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Theodora - The Syriac Empress of Byzantine. Empress Theodora, Emperor Justinian wife

   Who would have thought that a girl of Syrian priest growing up in her father's faith would later become Empress and one of the most powerful women of medieval history? She is Theodora, Syriac empress of Byzantium from 527-548, was probably the most influential and powerful woman in the empire's history.

Theodora - The Syriac Empress of Byzantine
The righteous Queen Theodora, was born in 500 AD in the Syrian city Mabug (Manbej), and was brought up in a Christian environment at the home of her father, the virtuous Syrian Orthodox priest. She married Caesar Justinian, the protector of the faith of the Council of Chalcedon, which the Byzantine state had adopted. In spite of this, Queen Theodora held to the faith of her Syrian Orthodox fathers who rejected this Council and its resolutions. The tempests of ferocious persecution and their sweeping torrents failed to shake her faith.

She was known by her intelligence and fear of God. Theodora first became the mistress of Justinian; then Justin accommodated his heir's attraction to Theodora by changing the law that forbid a patrician from marrying non-Romanian citizen. Theodora was not only beautiful, but intelligent, witty and amusing, which is perhaps why she won Justinian's love so much that he appealed against an old Roman law.

Justinian and Theodora were married in 525. In 527, Justin, the emperor of Byzantium, and Justinian's father died. The couple assumed control of the Empire and were crowned Emperor and Empress on 4th April of that same year. They ruled unofficially as joint monarchs with Justinian allowing Theodora to share his throne and take active part in decision making.

When Justinian and Theodora married, Justinian had expressed his wishes for the two of them to rule together legally. This proved to be a wise decision. A strong-willed woman, she showed a notable talent for governance. They were crowned on a double throne; the consuls and magistrates took the legal and religious oath which officially declared them equal rulers of Byzantium:

"I swear on the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost and on the Virgin Mary and on the four gospels which I hold in my hand, and on the Archangels Michael and Gabriel, to keep faith with pure conscience to our most sacred Lord Justinian and Theodora his consort." (Bridge p54)

The words of the oath prove that Theodora, legally, was co-ruler with her husband. She was not just a figurehead.

Perhaps the most significant event during Empress Theodora's rule was the Nika revolt in which she proved herself a worthy and able leader. During this event, two rival political groups (known as the Blues and the Greens) started a riot at the Hippodrome. They set many public buildings on fire and proclaimed a new emperor. Justinian, terrified and his officials, unable to control the crowd prepared to flee, but Theodora spoke up and gave a moving speech about the greater significance of the life of someone who died as a ruler, over that of someone who lived but was nothing. It was Theodora who insisted they stay where they were and honor their positions:

"Every man must sooner or later die; and how could and Emperor ever allow himself to be a fugitive? when you reach safety, will you not regret that you did not choose death in preference? I stand by the saying: the purple is the noblest winding-sheet." (Norwich p199)

Her determined speech convinced Justinian and his officials and they attacked the Hippodrome, killing over 30,000 rebels and emerging victorious. Historians agree that it was Theodora's courage and determination that saved Justinian's empire.

Thus, her advice and leadership for a strong (and militant) response caused the riot to be quelled and probably saved the empire. Her strong will is shown in another incident. When Justinian fell ill with the plague, Theodora, according to Norwich (p233), exercised the supreme power alone during his illness, although her position was threatened by some of the army commanders. But she continued to rule the the kingdom until Justinian had recovered.

Theodora, the Syrian wife of the Emperor Justinian, was no ordinary woman. Not for a moment was she in the background of imperial life - she ruled Byzantium as an equal alongside Justinian and was his chief adviser. Besides this she also worked hard for many causes of her own, making her own significant contributions to the government of the Roman Empire. In the past, Empresses had tended to be uninvolved in the running of the country and in affairs of state (Norwich, p194) Theodora brought about a unique change to this tradition. Her intelligence and strong will enabled her to use the power of her high position to great effect. These traits also allowed her to exercise influence over her husband in times of crisis, and on at least on occasion she became the decision maker due to sheer decisiveness and strength of courage.  Theodora had a real effect on the political decisions of the empire. Justinian writes, for instance, that he consulted Theodora when he promulgated a constitution which included reforms meant to end corruption by public officials.  She is credited with influencing many other reforms, including some which expanded the rights of women, She established laws raising the status of women in Byzantine far above that of women in the western part of the empire, the Middle East and Europe.  She instituted the death penalty for rape, improved divorce laws and laws against the mistreatment of women and established laws allowing women to own and inherit property. She was responsible for the building of hospitals and convents as a refuge for homeless women, and forbid the killing of a wife who committed adultery.

