Empress Theodora (r. 527-548) was a champion for women’s rights, at least by the low standards of the 6th-century. She worked with her husband, Emperor Justinian (r. 527-565), to reform laws concerning adultery and divorce in ways that gave women better treatment in legal battles, and she also gave brides more protections over the dowries they brought with them into a marriage. Theodora also made sure that rapists, as well as their accomplices and enablers, were eligible for the death penalty, and she encouraged efforts to root out sex trafficking and other forms of forced prostitution in the empire. The 6th-century historian, Procopius, described one major campaign that Theodora waged against such brothels that operated their businesses through slavery and compulsion. He wrote, “They cleansed the State from the pollution of these brothels, drove out the procurers, and set free these women who had been driven to evil courses by their poverty, providing them with a sufficient maintenance, and enabling them to live chaste as well as free” (Procopius, The Buildings, I.9). Procopius’s comment that the rescued women were given the chance to live a chaste and free-of-charge life was not a rhetorical trick. In fact, Theodora reportedly renovated a palace on the Anatolian side of the Bosporus Strait as a place for these women to live out a better life.
Procopius, in a second book called The Secret History, claimed that around 500 of the former prostitutes gained access to Theodora’s special home for troubled women. The catch, however, was that the empress set up the place to be a convent (curiously named Repentance), and therefore the rescued women staying there were required to live as chaste as nuns. Yet, in exchange for taking the vow of chastity, these women were reportedly able to live in an environment of extreme luxury. Procopius described the lavishness of the compound that Theodora and Justinian set aside for the former prostitutes, writing, “these Sovereigns have endowed this convent with an ample income of money, and have added many buildings most remarkable for their beauty and costliness, to serve as a consolation for the women, so that they should never be compelled to depart from the practice of virtue in any manner whatsoever” (Procopius, The Buildings, I.9). The luxury of the Repentance, nevertheless, was not enough to convince all of the rescued women to remain celibate and cloistered for the rest of their lives. According to Procopius’ Secret History, several of the 500 former prostitutes who were brought to the Repentance were later known to have run away from the compound so as to restart their lives on their own terms.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Byzantine mosaic in the Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna, depicting Empress Theodora (6th century), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Secret History by Procopius, translated by G. A. Williamson and Peter Sarris. New York: Penguin Classics, 1966, 2007.
- The Complete Procopius Anthology: The Wars of Justinian, The Secret History of the Court of Justinian, The Buildings of Justinian. Compiled and Published by Bybliotech, 2013.