I’ve recently become enamoured of the Byzantine Empire (aka the Eastern Roman Empire) – its culture, its history, its people. And no one is more fascinating and endearing than Constantinople’s ultimate power couple: Theodora and Justinian. Over the course of a couple posts, I want to share their story with you – and hopefully you will come to love them as I do.
It’s All About Who You Know
This story begins with Justinian, born in 482 AD as Petrus Sabbatius, a peasant from Thrace (modern-day Macedonia). His family owned a farm, and so he would have probably grown up to be a farmer–if it wasn’t for his Uncle Justin.
Uncle Justin had joined the Roman army in his youth, and through many years of service had worked his way up in the military to become Commander of the Excubitors (a kind of palace guard) in the empire’s capital at Constantinople. Once in command, Justin invited his young nephew to come and live with him in the city where Petrus lived for 20 years, gaining an education and experience in the court of the emperor.
Then the emperor died.
Well That’s Convenient
Emperor Anastasius passed away on 9 July 518 AD at 87 years of age, leaving behind no heir to the throne. In this way, Justin – as Commander of the Excubitors – found himself in a very interesting and strategic position.
The senate – largely a symbolic body of aristocrats – opened the day after the emperor’s passing to “debate” the matter of succession while Justin’s troops gathered the citizens of the city in the Hippodrome, Constantinople’s grand racing arena built to hold over 100,000 people.
The people of the city were certainly consulted in the matter of choosing their new emperor, so each time the senate proposed a name of a candidate, it was submitted to the crowds. They shut down each proposition. The hours wore on and on and the populace became more and more rowdy and violent. Eventually Justin himself came down as commander to establish order when his own soldiers bowed down to him and acclaimed him as their new emperor.
Justin refused a few times, and pandemonium erupted amidst the crowd – finally when the people became riotous and the senate was begging him to accept, he did so. Conveniently, his men happened to have imperial robes on them at the time and draped them on him, lifting him on a shield and parading him to the palace where he was crowned as the new Emperor of Rome in Constantinople.
Pay No Attention to the Man Behind the Curtain
Petrus – now styling himself as Justinianus (in honor of his uncle who had adopted him as his heir) – was in his early 30s when his Uncle Justin rose to power. Contemporaries and historians have long believed that the curious coup was designed and orchestrated by none other than Emperor Justin’s quietly cunning nephew. It certainly wasn’t very long at all before Justinian was granted a high position in the emperor’s court. A few years later, he was raised to Consul, and a couple of years after that was named co-regent.
But Justinian hardly needed the titles and honors to call the shots during his uncle’s reign. Justin was already in his late 60s when he was named emperor, and quickly became senile before passing away in 527 – a 9-year reign. During those nine years, Justinian proved adept at navigating complicated diplomatic issues in west (where the western Roman empire under Gothic rule was quickly falling to pieces), mediating complex religious debates between popes and patriarchs, and playing city factions off one another.
He was ambitious, he meticulously laid plans (even years in advance) to achieve his ends, and was a tireless worker, proving throughout his life quite good at going without sleep to compete with the rigours of his office. It was during these years of Justin’s reign that Justinian met the woman that would become his empress – Theodora.
Temptress to Seamstress
Theodora came from even humbler roots than her future husband. Her parents were of the absolute lowest social caste in the empire, her mother being an actress/performer and her father a sort of circus performer (he trained bears). He died when Theodora was still very young – only about 7 years old. Her mother petitioned for help from the party that employed her late husband – and was refused. This left the mother and three daughters in a desperate financial situation.
There weren’t really many options for an impoverished young girl in the city: Theodora became an actress and prostitute, performing in burlesques and developing quite the talent for striptease. It was a particularly inglorious occupation – one that could never lead to a higher station or social respect.
But Theodora did what she could to improve her situation. In fact, she found something of a protector in a newly-appointed governor of Libya, and so she went and lived with him as his mistress for a handful of years in North Africa before he abandoned her and sent her packing.
Finding herself now alone in a foreign country, Theodora turned for home and slowly made her way back to Constantinople, stopping along the way in Alexandria, Egypt. While there, she met and befriended Patriarch Timothy III, and underwent a deeply moving religious experience. When she finally reached Constantinople, she formally gave up her life as actress and performer and settled down near the palace to be a wool spinner.
Love Conquers All
Around this time she met Justinian. Theodora was well-known for her high confidence, sharp wit, and exceptional beauty – all of which must have been a draw for the emperor’s heir who was reserved, round-faced, and not inclined to smile. Despite the age gap (she was around 15 years younger than him), Theodora and Justinian were the perfect couple, their intelligence and characters perfectly matching and complementing one another. In the words of one historian:
“He was devoted to her, and their confidence in each other was absolute.” (Browning, Justinian & Theodora)
They fell in love and wished to be married. Unfortunately it was actually illegal at the time for a government official to marry an actress. Plus, Justinian’s aunt (Empress Euphemia) would have had a cow if her nephew married someone who had spent a number of years as a prostitute. So they waited.
When Euphemia passed away in 524, Emperor Justin remarkably repealed the law prohibiting the marriage of officials and actresses by providing a very specific exception, which *conveniently* included Theodora (I wonder who pulled the strings on that one). Shortly thereafter Justinian and Theodora were wed in the great church of Constantinople.
Only two years later, they were crowned Emperor and Empress and were acclaimed by the crowds at the Hippodrome – the very place where Theodora had started her lurid career and where Justinian had orchestrated his uncle’s ascension.
What I so love about Justinian and Theodora is that they are the ultimate wild cards. Usually in talking of kingdoms and empires, we speak of a formulaic transfer of power from parent to child, generation to generation, all within the same dynastic family. But Justinian and Theodora both began life in humble and unfortunate circumstances, the kind that most people never escape.
- Justinian’s talents for strategic planning and analytical shrewdness, not to mention his limitless ambition, would have been completely wasted in the life of a farmer.
- Theodora’s magnetic personality and sharp mind were ill-used in the red-light districts and brothels of Constantinople.
They didn’t accept what life seemed to lay out as their only options. So they got out – by the most serendipitous combination of luck and calculation, opportunity and determination. They struck out on their own. Justinian made his uncle an emperor and placed himself next in line. Theodora switched gears mid-life and spun wool. They seized chance as it came, and everything worked out. Pretty well, I’d say – they took over an empire!
The truly beautiful thing about their story in particular is not just that they rose above circumstance, but that they found each other in the process. Justinian and Theodora began their journey separately, but they found each other; and when laws (and aunts) tried to keep them apart, they fashioned a way to stay together. Despite being almost complete opposites personality-wise, these two were made for one another, and proved it every step of the way.
Justinian and Theodora are often considered the greatest rulers in the history of the Byzantine Empire. In the upcoming posts, you’ll see what I mean as I go into a little more detail about the years of their reign and their fascinating love story. So stay tuned folks, more on Justinian and Theodora to come.
Browning, Robert. Justinian & Theodora. 1971.
Norwich, John Julius. A Short History of Byzantium. 1997.
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