Theodora & Neaera

Two extraordinary lives from antiquity stand out for what they can teach us about the complex political systems they experienced and lived through. Moreover, they can provide us with invaluable insight into our own assumptions regarding our much vaunted but feverishly embattled democratic systems. These exceptional individuals are respectively the courtesan Neaera and the actress – and then empress – Theodora. One life documented through a private prosecution case in the courts of ancient Athens; the other reflected back to us by court actors and officials of Justinian’s imperial Byzantium. Both were working women who experienced close proximity to political and legal power in very different circumstances under different regime structures. But what the comparison surprisingly shows is that women of the authoritarian Byzantium empire had greater legal protection than their counterparts in ancient democratic Greece. What is less known is the fact that it wasn’t until the nineteenth century that British and American women were to be granted similar rights.

First, let us look at ancient Athens and the case involving Neaera. The prosecution of Neaera was brought by the Athenian statesman and orator Apollodorus in and around 343-340BC, as documented in Demosthenes’ speeches under the title Apollodorus: Against Neaera. Neaera was a courtesan, or more precisely a sex slave worker, owned by an elderly madam named Nicarete – who was herself a freedwoman and an expert in spotting 'beautiful young women' and ‘bringing them up and training them in their craft.’

The thrust of the prosecution was ostensibly based on the status of Neaera as an illegal alien (known as a metic), but in reality it was politically motivated to destroy her then partner: the statesman, Stephanus. Apollodorus and Stephanus had been on opposing sides in a complex foreign policy battle regarding the enemy powers of Euboea and Olynthas. It is understood that the hawkish Apollodorus pushed for decisive military action, whereas Stephanus angled for a more cautious, conservative approach. But in the febrile world of domestic politics it would seem that Stephanus, by whatever means available, was bent on destroying his opponent outright.

In the opening speech we are told that Stephanus had previously fabricated an elaborate case against Apollodorus, with the claim that the latter had killed a woman with his bare hands in Aphidna, while in pursuit of a runaway slave. But it is also reported that Stephanus is supposed to have ‘groomed some slaves’ as witnesses to be used in prosecuting the case against Apollodorus at the Palladium. Having sworn on oath that Apollodorus committed the murder, it was eventually revealed that Stephanous had been bribed by two powerful officials Cephisophon and Apollophanes to advance the downfall of Apollodorus. Apollodorus therefore sought revenge by prosecuting Neaera as a non-citizen living with Stephanus – given it was then illegal for an Athenian citizen to live in marriage to a non-citizen. At the time, the ultimate way to destroy a political opponent was through the law courts, not the political arena – hence the strategic prosecution of Neaera.

This system was of course male dominated with even the 201 or 401 sitting court juries, in private and public cases, entirely made up of men. Domestically, most women were tied to household duties and sometimes even had to hide when guests were entertained. However, women of higher status would have exerted a certain moral influence, generally frowning on the practice of prostitution and to some extent reigning in certain male proclivities with a girdling of guilt. We know this from Apollodorus’s speech, where he schools the jury on their duty to their wives and daughters in condemning Neaera’s profession. All told, it seems that everything was stacked against Neaera – and, indeed, against women in general.

Although courtesans, or hetaera, had close relationships with powerful and influential men, it was unimaginable for women to effect any direct political influence. One such example is that of Neaera's friend, Metaneira, who enjoyed the passionate attentions of the influential statesman  Lysias (famous for his speech on the Thirty Tyrants). And even if the extraordinary plays such as Medea and Antigone might suggest otherwise, caution is advised on perceived feminist sympathies. Written by men, for men, the alluringly strong female characters served as symbolic figures to instruct on moral matters regarding state and governance – they are not to be misinterpreted as proto-feminist plays. 

This, naturally, is not to deny the complexities at work. Aristophanes’ fascinating comic play Assembly Women does much to blur the edges in this regard. Praxagora, the leader of a band of  disaffected Athenian women who have seized power, institutes a ‘sharing’ communist society where sex is made free. As classicist Stephen Halliwell notes ‘It is no coincidence that Praxagora had earlier announced the abolition of slave prostitutes, whose competition for clients is regulated only by their degree of beauty or ugliness.’ The satirical device is here used to mock the inadequacies of the ruling elite, but it nevertheless inspires intriguing questions on gender dynamics and the downtrodden slave. When at the beginning of the play Praxagora enquires as to whether her followers have enacted what was asked of them in declaration of their commitment to the cause, they reply:

Woman A  [Showing off]. I certainly have! I’ve let my armpits grow Far shaggier than a bush, as we agreed.

Woman B . Me too. I actually threw my razor out To guarantee I’d grow hirsute all over And loose all trace of femininity 

The damning irony in Neaera’s case is that Apollodorous’ father, Pasion had also been a slave. A remarkable figure, he served as a slave bank clerk who was granted manumission from his owners and rose to become a wealthy banker in his own right. Having donated huge sums of money to the city Pasion was awarded with a very rare citizenship, which ensured his son the luxury of a privileged upbringing and elevated status. This is something we learn from a speech by Demosthenes, in defence of Phormion – a separate case brought by Apollodorus against his stepbrother over inheritance from Pasion. If we are to believe Demosthenes’ speech it holds that Apollodorus was perhaps not acting in a most dignified manner in prosecuting Phormion – Apollodorous had already agreed an inheritance split, but had been recklessly profligate with it.

