Tale of Two Concubines

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Empress Euphemia’s rose from a freed slave to the most powerful woman in Rome in her time through her marriage to Justin I (450-527 CE). Historia Arcana (“Secret History”) by Procopius of Caesarea (c. 500 – c. 554) introduced the Empress Euphemia as Lupicina – a slave and a barbarian concubine of her owner. The name Lupicina is interesting in itself as it is connected to the Latin word Lupae (“she-wolves”). This same word was also the epithet for the lowest class of Roman prostitutes. However, this name may also have originated in a cult of the Etruscan religion that predated the Roman, in which the deity was represented as a she-wolf – this would have implied a different background for Euphemia. The legendary she-wolf,  Lupa, who nursed Romulus and Remus is related to the cult of this wolf-goddess and the matrilinial Etruscan civilization that preceded the Romans.

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Justin I was Eastern Roman Emperor from 518 to 527 who rose through the ranks of the army of the Byzantine Empire and ultimately became its emperor, in spite of the fact he was illiterate and almost 70 years old at the time of accession.

Nevertheless, the name “Lupicina” was not considered suitable for the Empress of Rome and, as soon as Justin was named emperor in 518, it was likely that there was a demand for Lupicina to change her name. She then took the name Euphemia. The name Euphemia was taken from Euphemia of Chalcedon, a local saint associated with the Council of Chalcedon (451 CE). Euphemia, now the empress, maintained a steady correspondence with the bishops of Rome. However, little can be learned from these letters apart from an indication of the empress’s piety. This same piety was also attested by her construction of a convent and church of St. Euphemia where she was later buried.

Early 6th century Barberini diptych, central panel: Emperor Anastasius or Emperor Justinian in triumph; Nike (Victory) flies above him crowning him, whereas the Mother Earth bears his foot beneath. Constantinople, Late Roman Theodosian style.

Justin’s successor as emperor or Rome was Justinian I, his nephew and adoptive son who later married yet another woman of low birth, Theodora. This story is made richer still by Theodora’s achievements. She worked for women’s marriage and dowry rights, anti-rape legislation, and was supportive of the many young girls who were sold into sexual slavery for the price of a pair of sandals. The fact that Procopius largely dismissed Euphemia as empress in his work except to mention that she did not interfere at all in affairs of state, in contrast to what he wrote about Theodora, possibly indicate that Euphemia’s birth was not as lowly as he made it out to be – she was perhaps a priestess, or a descendant of a priestess, of the she-wolf cult. Another reason could be that Procopius approved of Euphemia largely confining her work to the religious activities of the empire instead of putting herself in a position equal to her husband. Nevertheless, Procopius highlighted her again to say that, although she favoured her husband’s eventual successor Justinian, she adamantly opposed his marriage to Theodora – a former actress, despite her own supposed low birth. This was apparently due to the fact that there was a surviving law from the time of the Emperor Constantine (272 – 337 CE) prevented anyone of senatorial rank from marrying actresses or prostitutes (which, if Procopius’ account was true, would have disqualified Euphemia herself from marrying Justin years earlier).

Theodora. Detail from the 6th-century mosaic “Empress Theodora and Her Court” in the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna. Dated before 547.

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