Justinian fell violently in love with her. At first, he kept her only as a mistress, though he raised her to patrician rank. Through him Theodora was immediately able to acquire an unholy power and exceedingly great riches. She seemed to him the sweetest thing in the world, and, like all lovers, he desired to please his charmer with every possible favor and requite her with all his wealth. – Procopius
Theodora (c. 500 – 548) was inarguably the most successful courtesan of all time, rising from humble beginnings in a theatrical family to become empress of the Byzantine Empire as the wife of Emperor Justinian I; like her husband, she was also canonized in the Eastern Orthodox Church. If there has ever been another whore who became an empress in life and a saint after death, I’ve never heard of her. Theodora was probably the most powerful woman in Byzantine history and among the most influential women in all of history, but like most great courtesans she was also the victim of character assassination by men who envied her status.
There is considerable disagreement among the ancient historians regarding her place of birth and family details, but everyone agrees that she was an actress and prostitute; most of the histories used in schools merely say “actress”, but the professions were indistinguishable at that time. Indeed, some historians claim she worked in a brothel, though this is highly dubious because actresses were courtesans whose clients came from among the members of their audiences, while brothel girls were at that time either slaves or de facto slaves. It is likely that this is simply libel intended to make her look bad, as were rumors of her voracious sexual appetite and multitudes of lovers; the myth of the wanton was already well-established by the 6th century, ensuring that male writers would assume any whore (even a retired courtesan) to be what we now call a nymphomaniac.
Eventually Theodora became the mistress of Hecebolus, governor of the city of Pentapolis, but later quarreled with him and left, working her way to Constantinople by way of Alexandria. It was during this period that she became friends with a dancer named Macedonia, who was apparently regularly employed by Justinian (who was then commander of the eastern army); it appears that Macedonia was the one who first introduced Theodora to the future emperor, and he fell “violently in love with her”. At first he could only keep her as his mistress due to a Byzantine law (similar to our modern “sex offender registration”) which, though it did not criminalize prostitution as in our modern “enlightened” countries, prohibited whores from ever marrying; Justinian therefore had to content himself with making his beloved fabulously wealthy and elevating her to the patrician class. Eventually, however, he persuaded his senile uncle, the Emperor Justin, to make a new law allowing men (including those of high rank) to marry repentant whores. This law was on solid legal ground since it was based on the established precedent that a slave could be restored to freedom and have his rights fully restored as though he had never been a slave; by the same logic a whore could have her rights restored by renouncing her trade and finding a man to marry her. This, however, did not stop snobs and bluenoses from decrying the change in the law, especially after the death of Justinian when they were safe from possible imperial reprisals.
Soon after his marriage to Theodora in 527 Justinian was made co-emperor with Justin, and not long afterwards the old emperor died of a chronic illness, leaving Justinian as sole emperor and Theodora as empress. They were a very popular couple; Justinian was a strong and respected leader and Theodora a very beautiful, charismatic and intelligent woman who was said to be “superior in intelligence to any man”. Justinian was wise enough to recognize his wife’s talents, and rather than keep her as a mere consort he allowed her an active part in his decision making. Though it was well-known that Theodora had been a courtesan, her charisma won the hearts of the people, the army and most of the officials, much to the chagrin of prudes who envied her success and immediately began spreading vicious rumors about her supposed infidelities and frequent abortions. These lies do not seem to have affected her popularity either in life or in death, but can be found in a number of period histories (especially those of Procopius of Caesaria, who was at first a supporter of Justinian but later turned against him).
The law which officially de-stigmatized whores was only the first of many increases in women’s rights which Theodora convinced Justinian to enact. In 528, rape law was expanded to cover lower-class women and slaves (who had previously been unprotected) and to mandate the death penalty for either rape or the kidnapping of any woman; this law even defined certain forms of seduction as a lesser (non-capital) form of rape, much like our modern “date rape” laws. In that same year (the first of her reign) Theodora also personally acted to free brothel-whores from bondage by purchasing them at cost from the brothel-keepers, dissolving their contracts, and giving them a new dress and a small amount of money; later she banned such brothels altogether. In 534 it was made illegal to force any woman (even a slave) into acting (and therefore prostitution) without her consent, and in 535 this law was expanded to prohibit underage prostitution even if the girl’s parents consented (which was not uncommon in the poorest families of that time). Another law that year defined marriages as deriving from “mutual affection” and therefore illegalized the practice of new husbands divorcing brides whose parents had reneged on the promised dowry. In 537 a law was enacted to allow actresses or prostitutes to renounce their occupation at will, regardless of previous contracts, and criminalized the practice of forcing women to sign such contracts. Other laws increased the rights of women in divorce, child custody and property ownership and prohibited infanticide and the murder of adulterous wives. And though Theodora died in 548, her views clearly had a lasting influence on Justinian because he continued to enact pro-woman laws even after her death; for example, in 559 he prohibited the imprisonment of women for debt (they were still required to repay) and established a separate women’s prison system (with nuns as guards) in order to prevent the systematic rape and ill-treatment of female prisoners.
Theodora seems to have had mixed feelings about her former profession, though it is very difficult to tell because of the multitude of contradictory accounts. Some pious writers claim that she outlawed prostitution altogether, though this seems more like an attempt to whitewash her reputation for Christians of later centuries than an objective analysis of her actual actions. It is clear that she eventually created and generously endowed a convent called the Metanoia (Repentance), where ex-prostitutes could live as long as they wished; at first this was open only to the freed brothel-girls, but later to streetwalkers as well. Procopius claims that Theodora actually rounded up all the streetwalkers and forced them into the Metanoia (much as later governments forced whores into the “Magdalene homes” described in my column of July 22nd); he further adds a lurid description of the fate of some of these girls: “…she confined them in the Convent of Repentance, as it is called, trying there to compel them to adopt a new manner of life. And some of them threw themselves down from a height at night and thus escaped the unwelcome transformation.” Other writers, however, describe no such confinement of unwilling streetwalkers despite the fact that such an action would certainly have met with the approval of the Church officials who later promoted Theodora to sainthood, so I think it’s safe to say that the story is simply more libel on Procopius’ part.
Justinian and Theodora enacted a host of other legal reforms far too extensive to detail herein; they built roads, hospitals and churches and expanded the power of the Eastern Roman Empire to its greatest extent since the fall of the Western Empire to Odoacer in 476. In all these matters they presented a unified front, though in religious matters it was quite the opposite; Justinian was a devout Orthodox Christian, and Theodora an adherent of the Monophysite sect which taught that Jesus had only one nature rather than two. Critics have argued that her support of a variant teaching undermined the unity of the Church, but others have pointed out that her policies actually delayed by centuries the conflict which eventually resulted in the Great Schism between the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches. In any case, the contributions of both Justinian and Theodora were considered important enough to result in their eventual canonization by the Orthodox Church.
Theodora died of an illness (possibly breast cancer, but it is impossible to be certain) on June 28th, 548; she was not yet 50 and predeceased her husband by 17 years. He was observed to weep bitterly at her funeral, and loved her so dearly that even after her death he not only continued legal reforms of which she would have approved, but also kept his word to her to protect the Monophysites and to attempt to reconcile their differences with the Orthodox Church. The lasting influence of the courtesan empress is incalculable; her reforms gave Byzantine women rights that women in other European countries would not again enjoy until the 19th century, and indeed a few that women do not have even in Western societies today. Considering that Theodora did not rise to her position in spite of her profession but rather because of it, the life and accomplishments of this amazing woman represent a shining and powerful refutation of the dogma that whores are intrinsically maladjusted, exploited and degraded.