Chasing Justinian & Theodora

Justinian & TheodoraI spend most of my “work” hours outside the classroom reading World History textbooks these days – not to evaluate them, but to absorb enough content to effectively run my classroom.

I don’t actually mind; I like the whole “learning” thing. I know some general history and I’ve picked up enough random knowledge over the years that I don’t feel completely ignorant – at least not constantly. Still, it’s a legit challenge – every day, every chapter, every thoughtful student question to which I have only the vaguest idea how to respond.

The textbook I inherited is not my favorite, but it sometimes catches my attention with rhetoric like this:

“Then, in 533 C.E… with the empire’s borders reasonably secure, a new emperor, Justinian, tried to reconquer western territory in a last futile effort to restore an empire of Rome. He was somber, autocratic, and prone to grandiose ideas.”

Well that’s rather poetic. And it gets better:

“A contemporary historian… described him as ‘at once villainous and amenable; as people say colloquially, a moron. He was never truthful with anyone, but always guileful in what he said and did, yet easily hoodwinked by any wanted to deceive him.’”

OK, full disclosure: when I first read that bit, I immediately thought of a certain current political leader and wondered if there were enough similarities to justify a snarky blog post – writing about one while actually talking about the other. The kind of highbrow stuff for which I’m damn near famous.  

Then came the clincher:

“The emperor was also heavily influenced by his power-hungry wife Theodora, a courtesan connected with Constantinople’s horse-racing world. Theodora stiffened Justinian’s resolve… and pushed the plans for expansion.”

You may find these summaries a bit loaded, and you’d be right. But such broad, judgmental strokes are not fatal flaws so much as necessary compromises. We’re covering 10,000ish years in roughly 160 class periods; there’s simply not time to debate or analyze every individual or circumstance. Yes, we examine contrasting points of view and practice all the usual social studies skills – but we save that stuff for debating whether the Mongols were “barbarians” or inferring motives for the Crusades. Justinian and his bride are minor figures in the grand narrative, and for them to have any meaning at all, someone has to frame them memorably and then move on.

Still, they caught my attention. I looked them up in the textbook I actually like and discovered that Justinian merited only a passing mention. Theodora was omitted completely. A third text doesn’t name either of them.


The next step, of course, was Wikipedia. (I’ll pause and give some of you a moment to regain your composure.)

Say what you like about the world’s largest online encyclopedia, but eight times out of ten, Wikipedia has just enough information, front-loaded with the most important bits, to scratch that academic itch. I wouldn’t cite them for my doctoral thesis, but if you’re trying to understand the Green Corn Rebellion or figure out how many different Mesopotamian rulers called themselves “Sargon” at some point, it’s a helluva place to start.

And no, I’m not on their payroll. I wish.

In this case, though, the site did its job too well. The more I learned about Justinian and Theodora, the further I drifted from my safe, general overview of the Byzantine Empire. Two days and a 70+ page color-coded, cut’n’pasted Word docx later and I’m still on this dysfunctional rabbit trail near their woods, uncertain how to leave but unable to get closer.

Justinian & TheodoraTwo separate histories of Justinian and Theodora were written during their rule. That’s great, except that they disagree repeatedly, and parts of each are difficult to swallow even without contradictory evidence. Oh – and they were written by the same guy. Other than that, we have only official reports and third-party accounts and the usual never-quite-enough-ness of history. Of such bizarre threads is history sometimes woven.

Justinian was often called “the emperor who never sleeps.” He was passionately committed to doing God’s will, but comfortable utilizing great brutality in the process. He came closer than any other ruler to restoring the Roman Empire which had fallen centuries before (leaving only the eastern half – the Byzantines – although they thought of themselves simply as Romans). He devoted untold hours attempting to personally resolve theological disputes fracturing the church. He compiled and clarified centuries of contradictory and jumbled Roman statutes and legal precedents, editing the whole mess down to a single manageable volume to bring stability to the courts and consistency to the universities. He’s remembered as the Byzantine Empire’s greatest ruler, one of its biggest heroes, and one of its worst oppressors.

