Theodora of Alexandria vs. Theodora the Empress

Welcome to the final battle of the first full week of Lent Madness 2021 aka the Theodora Throwdown! Today it's Theodora of Alexandria vs. Theodora the Empress. Only one Theodora will make it to the next round.

Yesterday Arnulf of Metz left Vincent of Saragossa to drown his sorrows 56% to 44%. Arnulf will face off against Egeria in the Saintly Sixteen.

Go ahead and catch your breath this weekend. We'll be back for another engaging week of First Round battles bright and early Monday morning as Evagrius the Solitary tangles with Euphrosyne. But first, cast your vote!

Theodora of Alexandria
Theodora of Alexandria was a noble woman who was married to a wealthy Christian man. While her story is often conflated with Theodora of Egypt, tradition says that Theodora of Alexandria became a target of the devil. Threatened by her piety, the devil brought her to the attention of another rich man who became enamored with her. He bought her gifts and sent her love letters, but she was unmoved. Finally, he sent a young woman, a sorceress in some accounts, who told Theodora that if she gave in to the rich man’s advances at dusk or at night, God would not see. Theodora, in a moment of weakness, gave in and immediately felt guilt over her betrayal. She went to the local abbess who told her that God sees all, and she must perform penance. Theodora decided to join a monastery to do penance.

Worried her husband would find her if she joined a women’s monastery, Theodora cut her hair, put on men’s clothes, and joined a men’s monastery as Brother Theodore. She lived as a monk, with no one suspecting her secret.

Some years after joining the monastery, Theodora was sent on an errand in a faraway town. On the journey, she stayed the night in another monastery. According to Orthodox tradition, the daughter of the abbot attempted to seduce her. Theodora resisted. The daughter slept with another man and became pregnant. She accused Theodora of fathering the child. Eventually, the child was sent to Theodora’s monastery, and the abbot kicked her out with the child. Theodora saw the injustice as further punishment for her adultery. She tended to the child outside the walls of the monastery for seven years. Local shepherds gave her milk for the baby while she lived off of wild vegetables. When the abbot saw her persistence and fidelity, he invited her back into the monastery with the child.

After her return, Theodora lived two more years in the monastery until her death in 470. As the monks prepared her for burial, they discovered that she was a woman. The abbot called her husband to the monastery, and he became a monk and occupied her cell until his death. The boy she had raised and committed to God grew and followed her example of a virtuous life, ultimately becoming the abbot of the monastery.

Collect for Theodora of Alexandria
Almighty God, whose will it is to be glorified in your saints and who raised up your servant Theodora to be a light in the world: Shine, we pray, in our hearts, that we also in our generation may show forth your praise, who called us out of darkness into your marvelous light; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

—David Creech


Theodora the Empress
Theodora (500–548) knew her way around the hippodrome of Constantinople. Her father kept bears there, and her mother performed as an actress. When she was about four, her father died, and Theodora also became an actress. Rumors swirl around her. She was a stripper and a courtesan. One unreliable account described Theodora performing a lurid dance involving geese. It’s hard to know if these things are factually true or if the historian’s imagination created these juicy tidbits because he didn’t know how to get his head around understanding a woman of great power.

What we do know is that between the animal training and acting, Theodora learned how to soothe dangerous beasts and convincingly perform before great crowds, and both skills became the perfect  training for an adept politician. Those talents paired with extraordinary intellect, ambition, and wit catapulted Theodora from humble beginnings to the empress of the Byzantine Empire.

Theodora married Justinian I around 525 and ushered the Byzantine Empire into its golden years. During Justinian’s coronation, she was also crowned as an equal. She did not take the position of empress lightly. Her name can be found on every law that was passed at that time. And her commitment to gender equality extended beyond her self-interests. Theodora worked for gender equality, marriage rights, and anti-rape laws. She wrote papers against pimps and banished brothel-keepers from major cities. She opened a home for women and girls who wanted to transition out of sex work.

For our purposes, however, we should also consider her religious influences. Between Theodora’s time at the hippodrome and meeting Justinian, Theodora joined a religious community in Alexandria and converted to the non-Chalcedonian church, believing that Christ had only one nature and was fully divine. The debate was boiling up at this time, and Theodora aided and sheltered the non-Chalcedonians and kept the peace between the factions of Christianity. During their reign, Theodora and Justinian I constructed more than twenty-five churches, including Hagia Sophia, the largest Greek Orthodox church for more than 1,000 years.

Collect for Theodora the Empress
O God, who called your servant Theodora to an earthly throne that she might advance your heavenly kingdom and who gave her the wisdom to establish unity where there had been division; Create in your church such godly union and concord that we might proclaim the Gospel of the Prince of Peace, not only in correct theology but in right action; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

—Carol Howard Merritt


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Theodora of Alexandria: Anonymous / Public domain
Theodora the Empress: Basilica of San Vitale / CC BY-SA (


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118 comments on “Theodora of Alexandria vs. Theodora the Empress”

  1. Though Theodora’s past was quite murky
    And her fame from some talents most quirky,
    A remarkable brain
    Fueled her twenty-year reign
    As the empress of Byzantine Turkey.

