- The Syriac Empress of Byzantine
a Byzantine mosaic of
Theodora and her attendants
6th century: Born about 497-500.
Died June 28, 548.
Married Justinian, 523 or 525.
Empress from April 4, 527.
Theodora, depicted on a Byzantine mosaic
Who would have thought that a girl of
Syrian priest growing up in her father's faith would later
become Empress and one of the most powerful women of
medieval history? She is Theodora, Syriac empress of
Byzantium from 527-548, was probably the most influential
and powerful woman in the empire's history.
- The Syriac Empress of Byzantine
The righteous Queen Theodora, was born in 500 AD in the Syrian city Mabug (Manbej),
and was brought up in a Christian environment at the home
of her father, the virtuous Syrian Orthodox priest. She
married Caesar Justinian, the protector of the faith of
the Council of Chalcedon, which the Byzantine state had
adopted. In spite of this, Queen Theodora held to the
faith of her Syrian Orthodox fathers who rejected this
Council and its resolutions. The tempests of ferocious
persecution and their sweeping torrents failed to shake
She was known by her intelligence and
fear of God.
Theodora first became the mistress of Justinian; then
Justin accommodated his heir's attraction to Theodora by
changing the law that forbid a patrician from marrying
non-Romanian citizen. Theodora was not only
beautiful, but intelligent, witty and amusing, which is
perhaps why she won Justinian's love so much that he
appealed against an old Roman law.
Justinian and Theodora were married in
525. In 527, Justin, the emperor of Byzantium, and
Justinian's father died. The couple assumed control of the
Empire and were crowned Emperor and Empress on 4th April
of that same year. They ruled unofficially as joint
monarchs with Justinian allowing Theodora to share his
throne and take active part in decision making.
When Justinian and Theodora married,
Justinian had expressed his wishes for the two of them to
rule together legally. This proved to
be a wise decision. A strong-willed woman, she showed a
notable talent for governance. They were crowned on
a double throne; the consuls and magistrates took the
legal and religious oath which officially declared them
equal rulers of Byzantium:
"I swear on the Father, the Son and
the Holy Ghost and on the Virgin Mary and on the four
gospels which I hold in my hand, and on the Archangels
Michael and Gabriel, to keep faith with pure conscience
to our most sacred Lord Justinian and Theodora his
consort." (Bridge p54)
The words of the oath prove that
Theodora, legally, was co-ruler with her husband. She was
not just a figurehead.
Perhaps the most significant event
during Empress Theodora's rule was the Nika revolt in
which she proved herself a worthy and able leader. During
this event, two rival political groups (known as the Blues and the Greens) started a riot at the Hippodrome. They set many
public buildings on fire and proclaimed a new emperor.
Justinian, terrified and his officials, unable to control
the crowd prepared to flee, but Theodora spoke up and gave
a moving speech about the greater significance of the life
of someone who died as a ruler, over that of someone who
lived but was nothing. It was Theodora who insisted they
stay where they were and honor their positions:
"Every man must sooner or later die;
and how could and Emperor ever allow himself to be a
fugitive? when you reach safety, will you not regret
that you did not choose death in preference? I stand by
the saying: the purple is the noblest winding-sheet."
Her determined speech convinced
Justinian and his officials and they attacked the
Hippodrome, killing over 30,000 rebels and emerging
victorious. Historians agree that it was Theodora's
courage and determination that saved Justinian's empire.
Thus, her advice
and leadership for a strong (and militant) response caused
the riot to be quelled and probably saved the empire. Her strong will is shown in another incident. When
Justinian fell ill with the plague, Theodora, according to
Norwich (p233), exercised the supreme power alone during
his illness, although her position was threatened by some
of the army commanders. But she continued to rule the the
kingdom until Justinian had recovered.
