17. Empress Theodora (500 AD?-548 AD)
A former actress for the royal courts, Theodora married Justinian, the son of the Emperor, and two years later they became co-rulers of the Byzantine Empire. During their early years, over 30,000 people started to riot against the new Emperor and even proclaimed their own emperor, Hypatius. Justinian and his officials weren’t able to control the mob and started preparing to run. It was Theodora that stopped them in their tracks and reminded them that it’d be better to die as a ruler than live as an exile. Justinian listened, and ordered his troops to attack the protesters and ended up killing all of the rebels, including Hypatius.
Together, the two transformed Constantinople into a modern, powerful city. She commissioned building projects across the land that included churches, bridges, and aqueducts, and even The Hague in Sophia. Theodora was an early advocate for women’s rights. Under her reign, women were given more assets following divorce, allowed to own property, and granted guardianship of their own children. She passed laws outlawing brothels and the practice of forced prostitution, making rape a capital offense, and stopped the practice of killing an adulterous wife. Her work led to her sainthood by the Eastern Orthodox Church.