Women in Byzantine and Ottoman Society
Lecture given for Swan Hellenic Cruises by The Very Rev. A.C. Bridge
Ladies and Gentlemen. Before I try to say something about women in Byzantine days, and how they fared in Ottoman society, may I just assure you that I know by personal experience how difficult it is to keep awake during lectures in general, let alone lectures in the afternoon just after lunch and I’m sure that I speak for my fellow lecturers too, when I say that, if you want to nod off, do please be my guest!
Meanwhile, to start administering your dose of post-prandial soporific, what about the place of women in Byzantine days, and later under the Ottoman Turks? Well, as is so often the case, history has tended to leave the ordinary women of the day in obscurity to lead their daily lives, bear their children, keep their houses, feed their menfolk, till the fields, and eventually die, unnoticed and unremembered.
This might be taken to mean that history has been written by male chauvinist pigs, were it not for the fact that, on the whole, history treats most ordinary men in much the same way. But at all times and in all societies, a few women have been very much remembered by historians, and their lives and fortunes often reveal pretty well how their unknown sisters were regarded and treated by society. So what I’m going to do is pick a couple of well-remembered women, one who lived in Ottoman days and the other a thousand years earlier in Byzantine times, and briefly tell their stories in the hope that they will reveal what it was like to be a woman in their respective societies. and since the theme of this cruise is ‘the Ottomans and their Empire’, I shall start with the Turkish lady; though just to plunge you all into confusion from the start, she wasn’t Turkish.
She was Russian, the daughter of an Orthodox Priest. She had been captured during a raid into Galicia - the border country between Poland and the Ukraine - and brought back to Istanbul, where she was put up for sale in the slave market; a few facts, which should already reveal something about the way in which women were regarded in Ottoman society. apparently, she was small, fair-haired, blue-eyed and extremely attractive, so that when she came up for sale, there was no lack of bidders, and eventually she was bought for the Sultan’s harem. All this occurred in about 1520 A.D. - the exact date is not known - and the Sultan at the time was Suleiman, later to known as the Magnificent, though at this time he was still a comparatively young man, and had been on the throne for only a couple of years since the death of his father, Selim the Terrible. Her purchase for use in the Sultan’s harem might easily have been the end of her story, for the chances of her ever attracting Suleiman’s attention were minimal - 200 to one in fact - for he already had about two hundred girls in his harem. This may sound like a classic example of supply wildly outstripping possible demand; but in fact it was modest by the standards of some of Turkey’s Sultans - and even, indeed, the standards of some of their ministers and other wealthy Turks. Some Sultans had as many as 800 girls at their service, and it was said of one of Suleiman’s Grand Viziers, a certain Ayas Pasha, that whereas it had only been by the help of God that Abraham’s seed had been multiplied as the stars of heaven, Ayas Pasha had not done badly on his own; for despite the normal rate of infant mortality, which was huge, when he died, he left 120 living offspring, of whom forty were still in their cradles.
However, to get back to one Russian girl and her chances of attracting Suleiman’s attention, a Genoese ambassador to the court of Suleiman’s father, Sultan Selim, has left an account of the way in which the reigning Sultan chose his bed-fellows.
“When the Sultan decides to go to the Serai of the ladies…..the Chief Eunuch arranges the girls, all beautifully dressed, in line in the courtyard; and when the Sultan has arrived and the door is shut, he and the eunuch move along the line of girls, greeting each one politely as they pass. then, if there is one, who specially pleases him, he puts a handkerchief on her shoulder before walking on with the eunuch to stroll in the garden. Later, he returns to his rooms to dine and sleep. Once in bed, he asks someone to tell the girl to whom he gave is handkerchief, to bring it to him….The next day the Sultan commands that she be given a golden dress, an extra nine aspers a day, and two more personal maids.”
