Month: September 2012

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


Curses and Fines on Greek Grave Stele

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Inv. 1225 T

In antiquity, apart from thieves, tombs were also damaged by people of low economic conditions. While thieves damaged tombs for burial gifts and the clothing of the dead, some people opened tombs of strangers to bury members of their own families or dismantled them in order to use pieces to make a new tomb. Grave monuments were also damaged to make milestones and to use in constructing walls, especially in late antiquity. There were two ways in antiquity to prevent violations of graves: fining and cursing.

To discourage people from violating tombs, fines were determined to be paid to the treasury of the city. To enhance the discouragement, the amount would be high, and it was legally determined to pay a part of it to the informer who reported the culprit to the authorities.

On the other hand, curses were common maledictions used by the public, addressing the person with the potential of damaging the tomb, warning the violator of the misfortunes that would happen to him. These curses were added to the end of the grave inscriptions by the owner of the tomb. Protecting graves via curses has a long history in the Near East and Anatolia. According to the religious beliefs of Anatolians on death and the afterlife, the body of the dead person that has said good bye to this world physically continued to live in the other world, and for his feelings and desires which continue also in this afterlife he needs a refuge that he would not want to share with others.

In the curses it is wished that the wraith of the gods should be directed onto the violator through disasters such as painful or untimely death, living pain because of family perishing, the house perishing as a result of fire, the children becoming orphans, epidemics, blindness, becoming disabled, etc. The power of the mechanism of punishment that starts after the violation is committed is hidden in the words incised on the grave monument.

Inv. 1225 T from the Istanbul Archaeological Museums reads:

“Nicephoros, son of Moschion (made) (this grave) for his wife Glyconis and in his own memory while still alive: if anyone buries another body (here) without my permission, he will pay 2500 denarii to the city and will be responsible for the crime of grave robbery.”

(GRAVE STELE OF NICEPHOROS AND GLYCONIS, Marble, Conane (Gonen, Bahkesir), Roman Period, end of 2nd , beginning of 3rd C AD)

When we geographically proportion the grave inscriptions with curses, it is observed that the majority are from Phrygia, especially in the provincial areas of the region, where Phrygians, who had been away from the influence of Hellenization, lived. Comparing Phrygia with the other areas of Anatolia, it is observed that such curses diminish in number in those areas.

As a result of the hardships felt in the lives of the public through the crises of the 3rd century AD and in relation with the decrease in the trust for the establishment of justice because of these crises, especially effected Anatolian villages had an increased need for grave curses under this negative socio-economic condition.  It is observed that curses on the grave stelae and sarcophagi with rich and large decorations were mostly used by people who had affluence in society, especially Roman citizens. Rather insignificant in number, there are also a few examples belonging to slaves and intellectuals. Such protective precautions of pagan origin have also been adopted by Christian and Jewish communities and found place on their grave stelae as well.

(Thank you to Istanbul Archaeological Museum for input and photos on recent expedition)