Saga BAckground: Women


There was an ambivalence toward women in the patriarchal society of Byzantium, best symbolized by the frequently expressed antithesis between Eve, endlessly reviled as the temptress who persuaded Adam to eat of the forbidden Tree of Knowledge and thus was the cause of original sin, and the Virgin Mary, venerated as the pure and immaculate Mother of God, whose Son came to cleanse mankind of its sins and offer the possibility of salvation and eternal life. The ninth-century poet Kassia neatly summed up the dual nature of women in the exchange she is reported to have had with Emperor Theophilos. When he pointedly attacked Eve, stating that "a woman was the fount and source of all man's tribulation," Kassia immediately sprang to the defense of her sex, retorting that "and from a woman sprang the course of man's regeneration."

There was always a tension in Byzantium between the Christian ascetic ideal of virginity and celibacy, and the promotion of marriage, which provided a legitimized outlet for sexual relations and the procreation of children, indispensable for the perpetuation of the population. Marriage was, after all, a sacrament of the church, and the family was the basic unit of society. The most important role of women was to bear children, and it is as mothers that they are most often praised. There are frequent descriptions of women as tender and loving nurturers, who were concerned not only for the physical well-being of their offspring but also for their spiritual welfare, teaching them the Psalms and telling Bible stories or tales of holy men and women. In romances, women are praised for their beauty, and their loving relationships are portrayed in a positive fashion.

On the other hand, women were constantly viewed with suspicion as sexual temptresses, were considered periodically unclean during menstrual periods and for forty days after childbirth, and were characterized as weak and untrustworthy. As a result, they were the victims of many forms of discrimination, for example, in some aspects of their legal status, in their access to education, and in their freedom of movement. They were also negatively portrayed in literature, both overtly and through unconscious choice of language and metaphors, such as the description of sins as female.

With few exceptions, those rare women who were considered to have attained sanctity were consecrated virgins and thus had rejected sexuality, or were widows whose conjugal life had ended. The ideal for saintly women was to deny their femininity and emulate men; some female ascetics ate so little that their breasts shriveled up and their menstrual periods ceased. It is significant that abbesses were encouraged to marshal their troops, to heal spiritually ailing nuns, to supervise a rigorous training regimen for their charges, even though the role of general, physician, and athletic trainer was normally limited to men. Even the occasional woman writer was not always immune from presenting a negative stereotype of her sex. Thus Theodora Synadene, the foundress of the Palaiologan con-vent of the Virgin of Sure Hope, urged its abbess to rise above her innate feminine weakness, to "gird her loins in a manly fashion," and to assume a manly and masculine temperament. A few years earlier, the dowager empress Theodora Palaiologina, foundress of the nunnery of Lips, stated that women are weak by nature and require strong protection.

Byzantine legislation did protect some rights of women, for example, their rights to inherit and bequeath property. Sons and daughters were entitled to equal portions of the family property. A woman was assured of her ultimate ownership of the dowry that her family presented to her husband at the time of marriage. This right to inherit and transmit family property enabled many women to amass considerable wealth, which they could use for patronage of the arts, for charitable purposes, to found a monastery, to buy more land, or to invest in a business. However, much legislation, for example, the laws on divorce and adultery, discriminated against women and placed them in a disadvantageous position. Women did go to court to appear as plaintiffs, defendants, or witnesses, but in general their testimony was considered less reliable than that of men. A synodal act of 1400 declared that the evidence of a certain Anna Palaiologina was not trustworthy because she was a woman and because she contradicted herself. The provision of the Institutes of Justinian that women could not witness a will was repeated by later legislation. Novel 48 of Leo VI forbade women to act as witnesses for business contracts, justifying the new law on the grounds that women should not frequent law courts where a lot of men are present and should not become involved in matters belonging to the male domain. The same law did provide, however, that women should be permitted to testify in certain situations pertaining to the female sphere, for example, with regard to the birth of a child. Moreover, despite the legal prohibitions, a number of documents hear the signatures of women witnesses.

The Three Phases of Women's Lives

The life of the average Byzantine woman can be divided into three stages: girlhood, the period of marriage and motherhood, and, finally, if she survived her husband, widowhood and old age.


Childhood was brief and perilous in Byzantium, even more so for girls since boys received preferential treatment. Parents prayed for male children and rejoiced twice as much at the birth of a boy, as we are told in a poem of Theodore Prodromos. There is some evidence of the use of female infanticide (by suffocation or abandonment along the roadside) to control the size of families, even though the practice was forbidden by both civil and canon law. Girls seem to have been weaned somewhat earlier than their brothers and were thus more vulnerable in infancy and early childhood to infectious diseases. As a result, their mortality was evidently somewhat higher than that of boys.

