Theodora – c.500 – 548 – Constantinople

Constantinople

CW: Sex work

Theodora

Though Theodora continued the tradition of powerful Byzantine empresses, nothing about her story is traditional.

The daughter of a bear trainer and an exotic dancer, Theodora was raised in the shadows of the hippodrome of Constantinople. She and her sisters were trained to dance and perform from a young age. Contemporary sources also mention that she was a sex worker and in fact one historian referred to her as ‘Theodora from the brothel’.

In her mid-teens Theodora became the companion of a government official named Hecebolus, and travelled with him to North Africa where he had been appointed governor of the Libyan Pentapolis. After four years together, Theodora was cast aside by Hecebolus and she – now with young daughter – travelled alone to Egypt.

Hipodrom

Ruins of the Hippodrome (source)

In Alexandria Theodora underwent her first transformation. She came into contact with Timothy III, the Patriarch of Alexandria, who converted her to Monophysite Christianity.

Monophysites believed that Jesus Christ had only one divine nature – as opposed to Chalcedonean Christians who believed Christ had two natures in one body – both human and divine. Theodora would remain a supporter of the Monophysites for the rest of her life.

In 522, a changed woman, Theodora returned to Constantinople and took up a job as a wool spinner. She had retained her connections in the entertainment industry and was particularly close with a dancer named Macedonia, who was also an informer to the emperor’s heir, Justinian.

At some point Justinian was introduced to Theodora and, apparently charmed by her wit and character, fell in love with her. At the time it was illegal for a politician to marry an actress – theatre was considered highly immoral by the church and it was unthinkable that the heir to the empire should marry an ex-prostitute.

However, Theodora had clearly enamoured herself to the emperor, Justin I, Justinian’s uncle. In 525 the law preventing Theodora and Justinian’s marriage was abolished and the couple were quickly wed.

In 527, Justinian became emperor and ‘Theodora from the brothel’ was proclaimed empress of the Eastern Roman Empire.

Theodora_mosaik_ravenna

Mosaic of Theodora and Justinian at Ravenna (source)

Her first chance to prove her worth came in early 532, when a riot broke out during a chariot race in the hippodrome. Led by two political factions known as the Blues and the Greens, the violence increased and soon became a full scale revolt.

The mob proclaimed Hypatius, nephew of the old emperor Anastasius I, as the new emperor and Justinian’s entire regime was placed under threat. What was worse – Justinian himself hesitated, unsure of how to respond.

In an emergency council meeting, the emperor was advised to flee the city – at which point Theodora rose to speak. Her husband could run away if he wished, she explained, but she would not be going anywhere. Now was not the time for cowardice, the empress argued, it would be better to die an emperor than live in exile.

Fortified by his wife’s words, Justinian ordered his army into the hippodrome where they defeated the insurgents. Theodora’s hard line on defence did not stop there – she insisted that Hypatius be put to death, even when he claimed he had been an unwillingly participant in the uprising.

Theodora continued to build upon her influence following the Nika revolt. Justinian clearly never forgot that his wife had saved his crown, and afterwards could refuse her very little. Together the couple embarked upon numerous building projects throughout Constantinople, erecting aqueducts, churches and bridges.

They also instigated a number of legal reforms – creating tighter controls over the magistrates of the city and closely monitoring their work to prevent corruption. Theodora herself was responsible for several initiatives designed to improve the lives of women.

During the reign of Justinian and Theodora the practice of forced prostitution was prohibited, and many brothels were closed down. A convent known as the Metanoia (‘Repentance’) was constructed as a haven for ex-sex workers to learn to support themselves.

Among other feminist laws, Justinian and Theodora increased women’s rights following divorce, and expanded mother’s guardianship of their children. They implemented a death penalty for rape and prohibited the killing of a wife who committed adultery.

While Theodora and her husband were clearly a strong political partnership, they disagreed on a number of religious fundamentals. Theodora remained true to Monophysite Christianity while Justinian sided with the opposing Chalcedonian faction.

Actively working against her husband’s beliefs, Theodora funded the construction of a Monophysite monastery in Sykae and sheltered monks and bishops who were persecuted by the Chalcedons.

