Her father trained bears; her mother danced bare.
Yet she grew up to marry an Emperor and become one of the most renowned and respected women in history.
Her name was Theodora.
She was born in the year 500, though history is unsure where.The main historical reference for her life is a contemporary hack called Procopius; he wrote three accounts of her life, and they all contradicted each other. So our main source is completely unreliable.
But we do know that when her father died, Theodora, her mother and her two sisters were rendered destitute and found work in a Constantinople brothel.
According to Procopius she made a name for herself with her exotic portrayal of Leda and the Swan, first performing a striptease, then lying on her back while her support act scattered seeds on her body. A flock of geese were then brought in to peck them off her. A sort of corn porn.
But Procopius goes further, alleging that she entertained ten men at a time, and when she’d exhausted them would then satisfy their thirty slaves as well. Frankly, I trust Procopius as a source as much as I’d trust a French gossip magazine.
At sixteen Theodora went to North Africa on the arm of the governor of Pentapolis. But he abused her so badly that she left him and went to Alexandria, where she found religion and converted to Christianity.
On her return to Constantinople in 522 she gave up geese and governors and settled for a quiet life spinning wool near the palace.
But as fate would have it, she attracted the attention of the emperor’s nephew, Justinian. She was lovely, Theodora; he soon came to adora.
But the law forbade high born men marrying actresses – even after they had renounced geese.
So when Justinian took the throne in 525, he simply repealed the law and married her.
He showed great foresight. Historians agree that it was Theodora’s courage and decisiveness that saved Justinian’s reign.
During the Nika riots in 532, a huge mob ran amok in the city and were about to proclaim a new emperor. Justinian prepared to flee Constantinople. But Theodora urged him to fight it out, reminding him that “purple makes a fine shroud” – meaning it would be better to die fighting as an emperor than to live the rest of his life as a penniless exile.
Justinian found his nerve. He ordered his loyal troops to attack the demonstrators in the Hippodrome and after fierce fighting they prevailed.
He kept his purple and never forgot that it was Theodora who saved his throne.
After the revolt, Justinian rebuilt Constantinople and made it the most splendid city in the world; today the Hagia Sophia is one of the great architectural wonders of the world.
He treated Theodora as his equal; she in turn used her influence to affect real change in the empire. She had laws passed that prohibited forced prostitution; she expanded the rights of women in divorce and property ownership; she instituted the death penalty for rape; and established basic property rights for women right across the Eastern Empire. She also forbade the killing of a wife who committed adultery – a custom that had been legal until then.
It is why she is now considered perhaps the greatest woman in the history of the Roman Empire.
As a result of her efforts, the status of women in the Byzantine Empire was elevated far above that of women in the Middle East and the rest of Europe.
Theodora died of an unspecified cancer on 28 June 548 at the age of 48; Justinian was bereft.
It was a remarkable life and a remarkable legacy; sadly, her reforms are still as badly needed in much of the world even today as they were then.
The Sultan’s wife was another remarkable woman, called Hurrem. I’ve just finished a brand new presentation for my book about her: HAREM. It’s on a new medium called Slideshare.