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Theodora, Empress of Byzantium

Empress Theodora (c.500 - 548), empress of the Byzantine Empire.

Theodora was born into the lowest class of Byzantine society, the daughter of a bearkeeper for the circus. Much of the information from this earliest part of her life comes from the Secret History of Procopius, published posthumously. Critics of Procopius have dismissed his work as vitriolic and pornograpic, but have been unable to discredit his facts. For example, the sources do not dispute Theodora emerged as a comic actress in burlesque[?] theater, and that her talents tended toward what we might call physical comedy. She was renowned for her animal acts. While her advancement in Byzantine society was up and down, she made use of every opening. She had admirers by the score. Procopius writes that she was a courtesan who briefly served as the mistress of a provincial administrator, by whom she bore her only child, a son.

Sometime before meeting Justinian she became an adherent of the Monophysite sect of Christianity, which claims Christ was of wholly divine nature. She remained their partisan throughout her life.

In 523 Theodora married Justinian, the magister militum praesentalis in Constantinople. On his accession in to the throne of Byzantium in 527 as Justinian I, he made her joint ruler of the empire, and appears to have regarded her as a full partner in their rulership. This turned out to be a fortunate decision. A strong-willed woman, she showed a notable talent for governance. In the Nika riots of 532, her advice and leadership for a strong (and militant) response caused the riot to be quelled and probably saved the empire.

Theodora was history's first pro-choice advocate, repeatedly practicing what she preached; successfully lobbying the emperor to change the law to permit noblemen to marry lower class women (i.e. her). Theodora also advocated the rights of married women to commit adultery, and the rights of women to be socially serviced, helping to advance protections and delights for them; and was also something of a voice for the prostitute and downtrodden. She also helped to mitigate the breach in Christian sects that loomed large over her time; she probably had a large part in Justinian's efforts to reconcile the Monophysites to orthodoxy.

Theodora died of cancer before the age of 50, some 20 years before Justinian died.

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