Despite these disagreements, Justinian clearly adored Theodora and reportedly wept bitterly when she died in 548, aged just 48. Both Justinian and Theodora are saints in the Eastern Orthodox Church, with Theodora’s feast day commemorated on 14th November.


The main historical accounts of Theodora’s life come from Procopius, a contemporary scribe. However, the three texts attributed to Procopius contain vastly different portrayals of the empress.

The Wars of Justinian (545):

This text describes a brave, strong willed and influential Theodora, painted in a very positive light.

The Secret History:

In a hidden text which remained undiscovered for a thousand years, Procopius gives a wholly different account of the court of Justinian and Theodora. The empress is described as a lascivious and vulgar woman who performed in public sex shows while she was empress.

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L’Imperatrice Theodora au Colisée by Benjamin Constant (source)

Procopius accuses her of being cruel and overbearing, and claims that her Metanoia convent for sex workers was little more than a prison, driving the captive women to suicide.

However, the Secret History also claims that Justinian and Theodora were demons whose heads could detach from their bodies and scuttled around the palace in the dead of night. So perhaps this account should also be taken with a grain of salt.

Buildings of Justinian:

This final text was probably written during the same time as the Secret History. In contrast, it flatters both Theodora and Justinian, describing them as a very pious, moral couple.


In fiction:

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Sarah Berndhart as Theodora in Victorien Sandou’s ‘Theodora’ 1882. (source)

Books:

·         Theodora and the Emperor – Harold Lamb (1952).

·         The Glittering Horn: Secret Memoirs of the Court of Justinian – Pierson Dixon (1958)

·         Count Belisarius – Robert Graves.

·         The Bearkeeper’s Daughter – Gillian Bradshaw (1987).

·         Theodora: Actress, Empress, Whore – Stella Duffy (2010)

·         The Purple Shroud – Stella Duffy (2012)

·         The Secret History: A Novel of Empress Theodora – Stephanie Thornton (2013)

Film:

·         Teodora imperatrice di Bisanzio (1909) aka Theodora, Empress of Byzantium. Dir. Ernesto Maria Pasquali.

·         Teodora, imperatrice di Bisanzio (1954) aka Theodora, Slave Empress. Dir. Riccardo Freda. Theodora is played by Gianna Maria Canale.

Theater:

·         Theodora, A Drama. (1884) – Victorien Sardou.

Video games:

·         Theodora is a character in the video game Civilization V in its Gods and Kings expansion.


References:

Theodora: the empress from the brothelStella Duffy for The Guardian (2010)

The Decline and Fall of the ByzantineEdward Gibbons

The Secret HistoryProcopius

Brothels, Baths and Babes: Prostitution in the Byzantine Holy Land – Claudine Dauphin

On Wikipedia:

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The Lady of Cao – c.450 – Chicama, Peru

Peru

CW: Human sacrifice, goreLady of Cao

The ancient Moche culture of northern Peru was highly sophisticated, and is well known for its beautiful ceramics, detailed gold work, enormous huacas (revered monuments) and elaborate religious rituals.

Their brutal belief system centred largely on war, blood, sex and death. Ritual human sacrifice appears to have been common, as well as drinking blood and excarnation (stripping the flesh from a corpse to leave only the bones).  Until recently, it was believed that this was a patriarchal religion, presided over by male priests.

The tomb of the Lady of Cao was only discovered in 2006, though it is estimated that she died around 450 CE. She was laid to rest surrounded by ceremonial items which included weapons and gold jewellery, indicating that she was a woman of high rank.

Her body had been mummified by the hot, dry climate, meaning that an autopsy could be performed to reveal more about her life and death. The lady was heavily tattooed with images of snakes and spiders (sacred animals in Moche culture) as well as other symbols.

Archaeologists believe that she may have been a priestess or even a ruler. It is estimated that the Lady of Cao was only in her twenties when she died as a complication from pregnancy or childbirth. A second young woman was buried in the same tomb, potentially a human sacrifice.

See also: Puabi of Ur is another high ranking woman whose tomb was discovered in Iraq – she is believed to have been either a priestess or a ruler circa 3000 BCE.


