There are few stranger episodes in literary history than the fate of Theodora, the celebrated consort of the Emperor Justinian. To us in this day she is a Magdalene elevated to the throne of the Caesars, a beautiful and licentious actress suddenly raised by a freak of fortune to rule the destinies of the Roman Empire. All this is due to the remarkable discovery made by Nicholas Alemannus, librarian of the Vatican, toward the end of the seventeenth century, of the Secret History of Procopius, a work which purported to reveal the private life of the Byzantine court in the days of Justinian. Before the publication of this work Theodora was in public opinion chiefly remarkable for the prominent place she occupied in Justinian's reign. Of her early life nothing was known, but from the date of her accession to the throne she had exercised a sovereign influence over the emperor. In an important crisis she had exhibited admirable firmness and courage. She had taken an active part in the court intrigues and religious controversies of the epoch, and to her sagacity the emperor attributed many of his happiest inspirations in legislation. The ecclesiastical historians accused her of serious lapses into heresy and of having laid violent hands on the sacred person of a pope; but, with all their vituperation, there never was in circulation a calumny affecting her personal character. Such is a brief resume of the history of Theodora as handed down unassailed for a thousand years.
Then suddenly a startling revelation was made to the world concerning the previously unknown period of Theodora's life. Alemannus disinterred from the archives of the Vatican library, where it had long lain forgotten, an Arcana Historia which purported to be from the pen of the celebrated historian of the Wars and the Edifices of Justinian. Edited with a learned commentary by a hostile critic, the work immediately attained wide circulation and universal credence. For the first time the character of the illustrious empress was presented in the blackest colors. The world, it seemed, had been really mistaken in its estimate. Theodora's antecedents and early life had been of the vilest character, and her public life signalized by cruelty, avarice, and excess. From the date of the publication of this chronique scandaleuse, and thanks to Gibbon's trenchant paraphrase of its vilest sections, Theodora was condemned. Her name became the connotation for all the depraved vices known in high life. The silence of eleven centuries was overlooked, and the garish picture of the Secret History has formed the modern world's estimate of Rome's most illustrious empress.
It becomes, therefore, an important problem to attempt to distinguish the Theodora of history from the Theodora of romance. We must inquire whether the startling |anecdotes| of the Secret History justly supersede the estimate and tradition of so long a period. Was Theodora the grand courtesan she is represented to be in the modern drama, or was she a great empress, worthy of the respect and admiration of Justinian and of succeeding ages? To answer these questions we must first briefly review the legendary history of Theodora, and then dwell more at length on the authentic history of the empress. This will merit a recital, for she appears to be a personality singularly original and powerful, possessing both the qualities of a statesman and the unique traits of a woman, a character of much complexity and of rare psychological interest. During the first years of the sixth century there lived in Constantinople a poor man, by name Acacius, a native of the isle of Cyprus, who had the care of the wild beasts maintained by the green faction of the city, and who, from his employment, was entitled the Master of the Bears. This Acacius was the father of Theodora. Upon his death, he left to the tender mercies of the world a widow and three helpless orphans, Comito, Theodora, and Anastasia, the eldest being not yet seven years of age. At a solemn festival these three children were sent by their destitute mother into the theatre, dressed in the garb of suppliants. The green faction scorned them; but the blues had compassion and relieved their distress, and this difference of treatment made a profound impression on the child Theodora, which had its influence on her later conduct. As the maidens increased in age and improved in beauty, they were trained by their mother for a theatrical career. Theodora first followed Comito on the stage, playing the role of chambermaid, but at length she exercised her talents independently. She became neither a singer nor a dancer nor a flute player, but she figured in the tableaux Vivants, where her beauty freely displayed itself, and in the pantomimes, where her vivacity and grace and sprightliness caused the whole theatre to resound with laughter and applause. She was, if the panegyrists may be believed, the most beautiful woman of her age. Procopius, the best historian of the day, says that |it was impossible for mere man to describe her comeliness in words or to imitate it in art.| |Her features were delicate and regular; her complexion, though somewhat pale, was tinged with a natural colour; every sensation was instantly expressed by the vivacity of her eyes; her easy motions displayed the graces of a small but elegant figure; and either love or adulation might proclaim that painting and poetry were incapable of delineating the matchless excellence of her form.| It is unfortunate that we have no likeness which portrays her exquisite beauty. The famous mosaic in San Vitale at Ravenna is the best authentic representation of the empress, but a mosaic can give but little idea of the original.
