Theodora of Justinian: The Protectress of the Poor!

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Theodora. Detail from the 6th-century mosaic &...
Theodora. Detail from the 6th-century mosaic “Empress Theodora and Her Court” in the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna.

Theodora was the wife of the Emperor Justinian of Byzantium who reigned from around 527AD.  Procopius explains that Theodora was born into a poor family in Constantinople and was one of three daughters; Theodora received no education and acted as would a male prostitute and a dancer.  Justinian fell in love with Theodora but was unable to marry her due laws relating to her low position in society.  However, Treadgold explains that Justinian managed to change the laws to allow repented prostitutes and actresses to be exempt from this law.  Theodora was an extremely clever and beautiful woman who became very educated after marrying Justinian and improving her status considerably.  Sarris accounts that Theodora was referred to by Procopius though as a meddlesome whore indicating controversy relating to her personality and background.  Treadgold assesses Theodora as being a Protectress to women as she used her influence to help them gain rights, she is also seen in popular legend as a protector and defender of the poor and weak.   Theodora was seen as a faithful wife and a close collaborator of Justinian with a strong will, though she was a Monophysite.

Theodora is a character of popular Greek legend who possessed many of the qualities that are seen in the definition of a hero.  Campbell assesses that heroes are partly defined as protectors and defenders.  These attributes are shown is Theodora’s character as she was Protectress to the poor and women, she was also wise and beautiful, qualities often attributed to classical heroes.  Theodora effectively changed the course of history in dissuading her husband to take flight and influencing the changes in laws and rights, in this way she is sometimes referred to as a heroine even though Procopius and some other historians focus on the deaths that this dissuasion cost.  Theodora also possessed three of the five Christian values which are suggested to make her a Christian heroine.  The value of faith is expressed by Treadgold as she was pious as well as faithful to her husband, she was also charitable to those who were less fortunate as she had once been, and she is said to have had penitence which was parallel to Mary Magdalene.  These values uphold Theodora as a heroine in a religious and Christian sense.

There is considerable controversy on the personality of Theodora which plays a significant role in determining whether or not Theodora was a heroine.  Procopius greatly disapproved of Theodora’s personality and background, blaming her for political and financial upheaval. Foss describes her as “less than saintly”. Procopius’s notorious account of Theodora in his ‘Secret History’ shows extreme dislike for her character by evaluating her former occupations as very near the bottom of the “hierarchy of the arts.”  Procopius’s writes that Theodora was secretive and unfaithful, yet this can be attributed mostly to his own personal bias against her because historians, and the way Theodora has been made into a prominent figure of Greek legend, suggests these ideas are not completely accurate.  Theodora was a very commanding personality with great influence as seen in her persuading Justinian to change laws and her reaction to disloyalty when she was left effectively in control.  Treadgold comments that because of her interference “Justinian faced…financial and military crises…without his best administrator and his best general.”  Theodora’s personality was seen as controversial but this was generally due to bias of historians and how she acted against ideas of females in society as she was strong willed, opinionated and believed that women should have rights.  This view of women in itself was controversial in what was primarily a patriarchal society.

Further Reading:

Campbell, J., The Hero With a Thousand Faces (Princeton, 1993), pp. 30-40

Foss, C., Life in City and Country, The Oxford History of Byzantium (Oxford, 2002), pp. 82-83

James, L., Women, Men and Eunuchs: Gender in Byzantium (London, 1997), pp. 121, 128, 131

Mallet, C. E., The Empress Theodora, The English Historical Review, Vol. 2, No. 5 (Jan, 1887), pp. 1-20

Procopius, (1966).  Tran. With introduction by G. A. Williamson, pp.114-129

Sarris, P., The Eastern Empire from Constantinople to Heraclius (306-641), The Oxford History of Byzantium (Oxford, 2002), pp. 46-47

Treadgold, W., A Concise History of Byzantium (London, 2001), pp. 58, 61-64, 68, 82-83

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3 thoughts on “Theodora of Justinian: The Protectress of the Poor!

    Samuel Runge said:
    September 23, 2012 at 10:17 pm

    In my view the hostility of Procopius towards Theodora has more to do with the fact that she was a woman and from a very low social and economic background who held and exercised enormous power along with her peasant born husband, the classicaly educated newly reemerging senatorial and bureaucratic elite detested having to bow down to people they considered their social inferiors and Theodora and Justinian seemed to relish making them do so (wouldn’t you:)).

    Procopius was a member of that class writing to other members of that class and while Theodora’s measures to improve the lot of women were mentioned in disparaging tones in the Secret history, I don’t recall it coming up often, the emphasis of the attack on her was very much directed at her history as an actor/courtesan (a path she seems to have been practically forced into), her intrigues to maintain power (there seems to have been an uneasy alliance between Belisarius, Procopius’s patron for much of Justinian’s reign and Theodora but I stress seem and uneasy against other factions lead by John the Cappodocian and a more conservative faction linked with the aristocracy and whose membership included the general Germanus, Procopius seems to have had strong sympathies for this last group) and her association with Justinian in policies designed to hurt the aristocracy (that said I haven’t read the secret history in a long time and I’ve since lost my copy).

    Basically I think Procopius’s hostility has more to do with faction politics, class loyalties (including policies towards the aristocracy) and the very fact that she was a woman than her policies towards other women.

    Regards,
    Samuel.

      GraecoMuse responded:
      September 23, 2012 at 10:42 pm

      Sam! Where have you been my friend? It has been ages. Come say Hi at the university some time.
      Thanks for the contribution. The above is just a summary but it’s always good to add :)

      J

    GraecoMuse Turns One « GraecoMuse said:
    October 13, 2012 at 12:52 am

    [...] Theodora of Justinian: The Protectress of the Poor! - 28/09/12 [...]

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