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Empress Theodora, Who Transformed the World

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Empress Theodora; mosaic from the Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy, sixth century

In the year 500 CE, the Roman Empire was still alive and strong in its eastern territories. It spanned the Balkans, the eastern Mediterranean, and the Middle East. It was almost as large as the Ottoman Empire at the height of its power. At Constantinople (later the Turkish Istanbul), under the rule of the emperor Anastasius, the extremes of north and south, east and west met. Blue-blooded remnants of the Western Roman ancien régime—men and women who had known the great philosopher-senator Boethius—would have stood in the throne room of the imperial palace beside wild Syrian hermits from the eastern frontiers. The war whoops and garbled Latin of the “Gothic dance” performed in the Hippodrome were a reminder of a world whose contacts stretched to the north as far as Finland and Scandinavia. At the same time, the emperor and his advisers peered southward to the equator, as would the Ottoman sultans in the last days of their own empire.

Above all, this empire was in the grip of social, cultural, and religious transformations that had changed the ancient structures of the Roman state from the bottom up. Much as the somewhat prim, post-British India of the 1950s has given way to the India of Bangalore and Bollywood, but also to the sinister massing, along its margins, of fanatical religious parties, so had the venerable institutions associated with the surviving Roman Empire begun to waver and to take on strange new shapes.

This is the age to which David Potter introduces us in his biography of the empress Theodora (who died in 548) and of her equally remarkable consort, the emperor Justinian (who reigned from 527 to 565). He has placed the story of this odd couple firmly against the background of the great, roiling empire in which it took place. In recent decades, historians and archaeologists have collaborated with interpreters of the literature of the Christian East who are no longer content to read only in Greek and Latin, but who have reached out to rich fields in Syriac, Coptic, and Armenian. They have given us a new Byzantium—a wider, more concrete, and altogether more exciting view of the Roman Empire of the East in its last centuries. As the author of Constantine the Emperor (2013), a memorable study of power in action, Potter can be trusted to have brought the best out of this new scholarship.

He begins with a daring move. He abandons what used to be our principal source for the life of Theodora—the vicious account of the empress and the emperor in the Secret History of Procopius of Caesarea (who wrote in the 550s). He rightly dismisses this as no more than a collection of “nasty stories.”

It is some measure of the triviality that a purely classical tradition of scholarship has imposed on Byzantine studies that it has taken so long to rid ourselves of Procopius. To classical scholars Procopius seemed safe. He belonged to a known world. He wrote good Greek. He also wrote about naughty things. The story of Theodora as a go-go girl in the circus of Constantinople, or in the palaces of the great, was easy to relate to. It appealed to those who saw the ancient world as the smutty dreamtime of the modern West. It showed that even Constantinople in the sixth century CE could still be a fun place. As a result, studies of the career of Theodora have tended to be tied to the circus and to sex.

Potter explains why Procopius resorted to such invective. He makes clear that “vehemence of expression was…built into the very fabric of government.” For government itself was up for grabs. In this seemingly ancient empire,

there had ceased to be a recognizably traditional governing class…. The question of what gave any person the right to govern…was far more open than it was at any time in the earlier Roman empire.

Hence bitter invective characterized the reaction of the would-be elites to the crowds of newcomers, drawn from all over the empire, who threatened to push them aside. Procopius (the cautious private secretary of a professional general) and others from the more privileged ranks of the bureaucracy lashed out at this new world by circulating grotesquely nasty stories.

Unfortunately for the reputation of the Byzantine Empire, this situation (usually generated by a clash between outsiders and insiders) continued throughout its history. As a result, we almost invariably meet Byzantines first at their most venomous and most trivial, through innumerable “unpublishable” works (all of which, of course, got published and circulated rapidly in opposition circles). One feels that men such as Procopius would have loved Twitter and blogs. But despite the penchant of its elites for the equivalents of Twitter and blogs, Byzantium was a serious empire. Caricatures can only tell us so much. How much would we learn about the deadly serious politics of Britain and the Continent in the age of Napoleon through scanning the caricatures of James Gillray, which present a world of funny Frenchmen and fat dukes and duchesses tumbling in and out of bed?

Potter reminds us of the strains of an empire caught in the midst of drastic changes. Across a countryside that had come to flourish more than at any other time in Roman history—bringing intensive settlement in Syria up to the very edge of the Arabian desert and littering the Middle East and the eastern Mediterranean with sparkling new villas—forces were at work that could no longer be controlled by any central elite, as local magnates extended a mafia-like grip over the land.

