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.

After Euphemia’s death, Justin repealed the law and Justinian married Theodora. When Justinian succeeded to the throne two years later, unlike Euphemia, Theodora did not fade into the background. She became his co-ruler and Empress of the Eastern Roman Empire, sharing in his plans and political strategies, as well as being equipped with her own court, entourage and imperial seal.

Procopius was much less forgiving towards Theodora. Born from an actress mother, Theodora herself was also an actress. As Euphemia before her, Theodora was said to have been the concubine of another man before she became the concubine of Justinian, who later became her husband. She was the concubine of Hecebolus, governor of the Pentapolis region in North Africa. In Historia Arcana, Procopius calls her “Theodora from the Brothel” and provided details of her antics on stage – from allowing geese to peck grain from her lower torso, to dancing covered by nothing but a small ribbon. Procopius even quoted Theodora as saying that she regrets having only three orifices for pleasure. However, when Procopius went on to claim that both Justinian and Theodora were demons whose heads were seen to leave their bodies and roam the palace at night, we can safely assume that he was not being completely honest in his assessments of the imperial couple.

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Representation of Empress Theodora (1900) photographer/artist: Jean Benjamin Constant

Unfortunately, Procopius’ Historia Arcana were considered the most valuable references for this time period due to his supposed first-hand knowledge. Procopius accompanied Justinian’s general Belisarius on campaigns against the Persians and the West. However, the use of Procopius as a source posed some difficulties. His descriptions of Justinian and Theodora, for example, were inconsistent. In De Bellis, Procopius compliments Justinian for expelling the barbarians. In De Aedificiis, Procopius described how Justinian navigated Rome through a period of disorder and made it more illustrious – this same work also praised Theodora for her beauty and piety. However, in Historia Arcana, Procopius depicted Justinian as cruel and incompetent. He also depicted Theodora as vulgar, shrewish and mean-spirited. Procopius seems appalled at men in charge who have relinquished some of their power to their wives. For Procopius, Theodora’s relationship with Justinian also destroyed the social fabric of Roman society by removing the separation between the upper and lower classes. Procopius claimed in disgust that the new marriage law resulting from Justinian and Theodora’s association allowed everyone else to get engaged to prostitutes and described an ideal wife for the Roman emperor. Justinian should have chosen “the most nobly born woman in the world, who had enjoyed the most exclusive upbringing, and had lived in an atmosphere of chastity, and in addition was superbly beautiful and still a virgin.” Theodora did not live up to this standard as she was only superbly beautiful.

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mpress Theodora confers with the Byzantine Senate, by an unknown 13th century artist

The subject of sexual depravity and explicit languages was not taboo in Procopius’ society. In fact, the aim of using insulting and abusive languages was viewed as a literary device. Roman morality relied on example and practice, and these authors used sexual descriptions to further emphasize those whom people should not model themselves on. The sexual descriptions of Theodora and Antonina are then just “creative license” in Procopius’ overall description of them. Theodora’s origins would have been no secret to those of the time, and ancient Romans never held performers in high regard. However, Theodora’s origins were not that uncommon in comparison to other eastern empresses. Daughters with important status and imperial connection were often sent to the edges of the Empire to solidify foreign relations through marriage, therefore leaving only those with lower statuses in Rome. Helena, wife of Constantius I (305-306) was an innkeeper, a title synonymous in ancient literature with the word “harlot”. Therefore, when Justin paved the way for his nephew’s marriage, it was not entirely for Justinian’s benefit. Perhaps understanding the trend of marriages in Rome at the time, Justin had the law changed in order to have Euphemia declared a citizen retroactively, so as to finally allow their marriage legal status. This would have meant that, despite being an empress, Euphemia’s marriage to Justin was not considered legal in her lifetime. The fact that the law had to be changed for Justinian to marry Theodora might be more a reflection of a legal reform, rather than society’s aversion to someone of Theodora’s origins being on the throne.

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