End of quotes, and I must admit that, if I was a woman, I should regard that way of being chosen to be the mother of someone’s children as male-chauvinist piggery of the most loveless and demeaning kind, and the Sultan’s serai as a royal brothel by any other name. Moreover, the fate of those girls, whose shoulders never received a royal handkerchief, confirms me in my opinion; for after a time, when it began to become obvious that some of them were never going to be singled out by the Sultan for his nocturnal attention, as long as they were still of breeding age, they were either given away or sold cheaply to members of his household in need of mothers for their children.
It was a pretty repulsive system. But, of course, not all the girls were treated as either brood mares or filles de joie for a night’s amusement. For instance, before the arrival of the Russian in Suleiman’s harem, he had already had a son by a Montenegrin girl, also captured in a raid and bought as a slave. Here name was Gulbehar or ‘Flower of the Spring’, and by all accounts, Suleiman was genuinely devoted to her; nor was she the only woman in his life, for his mother was still alive at this time, and he adored her too. she had been the daughter of the Khan of the Crimean Tartars before marrying Suleiman’s father, Selim; her name was Hafiza, and by all accounts she was formidable in the extreme ruling the harem with a rod of iron. Luckily for domestic peace and quiet, she thoroughly approved of Gulbehar, upon whose child, like many another grandmother, she doted.
But while these two genuinely loved ladies - Gulbehar virtually Suleiman’s wife, and Hafiza his mother - prove that not all women were treated like tarts or cattle, their existence obviously made the newly-arrived Russian girl’s chances of avoiding one or other such fate even slimmer than they would have been, had the Sultan’s affections not been already so heavily engaged. What made things worse is that apparently Hafiza, his mother, took an instant dislike to the newcomer from Galicia. But notwithstanding all this, she had been there for only a very short time before she managed, not only to attract Suleiman’s attention, but to hold it. Presumably, at first she must have caught his eye because of her looks; but events were soon to prove that, in spite of his mother’s hostility and his affection for Gulbehar, he had fallen hopelessly and lastingly in love. And the same events were to prove too that she was more than a pretty face - much more. In fact, she was highly intelligent, with a will of steel and not over-endowed with scruples. Having seized the advantage, so unexpectedly thrust upon her, she was not going to allow it to slip through her capable little Russian fingers; and this of course, meant that she had a fight on her hands to keep the Sultan’s affection.
It is said that ‘all’s fair in love and war’, but some things are manifestly fairer than others, and some - it seems to me - are not fair at all; and as her ascendancy over Suleiman grew, she was responsible for some pretty appalling things. Although like all other ladies in the Sultan’s harem - she was sheltered from the eyes of the public behind its walls, rumours of her rise to power reached the ears of the small European community in Istanbul, whose members dubbed her ‘la Russelane’. Somehow, this became corrupted to Roxelana, the name by which she is known to history. Of course, that rise to power was gradual, and at first there were some serious obstacles in her way. the most formidable of these were Suleiman’s mother, Hafiza, who - as I have said - couldn’t stand her; Gulbehar, his first love and the mother of his eldest son; and a man named Ibrahim, whom Suleiman had trusted for years, treating him almost as a brother and investing him with almost plenipotential powers as his Grand Vizier. As rivals to her influence over the Sultan, these had to go. The first and most important to oblige her by dying was Suleiman’s mother, and of course there is no way in which Roxelana can be blamed for that; but it suited her book admirably, for Suleiman was deeply upset, and in his grief became even more dependent for sympathy and love upon Roxelana. Gulbehair was the next to go; she was banished from the harem to comfortable retirement in Manisa - the ancient Magnesia - in Asia Minor; and of course, the word ‘banished’ was not used, nor is there any direct evidence that her going was Roxelana’s work; but there is little doubt that she instigated it, and I suppose that one can’t blame her for getting rid of a rival to Suleiman’s affections.
