“The Purple makes a fine winding sheet” – the Legacy of Empress Theodora

28 June 548, the Byzantine Empress Theodora, born as the daughter of one of the bear keepers of the Hippodrome and later wife of Justinian I, died of cancer in Constantinople at the age of 48.

“At length, in the twenty-fourth year of her marriage, and the twenty-second of her reign, she was consumed by a cancer; and the irreparable loss was deplored by her husband, who, in the room of a theatrical prostitute, might have selected the purest and most noble virgin of the East“ (Edward Gibbon, “The History of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire“)


Theodora and her attendants in the famous contemporary mosaic in San Vitale, Ravenna

It might have been just the backbiting of a formerly privileged and influential undersecretary, dispossessed after years of work at the centre of power, on the frontlines of Justinian’s Reconquista as well as in Constantinople. But maybe there is some truth in it, who knows, however, the Greco-Palestinian Procopius, former aide-de-camp to Belisarius, state official and the last great historian of Antiquity did not mince matters when he wrote his “Secret History” of the reign of Justinian and Theodora in his late fifties, an addendum to his earlier panegyrics about their majesties’ reign. In fact, it reads like a platoon of yellow journalists put down their ideas for a politically motivated soap opera after a two day pub crawl and watching the gangbang all-nighter in one of the little cinemas near the station. Being completely corrupt and completely useless in his job and responsible for the death of hundred thousands of people pursuing his delusions of former Roman grandeur is one way of describing Justinian, that his father actually was a demon and that the emperor, just like his dear papa, took off his head at night and stalked the palace or slumped into a formless mass of flesh every now and then are rather unusual remarks in a history book. And Theodora gets the full treatment as well, with descriptions of her rather seedy family background, her former profession, actress and prostitute in the circus, down to her alleged nymphomaniac escapades after she became empress and her political machinations and quirks that make every Banana Republic dictator look like Thomas More in comparison. Unfortunately, Procopius is, by and large, the only source we have about Theodora, her life and times.

A close-up of Theodora 

It’s not that Justinian was exactly of ancient stock either. His uncle Justin started out as farmer in the region around Naissus, Niš in present-day Serbia, though he had a brilliant military career, became emperor in 518 and, without children of his own, his nephew succeeded him in 527 and among the first thing Justinian did was changing the law that prohibited senators and other dignitaries from wedding actresses. They probably had already married two years earlier anyway after Emperor Justin’s wife passed on, who opposed her nephew’s union with something along the lines of a burlesque entertainer with the parvenu’s keen sense for class distinctions. Justinian and Theodora had met about five years before when she returned to Constantinople after several years of touring Libya and Egypt as lover of a high-ranking Imperial official and somehow the aspiring heir to the throne of the Roman Empire fell in love with the quick-witted, not uneducated and rather ambitious ex-showgirl. According to Procopius a match made in hell, but whatever was the case, Theodora stood by her husband who certainly was no immediate hero of antiquity and goaded him into action when the mob of the Hippodrome exploded around his ears and Constantinople stood in flames during the infamous Nika riots of 532. “The Purple makes a fine winding sheet” was her sentence that supposedly stood between Justinian and fleeing from the mob, made him reconsider and is arguably her best known quotation. And it probably was made up by Procopius as well.

The counterpart from San Vitale: Justinian and his court

Procopius’ memorable rhetorical device along with the role described in the “Secret History” led to the belief that she was the true power behind Justinian’s throne. What we know for certain is that she, like a few Roman empresses before her, bore the title of Augusta, meaning that she was indeed with considerable influence at court and she really might have instigated Justinian to pass legislation to strengthen women’s rights in a divorce and against child prostitution and girl trafficking along with Imperial disapproval of rape and murdering adulterous spouses. We know that she was involved in charitable work, established a home for wayward girls and founded several churches. And while it is absolutely credible that she exercised considerable influence over Justinian along with a certain amount of favouritism at court, she was hardly the driving force or evil genius of Justinian’s political or military achievements. However, the emperor seems to have genuinely loved his empress. Procopius’ posthumous slander stuck, though, and there is always the idea of Theodora being a second Messalina along with the fabulous “from-rags-to-riches” story of a remarkable woman.

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