Empress Theodora, a woman leader with strong, independent sexuality

Byzantine Empress Theodora and her court

While men throughout history have appreciated the beauty of women’s genitals, few have credited women with strong, independent sexuality and full commitment to a career. That’s in part because gynocentrism demands adherence to the myth of women’s innate virtue and the myth of women’s natural moral superiority to men. The sixth-century Byzantine historian Procopius of Caesarea, however, had both an extraordinary concern for historical accuracy and prudent regard for the danger of truth-telling. In his Secret History, Procopius thoroughly recorded the sixth-century Byzantine Empress Theodora’s strong, independent sexuality and her full commitment to her career.

Before she reached puberty, Theodora worked outside the home as a sex worker in the Byzantine capital Constantinople. Her father was the keeper of bears for the popular spectacles held in that city. Theodora thus grew up with appreciation for the fundamentals of animal behavior, life and death, and performance. As a young girl, Theodora was remarkably beautiful. Her older sister, also quite beautiful, worked as an exotic dancer and call girl. To help her older sister, Theodora carried around the stand upon which her older sister danced. Theodora herself provided special service to the under-served: she served homosexual men, including slaves, who wanted anal sex.[1] In accordance with hetero-normative ideology, market incentives, and personal preferences and comfort, most women prostitutes historically have focused their practice on heterosexual men. Theodora, in contrast, reached out to serve sexually marginalized men.

Theodora worked hard and was dedicated to her career. She unfortunately lacked natural talent in singing and dancing. Not letting that discourage her, she took up work providing background sexual displays in mime shows:

There was no shame at all in her, and no one ever saw her embarrassed. …. Often she would take her clothes off and stand in the middle of the stage by the mimes, alternately bending backwards or drawing attention to her rear, advertising her special brand of gymnastics both to those who had more intimate knowledge of it and to those who did not — yet. Thus did she abuse her own body licentiously, making it seem that she had genitals not in the place where nature ordained for all other women, but in her face. [2]

As a sex worker, Theodora worked long hours to serve many customers. Moreover, she didn’t provide merely perfunctory service:

She would joke with her lovers lying around in a bed with them, and by toying with new sexual techniques, constantly managed to arouse the souls of those who were debauched. Nor did she wait for her customers to make the first pass at her; quite the contrary, she herself tempted all who came along, flirting and suggestively shaking her hips, especially if they were beardless youths. … She often went to the potluck dinner parties in the company of ten young escorts, or even more than that, all at the peak of their physical prowess and skilled at screwing, and she would bed down with her fellow diners in groups all night long. And when all were exhausted from doing this, she would turn to their servants, all thirty of them if that’s how many there were, and couple with them separately [3]

Theodora resented the biological reality of female human nature and strove to overcome it:

Even though she put three of her orifices to work she would impatiently reproach Nature for not making the holes in her nipples bigger than they were so that she could devise additional sexual positions involving them as well. She was often pregnant, but by using almost all known techniques she could induce immediate abortions. [4]

Advancing to a high position in any career requires hard work, dedication, and sacrifices. Theodora clearly was determined to succeed in her career and show the world what a woman could do.

While some women tend toward modesty and lack assertiveness, Theodora assertively placed herself in positions attracting massive public attention. Performing in Constantinople’s amphitheater, Theodora, wearing only a loincloth, would stand at the center of attention. Then she would lie down and spread her legs. Circus hands would come out and sprinkle barley grains underneath her loincloth and onto her genitals. Trained geese then would come out and peck and eat the grains off her genitals.[5] The geese stretching their long, muscular necks into her groin surely thrilled crowds. Theodora provided theater-goers with unforgettable, transgressive performances worthy of modern pop stars such as Madonna and Lady Gaga. Those performances undoubtedly helped to boost her career.