There were few educational opportunities for girls. They probably did not attend regular schools, but from the age of six or seven were taught at home by their parents or tutors. The reference made by Michael Psellos to the "fellow students" of his daughter Styliane suggests that sometimes a tutor may have taught a group of girls. More formal lessons were provided at convents, but they were usually limited to young orphans being raised at the nunnery or youthful novices who planned to take vows. With few exceptions, education for girls was limited to learning to read and write, memorizing the Psalms, and studying the Scriptures. Women of the aristocracy had more opportunities to pursue learning, and a number of them developed a serious interest in literature. Nonetheless, even a woman like Irene Choumnaina, who was praised by a contemporary historian for her depth of knowledge and her devotion to the study of the Scriptures and ecclesiastical doctrine, wrote letters marred by errors in spelling and grammar. Only in unusual circum-stances, such as that of the imperial princess Anna Komnene, did a young girl read a wide range of ancient authors and study a variety of disciplines; and even in her case, as George Tornikes relates, her parents did not at first encourage her study of secular literature.

Information on the activities of girls before marriage is extremely limited but suggests that unmarried maidens spent most of their time in the seclusion of their homes, protected from the gaze of strange men and from threats to their virginity. When imperial messengers arrived at the home of Philaretos the Merciful in search of a suitable bride for Emperor Constantine VI, Philaretos was distressed when they asked to see his grand-daughters, "for even though we are poor, our daughters have never left their chambers." Theodore of Stoudios commended his mother for her protection of her daughter from contact with men, and Kekaumenos advised fathers to keep their daughters confined and invisible. If girls did leave their homes for such socially acceptable purposes as attending church services, they were strictly chaperoned by parents, relatives, or maidservants. The Life of St. Nikon mentions a girl who was sent to the well by her mother to fetch water, but she evidently belonged to a lower-class family.

Thus young girls devoted most of their youth to learning domestic skills in preparation for married life and running a household. They would learn to spin, weave, and embroider at an early age. One of the few surviving descriptions of girlhood is found in the encomium written by Michael Psellos for his only daughter Styliane, who died at the age of about nine or ten, probably of smallpox. He praises her piety, modesty, and skill with the needle; as a scholar he also approved of her devotion to learning. Styliane attended church services regularly, both matins and vespers, enjoyed singing the Psalms and hymns, and was very attached to certain icons. At a tender age she became engaged in charitable work, helping to care for the sick and poor. The child was openly affectionate, embracing and kissing her parents and sitting on their knees; her death was a great blow to Psellos and his wife.

One of the few forms of recreation available to young girls was excursions to a public bath, where they might linger to chat with friends and share a picnic. A well-brought-up young woman like Theophano, the future wife of Leo VI, did not venture forth to the bath until dusk so as to reduce the chances of being exposed to the glances of strangers; she was carefully chaperoned by servants while outside the house. Girls also accompanied their parents on outings to visit shrines, see a holy man, or watch a procession. They had dolls made of wax or clay, and played catch with a soft leather ball or a game similar to jacks (pentalitha) using five stones. They also enjoyed games of make-believe: Theodoret of Cyrrhus describes little girls who dressed up as monks and demons. The biographer of Symeon the Fool, however, looked askance at girls singing in the street, remarking that they would grow up to be prostitutes.

Marriage And Motherhood


For most girls in Byzantium, childhood came to an abrupt end with the onset of puberty, which was usually soon followed by betrothal and marriage. Early marriage and procreation of children was the norm in Byzantium; the only alternative for teenage girls was entrance into a convent. Byzantine legislation originally permitted betrothal of a girl after the age of seven a figure later raised to twelve. The laws were frequently ignored, however, and children as young as five years old might become engaged. The minimum age for marriage was twelve for girls and fourteen for boys, but the more normal age at marriage may have been closer to fifteen and twenty respectively. Very rarely we read of women marrying in their twenties, as in the case of Thomais of Lesbos who did not take a husband until she was twenty-four. One reason for the promotion of teenage marriage was the emphasis on the virginity of the bride. Another, unstated reason may have been the desire to make the most of the childbearing years; because of the high rate of infant mortality, a woman had to bear many children to insure the survival of a few. Furthermore, since many women died young (if they survived infancy, they had an average life expectancy of about thirty-five years), it behooved them to marry and begin producing children as soon as physically possible.

