Empress Theodora was born in c.497 in Constantinople (now Istanbul) and had a colourful younger life. Her father Acacius was as an animal-trainer at the Hippodrome and her mother was an actress, which largely involved acting in risqué performances. Theodora became an actress after her father’s death in order to help provide for her family.
At the age of 15, she ended her acting career and went to North Africa, where she became a Syrian official’s mistress and in 516 converted to Monophysitism, a branch of Christianity. After this, she met the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I and they fell in love, marrying in 525. Before they could marry, Justinian had to pass special legislation to legalise their marriage since they were from such different social ranks.
As Empress, Theodora was one of Justinian’s closest advisers, and her name is in almost every law passed during his reign. Though she was never named co-regent, many believed that she – and not Justinian – was the power behind the throne. Laws passed included ones which changed divorce laws to greater benefit women, prohibited the traffic of young girls and women, banished brothel-keepers from Constantinople and other major cities, and protected Monophysites. Interestingly, Theodora’s influence behind the political scenes can be seen in the fact that little significant legislation was passed in the 17 years between her death and Justinian’s. Theodora died at 48 likely either of cancer or of gangrene.
In addition to her political influence, Theodora and Justinian oversaw the rebuilding of Constantinople after the Nika Revolt of 532, a reconstruction which included reconstruction of the Hagia Sophia.
James Allan Evans, The Empress Theodora (Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 2002)
Lynda Garland, Byzantine Empresses: Women and Power in Byzantium AD 527–1204 (London: Routledge, 1999).