A Brief History
On November 14th, the Orthodox Church celebrates Saint Theodora who once spanked a man after he talked trash about his own wife!
One of history’s most influential and significant empresses is Theodora (c. 500 A.D. – June 28, 548 A.D.). Her life is also among the more difficult imperial lives to get a clear picture of because to some she is revered as a saint, whereas to others she is remembered for having possibly worked in a brothel and being the daughter of a dancer and actress (not considered classy professions in those days). It is that memory of her past that concerns the incident to be related in today’s historical date.
The proud Theodora, according to biographer Procopius, was not exactly ashamed of her life prior to becoming empress. Thus, if a man mocked another female with a similar youth, she took offense.
Procopius, on page 128 of The Secret History (New York: Penguin Books, 1981), writes, “Saturninus, son of Hermogenes the Magister, had married a second cousin, a maiden of good birth and excellent character, whose father Cyril had approved the match, Hermogenes having died earlier. No sooner had they shut themselves into the bridal chamber than Theodora seized the groom and carried him off to another chamber, where in spite of his heartbroken protestations he was married to Chrysomallo’s daughter. This Chrysomallo had once been a dancer and later a courtesan, but at the time of this incident she was living in the Palace with another Chrysomallo and Indaro. For there it was that after abandoning woman’s oldest profession and the life of the theatre they had established their headquarters. When Saturninus had slept with his new bride and found that she had been deflowered, he informed one of his intimate friends that the girl he had married was nothing but damaged goods. When this comment came to Theodora’s ears, she said that he was showing off and had no right to be so puffed up, and ordered her servants to bend him over like any schoolboy. Then she gave his behind a fearsome beating and told him not to talk such nonsense in future.”
As the words of our primary source author suggest, an empress later made a saint once gave an adult man a spanking for speaking ill of his wife, a woman whose mother had worked in a similar profession to what may have once been Theodora’s early career as well. Moreover, Theodora, possibly not a virgin prior to her own marriage, did not think well of Saturninus speaking ill of his wife for also coming to her husband for the first time unchaste.
Of course, Procopius also claimed that Theodora’s husband (Emperor Justinian) had the ability to make his head vanish, “while the rest of his body seemed to ebb and flow; whereat the beholder stood aghast and fearful, wondering if his eyes were deceiving him.” So, perhaps we should take the above anecdote about Theodora with a grain of salt?
Question for students (and subscribers): Yet, if the story is true, then we ask you to consider in your comments below if Theodora was justified in her actions? Would YOU want her as your empress? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
Procopius’s Secret History, although of questionable accuracy in places, is an absolute must-read as far as sources go for this particular woman. In his other writings, which are not as entertaining to read, he is much more complimentary of the empress’s character as well as her beauty. Thus, Procopius leaves us with two divergent versions of the same woman!
For a nice, informative musical video about the empress by a history teacher, please visit Youtube.
For a detailed and objective documentary history of Theodora and Justinian, we urge you to watch the following videos (under twenty minutes combined) in this order: 1) “An Empire Strikes Back” and 2) “The Plague“.
For a concise overview of her life, please see the following book:
Phillips, Robin and Jeff West. Who in the World Was The Acrobatic Empress?: The Story of Theodora (Who in the World). The Well-Trained Mind Press, 2006.
For two naughty novelizations of her life, please examine these books:
Duffy, Stella. The Purple Shroud: A Novel of Empress Theodora. Penguin Books, 2012.
Duffy, Stella. Theodora: Actress, Empress, Whore: A Novel. Penguin Books, 2011.
Finally, if you are curious where Theodora ranks in the context of the most infamous Roman and Byzantine empresses, see this list on our sister site.