How an Empress Became a Saint

Empress Theodora

The first time I met Empress Theodora was in Church History class. I found her fascinating, and I will show you why.

Empress Theodora is a saint in the Church, and her feast day is remembered on June 28 in the Syriac Orthodox Church. She was the wife of the Byzantine emperor Justinian. She lived during the sixth century and died in 548 AD. 

There are two versions of her origin story - where did she come from and who were her parents? The Eastern Orthodox and the Oriental Church have differing accounts of her background.

The Syrian Orthodox believe that Empress Theodora was the daughter of a priestly family from Syria. The Eastern Orthodox churches believe that Empress Theodora’s father was a bear keeper at the Hippodrome in about AD500 in Constantinople. The Hippodrome was the Greek stadium. When she was young, her father passed away, and she went to work as an actress which wasn’t a positive role in society. You could say that she was following the profession of Rahab. 

Her future husband, Justinian, the nephew of Emperor Justin, wanted to marry Theodora. To do that, Justinian had his uncle, the Emperor, change the law to marry Theodora. There were rules on what type of women were allowed to be married. Women like Theodora do not get married. However, Justinian had the law changed and could marry her. He loved her dearly, regardless of her background. After his uncle, the Emperor died, Justinian and Theodora soon became the Emperor and Empress of the Byzantine Empire in 527 AD. This was the first time a woman was seen as the Empress. She took a prominent role in his reign. 

In one account, in 532, there was chaos at the Hippodrome, and the crowds wanted to get rid of the Emperor. It was called the Nika revolt. There were riots in the city, devastating buildings, and loss of life. Emperor Justinian was ready to leave his command. However, Empress Theodora inspired him with her words to hold his ground, and he did.

The second account is that Theodora has advocated for the rights of women slaves. She had built a home for them to live in so that they would live. Empress Theodora was known for her charitable works and cleaning up Constantinople of its indecency.  

The third account is that Empress Theodora protected the clergy of the Oriental churches. In 451 AD, the Council of Chalcedon was held. Whatever it may be, the Council of Chalcedon favored the Eastern Orthodox group, and thus the Emperor and his forces attacked the Oriental group. Many clergy and people became martyrs. Therefore, those who had a church in town would be exiled from it and would flee underground. Only the clergy of the Chalcedonian churches would be allowed to conduct services in Churches. (Before this time, it was one Church — there was no Oriental or Eastern.)  

First, one would think Empress Theodora would be aligned with her husband; however, that wasn’t the case, just as Rahab saved the Jewish spies who hid in her home. Many exiled bishops came to Theodora. She created a home for those who were persecuted in the palace of Hormisdas, which later became a monastery. She had many monks and bishops under her care. 

Second, Theodora not only created a haven for bishops and clergy next to her home, but she also made appointments to Patriarchal sees like Alexandria and Constantinople. Thus, when the Patriarch of Alexandria died, she had a monk who believed in the Oriental position to be the Patriarch of Alexandria. He was only there for a year and was exiled. He came back to Constantinople.

Third, Theodora also sent her missionaries to Nubia (modern-day Sudan). Her mission team got there first, before her husband’s mission team. Thus, she was able to have Nubians under the same beliefs of the Oriental Church. 

Fourth, she supported Bishop Jacob Baradaeus to travel and preach the word. He, with two other bishops, ordained bishops and priests, which saved the Church. 

In 548 AD, Empress Theodora died. Through her actions, she played a part in saving the Oriental Church in allowing the church to spread its teachings through the lands.

If Empress Theodora didn’t have the best background, she changed her life around and became an advocate for the Church. She cared for the poor and those who had no hope, like women slaves. She protected the Oriental clergy by giving them refuge and allowed them to preach the faith’s teachings.

There is something remarkable about her life - which mirrors the narratives or accounts in the OT. First, when Justinian marries her — it has a hint of Hosea who married a woman of a bad reputation. Second, Empress Theodora reminds me of Rahab, who hid the Jewish spies. Third, she reminds me of Queen Esther, who saved her people.

Empress Theodora protected the Church as much as she could. 

Holy mother Theodora, pray to God for us!

Asha Mathai is acting Vice President of Axia Women and a student at St. Vladimir’s Seminary.

Asha Mathai