The Bear Keeper's Daughter
History records many women of great power, women who shaped the world where they lived. Catherine the Great, the 18th century empress who brought Russia out of its feudal culture and into the modern world of its time; Cleopatra, a woman of foreign birth who ruled Egypt during the time of Caesar; or Queen Victoria, who wielded authority over the British Empire’s most glorious period in the 19th century – all of these women held tremendous authority and will.
Sometimes the woman of influence was behind the scenes and quietly steered matters of state. One such woman was First Lady Edith Wilson (wife of President Woodrow Wilson). For all practical purposes it was she who ran the country as an unelected president late in Wilson’s second term. In September 1919 he was partially paralyzed by a stroke. The balance of his term saw Edith Wilson running the United States without the public’s knowledge that Wilson himself was not at the helm.
Other women agitate behind the scenes, however, and cause trouble for their powerful paramours. The adventuress Lola Montez stirred up public resentment against her protector, Bavarian King Ludwig I. Her outrageous antics and courtly maneuverings on state policy led to a revolution in Bavaria in 1848. Lola barely escaped with her life.
But what if the woman behind the power or who is thrust to the fore isn’t really a fully mature woman, but a girl, complete with an immature teenager’s whims and wants? Such a woman was Mary of Nazareth. This teen girl elected to keep a child knowingly not of her betrothed Joseph. She could have been stoned to death under Jewish law of the time. Mary of Nazareth stood firm in her convictions, and Joseph did not press an infidelity claim against her.Another teen girl whose presence in history did not go unmarked was a low-born actress and prostitute named Theodora. This girl would go on to become the most powerful woman the Byzantine Empire had ever seen.
“Istanbul Was Constantinople…”
The modern city of Istanbul carries its heritage back to an early Roman settlement called Byzantium. It is in a strategic military location, and it is literally the gateway to two continents, Europe and Asia. It has seen many conquerors since Constantine captured it in 330 AD and renamed it Constantinople.
When Rome fell in 476 AD, the Roman Empire split into the western decayed part and the Eastern Empire, headquartered in Constantinople. This Empire thrived in the face of barbarous assaults from the East. Islam was not yet invented; that came about 610 AD. The source of this human plague was Turkish Arabs, later known as Saracens, bent on conquest.
Life in Constantinople was steeped in the Hellenic tradition, and its entertainments reflected the Greek love of theater and spectacle. In the great city was a combination coliseum, menagerie, and show palace, in scope much like a modern circus. It was called the Hippodrome, and into this world of makeup, costume, and illusion the future empress of Byzantium would begin life.
Theodora’s true country of birth is uncertain, but the best scholarly information points to her having been born in either Constantinople or in Paphlogonia (a mountainous Byzantine district in Asia Minor along the Black Sea). Constantinople is perhaps the better choice; people simply did not migrate great distances unless forced, and Constantinople was where she lived as a child.
Her year of birth is likewise sketchy. Years ranging from 497 AD up to 510 AD are supposed. She had but one contemporary incidental biographer, a historian named Procopius (born between 490 AD and 507 AD). He wrote of the Byzantine Empire’s history during her lifetime. Though he reported much about her, in the three distinct works in which she is characterized she is portrayed subjectively and with differing opinions in each: benevolent, wise, and just in one case; conniving, vicious, and murderous in another. The most reasonable birth year to select, based upon her activities and what is known of her movements, is probably the date at or just past the year 500 AD, closer to 504 AD.
Her father was a man named Acacius. His job was as bear-keeper and animal feeder at the Hippodrome. These animals were used for entertainments between chariot races and other productions at the Hippodrome. Theodora was the middle girl of three daughters, and her father died when Theodora was about six years old. Tradition held that a surviving son inherited the father’s job at the Hippodrome. However, Acacius had no sons, and this left his widow destitute. She remarried very quickly hoping her new husband could get Acasius’ old job as wrangler. The decision-making was left to a chief ballet dancer, and he accepted a bribe and appointed another man in Acasius’ vacancy.
Within the Hippodrome’s culture were factions: Green, Red, Blue, and White. These groups sat in separate sections, cheered for different champions, and differed ideologically as well. The “Greens” were of the dominant ruling class in Constantinople and adhered to the orthodox Christian beliefs of the day. The “Blues” incorporated a heresy known later as “monophysitism” into their thinking. Monophysites believed the person of Jesus was but one being, and that being was wholly divine, incorporating no human element. This flew in the face of orthodoxy: Jesus was both mortal and divine in the "true" religion.
It was upon the mercy of these factions Theodora’s mother threw herself and her children. She dressed her girls in garlands and what finery she had available, and marched them into the Hippodrome for inspection. She was hoping someone would take them in. The Greens rejected her. The Blues, however, having lost their own bear-keeper recently, compassionately gave the post to Theodora’s stepfather. Theodora’s older sister Komito began acting in the Hippodrome’s theatrical pantomimes, and Theodora followed her in this pursuit, first playing a slave attendant on-stage to her older sister.
The job of actress within the society was a low one. Actresses by default were also prostitutes – the one went with the other. It was expected. In the same way that the high-class, honorable position of Geisha in Japan would unfortunately (and unfairly) become associated with prostitution, actresses also were associated with prostitution.