Throughout the rest of her life, Theodora and Justinian transformed the city of Constantinople, building it into a city that for many centuries was known as one of the most wonderful cities in the world. They built aqueducts, bridges, and more than 25 churches, the most significant of these being the Hagia Sophia - 'Church of Holy Wisdom'. To women, Theodora may well be considered a noble pioneer of the women's liberation movement.

Empress Theodora died on 28th June, 548. Her body was buried in the Church of the Holy Apostle, one of the splendid churches that she and Justinian had built in Constantinople. Beautiful mosaics in Empress Theodora's remembrance exist to this day at the Church of San Vitale at Ravenna in Northern Italy. Even after her death, her spirit lived on, and in this way she was able to have influence on the Empire. Through what she had began, Justinian was able to bring harmony between the Chalcedonian and non-Chalcedon, and the status of women in the Byzantine Empire was elevated high above that of the women in the Middle East and Europe.

Theodora's Religious Policy

Theodora was one of the most powerful women of her time, and it is true to say that, as co-ruler of Byzantium with Justinian, she made many very significant changes to the Roman Empire and its government. According to one source, Theodora possessed notable courage, wit and judgement, (Bridge p4)  These qualities and her loyalties - Theodora never forgot her background teaching, church, family, and friends - were the basis of her whole character throughout her life, most prominently whilst she was Empress. It is only by keeping the memory of Theodora and her deeds alive as part of our Syrian church and history that the homage she deserves can be paid. Her mother church, Syriac Orthodox Church, venerating her memory in the celebration of her Day on June 28. In the Liturgical Calendar of the Greek Orthodox Church, the celebration day put under November 14, it appears "The Assumption of the Orthodox King Justinian and the memory of Queen Theodora".

The Syriac sources and Arabic History of the Patriarchs of the Coptic Church of Alexandria is better taken as a document of non-Chalcedonian people tradition than as an accurate record of events: it overlooks Justin I entirely, for instance, and attributes the persecution of the non-Chalcedonian that began with Justin's accession to Justinian and regards Theodora not only as defender of non-Chalcedonian churchmen but also as an emigrant from Alexandria herself. Mor Severus the Patriarch of Antioch, who had been a protégé of the old emperor Anastasius, had to flee to Egypt, as did many other Syrian Orthodox Clergy (churchmen) and monks: in fact, Alexandria became a crucible for the various strands of non-Chalcedonian theology, and Mor Severus' beliefs were rapidly challenged there by radical sectarians who made him appear a relative moderate. Empress Theodora served the non-Chalcedonian bishops in distress. These were the Syrian and Coptic bishops, who were being persecuted and executed.

She was soon in a better position to help. Severus' Chalcedonian successor in Antioch, Paul 'the Jew' (519-21), undertook a persecution of the churches and monasteries of the Orient. The fragments of John of Ephesus' Ecclesiastical History[1] supply a vivid record from the perspective of the persecuted. Monks and nuns were driven from their monasteries and some had to spend their nights like wild beasts wandering on the hillsides, enduring snow and winter rains in the winter. Paul's tenure was short but his successor as patriarch, Euphrasius, was moderate only by comparison. He perished in the earthquake which befell Antioch in 526, and Syriac and Coptic tradition had no doubt that his death was not only hideous, but appropriate. His successor, Ephraim of Amida, had been a military officer, a former Magister Militum per Orientem, and he did not hesitate to use military force.

