Questions for classical (byzantine) scholars

Empress Theodora is famous for saying “Royal purple makes a fine burial shroud” when faced with fleeing from or standing up to a rebellion.

What language was she speaking, and what was the exact quote in that language? How loose is the above translation?

She was Greek, so probably said whatever she said in that language. If the stories are to be believed she rose from being a child prostitute to Empress.

The full quote is “Those who have worn the crown should never survive its loss. Never will I see the day when I am not saluted as Empress! Royal purple makes a fine burial shroud; I will die here rather than live hiding in exile!” and you can read more about her in Theodora: Empress, Actress, Whore, by Stella Duffy; published by Virago

The quotation comes from History of the Wars (aka The Wars of Justinian), book I, section xxiv, written in Greek by Procopius (Prokopios). You can read the original Greek and English translation side-by-side here. She was quoting an old adage that seems to have been “καλον ενταφιον η βασιλεια εστι” (I don’t know how to type the diacritical marks). This seems to mean that royalty (not purple) is a good burial shroud. Keep in mind that my Greek is almost non-existent, so I defer to more knowledgeable posters if they disagree with me.

Could just as easily mean that the empire is a perfect tomb. Anybody got some historical context handy?

I believe it was during the Nika Riots. One of the crazier episodes in Byzantine history, basically the Byzantine equivalent of a football riot, which cost 10s of thousands of lives.

Well, a football riot that almost overthrows the current rulers (to the point that a usurper had been named by the rioters). And the tens of thousands dead were the rioters, after the losing rulers (Justinian and Theodora) called in the Army to settle the issue.

Theodora’s insistence that she’d rather die the Empress than live as a former Empress apparently shamed Justinian into staying, bribing the part of the crowd that was already somewhat partial to him, and then summoning his generals to kill the rest.

Worst sports riot ever.

You know how you’ll sometimes hear that Justinian was a complete dick, but you could never completely understand why? Well, it’s this sort of thing. “Hmm, abdicate, or massacre the population of my own capital? Massacre it is, then.”

But, yeah, sure. Blame Theodora. It’s always the wife’s fault. :wink:

To confirm, Bασίλεια means reign, royalty or kingship. Nowt to do with purple, although this colour was, of course, connected to the role for a long period, including the one in question: [Tyrian purple]( purple)


Yeah, it’s related to basileus, meaning king, which y’all might recognize. The “purple” phrasing sure is nice, though, even if it’s a slightly creative translation.

I’m sorry that I wasn’t more precise. By historical context, I didn’t mean the Nika riots or the Byzantine Empire, I meant whether the specific place and time give any indication of the connotation of the words ενταφιον or βασιλεια. The well-known translation implies that ενταφιον means “burial shroud,” but the more common definitions appear to be “grave gift” or “tomb” (presumably a large and sumptuous one). The same translation implies that βασιλεια means “royalty” or “kingship,” but it can also connote the kingdom (or empire) itself - its lands and its people. And καλον means an ideal, the highest expression of a thing.

Since Theodora was quoting an adage, one might presume that she meant more or less what the author meant, or one might conclude she was being ironic (and maybe a tad bitter). Does anyone know what the adage itself connotes? Was Theodora saying that the mere fact of dying with the crown is an excellent thing to be buried with, or that the ruins of one’s own Empire are a fitting place to be buried?

While the byzantine empire and emperors spoke greek in the later years of the empire, Justinian was the last Latin speaking emperor, he did know greek but he spoke it with a heavy accent and was probably more comfortable with latin., but latin was the language of the royalty. I know the question is about Theodora, she was speaking to Justinian and she also probably spoke latin.

Well, to be fair, it’s not like abdication meant “go live in Paris with a royal stipend” like in 1937. He wasn’t prioritizing death to all, over tending a rose garden in quiet contemplation in retirement.

This won’t address the original question, which I think is safely answered and long forgotten anyway, but the quote seems to be based on “Tyranny is a beautiful shroud,” supposedly said by Heloris of Dionysius I around 130 years earlier. It is often thought that Procopius, who was very critical of the emperor, may have made up Theodora’s quote to paint Justinian as being less brave than a woman.