The holy and right-believing Empress Theodora (c. 500-548) was empress of the Roman Empire and the wife of Emperor Justinian the Great. Along with her husband, she is a saint in the Orthodox Church, commemorated on November 14.
There are two histories concerning the early life of Theodora. The best known account is the Secret History allegedly written by Procopius. Its authorship is questioned by most scholars because it was discovered in the Vatican three centuries after the empress's death and the style of the writing bears no resemblance to Procopius's other works. According to this account, Theodora was born into the lowest class of Byzantine society, the daughter of a bearkeeper for the circus. Critics of this work dismiss it as pornographic and western propaganda.
The second source was written by Bishop Eusebius, a contemporary of Theodora. Eusebius states that she was the daughter of a Roman senator who died during Theodora's early childhood. After her father's death, Theodora and her mother lived in Egypt, where her mother died soon after. According to Eusebius, Theodora spent the remaining part of her young life in an Egyptian monastery, which accounted for her sympathetic views of Monophysitism.
It is believed by some scholars that sometime before meeting Justinian she became an adherent of the Monophysite Christianity, which claims Christ was of one nature, and remained their partisan throughout her life. Others instead argue that her association with Monophysitism is largely because of Justinian's putting her in charge of courting the Monophysites' reunion with the Chalcedonian party in the Church, and so while remaining Chalcedonian herself, she was pastorally favorable toward the non-Chalcedonians.
In 523 Theodora married Justinian, the magister militum praesentalis in Constantinople. On his ascension to the Roman Imperial throne in 527 as Justinian I, he made her joint ruler of the empire, and appears to have regarded her as a full partner in their rulership. This proved to be a wise decision. A strong-willed woman, she showed a notable talent for governance. In the Nika riots of 532, her advice and leadership for a strong (and militant) response caused the riot to be quelled and probably saved the empire. She also helped to mitigate the breach in Christianity that loomed large over her time; she probably had a large part in Justinian's efforts to reconcile the Monophysites to orthodoxy.
According to Procopius, Theodora was Byzantium's first noted proponent and practitioner of abortion; she also advocated the rights of married women to commit adultery, and the rights of women to be socially serviced, helping to advance protections and "delights" for them; and was also something of a voice for prostitutes and the downtrodden.
Other scholars (and those who venerate Theodora as a saint) instead regard Theodora's achievements for women not as those of a modern feminist who encouraged abortion or adultery but rather as those of a truly egalitarian ruler who strove to give women the same legal rights as men. Theodora freed prostitutes from their pimps, established homes for them, and passed laws prohibiting forced prostitution. She also advocated granting women more rights in divorce cases, allowing women to own and inherit property, enacting the death penalty for rape, and allowing noblemen to marry women from lower classes. These changes raised women's status far above that current in the Western portion of the Empire.
Theodora died of cancer (probably breast cancer) before the age of 50, some 20 years before Justinian died. Her body was buried in the Church of the Holy Apostles, one of the splendid churches the emperor and empress had built in Constantinople. Both Theodora and Justinian are represented in beautiful mosaics that exist to this day in the Church of San Vitale at Ravenna in northern Italy, which was completed a year before her death.