During all this time Theodora's influence at court grew. But Justinian was not yet emperor, and, dependent as he was on his nephew, Justin clearly did not want to be hurried. In 526 Pope John visited Constantinople where he went through a coronation ceremony with Justin, but not Justinian. But within a few months, Justin's health was clearly failing, and on 1 April, 527, he crowned Justinian as his co-emperor, and four months later, he died. The Syriac and Coptic Churches now had a sturdy friend at the center of power. Theodora did what she could. When the monks of the monastery called 'Orientalium' at Edessa were expelled in the dead of winter by their Chalcedonian bishop, they wandered from place to place until they found refuge for between six and seven years at a monastery called En-Hailaf, and then Theodora arranged for their return home. Mare, the deposed metropolitan of Amida, and his clergy nearly perished in exile at Petra until Theodora got permission from Justinian for them to go to Alexandria and, when Mare died, it was Theodora who arranged for his bones to be returned to Amida.[2]

Her influence in religious affairs reached its height in the early 530s. By 531, it was clear even to a convinced orthodox theologian like Justinian that Justin's harsh measures against Syrians and Coptics had failed. In Antioch, the persecutions of the Chalcedonian patriarch Ephraim had provoked a violent revolt.[3] At summer's end, the persecution was suspended and eight Syriac bishops were invited to Constantinople. Early in the next year, the regime survived the 'Nika' revolt and Theodora emerged from it with greater influence than before. When the bishops arrived, accompanied by a mini-mob of not less than five hundred holy men,[4] 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. Theodora visited them every two or three days, sometimes bringing Justinian with her, and the church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus was built for their use.

In the spring of 532, while construction crews were repairing the devastation of the 'Nika' revolt in Constantinople, Justinian sponsored a three-day conference of bishops in the Hormisdas Palace. Five bishops debated on each side.  In the spring of the next year, Justinian published his own confession of faith: a Chalcedonian-flavored declaration which managed to avoid mention of the 'Tome' of Leo. Then Theodora and Justinian invited Severus to the capital, and in the winter of 534-5, Severus came, though without enthusiasm.[5] Upon his arrival, Theodora introduced him to the new patriarch Anthimus, who had been appointed to the see of Constantinople upon the death of Epiphanius in 535. Theodora may have known that Anthimus was not unsympathetic to Severus views but, if so, she kept her information secret. As far as anyone else knew, his orthodox credentials were impeccable.[6]  In Rome, Pope John II was not a hard-line prelate. A solution must have seemed just around the corner and Theodora could take much of the credit for it.

Then suddenly it fell apart. In Egypt, Timothy III died. In Rome, Pope John II died and his successor Agapetus arrived in Constantinople in 536 on a mission for the Ostrogothic king, Theodahad. Agapetus had a high card: Belisarius' campaign to recover Italy from the Ostrogoths was just getting under way and Justinian could not appear as an opponent of the Chalcedonians without alienating the support and good will of the Italians. Shortly after his arrival on 1 March, Agapetus denounced Anthimus and on 13 March, Anthimus was deposed and replaced by the solidly Chalcedonian Menas, director of the hospice of Sampson. On 22 April, Agapetus died, but a synod presided over by Menas excommunicated Anthimus, Severus and their followers and on 6 August, the emperor confirmed the excommunication and directed that neither of the two prelates should live in any of the great cities of the empire; rather they should dwell in isolation and the works of Severus should be burned. But with Theodora's help, Severus returned safely to Egypt where he died in 538, and Anthimus disappeared. After Theodora's death in 548, he was discovered living quietly in the women's quarters of the palace which were Theodora's domain.

She soon received another patriarchal refugee, Theodosius I. Even with the help of imperial troops, he could not hold his ground in Alexandria against the Julianists. Word was brought to Theodora and she (according to the History of the Patriarchs of the Coptic Church) "calmly, wisely and humbly, went in to the prince and informed him of all that had happened, without his sanction, to Father Theodosius, patriarch in the city of Alexandria," and Justinian gave Theodora the power to do what was necessary. So an investigation was held into the disputed ordinations of Theodosius and his Julianist rival, Gaianas, and Theodosius was vindicated. But for all Justinian could do, Theodosius would not accept the creed of Chalcedon even though Justinian brought him to Constantinople and argued the matter with him on six occasions. So Justinian deposed him and exiled him together with 300 non-Chalcedonian to the fortress of Derkos in Thrace. Theodora soon came to his rescue, however, and brought him back to the relative comfort of the Hormisdas Palace where he lived under her protection, and after her death in 548, under Justinian's, for on her deathbed Theodora had Justinian swear that he would protect her little community of non-Chalcedonian refugees there, and he kept his promise.

