” (“Secret History”), written by Procopius of Caesarea, a historian, one of the participants in the wars of the Emperor Justinian I and so an eyewitness (from ):

Acacius was the keeper of wild beasts used in the amphitheater in Constantinople; he belonged to the Green faction and was nicknamed the Bearkeeper. This man, during the rule of Anastasius, fell sick and died, leaving three daughters named Comito, Theodora and Anastasia: of whom the eldest was not yet seven years old. His widow took a second husband, who with her undertook to keep up Acacius's family and profession. But Asterius, the dancing master of the Greens, on being bribed by another ' removed this office from them and assigned it to the man who gave him the money. For the dancing masters had the power of distributing such positions as they wished.

When this woman saw the populace assembled in the amphitheater, she placed laurel wreaths on her daughters' heads and in their hands, and sent them out to sit on the ground in the attitude of suppliants. The Greens eyed this mute appeal with indifference; but the Blues were moved to bestow on the children an equal office, since their own animal-keeper had just died.

When these children reached the age of girlhood, their mother put them on the local stage, for they were fair to look upon; she sent them forth, however, not all at the same time, but as each one seemed to her to have reached a suitable age. Comito, indeed, had already become one of the leading hetaerae [high class prostitutes] of the day.

     As you see, the fate of Theodora seemed to be sealed from her early childhood – she had no real prospects of a decent life, no role models or protectors as she was sent by her own mother to be an actress and a prostitute. One must add that in the 6th century Byzantine theatre was as respectable as are some porn sites on the Internet; theatrical performances were mostly limited to mime obscene plays, so the actresses were treated accordingly. Our heroine, not being taught how to play the flute or the harp, earned money with her body. She was at least pretty. Procopius writes:

Now Theodora was fair of face and of a very graceful, though small, person; her complexion was moderately colorful, if somewhat pale; and her eyes were dazzling and vivacious.

     Sometimes you intend to change your life just to discover that you can change it for worse. When Theodora finally found a rich lover, Hecebolus, a Tyrian who had been made governor of Pentapolis, she might think her life took the right turn. She went away with him, hoping, without doubt, for more stability but the man did not seem to be a good choice  - after a quarrel she was unceremoniously sent back penniless. She had no choice but  to return to her previous lifestyle. The journey home proved to be a blessing, though, as it took her to Alexandria, where she converted to Monophysite Christianity, and to Antioch, where she met a dancer, named Macedonia. It was a breakthrough because that person presented her to her future second half:

 This Macedonia, they say, greeted Theodora at the time of her arrival from Egypt and Libya; and when she saw her badly worried and cast down at the ill treatment she had received from Hecebolus and at the loss of her money during this adventure, she tried to encourage Theodora by reminding her of the laws of chance, by which she was likely again to be the leader of a chorus of coins. Then, they say, Theodora used to relate how on that very night a dream came to her, bidding her take no thought of money, for when she should come to Constantinople, she should share the couch of the King of the Devils, and that she should contrive to become his wedded wife and thereafter be the mistress of all the money in the world. And that this is what happened is the opinion of most people.

     Now let me present the future emperor, Flavius Petrus Sabbatius Iustinianus but with a warning – the description was made by his enemy, a man disappointed and disillusioned by his ruler, the same Procopius who had fought for him and had written panegyrics:

Now in physique he was neither tall nor short, but of average height; not thin, but moderately plump; his face was round, and not bad looking, for he had good color, even when he fasted for two days.(…) Now such was Justinian in appearance; but his character was something I could not fully describe. For he was at once villainous and amenable; as people say colloquially, a moron. He was never truthful with anyone, but always guileful in what he said and did, yet easily hoodwinked by any who wanted to deceive him. His nature was an unnatural mixture of folly and wickedness. What in olden times a peripatetic philosopher said was also true of him, that opposite qualities combine in a man as in the mixing of colors. I will try to portray him, however, insofar as I can fathom his complexity. This Emperor, then, was deceitful, devious, false, hypocritical, two-faced, cruel, skilled in dissembling his thought, never moved to tears by either joy or pain, though he could summon them artfully at will when the occasion demanded, a liar always, not only offhand, but in writing, and when he swore sacred oaths to his subjects in their very hearing. Then he would immediately break his agreements and pledges, like the vilest of slaves, whom indeed only the fear of torture drives to confess their perjury. A faithless friend, he was a treacherous enemy, insane for murder and plunder, quarrelsome and revolutionary, easily led to anything evil, but never willing to listen to good counsel, quick to plan mischief and carry it out, but finding even the hearing of anything good distasteful to his ears.

     Perhaps Justinian was perceived as a devil by some of his subjects but for Theodora he was a godsend angel, the very chance  nobody had given her before. Even Procopius had to admit that (…) Justinian fell violently in love with her. At first he kept her only as a mistress, though he raised her to patrician rank. Through him Theodora was able immediately to acquire an unholy power and exceedingly great riches. she seemed to him the sweetest thing in the world, and like all lovers, he desired to please his charmer with every possible favor and requite her with all his wealth. The extravagance added fuel to the flames of passion. With her now to help spend his money he plundered the people more than ever, not only in the capital, but throughout the Roman Empire. As both of them had for a long time been of the Blue party, they gave this faction almost complete control of the affairs of state.


