Sunday, February 11, 2007

Theodora

Theodora, Empress of Byzantium (c. 508-548)
Theodora was the empress of the Byzantine Empire. When the Roman Empire fell in the year 476, Europe entered the Middle Ages, as the western half of the empire fell apart into hundreds of tiny, independent countries called feudalaries. Much of the eastern empire, however, stayed together in one big chunk called the Later Roman, or Byzantine, Empire: its capital was Constantinople (now Istanbul) and it was centered around modern Turkey, Greece, and the Balkans (Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania... that area). Under the supervision of Theodora and her husband, Emperor Justinian, The Byzantine Empire would expand to include Italy and North Africa.
She wasn't born an empress, though. She was born in Constantinople around the year 508 AD, the youngest of three daughters of an animal trainer who died when she was young. She and her sisters had to work as actresses, and quite possibly prostitutes, from a very young age. She got her "big break" when she met a millionaire named Hecebolus, who hired her as a courtesan and brought her to his palace in Carthage (in modern Algeria). No one knows why, but he soon fired her and kicked her out. She then found herself on the coast of Africa: she didn't have any money, she didn't know anyone, and she didn't speak their language.
I won't tell you the whole story, but from these beginnings, Theodora became co-ruler (with Justinian) of the most powerful empire in the world, who passed her own laws, and had her own court and treasury. Twice she would save her husband's throne: once during the disastrous Nika revolt, when angry mobs clamoured for Justinian's blood, and again later when he nearly died of plague, which wiped out a third of the population (this plague was similar to the more famous Black Plague of the 14th Century).
She also, with Justinian, built Hagia Sofia, my very favorite building in the world. Completed in 537 (almost 1000 years before Columbus discovered America!), it's a masterpiece of medieval architecture. She passed laws protecting women and expanding their rights, so that many now consider he one of the first feminist rulers. Obviously this three paragraph "biography" has left out many other impressive deeds. We encourage you to learn more about Theodora and the Byzantine Empire. Because eye candy is cool, but there really is more to life. See you next time!

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