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


Theodora of Alexandria vs. Theodora the Empress

  • Theodora the Empress (75%, 5,435 Votes)
  • Theodora of Alexandria (25%, 1,777 Votes)

Total Voters: 7,212

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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. It's the Empress for me today! And I agree, her story should be a miniseries. Come on, BBC and PBS, it is just waiting for you!

  2. Sounds like Theodora of Alexandria should be patroness of the #MeToo movement, while Theodora the Empress was privileged with a high seat she used mightily for good. Guessing that the Empress will be getting more support, I shall today support #MeToo, which includes my little sister, and vote for Alexandria. If she didn’t have as much influence as the Empress, it was hardly her fault, and in Lent Madness, at least, she gets equal time for her own cause.


  4. I have a vision of God counseling these two women as he cautions them that the votes of mortals matter little, and he alone can judge their worth. This moment would be called a Ted Talk.

  5. This is quite a battle between two contenders named Theodora,
    One that was seduced by the devil and until her death dressed like a man and maybe wore a fedora;
    While you got to give props for never letting her love of Christ fade,
    Theodora the Empress gets my vote for building Hagia Sophia and putting a dent in the sex trade.

  6. At first I was going to vote for Theodora of Alexadria due to her bizarre story but then the Empress won me over with her laws and helping such a diverse group of people.

  7. I went with the Empress since she actively worked to better lives of women. Theo of A has a great story, but I don’t think the devil made her do it. That being said, we really don’t know what her marriage was like. Was her husband really a victim? Was she forced to marry (an arranged marriage)? Not like women had much chance to fall in love and live happily every after back then!

    1. I‘ve always admired the gorgeous mosaics of Theodora and Justinian in Ravenna and decided to vote for this powerful and complicated Christian woman

  8. Actually, St. Theodora the Empress was not the wife of Justinian, but the wife of Theophilos some 300 years later. Her husband was a supporter of the iconoclast movement. When he died, she used her influence to end the iconoclastic rule and restore the veneration of icons. She was very different from Justinian's Theodora.

    1. They were both empresses, and both were recognized as saints (though only the later one made it into LFF.

  9. Fun history fact: the Hagia Sophia was rebuilt by Justinian I and Theodora in 532-537. It was and remains one of the most innovative and spectacular buildings of the pre-Modern world. They rebuilt it because the earlier structure burned during the Nika Riots of 532, a massively destructive series of events that killed thousands and burned over half the city. The final end of the Riots came when Justinian I tricked 30,000 protesting citizens to come to the Hippodrome, promising them peace talks. They were massacred by members of the Imperial guard, thus effectively ending the Nika Riots. Theodora is credited with convincing Justinian not to flee the city during the riots, convincing him instead that an expression of imperial power was needed, leading to the massacre. Many historians assert that the reconstruction of the Hagia Sophia was part of Justinian and Theodora’s plan to reassert their power and dominance in the wake of the Riots.

    I notice that the Lent Madness write up did not include “complicit in the massacre of 30,000 people” in Theodora’s bio.

  10. Why does the story of a monastic posing as a member of the opposite gender, and later accused of being party to an extramarital birth, sound familiar to me? Was there another obscure saint with a similar legend featured in a previous year? If so, which one, if either, was real?

    1. I thought I remembered a similar story too. According to an earlier comment, it was Marina the monk. I don't remember which year.

  11. OK, SEC, what did you do with the "Vote" button?! Was 9:00 a.m. Pacific Time too late? Suppression of West Coast voters? Rigging the outcome? (Nah, you wouldn't do that.)
    Great write-ups, by the way. I'm just sorry I didn't get to vote.

    1. About Marina and Theodora of Alexandria--If you're passing as a man, what better way to affirm your supposed masculinity than to acknowledge fathering a child? And if you give up all chance of motherhood by entering monastic life, wouldn't it be nice to get hold of a baby of your own? One supposes that in acknowledging fatherhood one got control of the child, in those days when women had few rights. I can imagine this happening twice, and I can certainly imagine countless women fantasizing the whole story, whether they are wives or Sisters!

    2. Not too late: we in Hawaii have been voting at night our time, when it's already well into the next day in the east. Try again.

