A Woman to Know: Theodora

May I never see the day when those who meet me do not call me 'Empress.' — Theodora

(image via The Metropolitan Museum of Art)


Some sixth century texts still refer to Theodora as a "prostitute," but she wasn't a whore: before she became the most powerful woman in the ancient world, she worked as an actress. Her family was of the lowest tier in Byzantine society, destitute and desperate. When her father died, teenage Theodora began acting in shows to support the family. At the time, her work on the stage was considered just as scandalous as work in a brothel.

But that didn't stop her from charming Emperor Justinian, the most powerful man in the Byzantine Empire. The two first met around 522, when Justinian fell for her legendarily sharp intellect. Theodora renounced her theater life, converted to Christianity and reformed her lifestyle; Justinian did his part, too, repealing laws that forbade an emperor associate with a former actress or entertain marriage to a "whore." Once they were married, Justinian and Theodora began an aggressive social campaign to improve life for women and other marginalized peoples in Byzantium.

For three decades, Theodora ruled as Justinian's counterpart. Her highest priority was the protection of women; as empress, she instituted laws to save women from draconian divorce law and ended the death penalty for female adultery. She closed brothels, created safe houses for child prostituted and banned sex trafficking. Theodora's influence is well-documented: her name is on much of the legislation passed during her dual reign with Justinian. When she died in 548, Justinian went into a deep reclusion. Until his own death a handful of years later, he signed almost no new laws into creation.

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