30. Theodora, Justinian’s wife and Empress of the Byzantine Empire. From prostitute and actress to arguably the second most powerful person in the world at the time, she saved Justinian’s ass and wasn’t afraid to voice her own opinions.
“When Justinian succeeded to the throne in 527, two years after the marriage, Theodora became Empress of the Eastern Roman Empire. She shared in his plans and political strategies, participated in state councils, and Justinian called her his “partner in my deliberations.” She had her own court, her own official entourage, and her own imperial seal.
Theodora proved herself a worthy and able leader during the Nika riots. There were two rival political factions in the Empire, the Blues and the Greens, who started a riot in January 532 during a chariot race in the hippodrome. The riots stemmed from many grievances, some of which had resulted from Justinian’s and Theodora’s own actions.
The rioters set many public buildings on fire, and proclaimed a new emperor, Hypatius, the nephew of former emperor Anastasius I. Unable to control the mob, Justinian and his officials prepared to flee. At a meeting of the government council, Theodora spoke out against leaving the palace and underlined the significance of someone who died as a ruler instead of living as an exile or in hiding, reportedly saying, “royal purple is the noblest shroud”.
As the emperor and his counsellors were still preparing their project, Theodora interrupted them and claimed :
“My lords, the present occasion is too serious to allow me to follow the convention that a woman should not speak in a man’s council. Those whose interests are threatened by extreme danger should think only of the wisest course of action, not of conventions. In my opinion, flight is not the right course, even if it should bring us to safety. It is impossible for a person, having been born into this world, not to die; but for one who has reigned it is intolerable to be a fugitive. May I never be deprived of this purple robe, and may I never see the day when those who meet me do not call me empress. If you wish to save yourself, my lord, there is no difficulty. We are rich; over there is the sea, and yonder are the ships. Yet reflect for a moment whether, when you have once escaped to a place of security, you would not gladly exchange such safety for death. As for me, I agree with the adage that the royal purple is the noblest shroud.”
Her determined speech convinced them all, including Justinian himself, who had been preparing to run. As a result, Justinian ordered his loyal troops, led by the officers, Belisarius and Mundus, to attack the demonstrators in the hippodrome, killing (according to Procopius) over 30,000 rebels. Despite his claims that he was unwillingly named emperor by the mob, Hypatius was also put to death, apparently at Theodora’s insistence. Interpretations that Justinian never forgot that it was Theodora who had saved his throne depend on seeing Procopius’ account as a straightforward report, and not framed to impugn Justinian with the implication that he was more cowardly than his wife.”
Theodora worked against her husband’s support of Chalcedonian Christianity in the ongoing struggle for the predominance of each faction. As a result, she was accused of fostering heresy and thus undermined the unity of Christendom.
In spite of Justinian being Chalcedonian, Theodora founded a Miaphysite monastery in Sykae and provided shelter in the palace for Miaphysite leaders who faced opposition from the majority of Chalcedonian Christians, like Severus and Anthimus. Anthimus had been appointed Patriarch of Constantinople under her influence, and after the excommunication order he was hidden in Theodora’s quarters for twelve years, until her death. When the Chalcedonian Patriarch Ephraim provoked a violent revolt in Antioch, eight Miaphysite bishops were invited to Constantinople and Theodora welcomed them and housed them in the Hormisdas Palace adjoining the Great Palace, which had been Justinian and Theodora’s own dwelling before they became emperor and empress.
Her influence on Justinian was so strong that after her death he worked to bring harmony between the Monophysites and the Chalcedonian Christians in the Empire, and he kept his promise to protect her little community of Monophysite refugees in the Hormisdas Palace. Theodora provided much political support for the ministry of Jacob Baradaeus, and apparently personal friendship as well. Diehl attributes the modern existence of Jacobite Christianity equally to Baradaeus and to Theodora.