But Theodora possessed other fascinations besides beauty: she was intelligent, full of esprit, witty. However, with all these gifts there was in her a deficiency of the moral sense and a natural inclination to pleasure in all its forms. Sad to relate, her charms were venal. If the Secret History be believed, her adventures were both numerous and scandalous; to quote a piquant expression of Gibbon, |her charity was universal.| Procopius recounts memorable after-theatre suppers and tableaux vivants that would be excluded from the most licentious of modern stages. After a wild career in the capital as the reigning figure of the demi-monde, Theodora suddenly disappeared. She condescended to accompany to his province a certain Ecebolus, who had been appointed governor of the African Pentapolis. But this union was transient. She either abandoned her lover or was deserted by him, and for some time the fair Cyprian, a veritable priestess of the divine Aphrodite, made conquests innumerable in all the great cities of the Orient. Finally, she returned to Constantinople, to the scenes of her first exploits, being then between twenty and twenty-five years of age. In her bitterest humiliation, some vision had whispered to her that she was destined to a great career.
Wearied of amorous adventures and of a wandering career, she began from this moment to adopt a retired and blameless life in a modest mansion, where she relieved her poverty by the feminine task of spinning wool. It was at this moment that happy chance threw the patrician Justinian in her path. Captivated by her beauty and her feminine graces, this staid, business-like, and eminently practical personage, already marked as his uncle Justin's successor to the Empire, wished to make the fair Theodora his wife. But there were obstacles in the way. The Empress Euphemia flatly refused to accept the reformed courtesan as a niece; Justinian's own mother, Vigilantia, feared that the vivacious and beautiful worldling would corrupt her son. It was even said that at this time the laws of Rome prohibited the marriage of a senator with a woman of servile origin or of the theatrical profession. But Justinian remained inflexible. The Empress Euphemia conveniently died; Justinian overrode the opposition of his mother; and Justin was persuaded to pass a law abolishing the rigid statute of antiquity and to make Theodora a patrician.
Soon followed the solemn nuptials of Justinian and Theodora; and when, in 527, Justinian was officially associated with his uncle on the throne, Theodora was also solemnly crowned in Saint Sophia by the hands of the Patriarch as an equal and independent colleague in the sovereignty of the Empire, and the oath of allegiance was imposed on bishops and officials in the joint names of Justinian and Theodora; while in the Hippodrome, the scene of her earlier triumphs, the daughter of Acacius received as empress the adulation of the populace.
Such, according to the Secret History, is the romance of Theodora. The reason why it has been given general credence is because the work purported to be that of a contemporary writer, the greatest historian of his age, who has weighted his charges with emphasis and detail, and because the recital received the convincing endorsement of Alemannus and of Gibbon. The principle which governed Gibbon was as follows: |Of these strange anecdotes a part may be true because probable, and a part true because improbable. Procopius must have known the former and the latter he could scarcely invent.| Reassured by this argument, and seduced by the masculine taste for adventure, most historians have complacently accepted this piquant history and have applied to Theodora the vilest epithets. But recent writers, especially Debidour, Ranke, Mallet, Bury, and Diehl, have not regarded the case as proved, and through a careful analysis of the Secret History have presented convincing arguments against the reputed authorship of the work and the authenticity of its narrative.
These later writers have called attention to the internal evidence of the improbability of the picture of Theodora. There are in the statements glaring inconsistencies with the other works of Procopius, and inconsistencies within the anecdotes themselves. Many stories told of Justinian are obviously overdrawn and dictated by inventive malice, and these vitiate the entire narrative. Furthermore, the question of the marriage law is triumphantly set aside. The edict abolishing the Old Roman law was passed seven years after Justinian's succession, and was in accordance with other legislation inspired by Theodora, to ameliorate the condition of woman. The external evidence, also, has been carefully sifted. The legal maxim, Testis unus, Testis nullus, applies in history as well as in law. A single witness has related the most incredible stories. Nowhere in other historians is there a shred of evidence to support the story of Theodora's flagitious life. These stories could have no basis other than in popular rumors; how is it, therefore, that no other chronicle alludes to them? Orthodox ecclesiastics violently attack Theodora's heresy, and speak of her as an enemy of the Church, but write not a word against her private reputation. Historians condemn in unmeasured terms certain features of Justinian's administration, and dwell on other faults of Theodora, but say never a word about her profligacy. Why are all other writers silent about the dark passages in Theodora's history? Even the Secret History alleges nothing immoral against her after her marriage: why then should we take its testimony seriously regarding the earlier period of her life? The silence of all other chronicles about extraordinary occurrences, which, if true, must have been generally known, throws doubt over the whole narrative and places it in the light of an infamous libel.