Pope Agapetus died in Constantinople before he could return to Italy. Theodora's choice as his successor was a deacon who had accompanied Agapetus to Constantinople, Vigilius, who had apparently intimated that he was prepared to be more malleable. But the election was held before Vigilius could reach Rome, and the new pope was the son of Pope Hormisdas, Silverius, who had the support of the Ostrogothic king Theodahad. Events were moving rapidly in Italy: Belisarius, leading an imperial invasion force, was advancing from the south, Naples fell, and the Ostrogoths, disgusted with Theodahad's flaccid leadership, deposed him and replaced him with Witigis. He decided that his best strategy would be to secure his northern frontier against the Franks before he attended to the Byzantines, and he evacuated Rome, having first received a loyalty oath from Silverius. Once the Goths had departed, Silverius invited the Byzantine forces into the city. That might have given him some claim for consideration.

In 541, al-Harith, the sheikh of the Ghassanid tribe of Saracens whose friendship was important for the security of the south Syrian frontier, was in Constantinople on other business and took the opportunity to approach Theodora with a request for bishops. Imperial prestige in the east was low at this point. Only the year before, the Persians had sacked Antioch. With Theodora's blessing, Theodosius, who from his refuge in the Hormisdas Palace was now recognized as the spiritual leader of the non-Chalcedonian, ordained two monks as bishops. The holy man Jacob Baradaeus was ordained a universal metropolitan in 544 AD, and Theodore was ordained metropolitan of Bosra by Mor Theodosius, Patriarch of Alexandria who was exiled at the time in Constantinople. Three imprisoned bishops participated with Patriarch Athanasius in laying hand. Mor Ya`qub, the universal bishop, set out on his mission touring Syria, Egypt, Asia Minor and Mesopotamia. He visited and ministered to churches and confirmed the faithful in the Orthodox faith.

The life of St. Jacob Baradaeus, attributed to John of Ephesus, relates how he came to Constantinople, and met Theodora who had already seen him in a dream and was given a dwelling by her where he met a large number of the faithful, among them the Ghassanid sheikh, al-Harith. Once he was consecrated bishop at al-Harith's request, he secured permission from Theodosius the patriarch to ordain priests and the Life[7] says with some exaggeration that he ordained 100,000 (Priests and deacons). Justinian tried to arrest him but he was never caught and in the end, he gave up. Baradaeus has a incorrect claim by Chalcedonians to be the founder of the Syrian Orthodox Church, while the church was established by St. Peter the apostle in Antioch at 37 AD. and St. Jacob is nothing but one of her great Fathers.

The final result of Theodora's policy on theological matters. Contemporary, reliable, and honest historians who have full knowledge of her life have provided credible accounts on her origin, early life, pure conduct and her immaculate inner self and thoughts. At the forefront of those, was the Syrian Chronicler St. John of Ephesus who had close relationship with her family and knew her quite well. He wrote about her childhood and her marriage to Justinian the Caesar. The latter had promised her father that he would not force her to change her faith which rejects the Council of Chalcedon and its resolutions. He delivered his promise, indeed. Her staunch enemy, who was also an enemy of truth, the Chronicler Procopius, failed to deny her the glory that she earned with her wisdom and her courage in helping her husband Caesar Justinian. The dishonest and unjust Chronicler Procopius, tried to smear her virtuous conduct. But the saying, "the sieve cannot conceal the sunlight in the middle of the day" remains true. " (Patriarchal Encyclical of 2000)


1. Women in chains - represent the condition of women before Theodora became empress.

2. Women in front of the tree of life - (a female symbol of bounty) represent the higher status of women because of Theodora's stand for the rights of women.

3. Interlocking circles - a continuity of intellect and will.

4. The Byzantine cross enclosed in a circle - represents paradise and four rivers rising from the circle and flowing in four cardinal directions.

