Encyclopedia Womannica

Leaders: Theodora

Episode Summary

Theodora (c. 500-548) was the empress of the Eastern Roman Empire. Born into the lower class, she rose through the ranks to become one of the most influential Roman Empresses.

Episode Notes

Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Pioneers, Dreamers, Villainesses, STEMinists, Warriors & Social Justice Warriors, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.

Encyclopedia Womannica was created by Liz Kaplan and Jenny Kaplan, executive produced by Jenny Kaplan, and produced by Liz Smith, Cinthia Pimentel, and Grace Lynch. Special thanks to Shira Atkins and Edie Allard.

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Episode Transcription

Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan. And this is Encyclopedia Womannica.

Today, we’re talking about an astonishing rags-to-riches story, featuring a woman who defied odds to become the most powerful empress of her time. She was a champion for the rights of women and the downtrodden. Let’s talk about Empress Theodora.

Theodora was born around the year 500  on the outskirts of the Byzantine Empire. She grew up among the lower classes of society. When her father passed away, Theodora had to financially support her family by becoming an actress, a career that carried negative connotations at the time. Theodora performed onstage as an acrobat, dancer, and stripper. 

Theodora was ambitious and sought opportunities to raise her stature. At age 16, she traveled to Alexandria, Egypt, then one of the educational capitals of the world. 

There, Theodora was captivated by new theological tenets of Christianity. She decided to convert and to reform her career. 

Around that time, Theodora met Justinian I, the heir to the throne of the Eastern Roman Empire. The pair fell in love, but Justinian was forbidden to marry someone of such a low social class. Luckily, Justinian was in a position to change the rules. He had the restrictive law repealed and the couple married in the year 525. 

Though Theodora wasn’t officially equal in power to Justinian, the couple worked and ruled together. Justinian treated his spouse as an intellectual and political equal. As a result, Theodora reformed much of Byzantium, the capital of the empire, as well as other places throughout their territory.

Theodora and Justinian supervised reconstruction of the Hagia Sophia, a cathedral in what’s now Istanbul, that had been destroyed during rebellions. It was the largest church of the era, and is still standing though it has gone through many iterations and uses since Theodora’s time. 

A symbolic depiction of the couple’s rule appears in the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy. The mosaic  depicts Justinian and Theodora in equal standing. The empress looks regal with a golden halo and she’s surrounded by court attendants. She and Justinian are also dressed similarly, further symbolizing Theodora’s powerful role in the rule of the empire.

Theodora enacted several norm-shattering laws during her reign. She was particularly interested in fighting for the persecuted and defenseless citizens who shared her own background. She closed brothels, established safehouses, bolstered charity, and banned forced prostitution. She also banned the practice of killing women who committed adultery and expanded women’s rights in divorce cases. 

Empress Theodora passed away in Constantinople in 548. She was about 51 years old. Justinian ruled for another 17 years after Theodora’s death, but the loss of his partner was a heavy emotional blow.

Today, Empress Theodora is considered one of the most influential Roman empresses. During her rule and in the decades after her death, she was heavily criticized by Roman historians who resented the idea of a woman breaking norms by holding power. Today, we see differently.

Join us tomorrow to learn the story of a strong pair of women leaders.

Special thanks to Liz Kaplan, my favorite sister and co-creator!

Talk to you tomorrow!