The pubescent Theodora’s stage presence became notorious fairly quickly. One particularly lewd act in which she featured was a staging of Zeus’ rape of the mortal Leda (in the guise of a swan). Total nudity was prohibited on the Byzantine stage – actresses, however, often stripped to the barest the law would allow. The girl Theodora did her part. She reclined upon a table almost naked as an attendant scattered barley corns on her groin area. A flock of geese (not swans) were then herded onto the stage, and they picked at the barley corns in Theodora’s groin. This simulated the “rape”. Theodora gained notoriety for this act.
As many actresses/prostitutes were called upon to perform outside the theater proper, so, too, did Theodora perform for private banquets. At a tender age she was ushered into the realm of child prostitution, and had to submit to many advances and liaisons. Before meeting her future emperor husband, Theodora would have an illegitimate daughter when she was about 15.
There existed a Roman law, observed in Constantinople, about the movements of its actresses and actors. They were not allowed to leave the region and move away, since they were considered an attraction and part of a city’s renown and reputation. Their departure would have lessened the lure of popular festivals. Theodora became the teenaged mistress of a Syrian diplomat named Hecebolus. He was from Tyre (in southern modern-day Lebanon). His position gave him enough clout that he was able to take the nubile actress with him, in defiance of local authority, when he was posted to Libya as a governor. Theodora was thrilled to leave her low status actress job behind. As consort of Hecebolus she lived well for a few years.
Hecebolus grew tired of her over time and began mistreating her, until finally he abandoned her entirely. Theodora made her way to Alexandria, Egypt. The current Byzantine Emperor was Justin I. Justin had forced the exile of Monophysites in his Empire. Many fled to Egypt and Syria and Cyprus to avoid persecution. In Alexandria, Theodora met a Monophysite holy man named Timothy III. Actresses were largely banned from participating in orthodox Christian sacraments unless they were on their deathbeds. The Monophysites, however, welcomed her with open arms, and she sincerely and devoutly converted to their version of faith. She remained a staunch Monophysite for the rest of her life.
Back into the Fire
After a brief time in Alexandria, Theodora took her new-found lease on life and traveled to Antioch (in southern Turkey). She was befriended by the Blue faction’s prima donna, their star ballerina, a woman named Macedonia. Emperor Justin I’s adopted son (a nephew) was Justinian (originally named “Flavius Petrus Sabbatius”, named changed in honor of his uncle). Justinian was now engaged as a magistrate in Constantinople. Macedonia, Theodora’s new actress friend, was also working as a spy on behalf of the magistrate Justinian. As Macedonia also submitted to the prostitution expectations of the working actress, she had access to many notables in whom Justinian was interested politically. It was her job to tell him of any who might represent a threat to him.
Tradition holds Theodora then returned to Constantinople and, after taking up the penitent’s occupation (for atonement of her sinful past) of wool spinning, she “came to the attention” of Justinian. The real story is more likely that Macedonia and she, traveling with her troupe, reached Constantinople in 522 AD as part of a performing itinerary. Theodora certainly with her experience could have helped with costumes and props. It is reasonable to conclude it was Macedonia who introduced Theodora to the heir to the empire, Justinian, on one of her debriefing sessions with him.
At the time of their meeting, Justinian was in his late thirties; Theodora was in her late teens. He was smitten immediately with her and took her as a mistress. His adoptive father, the Emperor Justin I, adored Theodora. The Empress Euphemia, however, did not. She herself had been a slave girl before marrying the throne. Justin I, in fact, had bought her for his enjoyment, then later fell in love with her and married her. Her slave name was Lupicina and, because this name was common among prostitutes of the era (sort of like a working girl’s street name), it is safely presumed she too had been a prostitute before her purchase by Justin I. In any event, she changed her name to Euphemia and became Empress upon marriage.Euphemia, like many reformed or rehabilitated “sinners”, looked squarely down upon the relationship between Justinian and Theodora. She guarded the respectability of the throne as a jealous she-wolf, and she would not hear of Justinian marrying such a low-life as Theodora, noCredit: public domain matter how much he professed to love her. Also, the law prohibited marriage between an actress and government official. Euphemia died in 523 AD, however, and the only remaining obstacle to Justinian’s marriage died with her. Justin I graciously changed the Empire’s prohibitive marriage law, modifying it so anyone could marry an actress who was “truly penitent” of her past. The two wed in 523 AD in a Constantinople cathedral.
Justin I’s health was in a great stage of decline. In 527 AD (when Justinian was 44 years old, and Theodora perhaps as young as 19 or 20) Justin I made his adopted son a co-emperor to help him run his kingdom, and crowned him on April 1. Justin I died four months later, leaving his adopted son the new Emperor of the Byzantine Empire, Justinian I, to rule.
From the very start of their relationship Justinian treated Theodora as his intellectual and political equal. He yielded half his power to her, and they ruled in tandem. Theodora’s sister Komito (the actress) had since married a soldier who later died on a campaign in Armenia. Komito and other actresses of Theodora’s acquaintance had access to the royal grounds and staff.