References:

Mummy of Tattooed Woman Discovered in Peru Pyramid – Scott Norris for the National Geographic

Tomb of the Tattooed Sorceress Queen, The Lady of CaoAncient Origins

On Wikipedia:

Basina – c. 438 – 477 – Thuringia, Germany

France, Germany

Basina

Basina of Thuringia was a woman who knew what she wanted. A Saxon princess, she became queen of Thuringia (in Germany) when she married King Bisinus.

She first met Childeric I, king of the Franks while he was in exile. Bisinus gave Childeric shelter and protection for eight years before the Frankish king was able to return to Roman Gaul (modern day France).

Clearly Basina had enjoyed Childeric’s company, as shortly after he had left she packed her bags and headed to Gaul. When she arrived at the royal court Childeric asked why she had come. She responded:

“I know your worth. I will have the most powerful man in the world, even if I must cross an ocean for him.”

Childeric and Basina were married and their son Chlodovech (better known as Clovis I) went on to unite all of the Frankish tribes and became the first king of the Franks.

It is worth noting that Basina herself named her son, which in itself is very unusual in a time when sons were typically named after a male ancestor. These two scant facts we have about Basina describe a remarkable woman who clearly took charge of her own life and decisions.


References:

History of the FranksGregory of Tours

Biography of BasineKoren Whipp for Project Continua

Aedesia – 5th Century – Alexandria, Egypt

Ancient Greece, Greece

Aedesia

Aedesia was a Greek Neoplatonist philosopher who lived in Egypt during the 5th century.

She was related to Syrianus, the head of the Neoplatonist school in Athens (alongside Asclepigenia), and apparently spent much of her life around scholars and great thinkers. She was even briefly engaged to one of his students, Proclus.

Aedesia married Hermias, also a student of Syranius, and had two sons with him, Ammonius and Heliodorus. When Hermias died she received a small state allowance which enabled her to devote herself to educating her children.

When her sons were old enough to study philosophy, Aedesia took them to Athens where she reconnected with Proclus. She was very popular among the philosophers of Athens who praised her virtue and dedication to educating her children.

Aedesia reportedly lived well into old age, though there is very little information on how she spent the rest of her life.


References:

On Wikipedia:

Asclepigenia – fl.430 – Athens, Greece

Greece

Asclepigenia

Asclepigenia was the daughter of a philosopher called Plutarch, who headed the Neoplatonist school in Athens. He educated his daughter (and her brother, Hierius) in philosophy and mysticism. In time, (much like Hypatia in Alexandria) she too became a teacher.

Asclepigenia and her father followed a syncretic system which united traditional Platonic and Aristotelian philosophies with pagan ritual and magic.

When Plutarch died in 430, he passed the school onto his daughter. She taught metaphysics, cosmology and theology, all of which attempted to understand and predict the will of fate (or the gods) and influence the outcomes.

Asclepigenia is known to us largely because she taught the philosopher Proclus, and almost all of the information we have on her comes from The Life of Proclus by Marinus.


References:

Ancient Women Philosophers: 600 B.C.-500 A. D.M.E. Waithe

On Wikipedia:

 

Aelia Eudocia – 401 – 460 – Constantinople

Constantinople, Greece, Jerusalem

Aelia Eudocia

Aelia Eudocia was an influential Byzantine empress and Christian poet.

She was born in Athens, Greece, to pagan parents who named her Athenaïs. Her father, Leontius was a philosopher who likely gave Athenaïs a robust classical education in Greek, Latin, poetry, philosophy and oration.

Both of her parents had died by the time she reached adulthood. She arrived in Constantinople, (Istanbul, Turkey) at the time the Eastern capital of the Roman Empire, in 420, where at some point she converted to Christianity and was baptised.

It was here that she would come to the attention of Emperor Theodosius. Later historians have reworked the story of their betrothal into a romantic fairy-tale, with Theodosius asking his sister Pulcheria to find him the fairest maiden in the land and rescuing Athenaïs from a life of poverty. This Cinderella story is highly unlikely and not supported by contemporary historical sources.

