Empress Theodora and the Medieval Origins of Women’s Rights

There are many currents that flow into the story of women’s rights. Many cultures from early Judaism to Ancient Greece are recognized for their egalitarian traditions, and we have countless examples of great women in power—from Pharaoh Hatsheput to Queen Victoria to Eleanor Roosevelt.

But one woman—Empress Theodora— achieved such a decisive victory for women in her time that her relative obscurity is astounding.  

(Petar Milošević / CC BY-SA 4.0)

More than fifteen hundred years ago, Empress Theodora helped influence sweeping legal reforms known as the Corpus Juris Civilis—which included a wave of specific rights for women. Historians credit this body of Roman law as providing some foundational groundwork to the Western legal tradition.

Therefore, Empress Theodora made direct contributions to a legal code that influenced the American Constitution, English common law and even modern international public law. 

So, who is Empress Theodora?

Abandoned by most Western thinkers throughout the centuries, Empress Theodora came off as a salacious novelty, a Medieval prostitute-stripper who made it to the top through a lucky marriage. The scandalous gossip of her past, which is handed down to us by a single male source, no doubt stirred the imaginations of Western historians for centuries. However, as a prostitute, Theodora was part of an institutional system that marginalized women to an extreme. 

Unlike today, professional outlets for women were severely restrictive. A large number of women worked in theaters and brothels. So, although this professional class of women carried a huge social stigma, their industry was one of the few places where women worked publicly outside the traditional family structure and earned real income.

A certain law, though, prevented prostitutes from marrying a man of rank. Such a rigid class system was characteristic of a Roman world view that regarded rank as self-evident.

Secondly, even under the Christian perspective, prostitution was regarded as immoral and sinful. Therefore, when Theodora helped to facilitate the removal of the marriage ban, she did so without the support of either the secular or religious tradition. Her personal world view alone seems to have guided the legal reform. 

Empress Theodora’s perspective was necessary for addressing women’s rights at the time because she had firsthand knowledge and experience about the reality for women. 

Also, under Empress Theodora, rape was made punishable by death. This law extended to anyone present during the rape, regardless of position or rank, and the rapist’s property was even transferred to the rape victim.

The male-dominated bureaucracy of the Byzantine Empire had little interest in addressing such issues. But Theodora dared to speak out about specific issues. But more importantly, she insisted on designing real-world solutions, defined in legal terms, to fix the problems she knew existed.

Our culture is taking a second look at history and rediscovering the many contributions of women throughout the ages. I believe that Theodora deserves to take her place among the Pantheon of our greatest women in history.

Douglas A. Burton’s award-winning novel, ‘Far Away Bird,’ which details Theodora’s early life, is available in paperback. For the full article on Empress Theodora, please visit douglasaburton.com.

Burton also formulated a Heroic Personality Quiz: Discover the fictional heroines in film, television, and literature who think like you, act like you and share your strengths.


Austin author Douglas A. Burton is a historian and author of Far Away Bird about Byzantine Empress Theodora. He believes the heroine is a powerful archetype that has widespread cultural significance and deserves more attention.