In his book on Buildings Procopius described a statue of Justinian’s wife: “It is beautiful, but still inferior to the beauty of the Empress; for to express her loveliness in words, or to portray it as a statue, would be altogether impossible for a mere human being.”7 In all his writings except one this greatest of Byzantine historians has nothing but praise for Theodora. But in a book which he left unpublished during his lifetime, and therefore called Anecdota—“not given out”—Procopius unfolded so scandalous a tale of the Queen’s premarital life that its veracity has been debated for thirteen centuries. This “Secret History” is a brief of candid malice, completely one-sided, devoted to blackening the posthumous reputations of Justinian, Theodora, and Belisarius. Since Procopius is our chief authority for the period, and in his other works is apparently accurate and fair, it is impossible to reject the Anecdota as mere fabrication; we may only rate it the angry retaliation of a disappointed courtier. John of Ephesus, who knew the Empress well, and does not otherwise reproach her, calls her simply “Theodora the strumpet.”8 For the rest there is scant corroboration of Procopius’ charges in other contemporary historians. Many theologians denounced her heresies, but none of them mentions her depravity—an incredible generosity if her depravity was real. We may reasonably conclude that Theodora began as not quite a lady, and ended as every inch a queen.
She was, Procopius assures us, the daughter of a bear trainer, grew up in the odor of a circus, became an actress and a prostitute, shocked and delighted Constantinople with her lewd pantomimes, practiced abortion with repeated success, but gave birth to an illegitimate child; became the mistress of Hecebolus, a Syrian, was deserted by him, and was lost sight of for a time in Alexandria. She reappeared in Constantinople as a poor but honest woman, earning her living by spinning wool. Justinian fell in love with her, made her his mistress, then his wife, then his queen.9 We cannot now determine how much truth there is in this proemium; but if such preliminaries did not disturb an emperor, they should not long detain us. Shortly after their marriage Justinian was crowned in St. Sophia; Theodora was crowned Empress at his side; and “not even a priest,” says Procopius, “showed himself outraged.”10
From whatever she had been, Theodora became a matron whose imperial chastity no one impugned. She was avid of money and power, she sometimes gave way to an imperious temper, she occasionally intrigued to achieve ends opposed to Justinian’s. She slept much, indulged heartily in food and drink, loved luxury, jewelry, and display, spent many months of the year in her palaces on the shore; nevertheless Justinian remained always enamored of her, and bore with philosophic patience her interferences with his schemes. He had invested her uxoriously with a sovereignty theoretically equal to his own, and could not complain if she exercised her power. She took an active part in diplomacy and in ecclesiastical politics, made and unmade Popes and patriarchs, and deposed her enemies. Sometimes she countermanded her husband’s orders, often to the advantage of the state;11 her intelligence was almost commensurate with her power. Procopius charges her with cruelty to her opponents, with dungeon imprisonments and a few murders; men who seriously offended her were likely to disappear without trace, as in the political morals of our century. But she knew mercy too. She protected for two years, by hiding him in her own apartments, the Patriarch Anthemius, who had been exiled by Justinian for heresy. Perhaps she was too lenient with the adulteries of Belisarius’ wife; but to balance this she built a pretty “Convent of Repentance” for reformed prostitutes. Some of the girls repented of their repentance, and threw themselves from the windows, literally bored to death.12 She took a grandmotherly interest in the marriages of her friends, arranged many matches, and sometimes made marriage a condition of advancement at her court. As might have been expected, she became in old age a stern guardian of public morals.13
Finally she interested herself in theology, and debated with her husband the nature of Christ. Justinian labored to reunite the Eastern and the Western Church; unity of religion, he thought, was indispensable to the unity of the Empire. But Theodora could not understand the two natures in Christ, though she raised no difficulties about the three persons in God; she adopted the Monophysite doctrine, perceived that on this point the East would not yield to the West, and judged that the strength and fortune of the Empire lay in the rich provinces of Asia, Syria, and Egypt, rather than in Western provinces ruined by barbarism and war. She softened Justinian’s orthodox intolerance, protected heretics, challenged the papacy, secretly encouraged the rise of an independent Monophysite Church in the East; and on these issues she fought tenaciously and ruthlessly against emperor and pope.