Empress and wife of Justinian I, the courage and statesmanship of Theodora (ca. 500-548) complemented the genius of her husband and significantly contributed to the glories of his reign. Little is known about the early life of Theodora, who rose to become one of the most famous women in Western civilization. She was born of humble origins at the beginning of the sixth century—probably in the year 500—and died on June 28, 548. Much of what is known comes from the writings of the sixth-century Byzantine historian Procopius of Caesarea (d. 565), especially his seven-volume Anecdota (commonly called Secret History). Although an important primary source for the life of Theodora and the era in which she lived, Procopius's Secret History must be viewed as written on the level of a modern tabloid, at least with respect to its factual accuracy. However biased, especially in the case of Theodora, it is felt that Procopius correctly portrayed the decadent lifestyle of Constantinople during the first half of the sixth century. From Procopius and other writings of the era, including official chronicles, some outline of Theodora's early life prior to her marriage to Justinian I can be constructed. Some of the later chroniclers place her birth on the island of Cyprus, or more likely in Syria. Her father was a poor man named Acacius. Her mother's name is lost to history. Acacius was the keeper, or guardian, of the bears for the Greens at the hippodrome in Constantinople. The hippodrome was a gigantic stadium where chariot races and other entertainments were staged, including bear-baiting. The all-important chariot races were sponsored by organizations, or factions, two of which, the Blues and the Greens, attained significant political power. These factions staged additional entertainments for the crowds, including animal contests and stage plays. Theodora had two sisters, Comitona and Anastasia. Upon the death of her father when she was but a child, Theodora began to work on stage as a mime with her older sister Comitona, and soon became a full-fledged actress. By her late teens, she was a favorite both on the stage, where she delighted in displaying "undraped the beauty of which she was so proud,” and off, where she followed in the footsteps of her sister as a prostitute and/or courtesan. In the context of the time, "actress" was synonymous with "prostitute." Theodora was a smashing success. It is evident from all accounts that she was a stunning beauty. But she was gifted in more than her physical charms. Writes historian Charles Diehl: "She was intelligent, witty, and amusing … [and] … when she wanted to please, she knew how to put forth irresistible powers of fascination." On the stage, she was noted for what in our day would be euphemistically termed "adult" entertainment. Off the stage she was noted for her numerous lovers and her wild parties. It was said that her reputation was such that respectable people tried to avoid meeting her on the streets of Constantinople for fear of becoming contaminated. Diehl perhaps best sums up her reputation, when he writes: "Belonging to a profession of which virtue is not a necessary attribute, she amused, charmed, and scandalized Constantinople." When she was 16, Theodora took as one of her lovers a wealthy man named Hecebolus. When Hecebolus was appointed governor of African Pentapolis, a minor province in North Africa, Theodora accompanied him to his new post. After approximately four years (in c. 521), and for reasons unknown to us, Hecebolus expelled her penniless from his house. For the next year, she traveled through the Middle East, apparently making use of her many gifts and talents as she "worked" her way back to Constantinople. Theodora settled briefly in Alexandria, the luxurious capital of Egypt, and a favorite haunt of many famed courtesans. While there, she met leaders of the Monophysite religion—including Patriarch Timothy and Severus of Antioch—who were known to...
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