Theodora (Empress) (d. 548) [Syr. Orth.]

Raised as a child acrobat in the circus, Theodora married the future emperor Justinian I in 523. Upon the death of his uncle Justin I in 527, the couple ascended the throne together. An empress of immensely strong character, Theodora was known for her sympathetic support for the dissenting Miaphysite Christians, persecuted under Justin I and Justinian in their campaigns on behalf of a Chalcedonian imperial orthodoxy. To the exiled church leaders and monks, Theodora provided financial help and protection. She also housed the exiled patriarchs in the imperial palace of Hormisdas in Constantinople during the extensive but ultimately fruitless theological debates sponsored by Justinian. She supported the missionary activities of Yaʿqub Burdʿoyo and Theodore of Edessa, during which the foundations of a separated Oriental Orthodox church were laid, and particularly the nascent Syr. Orth. Church. She remains a revered figure among the Syr. Orth. to this day.

The most important evidence for Theodora’s life and activities comes from two writers who knew her personally: the notoriously scathing portrait of the Greek historian Procopius in his ‘Anecdota’ and the sympathetic depiction offered by the Syr. bp. and historian Yuḥanon of Ephesus in both his ‘Lives of the Eastern Saints’ and his Ecclesiastical History. Subsequent W.-Syr. tradition transformed her story into a hagiographical romance, claiming she was the chaste daughter of a Miaphysite priest from Mabbug (or Kallinikos), whom Justinian met while on military campaign in the east and married against the will of her father. She is the subject of a play in Arabic by Pawlos Behnam (translated into Syriac by Yuḥanon Dolabani).


  • H.-G.  Beck, Kaiserin Theodora und Prokop: Der Historiker und sein Opfer (1986).
  • R. Browning, Justinian and Theodora (1971).
  • D.  Daube, ‘The marriage of Justinian and Theodora. Legal and theological issues’, Catholic University Law Review 16 (1968), 380–99.
  • J. A. S.  Evans, The Empress Theodora: Partner of Justinian (2002).
  • C.  Foss, ‘The Empress Theodora’, Byzantion 72 (2002), 141–176.
  • S. A.  Harvey, ‘Theodora the ‘believing queen’: A study in Syriac historiographical tradition’, Hugoye 4.2 (2001).
  • C.  Pazdernik, ‘Our most pious consort given us by God: Dissident reactions to the partnership of Justinian and Theodora, AD 525–549’, Classical Antiquity 13 (1994), 256–81.

How to Cite This Entry

Susan Ashbrook Harvey , “Theodora (Empress),” in Theodora (Empress), edited by Sebastian P. Brock, Aaron M. Butts, George A. Kiraz and Lucas Van Rompay,

Footnote Style Citation with Date:

Susan Ashbrook Harvey , “Theodora (Empress),” in Theodora (Empress), edited by Sebastian P. Brock, Aaron M. Butts, George A. Kiraz and Lucas Van Rompay (Gorgias Press, 2011; online ed. Beth Mardutho, 2018),

Bibliography Entry Citation:

Harvey, Susan Ashbrook. “Theodora (Empress).” In Theodora (Empress). Edited by Sebastian P. Brock, Aaron M. Butts, George A. Kiraz and Lucas Van Rompay. Digital edition prepared by David Michelson, Ute Possekel, and Daniel L. Schwartz. Gorgias Press, 2011; online ed. Beth Mardutho, 2018.

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