One of my favourite figures from history is the Empress Theodora. Her life story is sometimes grim, but truly epic. She was born the daughter of a bear-trainer, and rose to become mistress of the Byzantine empire, the most powerful woman in the world, and a saint.
In the 19th century her life story was made into a play, and she was portrayed by one of the first globally famous actresses, Sarah Bernhardt. But in the 20th century Byzantine history fell out of fashion, and Theodora fell from historical megastar into undeserved obscurity.
The young Theodora’s father plied his unusual trade at the Constantinople Hippodrome. His trained bears probably featured in intermission shows between chariot races. In the sixth century, this was the most exciting place on the planet, but it’s not perfect for raising children.
Her mum was an actress and dancer, and Theodora’s dad died when she was just four. At a young age, she went to work in a brothel. This doesn’t necessarily mean sex – Byzantine brothels employed stage performers and waitresses, but it was probably pretty grim.
She was about 16 when she travelled to North Africa (part of the Byzantine Empire) as the companion of a high-ranking official, who got bored of her, then dumped her thousands of miles from home. She made her way home via Alexandria and Anticoch, undergoing a religious conversion en route.
That journey lasted years, and it must have been terrifying, but Theodora used it to forge connections in high society. We’re not sure exactly what she did we she got back in Constantinople, but somehow she met the young prince Justinian, heir to the Imperial throne.
He wanted to marry her, but there was a law against important people marrying actresses. Justininian got his father, the Emperor, to CHANGE THE LAW. What was so amazing about her to drive him to do this? We don’t know, but history proved she was worth the effort.
In 532AD, riots in Constantinople threatened to topple Justinian from the throne. A huge crowd gathered in the Hippodrome ready to crown a new emperor and storm the palace. Justinian was ready to flee. Theodora was having none of it.
She told her husband "Those who have worn the crown should never survive its loss. Never will I see the day when I am not saluted as empress." Steeled by his wife’s words, Justinian came up with a plan, and bribed half the rebels, who slunk away with the money. His troops slaughtered the rest.
He went on the conquer vast new territories, with Theodora ruling in his place while he was on his travels. Many officials resented her authority, but she put them in their place, forcing them the prostrate themselves and kiss their own feet.
She fought corruption, promoted new (good) generals and oversaw construction of the spectacular Hagia Sophia cathedral – the largest building in the world at that time. When the Pope (Silverius) refused to obey one of her orders, she had him replaced.
When she died, Justinian was distraught at the loss of his co-regent. She was buried in the Church of the Holy Apostles which stood for a thousand years before the empire fell, and it was demolished by the city’s new rulers.
But her legacy lives on ins surprising ways. The Hagia Sophia still stands, and even finds its way in games like Assassin’s creed.
Or if you happen to catch 'Taken' when it's being repeated on TV or Netflix, take a moment to pause during that incredible rooftop chase, and think about the life of a truly remarkable woman…