In 330 the Roman emperor Constantine I founded a second Roman capital at Byzantium (site of present-day Istanbul, Turkey). In recognition of its founder, the city was named Constantinople. When Rome fell in 476, what remained of the once great Roman Empire became known as the Byzantine Empire, with Constantinople as its capital. Disputes between rival political and religious groups almost immediately threatened the existence of this empire. It was brought back to power by the emperor Justinian I, who was crowned in 527. In addition to legal reforms, great achievements in Byzantine art and architecture marked his rule. The glories of his reign, however, were not his alone. His wife, Theodora, ruled as his partner. Her intelligence and courage helped save and advance the Byzantine Empire.
Details of Theodora's early life are somewhat sketchy. While a few early historians believe she was born on the island of Crete off the southern coast of Greece, others list her birthplace as Syria. Her father, Acacius, was a bear trainer at the hippodrome in Constantinople. The hippodrome was a gigantic stadium where chariot races, circuses, and plays were held. After her father's death, Theodora began to work on the stage in the hippodrome as a mime. She soon became a full-fledged actress. At the time, "actress" was synonymous with "prostitute." On the stage, she was noted for her nude entertainment. Off the stage, she was noted for her wild parties.
When she was 16, Theodora traveled to northern Africa as the companion of an official named Hecebolus. She stayed with him for almost four years before heading back to Constantinople. On the way, she settled briefly in Alexandria, the luxurious capital of Egypt. While there, she adopted the beliefs of Monophysitism. This form of Christianity held that Jesus of Nazareth was wholly divine, not both human and divine as orthodox Christians believed. Because they went against accepted Church teachings, Monophysites were scorned by other Christians.
After her conversion to Monophysitism, Theodora gave up her former lifestyle. She returned to Constantinople in 522, settled in a house near the palace, and made a living spinning wool. It was here that she drew the attention of Justinian. He was 40 years old at the time, almost twice her age. Justinian wanted to marry her, but as heir to the throne of his uncle, Emperor Justin I, he could not. An old Roman law forbade government officials from marrying actresses. Justin finally repealed this law the following year, and Justinian and Theodora were married in 525.
On April 4, 527, Justin crowned Justinian and Theodora emperor and empress. When Justin died in August of that year, the couple assumed control of the Byzantine Empire. Although they did not officially rule as joint monarchs, they in fact did. Justinian allowed Theodora to share his throne and influence his decisions because he recognized her abilities and intelligence.
It was during the Nika revolt that Theodora proved her leadership. Two rival political groups existed in the empire — Blues and Greens. Disagreements over Monophysitism and orthodox Christianity had further separated them. In January 532, while staging a chariot race in the hippodrome, these two groups started a riot. They set many public buildings on fire and proclaimed a new emperor. Unable to control the mob, Justinian and many of his advisors prepared to flee. At a meeting of the government council, Theodora courageously spoke out against leaving the palace. She thought it was better to die as a ruler than to live as nothing. Her determined speech convinced all. Justinian's generals then attacked the hippodrome, killing over 30,000 rebels. Historians agree that her courage saved Justinian's crown.
Following the Nika revolt, Theodora and Justinian rebuilt Constantinople. They transformed it into the most splendid city the world saw for centuries. They built aqueducts, bridges, and more than 25 churches. The greatest of these is the Hagia Sophia, Church of the Holy Wisdom. It is considered to be one of the architectural wonders of the world. Its dome measures 108 feet in diameter and its crown rises 180 feet above the ground. Rich marbles and mosaics of emerald green, rose, white, blood red, black, and silver decorate its walls. In the fifteenth century it became an Islamic mosque; today it is a museum.
Theodora influenced Justinian's legal and spiritual reforms. She had laws passed that prohibited forced prostitution and that granted women more rights in divorce cases. She also established homes for prostitutes. Even though Justinian supported orthodox Christianity, Theodora continued to follow Monophysitism. She provided shelter in the palace for Monophysite leaders and founded a Monophysite monastery in Sycae, across the harbor from Constantinople. After her death, Justinian worked to find harmony between the Monophysites and the orthodox Christians in the empire.