5. Mosaic designs - from the cathedral at San Vitale, Ravenna. Built by Theodora and Justinian.

6. Silver sword - represents courage of Theodora.

7. Crescent moon - female symbol, in this case of far reaching power.

8. Translation of text - Classical Greek: "For all women the right to freedom."


  • Theodora - biography by James Allan Evans, at De Imperatoribus Romanis. Includes a bibliography.
  • Theodora - a biography from the Gale Group.
  • Empress Theodora: A Journey to the Past - Article by Christine Kiraz. Includes an analysis of the myths and interpretations of Theodora's life, from the perspective of Syrian Orthodox church history. Pages 15-20 of a newsletter from the Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch. PDF file (Adobe Acrobat Reader required, available free from
  • Theodora - from a series of articles, "History of Women Through Art." A brief biography plus explanation of symbolism in a depiction of Theodora. The claim of her Mongol connection in this article is questionable.
  • Empress Theodora and Her Retinue and Emperor Justinian and His Retinue - analysis of two mosaics featuring Justinian and Theodora
  • Theodora - Melissa Snell, About Guide to Medieval and Renaissance History, collects some Net links on Theodora.
  • Browning, Robert. Justinian and Theodora. Praeger Publishers: (New York, 1971).

  • Gibbon, Edward. The Decline and the Fall of the Roman Empire. Harcourt, Brace and Company: (New York, 1960).

  • Gies, Frances and Joseph Gies. Women in the Middle Ages. Thomas Y. Crowell Company: (New York, 1978).

  • Underhill, Clara. Theodora: The Courtesan of Constantinople. Sears Publishing Company: (New York, 1932).

  • Casto, Pamelyn. "Theodora: From Prostitute to Byzantine Empress (497-548)". Internet Source:

  • "Theodora: (Byzantine 508-548)". Internet Source:

  • "Theodora: c. 500-548 Byzantine Empress". Internet Source:

  • Bridge, Anthony, Theodora. Portrait in a Byzantine Landscape. London, 1978.

  • Norwich, J.J, 1993, Byzantium, the early years, Penguin books, London.

  • Capizzi, Carmelo, Giustiniano I tra politica e religione. Messina, 1994.

  • Diehl, Ch., Théodora, impératrice de Byzance, Paris, 1904.

  • Evans, J. A. S., 'The "Nika" rebellion and the Empress Theodora," Byzantion, 47 (1977), 380-382.

  • __. The Age of Justinian: The Circumstances of Imperial Power. London, 1996.

  • Holmes, W. G. The  Age of Justinian and Theodora, 2 vols. London, 1912.


[1] Verhandelingen der Koninklijke Akademie van Wetenschappen, Afdeeling Letterkunde I (1889) pp. 217-219. Trans. into Latin by W. J. Van Douwen and J. P. N. Land.

[2] John of Ephesus, Lives of the Eastern SaintsPO, t. 17, I, pp. 187-212, esp. 188-89; pp. 194-5.

[3] Ernst Stein, Histoire du Bas-Empire II (1949), p. 377. For what follows, see Carmelo Capizzi, Giustiniano I tra politica e religione (Messina, 1994), pp. 62-88; J. A. S. Evans, The Age of Justinian: The Circumstances of Imperial Power, (London/New York, 1996), pp. 105-112; 183-92.

[4] John of Ephesus includes an essay on the communities of monks which Theodora gathered in the Hormisdas Palace (Patrologia Orientalis 18 (Paris, 1924), pp. 676-684) which is remarkable for its description of these holy men who filled every nook and cranny and continued their devotions, Many were stylite saints who, fearing persecution, came down from the pillars; others were monks, including archimandrites, expelled from their cells. The sight of them, the smell, and the noise of their hymns and canticles must have been overwhelming.

[5] Evagrius, 4.10; Theophanes, A.M. 6002. John of Beith-Apthonia, Life of Severus (in Syriac), Corpis scriptorum christianorum orientalium II, pp. 205-64, relates that Severus left his refuge at Alexandria without a thought for his safety, and emphasizes Theodora's role as his protector.

[6] Anthony Bridge, Theodora, pp. 125-6 presents Anthimius' appointment as a victory for Theodora. Or possibly only a piece of good fortune.

[7] Verhandelingen der Koninklijke Akademie van Wetenschappen, Afdeeling Letterkunde XVIII (Amsterdam, 1889) pp. 203-215.

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