Marriages were arranged by the parents, for whom economic considerations and family connections were paramount. The betrothal ceremony included the presentation of arrha sponsalicia, a prenuptial gift, by the family of the groom, and took on the nature of a formal contract guaranteeing the engagement. If the girl broke off the engagement, her family had to return the engagement gift to the groom, supplemented by a like sum. If the groom terminated the engagement, the girl was entitled to retain the arrha. Normally girls accepted the bridegroom selected by their families, although there was occasional resistance, both by girls who preferred to take monastic vows and live as consecrated virgins, and by girls who violently objected to the groom selected for them. A twelve-year-old girl from Epiros, for example, betrothed from the age of five, threatened suicide if she was forced to go through with the marriage; her family managed to have the betrothal annulled in the courts. The records of the ecclesiastical courts preserve evidence of the tragic results of some of the premature betrothals and marriages, such as a girl whose marriage was consummated at age eleven, causing permanent damage to her sexual organs. Around the year 1300, Simonis, the daughter of Emperor Andronikos II, married at age five to the middle-aged ruler of Serbia, was also injured by premature sexual intercourse so that she was rendered incapable of childbearing.

The presentation of a dowry to the bridegroom by the bride's parents was an essential element of marriage. The bride retained life ownership of the dowry, which represented her share of her family inheritance, but her husband was granted the usufruct of the cash or property and rights over its administration. If the husband predeceased his wife or the marriage ended in divorce, the wife was entitled to recover full control of the dowry. On the other hand, if she predeceased her husband, then the dowry reverted to her family (if she was childless) or was inherited by her children, although the husband continued to administer it as long as he lived. The marriage contract also provided for the husband to make a substantial gift to his wife. Originally called the donatio propter nuptias ("marriage gift") and in the Justinianic period equal in amount to the dowry, the husband's required contribution decreased over the centuries. From the ninth century on, this gift was termed hypobolon, and typically was one-half to one-third the size of the dowry. If the husband died first and the couple was childless, his wife received the full hypobolon; if there were children, she shared the hypobolon with them. From the tenth century on, a supplemental wedding gift by the groom, the theoretron, is also attested. It amounted to one-twelfth of the dowry, was completely under the control of the wife, and remained her exclusive property if the marriage was terminated by death or divorce.

Romantic Love

Although arrangement of marriage by parents was the norm, romantic love affairs were by no means unknown in Byzantium. At the upper levels of society, one could mention Andronikos I's passionate attachment to Philippa, daughter of Raymond of Poitiers, with whom he dallied in Antioch, and his affair with his cousin Theodora Komnene, with whom he eloped to the Caucasus. The Life of Irene of Chrysobalanton preserves the sad tale of an engaged couple from Cappadocia. The young woman decided to break off the betrothal and take monastic vows in Constantinople, but soon realized that she had made a terrible mistake: she was hopelessly consumed with love for her fiance, tried in vain to escape from the convent, and threatened to commit suicide if she could not see him. The young man also could not forget his betrothed and resorted to a sorcerer to help him regain his lost love. In the end the abbess Irene was herself forced to burn figurines of the embracing lovers in order to rid the nun of her passionate attachment to her former betrothed. The same work tells the story of the vinedresser Nicholas who fell in love with a nun at the convent whose vineyard he tended.

A sympathy for romantic love is reflected in the continuing popularity, at least in some circles, of late antique romances and the revival of this genre beginning in the twelfth century. They were sometimes interpreted allegorically as the struggle of the soul for salvation and its yearning for God, but must also have been enjoyed as works of escapist adventure. The epic poem Digenes Akritas includes many romantic episodes, notably Digenes' wooing of Eudokia. The youthful hero, who catches sight of Eudokia leaning from her window, is so smitten with her beauty that he is unable to eat or drink and returns to her castle to steal her away.

Wedding Ceremonies

Weddings consisted of the marriage rite and the attendant ceremonies and celebrations. Following a ritual bath, the bride donned white garments and left for the church. There the couple was blessed by a priest, who placed marriage crowns on their heads; the bride and groom also exchanged rings and shared a cup of wine. The couple was then escorted to the groom's house by a joyful crowd of well-wishers who sang special marriage songs called epithalamia. A wedding feast ensued, during the course of which the newly married couple retired to their bedroom. There the groom presented his bride with a marriage belt and their union was consummated while the wedding guests continued their revelries. In Digenes Akritas, the festivities lasted for three months.