It was the same with the local churches. Their divisions were largely caused by the rigidity with which the “Roman” authorities at the center had enforced observance of the theological definitions laid down at the Council of Chalcedon in 451. But Chalcedon was a rushed job. Not enough time was taken to create an empire-wide consensus on its decrees. Prominent theologians and large areas of the empire felt themselves left out in the cold. They regarded the council as a “transgression”—an unnecessary hiccup in the flow of Christian doctrine.

What was at stake in the argument for or against the Council of Chalcedon was a serious issue. It was nothing less than the degree to which an unimaginably distant God could be thought of having come close to humanity in the unique person of Jesus Christ. The opponents of the Council of Chalcedon, whom we call “Monophysites” (or, more correctly “Miaphysites”), believed that Christ had, indeed, been God in His fullness, walking the earth. He was a unique being—a God-man, undivided by human frailty. They suspected that the upholders of Chalcedon believed that Christ was no more than a frail human being linked, somewhat distantly, to God.

They claimed that only their belief tied God securely to humanity. If He had once come to earth in His fullness, He could be trusted to intervene—again and again, and in full power—to protect the human race among which He had once walked. Otherwise, the chasm between God and humankind would yawn unbridged. To get one’s science (or theology) wrong on that point, for an Eastern Roman Christian, was quite as serious—and as fraught with the sense of incalculable potential danger for the community as a whole—as it would be for the watchdogs of global warming today to get their science wrong.

Large segments of the population (especially in Syria and Egypt) thought that the emperor and his bishops had gotten their science wrong. By refusing to conform, they called the emperor’s bluff. They gave their own leaders—great bishops and charismatic gurus—the chance to build their own, mafia-like networks in the name of absolute truth.

Altogether, this turbulent social universe contained swirling clouds of what might best be called “dark matter.” There were now ways of reaching the top that had not existed before. There were allies, pressure groups, and authority figures whose existence had escaped traditional Roman eyes, but were well known to the Coptic and Syriac speakers of Egypt and the Middle East.

It is in this world of dark matter that Potter introduces us to Theodora and to the young prince Justinian. They first met in 520 CE, not in Constantinople, but in the city of Antioch—Constantinople’s ear to the east. It was there that Theodora revealed to a confidante that she had dreamed that she was sleeping with the king of the demons. In modern terms, she had begun to date the prince. What had brought them together in this place?

Let us begin with Theodora. By 520, she had long given up performing as what Parisians of the Belle Epoque called a grande horizontale—the great horizontal ladies who were the super-mistresses of the time. Yet she kept in touch with the world of the circus factions that were central to life throughout the empire. This was no cause of shame to her. She came from a good enough background. She had not risen from the gutter, as Procopius implied. Her father had been the chief keeper of the bears of the Green Circus Faction. He was part of the urban scene—like a member of a worshipful company in London.

The circus factions were a peculiar institution. Though deeply rooted in their individual cities, each faction—some hundreds of young men, often from good families, who supported one side or the other in the chariot races—also formed part of an empire-wide association. Each was, as it were, a local chapter in an association whose main business was to praise the emperor. The emperor was the superstar acclaimed by the factions in every circus and, outside the circus, at every public ceremony.

What gave a special tingle to these demonstrations of loyalty was that they were about chariot races. They were about skill and sheer luck. In the murderous scrum of the hippodrome only one side could win. And yet the emperor did not float above the races as a semidivine figure. In the hippodrome, he was still a Roman among other Romans. He was expected to follow with passion the fortunes of his own faction as any good old boy had done for centuries. As a result, every hippodrome, from Egypt to Constantinople, was like a giant roulette wheel. The emperor and his faction placed their stakes on a game of skill against blind fortune that condensed—and all too well—the swerving paths down which the emperor had taken the empire as a whole.

No wonder the factions (though looked down upon by bureaucrats and bishops alike) had to be constantly kept happy and in touch with the ruling powers. They were dark matter at its most potentially explosive. And so the young prince Justinian had made his way to Antioch to make contact with the local circus factions. “Their networks enabled him,” writes Potter, “to establish his own presence in the empire’s major cities.” And of all the former grandes horizontales available to him, it may have been no coincidence that Theodora, the daughter of a respectable bear keeper in Constantinople, was the one who knew the business of the circus inside out.

