Justinian and Theodora: Christendom's 6th Century
Power Couple

The remarkable story of Justinian and Theodora-Christendom's 6th Century Power Couple begins in the most unusual place…

Constantinople’s most popular entertainment is the spectacle of the Hippodrome—everyone is in attendance, even the priests.

Below: The four bronze horses that used to be in the Hippodrome today can be seen is St. Mark's Square in Venice.

A secret passageway connects the imperial palace to the stadium. From a private royal box the emperor and empress of Byzantium enjoy the races.

According to one chronicler: “They have in readiness two big chariots embellished with gold. To each chariot four horses are harnessed and in them, two men their places dressed in clothes woven of gold. The let the horses go, urging them on. The winner is laden with riches.”

This is where Theodora (c. 500-548) grows up in the circus-like atmosphere of the hippodrome... and she is about to become the most powerful woman in the world.

Right: The Empress Theodora at the Colosseum, by Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant, 19th cent.

Her mother is an acrobat… her father, a bear handler. Theodora is very young when her father dies leaving her to scramble for food among the petty criminals, stable boys and sideshow freaks of the stadium.

According to the sixth-century historian Procopius (c. 500-565), Theodora follows her older sister onto the bawdy stage of the era. There, she becomes
infamous for her erotic parodies of Roman myths—an unusual beginning for someone on the threshold of destiny.

Like most other actresses of the day Theodora may be supplementing her income with prostitution. At age 20, Theodora becomes the mistress of a provincial governor, with whom she travels with him to Africa, where he abandons her.

Alone and penniless, she makes her way to Alexandria in Egypt...

As with so many great leaders of the church she is about to undergo a radical transformation of the spirit. What records we have through Procopius and others, the idea that something happened to this beautiful, red-haired, magnificent-looking woman—something in Alexandria, where she had some kind of transforming conversion experience, which would eventually lead to the fateful meeting of Justinian and Theodora.

Divine Conversion: Theodora and Timothy III

A Monophysite is a believer in a single nature. So for the Monophysites, Christ is human and he is divine, but in a single divine nature. In the year 451, an Ecumenical Council held in the city of Chalcedon grapples with the Monophysite question. The council sessions are long and bitter.

The orthodox creed articulated a century earlier at the first council of Nicaea is reaffirmed by the Council's Decree: “We all with one voice teach men to confess that the Son and our Lord Jesus Christ is one and the same, that he is perfect in godhead and perfect in manhood, truly God and truly man.”

Monophysite writings and bishops are condemned. Thousands of religious refugees pour in to Alexandria, the capital of Monophysite Egypt, from Syria and Palestine.

Right is Pope Theodore II (b. 1952) the current Patriarch of Alexandria. Theodora’s transformation comes at the feet Theordore's predecessor, Timothy III (reigned 518-536).

Timothy is the revered Monophysite patriarch of Alexandria, who had a nickname, Salophakiolos, meaning Wobble Cap. For the rest of her life Theodora will refer to Timothy as her spiritual father. She will also emerge as a formidable champion of his persecuted church.

After her conversion, Theodora returns home to Constantinople. She takes simple quarters and makes her living spinning wool. She does not know that an extraordinary fate awaits her...

Theodora was about to go from a woman of the streets to the most powerful woman on earth...

Divine Romance: Justinian and Theodora

At the age of 22, Theodora meets Justinian (483-565), the nephew of the reigning emperor and heir to the throne. Justinian falls helplessly in love with her but can’t marry her because senators are not allowed to marry actresses. So before he became emperor Justinian got his uncle, who was emperor at the time, to have the law rescinded; and now senators could marry actresses and he married Theodora.

In the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, Christianity’s greatest church, Justinian and Theodora are crowned emperor and empress of Byzantium in 527.

As the elaborate ceremony ends trumpets and heralds announce the royal couple to the cheering throngs outside the church. Bedecked in jewels and purple robes the royal couple is drawn through the streets in a golden coach… their destination: the hippodrome. Appearing in the royal box Justinian steps forward to bless the crowd. He makes the sign of the cross with one hand and holds Theodora’s hand with the other. As the crowd roars its approval Theodora looks down on the place where she grew up in poverty.

I think Theodora was probably surprised more than anyone else to see herself in this situation. She rose from the life of prostitution to a life of repentance and now sitting on the imperial throne. But she had felt that she had been put there in order to fulfill God’s purpose. Throughout his reign, Justinian will rely heavily on Theodora. Her hard-won instincts for survival will serve him well.

Despite this dubious origin, Theodora turns out to be a first-class empress and the power behind the throne.

Above: Empress Theodora and attendants, mosaic from Basilica of San Vitale, in Ravenna, Italy 6th cent.

Theodora is now in a position to help the Monophysites, whose kindness she has never forgotten. Under the protection of the empress Monophysite fortunes improve dramatically. Exiled bishops come back to their churches, where they are cheered as returning heroes. Justinian and Theodora maneuver to advance Monophysite bishops to positions of power in the church.

Her greatest coup is when Anthimus, a saintly Monophysite bishop, is installed as the patriarch of Constantinople in 535, a position second only to that of the bishop of Rome. Timothy and other Monophysite thinkers are invited to the imperial palace to discuss theology with Justinian.

Justinian never became a believer himself in one nature, but he did everything he could to help the one nature, Monophysite believers, for Theodora's sake. He obviously loved her and he obviously appreciated her views.

While Theodora pursues her religious campaign, Justinian works to realize his lifelong dream: to rule an empire of unprecedented glory.

The New Rome

In the 4th century Constantine had founded his city on the site of an old Greek fishing port called Byzantium. His dream was for Constantinople to become the perfect Christian capital. In fact, he thought of it as the New Rome.

Two centuries later the dream lived on for the husband and wife who took power in the eastern empire. Together, Justinian and Theodora set out to regain the lost territories of the Christian Roman Empire. Instead they created something new—the Byzantine Empire.

Justinian and Theodora molded their new Christian Byzantine Empire round one Church. Put up in just under six years, it was far and away the largest religious building in the Christian world-the Holy Wisdom, Hagia Sophia. (Right)

When Justinian entered the building for the first time he was heard to murmur, “Solomon, I have surpassed thee.” An Emperor who can outdo the Bible’s most glorious King of Israel.

For nearly 1,000 years, this was the scene of a constant round of sacred imperial ceremony. The Emperor and Patriarch were the leading actors in the drama, a union of Church and Throne.

Justinian and Theorora turns their attention to the deepening divide in the church and  attempt to assert their political power to reunite the orthodox and the Monophysites.

In 553, Justinian calls the Fifth Ecumenical Council in Constantinople. He informs the gathered bishops that he expects them to resolve their differences. But this reconciliation is not to be. The orthodox faction prevails and the Council reaffirms the edict of Chalcedon to the dismay of both the Monophysites and Justinian and Theodora.

In the aftermath the bishop of Rome makes a rare visit to Constantinople. He reminds Justinian of the emperor’s responsibility to uphold orthodox faith. Even with all of their power, Justinian and Theodora are not able to unite the church.

Left: An older Justinian; mosaic in Basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy.

On June 28, 548, Theodora dies of cancer. Justinian reigns alone until his death in 565. He would never recover from the loss of his beloved Theodora.

Without Theodora’s imperial influence the Monophysites once again suffer persecution.

Without Justinian’s strong leadership the western provinces slowly slip back under barbarian control.

For further study on the History of Christianity...

Return from Justinian and Theodora to History of Christianity home page.

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