Settle in all you friends and foes because today we’re going to be talking about a woman arguably in the running for the coolest person in all of antiquity (yes, I went there).
I’m sure you’re all on exactly the same page as me already and so there’s no real need for me to elaborate – but for the few of you who aren’t quite there yet let’s be clear: that woman is the Empress Theodora, known by some (who like to sideline women) as the wife of the emperor Justinian. I myself prefer to call Justinian the husband of Theodora, but you know, each to their own.
Let’s get the boring bits out of the way first: we don’t have too many sources for Theodora’s life, and one of the main ones we do have is this book called the Secret History written by a dude called Procopius, who also wrote two other works about her. Weirdly, the other two basically talk about her like the super cool and strong woman she was, but not in this one!! Here, Procopius comes across as a man who really had it in for all powerful women, particularly those who he didn’t think were of the ‘right calibre’ (think kind of like an ancient Piers Morgan on Megan Markle). But even though one of the biggest sources on sounds like it was written by a class-A misogynist, there’s still some tiny bits of fact hidden within all the ‘alternative-truths’, which other ancient sources (like records of laws) can fact check for us.
Now that we’ve got that sorted, let’s jump right into the case for why Theodora is one of the coolest and most overlooked people of antiquity. We don’t know that much about her early life, but the word on the ancient streets was that she was the daughter of a bear trainer. You heard that right. A bear trainer. Already the colourful picture is beginning. Whether or not that’s 100% accurate, the point remains, Theodora wasn’t born into wealth, in fact, she was super far from it. It seems like in her youth, Theodora worked as a sex worker, or as an actress in steamy plays, where members (see what I did there?) of the horned up audience could then get handsy with her after the performances. This is probably also where she met her number one BFF Antonina, literally her ride or die.
And then one day, maybe through a friend of a client’s friend, maybe through an informer who was also a friend (aka this one’s lost to history), Theodora meets Justinian. Cue romantic montage. And I mean the montage to end all montages, I’m imagining this makes the Notebook look like a film about friendzoning (pretty sure the Notebook is romantic? Never actually seen it but that seems to be the rumour). ANYWAY just to get a cheeky glimpse of how much Justianian loved Theodora, he literally rewrote the rulebook on who elites were supposed to marry, just so they could tie the knot. (This also happens to be one of the times where laws back up the rumours – the emperor making a new rule that he can marry an ‘actress’, then immediately marrying Theodora kind of makes it look like that definitely applied to her. But make up your own mind I guess).
And boom, they’re married!! Cut to a life of living in the lap of luxury and never worrying about anything again right? Nope, not for this quality gal!! Theodora was never one to sit back and let life pass her by, and this is where she really starts to shine. Remember her previous life as a sex-worker? So does she. In fact, she remembers EXACTLY what life was like in the brothels of ancient Constantinople, and she’s not about to let that slide. See back in the day, certain men had this really nasty habit of going round the countryside, and buying young girls off their struggling parents, who were often super desperate for the cash. Doesn’t really sound like a good deal for the girls right? It wasn’t. And Theodora wasn’t about to leave any of these girls behind now that she’d made it. Along with her husband, Theodora set about freeing all these girls by basically buying their freedom from their owners. She also realised (what arguably a lot of modern politicians could stand to take note of) that being poor often means you don’t have a lot of options in your life, and closing down these brothels without providing other support for the women, often meant you weren’t really helping them at all. And so she also set about to give them clothes, money, and the option of staying at a monastery she set up to help them get back on their feet. Are we all loving Theodora yet? Because she still gets better.
She’d actually go on to help introduce a whole bunch of rulings, which made it illegal to force anyone into sex work, or acting, regardless of whether they were free citizens, or enslaved. She even had her own department of the treasury, which was set up to give money to charity, and to help out people that asked for grants. You think that’s impressive? There’s more coming!! She even gave women more rights in divorce, including improving guardianship over their kids, and introduced the death penalty for r*pe. Now let’s be clear, I’m not one for the death penalty, but in terms of supporting women’s rights? She was pretty much doing it all.