Given Theodora’s career success, she not surprisingly had a great marriage. An eminent Byzantine official named Justinian became infatuated with her. Under Byzantine law, such officials were not allowed to marry prostitutes. Justinian thus at first took Theodora as his mistress. Eager to marry her, he convinced Emperor Justin to annul the law against high officials marrying prostitutes. Justinian then married Theodora. Procopius observed:

it was possible for him {Justinian} to have selected a spouse from the whole of the Roman Empire, to have married a woman who was the most well-born among all women and had been raised outside the public gaze, who had learned ways of modesty and lived discreetly; moreover, she could have been exceedingly beautiful and still a virgin and even, as they say, with perky breasts.

As many young women today understand, career success is what men value most in a woman. Byzantines, from Senators to soldiers, dutifully acclaimed the Emperor’s wife and prostrated themselves in service to her.[6]

Theodora went on to enjoy a gender-egalitarian marriage. The Empress Theodora and the Emperor Justinian “did nothing independently of each other.” In a letter to a high Persian official, Empress Theodora wrote that her husband “does nothing without my consent.” Anyone who administered an imperial order for which Empress Theodora hadn’t been consulted would be put to death:

Were the emperor to delegate a certain matter to a person without first asking her opinion, the fortunes of that person would soon afterwards know such a reversal that his position of honor would be removed in a most insulting way and he would die a most disgraceful death.

To avoid being killed, courtiers assiduously sought to consult with the Empress on all matters of state. Theodora and Justinian thus achieved the ideal gender-egalitarian marriage toward which well-educated couples today still struggle.

Theodora ensured that government policies favored women. She strengthened support for wives’ sexual freedom:

they were given full license to cheat on their husbands and no risk or harm could come to them because of their behavior. Even those convicted of adultery remained unpunished, because they would go straight to the empress and turn the tables by hauling their husbands into court through a countersuit, despite the fact the men had been charged with no crime. All the men could do, even though they had not been convicted of anything, was to pay back to their wives the dowries that they had received, only twofold, to be whipped and then, for the most of them, led off to prison. After this, they had to look on again as these adultresses preened and lusted after their seducers, only more flagrantly this time. … From then on most men were only too happy to endure without protest the unholy deeds of their wives. So long as they were not being whipped, they gave their wives the freedom to do whatever they wished by pretending not to know what was going on.

At the same time, to limit husbands’ sexual opportunities, Theodora forcibly removed women prostitutes from Constantinople. Under gynocentrism, men are reluctant to marry. Theodora forced men into marriage:

All of a sudden each man would find that he had a wife, not because this pleased him, which is how these things are done even among the barbarians, but because it had been decide by Theodora. [7]

She even forced men to marry a different woman from the one that they were already engaged to marry. For example, Theodora forced a man to marry a prostitute rather than his well-born, virgin fiancée. After consummating his Theodora-arranged marriage to the prostitute, he told a friend that his new wife hadn’t been a virgin. For that offense, Theodora had the man punished severely:

she ordered her servants to lift him up the way one does schoolchildren and give his back a good long whacking for showing off and boasting about things to which he had no rights. She then told him not to run his mouth off again. [8]

Fears of similar punishment might help to explain why few persons today discuss men being forced into financial fatherhood.

Empress Theodora was a woman who had it all. She held the highest political office as co-ruler of Byzantium. She also enjoyed a leisurely, luxurious life:

She would rush to her bath first thing in the morning but would tarry there for a long while. Having bathed so sumptuously, she went to breakfast. After breakfast she rested. At lunch and dinner she like to taste every variety of food and drink. Sleep always took hold of her for long stretches, her daytime naps lasting until night set on and she slept again at night until the sun rose.

Theodora’s hard work, dedication, and sacrifices to get ahead in her career paid off in the wonderful life she had. Theodora is an inspiring model of success for women and girls around the world today.

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Notes:

[1] Procopius of Caesarea, Secret History 9.8-10 (all the details in the above paragraph). Kaldellis (2010) provides the most accurate English translation of the text. Bill Thayer has made conveniently available online the English translation of Henry Bronson Dewing for the Loeb Classical Library (1935). Richard Atwater’s English translation (1927) is also freely available online. Correctly transliterated from the Greek, the author of the Secret History is Prokopios. I’ve used the more common form Procopius to be more accessible to readers.