And here is a final argument. Justinian was no mere youth when he married, but a sober gentleman of thirty-five, the heir apparent to the throne, who had to keep in the good graces of the people. Would he at so momentous a time have perpetrated so infamous a scandal? And would it have been possible for a woman of such notorious profligacy to ascend the throne without a protest from patriarch or bishop or senators or populace? The outward life of the Byzantine people, owing to the influence of Christianity, was usually correct. A little later an emperor lost his throne because he divorced one wife and took another. Theodora's triumphant ascent to the throne, without a protesting voice, is conclusive evidence that no great scandal had sullied her reputation.
Yet, on the other hand, panegyrists never lauded Theodora as a saint. She was neither a Pulcheria nor a Eudocia. Many traits in the character of the empress accord well with the fact that her early life was not passed amid beds of roses nor had been altogether free from temptation. Hence, with the story reduced to its lowest terms, it seems probable that Theodora was of obscure and lowly origin, that she was for a time connected in some way with the Byzantine stage, and that, owing to her beauty, her cleverness, and her strong personality, she was raised from poverty to share Justinian's throne. But, whatever her career, her life had been sufficiently upright to save appearances, and Justinian could make her his wife without scandal.
The turn of fortune which elevated Theodora from modest station to the imperial throne deeply stirred the popular imagination, and a cycle of legends has gathered about her name. The stranger in Byzantium in the eleventh century was shown the site of a modest cottage, transformed into a stately church dedicated to the spirit of charity, and was told the story how the great empress, coming with her parents from their native town in Cyprus, had here maintained herself in honorable poverty by spinning wool, and how it was here that the patrician Justinian, drawn thither by the fame of her beauty and her learning, had wooed and won her for his bride. However little value we may attach to this tradition, it shows that in Constantinople the popular estimate of Theodora was not that of the Secret History. The Slavic traditions of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries not only dwell on her marvellous beauty, but also recount that she was the most queenly, the most cultivated, the most learned of women. The Syriac traditions were still more flattering. In their devout reverence for the pious empress who espoused their cause, these Monophysites of the thirteenth century name as the father of Theodora, not the poor man who guarded the bears in the Hippodrome, but a pious old gentleman, perhaps a senator, attached to the Monophysite heresy, and affirm that when Justinian, fascinated by the beauty and intelligence of the young maiden, demanded her hand in marriage, the good father did not consent that she should marry the heir apparent until the latter had promised not to interfere with her religious beliefs.
A western chronicler, however, of the eleventh century, Aimoin de Fleury, recounts a legend which has something of the flavor of the Secret History. According to this story, Justinian and Belisarius, two young men and intimate friends, encountered one day two sisters, Antonia and Antonina, sprung from the race of Amazons, who, taken prisoners by the Byzantines, were reduced to dire straits. Belisarius was enamored of the latter, Justinian of the former. Antonia, presaging the future destiny of her lover, made him promise that, if ever he became emperor, he would take her as his wife. Their relations were interrupted, but not before Justinian gave to Antonia a ring, as an assurance of his promise. Years passed: the prince became emperor; and one day there appeared at the gate of the palace, demanding audience, a woman in rich attire and of wonderful beauty. Presented before the sovereign, Antonia was not at first recognized; but she showed the ring and recalled his promise, and Justinian, his love for her renewed, proclaimed straightway the beautiful Amazon as his empress. The people and the senate expressed some surprise at the impromptu marriage, but Antonia shared without protest the throne of Justinian.
Thus the marvellous destiny of Theodora was embellished by legend and romance, and, whether good or bad, severely correct or profligate, she has become one of the most remarkable figures of history and fiction.
Questions as to the early life of Theodora, however, are secondary in importance. We are interested not in the courtesan but in the empress, and, for the incidents and the influence of her reign, we have fortunately other information than that of the Secret History.
Sardou's drama Theodora represents its heroine as preserving on the throne the manners of the courtesan, as delighting in the life of the theatre, as leaving the palace by night to frequent the streets of Constantinople, as having an amorous intrigue with the beautiful Andreas, as being in fact another, but baser and more voluptuous, Messalina. But even the Secret History represents Theodora, after she mounted the throne, as being, with all her faults, the most austere, the most correct, the most irreproachable of women in her conjugal relations.
