The empress Theodora is one of the most famous figures in late Roman and Byzantine history. There is good reason for this, largely because we have a good quantity of highly-controversial source material. The brilliant sixth-century mosaic from the San Vitale basilica in Ravenna helps bring her to life as well.
Her background is also atypical for that of a great woman. Theodora was born as a commoner, and her father worked for one of the circus factions in Constantinople. At a very early age, Theodora seems to have followed her sister into low-class theatrical entertainment which essentially constituted prostitution. As a friend of mine likes to remind me, Theodora must have had some charm to be able to attract the eye of Justinian, for not every day do “go-go dancers” seduce emperors. To be fair, Theodora did not actually marry an emperor in name at this point, since Justinian first had to remove the law prohibiting the marriage of a noble citizen to a prostitute.
Justinian had little trouble doing this since his uncle was the emperor. Both were born as low-class rural peasants in Illyria. Justinian had followed his uncle Justin when he had gone to Constantinople to enroll in the army. Justin must have done something to impress the then emperor Anastasius or arrived at a good time, because he managed to secure a position in the imperial guard. Even better for Justin, he somehow managed to convince Anastasius to name him as his successor. (The details of this are murky; although it is worth noting that several generals bloodlessly assumed power in the sixth century: Justin I, Justin II, Tiberius II, Maurikios. This is definitely an avenue for further study.) Now Justin was illiterate and never bothered to learn his letters (so that he could sign imperial documents, the chancellery had a stencil made so Justin could trace his name), but he still valued education and made sure that his nephew Justinian received one. It was during the 520s that Justinian met Theodora and prompted his uncle to change the laws.
In 527 AD, Justin died, and Justinian finally took over power in name, since he had clearly had an enormous amount of influence over his uncle. The Roman Empire at this point was rather reduced in size from a century earlier. Gaul was under the control of the Franks. Ostrogoths ruled Italy. The Vandals had seized Africa and even sacked Rome in 455 AD. Spain was occupied by the Visigoths, and Britain had been left to fend for itself since the early fifth century. There was no time for the west, however, as Persia, an extremely potent adversary necessitating a lot of military attention since a dynastic change in the third century anno domini, was stirring up trouble.
But there was soon trouble in Constantinople, too. In an attempt to curb the violence between the circus factions (there were four circus factions, but only two really mattered: the Blues and the Greens. Chariot racing in the hippodrome was a huge spectator sport, and these partisan organizations grew up around it. They have been associated with a lot of violence and troublemaking in the streets, and frequently compared to modern football hooligans) some quarrelsome members had been sent to jail. The factions got together and broke them out. Violence escalated, and soon Justinian was blockaded in his own palace with the populace of the city trying to dethrone him. His own soldiers guarding the palace seem to have decided to wait it out and side with the victorious party.
During this crisis, Justinian suggests that those few loyal members of his household take the royal treasury and flee on ships. Theodora interrupts and delivers a famous speech, which ends with the line “Royalty is a good burial shroud.” She argues that she would rather stay and die as she is than run, in opposition to her husband. This passage has been picked up by all sorts of feminists who look for woman-power in the ancient and medieval worlds. Here they see a great example of a strong woman who climbed from poverty and prostitution to the top of the imperial hierarchy. They see a woman who is ready to stand, fight, and die while her husband runs away with the money.
The problem is, they’re wrong. The issue of gender in Prokopios’ works is an important one because he frequently uses it to contrast people who are not behaving as they ought to, and while they should give it more attention to that issue it is not where they have erred. It is possible that Prokopios himself was present in the palace when the decision to stay was made. He was the secretary of the general Belisarios, who was in the city at that time and would play a role in ending the riots. However, Prokopios was highly critical of both Justinian and Theodora, he was highly intelligent, and he had a good education in the classics. Prokopios was so critical of the emperor and empress that he actually wrote a secret companion volume to his major work, the Wars, which was publicly published. He desired to fill in all the details about the scandalous behaviour of the sovereigns and anyone else who managed to irritate him over the course of his career.
However, it has been proposed that Prokopios’ works are not really all that different, and that his history of the wars is also full of more subtle criticism of his enemies. This is one of those examples. On the surface, by having Theodora declare that “royalty is a good burial shroud” he makes her look strong and independent, especially in light of her husband, who as Roman Emperor is supposed to be strong and independent. However, Prokopios is cleverly and subtly misquoting an incident recorded by classical historians in which Dionysius, tyrant of Syracuse, was besieged in his palace by his rioting populace. Dionysius is quoted as saying, “Tyranny is a good burial shroud.” Thus to a few well-read individuals, the parallel between the imperial couple in Byzantium and the Sicilian tyrant would be made. They would recognize the deliberate misquote and see that instead of making Theodora the hero of the day, he was calling both her and Justinian tyrants in a clever manner.