Either way, Athenaïs and Theodosius married in 421 and she changed her name to Aelia Eudocia (perhaps in homage to Theodosius’ mother Aelia Eudoxia). Following the marriage, Eudocia’s family began to gain substantial influence at court; both her brothers and her uncle received prestigious titles and political roles, and she herself had certain persuasive powers over her husband.

As well as being politically active, Eudocia expressed herself through poetry, penning a number of works, some of which are still extant. No doubt using her education in Greek literature, Eudocia’s poems are written in hexameter verse and generally have Christian themes.

In 423 Eudocia was made Augusta (empress) following the birth of her first child, a daughter called Licinia Eudoxia. Coins were issued with Eudocia’s image – as they had been previously for Theodosius indomitable sister Pulcheria.

Eudocia’s influence spread and following her ascension to Augusta construction began on the University of Constantinople – education being a cause dear to her heart. She also sponsored the building of a number of churches in the city.

In almost direct opposition to her sister-in-law, Eudocia and her family attempted to lessen the persecution of the Jewish population of Constantinople, who had faced hugely restrictive laws placed upon their worship by the fanatically Christian Pulcheria.

Whether it was due to her building projects, her religious views or simply down to jealously, at some point Pulcheria (who had held influence over the emperor since she was fifteen years old) had had enough of Eudocia. In the late 430s, after she had given birth to a second daughter (Flaccilla), Eudocia requested permission from her husband to leave Constantinople and make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

800px-Alexander_Nevsky_Cathedral_E1

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, Sofia – St Eudoxia (source)

Theodosius consented and Eudocia set off with her friend Melania in 438. Together the women visited all of the holy sites on their way through the Middle East. The tour was excellent PR for Eudocia, raising her profile as a pious and devout empress. In Antioch she made a public address which was so well received that the locals built a bronze statue to honour her.

However, it was not to last. Once she had returned to Constantinople life only became more difficult for her. In 443 she was accused of adultery with Paulinus, the emperor’s friend. Paulinus was banished and executed, causing Eudocia to leave the city again for Jerusalem.

Her life was no easier away from the imperial capital – two of her closest confidants, a priest called Severus and the deacon John were executed on her husband’s orders. This was the last straw and Eudocia finally struck back, hiring an assassin to kill the executioner of her friends. Theodosius retaliated by recalling her imperial household staff, though she was able to retain her title and personal wealth.

For the remainder of her life Eudocia dedicated herself to writing poetry and intervening in church politics. She died in Jerusalem in 460.

For those in pain your powerful might is always everlasting.
But I will sing of a god, renowned for wisdom
For the benefit of speaking mortals.


References:

Encyclopedia of the Roman Empire – Matthew Bunson

http://www.roman-emperors.org/eudocia.htm 

On Wikipedia:

 

Cleopatra the Alchemist – 3rd Century – Alexandria, Egypt

Ancient Egypt, Egypt

 

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We do not know this woman’s real name, as ‘Cleopatra’ is assumed to be a pseudonym for a woman alchemist and philosopher who authored a number of alchemical texts.

She lived in Egypt and is associated with the same school of alchemy as Maria Prophetissima. Like Maria, Cleopatra’s work was concerned mostly with transforming substances through the processes of distillation and sublimation.

Three texts on alchemy are attributed to Cleopatra:

  • Εκ των Κλεοπατρας περι μετρων και σταθμων. (On Weights and Measures)
  • Κλεοπατρης χρυσοποια (Chrysopeoeia of Cleopatra)
  • Διαλογος φιλοσοφων και κλεοπατρας (A Dialogue of Cleopatra and the Philosophers)

The most famous of these texts is the Chrysopoeia of Cleopatra which is a sheet of papyrus illustrated with symbols for gold making, assumed to be drawn by Cleopatra herself.

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The drawings include an ouroboros (a snake eating itself), an ancient symbol which represents eternity. The text describes the ouroboros as follows:

“One is the Serpent which has its poison according to two compositions, and One is All and through it is All, and by it is All, and if you have not All, All is Nothing.”

There is also a diagram of a dibikos, (an alchemical tool for distillation) and several images of stars and crescents.


Notes:

Not to be confused with Cleopatra VII, the last pharaoh of Egypt.


