15 November 2017

A few words on Empress Saint Theodōra

Holy and Right-Believing Empress Theodōra of Constantinople

Yesterday (pardon my negligence) was the feast day of the Holy Right-Believing Empress Theodōra of Constantinople, a royal saint of the Holy Orthodox Church who ought by no means to be overlooked! A working-class woman who toiled in a low-end brothel and performed on stage in her youth, she rose to become a respected and feared stateswoman, second only, if not equal, to her husband the Emperor of the most powerful empire on earth at the time. How she got there, what she did in respect of her office, and how she became a saint are all very much worthy of our attention as Christians.

Yes, Empress Saint Theodōra did begin her life as a ‘woman of ill repute’. A Cypriot by descent if not by birthplace, she was born to the very lowest class of Byzantine society. Both of her parents were ‘entertainers’; her mother, like her, made a living by her body. Her father having died when she was four, she entered the brothel as one of the few avenues open to her to support herself. When she was sixteen she entered the company of a Syrian-Greek official named Hekēbolos who had been appointed as governor of Libya; she stayed with him for four years, but left him on account of his neglectful and abusive behaviour to her. Travelling back to Constantinople, she made the acquaintance of Pope Timothy III of Alexandria, who apparently left a deep religious impression on her and steered her toward a more pious life.

It is here that the historical accounts tend to diverge. Prokopios, a hostile and rather unreliable historiographer, asserts that her conversion experience was fake, and that she met the Emperor Justinian while continuing as an actress and prostitute, after a performance of the parody Leda and the Swan. John of Ephesos, on the other hand, relates that she took up a job in the capital as a manual labourer, a wool-spinner, who caught the attention of the Emperor. In any event, Justinian was not able to marry her due to the class restrictions then in place; only when his uncle repealed the law was Justinian able to marry Theodōra. By that time, Theodōra already had an illegitimate daughter, whose father was likely Saint Justinian.

Saint Justinian and Saint Theodōra were an odd case at the time, having married for affection rather than for political reasons. At the same time, though, Saint Theodōra was quite politically-active. She broke with Roman convention by offering advice to the Emperor directly, and in so doing saved Emperor Saint Justinian’s throne, his life, and possibly the empire itself during the Nika riots. At the time, Saint Justinian and his closest advisers were preparing to flee the city, which was then under siege by the rioters. In her own words:
My lords, the present occasion is too serious to allow me to follow the convention that a woman should not speak in a man’s council. Those whose interests are threatened by extreme danger should think only of the wisest course of action, not of conventions. In my opinion, flight is not the right course, even if it should bring us to safety. It is impossible for a person, having been born into this world, not to die; but for one who has reigned it is intolerable to be a fugitive. May I never be deprived of this purple robe, and may I never see the day when those who meet me do not call me empress. If you wish to save yourself, my lord, there is no difficulty. We are rich; over there is the sea, and yonder are the ships. Yet reflect for a moment whether, when you have once escaped to a place of security, you would not gladly exchange such safety for death. As for me, I agree with the adage that the royal purple is the noblest shroud.
Thereupon Saint Justinian broke up the riots – bloodily, according to Prokopios – and restored his hold on power. In the wake of that event, Justinian and Theodōra began to rebuild the royal city. They established vital infrastructure and public works (aqueducts, roads, bridges), built twenty-five churches (including the great Agia Sophia!), and spent a great deal on social welfare also, particularly public hospitals. Saint Theodōra, remembering perhaps her unfortunate youth and her ill-treatment at the hands of Hekebolos, was also an advocate against prostitution and in favour of women’s rights – including lower-class women’s right to work and feed themselves without having to marry or enter a brothel. She established a convent named Metanoia (or Holy Repentance), which catered specifically to ex-brothel girls and street prostitutes, giving them shelter, a space for reflection and the possibility – an all-too-attractive possibility at the time for many such women – of becoming a nun. As the folks at In Communion put it:
She made it legal to marry across class lines, gave women inheritance rights, gave women custody rights in the case of divorce, increased the penalty for rape, and outlawed the practice of infanticide whereby the father would decide whether a newborn would live and which often was committed against baby girls. She also opened many convents and saved many women from prostitution. Convents gave women of the time a way to support themselves without having to marry.
Saint Theodōra began her life of religious piety as a Miaphysite follower of Pope Timothy III, but after her marriage to Saint Justinian it appears she embraced Chalcedonian Christianity. At the same time, her sympathies were deeply engaged toward the Miaphysites, and she exerted tremendous political and spiritual energies in the attempt to heal the breach between the two confessions. The right-believing Empress reposed at the age of forty-eight, succumbing to an illness which was likely breast cancer. However, she would leave a deep impression on Saint Justinian’s reign even after her death, as he would continue to pass laws and institute social services for lower-class people, and particularly lower-class women, for the remainder of his reign. Empress Saint Theodōra, pray to God for us!

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