W&D Downey, London/Culver Pictures/Art Archive/Art Resource
Sarah Bernhardt as Theodora, London, 1884

But what was it like to fall in love with Theodora, as the young Justinian plainly did? Here Potter presents a somewhat anemic view of Byzantine sex. The erotic poetry of the elites, which he cites, was schoolboy stuff. I think that one must go deeper to account for the impact of a woman such as Theodora.

There were many things that these courtesans were not. They were not Athenian hetairai, nor were they the geishas of Japan or the courtly ladies of medieval Europe. They did not bring feminine charm and gracious manners to their lovers. For these lovers were expected to have been groomed by the dominant male education associated with the notion of paideia, which encompassed high culture and much else. All the charm and poise they needed was passed on to them by older men—by magnetic rhetors and by teachers of the Greek classics.

What Justinian got from Theodora was not the art of gracious living. Nor was it simply sex. It was something far more primal. Popular lore made this plain. If a man stepped out of his house, it was considered very good luck if his first sight was of a courtesan. For such a woman foretold delight and abundance. She was a vision of the life force made real, just as the appearance of her opposites—black-robed priests or nuns—foretold chill death. In an age when the gods had barely died, to see Theodora was to glimpse a bountiful goddess in the full pride of her beauty. The legend of Pelagia—a courtesan turned saint—emerged in Antioch at just this time. In the description of Pelagia, as viewed by a gaggle of fascinated bishops, we have a hint of what Theodora could offer:

She then appeared before our eyes, sitting prominently on a riding donkey adorned with little bells and caparisoned; in front of her was a great throng of her servants and she herself was decked out with gold ornaments, pearls and all sorts of precious stones, resplendent in luxurious and expensive clothes. On her hands and feet she wore armbands, silks and anklets decorated with all sorts of pearls, while around her neck were necklaces and strings of pendants and pearls. Her beauty stunned those who beheld her.

As the prostitute passed in front of us, the scent of perfumes and the reek of her cosmetics struck everyone in the vicinity. [And so Pelagia passed by, with magnificent indifference to normal conventions] with her head uncovered, with a scarf thrown around her shoulders in a shameless fashion, as though she were a man.1

What better living emblem of riches and delight to install (almost like a heraldic blazon) in the palace of a young prince?

But how had Theodora got to Antioch? Again, unconventional forces seem to have come into play. In between lovers, she needed protection. But this protection came not from the circus, but from the church. From 512 to 518 CE, the church of Antioch had been ruled by Severus, a charismatic intellectual of unbending views on the joining of God and humanity in Christ—views that were seen as out of step with the dogmas proclaimed at Chalcedon. He was widely admired for having got his science right. A correspondent of Severus “thought he saw the light of the divine torch shining in him.” Though chased from his see in 518 and declared a nonperson by the imperial government, Severus was one of those clouds of dark matter that had no place in the official self-image of the empire of Eastern Rome. In exile, he retained the magnetic power of a great dissident. Until his death in 538, the spider’s web of Severus’s correspondents and spiritual sons and daughters was unbreakable.

In 520, anti-Chalcedonian dissidents loyal to the memory of Severus in Antioch may well, Potter suggests, have provided a sort of ecclesiastical women’s shelter for courtesans—a place where they could rethink their lives and plot new careers. It would have guaranteed the sincerity of Theodora’s conversion and would have supported her against judgmental public opinion.

Here I would add to the scenario sketched by Potter a vignette taken from the heavy pages of Eduard Schwartz’s edition of Acts of the Ecumenical Councils. Complaints against Peter, the bishop of Apamea, show that a sort of women’s shelter existed in his diocese. Peter, like Severus, was a staunch anti-Chalcedonian. In 518, the pro-Chalcedonian monks of the area went after him. They complained that Peter had baptized two leading courtesan-actresses—Maria and Stephané, known as “Flutter Feathers.” (Such names were common. At this time, even the pope was rumored to have had a mistress called Conditaria—“Spice Girl.”) The problem was that, once baptized, the two women did not conveniently vanish into the desert as the legend of Pelagia suggested that they should have done. They stuck around. They became part of the bishop’s entourage.2

One wonders whether Theodora, in Antioch, was indebted to Severus and his clergy for similar protection. In any case, she remained fiercely loyal to Severus for the rest of his life. In later years, he even provided the empress (whose eyes were failing) with manuscripts of his works, written in especially large Greek characters.