Theodora, the Syrian wife of the
Emperor Justinian, was no ordinary woman. Not for a moment
was she in the background of imperial life - she ruled
Byzantium as an equal alongside Justinian and was his
chief adviser. Besides this she also worked hard for many
causes of her own, making her own significant
contributions to the government of the Roman Empire. In
the past, Empresses had tended to be uninvolved in the
running of the country and in affairs of state (Norwich,
p194) Theodora brought about a unique change to this
tradition. Her intelligence and strong will enabled her to
use the power of her high position to great effect. These
traits also allowed her to exercise influence over her
husband in times of crisis, and on at least on occasion
she became the decision maker due to sheer decisiveness
and strength of courage. Theodora had a real effect
on the political decisions of the empire. Justinian
writes, for instance, that he consulted Theodora when he
promulgated a constitution which included reforms meant to
end corruption by public officials. She is credited with
influencing many other reforms, including some which
expanded the rights of women, She established laws raising
the status of women in Byzantine far above that of women
in the western part of the empire, the Middle East and
Europe. She instituted the death penalty for rape,
improved divorce laws and laws against the mistreatment of
women and established laws allowing women to own and
inherit property. She was responsible for the building of
hospitals and convents as a refuge for homeless women, and
forbid the killing of a wife who committed adultery.
Throughout the rest of her life,
Theodora and Justinian transformed the city of
Constantinople, building it into a city that for many
centuries was known as one of the most wonderful cities in
the world. They built aqueducts, bridges, and more than 25
churches, the most significant of these being the Hagia
Sophia - 'Church of Holy Wisdom'. To women, Theodora may
well be considered a noble pioneer of the women's
Empress Theodora died on 28th June,
548. Her body was buried in the Church of the Holy
Apostle, one of the splendid churches that she and
Justinian had built in Constantinople. Beautiful mosaics
in Empress Theodora's remembrance exist to this day at the
Church of San Vitale at Ravenna in Northern Italy. Even
after her death, her spirit lived on, and in this way she
was able to have influence on the Empire. Through what she
had began, Justinian was able to bring harmony between the
Chalcedonian and non-Chalcedon, and the status of women in
the Byzantine Empire was elevated high above that of the
women in the Middle East and Europe.
Theodora's Religious Policy
Theodora was one of the most powerful
women of her time, and it is true to say that, as co-ruler
of Byzantium with Justinian, she made many very
significant changes to the Roman Empire and its
government. According to one source, Theodora possessed
notable courage, wit and judgement, (Bridge p4)
These qualities and her loyalties - Theodora never forgot
her background teaching, church, family, and friends -
were the basis of her whole character throughout her life,
most prominently whilst she was Empress. It is only by
keeping the memory of Theodora and her deeds alive as part
of our Syrian church and history that the homage she
deserves can be paid. Her mother church, Syriac Orthodox
Church, venerating her memory in the celebration of her
Day on June 28. In the Liturgical Calendar of the Greek
Orthodox Church, the celebration day put under November
14, it appears "The Assumption of the Orthodox King
Justinian and the memory of Queen Theodora".
The Syriac sources and Arabic
History of the Patriarchs of the Coptic Church of
Alexandria is better taken as a document of
non-Chalcedonian people tradition than as an accurate
record of events: it overlooks Justin I entirely,
for instance, and attributes the persecution of the
non-Chalcedonian that began with Justin's accession
to Justinian and regards Theodora not only as
defender of non-Chalcedonian churchmen but also as an
emigrant from Alexandria herself.
Mor Severus the Patriarch of Antioch, who had been a
protégé of the old emperor Anastasius, had to flee
to Egypt, as did many other Syrian Orthodox Clergy
(churchmen) and monks: in fact, Alexandria became a
crucible for the various strands of non-Chalcedonian
theology, and Mor Severus' beliefs were rapidly challenged
there by radical sectarians who made him appear a relative
moderate. Empress Theodora served the non-Chalcedonian
bishops in distress. These were the Syrian and Coptic
bishops, who were being persecuted and executed.
She was soon in a better position to help.
Severus' Chalcedonian successor in Antioch, Paul 'the Jew'
(519-21), undertook a persecution of the churches and
monasteries of the Orient. The fragments of John of
Ephesus' Ecclesiastical History
supply a vivid record from the perspective of the
persecuted. Monks and nuns were driven from their
monasteries and some had to spend their nights like wild
beasts wandering on the hillsides, enduring snow and
winter rains in the winter. Paul's tenure was short but
his successor as patriarch, Euphrasius, was moderate only
by comparison. He perished in the earthquake which befell
Antioch in 526, and Syriac and Coptic tradition had no doubt
that his death was not only hideous, but appropriate. His
successor, Ephraim of Amida, had been a military officer,
a former Magister Militum per Orientem, and he
did not hesitate to use military force.
