published on 17 September 2013
Was Theodora I, the wife of Emperor Justinian of Byzantium (reigned 527 - 565 CE), a heroine? The historian Treadgold calls her a protectress of women, as she used her influence to help them gain rights. She is also seen in popular legend as a protector and defender of the poor and weak. Because she was a close collaborator, some even say a co-ruler, with her husband, it is extremely likely that she was able to influence policy and even laws that helped to achieve these ends. Does this make her a heroine? The answer to this question depends on how one defines heroine and who one asks.
Theodora became a character in popular Greek legend who possessed many of the qualities of a hero. Campbell says that heroes are partly defined as protectors and defenders, attributes that are shown in Theodora’s character, and she was also wise and beautiful, qualities often attributed to classical heroes. Theodora effectively changed the course of history both when she dissuaded her husband from taking flight during the Nika riots and when she influenced changes in laws and rights. Because of this, she is sometimes referred to as a heroine, even though Procopius and some other historians focus on the deaths that the dissuasion cost. Theodora also possessed three Christian values which are attributed to a Christian heroine: The value of faith is expressed by Treadgold, as she was pious as well as faithful to her husband; she was also charitable to those who were less fortunate, as she had once been; and she is said to have been penitent which was parallel to Mary Magdalene. These values support the idea that Theodora was a heroine in a religious and Christian sense.
There is considerable controversy about the personality of Theodora which plays a significant role in determining whether or not Theodora was a heroine. Procopius, a high official, historian, and contemporary of Theodora, greatly disapproved of Theodora’s personality and background - she was smart and ruthless, and in her early life a prostitute and actress - blaming her for political and financial upheaval. Foss describes her as “less than saintly”. Procopius’s notorious account of Theodora in his ‘Secret History’ shows extreme dislike for her character; he, and Byzantine society in general, evaluated her former occupations as very near the bottom of the “hierarchy of the arts”. Procopius writes that Theodora was secretive and unfaithful, yet this charcterization can be attributed mostly to his own personal bias against her; historians suggest this characterization is not completely accurate, as does the way Theodora has been made into a prominent figure in Greek legend. Theodora was a very commanding personality with great influence as seen in her persuading Justinian to change laws and her reaction to disloyalty when she was left effectively in control while Justinian suffered from the plague. Theodora was strong willed, opinionated, and believed that women should have rights. This view of women in itself was controversial in what was primarily a patriarchal society. This does not mean that Theodora was not a heroine, of course. If we were able to ask Procopius that question, chances are that he would have said no. The women and the poor that she stood up for likely would have said yes.