  12. T The A or T the E Whom shall I vote for we shall see.
    Dancing , singing ,animals such fun
    Even birds of the air? Son of a gun.
    Then the married one to a Christian I see
    The devil and all could hardly be.
    So the empress or the Egyptian who will it be? For me the Empress 25 churches you see.(

  13. Gillian Bradshaw wrote a wonderful historical novel about the Empress called The Bearkeeper's Daughter.

  14. Neither of these women seemed saintly to me, has the criteria changed?
    Even though this has been quite the history lesson, I voted for the Theodora that seemed more revelant today ..... the Empress.

  15. Theodora of Alexandria's story is a 'wandering motif' of folklore. The exact same plot can be found in "The Tale of Lady Thi Kinh" from Vietnam. At least we can be sure the Byzantine Theodora really existed, and that she had a powerful impact on her society.

  16. I refuse to vote for a woman who was beloved of a rich man (so far this story sounds like the end of every romance novel ever--hello, Elizabeth Bennett!) but then . . . . "piously refused him" (what!) . . . but then had sex once and then was guilted for the rest of her life. Boo. Hiss. Standard misogyny with adultery and lesbianism thrown. On the other hand, Theodora seems somewhat sketchy not so much for the goosey webdance with ganders but for dabbling and diving in theology, possibly not because she actually believed the "monophysite" position (I don't think we call it that anymore but I'm also not sure there exists a good term for the "Christ has one nature" stance) but as a political maneuver to counter the power of the church. The Council of Chalcedon in 451 had taken the tricky, brain-cracking position that Christ was homoousious (he was "two two two mints in one"), forever condemning every low-ranking clergyperson to have to do the Christ the King Sunday sermon and explain the trinity, and also leading to the Great Schism, by declaring the bishops of Rome and Constantinople co-equal (good luck with that!). Nevertheless, Theodora did ban the execution of women who committed adultery, and while "transition out of sex work" seems like highly anachronistic language, she does seem to have expanded the rights of women. I am voting for the awesome fresco of Theodora, which makes her look like Christ Pantocrator in jewels. She even has a halo; talk about successful self-branding. Don't Cry for Me, Constantinople . . .

  17. I voted for Theodora of Alexandria because her story is one of remorse for sin, but it put her in the position to do good for the life of the illegitimate child she saved. I am trying to bc careful not to view the somewhat apocryphal lives of the earlier saints through the lens of our current understanding of the roles of women and social justice. Even though we would not respond like Theodora today, does not mean that her dedication to repentance and good works does not offer an example to us. I love the work of Theodora the Empress, but her greater fame and historicity have already made her a worthy example. We need all the worthy examples we can get!

  18. I was spared making an agonizing decision. My daughter's name is Alexandra and she lives in Alexandria, VA!
    Sorry, Theodora.

  19. I am stunned by the many similarities in the stories of Theodora of Alexandria and Kuan Jin, Boddhisatva of Compassion.

  20. I'm sorry but out of the thousands and thousands of saintly souls available to choose from we are offered Theodora of Alexandria? I guess you just needed another Theodora and came up with this one. Surely you folks could have come up with someone who was remotely more "saintly'.

  21. Have always been fascinated by the empress, so no contest here, for me. Another voice for a miniseries, told from her POV.

  22. I wasted too much time on this today. Decided I should search for more info. Then read all the comments. Not really excited about either one. I had clicked on one, left the site, thinking I could come back and change it. When I came back my vote was gone. Not taking a chance on voting twice. So, that's fine.

    1. If your vote was recorded, you will see the vote percentages on your screen. If your vote was not recorded, you will simply have two blank radio buttons at your disposal. If so, you can still vote! More agony! But that's Lent for you . . .

  23. Wow two women that shows women were always stood up for justice and the marginalized. I'm voting for Theodora of Alexandera

  24. Like many here, I noticed the striking similarity of Theodora of Alexandria's story to Marina the Monk from LM 2019. I was deeply moved by Marina's story and found it entirely plausible, so now I'm saddened that it might not be true. Regardless, the Empress has my vote. So many people with great power do *not* use it for good, but she knew that great responsibility went hand-in-hand. That she went from actor to Empress is the icing on the cake!