Whatever her origin and her early life, Theodora adapted herself most readily to the status and the duties of an imperial sovereign. She loved and partook fully of the amenities which attended supreme authority. In her apartments of the royal palace, and in her sumptuous villas and gardens on the Propontis and the Bosporus, she availed herself of all the luxuries and refinements of the royal station. Ever womanly and vain of her physical charms, she took extreme care of her beauty. To make her countenance reposeful and delicate, she prolonged her slumbers until late in the morning; to give her figure sprightliness and grace, she took frequent baths, to which succeeded long hours of repose. Not content with the meagre fare which satisfied Justinian, her table was always supplied with the best of Oriental dishes, which were served with exquisite and delicate taste. Every wish was immediately gratified by her favorite ladies and eunuchs. Like a true parvenue, she delighted in the elaborate court etiquette. She made the highest dignitaries prostrate themselves before her, imposing on those who wished audience long and humiliating delays. Every morning one could see the most illustrious personages of Byzantium crowded in her antechamber like a troop of slaves, and, when they were admitted to kiss the feet of Theodora, their reception depended altogether upon the humor of the moment. These details show with what facility, with what complaisance, Theodora adapted herself to the conditions of her rank.
One must not infer, however, that the Theodora of history was a woman merely captivated by the outward pomp of royalty. She possessed all the intellectual and moral gifts which should attend absolute power, and her rigid enforcement of Oriental etiquette was merely to impress upon others her supreme authority, and was in conformity to the demand of her age. Her salient characteristics were a spirit despotic and inflexible, a will strong and passionate, an intelligence clever and subtle, a temperament by turns frigid and sympathetic; and by these gifts she dominated Justinian without intermission from the moment of her marriage to her death, and impressed upon all those about her the knowledge that she was in every sense an absolute sovereign.
Furthermore, she possessed a calm courage, a masculine inflexibility, which showed itself in the most difficult circumstances. One can never forget the most ominous moment in the history of the Eastern Empire, when the courage and firmness of Theodora saved the throne of Justinian. This was during the celebrated revolt of 532, known as |The Nika Riot.| The factions of the |Blues| and the |Greens| were really the political parties of the day; irritated to madness by the oppression of certain officials, they momentarily united their forces and raised an insurrection against the government, choosing Nika (Conquer!) as their watchword, which has become the technical designation of the riot. During five days, the city was a scene of conflict and witnessed all the horrors of street warfare. Justinian yielded so far as to depose the obnoxious officials, but the secret machinations of the |Green| faction, who wished to place on the throne a nephew of Anastasius, a former emperor, kept up the conflict. On the fateful morning of the 19th of January, Hypatius, one of the nephews of Anastasius, was publicly crowned in the Forum of Constantinople, and was then seated in the cathisma of the Hippodrome, where the rebels and the populace saluted him as emperor. Meanwhile, Justinian shut himself up in the palace with his ministers and his favorites. Much of the city was in flames, the tumult outside grew ever louder, and the rebels were preparing for an attack on the palace. All seemed lost. The clamor of victory and the cries of |Death to Justinian,| reached the hall where the emperor, utterly unnerved, was taking counsel of his ministers and generals. The prefect John of Cappadocia and the general Belisarius recommended flight to Heraclea. In haste, by the gardens which led to the sea, vessels were loaded with the imperial treasures, and all was ready for the instant flight of the emperor and empress. This was the decisive moment. Flight meant the safety of their persons, but the abandoned throne was surely lost, and the gigantic movements that had been started would collapse. The prince was hesitating, and all his counsellors shared his feebleness. Up to this time, the empress had said nothing. At length, indignant at the general languor, Theodora thus called to their duty the emperor and the ministers who would forsake all for personal safety:
|The present occasion is, I think, too grave to take regard of the principle that it is not meet for a woman to speak among men. Those whose dearest interests are in the presence of extreme danger are justified in thinking only of the wisest course of action. Now, in my opinion, Nature is an unprofitable tutor, even if her guidance bring us safety. It is impossible for a man when he has come into the world not to die; but for one who has reigned it is intolerable to be an exile. May I never exist without this purple robe, and may I never live to see the day on which those who meet me shall not address me as Queen. If you wish, O Emperor, to save yourself, there is no difficulty; we have ample funds. Yonder is the sea, and there are the ships. Yet reflect whether, when you have once escaped to a place of security, you will not prefer death to safety. I agree with an old saying that 'Empire is a fair winding-sheet.'|
By these courageous words the resolution of Theodora saved the throne of Justinian. Her firmness conquered the weakness and the pusillanimity of the court. Belisarius triumphantly led his forces against the revolutionists in the Hippodrome. A ruthless massacre followed, in which thirty-five thousand persons perished. The power of the factions was forever broken, and henceforth Justinian enjoyed absolute sovereignty without a protest. The important public buildings which had been destroyed in the conflagrations incident to the riot were restored on a more magnificent scale, and the still standing Saint Sophia is a monument to the genius and splendor of the reign of Justinian and Theodora.