Despite the understood pitfalls of retrospective moral lensing, Apollodorus's behaviour seems all-in-all to have been at best pretty crass. However, in counterargument, you would doubtless conclude that the judgement of Apollodorus's integrity in relation to the enslaved Neaera here hardly matters, given that his motives were political and directed at destroying his statesman rival, Stephanus. But the point is that it further demonstrates that this was a political system which was conditioned to sanction this line of prosecution and had little regard for the downtrodden in general – and in this instance an entirely blameless, female sex worker slave. Would a conviction have destroyed her life? Most probably. It also reflects the cold utility which was very much embedded in the society’s moral values regarding someone of her profession (all the more glaring when considering Pasion's relatively unhindered rise in the banking world, from slave to glorified citizen). This is something which was not challenged, nor even addressed, until the Byzantine period and Empress Theodora’s reign – and still resonates, somewhat damningly, with our own times.

Neaera was therefore completely at the mercy of the schemes and whims of her powerful clients on the one hand – and a legal-political system unwilling to recognise her or her plight on the other. This included horrendous maltreatment at the hands of her erstwhile lover Phrynion.

A brutal individual, Phrynion often forced her to fornicate with him in public while on his reckless drunken sprees. At a dinner party it is reported that he permitted the serving slaves to have sex with her while she was intoxicated. It should be made clear that we are not dealing with a mindless individual who willingly ceded to such treatment – contractual circumstances of ‘property’ made it so.

This is not to say that Theodora’s world of 600CE would have been any more conciliatory, but it was a world in which her genius was remarkably given space to eventually enact change in favour of the downtrodden. Importantly, her rise to power was not isolated: a lot of women ruled during this late Roman period, including the incredibly powerful Empress Ariadne, and much later Empress Irene Asanina and Empress Anna Komnene. And Theodora’s niece, Sophia, would become the most powerful woman ruler of the time.

How did someone of Theodora’s social status rise to such stratospheric heights? And how, importantly, did she use that to exert such extraordinary influence? The Byzantine world of sixth century CE was a markedly different place to the world of ancient Greece, and no less socially complex. This eastern part of the Roman empire was deeply stratified with many different sects and religions that co-existed under the imperial umbrella of Constantine’s Christian monotheism. Born to a father who was master of the bears at the circus hippodrome in Constantinople, Theodora would eventually go on to become Justinian’s lover, wife and then empress. 

Justinian’s own story is one of rags to riches and, again, this wasn’t necessarily unique for the time. His family were of peasant farming stock and his uncle, who had left to join the army, had shot up through the ranks after a series of successful campaigns – eventually seizing the throne to become Emperor Justin. Having soon beckoned his young nephew to join him at court, Justinian quickly became a key adviser to his uncle, eventually becoming a very young emperor himself. But not without Theodora.

In sixth-century Antioch, Severus, a prominent religious leader of the time, had set up a sanctuary for women who were in need of protection and recovery from various traumatic experiences – more often due to careers as stage actresses and courtesans. At some point Theodora took refuge here, forming a close bond with Severus. It is thought that Theodora and Justinian met around this time. Maybe Justinian saw something of himself in Theodora, and perhaps the power of her charm was all the more alluring given her social status – magnifying an already bewitching intelligence.

Justinian’s journey to Antioch would primarily have been made to see how things were going in the empire’s satellite power centres. With their many dangerous religious factions exerting extraordinary spiritual influence on the populous, keeping a close eye on that potentially lethal powder keg was imperative. These hippodrome hubs served at once for entertainment and at the same time circuitry nodal points for the systole and diastole movement of information throughout the empire. Thus, with her father’s status and her close connection to Severus, Theodora would have had unique access to this world. Her father’s role, and education, critically meant that he would have been able to teach her to read and write (not at all common skills to possess), and Theodora obviously demonstrated a precociously quick mind to be able to pick it up with relative ease.

When later working at the hippodrome, she took full advantage of this education as her position required that she write confidential reports on the different factions. Thus, historian David Potter tantalisingly puts it forward that these finely crafted missives may have caught Justinian's eye. This makes sense, Justinian was somebody who would have been constantly on the lookout for special talent, because the robust reliability of his network was going to be key in determining his rise to power.

Having consolidated her position at the court of Constantinople as Justinian’s wife and empress, the ever-engaging Potter then provides us with a unique portrait of Theodora as she moulded her image through complex policy. In his 2015 study Theodora, Actress, Empress, Saint he describes how Theodora had chosen the legal genius Tribonian to serve as a key ally at court. Tribonian had been tasked by Justinian to sort out the complex and often obscure laws of the Roman Empire, subsequently tabulated in the Codex Justinius. This is one of the foundational legal texts of western legal history and it stands with the Hagia Sofia as a powerfully unique document of both Theodora’s and Justinian’s lasting legacy. Potter believes that Theodora’s influence runs directly through the code, especially when it comes to women’s rights. 