If you’re more interested in the military history (then you’re weird. JOKES. Maybe. Just a little bit.), then Theodora had stuff going on there too. In pretty much the biggest political upset of her time, in what’s known as the Nika riots, Theodora went against all of the suggestions of her husband’s advisors to tell him not to flee the city, and to stay and make sure the city knew HE was the rightful emperor. She actually made this pretty badass speech about how purple (the colour of emperors) was the best shade to die in. She was also a big old fan of religious freedom. You might be thinking, hey aren’t we all?!, but actually her husband was really decidedly not. Around this time Constantinople was being ruled by Christians, but specifically a type of Christian called Chalcedonian, whereas Theodora was more into this type of Christianity called Miaphysitism. I’m gonna come clean to you all, I’ve really tried to understand these types of Christian, and I just don’t get it. From what I can gather, they both have different ideas on whether Jesus was one type of holy, or two types of holy. Doesn’t seem like a massive sticking point to me, but in ancient times holy moly, it was serious. Justinian and his pals did NOT LIKE the idea that some people thought Jesus was a different number of holy’s, and used to go round throwing out tonnes of priests that disagreed with them on the correct type of holy that Jesus was. If that makes sense. I’m honestly not sure it even does to me. But to spell it out toddler style for us, Theodora: a different type of Christian from her husband. Not a popular type. But, as you might have gathered, she’s never one to leave her people behind. So Theodora secretly hides and publicly supports her fellow religious folk, even though it’s directly against what her husband, who let’s not forget, is the ACTUAL EMPEROR, is publicly decreeing. In fact, in a have to read it to believe it move, a priest that got kicked out of town by Justinian was actually found after Theodora died. Found where? That’s the kicker – inside Theodora’s own apartments, where she’d been hiding him away to keep him safe and sound.
But look, let’s get real. Yes she was a powerful leader, who her subjects had to swear loyalty to alongside the emperor, YES she was massively into being a foreign ambassador, and wrote letters to queens and royalty all around, and YES she arguably massively changed the political situation for literally years to come. But that’s not why she’s the best person from antiquity, and that’s not why I unapologetically love her. It’s because she never forgot where she came from, and she never left her people behind. That friend Antonina that she made while working as an actress? She brought her with her to the highest ranks of the elite, and you can literally see mosaics where the two of them are still side by side. In all her political wrangling and undercover plots, Antonina was right there, making moves and making waves. Some of the ancient sources try and trash talk Theodora, especially the monastery she set up for the sex-workers she freed, saying that women threw themselves out of the windows just to try and get back to their old life. Really? Does that sound legit? Or does it maybe seem more likely that the ex sex-worker/actress had good intentions behind freeing young girls sold into slavery, and making sure no one was ever forced to perform in a way they didn’t want to again. Maybe it’s just me, but I’m on Theodora’s side for this one. (Also – might be worth pointing out that that same source that tried to shame our gal Theo’s safe spaces? Also later wrote about how she actually provided for their future, and prevented any forced prostitution. Make your mind up dude.)
It’s worth noting that we should never idolise figures, or whole periods tbh, from ancient history. That’s actually where a whole bunch of shady shit like white supremacy, gets its rocks off. People in ancient history aren’t your heroes, they aren’t perfect, and they definitely aren’t better than all the other people nowadays. Let’s let that sink in for a moment.
If people are going to ask me (as they have done MORE THAN ONCE OKAY? IT HAPPENS), who my favourite person from antiquity is? It’s got to be Theodora. And maybe it’s important that we talk more about this super cool woman, who came from a place where no one expected much of her, and turned an empire on its head, then went back and helped all the women left behind climb up the ladder after her. Look, if you have to model yourself after anyone, there are worse people than her.