One can readily understand what a dominating influence such a woman would maintain over the indecisive Justinian. The passion with which she had inspired the prince was preserved up to the last moment of her life; and his devotion and regard ever increased and after her death took the form of reverential awe, so influenced was he by her superior abilities. She was to him, in the words of a contemporary historian, |the sweetest charm|; or, as he himself says in a legal enactment, |the gift of God| -- a play upon her name. After her death, when he would make a solemn promise, he swore by the name of Theodora. He withheld from her none of the emoluments, none of the realities, of joint and equal sovereignty: her name figured with his in the inscriptions placed upon the facades of churches or the gates of citadels; her image was associated with his in the decorations of the royal palace, as in the mosaics of San Vitale. Her name appeared by the side of his on the imperial seal. A multitude of cities and a newly created province bore her name. In every regard she shared the sovereignty with the emperor. Magistrates, bishops, generals, governors of provinces, swore by all that was sacred to render good and true service to the very pious and sacred sovereigns, Justinian and Theodora.
When Theodora journeyed, a royal cortege accompanied her, consisting of patricians, high dignitaries, and ministers, and an escort of four thousand soldiers as guard. Her orders were received with deference throughout the Empire; and when officials found them in contradiction with those of the emperor, they often preferred the instructions of Theodora to those of Justinian. Functionaries knew that her patronage assured a rapid promotion in royal power and that her good will was a guarantee against possible disgrace. Royal strangers sought to flatter her vanity and to win her good graces.
All the chroniclers record that in state papers on important affairs Theodora was the collaborator with Justinian. The emperor gladly acknowledged his indebtedness to her, and we read in one of his ordinances: |Having this time again taken counsel of the most sacred spouse whom God has given us....| Theodora likewise on occasion gave evidence of her authority. She once ordered Theodatus to submit to her the requests he wished to address to the emperor, and in a communication to the ministers of the Persian king, Chosroes, she stated: |The emperor never decides anything without consulting me.| She was the regulating power in both State and Church, appointing or disgracing generals and ministers, making or unmaking patriarchs and pontiffs, raising to fortune her favorites, and unsettling the power and position of her opponents.
Theodora's comprehension of the necessities of imperial politics was something marvellous, and the wise moves of Justinian were due largely to her counsel. Yet, though so superb a queen, she was all the more a woman-fickle, passionate, avaricious of authority, and intensely jealous of preserving the power she had. Apparently without scruples, she would get rid of all influence which threatened to counterbalance her own, and she brushed aside without pity all opposition which seemed to infringe on her authority. In the intrigues of the palace she ever came off the victor. Vainly did favorites and ministers who fancied themselves indispensable attempt to ruin her credit with the emperor. The secretary Priscus, whom the favor of Justinian had raised to office as count of the bed-chamber, paid dearly for the insults which he addressed to Theodora. He was exiled, imprisoned, and finally driven to take orders, and his enormous fortune was confiscated.
The history of John of Cappadocia is more significant still; at the same time that it gives insight into the intrigues and plots of the Byzantine courts, it throws a glowing light on the ambitious nature, the unscrupulous energy, the vindictive spirit, and the perfidious cleverness of the Empress Theodora.
For six years John of Cappadocia occupied the exalted position of praetorian prefect, which made him at the same time minister of finance and minister of the interior, as well as the first minister of the Empire. By his vices, his harshness, and his corruption he justified the proverb:
|The Cappadocian is bad by nature; if he attains to power he is worse; but if he seeks to be supreme, he is the most detestable of all.| But in the eyes of Justinian he had one redeeming virtue: he furnished to every request of the prince the funds which the vast expenditures of his reign demanded. At the price of what exactions, of what sufferings of his subjects, he obtained these admirable results, the emperor did not inquire, or perhaps he ignored these considerations. At all events, the prefect was a great favorite of the prince, and the court aides envied the success of his administration. Having a dominating influence over the emperor, possessing riches beyond the dreams of avarice, John attained to the very apex of fortune. Superstitious by nature, the promises of wizards had aroused in him the hope of attaining to the supreme power, as the colleague or successor of Justinian. As a step toward this he attempted to ruin the credit of Theodora with the emperor. This was an offence which the haughty empress could not pardon. The prefect was not ignorant how powerful an adversary he had aroused; but, conscious of his influence with the emperor and of the state of the finances which he alone could administer, he regarded himself as indispensable. But he did not correctly gauge the subtlety of Theodora. She first endeavored to convince the emperor of the sufferings which the prefect inflicted on his subjects and then to arouse his suspicions as to the dangers with which the throne was menaced by the ambition of John: but the emperor, like all feeble natures, hesitated to separate from himself a counsellor to whom by long habit and association he had become attached. Then Theodora conceived a Machiavelian plot.