Theodora was the Byzantine Empress from 527 to 548, when she died. Procopius apparently finished writing his Secret History in 550/551. Kaldellis (2010) p. lxiv. The Byzantine bureaucrat John Lydus was probably a close friend to Procopius and probably read his Secret History. Kaldellis (2003) p. 134. The Secret History became widely distributed only after a manuscript of it was discovered in the Vatican Library in 1623. Id. p. ix. For a review and bibliography of scholarship on Procopius from 2003 to 2014, Greatrex (2014).

[2] Secret History 9.14, 23-4, from Greek trans. Kaldellis (2010) pp. 41, 43. While naked, Theodora apparently bent over and put her face between her legs.

Subsequent quotes above from the Secret History (cited by section.subsection and page in Kaldellis translation): 9.15-6, pp. 42-3 (She would joke…); 9.18-9, p. 42 (Even though she put three…); 10.2, p. 47 (it was possible for him…); 10.13, p. 48 (did nothing independently…); 2.35, p. 14 (does nothing without my consent); 15.10, p. 68 (Were the emperor…); 17.24-6, p. 78 (they were given full license…); 17.29, pp. 78-9 (All of a sudden…);  17.37, p. 79 (she ordered her servants…); 15.7-8, p. 68 (she would rush to her bath…).

[3] The Christian saint Mary of Egypt was also highly capable sexually. In Mazaris’ Journey to Hades, an early fifteenth-century Byzantine text, Holobolos tells that he fell in love again with “a nun, who had slept with a thousand men, an old flame of mine.” Mazaris’ Journey 128.5, from Greek trans. Seminar (1975) p. 21. An early-fifteenth-century Arabic text tells of men who performed even more extraordinary sexual feats.

With lack of appreciation for women’s strong, independent sexuality, historians have wrongly interpreted Procopius as providing gossip, lies, and rhetoric lacking in truth value. For example, Brubaker refers to “the prurient sexual slander that Prokopios layers on Theodora and her friends (so at odds with our general notions of Byzantine life).” Brubaker (2004) p. 84. That Byzantines engaged in a variety of sexual practices isn’t at odds with an informed notion of Byzantium and of human history generally. For relevant insights, see Garland (1996) and the twelfth-century Byzantine novel Hysmine and Hysminias.

Projecting the marginalization of women onto Theodora in Procopius’s Secret History is silly. Voluminous scholarship celebrates the power of Theodora as a woman ruler. See, e.g. Diehl (1904), Evans (2002), Evans (2011). Nonetheless, Brubaker declares:

Theodora’s main role in the Secret History is to support Prokopios’ condemnation of Justinian

Brubaker (2004) p. 100. Women should not be merely confined to supporting roles. Strong, independent women have existed throughout history. Modern scholars should recognize that truth, especially with respect to Byzantine gynocentric society.

Procopius’s Secret History is an extremely valuable resource for understanding the truth about Theodora. Procopius was a well-informed, well-connected person writing about events of his own time:

Procopius should not be regarded as an outsider, either in terms of genres, or as someone isolated from contemporary opinion. He worked within the conventions of classicizing historiography and, as a well-born and successful official, had good connections to the upper échelons of the empire.

Greatrex (2000) p. 227. The Secret History makes many specific references to persons, places, and events. It is closely linked to the history in Procopius’s Wars. Kaldellis (2010) pp. xxvi-viii. Procopius repeatedly, explicitly indicated his concern to make known facts. Secret History 1.1-5, 4.32, 5.27, 5.38, 8.22, 9.1, 10.12, 15.39, etc. Cf. Brubaker (2004) p. 84. Moreover, many of the facts in the Secret History can be corroborated with other, credible sources. The sixth-century Monophysite writer Yuhannan of Amida (John of Ephesos) lauded Theodora. He also casually refers to “Theodora who came from the brothel.” Yuhannan of Amida, Lives of the Saints 13, from Syriac trans. Ernest Walter Brooks, in Kaldellis (2010) p. 146. The Secret History is “our most reliable source” about Theodora. Kaldellis (2010) pp. lii, liii.