     It must have been a great love indeed, as Justinian had to change the law so he could marry his beloved one. Taking into account the fact that Theodora’s bad reputation was widely known, even then, he must have run the gauntlet of criticism. In "Byzantine Empresses: Women and Power in Byzantium, AD 527-1204" (1999) by Lynda Garland it is noted that John of Ephesus reports Theodora coming from a brothel. Unlike Procopius, John happened to be a favourite of the Empress and his historical portrayal of his patron is mostly positive. Garland points that while it confirms Procopius' account of Theodora as a prostitute, there seems to be little reason to believe she worked out of a brothel "managed by a pimp". Employment as an actress at the time would include both "indecent exhibitions on stage" and providing sexual services off stage. In what Garland calls the "sleazy entertainment business in the capital", Theodora would earn her living by a combination of her theatrical and sexual skills. Garland considers it important that John was familiar with Theodora's background. He was not a resident of Constantinople and his autobiographical accounts do not include even visiting the capital until Theodora was well into her career as an Empress. This would imply that Theodora's background as an actress and courtesan was general knowledge at the time of Justinian's reign. Still, the future emperor decided to marry her, the most improbable choice. Impressive. He must have seen in her something more than just a pretty face.


     Theodora proved to be a real support. She helped him rule the empire and she tried to ease the life of women, especially those from the poorest background. Until 528 A.D., laws about rape only concerned well-off, free women, effectively making the rape of lower-class women and slaves legal. In 528 A.D., a law on sexual offenses changed the status considerably. Rapists and kidnappers of women, both free-women and female slaves, were given capital punishment. The law also included sections against the unlawful seduction of women. A 534 A.D. law made it illegal to force any woman on the theatrical stage without their consent, regardless if this woman was free or a slave. In 535, laws against procurers address the specific problem of those who force underage girls into prostitution. It seems that she didn’t forget about her own experience. She was also a good wife. Garland points that for all the accusations against Theodora included in the "Secret History", there is one missing. There is no mention of her being unfaithful to Justinian. 


Tracy said...

An excellent account, Bridget! So despite starting off as a prostitute, Theodora managed to become a saint in the Orthodox church?

The Red Witch said...

I thought I had written a blog on Theodora before but I guess I just mentioned her in conjunction with Amalasuntha since Procopius thought it was she that ordered Amalasuntha to be murdered.
I like Bridgit's account since it shows that people are complicated and, with all the bad things she did, she also did some very good things.

Anonymous said...

I would like to thank you, Red Witch for inviting me to your blog and encouraging all the time!It is a real pleasure to share my passion for history with you!!

So despite starting off as a prostitute, Theodora managed to become a saint in the Orthodox church?Tracy that was exactly what happened. In this way, the Empress can be compared only with Mary Magdalen (of course if Mary Magdalen was a prostitute, which is dubious). Theodora's parents were pagans and she converted as an adult. Mind you, she became a Monophysite Christian; that's why the Catholic Church was her opponent and the Orthodox Church embraced her.

After all, Procopius's book was saved in the Vatican Library and republished in the 17th century by Niccolo Alamanni just because it suited the Catholics to present the worse side of Theodora and Justinian. I wanted to present her from other perspective, as a real heroine of her times.


Anonymous said...

Great job, Brigit! I never knew Theodora's history was that colorful.

Ileen, you did write once on Theodora, but it was about her ordering Amalasuntha's murder.

It seems that Theodora didn't have a chance at a decent life from the time she was a young girl. She did the best she could with what she had, and if she married Justinian for his money, who can blame her? And yet she did a lot of good for the poor and especially for women; the laws against rape she helped enact are a lot harsher than those that exist today.


Anonymous said...

Thank you, Kristin, for your kind comment!

Theodora and Justinian seemed to be made for each other and I think they were rather happy. According to Procopius: "What she and her husband did together must now be briefly described: for neither did anything without the consent of the other. For some time it was generally supposed they were totally different in mind and action; but later it was revealed that their apparent disagreement had been arranged so that their subjects might not unanimously revolt against them, but instead be divided in opinion."

Theodora is indeed a controversial figure but so are other Byzanthine rulers. On the one hand she was certainly a ruthless polititian who fought her foes without any mercy. It is said, that after the Nika uprising it was Theodora who insisted on capital punishment for the usurper (her husband wanted to pardon him). She was also known as a cruel jester when she had to deal with aristocracy - in my opinion Theodora might have been inflicting vengeance against the pretenses of an aristocratic class which looked down on the low-born empress.

On the other hand, though, Theodora was a woman who took personal action against pimps and brothel-keepers who held poor girls under contract. She would pay up to five solidi for each girl to free them from any obligation to their former employers. The price was set to the amount the brothel-keepers claimed they had paid to acquire the girls. The girls were to be provided with a solidus and a set of clothes for each of them. They were then supposedly dismissed to their own devices. Later on, she and her husband created a convent where the ex-prostitutes could support themselves. In those times (and later too), it was very rare that any ruler took so much care of his/her poorest subjects.