References:

Hypatia’s Heritage. A History of Women in Science from Antiquity through the Nineteenth Century – Margaret Alic

Women in Science: Antiquity Through the Nineteenth Century – Marilyn Bailey Ogilvie

On Wikipedia:

Pulcheria – 398 – 453 – Constantinople

Ancient Turkey, Constantinople

Pulcheria

Aelia Pulcheria was a political powerhouse in the Eastern Roman Empire, combining immense strength of will with shrewd political intellect. Effectively ruling in one form or another from the age of fifteen, she re-shaped both the political and religious landscape of Constantinople.

The daughter of Emperor Arcadius, Pulcheria was not short of strong female role models growing up. Her mother was Empress Aelia Eudoxia and her aunt was the formidable Galla Placidia. Pulcheria was just ten years old when her father died and left her seven year old brother Theodosius II behind to rule.

Initially Theodosius was placed into the care of two regents. However, once Pulcheria reached the age of majority at fifteen, she proclaimed herself regent over her little brother.

Pulcheria_Coin

Coin depicting Aelia Pulcheria (source)

Pulcheria had very clear ideas about how the palace and empire ought to be run. While her mother, Aelia Eudoxia, was very religious and influential within the church, she was also known for her lavish parties and extravagant style of dress. Pulcheria was the polar opposite.

She ran her palace like a monastery, organising regular prayers and chanting, readings from the scriptures and weekly fasting. Pulcheria and her sisters gave up luxurious clothes and jewellery and took vows of virginity.

As well as evidence of her piety and generally being good for public relations, Pulcheria’s choice to remain a virgin may have been politically motivated, as it meant she could avoid the risk of losing her power to a husband.

Pulcheria also set to work educating little Theodosius in preparation for his becoming emperor. This training included how to dress and appear in public, how to speak well and generally maintain an air of dignity, as well as how to be a good Christian leader.

However, Theodosius did not share his sister’s single mindedness. While historians describe him as kind and likeable as a man, they also say that he was often careless, easily led and tended to neglect the administration of the empire. This led to Pulcheria retaining much of her influence even once Theodosius became emperor.

She embarked upon numerous building projects, paying for the construction of churches and houses for the poor in Constantinople. So much infrastructure was built in her name that an entire district of the city was named Pulcherianai in her honour.

Arte_tardoromana_(costantinopoli),_statuetta_dell'imperatrice_aelia_flacilla_o_pulcheria,_da_cipro,_380-90_o_410-20

Late Roman statue of either Aelia Flacilla or Pulcheria, from Cyrprus (source)

Among Pulcheria’s other good works, she reviewed the cases of bishops who had been unfairly exiled during her father’s reign and invited them to return. This included bringing back the remains of her mother’s greatest enemy, John Chrysostom.

Despite her philanthropy, Pulcheria and Theodosius’ more unsavoury policies cannot go unacknowledged. Both siblings were very anti-Jewish and worked on laws to prevent or restrict Jewish worship in Constantinople. This included forbidding the construction of Synagogues and destroying those already existing.

Another way in which Pulcheria involved herself in religious affairs was as a key player in the debate over giving the Virgin Mary the title Theotokos (‘birth-giver to god’). She presided over the Ephesus and Chalcedon church councils and advised on many church policies.

In July of 450, Theodosius II died in a horse-riding accident, aged 49. Pulcheria quickly took total power over the empire, ruling alone for at least a month before marrying an ex-soldier tribune called Marcian.

Despite her marriage, Pulcheria did not give up her principles and ensured that Marcian made a promise to respect her vow of virginity. The last three years of the empress’ life were dedicated to the Virgin Mary. She built three churches in the Theotokos’ honour in Constantinople.

The empress died in 453, after forty years in power. Even in death, Pulcheria was working for her people, leaving a note in her will to distribute her remaining wealth amongst the poor of the city.

Pulcheria is a saint in both the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches. After her death Pulcheria was made a Saint by both the Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church, with feast days on 10th September and 7th August respectively.


References:

Theodosian Empresses: Women and Imperial Dominion in Late Antiquity – Kenneth G. Holum

A History of Byzantium – Timothy E. Gregory

On Wikipedia:

Pulcheria