The women of byzantium essay example

The Byzantine Empire was uniquely cosmopolitan and offered unique rights for women, especially those of the upper class. Many of the rights that women enjoyed in Byzantium were not only absent from other cultures such as the Romans, but also would not be attained again by women until much more modern times. Reading through various pieces of scholarship about women in Byzantium proves, as one scholar writes, “ the story of women in Byzantium is not an uncontested one.” 1 However contested, the information portrays a fascinating picture of a society that, for women, was in some ways ahead of its time.
Much of Byzantium’s recorded history concerning women is about those who had elite status. This makes sense, because historians tend to write more about its leaders than its ordinary classes of people. The Empress Theodora co-ruled the Byzantine Empire with her husband Justinian for twenty years beginning in 527 AD. 2 Before their rule began, their lives were complicated by the fact that Theodora came from a lower class than Justinian; some historians believe she performed on the stage as a circus performer along with her father, and that she may have even worked as a prostitute. 3 However, the couple was in love, so in spite of the fact that “ Roman law did not allow a patrician to marry beneath him,” Justinian was able to convince the Emperor, his uncle, to have a law passed in the senate so that the two could marry. 4 The most prominent accomplishment of their joint rule was the construction of the Hagia Sophia, as well as a large cistern system, defensive city walls, homes for single mothers and former prostitutes, religious tolerance for Jews and other Christian sects, laws that banished trafficking of women, and laws altering divorce that benefited women. 5
Although Byzantine society was in general discriminatory towards women, limiting their activities, an exception to the norm at the time was the idea that women held legal and financial independence. For example, “ women had equal rights to bequeath and inherit property, and married women maintained ultimate ownership over their dowries.” 6 Additionally, lineage could be either patriarchal or matriarchal; “ Byzantine aristocrats . . . often preferred their mother’s surname if it offered greater social prestige.” 7
Marriages in Byzantium were arranged, and a female usually found herself wed as a young teen, as early as 12 or 13 years old; parents arranged the match for political gain if she was elite, or through a matchmaker “ who received a portion of the dowry” if she was of a lower class. 8 The chief duty in marriage for a woman was to produce many children, and this promoted her status; part of this was driven by religious belief, but it was also driven by a high childhood mortality rate. 9
Another fascinating aspect of the lives of Byzantium women were the court intrigues that abounded. For example, in 769 AD, Irene married Leo who became Emperor in 775 AD. 10 Some historians believe that Irene was responsible for Leo’s death, or at least had a part in the plot; there are also reports that “ Leo banned Irene from his bed when he discovered her venerating icons to explain the couple’s childlessness after 771.” 11 Leo died in 780 AD, and their son Constantine VI was to be made Emperor, but since he was only 10 years of age, Empress Irene was pronounced his reagent. 12 However, Irene did not want to give up the power she enjoyed as Empress. Like later Empresses Theophano and Zoe Porphyogenneta, Irene had a “ capacity for intrigue and assassination” influencing the selection of a new ruler—herself. 13 The struggle for power between Constantine and his mother, Empress Irene, resulted in either her or her supporters having him “ blinded, deposed, and murdered, for any blemish or handicap made a man unacceptable for rule.” 14 Upon her ascendancy to rule after the death of Constantine, Irene “ took the male title Basileus (Emperor) in preference to the usual official status of Empress.” 15 In spite of her likely association with the deaths of her husband and son, one important thing Irene did was to create the Feast of Orthodoxy, “ which is still celebrated in the Eastern Orthodox Church,” and she also resolved the Iconoclastic Controversy, for which “ the Orthodox Church made her a saint” 16.
Although life for the elite Byzantium women came with many privileges, it was not quite so liberal for the ordinary woman. Most of a woman’s time was spent within the home; in the Strategikon by Kekavmenos, he wrote, “ Keep your daughters as prisoners, confined and inconspicuous.” 17 If a woman did leave the house to attend church, a festivity, visit relatives, or visit the baths—“ the sole activities of a woman outside her own home that were socially acceptable” —she had to be accompanied. 18 Additionally, it was considered improper for women to sit at tables with men unless they were close relatives, and at home there were separate areas for men and women. 19 Interestingly, even the ordinary woman received an education including reading and writing, but unlike her elite counterparts, she likely worked in the fields or family workshops. 20 Women with greater status or financial resources could run businesses, participate in the church as a deaconess or a nun, and even have active roles in political affairs. 21 However, even at court, women were expected to be secluded in their own quarters, had to veil their faces in public, and were not allowed to appear in processions. 22
An exception to the limited education that most women in Byzantium received was Anna Comnena, who lived from 1083 AD to about 1148 AD. As the daughter of an Emperor, her “ studies included the Greek Classics, history, geography, mythology, and philosophy.” 23 She was involved in a failed attempt to place her husband, Icephorus Bryennius, on the throne, and fled to a nunnery that she and her mother founded, where she wrote 15 books that make up the famous Alexiad; for this, she is considered to be the first female historian. 24
Much more could be written about the history of the women of Byzantium. That there is controversy is unsurprising; Historian Angeliki E. Laiou brings up an interesting point when she writes that the gender issue, where women are seen as outsiders in Byzantium society, “ Might . . . mean that we see Byzantine women as outsiders in their own society because we consider women to be outsiders in ours?” 25 The lens of history is often clouded not only by the biases of the historians of its own time, but also by our current views; this is one of the things that makes exploring the lives of the women of Byzantium so fascinating, to try to sift the truth from the recordings of the past and the speculation of today.


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James, Liz. “ Carolyn L. Connor: Women of Byzantium.” The American Historical Review 110. 5 (Dec. 2005). 1581-1582.
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