      1. Funny, that's the person I thought of as I read the harrowing tale of the Alexandrian Theodora. Which is why I came to the conclusion that Theodora of Alexandria was probably just about as real as Pope Joan, which means not at all. My vote went to the Empress Theodora. I may not agree with her views on the nature of Christ, but I wholeheartedly endorse her stand on gender equality, marriage rights, anti-rape laws, and her support of women wanting to leave the sex trade. Besides, as a former actor (although I never did any exotic dances with geese), I feel a certain kinship.

    1. That sums it all up! I thought the Empress Theodora was a remarkable woman who overcame a sketchy beginning and ultimately used her power for lasting good for many people.

    2. This disciple escaped the philandering
      Of lascivious men and their gandering;
      As a monk she cross-dressed,
      As a saint she was blessed--
      Theodora the great Alexandrian.

  2. Two strong women, hard to pick. I went with the Empress out of sympathy on the hatchet job Procopius did on her in his Secret Histories.

    1. Her early life might read like a novel partly because some of the stories about her were lurid by design, to discredit her. Learn more about Procopius and his motives for writing the Secret History here :*.html
      We always tell the most lurid stories about actors! Besides which, she was a powerful woman who rose up out of humble origins. I love that she was an actor.
      To compare another account for the sake of objectivity, you could look her up in the Britannica.
      I also appreciate a saint who is non-Chalcedonian. I think it is important to acknowledge that we don't always have to agree -- even when it is about something so vital as the very nature of Jesus. She was faithful to the best of her abilities.
      The laws that she passed on the behalf of women earn my vote!

      1. Oops! I fell victim to the confusion!! my comment was about the Empress, not the wife turned monk.

      2. And isn’t it amazingly shameful that we are still crucifying women in 2021. I’m so impressed with these 5th & 6th century women. Hooray for the Alexandrias. But it just makes me wonder why we are still struggling why there can’t be more progress. Yet we must keep persisting as they did!

      3. Thank you for providing more information. It should encourage us to be less judgmental of these good people who lived in a very different tone and place.

    2. I agree. It was at least nine years between her leaving her husband and her death. But they found the guy.

    3. Having seen the PBS Newshour feature on the number of grandparents who are raising their grandchildren in our country these days, I think taking on the responsibility of raising someone else’s child when that was not in your life plans, living homeless outside the monastery walls, begging for milk for said child and subsisting for seven years on root vegetables sounds pretty saintly to me. Here’s to people stepping off their chosen paths to answer God’s uncomfortable call!

      1. Try a different browser. IE, MS Edge, Firefox, or Chrome can react differently to websites.
        If you're on Safari, I'm sorry.

      2. And when we talk about subsisting on root vegetables, we also need to remember that nobody in the Eastern Hemisphere had any idea that potatoes existed. I think many of us could imagine living on a diet consisting mostly of potatoes. Turnips and rutabagas, OTOH...not so sure.

  3. The ability to create these daily gems of creativity leaves me gob-smacked. And topping it off, this early in the day! The Empress took my vote this morning - promoting gender equality, marriage rights and anti-rape laws while keeping the peace between factions of Christianity. Indeed........

  4. I can almost see each episode of Theodora of Alexandria as it plays out on Netflix. I would definitely watch it, but for our purposes, voted for the Empress.

    1. Haha, that sounds apt!

      As for the other Theodora, I thought that life in the palace of Constantinople sounded like a reality show. Bears and actors. Like the Tiger King meets Real Housewives. (Disclaimer: I've never watched either of those shows, so my comparison may be off.)

      I do appreciate that the Empress fought for anti-rape laws and gender equality and marriage rights for women. Good for her! It's enough to get my vote.

  5. Are we going to get a semi-final round between Emperor Constantine and Empress Theodora? I sure hope not.

    Nonetheless, I was happy to vote for the Empress today. Theodora of Alexandria's tale was way too much melodrama this early in the morning.

    1. I’m with you, Melanie! But even if T of Alexandria’s story has been less lurid and more plausible, I was inclined toward the Empress who really did seem to have it all and to very good ends.

  6. I fell for the one who succumbed to a moment of weakness. I can certainly identify with that many times a day -- not in the same way, but still succumbing. The fact she turned her life around gives all of us in our weaker moments hope. I admire the empress for her stands and accomplishments, but have a harder time relating to her story.

    I would also say that most of what we read about the saints in the first five or six centuries, when records were not well kept or. in the case of Alexandria's library, burned to the ground, most of our knowledge comes from tradition or oral stories.

  7. I voted for the underdog today, having heard Theodora of Alexandria’s story before. Yes, soap opera, but so many saints have lived a melodramatic life (Augustine comes to mind). My sister in another state tends to vote for the candidate I don’t vote for, and as we have agreed that between us, we sometimes have one brain, I’ll bet half of my vote will go to the Empress today. I am satisfied.

