The Byzantine Empire survived the turmoil that had wrecked the western Roman Empire despite having some pretty unimpressive leadership. Leo was the first emperor to use Greek for his legislation, but had little notable impact on the big picture. His successor was Zeno who was newly in post when the western Empire was ended. He consolidated the situation in the East but there was still instability at the top with other candidates for the throne creating problems. Zeno’s reign was briefly interrupted by the reign of Basiliscus. He was finally succeed by Anastasius, who owed his elevation to the favour of Zeno’s widow. This was hardly the most legitimate of grounds for rule, and to add to the problem he contrived to approach death childless and with no obvious heir.
He placed the issue in the hands of God and informed Him in a prayer that he would nominate the next person who entered the room. That person turned out to be a 70 year old called Justin who was in charge of the palace guard, and with no connection whatever to the royal family. Indeed Justin was the most unlikely imaginable candidate for the role. He was an illiterate peasant from near the Danube border in what is today Bulgaria. He and some friends and relatives including his nephew Justinian had upped sticks and travelled to Constantinople to join the army in the hope of greater riches than were available back home.
Quite how he managed to get himself onto the throne is something of a mystery, but it seems that acting quickly and being in charge of the muscle must have been enough and Justin emerged as Justin I. Theodoric managed to run Italy through the use of educated courtiers, and Justin did much the same with the effective administration of the empire being carried out by Proclus. He also relied heavily on his intelligent and energetic nephew Justinian.
The new reign was surprisingly popular. Anastasius had been of somewhat unorthodox religious views, and Justin and his nephews presented themselves as the champions of the true unadulterated faith. Justinian made a point of bestowing lavish gifts on monks. He also funded elaborate games. The previous regime might have had questionable spiritual practices, but it had accumulated an impressive stock of treasure which was now used to put a favourable gloss on the new ruler.
There are two versions of the reign of Justin. According to the account by Procopius, he was rapidly supplanted as the true power in the kingdom by Justinian. This is not universally accepted by later historians as it doesn’t fit with other evidence. Gibbon takes the Procooius story but only applies it to the last few months of Justin’s reign. This is quite a nice compromise because the character of Justinian really fits the kind of person who is determined to get his own way and who might well undermine the authority of a weak emperor.
He certainly did have some influence. He got the law changed to suit his personal life for a start. He wanted to marry a famous circus performer called Theodora. This was both scandalous and illegal. Senators were forbidden from marrying actresses who were considered to be little better than prostitutes.
Theodora does sound like the kind of woman you might want to change the law for. She was stunningly good looking and had a personality to match. She also had a reputation for being broadminded about who she would exert her charms over, and how she’d go about it. Pairing up with the young heir to the throne must have seemed perfectly logical to her. But the obvious parallel with Marilyn Monroe and President Kennedy doesn’t really work too well. Theodora combined looks with backbone. She was no trophy, she was an equal. All of which made it even more scandalous both at the time and in the light of historical judgement. Only today can we begin to treat someone like Theodora as a human being rather than some monstrous aberration from the true subservient role of women. That being said, Gibbon like most historians simply cannot help but respect her.
Justinian in any case was smitten, and once the regulations had been altered by order of Justin he instantly married Theodora and started what was to be a life long partnership. Theodora took to power like Winnie the Pooh took to honey plunging straight in to using it to further causes she believed in. She founded a home for reformed prostitutes on the banks of the Bosphorus. Later in life she would successfully push for laws to give more women more rights. (This makes her the first woman in history I can think of to do so – though I am happy to be corrected on this if anyone knows any better.)
She is also supposed to have created her own dungeon where her particular enemies were carted off to be killed or tortured, sometimes by Theodora in person. This does sound a bit like fantasy to me. Indeed it does sound like a very particular kind of fantasy. But Theodora did live in a very different era to ours. It could be that in a man’s world she simply had to be tougher than the average man, and that might have required the use of what would consider to be excessive force. She certainly doesn’t fit the bill for a role model for modern progressive women as she seems to have had a taste for hierarchy and court protocol.
They were young, glamorous, rich, powerful and famous. They were also radical, edgy and transgressive. Think Barak Obama’s daughter running for president after marrying a cocaine dealer, or something like that. Rome had been overrun by barbarians. The Byzantine Empire was going for decadence in a big way.
How did Justinian come into contact with this remarkable woman? We don’t know, but there is one intriguing possibility. Theodora grew up in a family who worked in the circus – which by this time was mainly devoted to chariot racing given that gladiatorial combat was now a thing of the past. She associated particularly with the Blue grouping. The circus races were run as competitions between four teams, the reds, the whites, the blues and the greens. People adopted a colour to support in much the way modern sports fans follow particular teams. But the groups developed into something a bit more than just fan clubs. They began to take on social, religious and political identities as well. They also attracted criminals and chancers from Constantinople’s underground world of the dispossessed and rootless. So they were sort of amalgams of political parties and street gangs as well. The games themselves were funded by and presided over by the Emperor and the Hippodrome where the races took place was adjacent to the palace. The Byzantine Empire may not have had any democratic institutions as such but the crowd did have a way of making its voice heard. No metaphor needed here. It could literally shout at the emperor.
The two big teams were the Greens and the Blues, with the Blues tending to support the Emperor and the Greens tending to be the choice of those lower down the social ladder – though this is a very vague distinction. But they had great potential for disorder and for being manipulated for political ends. They were certainly a big threat to public order at the very least, and imposed their own rules on the city at night. It would have been expedient for someone like Justinian to keep tabs on what was going on. Maybe his connections with the underworld were quite close. It has often been suggested that there was some connection between the Kennedys and the Mob. Who knows, but you can see why it would make sense. Likewise, who at the time would have been surprised to find Justinian having links with key figures in the Constantinople mob. And maybe that was where he found his empress.
Certainly when Justin died and Justinian took full power in his own name he elevated Theodora to a level that no previous empress had ever occupied. It was probably mainly her personality and his deep love for her that motivated this. But just maybe, she also had connections that made her indispensable in other ways too.
Justinian was crowned emperor on the 9th of August 527. It was to be a reign – or in many ways a coreign – like no other in the history of the Byzantine Empire.