Scholarly disparagement of the truth value of the Secret History is best understood with respect to current difficulties with truth. Consider, for example, this claim:

The Secret History is a successful piece of fiction, a brilliant parody on the imperial panegyric. It tells us next to nothing about Justinian and Theodora.

Brubaker (2004) p. 101. That’s as factually correct as current mainstream media claims about rape, or gender-biased accounts of domestic violence. It obscures truth to the same gynocentric end as does refusal to address forced financial fatherhood. Brubaker’s claim about the Secret History “does the work a serious disservice and flies in the face of scholarship that has established the well-founded nature of the criticisms expressed.” Greatrex (2014) p. 101.

[4] The figure of using multiple orifices for sex was well-established in ancient literature. For some analysis, Kaldellis (2010) p. liv. Catallus’s poems, the erotic wall paintings at Pompeii, and many epigrams in the Greek Anthology refer to sex acts using a variety of orifices. On the latter, see, e.g. a Greek epigram on the riddle of two plus two equals three. The existence of those literary figures undoubtedly coexisted with similar practices in actual life. Merely on the basis of literary sexual references, a scholar declared:

it seems beyond doubt that the sex life of Theodora owes more to male fantasy and literary tradition than reality.

Baldwin (1987) p. 151. That view lacks respect for female fantasy and female action.

[5] Secret History 15.20-1.

[6] Procopius observed:

Nor, indeed, did a single member of the Senate, seeing the state tying itself to this smear of a woman, decide to disapprove the action and denounce it, though all of them would be prostrating themselves before her as if she were a goddess. Nor did any priest make known his displeasure, despite the fact that they would all be addressing her as Mistress. And the populace, who used to be her audience, immediately now and with upturned hands as though in prayer disgracefully demanded both to be in fact, and to be called, her slave. Nor did any soldier rise up in fury now that he would have to be enduring the dangers of campaigning — on behalf of the interests of Theodora. Nor did any other person challenge her; rather, all of them passively let this pollution happen in the belief, I suppose, that it was simply their ordained fate

Secret History 10.6-9, trans. Kaldellis (2010) p. 47. Christian allusions in this rhetoric express Procopius’s contempt for tyranny. Kaldellis (2004) pp. 138-40. See also Secret History 9.25 (“touch a corner of that person’s clothes”). Cf. Mark 5:25–34, Matthew 9:20–22, Luke 8:43–48. The society-wide reaction to modern officials adopting tyrannical, anti-men laws and procedures has been similar to the society-wide response to Theodora, as Procopius described it.

Writing in 1904 after having studied Procopius’s Secret History, Charles Diehl, a respected French scholar and a leading Byzantine historian, found reason to follow the public response to Theodora that Procopius recounted. Diehl declared:

this truly superior woman, who, after having charmed an entire public, was able to conquer {sic} Justinian and to reign over a whole nation for twenty years, deserves to be known otherwise and better than only through the gossiping of a sour pamphleteer or questionable legends inspired by her scandalous celebrity.

Diehl (1904) p. 5. Diehl included a chapter entitled “Theodora’s Feminism” (Ch. 15) in which he praised Theodora for harshly suppressing men’s extra-marital sexual opportunities by suppressing women prostitutes and praised Theodora for lessening punishment of women for adultery.

Evans (2002) and Evans (2011) provides more sophisticated scholarly history of Theodora within dominant gynocentric ideology. Theodora thus “championed the rights of women.” Evans (2011) p. xiv. Theodora and Antonina, wife of the eminent general Belisarios, were naturally transgressive women struggling against male domination and seeking to show that women could excel in politics as well as men could. Theodora and Antonina were thus:

two women who knew how to use political power to advance their interests, lead lives outside contemporary social norms and influence the workings of the government. They lived in a period when most women lived lives circumscribed by social convention, and their example shows that women — even if they were born into the lowest ranks of society — could play the power games as well as men.