Theodora's most intimate friend was Antonina, the wife of Belisarius, whom Procopius describes as a woman |more capable than anyone else to manage the impracticable.| The two clever women devised an unscrupulous bit of strategy which, if successful, would surely cause the downfall of the much execrated minister of finance. Antonina, at Theodora's suggestion, cultivated the friendship of John's daughter, Euphemia, and intimated to her that her husband Belisarius was seriously disaffected toward the emperor, because of the poor requital which his distinguished services had received, but that he could not attempt to throw off the imperial yoke unless he was assured of the sympathy and support of some one of the important civil officials. Euphemia naturally told the news to her father, who, seeing in the circumstance an opportunity to ascend the throne with the aid of the powerful general, easily fell into the trap. To perfect the plot the Cappadocian arranged a secret interview at Rufinianum, one of the country seats of Belisarius. The empress arranged to have two faithful officials, Marcellus and Narses, concealed in the villa, with orders to arrest John if his treason became manifest, and, if he resisted, straightway to put him to death. They overheard the treasonable plot, but the minister succeeded in escaping arrest and fled to the inviolable asylum of Saint Sophia. He was, however, exiled in disgrace to Cyzicus; but the ruthless hatred of Theodora followed him, and, after all his ill-gotten gains had been confiscated, he was exiled to Egypt, where he remained until the death of the empress. He finally returned to Constantinople, but Justinian had no further need of the services of his quondam counsellor, and the latter, in the rude garb of a priest, died upon the scene of his former triumphs.
In her ruthless persecution of her opponents, as illustrated by this incident, there seems to have been in this remarkable woman a singular absence of the moral sense.
True it is that she passionately loved power and luxury and wealth; true, that she exercised her authority at times in a ruthless and unscrupulous manner. Yet the hardness of her nature is offset by many sympathetic qualities which show that, together with the sternness of an empress, she had the heart of a woman.
She showed a sympathetic interest in the welfare of her own family. She married her sister Comito to Sittas, an officer of high rank. Her niece Sophia was united in marriage with the nephew of Justin, heir presumptive to the Empire. All her life she regretted that she did not have a son to mount the throne: she had buried an infant daughter, the sole offspring of her marriage.
One of the most pleasing traits of her character was the large tolerance and substantial sympathy she showed to fallen women. Severe on men, she manifested for women a solicitude rarely equalled. On the Asiatic coast of the Bosporus she converted a palace into a spacious and stately monastery, known as the Convent of the Metanoia, or Repentance, and richly endowed it for the benefit of her less fortunate sisters who had been seduced or compelled to embrace the trade of prostitution. In this safe and holy retreat were gathered hundreds of women, collected from the streets and brothels of Constantinople; and many a hapless woman was filled with gratitude toward the generous benefactress who had rescued her from a life of sin and misery.
Are we to see in this tender solicitude an exemplification of the words of the poet, Non ignara mali miseris succurrere disco, or were her endeavors merely the outcome of the religious exaltation of a pure and noblewoman |naturally prone to succor women in misfortune,| as a Byzantine writer says of her? At any rate, this practical sympathy exerted its influence also in enactments of the Justinian Code relating to women; such as the ordinance tending to increase the dignity of marriage and render it more indissoluble, or that to give to seduced maidens recourse against their seducers, or that to relieve actresses of the social disbarment which attended their calling. All these measures were doubtless due to the inspiration of Theodora.
She also carried her strict ideas as to the sanctity of marriage into the life of the court, as is shown by the manner in which she pitilessly spoiled the romance which would have united one of the most brilliant generals of the Empire to a niece of Justinian.
