Empress Theodora - Byzantine Pioneer of Women's Rights

When Elle over at The Curio asked if their Instagram followers would be interested in participating in a personally curated collection based on her interpretation of your unique style and likes based upon your own Instagram profile; I JUMPED at the chance!  Although the pieces Elle selected for me based upon my Insta profile hit the nail on the head; there was one selection which captivated me right from the start....An exceptional stylized Victorian Art Nouveau earrings of Queen Theodora.

English, circa 1880, Victorian Empress Theodora Earrings in 15k Yellow Gold.

Throughout the Victorian, Art Nouveau and early Art Deco periods, there was a resurgence in the appreciation and love for antiquity.  Truly, a style statement after my own heart.  And these earrings were exactly that - A Statement!  Just reading the description of these beauties from The Curio was enough to captivate me:

"Victorian jewelry is as complex in its symbolism, sentiment, and design as the fashion, architecture, and decor of the time. Worn as an ornament, a love token, or a remembrance, jewelry not only completed the well-dressed lady’s costume but also denoted her position in society, her marital status, and her sense of self... And these Victorian earrings, depicting, who I believe to be Theodora, Justinian the I's Empress. The Victorian period held many revivals, one of the most quiet was the Byzantine revival-- few examples of the period are well documented, but these earrings hold a special intersection of Victorian, Nouveau, and Byzantine sentiment. The figure I thus identified by her peculiar crown, which, upon detailed inspection, looks exactly like the examples of Byzantine crowns that might have been on exhibit at the Victoria + Albert museum (at the time, the South Kensington Museum) the 1870's. English made, this pair of earrings are a revivalist collector's dream."
        Materials and Features: 15k gold
        Age/Origin: English, c 1880
        Measurements: 2”, 7 grams
        Condition: Excellent condition. Minor associated age wear. 

What these earrings really inspired in me was the desire to know more about the woman they depicted, Empress Theodora.  And, what I learned, was enough to inspire, fascinate and draw me even further into the rich history these earrings already had.

What I learned was that Theodora was a strong willed, opinionated woman who believed that women should have rights. A modern viewpoint in what was primarily a patriarchal society.  She was a 6th-century Byzantine empress married to Emperor Justinian I (reigned 527 - 565 CE).  She is remembered for being one of the most powerful women in Byzantine history.  She used her power and influence to promote religious and social policies and was one of the first rulers to recognize the rights of women.  To many, Theodora was a heroine. 

Notice the crown she wears & compare to the mosaic representations of Empress Theodora.

However, before she was the empress, she led a life that would have been considered scandalous amongst modern day polite society.  After her father dies suddenly, Theodora and her sisters face starvation and life on the streets.  Determined to survive, she makes a living any way she can—first as a prostitute and then as an actress on the stage in a scandalous dramatization of her own invention.  

Procopius, a high official, historian and contemporary of Theodora, greatly disapproved of Theodora's personality and background.  Theodora was apparently as ruthless as she was smart and it was these early years in her life where she worked as a prostitute and actress that many would use to describe her as “less than saintly.”  Procopius' notorious account of Theodora in his 'Secret History' shows an extreme dislike for her character.  Like some of today; he, and Byzantine society in general, evaluated her former occupations as very near the bottom of the “hierarchy of the arts.”  

Justinian sought to marry Theodora, though he was prevented from doing so by a Roman law from Constantine's time that barred anyone of senatorial rank from marrying actresses.  The empress Euphemia, consort of the emperor Justin, also strongly opposed the marriage.  And, Justinian was the most desired bachelor in the whole of the Roman Empire.  It is said that Justinian fell madly in love with Theodora and he convinced his uncle, emperor Justin, to change the law so he could marry her.

A mosaic of Emperor Justinian & Empress Theodora.

Empress Theodora was an active participant in Justinian's rule; particularly when it came to legal and spiritual reforms.  Her involvement resulted in substantial increases to the rights of women.  Theodora encouraged her husband to make new laws that were fairer to women that prohibited forced prostitution and closed brothels.  Theodora assisted her husband in choosing government leaders.  She believed jobs should be given based on ability and not social class.

As a result of these groundbreaking accomplishments, the historian Treadgold referred to her as a protectress of women.  She used her influence to help them gain rights and was also seen as a protector and defender of the poor and weak.  Because she was a close collaborator, some have even speculated she served as a co-ruler, with her husband, it is extremely likely that she was able to influence policy and even laws that helped to achieve these ends. Does this make her a heroine? The answer depends on how you define heroine and who you ask.

These earrings elevate even a mess bun & my "librarian" glasses!

Theodora became a character in popular Greek legend who possessed many of the qualities of a hero. Campbell said that heroes are partly defined as protectors and defenders, attributes shown in Theodora's character.  She was also considered wise and beautiful, qualities often attributed to classical heroes.  Theodora was a very commanding personality with great influence as seen in her persuading Justinian to change laws and her reaction to disloyalty when she was left effectively in control while Justinian suffered from the plague.  Theodora effectively changed the course of history both when she dissuaded her husband from taking flight during the Nika riots and when she influenced changes in laws and rights.  Because of this, she is sometimes referred to as a heroine, even though Procopius and some other historians focus on the deaths that the dissuasion cost.  

Theodora also possessed three Christian values which are attributed to a Christian heroine: The value of faith as she was faithful to her husband; charitable to those who were less fortunate, as she had once been; and she is said to have been penitent which was parallel to Mary Magdalene.  These values support the idea that Theodora was a heroine from a religious and Christian viewpoint.  Theodora had also converted to an early form of Christianity where these attributes would have been greatly prized.

On June 28, 548 AD, Empress Theodora died in Constantinople.  Today, Theodora is considered a saint by the Greek Orthodox Church.  

A mosaic of Saint Theodora.

Be sure and follow Inspired Antiquity on Instagram: InspiredAntiquity, Twitter: @NpiredAntiquity, Pinterest: www.pinterest.com/tkmb & Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/InspiredAntiquity . 


Popular Posts