Justinian I

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


Archaeology Travel Blog: Istanbul pt. 1

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Hi everyone from Turkey! That’s right I finally got here after talking about it for months on end, having visa issues and permits being delayed. Been here four days and we have managed to pack in so much into a limited amount of time. If you don’t remember, I’m in Turkey to do some research for my PhD in Istanbul and also some archaeology down south at Antiochia ad Cragum, a Roman pirate port with temple complex, roman roads and mosaics. Very exciting.

First thing one realises in Istanbul is that there are some things that we’re going to have to get used to…for a start the driving. Cars have priority and within thirty minutes of arriving I was fearing for my life as the airport shuttle played chicken with every other car, truck and bike on the road. But eventually I made it to the Hotel in Sultanahmet in one piece where I met two of the girls and one of the guys also going on the dig. Awesome hotel in the middle of the old city with Hagia Sophia on one side, the blue mosque on the other and within walking distance of anything and everything. Definitely recommend the Star Holiday Hotel to anyone going to Istanbul. Well priced and amazing views.

After having a good Turkish dinner (gozleme in Turkey! For my fellow PhD Y3A colleagues) and a broken night due to the sounds of the gulls which are in abundance in Istanbul and the mosques which hail late at night and around 5am in the morning, we started our sightseeing.

First stop on my grand one day tour of Istanbul: Hagia Sophia! And my goodness is it worth the visit as the first and best site we saw in Istanbul. For those of you unfamiliar here is a little bit about the site:

Hagia Sophia is one of the world’s foremost architectural wonders. It was originally a church which burnt down in 404 AD and then secondly destroyed in the Nika Riots of 532 AD. The third church to stand on the site was inaugurated by the Emperor Justinian in 537 and is that which remains to be seen today. It has survived countless wars, conflicts and earthquakes and was converted into a mosque in 1453. Today it is classified as a museum, as it has been since 1934, which means that no head scarves are necessary and anyone can see the wonders inside.

On going into the site one is firstly struck by the many cats around and then one enters the entrance hall and glimpses the huge hall that comes after. It really is amazing, not to mention enormous! After getting over the initial wow factor, actually that wasn’t really possible, I was struck by the interesting combination of Islamic and Christian elements left over from the conversion in the fifteenth century. The dome in the centre of the roof is of course the highlight with beautiful arrays of designs and colours, but I was also fascinated by the wall paintings in the upper galleries and the ceiling paintings in the side galleries where earlier work had clearly been painted over with the conversion to Islam. I soon realised that with Hagia Sophia if you want to really experience it you must look past the big and focus on the details; the chip marks where crosses had been defaced, the Greek graffiti and stone mason marks hidden in the corners and the cracks in the floors. Amazing site, still can’t get over it, the history just hits you right in the face and it is fantastic!

After spending the majority of the morning in Hagia Sophia we moved on to the Basilica Cistern when we realised that the tour groups were on the rise in Hagia. The Basilica Cistern is a vast underground water-storage tank (if you can really call it that) just across from Hagia Sophia. It was created in the reign of Constantine and was later expanded by Justinian in 532 to ensure that Constantinople was always supplied with water. It once was capable of holding 18 million gallons of water! The roof of the cistern is supported by 336 pillars over 8ms in height and also contains two medusa head statues which came from older Greek buildings and are believed to have been from the Hellenistic period. It was also used as the set of one of the earlier Bond films apparently. It is full of fish the size of my lower leg and quite happy in their little microenvironment and is just beautiful when the columns are lit up by ground lights. It is also apparently a stage for some musical performances but none were playing when we were there. While a little soggy, the cistern was a fantastic and different following to Hagia Sophia.

Site number three was unfortunately a little disappointing because it had the potential to be amazing. Topkapi palace was built by Mehmet II as his main residence in 1459-65. It was also Mehmet’s seat of parliament and a college for training officials and soldiers. While the government later moved in the 16th century, Topkapi remained as a palace until Abdul Mecit I moved the Sultan’s main residence to Dolmabahce Palace in 1856. The palace includes imperial gates, courtyards, throne rooms, a harem, treasury, barracks, salons, apartments, baths and halls. It has the potential to be a fascinating site but there were two main issues: firstly and primarily the tourists. The number of people at the palace was just overwhelming, you could hardly see in front of you and the lines to get in to any of the buildings were worse than Disneyland. After what seemed like an eternity we managed to get into the Treasury to find that more people standing in front of the exhibits completely obscured our views. Problem number two: no signage. Seriously how were we meant to know what anything is without anywhere to get a map, no signs and not even the occasional arrow. It was frustrating to say the least. The most interesting thing we did find though was the stone throne outside where the sultan used to watch the sports. A beautiful piece of stone work, inscribed and decorated, and yet hidden in a corner and ignored with a worn label next to it. Topkapi, I’m sure is amazing, but with that many people and no idea where anything is it was a waste of 25 TL and we saw nothing. A shame but well it’s all part of the experience. Fortunately the rest of the sites that day made up for it.

After a late lunch and a short break we headed to our next exhibit on the Istanbul trail: the Blue Mosque. The Blue Mosque was commissioned by the Sultan Ahmet when he was only 19 years old. So great was his enthusiasm for the project that at times he even worked alongside the labourers. His aim was to surpass the Suleymaniye Mosque and the Hagia Sophia. Well he tried, didn’t quite succeed with the latter at least. The mosque was finished in 1616 and is celebrated as one of the best working mosques in the world known especially for it’s blue Iznik tiles in the interior. The mosque is a fantastic opportunity to experience the culture and mix with the locals but the tourists really stand out. Still I found wearing a head scarf a surprisingly nice experience, makes you feel like you belong there in the culture. The building itself was spectacular too with giant columns and beautiful stained glass windows.

So much to write, so little time. Signing off for now. More of Istanbul and the archaeological site to come.