But the fall of Ibrahim, Suleiman’s lifelong friend and minister, was different. he had done her no harm at all, but simply because for years he had been the supreme political influence upon the Sultan’s conduct of affairs, acting almost as if he were the Sultan himself with Suleiman’s entire, if tacit, agreement, Roxelana decided that he, too, had to go. She would brook no rivals. Two things played into her hands: the first and probably the more important, was that by this time she had borne Suleiman three sons, Selim, Bayezid, and Jehangir, and at least one daughter - Mihrimar - maybe more; and of course this had cemented their relationship and reinforced Roxelana’s authority.
With his mother dead and Gulbehar exiled to Manisa, the only woman in his life was the mother of his three youngest sons and a daughter or two. Roxelana. But other things, too, helped her to eliminate Ibrahim: indeed, he himself made her task comparatively easy. For over the years of unquestioned power, he had become over-confident and stupidly boastful, flaunting his power and making a large number of enemies in the process. Meanwhile, if Ibrahim had grown arrogant and over-confident, over the years Suleiman, like other men in similar positions of absolute autocratic power - Stalin is a good recent example - had become more and more paranoid, suspecting everyone of treachery, trusting no one, and succumbing to ever-growing fears of assassination. Upon these fears, Roxelana played with consummate skill, so that, when Ibrahim gave her the chance to strike, she too it without much apparent compunction.
What happened was that Ibrahim had a violent row with Suleiman’s Chief Treasurer, in the year 1535, and as a result decided to get rid of him. Without consulting Suleiman, he accused him of embezzling army funds, and had him arrested. Whether he was guilty or not, it is impossible to say; but since everyone was terrified of offending the all-powerful Ibrahim, the outcome of the trial was a foregone conclusion. Chelebi was convicted, and executed a few days later. But before he died, he wrote a letter to Suleiman accusing Ibrahim of conspiring against the Sultan’s life, of issuing orders as if he himself were Sultan, and of preparing a coup d’etat. Why did Suleiman believe this letter? He had loved and trusted Ibrahim for years. Partly, perhaps, because statements made by men about to die were always treated with great respect; but almost certainly, too, because someone else had prepared the ground for Ibrahim’s downfall., Once again, there is no indisputable evidence that Roxelana was the culprit; but no one then or now has ever doubted that indeed she was. Suleiman invited Ibrahim to dinner. As he entered the gate of the Sultan’s Palace, a gang of four or five deaf mutes attacked and strangled him with a bow string. In the morning, when his corpse was found, it was sewn into a sack and thrown into the Bosphorus. Getting the sak in those days meant a little more than it does today, recession or no recession.
Ibrahim’s murder left Roxelana in charge of everything except on thing; the succession. As I have already said, before her arrival on the scene, Suleiman had had a son by Gulbehar, his first love, and in the normal course of events, being the eldest son he could expect to become Sultan when Suleiman, his father, died. But this, Roxelana, decided would happen only over her dead body. She was determined that her own eldest son, named Selim after his grandfather, should succeed when the time came; and of course this meant that Gulbehar’s son had to go. His name was Mustafa, and by all accounts he was not only a rather splendid individual - brave, intelligent, able, outgoing - but he was also extremely popular - especially with the army - and this made Roxelana’s task a difficult one. But difficulty never deterred her, and she made her move when Suleiman, by now in his seventies and more paranoid than ever, was on campaign with the army in a war with Persia. She had a close ally in the man who had succeeded Ibrahim as Grand Vizier. She got him to write to Suleiman to say that it had come to his ears that Mustafa was plotting his father’s murder with the enthusiastic support of the army, which was fed up with service under an aged Sultan, and longing for a change.