A law of 531 stating that the slave concubine of a man who had died could not be reduced to slavery by his heirs, but rather, unless her partner had specified her continued slavery in his will, she and her children would be free, would appear to evince a concern to protect otherwise powerless women.

Historian Jonathan Harris puts it into perspective in relation to Greece, Rome and more modern times:

Yet curiously, Byzantine women did enjoy certain rights that their British and American counterparts did not receive until the nineteenth century. They could make contracts and wills, even if married, and their dowries remained their own possession, separate from their husband’s property. If the husband predeceased the wife, she took control of his property as well as her own and became the head of the household, the legal guardian of any underage children. That the theocratic empire should be more ‘modern’ in one respect than democratic Greece or republican Rome should be taken as a warning against judging past societies by our own standards.

It must surely have required the influence and unique intelligence of such a figure as Theodora to help implement this sort of change, and to in some way focus attention on the downtrodden. This was revolutionary stuff. But it also took this type of political system to allow for somebody like Theodora to even get to a point where she could exert such influence, this just would not have happened in democratic Ancient Greece, and did not happen. Justinian trusted her and Severus respected Theodora and her powerful intelligence. Again, high status women in ancient Greece were certainly respected, but systematically denied any political agency.

As Potter demonstrates, Theodora sought directly to help women who found themselves in unfortunate situations and were thus subjected to the vagaries of repressive patriarchal systems. The historian again encapsulates this in Theodora’s remarkable creation of Metanoia:

The women for whom Metanoia was intended were not high-class concubines, but rather, victims, by and large, of the ancient equivalent of sex trafficking: women from poor families who were brought to Constantinople and exploited by brothel owners. In what reads very much like a quotation from a law on the subject, Procopius explains that the emperor and Theodora, who “shared a common piety” in all they did, expelled the brothel keepers from the city. Recognising that, in eliminating the brothels, they had deprived the prostitutes of the wherewithal to earn a living, Justinian and Theodora created Metanoia, a place where women could go to recover their trauma […] As with her earlier efforts to protect child prostitutes, she treats prostitution, not as a moral issue, but as a social one, the result of economic deprivation, which she attempts to solve partly by giving pensions to Metanoia’s residents.

A lot of this would have served to impress a spiritual benevolence and deliver a strong theological message to the public of good deeds and moral sobriety. Inscribing and disseminating a strong public message would have been everything, and that is no more truer today than back then. Getting the balance right is crucial – too much radical reform can awaken dark forces, whereas too little starves the imperial image of public oxygen. Justinian would have wanted Theodora to form much of this image. After all it is her bejewelled countenance which stands out in prominence in the famous mosaic in Ravenna, not Justinian’s. But she gave him more, she became more and wanted more. She became a leader and strategist and Justinian obviously trusted her judgement. Without her it is thought that he would have most likely lost the empire. She is said to have stood firm during the Nika Revolt when, he, most probably, would have fled Constantinople.

Ancient Greece on the other hand was a place where someone of Neaera’s status enjoyed very little legal protection (or otherwise). Although rare, at certain moments human concern for her welfare shines through from her case narrative – but ultimately she was at the mercy of her legal status as both non-citizen and courtesan. 

Unfortunately the law in our contemporary world has still a remarkably long way to go – and the centuries following Theodora’s reign demonstrate little by way of progress, with an all powerful christian church emboldened to inimically determine a devastatingly narrow image of women within society. This effectively left the majority of women in the grip of stultifying repression – even with the many vaunted figures who fought to rectify this, such as the medieval countess Christine de Pizan. Helena Kennedy QC has recently revealed in her book Eve was Shamed that our legal system is still suffering from a crippling lack of reform. Insufficiently geared to help the downtrodden, Kennedy reveals a procedural platform rife with sexism such that it seems to be hewn into the structural edifice – a gordian knot of judicial imbalance. It has been oft claimed by political theorists that it is easier to identify political repression in autocratic regimes, whereas in democracies (or perhaps capitalist democracies) – with a championing of core beliefs such as freedom of speech, checks and balances – it is paradoxically much harder to identify. This truth is given stark credence when society has been up until recently thoroughly blind to systemic, institutionalised racism and interminable misogyny. These problems seem to unfortunately extend to trusted institutions like The BBC – as demonstrated when the presenter Samira Ahmed won her tribunal case for unfair discrimination in unequal pay.

As mentioned above, the nineteenth century witnessed a move towards empowering women with legal rights on a par with women of ancient Byzantium. The nineteenth century also brought about the slow birth of modern democracy – albeit without human suffrage granted to women, nor the right to vote. Perhaps for these reasons alone these ancient stories involving starkly different power regimes and structures should be compared and contrasted, if only to demonstrate how crude institutionalised subjugation often hides in broad daylight. Operating behind the veil of ‘civilisation’ this inequality is often barely acknowledged – something in the sixth century Theodora valiantly sought to in some way redress.