All Eyes on Theodora: From the Stage to Empress

by K.P. Kulski

In the 6th century, known for her sharp intelligence and political acumen, the Byzantine Empress Theodora was a force to be reckoned with.

Even today, there is something about Theodora that continues to draw attention. She was a unique figure in the Byzantine world. A woman who not only occupied a high position within the Empire, but appeared to have ruled just as much as her husband, the Emperor Justinian. In some sources it is suggested that she may have been a co-regent. The pair was the quintessential “power couple,” and their match appears to have been one created around love as well as reliance and respect of each other’s capabilities.

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While all of this is exceptional, more surprising is that Theodora did not come from a prestigious or politically powerful family. Instead she came from quite a low position within Byzantine society. The great Theodora, long before she took the throne was an actress. While our modern world tends to exalt actresses who rise to high levels of fame, actresses of the Byzantine world did not inhabit a position of respect or particular adulation. If anything, since actresses were often also sex workers in the Empire, the profession was considered despicable one.

Despite this, Theodora used her experience on stage to emphasize imperial ritual, recognizing that acting and all the props that came with it could be a form of social signaling. This was especially useful when it came to her and her husband’s interactions with the aristocracy, effectively creating a visible divide and reaffirming of their authority over members of the elite.

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(Image ©Antoine Helbert)

She intrinsically understood the political danger of unchecked power among the elite classes. She was able to manage these groups through interactions that stressed their lower status in relation to her and Justinian. Theodora did not always use her authority to support her husband. In religious matters there were times that she worked directly against him in order to achieve power and influence for the monophysite faction of the early Christian Church. Further, Theodora was responsible for laws that protected lower class women from sexual exploitation in the Empire, all the while fiercely maintaining her own power and influence.

1114theodoraShe is most famously known for her intercession during the Nika Riots, from which her husband Justinian had planned to flee Byzantium at risk of his position on the throne. It was Theodora who stopped him and wisely mentioned that those who had been in the position of power rarely survived if they were ousted. It is also recorded that she proclaimed purple (the color of royalty) was a good color to be buried in… essentially saying if she was going to die, she would die as an Empress. That was enough to dissuade Justinian and they were able to successfully regain control of the city from the rioters.

It is clear Theodora’s time as a performer gave her a unique understanding of her position as Empress and despite her lowborn social class, she carved out her own power and influence. It seems that she knowing brought the shine of “showbiz” with her as she entered into life as an imperial ruler and religious leader.

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