Once married, as we well know, Theodora and Justinian emerged from the world of dark matter to the brightly lit throne of Constantinople. Astonishing events ensued. In January 532, an attempt by the resident aristocracy of Constantinople to stage what we might call a “Byzantine Spring” was quashed. This took the form of the famous Nika riots. For a chilling moment, all the factions of the Hippodrome united against Justinian. The resident aristocracy set up an alternative emperor. For days on end, the roar of the firestorm of burning buildings up and down the central streets deafened the inhabitants. It was on the crucial morning of January 18 that Theodora intervened to insist that Justinian should not leave the city:

I shall never be separated from this purple, nor shall I live for a single day if those who encounter me do not call me mistress. If you wish to be saved, my lord, that is not a problem…. But…for me the old saying is best, that power is a splendid shroud.

Theodora’s stand worked. Having run riot in the lanes of the city, the populace of Constantinople obligingly flowed back into the Hippodrome, in order to witness the end of Justinian. But the Hippodrome was the one space where they could be trapped. The soldiers closed in. Thirty thousand men and women were said to have been killed. The resident aristocracy was broken. Eighteen major confiscations effectively put a stop to their “Byzantine Spring.”

And then, as we know, Justinian went on from strength to strength. In 533–534, he sent an army that conquered the coast of North Africa (in modern Tunisia and Algeria). At the same time, he issued the compendia of Roman law that came to be identified as the crowning achievement of the Roman Empire. Yet nothing of this extraordinary endeavor owed anything to Old Rome. It all took place far to the east, in Constantinople, under the guidance of the lawyer Tribonian, as Potter writes “one of the most influential figures in the history of Western legal thought.”

Most characteristic of all was Justinian’s rebuilding of the church of Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom). We know this building almost too well from innumerable photographs. We have to recover the thrill of those who first entered it. What had been burned down was a straightforward Roman basilica—a great barn of a place, straight as a ramrod with an apse at one end. What the inhabitants of Constantinople now got was a building that made the head swim. Every rule had been broken. The long side walls hinted at the clear lines of a basilica but, as in a dream, they were twice as high as any known church. Multicolored marble flowed down them like great waterfalls. At every corner of the building, where one might expect a clear right-angle bend, semicircular apses made the vast floor seem to dance. Over it all was a dome too big to be built (the locals told visitors from the provinces) without the help of an angel.

And so we come to Theodora’s last transformation. She emerged no longer as the lover of the emperor. Rather, she became the Virgin Mary to Justinian’s Almighty God. This was an evolution perfectly intelligible to Christian contemporaries. By giving her human flesh to form the body of Jesus and by filling Him with her human milk, Mary, as “Mother of God,” had kept the raw divinity in Christ human. She was the conductor that brought the suprahuman charge of God safely to earth. She was also the great principle of mercy. Only the Virgin could find wiggle room for condemned sinners.

And this is just what Theodora became in her last years. She was the silver lining in the dark cloud of Justinian’s autocracy. Like the Virgin, she was the one who could break the rules. She protected the followers of Severus. She protected prostitutes, providing them with a shelter. Known as the Metanoia—as the place of conversion—it was a testimony to the faith of the empress that, in her Byzantium, anything could change.

As she transformed herself, so she transformed the world. Potter makes plain that the problem posed to the biographer by the career of Theodora is how to deal with a person who defied convention and stereotype. But in the case of Justinian and Theodora, the problem for the biographer is only part of the problem for the historian of sixth-century Byzantium as a whole: how to deal with a vast and complex society—an entire ancient empire—that also, in its way, dived out of its accustomed frame. David Potter is to be warmly congratulated on having written a book that offers a gripping portrait of a remarkable woman that is also the portrait of a remarkable age.

  1. 1

    See the chapter on Pelagia in Holy Women of the Syrian Orient, translated by Sebastian P. Brock and Susan Ashbrook Harvey (University of California Press, 1987). 

  2. 2

    Petition of the Monks of Apamea (in 518) in Acta Conciliorum Oecumenicorum, edited by Eduard Schwartz (Berlin: De Gruyter, 1940), pp. 106–109.