    1. Isn't there another saint who joined a monastery as a man, and who was accused of fathering a child? That sounded familiar, but I can't remember their name.

      1. I found it pretty quickly, it was Marina the monk. Different origin story but similar outcome of living as a monk and being accused of fathering a child.

        1. Thank you Melissa...we just moved and shuttered to think I was going to have to go find my previous books to look up LOL

        2. Theodora's and Marina's stories sound suspiciously alike. Does anyone know if either of the stories is historically true? The similarities makes me doubt the historicity of both stories (though I could see such a character in a George R. R. Martin novel!).

  8. Any woman who can live in a house full of men as penance is truly remorseful and deserving of sympathy. She raised someone else's illigitimate child as her own without causing it more shame. I think that is more noble than marrying an Emperor, living a life of luxury, and contributing to good causes.

  9. Both are fascinating stories! What interesting women. Yes, a show about either one would be fun to watch. It must have been challenging to promote equality for women in those times.

  10. I admired Empress Theodora’s work on behalf of women, but I just couldn’t bring myself to vote for a non-Chalcedonian.

    1. I had to read up on that. It turns out the differences were basically semantic, and (with Theodora's help) the two strands of Orthodox Christianity have coexisted ever since. When I was General Seminary, there was a Syrian Orthodox priest studying there -- a church that descended from those non-Chalcedonian groups. Yes, I used to shoot pool with the now Metropolitan (presiding Archbishop) of the Syrian Orthodox Church!

    1. The SEC invites the public to submit nominations each year, usually around Ascension Day (40 days after Easter) and some of the nominees do make it into the brackets. Though they do seem to find some very obscure ones -- I'm hoping Christina the Astonishing gets renominated at some point -- the SEC also tends to include some well known saints, even though not all the well known ones make it out of the first round. Like Joan of Arc earlier this week. It's an opportunity to learn about some very obscure saints!

      1. Yes! I’m a huge fan of Christina! It drive me crazy that people wouldn’t vote for her because “she wasn’t real”!

  11. Theodora of Alexandria's story sounds like a Shakespearean play, but the Empress Theodora was in fact an actress and animal trainer. As a former actor, myself, I feel obligated to support her. I also appreciate all the work she did to help the women of her empire.

  12. Had to go for the empress since she was one of the women covered in our first class on Empresses yesterday. (The story in our readings had swans rather than geese, but who believes Procopius anyway?)

    1. The geese thing surely harks to Leda and the swans. Titillating, naughty. I'm sure it was a hit. This was before her Empress days and her survival depended on her audiences approval.

  13. Like yesterday we must choose between power and piety, worldly accomplishments and devotion, fame and fidelity. The accomplishments of the Empress are astonishing but my vote goes to piety.

  14. A difficult choice, but my vote goes to Theo of Alexandria, because there was just something infuriating about that story. The patriarchy that has infected the Church since Paul told women to sit down and shut up, the patriarchy that has women continually doing penance for the sins of men, *is* the devil. At least her husband was a mensch in the end.

    1. Of Alexandria. Imagine having your spouse suddenly disappear without a trace. Of course she may have feared his wrath, but the dénouement suggests otherwise.

  15. I agree. I was not impressed. She was a ultimately a good woman, but did not stand up for herself because she did not feel she deserved it. Perils of Pauline.

  16. Even before I read of her great accomplishments as a ruler, Theo the Empress hooked me with her geese.

    1. How do you know that? Were you there? The only lie I see comes from Theodora the Empress’ non-Chalcedon ways. If Christ lacks a human nation then what was the point of the Incarnation? I voted for Theodora/e of Alexandria who raised another’s child as her own, following in the example of Saint Joseph the Carpenter.

      1. “Theodora/e of Alexandria who raised another’s child as her own, following in the example of Saint Joseph the Carpenter.”

        That’s what won me over.

  17. Theodora was also a victim of breast cancer and accounts of her courage in facing her disease are humbling and inspiring. 'A fascinating woman in all regards.

      1. Sorry, Theodora the Empress. She hid her condition and endured horrible pain with grace and determination to continue her very real contributions her subjects.

  18. All in for Theodora the Empress, especially as the mosaic of her above comes from one of my favorite churches in the world that she and Justinian had built: San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy. I first learned of it in a college course, and over 30 years later convinced my wife to drive across the spine of Italy on our honeymoon from our base outside of Florence in order to see the churches of Ravenna. Judith had gotten a little tired of all the church visiting we had done in Tuscany, but agreed that the trip to Ravenna for sun Vitale was absolutely worth it. Thank you, Theodora, for the memory!

  19. Having read two novels based on the life of Theodora the Empress which have left me with an enduring admiration for her, my vote can only go to her. She came to power from such unpromising beginnings, and used it to benefit others, whilst holding together the differences within the church. I also recognised the story of Marina the monk in T of A which made me wonder about stories being conflated.

    1. Which two novels? I remember reading Gore Vidal's The Female back in 1955 but was not aware of another.