Praejecta, the emperor's niece, had fallen into the hands of Gontharis, a usurper who had slain her husband, Areobindus. She had given up all as lost when an unexpected savior appeared in the person of a handsome Armenian officer, Artabanes, the commander in Africa, who overthrew the usurper and restored her to liberty. From gratitude, Praejecta could refuse her deliverer nothing, and she promised him her hand. The ambitious Armenian saw in this brilliant marriage rapid promotion to the height of power. The princess returned to Constantinople, and the Count of Africa hastened to surrender his honorable office and sought a recall to Constantinople to join his prospective bride. He was lionized in the capital; his dignified demeanor, his burning eloquence and his unbounded generosity won the admiration of all. To remove the social distance between him and his fiancee he was loaded down with honors and dignities. All went well until an unexpected and troublesome obstacle to the nuptials presented itself. Artabanes had overlooked or forgotten the fact that years before he had espoused an Armenian lady. They had been separated a long time, and the warrior had never been heard to speak of her. So long as he was an obscure soldier his wife was contented to leave him in peace; but not so after his unexpected rise to fame. Suddenly she appeared in Constantinople, claiming the rights of a lawful spouse, and as a wronged woman she implored the sympathetic aid of Theodora.
The empress was inflexible when the sacred bonds of marriage were at stake, and she forced the reluctant general to renounce all claims to the princess and to take back his forsaken wife. By way of precaution, she speedily married Praejecta to John, the grandson of the emperor Anastasius, and the pretty romance was at an end.
With equal regard to the sanctity of marriage, Theodora employed numerous devices to reconcile Belisarius, the celebrated general, with his wife Antonina, to whom the scandal of the Secret History attributes serious lapses from moral rectitude, though the charge cannot be regarded as proved.
A portrait of the Byzantine empress would be incomplete if it did not speak of her religious sentiments and the prominent part she took in ecclesiastical politics. In religious matters we see not only the best side of Theodora's nature, but also the supreme exhibition of her influence in the affairs of the Empire. Like all the Byzantines of her time, she was pious and devoted in her manner of life. She was noted for her almsgiving and her contributions to the foundations established by the Church. Chroniclers cite the houses of refuge, the orphanages, and the hospitals founded by her; and Justinian, in one of his ordinances, speaks of the innumerable gifts which she made to churches, hospitals, asylums, and bishoprics.
Yet, in spite of these many exhibitions of inward piety, Theodora was strongly suspected by the orthodox of heresy. She professed openly the monophysite doctrine, -- the belief in the one nature in the person of Jesus Christ. She also endeavored to bring Justinian to her view, and, with an eye to the interest of the state, she entered upon a course of policy which reconciled the schismatics -- but disgusted the orthodox Catholics, who were in unison with Rome. The people of Syria and Egypt were almost universally Monophysites and Separatists. Theodora, with a political finesse far greater than that of her husband, saw that the discontent in the Orient was prejudicial to the imperial power, and she endeavored by her line of policy to reconcile the hostile parties and to reestablish religious peace in the Empire. She recognized that the centre of gravity of the government had passed permanently from Rome to Constantinople, and that consequently the best policy was to keep at peace the peoples of the East.
Justinian, on the other hand, misled by the grandeur of Roman tradition, wished to establish, through union with the Roman See, strict orthodoxy in the restored empire of the Caesars. Theodora, with greater acumen, observed the irreconcilable lines of difference between East and West, and recognized that to proscribe the learned and powerful party of dissenters in the Orient would alienate important provinces and be fatal to the authority of the monarchy. She therefore threw her influence into the balance of heresy. She received the leaders of the Monophysites in the palace, and listened sympathetically to their counsels, their complaints, their remonstrances. She placed men of this faith in the most prominent patriarchal sees -- Severius at Antioch, Theodosius at Alexandria, Anthimius at Constantinople. She transformed the palace on Hormisdas into a monastery for the persecuted priests of Syria and Asia. When Severius was subjected to persecution, she provided means for him to escape from Constantinople; and when Anthimius was deposed from the metropolitan see, she extended to him, in spite of imperial orders, her open protection, and gave him an asylum in the palace. Her boldest coup, however, consisted in placing on the pontifical seat at Rome a pope of her own choice, pledged to act with the Monophysites.
