Theodora – c.500 – 548 – Constantinople


CW: Sex work


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.


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.


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.


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:


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


·         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)


·         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.


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

Video games:

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


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:


Elephantis – fl. late 1st Century BCE – Greece

Ancient Greece

Content warning: Sex, erotic art, sex work.

Writer, physician, midwife and author of an infamous sex manual…


Elephantis was a woman with many talents. She was likely a sex worker, and is also noted by Pliny to have been a capable midwife (perhaps a useful skill in her line of work).

Elephantis shared her knowledge, authoring a manual on cosmetics, and another on abortive methods. But she is most notorious for her sex manual.

Her birth name is unknown; it was common for courtesans in classical times to take animal names as pseudonyms for their clients to know them by. It is even possible that there was more than one woman named Elephantis.

None of her works have survived, though they are referenced in other ancient texts. Roman historian Suetonius mentions that the Emperor Tiberius owned a complete set of Elephantis’ works – said to be written as poetry – as part of his extensive ‘erotic library’.


Ancient Roman erotic art fresco from a brothel in Pompeii

A poem in the Priapeia also refers to Elephantis’ sex manual:

“Lalage dedicates a votive offering to Priapus, bringing shameless pictures from the books of Elephantis, and begs him to try and imitate with her the variety of intercourse of the figures in the illustrations.”

There is a further epigram by the Roman poet Martial which reads:

“Such verses as neither the daughters of Didymus know, nor the debauched books of Elephantis, in which are set out new forms of lovemaking.”


  • The Priapeia is a collection of ninety-five poems in various meters on subjects pertaining to the phallic god Priapus.
  • “Novae figurae” has been read as “novem figurae” (i.e., “nine forms” of lovemaking, rather than “new forms” of lovemaking), and so some commentators have inferred that Elephantis listed nine different sexual positions.


The Twelve Caesars (Tiberius 43:2)Seutonius

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

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

On Wikipedia:

Image credits:

Pompeii-wall painting” by ancient artist, User:Okc~commonswiki – Own work photograph.

Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons

Aspasia – c.470 BCE – 400 BCE – Athens, Greece

Ancient Greece

“…what great art or power this woman had, that she managed as she pleased the foremost men of the state, and afforded the philosophers occasion to discuss her in exalted terms and at great length.”


Aspasia has long been a subject of controversy when looking at life and politics in 5th Century Athens. Her fame as a female philosopher and intellect can only be matched by the notoriety of her chosen profession.

We know that Aspasia was not Athenian by birth, although she is most associated with this Greek city-state. Her origins lie in Miletus, an island which now forms part of Turkey.

Almost nothing is known of her early years, but it is likely that her family was wealthy enough to afford the education for which she is so well renowned. Traditionally, education was segregated by the sexes – boys would study philosophy, rhetoric and physical fitness, whilst girls focused on more domestic tasks with the aspiration to manage a family home. Interestingly, Aspasia is fluent in both curricula.

The reasons for Aspasia’s migration to Athens are unknown, but it is most likely that her family was sold into slavery after the Ionian Revolt.Nevertheless, we do know that she arrived in Athens alone, and sought to set herself up as an independent woman.

In 5th century Athens, however, this was no easy task. Add to this a lack of Athenian citizenship, and there are very few options open to you. Aspasia decided to become a hetaera, and it is from here that the notoriety begins.

It is important not to confuse this term with prostitution – the most accurate translation would be “companion”. Hetaerae were highly educated in the arts, and would attend male social gatherings (symposia) and discussions. Aspasia’s combination of beauty, wit and intellect was seductive and she quickly expanded her client base. She was able to buy a house in Athens, and from there she could train other young women to be hetaerae. It was around this time, also, that Aspasia met Pericles.

Socrates seeking Alcibiades in the house of Aspasia, 1861 by Jean-Léon Gérôme

Socrates seeking Alcibiades in the house of Aspasia, 1861 by Jean-Léon Gérôme

Aspasia became the mistress of prominent statesman Pericles in the early 440sBC, and she devoted the next chapter of her life to this relationship. Pericles was so taken with his new mistress that he divorced his wife in 445 BCE, and moved in with Aspasia.