How can you not love him already?

Theodora is even better. The woman who would become his queen began life as the daughter of – wait for it – a bear-keeper. How does one make a living keeping bears, you may well ask? Well, he worked for the Greens at the Hippodrome. Where they held the chariot races. Against the Blues. And seemingly orchestrated other entertainment as well, some portion of which presumably involved bears. These events could also be a form of political protest, or an expression of violent rivalry between social classes. Unless maybe they couldn’t. 

No one’s sure what happened to the Reds or Whites, but they were probably absorbed by the Blues and the Greens, or simply fell out of popularity over time. They definitely weren’t there for the riots where the crowds chanted “Nike! Nike! Nike!” until Justinian had his soldiers block the exits and slaughter them all with swords. Or maybe he bribed the Blues to leave first and only 30,000 Greens died. He’d always favored the Blues. Unless he killed them all, I mean.  

I’m not making any of this up.

As a young woman, Theodora had become an actress and a… naughty mime of some sort? – seducing and having sex-for-money with men of means well-before her 16th birthday. Other than being particularly good at it, none of this was considered unusual or shocking, although it didn’t do much for her social status in the eyes of respectable people. Then again, what does one expect from the daughter of a bear-keeper?

That’s a real question. I have no idea what would have been expected.

Theodora converted to Christianity in her late teens and became a humble cloth-maker, eventually somehow meeting Justinian. The ruler-to-be had to wait for his first wife to die, and then change some laws so he could legally marry Theodora, although that didn’t prevent some pre-marital scoodlypoopin’. Theodora was brilliant and creative and stubborn and beautiful. She served as unofficial co-ruler with Justinian, promoting legal protections for women, strengthening punishments for those who abused the weak, and opening a home for former prostitutes who wanted to clean up their lives.

At the same time, she demanded absurdly self-debasing rituals from any who wished to enter her presence. She involved herself in religious disputes, even when it meant opposing her husband. Theodora also had a lot to do with that “kill all the protestors” thing above.

She was not what you might call ‘demure.’

J & TSo what started as fleeting curiosity over a comment in Chapter 10 has taken over my life temporarily, with little to show for it. At some point I’m going to need to let this go and get back to the essentials. I have classes to teach, after all.

But not yet.

My goal here isn’t to make sense of Justinian or Theodora – I’m not sure I can, although I’ll probably write something about them eventually. Right now, though, I share this tangent as a reminder of how complicated basic narratives can become once you shift perspective or gain new information. It’s sobering that for all of our compiled knowledge, research, and analysis, we can’t even say with any certainty what it was like for Theodora to grow up in a world of gladiatorial combat – unless it was actually more of a vaudeville/variety show – which might actually have been a circus – or a strip club – or NASCAR.

Or some combination of these. As long as bears were involved.

And let’s not forget that different times and places and people and events took place in different times and places and involved different people and events. Sure, there are human universals – people fall in love, kill one another for power, favor those most like themselves, etc.  But other fundamental realities are radically different from era to era, and from place to place. The relation of parent to child, the role of faith in economic interactions, assumptions about diseases, food, or sex – these sorts of things are unpredictable when you jump contexts. They’re often hard to understand even once you’re aware of them.

Going deeper at this point would mean reading a few actual books, then patient research on my own. I might need to travel a bit, consult with experts, and immerse myself in learning the times, the cultures, the language, the –

You get the idea.

That won’t be happening any time soon. I’m trying to finish off the Byzantines so we can wrap up the Islamic Empire, give some context to the Crusades, and start the Renaissance only a week later than I’d hoped. And in that context, Justinian and Theodora simply aren’t that important. I just don’t have the time to spend on them – not if I’m going to keep up with the rest of my priorities. They’ll simply have to wait.


A bear-keeper?

Maybe just a few more days.

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