by Anna Kathryn Lanier
I found a very interesting book a few months ago, GREAT STORIES FROM HISTORY 365 FOR EVERY DAY OF THE YEAR by W.B. Marsh and Bruce Carrick. As the title suggestions, there are 365 short essays on a historical event, one for each day of the year. So, here it is, an hour before my blog should be posted and I’m scrambling to find a topic. I actually found two or three events in GREAT STORIES FROM HISTORY that took place this week. One essay was on Emma Hamilton, Admiral Horatio Nelson’s mistress. Very interesting story there and I nearly wrote it. But then another story caught my eye, Empress Theodora’s story.
On January 17, 532, there was an uprising and revolt in the Byzantine Empire. If not for the courage and boldness of Empress Theodora her husband Emperor Justinian may well have lost his empire. Theodora was the daughter of a bear keeper in Constantinople’s hippodrome – a vast complex, housing a capacity crowd of 30,000 men. She was said to be have been very beautiful with a voracious sexual appetite and was kept and discarded by several lovers by the time she was in her late teens. To her luck, she caught the eye of Justinian, heir apparent to the Emperor Justine. After taking Theodora as his mistress, Justinian was able to persuade his uncle to change the law that prohibited nobles from marrying actresses.
Justinian respected his wife for her intellect and included her in many political discussions. She is said to be responsible for reforms in divorce laws which gave women more rights to property and children, as well as a law making it illegal to kill a wife for adultery. She also saw to it that the brothels in Constantinople were shut down and convents opened for the ex-prostitutes so they could support themselves as well as making the killing of unwanted infants via exposure illegal.
Five years after Justinian’s ascension as Emperor, riots broke out between the Green and Blue factions. A perfect ordered the execution of seven hooligans, but during the hangings, the scaffold broke and two of them fled into a nearby church and sought sanctuary. When the two factions petitioned the Emperor for clemency, he refused and rioting and chaos reigned. They freed the condemned men, burned the church and looted the city.
On January 17th, Justinian finally agreed to their demands to dismiss two of his advisors, but it was too late. The mob continued its wanton destruction and even proclaimed Hypatius as Emperor. Justinian was trapped in his royal palace. He rallied his councilors, who advised that he flee the city via a waiting ship. However, Theodora refused to run away and is said to have told her husband and his council, “If flight were the only means of safety, yet I should disdain to fly…may I never be seen, not for a day, without my diadem and purple…I believe the maxim of antiquity, that kingship is a glorious shroud.”
Instead of fleeing, Justinian rallied his troops and sent General Belisarius into the hippodrome. They killed over 30,000 rebels and executed Hypatius. Forty-
five days after the rioting ended, Justinian ordered the rebuilding of the destroyed church. To this day, the magnificent Hagia Sophia stands today.
Justinian went on to reign for 30 more years, instead of ending it in a shameful flight. Theodora died in 548, most likely from cancer. Although she had a daughter by one of her lovers before marrying Justinian, the couple was childless. She did, however, marry a niece to Justinian’s heir, Justine II.
Justinian and Theodora had different views on religion. She was a monophysite Christian and he was an orthodox Christian. She often defied his orders when they censured the monophysite church. Though some believe their differences were a pretense in an effort to keep the church from gaining too much power.
I have barely touched on her life, so for more reading check out these websites:
Anna Kathryn Lanier