This is a chick you’ve probably never heard about. Her name was Theodora, Greek for “Gift of God.” She was born on the literal bottom rung of the social ladder and grew up to be the most powerful woman in the world. I’m not talking super powers here, I’m talking, by her own force of will, she climbed and fought her way to the top. The “top” in this case is the co-leader of the Byzantine Empire.
Let me explain a bit here: The Byzantine Empire was the continuation of the Eastern half of the Roman Empire. When the west fell to barbarians, the East continued on and thrived for another 1,000 years.
Theodora was born to a family of circus performers and back in that day, a circus performer was a juggler, dancer, actor, standup comedian, stripper and hooker. Not a good, wholesome upbringing. She started her career helping out her sisters and then started entertaining clients herself at about the age of eleven. Later she became known for her racy but comedic burlesque dances. One thing that was sure, because we are told by several sources, friend and foe alike, was that she had a wit sharper than any knife. She had an amazing intellect, fierce eyes and was by all accounts, very beautiful.
She eventually led a life of what could be described as a high class courtesan and shacked up with a rich douche down in North Africa. But, like all rich douches, he was a total jerk and dumped her, leaving her high and dry, stranded in the middle of North Africa. So, she stuck out her thumb and leg and hitchhiked all the way back to Constantinople. The only reason she made it was because she had help from churches along the way and she even started traveling with some priests and monks. During this very long and hard journey, she became converted to Christianity. (technically she was always Christian, but now she was truly converted.) This wasn’t just some “thing” with her. She became a life long Christian. Later on she would protect the priests that helped her. They were a sect of Christianity that the government didn’t approve of.
So, she finally made it back to Constantinople. Back then, it was like New York, L.A, and D.C. all wrapped into one. All the cool people were there and if you weren’t there, then you just weren’t cool. That explains why so many tried to take it by force.
Once she made it back, she met a young politician named Justinian. They fell in love. Even her enemies didn’t doubt their love. A certain jerkwad named Procopius wrote a scandalous history about her and Justinian accusing her of everything…except disloyalty to her husband. Even this small, bitter man had to admit that they were genuinely in love. This young politician’s uncle was then selected to be the next emperor and when the old coot died, guess who was next in line? Justinian. So, she became empress of the most powerful empire in the world at that time.
Well, her husband was very powerful, and he set about reconquring the western half of the empire but this took a lot of money and so he raised taxes and made a bunch of other jerk laws that ticked EVERYONE off. At this time there were essentially two political parties. (sound familiar?) Blues and Greens. So, imagine a president so unpopular that Democrats and Republicans hate him. Both parties gathered in the race track, where politics was handled, like if our Senate met at a NASCAR track and began to riot like a bunch of berserkers. They tore through the streets burning everything, including a hospital…full of people. They even burned down the largest church in the city. While the whole city was being ripped apart and burned to ash, the rioters began to head toward the palace, swearing to remove Justinian from his throne. Now, Justinian and his advisers advised themselves to beat feet as fast as possible and get out of dodge.
Theodora would have none of that. She had clawed her way to the top and wasn’t about to give up her position. So, she cracked her knuckles, spit and stood in front of the fleeing emperor and general. She told them in no uncertain terms to cowboy up get some cahones like real men. She told them that she’d rather die as empress than live in shame.
Suitably ashamed, the men gathered their courage, lured all the rioters to the NASCAR track, shut the doors and then used the army to slaughter every one of them. A bit brutal, perhaps, but it was that or let their empire be destroyed by a bunch of Occupy Constantinople crazies.
She had her own court. While her husband carried on all the business of the empire, she was doing the same. She shared equal power with him. (some would say more.) She had her own money, her own advisers and everything else she needed. People knew not to cross her. She had a very short temper.
She wasn’t all armor and nails, she had a soft spot as well. She opened up a safe house for reformed prostitutes and made laws to protect womens’ rights. She also issued laws to protect Christians of other sects. Justinian was too busy trying to find weapons of mass destruction in Italy to really notice what she was doing. It was a kind of “close your eyes when I say so, darling” relationship.
She was a powerful woman that wanted women treated like humans, wanted her husband to succeed and be happy and wanted to remain on top of the world. She was a former prostitute that remembered what it was like to be poor and ashamed and never wanted to be in that position again. She was a tough chica that took guff from no one. It would be many hundreds and hundreds of years before the world saw a woman as powerful as her.