Theodora remained a supportive Monophysite. Her husband retained his orthodox views, and continued the persecutions of the Monophysites started by his father. A large group was exiled in the dead of winter; Theodora provided covert comfort and material support, helping them find a shelter in a monastery where they remained for about seven years before she facilitated their return home. She also helped hide other “heretics”. One such holy person, a man thought to have been exiled, was discovered living comfortably under Theodora’s care in the women’s quarters of the emperor’s palace after she died.
Although ideologically she and her husband may have been at odds, they both worked well together when it came to civil matters. Justinian instituted the codification of laws now known as the Justinian Code. He enacted many new laws about women’s rights, and there is no doubt Theodora’s tainted childhood helped mold their tone. Laws allowing women to assume guardianship of their own children upon the death of a husband but without remarrying were put into effect. Laws prohibiting forced prostitution were passed, meaning women engaged in the job of acting only had to act and not perform sexually unless they wanted. She set up hostelries for ex-prostitutes, places where they could live while learning a trade. Laws granting women more rights in divorce cases and allowing women to own and inherit property were put into place. Theodora’s most volatile legislation instituted the death penalty for rape.
During this period Justinian was a devoted husband to her, and she was regarded well by the populace. Justinian’s love for her was evident in his recognizing her illegitimate daughter as a member of the noble family, and later on recognizing that daughter’s illegitimate offspring (a boy named Athanasius) also as fully legitimate. The couple had no children together; Theodora’s obvious fertility tends to place the couple’s reasons for not conceiving squarely in Justinian’s lap. The royal couple spent much on beautifying the city of Constantinople. They built aqueducts, bridges, and more than twenty-five churches, including the iconic Hagia Sophia – Church of the Holy Wisdom. They contented themselves with their intellectual pursuits.
Theodora was not above normal courtly intrigues, and she delighted in making high government officials bow and prostrate themselves before her and Justinian when granting an audience (a practice not required by Justin I). It amused her to see such powerful people bow before the little former actress. She also had an extensive network of spies, used to ferret out critics of the crown, and she had several subjects put to death that displeased her or were thought treasonous.
Blue vs. Green
The biggest problem in the Empire at the time, though, was the schism between the Blue (Monophysite) and the Green (orthodox) factions. A skirmish started in the Hippodrome between the two factions in 532 AD. The conflict spilled into the streets of Constantinople and became a full-blown riot situation rapidly. Many of the new buildings Justinian had constructed were burned, including the landmark Hagia Sophia.
As the riot burgeoned into a full-on revolt, the rioters continued sacking, and also proclaimed a new emperor, Hypatius (the nephew of a former emperor). The situation was completely uncontrolled, and Justinian’s plan of action was to flee. Theodora, however, refused to stand down, and she told Justinian if he wished to run he was free to do so but she would stay behind in the palace as a show of noble authority. She also gave a moving speech to the royal court, convincing them they need not run, but should take a stand with her.
Rather than take flight, Justinian rallied his two strongest strategists and sent troops to the Hippodrome, where the insurgents headquartered. In a massive slaughter, the royal forces killed 30,000 rioters, and quashed the uprising. This event came to be known as The Nika Revolt; it was really through Theodora’s stubbornness that the throne, and their lives, was not lost.
Theodora died June 28, 548 AD. Her cause of death was recorded historically as something that translates roughly into “cancer”, but it is almost certain it was not cancer as modern medicine knows it. In all likelihood it was any one of a number of common wasting diseases, including true cancer, which killed her. Dependent upon which source one consults, she was less than 50 years old, but could have been between 40 and 49 upon her death.Ironically, though not an orthodox Christian, the Orthodox Church venerates her as St. Theodora, (as well as her husband, Justinian, who actually was orthodox). She is considered the greatest female figure of the Byzantine Empire. She is also regarded as a pioneer of feminism because of the laws she passed increasing the rights of women. Because of her, the status of Byzantine women was elevated far above that of their counterparts elsewhere in the Middle East and the rest of Europe.
Theodora was described by Procopius, her contemporary, as short, but very attractive with a sallow complexion. That is about the extent of her physicality known. She was immortalized in mosaic in Credit: public domainthe 6th century basilica of San Vitale (in Ravenna, Italy, completed a year before she died). That mosaic carries the inaccuracies of subjective art, though. Other artists have interpreted her differently over the years, one even giving her the traditional hennaed hair of the Middle Eastern prostitute, though Theodora’s hairCredit: Constant Benjamin was black.
In pop culture she has most often been portrayed as a provocateur, an adventuress, and a warrior woman. Movie posters tend to play up a hyper feminine physicality she probably did not have, since she was slight of frame. However, it says much of this low-born teenage girl’s mythos from fourteen centuries ago that she is resurrected in modern film and books.
Daughter of a bear-keeper, child actress and child prostitute, religious acolyte, empress, and saint -- it is unknown just how much ambition the teenage Theodora had upon returning to Constantinople in 522 AD. Maybe she really did think she would quietly be a wool spinner. Luckily for the women of Constantinople she did not settle for anything less than the throne of Byzantium.