During all this time Theodora's influence
at court grew. But
Justinian was not yet emperor, and, dependent as
he was on his nephew,
Justin clearly did not want to be hurried. In 526
Pope John visited Constantinople where he went through a
coronation ceremony with
Justin, but not
Justinian. But within a few months,
Justin's health was clearly failing, and on 1
April, 527, he crowned
Justinian as his co-emperor, and four months
later, he died. The Syriac and Coptic Churches now had a sturdy friend
at the center of power. Theodora did what she could. When
the monks of the monastery called 'Orientalium' at Edessa
were expelled in the dead of winter by their Chalcedonian
bishop, they wandered from place to place until they found
refuge for between six and seven years at a monastery
called En-Hailaf, and then Theodora arranged for their
return home. Mare, the deposed metropolitan of Amida, and
his clergy nearly perished in exile at Petra until
Theodora got permission from
Justinian for them to go to Alexandria and, when
Mare died, it was Theodora who arranged for his bones to
be returned to Amida.
Her influence in religious affairs reached
its height in the early 530s. By 531, it was clear even to
a convinced orthodox theologian like
Justin's harsh measures against Syrians and Coptics had failed.
In Antioch, the persecutions of the Chalcedonian patriarch
Ephraim had provoked a violent revolt.
At summer's end, the persecution was suspended and eight
Syriac bishops were invited to Constantinople. Early
in the next year, the regime survived the 'Nika' revolt
and Theodora emerged from it with greater influence than
before. When the bishops arrived, accompanied by a
mini-mob of not less than five hundred holy men,
Theodora welcomed them and housed them in the Hormisdas
Palace adjoining the Great Palace which had been
Justinian and Theodora's own dwelling before they
became emperor and empress. Theodora visited them every
two or three days, sometimes bringing
Justinian with her, and the church of Saints
Sergius and Bacchus was built for their use.
In the spring of 532, while construction
crews were repairing the devastation of the 'Nika' revolt
Justinian sponsored a three-day conference of
bishops in the Hormisdas Palace. Five bishops debated on
each side. In the spring of the next year,
Justinian published his own confession of faith: a
Chalcedonian-flavored declaration which managed to avoid
mention of the 'Tome' of Leo. Then Theodora and Justinian
invited Severus to the capital, and in the winter of
534-5, Severus came, though without enthusiasm.
Upon his arrival, Theodora introduced him to the new
patriarch Anthimus, who had been appointed to the see of
Constantinople upon the death of Epiphanius in 535.
Theodora may have known that Anthimus was not
unsympathetic to Severus views but, if so, she kept
her information secret. As far as anyone else knew, his
orthodox credentials were impeccable. In Rome, Pope John II was not a hard-line
prelate. A solution must have seemed just around the
corner and Theodora could take much of the credit for it.
Then suddenly it fell apart. In Egypt,
Timothy III died. In Rome, Pope John II died and his
successor Agapetus arrived in Constantinople in 536 on a
mission for the Ostrogothic king, Theodahad. Agapetus had
a high card: Belisarius' campaign to recover Italy from
the Ostrogoths was just getting under way and
Justinian could not appear as an opponent of the
Chalcedonians without alienating the support and good will
of the Italians. Shortly after his arrival on 1 March, Agapetus denounced Anthimus and on 13 March, Anthimus was
deposed and replaced by the solidly Chalcedonian Menas,
director of the hospice of Sampson. On 22 April, Agapetus
died, but a synod presided over by Menas excommunicated
Anthimus, Severus and their followers and on 6 August, the
emperor confirmed the excommunication and directed that
neither of the two prelates should live in any
of the great cities of the empire; rather they should
dwell in isolation and the works of Severus should be
burned. But with Theodora's help, Severus returned safely
to Egypt where he died in 538, and Anthimus disappeared.
After Theodora's death in 548, he was discovered living
quietly in the women's quarters of the palace which were
She soon received another patriarchal
refugee, Theodosius I. Even with the help of imperial
troops, he could not hold his ground in Alexandria against
the Julianists. Word was brought to Theodora and she
(according to the History of the Patriarchs of the
Coptic Church) "calmly, wisely and humbly, went in to
the prince and informed him of all that had happened,
without his sanction, to Father Theodosius, patriarch in
the city of Alexandria," and
Justinian gave Theodora the power to do what was
necessary. So an investigation was held into the disputed
ordinations of Theodosius and his Julianist rival, Gaianas,
and Theodosius was vindicated. But for all
Justinian could do, Theodosius would not accept
the creed of Chalcedon even though
Justinian brought him to Constantinople and argued
the matter with him on six occasions. So
Justinian deposed him and exiled him together with
300 non-Chalcedonian to the fortress of Derkos in Thrace.