Deeply disturbed, and torn between his duty as a father and his fear of assassination, Suleiman didn’t know what to do. Roxelana did. Mustafa, summoned to his father’s presence, was waylaid by yet another gang of deaf mutes and strangled with a bowstring, as Suleiman poked his head into the tent in which his son was being murdered, urging his killers to finish their grisly task as quickly as possible. Thus Roxelana, the Russian Priest’s daughter, captured in a Turkish raid on her home country and sold as a slave, finally triumphed, and although no one could have know it at the time, settled the fate of Ottoman Turkey. For her son, Selim, know to history as Selim the Sot, did indeed follow Suleiman as Sultan, and was not only a hopeless alcoholic, but the first of many totally incompetent Sultans, who were destined to preside over Turkey’s long decline. He was also an extremely unpleasant man. So that Roxelana’s triumph turned out to be at least one of the causes of Turkey’s ultimate defeat. She died in 1558, eight years before Suleiman, and so she never saw her unsavoury son succeed his father; a consummation for which she had worked so hard and committed so many crimes. Remembering those crimes, it is difficult to know what to say of her in conclusion, but if any condemning is to be done, I think that the way in which Ottoman society treated their women, almost forcing them to choose between humiliating subservience or ruthless self-assertion, should be condemned before condemning the Roxelanas of Ottoman life, few enough in all conscience, who had the courage to take the system on and beat it.
Turning now to the way in which women were treated in Byzantine days, you’ll be pleased to hear that there has seldom been a society less dominated by male chauvenism or one more productive of remarkable women than that which ruled from Constantinople from 330 A.D. to 1453, when it was conquered by the Turks. In fact, it was dominated again and again by formidable Empresses, some of whom had the humblest of origins; and the fact that this was not only possible, but that it was accepted without demur by the people generally speaks volumes for Byzantine respect for members of what is sometimes jokingly referred to as the ‘gentle sex’. And that respect was not reserved only for powerful women in the Imperial Palace - early and colourful versions of Mrs Thatcher with a Greek accent and a eunuch or two at her side in place of Bernard Ingham and Lord Tebbit - but extended to many other women too. I wish I had the time tell you about some of them, but I must confine my remarks to one only.
All of you will have heard of her, and many of you will have seen her portrait in mosaic in the Church of San Vitale in Ravenna. Theodora was born in about 500 A.D. the daughter of a bear-keeper in the Hippodrome in Constantinople: that is to say, into the lowest order of Byzantine society. her father’s name was Acacius, and she was not his first child; he had already had a daughter named Comito, and when Theodora was about four or five, his wife presented him with yet another girl, whom they called Anastasia. Shortly afterwards, Acacius died, leaving his wife - or consort; they may not have been married - without a job and with three small children to bring up on her own in impossible circumstances; for the Hippodrome was emphatically not the best place in the world in which to raise a family.
On a day when chariot racing - its principal sport - was the order of the day, it was a place of unbridled passions, where the usually law-abiding, compassionate, and deeply Christian citizens of Constantinople - a city of over three-quarters of a million people - let their hair down. The chariot races between the two celebrated factions - the Greens and the Blues - roused huge crowds to heights of excitement which were astonishing. The nearest one can get today to picturing the kind of thing that went on in the Hippodrome on a day when the races were held is to imagine a Cup Tie at Wembley or wherever, between, say, Manchester United supported by 30,000 Irish Roman Catholics, all passionate followers of Tony Wedgwood Benn, and Aston Villa backed by 30,000 Protestant fans from Belfast, all Thatcherite to their finger tips. Meanwhile, when there was no racing, the Hippodrome was home to a number of side-shows, including bear-baiting, and the haunt of petty criminals, pick-pockets, pimps, and gangs of young men know as the Partisans: hooligans who wore their hair long at the back, shaved their foreheads, grew beards, and wore distinctive clothing copied from that of the Huns.
