Married to the Empire
The ranks of Eastern Orthodox saints are filled with celibates and monastics, but not all Orthodox saints followed such paths. Some saints had families and lived "in the world," and sometimes a husband and wife team were honored together. Such is the case with Justinian and Theodora, who enjoyed a long and intellectually fruitful marriage while holding positions of worldly power as rulers of the Byzantine Empire.
When Justinian and Theodora ascended the throne during the mid-sixth century, the entire western empire was in disarray. Barbarian invasions disrupted lines of communication, making governing almost impossible. Over the 40 years of his rule, Justinian made reunion a central goal: "We hope that God will return us the lands which the ancient Romans ruled as far as two oceans," Justinian wrote, but the center of Roman life had shifted to Byzantium and the old unity would not be seen again.
Justinian was more successful as a builder. The great Monastery of St. Catherine on Mt. Sinai was built at his command. He constructed basilicas in Ravenna, Italy, and elsewhere, but the crown of all Byzantine churches is the celebrated Hagia Sophia, in Constantinople (Istanbul, Turkey), which he built in 537. The glorious, multi-domed church served Christians for 800 years.Â After Constantinople fell to Turkish invaders 500 years ago, Hagia Sophia became a Mosque.
While her husband was building churches, formalizing a code of law, and attempting to reunite the empire, Theodora took on the role of moral reformer. Biographers discreetly note that she had led a dissolute youth; perhaps in her name, Theodora or "Gift of God," we can see a glimpse of her repentance. She was a courageous and strong-willed woman, even more steadfast than ...