Theodora soon came to his rescue, however, and brought him
back to the relative comfort of the Hormisdas Palace where
he lived under her protection, and after her death in 548,
under Justinian's, for on her deathbed Theodora had
Justinian swear that he would protect her little
community of non-Chalcedonian refugees there, and he kept his
Pope Agapetus died in Constantinople
before he could return to Italy. Theodora's choice as his
successor was a deacon who had accompanied Agapetus to
Constantinople, Vigilius, who had apparently intimated
that he was prepared to be more malleable. But the
election was held before Vigilius could reach Rome, and
the new pope was the son of Pope Hormisdas, Silverius, who
had the support of the Ostrogothic king Theodahad. Events
were moving rapidly in Italy: Belisarius, leading an
imperial invasion force, was advancing from the south,
Naples fell, and the Ostrogoths, disgusted with
Theodahad's flaccid leadership, deposed him and replaced
him with Witigis. He decided that his best strategy would
be to secure his northern frontier against the Franks
before he attended to the Byzantines, and he evacuated
Rome, having first received a loyalty oath from Silverius.
Once the Goths had departed, Silverius invited the
Byzantine forces into the city. That might have given him
some claim for consideration.
In 541, al-Harith, the sheikh of the
Ghassanid tribe of Saracens whose friendship was important
for the security of the south Syrian frontier, was in
Constantinople on other business and took the opportunity
to approach Theodora with a request for bishops. Imperial
prestige in the east was low at this point. Only the year
before, the Persians had sacked Antioch. With Theodora's
blessing, Theodosius, who from his refuge in the Hormisdas
Palace was now recognized as the spiritual leader of the
non-Chalcedonian, ordained two monks as bishops.
The holy man Jacob Baradaeus was ordained a universal
metropolitan in 544 AD, and
Theodore was ordained metropolitan of Bosra by Mor
Theodosius, Patriarch of Alexandria who was exiled at the time in
Constantinople. Three imprisoned bishops participated with Patriarch
Athanasius in laying hand. Mor Ya`qub, the universal bishop, set out
on his mission touring Syria, Egypt, Asia Minor and
Mesopotamia. He visited and ministered to churches and
confirmed the faithful in the Orthodox faith.
The life of
attributed to John of Ephesus, relates how he came to
Constantinople, and met Theodora who had already seen him
in a dream and was given a dwelling by her where he met a
large number of the faithful, among them the Ghassanid
sheikh, al-Harith. Once he was consecrated bishop at al-Harith's
request, he secured permission from Theodosius the
ordain priests and the Life
says with some exaggeration that he ordained 100,000
(Priests and deacons).
Justinian tried to arrest him but he was never
caught and in the end, he gave up. Baradaeus has a
claim by Chalcedonians to be the founder of the Syrian
Orthodox Church, while the church was established by St.
Peter the apostle in Antioch at 37 AD. and St. Jacob is
nothing but one of her great Fathers.
The final result of Theodora's policy on
theological matters. Contemporary, reliable, and honest historians who have full
knowledge of her life have provided credible accounts on her origin,
early life, pure conduct and her immaculate inner self and thoughts.
At the forefront of those, was the Syrian Chronicler St. John of
Ephesus who had close relationship with her family and knew her
quite well. He wrote about her childhood and her marriage to
Justinian the Caesar. The latter had promised her father that he
would not force her to change her faith which rejects the Council of
Chalcedon and its resolutions. He delivered his promise, indeed. Her
staunch enemy, who was also an enemy of truth, the Chronicler
Procopius, failed to deny her the glory that she earned with her
wisdom and her courage in helping her husband Caesar Justinian. The
dishonest and unjust Chronicler Procopius, tried to smear her
virtuous conduct. But the saying, "the sieve cannot conceal the
sunlight in the middle of the day" remains true. "
(Patriarchal Encyclical of 2000)
1. Women in
chains - represent the condition of women before Theodora
2. Women in
front of the tree of life - (a female symbol of bounty)
represent the higher status of women because of Theodora's
stand for the rights of women.
circles - a continuity of intellect and will.