For this role she found the man in the Roman deacon Vigilius, for some years apostolic legate at Constantinople. Vigilius was an ambitious and clever priest who had won his way into the confidence of Theodora, and the empress thought to find in him, when elevated to the pontifical chair, a ready instrument for her purposes. It is recounted that, in exchange for the imperial protection and patronage, Vigilius engaged to reestablish Anthimius at Constantinople, to enter into a league with Theodosius and Severius, and to annul the Council of Chalcedon. Upon the death of the presiding pope, Agapetus, Vigilius set out for Rome with letters for Belisarius, who was then at the height of his power in Italy, and these letters were such that they did not admit of objection. Apparently, in this affair Justinian had secretly assented to the plans of the empress, seeing perhaps in the movement a solution which would bring about the unity which he desired and place the Roman pontiff in accord with the Orientals. But it was not without trouble that Vigilius was installed. Immediately upon the death of Agapetus, the Roman party had provided a successor in Silverius; and to seat Vigilius in the chair of Saint Peter, they must first make Silverius descend. Belisarius was charged with this repugnant task. With manifest reluctance, he undertook his part in the questionable intrigue. He first suggested to Silverius a dignified way of settling the affair by making the concessions which the emperor desired of Vigilius. Silverius indignantly refused to make any such compromise. Thereupon, under the imaginary pretext of treason, he was brutally arrested, deposed, and sent into exile. Vigilius was at once ordained pope in his stead. Theodora seemed to have conquered.
But when securely installed, Vigilius, in spite of the threats of Belisarius, deferred the fulfilment of his promises. Finally, however, he was compelled to make important concessions to the empress. This was the last triumph of Theodora; and toward the close of her life, in the growing progress of the Eastern Church, and in the declining influence of the pope, she had reason to believe that the dreams of her religious diplomacy were realized.
Theodora's advocacy of the cause of the dissenters accounts for much of the vituperation heaped upon her by orthodox Catholics. In the eyes of the Cardinal Baronius, the wife of Justinian was |a detestable creature, a second Eve too ready to listen to the serpent, a new Delilah, another Herodias, revelling in the blood of the saints, a citizen of Hell, protected by demons, inspired by Satan, burning to break the concord bought by the blood of confessors and of martyrs.| It is worthy of note that this was written before the discovery of the manuscript of the Secret History. What would the learned cardinal have said had he known of the alleged adventures of the youth of this woman, classed by pious Catholics as one of the worst enemies of the Church?
Perhaps, after all, we are to find in Theodora's religious defection the source of all the scandal which has attached to her name. Damned in the eyes of pious churchmen because of her religious faith that Christ's nature was not dual, it was easy for the tongue of scandal regarding her early life to gain credence. Had Theodora followed the orthodox in the belief in the two natures, she might have committed worse offences than were charged to her, and no such vituperation would have been uttered by any member of the orthodox Church; but her position in the religious controversies of the sixth century will certainly, in the twentieth century, do her memory little harm.
Theodora's health was always delicate. After these years of stormy dissension, as her strength began to fail, she was directed to use the famous Pythian warm baths. Her progress through Bithynia was made with all the splendor of an imperial cortege, and all along the route she distributed alms to churches, monasteries, and hospitals, with the request that the devout should implore Heaven for the restoration of her health. Finally, in the month of June, A. D.548, in the twenty-fourth year of her marriage and the twenty-second of her reign, Theodora died of a cancer. Justinian was inconsolable at her loss, which rightly seemed to him to be irreparable. His later years were lacking in the energy and finesse that had characterized him during her lifetime, and it was doubtless her loss which clouded his spirits and removed from him the chief inspiration of his reign. Some years after Theodora's death, a poet, desiring to gratify the emperor, recalled the memory of the excellent, beautiful and wise sovereign, |who was beseeching at the throne of grace God's favor on her spouse.|
We can hardly think of Theodora as a glorified saint, yet her goodness of heart and her charity may atone for many of the serious defects in her character. We know not whence she came nor the story of her early life; but as an empress she exhibited all the defects of her qualities. She was a woman cast in a large mould, and her faults stand out in equal prominence with her virtues. She was at times cruel, selfish, and proud, often despotic and violent, utterly unscrupulous and pitiless when it was a question of maintaining her power. But she was resourceful, resolute, energetic, courageous; her political acumen was truly masculine; in a critical moment she saved the throne for Justinian, and during all her lifetime she was his wise Egeria, by her counsel enabling him to succeed in great movements; when her influence ceased to exercise itself a decadence began which continued during the remaining years of Justinian's reign.
As a woman, she was capricious, passionate, vain, self-willed, but sympathetic to the unfortunate and infinitely seductive. Truly imperial was she in her vices, truly queenly in her virtues. Whatever may have been her youth, her career on the throne is the best refutation of the scandal of the Secret History, and she deserves a place in the records of history as one of the world's greatest, most intelligent, most fascinating empresses.