Theodora’s mother, finding herself in this situation and a widow, with commendable speed, if with little regard for conventional ideas of mourning, quickly found another man to take Acacius’s place as bread winner for the family. Unfortunately, he was out of a job. I mustn’t go on too long about Theodora’s childhood; but I must just tell you about one incident at this time, which was destined to have unforeseen consequences later on. Her father, Acacius, had been employed by the Greens, but when, after his death, her mother approached their manager, a man named Asterius, to ask him to appoint her new consort to the vacant post, she found that he had already accepted a bribe to give the job to someone else. In despair, she decided to appeal to the ordinary supporters of the Greens for their help; and so, one day when the races were about to begin and the Hippodrome was crowded to capacity, she appeared in the arena with her three small daughters. Driving them before, her their heads crowned with little chaplets of flowers and their hands held out in supplication, she described their plight, begging the Greens to employ her children’s new father, so that the family would not starve. Appeals of every kind, including appeals to the Emperor himself, who w often present in the Kathisma or Royal Box, were not uncommon on such occasions, though they were usually made through a spokesman trained for the purpose. But on this occasion the Greens were totally unmoved: indeed, they roared with laughter, and mother and children were driven back whence they had come with this ill-judged merriment ringing in their ears. Theodora never forgot it. From that moment, she hated and loathed the Greens, and did everything she could to favour their rivals, the Blues.
Somehow, however, the family survived, and as the children grew, Comito, Theodora’s elder sister, got a job on the stage. By this time, the Byzantine stage was a very different place from that on which the plays of Euripedes and Aristophanes had once been performed. I remember, as a small boy, way back in the reign of George the third - various imposing and rather daunting great aunts saying of some poor wretched female, “I’m afraid she went on the stage, you know, and we all knew what that means!” And so it probably tended to mean in Constantinople at this time, though it doesn’t seem to have meant that Comito was - to quote my aunts once again - “no better than she should be.” It seems more likely that she put on a slightly naughty comic act, but did nothing outrageous enough to set the Bosphorus on fire.
But whatever Comito’s act may have been, Theodora - an elfin little creature still in her teens - helped her do it, and did so with such an impish sense of humour that she kept the audience in fits of laughter, gradually outshining her sister, until she became the star of the show. After that, it was not long before she graduated from being Comito’s assistant to becoming the most daring and scandalous strip-tease artist, who had ever drawn such crowds to the Byzantine stage, both shocking and enrapturing them. I don’t want to dwell on this period of her life, for it didn’t last long; and before condemning her out of hand, as many people have done, for her behaviour at this time, it is just worth asking how she could have grown up in the Hippodrome with a ready-made set of respectable stainless steel middle class morals, properly hall-marked at Roedean or Benenden. In fact, she became famous - infamous, some said - until one day she disappeared from the city.
She was about twenty years old, at the height of her fame, and no one knew where she had gone. She had gone to North Africa with a man named Hecebolus, who had been appointed Governor of the Pentapolis - the province around Cyrene. shortly after their arrival however, they had a violent quarrel - no one knows what about - and Hecebolus threw her out of his house. she was a thousand miles from home, penniless, and totally alone in a strange country.
Procopius, a venomous historian, who loathed her, insinuated that she proceeded to live as a common prostitute; but he is such a biassed witness that he can be ignored. The fact is that no one knows how she managed at this time. All we do know is that a little later she turned up in Alexandria 500 miles away, and there somehow - although almost literally God knows how - she met the Patriarch of the city: a man named Timothy. His was a position of great eminence on a par with that of the Pope in Rome. Indeed, in those days there were five papal sees - Antioch, where Christians were first called Christians, Jerusalem, Alexandria, Constantinople, and Rome - the Patriarch of Rome being primus inter pares. Just how Theodora managed to meet Timothy no one knows. Indeed, the mind boggles at what tabloids like the Sun would have made of their encounter had they been around. But meet him she did, and he had a lasting effect on her life. In short, he converted her, and for the rest of her life she referred to him as her spiritual father.