Byzantine cross enclosed in a circle - represents paradise
and four rivers rising from the circle and flowing in four
designs - from the cathedral at San Vitale, Ravenna. Built
by Theodora and Justinian.
6. Silver sword
- represents courage of Theodora.
moon - female symbol, in this case of far reaching power.
of text - Classical Greek: "For all women the right to
- Theodora - biography by James Allan Evans, at De
Imperatoribus Romanis. Includes a bibliography.
- Theodora - a biography from the Gale Group.
- Empress Theodora: A Journey to the
Past - Article by Christine Kiraz. Includes an analysis
of the myths and interpretations of Theodora's life,
from the perspective of Syrian Orthodox church history.
Pages 15-20 of a newsletter from the Syrian Orthodox
Church of Antioch. PDF file (Adobe Acrobat Reader
required, available free from www.adobe.com)
- Theodora - from a series of articles,
"History of Women Through Art." A brief biography plus
explanation of symbolism in a depiction of Theodora. The
claim of her Mongol connection in this article is
- Empress Theodora and Her Retinue and Emperor
Justinian and His Retinue - analysis of two mosaics
featuring Justinian and Theodora
- Theodora - Melissa Snell, About Guide to Medieval
and Renaissance History, collects some Net links on
Browning, Robert. Justinian and
Theodora. Praeger Publishers: (New York, 1971).
Gibbon, Edward. The Decline and the
Fall of the Roman Empire. Harcourt, Brace and
Company: (New York, 1960).
Gies, Frances and Joseph Gies. Women
in the Middle Ages. Thomas Y. Crowell Company: (New
Underhill, Clara. Theodora: The
Courtesan of Constantinople. Sears Publishing
Company: (New York, 1932).
Casto, Pamelyn. "Theodora: From
Prostitute to Byzantine Empress (497-548)". Internet
"Theodora: (Byzantine 508-548)". Internet
"Theodora: c. 500-548 Byzantine Empress".
Theodora. Portrait in a Byzantine Landscape. London, 1978.
1993, Byzantium, the early years, Penguin books, London.
Capizzi, Carmelo, Giustiniano I tra politica e
religione. Messina, 1994.
Diehl, Ch., Théodora, impératrice de Byzance,
Evans, J. A. S., 'The "Nika" rebellion and the Empress
Theodora," Byzantion, 47 (1977), 380-382.
__. The Age of Justinian: The Circumstances of
Imperial Power. London, 1996.
Holmes, W. G. The Age of Justinian and Theodora,
2 vols. London, 1912.
 Verhandelingen der Koninklijke Akademie van
Wetenschappen, Afdeeling Letterkunde I (1889) pp.
217-219. Trans. into Latin by W. J. Van Douwen and J. P.
 John of Ephesus, Lives of the Eastern Saints.
PO, t. 17, I, pp. 187-212, esp. 188-89; pp.
 Ernst Stein, Histoire du Bas-Empire II
(1949), p. 377. For what follows, see Carmelo Capizzi,
Giustiniano I tra politica e religione (Messina,
1994), pp. 62-88; J. A. S. Evans, The Age of
Justinian: The Circumstances of Imperial Power,
(London/New York, 1996), pp. 105-112; 183-92.
 John of Ephesus includes an essay on the
communities of monks which Theodora gathered in the Hormisdas Palace (Patrologia Orientalis 18
(Paris, 1924), pp. 676-684) which is remarkable for its
description of these holy men who filled every nook and
cranny and continued their devotions, Many were stylite
saints who, fearing persecution, came down from the
pillars; others were monks, including archimandrites,
expelled from their cells. The sight of them, the smell,
and the noise of their hymns and canticles must have been
 Evagrius, 4.10; Theophanes, A.M. 6002. John of
Beith-Apthonia, Life of Severus (in Syriac),
Corpis scriptorum christianorum orientalium II, pp.
205-64, relates that Severus left his refuge at Alexandria
without a thought for his safety, and emphasizes
Theodora's role as his protector.
 Anthony Bridge, Theodora, pp. 125-6
presents Anthimius' appointment as a victory for Theodora.
Or possibly only a piece of good fortune.
 Verhandelingen der Koninklijke Akademie van
Wetenschappen, Afdeeling Letterkunde XVIII
(Amsterdam, 1889) pp. 203-215.