They had a child in 440 BCE – Pericles the Younger. Being the unassailable mistress of the most powerful man in Athens certainly had its privileges, and Aspasia was now entertaining some of the greatest minds of the time – according to Xenophon, Socrates learnt rhetoric from Aspasia! Regular attendees to Pericles’ symposia included Socrates, Phidias and Anaxagoras, so Aspasia became well connected.

An example of these privileges could be argued in the legitimizing of her son. Despite never being married, Pericles the Younger was formally recognised as Pericles’ heir, and given Athenian citizenship. This was despite Pericles himself passing laws in Athens which forbade this.

Marble herm in the Vatican Museums inscribed with Aspasia's name at the base. Discovered in 1777, this marble herm is a Roman copy of a 5th-century BC original and may represent Aspasia's funerary stele.

Marble herm in the Vatican Museums inscribed with Aspasia’s name at the base. Discovered in 1777, this marble herm is a Roman copy of a 5th-century BC original and may represent Aspasia’s funerary stele.

Another indicator of influence would be in her portraits. Aspasia is one of only two women who had ever had their portraits publicly displayed in Athens. Even rarer, the portrait was sculpted by Phidias himself, the master sculptor of the 5th century. Aspasia is often pictured with Socrates, and the inference is that they are the male and female epitome of philosophical thinking.

As with all high-profile power couples, not everyone was a fan. Aspasia had many enemies who criticized her influence over Pericles, and even accused her of writing Pericles’ speeches. Being so close to the political sphere – an exclusively male space – was intolerable to many, and her critics sought to bring her down.

Aspasia was brought to trial on charges of impiety, but was eventually acquitted. It is rumoured that Pericles became so overwrought during Aspasia’s trial that he wept openly in court. Despite these setbacks, Aspasia was resolute in maintaining her relationship (and arguable influence) with Pericles, and this flourished until his death.

After Pericles, Aspasia became the mistress of Lysicles, a cattle farmer. As their relationship developed, Lysicles became an orator and quickly rose to prominence in Athenian politics, due in part to Aspasia’s tutelage and connections. She had a child with him, but remained at the forefront of Athenian politics until her death. She also maintained her school for hetaerae, and Plutarch records her teachings:

“they have imprisoned women in a world of superfluous interests and tasks because they fear the power women would have if female sexuality became augmented by a developed intellect and spirit.”

This entry was a guest post by G. Harvey.


Gardner, P.; A female figure in the early style of Phidias (1918)

Glockhammer, H.; The apprenticeship of a hetaera; gender and socialisation in Wieland’s ‘Geschichte des Agathon’ (1988)

Lefkowitz, M. and Fant, M.; Women’s life in Greece and Rome: a source book translation (1982)

Vermeule III, C.; Socrates and Aspasia: new portraits of Late Antiquity (1958)

On Wikipedia:

In Fiction:

  • Philothea by Lydia Maria Child is a classical romance set in the days of Aspasia and Pericles.
  • Pericles and Aspasia by Walter Savage Landor
  • Aspasia by German author Robert Hamerling is about the manners and morals of the Age of Pericles.
  • Giacomo Leopardi published a group of five poems known as The Circle of Aspasia. The poems were inspired by the author’s unrequited love for a woman named Fanny Targioni Tozzetti, who he calls Aspasia.
  • The Athenian Women is a play by George Cram Cook which portrays Aspasia leading a strike for peace.
  • The Immortal Marriage by Gertrude Atherton tells the story of Pericles and Aspasia and illustrates the period of the Samian War, the Peloponnesian War and the Plague of Athens.
  • Glory and the Lightning by Taylor Caldwell  is another novel that portrays the historical relationship of Aspasia and Pericles.
  • Italian writer Daniela Mazzon wrote the biographical essay “Aspasia maestra e amante di Pericle” and in 2012 she produced the drama in ancient style “Desiderata Aspasia. Rapsodia mediterannea”.