It was a time of great religious unrest. I needn’t go into the details of the controversy, which was splitting the Church into two rival doctrinal camps: the Orthodox, who predominated in the West, and those calling themselves Monophysites, who were in the majority in the Middle East and North Africa. Timothy tended to favour the Monophysites, and under his influence Theodora became their lifelong champion, which is one of the reasons that she has received such a bad press in Catholic and Orthodox circles ever since. No one knows for sure how long she stayed in Alexandria, but it wasn’t long before she returned to Constantinople, to all intents and purposes a reformed character, where she proceeded to lead a modest and retiring life, earning a living spinning wool. But if her meeting with Timothy had been astonishing, she hadn’t been back in Constantinople for long before an even more astonishing encounter was to take place, and radically change her life yet again; for it was at this time that she met the heir to the throne of the Roman world, Justinian, who fell immediately, hopelessly, and lastingly in love with her, while - as far as we can tell - she loved him just as deeply and sincerely in return. Shortly after meeting him, she became his mistress, moving into the Palace or Hormisdas on the shores of the Sea of Marmara and needless to say, the people of Constantinople were rivetted. It was almost as if Prince Charles had just got shacked up with Madonna after her conversion by the Pope.
Justinian was at least as remarkable in his very different way as was Theodora in hers, and he, too, had had the humblest of origins. In fact, he was the son of a small peasant farmer in Illyria, as it then was, near the town of Naissus - the present day Nish in Serbia. However, he had an uncle, Justin by name, who - like many another young Illyrian boy - had joined the army in the hope of bettering himself, and had succeeded in doing so beyond his wildest dreams. Rising rapidly through the ranks, he had become both a leading and a highly popular general, and at the age of about sixty, during a political crisis created by the death of the old Emperor Anastasius I, who had died childless, the army, fed up with politicians and all their works, took charge of events and proclaimed Justin to be Emperor.
As an old soldier of great practical ability and courage but little formal education, the old boy found the job of ruling the Empire a bit too much for him. However, being childless himself like his predecessor on the throne of the Roman world, some years previously he had adopted his nephew Justinian as his son, and given him a first-class education. Justinian had a brilliant mind and the temperament of a scholar, so that, as time passed, Justin came to rely more and more upon him to assist him in the business of Empire, and it became obvious that - all things being equal - Justinian would succeed him when he died. But when Justinian announced that he intended to marry the girl with whom he had recently begun to cohabit, as they say - when he announced that he intended to marry Theodora, all things began to look a lot less equal than they had before.
For one thing, there was a law against a man in his position marrying anyone who had even been ‘on the stage’, and for another old Justin’s wife, the Empress Euphemia, although she had started life as a slave girl who had lived with Justin for ages before marrying him, had no intention of being followed on the throne by a wanton little tart from the Hippodrome. But despite all this, nothing would satisfy Justinian but marriage to Theodora, and stalemate resulted. That, one might have thought, would have been that; and so, in most societies, it probably would have been - but not in Byzantine society. Old Justin might have been getting on a bit, but like many old men he was not past being enchanted by a beautiful girl, and Theodora entranced him. Deciding to do everything he could to help Justinian marry her - and being Emperor - it wasn’t too difficult to get the law against marriage to an actress slightly changed in is adopted son’s favour. Getting his wife, Euphemia, to change her mind proved more difficult; but at this point, fate - the Byzantines would unanimously have said God - took a hand in events, and the old lady conveniently died. The result - Justinian, the son of a peasant farmer, and Theodora, the deprived child of the Hippodrome of the Monophysite Christians, were married with great pomp in Constantine’s Church of the Holy Wisdom, which was destined to be burnt down a few years later and replaced by Justinian’s church, which we shall all see later next week, and prepared to ascend the throne of the Roman world together. three years later, when old Justin died, they did so….and what a partnership it proved to be!