Id. p. xi. That’s history worthy of a apparatchik under a totalitarian regime.

At a more popular level, a Smithsonian Magazine article (Dash (2012)) described Theodora as “exceptionally beautiful and unusually intelligent.” She, of course, “refused to play the subordinate role normally expected of a Byzantine empress.” The article celebrated Theodora shaming Justinian and other men into participating in violence against men. That’s a prevalent form of gynocentric coercion of men. The Smithsonian Magazine is part of “the Smithsonian Institution, America’s national educational facility.”

With much more insightful analysis that fully engages with historical reality and with the deep meaning of Procopius’s works, Kaldellis recognized Procopius’s fundamental concern with political tyranny. Kaldellis recognized that Theodora was:

a woman who had no conception of the dignity of political life. To have lived under her power must have been unbearably degrading.

Kaldellis (2004) p. 130. Theodora sought “to destroy all masculine virtues.” Id. p. 145.

[7] Theodora also persecuted men for having sex with men. For example, she falsely accused Basianos of sodomy. Despite his innocence and his high social status, she had him severely punished. He was castrated, then killed, and all his property was confiscated. Secret History 16.18-21. Theodora also falsely accused Diogenes of sex with men, but judges refused to convict him. Secret History 16.23-8. Underscoring her delight in her ruling power, she humiliated a elderly, pleading patrician by responding mockingly and having a chorus of eunuchs repeatedly sing out to him, “That’s a big hernia that you have!” Secret History 15.24-35, pp. 70-1.

[8] In Procopius in Wars 7.31.14 observed of Empress Theodora, “it was her nature to side with women in distress.” Trans. Kaldellis (2010) p. 174. Judges in family courts today typically behave likewise.

[image] Mosaic of Byzantine Empress Theodora and her court in the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy. Probably created shortly before 547 GC. Thanks to Petar Milošević and Wikimedia Commons.

References:

Baldwin, Barry. 1987. “Sexual Rhetoric in Procopius.” Mnemosyne. 40 (1): 150-152.

Brubaker, Leslie. 2004. “Sex, Lies and Textuality: The Secret History of Prokopios and the Rhetoric of Gender in Sixth-Century Byzantium.” Leslie Brubaker and Julia M. H. Smith, eds. Gender in the Early Medieval World: East and West, 300–900. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Dash, Mike. 2012. “Blue versus Green: Rocking the Byzantine Empire.” Smithsonian Magazine, March 2, freely available online.

Diehl, Charles. 1904. Théodora, Impératrice de Byzance. Paris: E. Rey. Quoted in the English translation of Samuel R. Rosenbaum. 1972. Theodora: Empress of Byzantium. New York: F. Ungar.

Evans, James Allen. 2004. The empress Theodora: partner of Justinian. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Evans, James Allen. 2011. The power game in Byzantium: Antonina and the Empress Theodora. London: Continuum.

Garland, Lynda. 1996. “‘How Different, How Very Different from the Home Life of Our Own Dear Queen,’ Sexual Morality at the Late Byzantine Court with Especial Reference to the 11th and 12th Centuries.” Byzantine Studies / Études Byzantines 1–2: 1–62.

Greatrex, Geoffrey. 2000. “Procopius the Outsider?” Ch. 16 (pp. 215-28) in Smythe, Dion C. & Rowena Loverance, eds. 2000. Strangers to Themselves: Papers from the Thirty-Second Spring Symposium of Byzantine Studies, University of Sussex, Brighton, March 1998. Florence: Taylor and Francis.

Greatrex, Geoffrey. 2014. “Perceptions of Procopius in Recent Scholarship.” Histos 8: 76-121.

Kaldellis, Anthony. 2004. Procopius of Caesarea: Tyranny, history and philosophy at the end of the antiquity. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Kaldellis, Anthony. 2010. Prokopios. The secret history: with related texts. Indianapolis: Hackett.

Seminar, Classics 600 at SUNY Buffalo. 1975. Mazaris’ Journey to Hades or interview with dead men about certain officials of the imperial court. Buffalo: Arethusa.

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