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Three Millennia of Greek Literature

Vasilief, A History of the Byzantine Empire

Justinian the Great and his successors (518-610)

The Reign of Justinian and Theodora 


The Original Greek New Testament

Justin's successor, his nephew Justinian (527-65), is the central figure of this entire period. His name is closely connected with the name of his royal wife, Theodora, one of the very interesting and gifted women of the Byzantine period. The Secret History, which is from the pen of Procopius, the historian of Justinian's epoch, paints in exaggerated colors the perverted life of Theodora in the days of her youth, when, as the daughter of the keeper of the bears in the amphitheater, she lived in the morally corrupt atmosphere of the stage of that period and became a woman who gave freely of her love to many men. Nature had endowed her with beauty, grace, intelligence, and wit. According to one historian (Diehl), she amused, charmed, and scandalized Constantinople. Procopius said that people who met Theodora in the street would shrink from getting close to her, fearing that a mere touch might sully their robes. But all these dark details about the early years of the future empress must be viewed with some skepticism, for they all come from Procopius, whose chief aim in The Secret History was to defame Justinian and Theodora.

After the very stormy period of her early life, Theodora disappeared from the capital and remained in Africa for a few years. When she returned to Constantinople she was no more the former flighty actress. She had left the stage and was leading a solitary life, devoting much of her time to spinning wool and developing a great interest in religious questions, when Justinian saw her for the first time. Her beauty impressed him greatly and he took her to court, bestowed upon her the rank of patrician, and soon married her. With his accession to the throne she became empress of the Byzantine Empire. Theodora proved herself to be adequate to her new and lofty position. She remained a faithful wife and showed much interest in government affairs, exhibiting very keen insight and exerting much influence upon Justinian in all his undertakings.

In the revolt of 532, which will be discussed later, Theodora played one of the most significant parts. By her coolheaded actions and unusual energy she perhaps saved the Empire from further commotions. In her religious preferences she openly favored the Monophysites and was thus the direct opposite of her wavering husband. He adhered to orthodoxy throughout his long reign, though he made some concessions to Monophysitism. She showed a better understanding than he of the significance of the eastern Monophysitic provinces, which were in reality the vital parts of the Empire and she definitely aimed to bring about peaceful relations with them.

Theodora died of cancer in the year 548, long before Justinian's death. In the famous mosaic in the Church of St. Vitale at Ravenna, dating back to the sixth century, Theodora is represented in imperial robes, surrounded by her court. Church historians contemporary with Theodora, as well as those of a later period, are very harsh with regard to her character. In spite of this, in the orthodox calendar under November 14 appears The Assumption of the Orthodox King Justinian and the memory of the Queen Theodora. She was buried in the Church of the Holy Apostles 

A History of the Byzantine Empire - Table of Contents

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