Anarchists of Style: Theodora, Empress of Byzantium (500-548)

 

As a young actress, one of Theodora’s notable rolls was in Leda and the Swan. Partially undressed, she lay on the stage as geese plucked at barley seed scattered on her groin. Theodora eventually found religion and left the stage—but not before bearing a daughter out of wedlock and earning the appellation “Theodora of the Brothel.”

However, even as she atoned for her past by embarking on a new life as a wool-spinner, it remained illegal in the 6th century for an actress (current or past) to marry a patrician. That is, until Theodora met Justinian. Although he was not yet emperor, Justinian was connected. And he was in love. Through his urging, a new law was passed making it legal for penitent ex-actresses to marry.  Once wed, Theodora and Justinian shared a highly unusual marriage for the time: a partnership of equals.

A recognized beauty, whose “private hours were devoted to the prudent as well as the grateful care of her beauty,” she also remained cognizant of social injustice. As Empress, she bought the freedom of the prostitutes of Constantinople and provided each of them with a new suit of clothes.

As a woman who defied social strictures, inspired laws more sympathetic to women, and used her power in part to improve the lot of women in sexual servitude, Empress Theodora earns a new appellation, “Anarchist of Style.”

 

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2 Comments

  • Christina May 29, 2012 04.23 pm

    Lovely post! I’m studying Late Antique marriage jewelry – Byzantium was such an interesting time for women to renegotiate power dynamics in and out of the bedroom. Theodora is fascinating.

     
  • Cassidy June 01, 2012 06.08 pm

    Is this a book review? Where are the quotes from?

     

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