Theodora took to the task of being Empress as a duck takes to water, and to its eternal credit, the Byzantine world accepted her as their Empress without a qualm or a quibble: at least, the vast majority of people did so. And this was just as well for the Byzantine world, for she proved to be formidable: formidable as a stickler for the proper respect due to her as Justinian’s spouse: formidable as a feminist and a champion of women’s rights and dignity, the terror of errant husbands and male chauvinists in general: formidable as the champion of the Blues and the Monophysites, and formidable lastly as a person - a woman - in her own right: intelligent, totally faithful to her husband, as sharp as a needle, the truest of friends, the most dangerous of enemies, and perhaps above all a woman of huge integrity and even greater courage. That courage showed itself in the events which came to be known as the Nika revolt, some years after Justinian had become Emperor and Theodora Empress.
Let me briefly explain. At heart, Justinian was an academic, a scholar, and a brilliant jurist. But, as Emperor, politics were inevitably thrust upon him, and he he became obsessed by one over-riding ambition: to reconquer those parts of the Roman Empire which had fallen to the Barbarians, especially its old heart-land, Italy. In the end, thanks to the brilliance of the general, Belisarius, he succeeded in doing so; but the cost was enormous. How do you pay for wars? By taxes. How are they raised? By Chancellors of the Exchequer or other servants of the Crown, and in Justinian’s day by a man named John the Cappadocian, a gross and brutal man, who alienated Justinian’s subjects in the process so much that there came a day when they rose in revolt - the Nika revolt. Where did it take place? In the Hippodrome, sparked off by a comparatively minor complaint; but however minor the immediate cause, it spread like wildfire - indeed, very like wildfire - for half the city was burnt down as it escalated. For three days and nights the entire population of the city went on the rampage, burning and looting. Of course, some city police and some troops tried to quell the riot, but they were no match for the people in street fighting; for everyone simply went indoors and threw down boiling water on the heads of the soldiers or parts of the burning buildings or escaped up side streets.
Then, on the evening of Saturday the 17th January, 532, the mob came together again into the Hippodrome, assured by now of victory, screaming defiance at the absent Justinian and preparing to crown a pretender to the throne in his place. To the small group of Justinian and his immediate entourage, isolated in the Imperial Palace , things could not have looked blacker; the loyalty of the Palace Guards was doubtful, and only a small force of Gothic mercenaries under Belisarius and another equally small force of Germans under a general named Mundus could be counted on. It really looked as if all was lost. Deeply depressed, the little group decided that Justinian must flee the city, while there was time. He could take a boat, and escape up the Bosphorus; when things had quietened down, he could return - or so they said, though everyone knew that, once he had fled, he would never come back. So it was decided. Then, to everyone’s surprise, Theodora, hitherto a small and silent observer, stood up, and everyone fell silent. “My Lords,” she said, “the present occasion is too serious for me to follow the convention that a woman should not speak in a man’s Council. Those whose interests are threatened by extreme danger should think only of the wisest course of action, not of conventions. Now in my opinion, in the present crisis, if ever, flight is not the right course, even if it should bring us to safety. It is impossible for a man, once he has been born into this world, not to die; but for one who has reigned it is intolerable to be exiled. May I never be deprived of this purple robe, and may I never see the day when those who meet me do not call me Empress.”
Turning to Justinian who, like the rest of those present, sat in stunned and sheepish silence, she said, “If you wish to save yourself, my Lord, there is no difficulty. Over there is the sea, and there too are the ships. Yet reflect for a moment whether when you have escaped to a place of security, you will not prefer death to such safety. I agree with an old saying that the purple is a fair winding sheet.” Theodora then sat down. It was magnificent. Alone among the others, she was indomitable, and her words had a dramatic effect, turning the tide of their despair into one of determination to win, whatever the cost. And win they did, for when Belisarius and his Goths appeared at one end of the Hippodrome in disciplined ranks, and Mundus and his Germans showed themselves at the other end, the mob panicked. No longer in the streets, but trapped in the Hippodrome and caught between Belisarius and Mundus they couldn’t escape, and the revolt was crushed.
And there alas I must leave the story of Theodora. Sixteen years later, on 28th June, 548 she died of cancer, leaving Justinian heart-broken and the Byzantine world - I can’t help thinking - a less colourful place.