Ah, the luxury of hot water! Ever since the magic of warm and soothing water was discovered by humanity long, long ago, cultures the world over have cherished the pleasant experience of relaxing in a bath. It was then as it is today—and all classes of society, from rich to poor, can agree on the greatness of baths, in all their various forms. If you, too, love soaking in a bath, then you have something in common with the mightiest woman of 6th-century Europe—Empress Theodora (r. 527-548).
Theodora was the other half (perhaps the better half) to Emperor Justinian of Constantinople (r. 527-565). Theirs was a true love story, as Justinian went against his family and even changed the laws of the land so that he could marry Theodora, who had a disreputable background as an actress who allegedly dabbled in adult entertainment, and such actresses had been banned from marrying men of Constantinople’s senatorial rank up to that point in time. Despite the resistance to their love, Theodora became Justinian’s mistress, then his wife, and finally his empress.
Although Empress Theodora left her career in acting and entertainment behind for her new life as a royal, she nevertheless continued the strict beauty upkeep regimen that had made her a star on stage. According to the 6th-century historian, Procopius, the empress’ secrets to her emperor-attracting looks was her love of bathing, accompanied by plenty of beauty sleep and a hearty diet. Procopius, in his often libelously critical Secret History, wrote of the empress’ bathing habits, saying “To her bodily needs she devoted quite unnecessary attention, though never enough to satisfy her. She was in a great hurry to get into her bath, and very unwilling to get out again.” (Secret History, chapter 14). Similarly, Procopius commented with much exaggeration on the empresses’ reported napping habits, claiming “Again and again she would sleep for hours on end, by day till nightfall and by night till sunrise” (Secret History, chapter 14). It was good to be the empress.
Theodora remained by Emperor Justinian’s side until her early death by cancer or some other illness in 548. Justinian would continue to rule Constantinople and its empire until his own death in 565. He never remarried, and Justinian’s reign was far less productive in the absence of Theodora.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Mosaic from the Basilique Saint-Vital de Ravenne, c. 547, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and pxhere.com).
- The Secret History by Procopius, translated by G. A. Williamson and Peter Sarris. New York: Penguin Classics, 1966, 2007.