The Conception and Birth of Children

The primary purpose of marriage was the procreation of children, who would continue the family line, transmit family property from one generation to the next, support their parents in old age, and assure their proper burial and posthumous commemoration. Hence barrenness was a great sorrow for a woman and her husband; Digenes Akritas and his wife were saddened daily by "the unquenchable and most grievous flame of childlessness." A common theme in hagiography is the infertility of the future saint's parents, suggesting that this may indeed have been a problem for many couples in the medieval period. The parents of the future saintly empress Theophano (the first wife of Leo VI), for example, lamented their inability to have a child, viewing it as a fate "more bitter than death." They finally managed to conceive a child after daily visits to a church in Constantinople, where they entreated the Virgin with lengthy prayers to bless them with a baby. Some women resorted to concoctions made from rabbit blood, goose fat, or turpentine, which were rumored to promote fertility. Other sterile couples had recourse to physicians. In the Life of Antony the Younger, a landowner promised a doctor one-third of his estate if he could help them have a child. The physician (who was really the saint in disguise) demanded instead a payment of ten warhorses, to which the husband readily agreed. Magical fertility amulets were also a popular means of warding off barrenness. Some women became so desperate that they feigned pregnancy and delivery, presenting their husbands with a supposititious heir acquired from a poor woman who could not afford to raise another child. Other couples adopted a baby, as did Michael Psellos after the death of Styliane. At the time of intercourse, the husband and wife might use various folk remedies or superstitious practices in an effort to influence the sex of the child they hoped to conceive.

Most women were anxious to produce a large number of children in order to insure the survival of a few, and did not attempt to practice any form of birth control. Breast-feeding, which normally lasted two to three years, served as a natural (although unreliable) form of contraception, and thus helped to space out the arrival of children. Even so, in some cases where precise figures on the birth dates of children in a given family are available, they were born only a year or so apart, but we do not know whether these babies were breast-fed. The mother of Gregory Palamas, for example, gave birth to five children in eight years, as did Helena Sphrantzes, the wife of the fifteenth-century historian. The fate of Helena's children vividly illustrates the high infant mortality of the era, as only two of the five children survived; of the others, one died at eight days, one at thirty days, and the third just before his sixth birthday.

Women normally delivered their children at home with the assistance of a midwife and female relatives or neighbors. Manuscript illustrations show women giving birth in seated and standing positions, and lying on a bed, and a birthing chair is included in a list of surgical instruments. In special circumstances, women might go to lying-in hospitals, as in the case of destitute refugee women in seventh-century Alexandria. Patriarch John the Almsgiver established seven maternity wards in various parts of the city, each ward containing forty beds. The women were permitted to remain at these hospitals for a week after they had given birth, and were then given one-third of a gold coin on their departure.

In cases of difficult labor or complications in childbirth, women resorted to medical, magical, and spiritual assistance. Thus Anna, the mother of St. Theophano, was miraculously aided during a painful labor by the girdle that her husband brought her from a church of the Virgin. A woman in labor for twenty days was finally able to give birth after St. Luke the Stylite offered her some holy bread and water. The Life of St. Ignatios relates the tale of a woman who was unable to deliver because the baby was incorrectly positioned. The surgeons were prepared to perform an embryotomy, that is, to cut up and remove the fetus in order to save the mother. The baby's life was spared, however, for a piece of the saint's cloak placed on the abdomen of the mother enabled the delivery to proceed normally. It was in fact sometimes necessary for physicians, as a final resort, to proceed with the embryotomy, and lists of surgical instruments include tools for dismembering a fetus. There is no evidence that Byzantine surgeons performed Caesarean sections. Higher female mortality resulted in part from the perils of childbearing, as women died prematurely from miscarriages, complications of delivery, and from infection or hemorrhage during the postpartum period. The process of child-birth was regarded as unclean, and the new mother was excluded from communion for forty days after delivery, unless she was in danger of dying.

The newly delivered infant was bathed and tightly swaddled. Most women breast-fed their babies, but wet nurses were used if the mother's milk failed or if she died in childbirth. There is also evidence that women of the upper classes were more likely to use wet nurses as a matter of convenience. A party was held to celebrate the birth of the child, and relatives, friends, and neighbors came to visit the parents and wish the baby health and long life.

Contraception and Abortion

If a couple did decide to limit the number of children after two or three of their offspring had survived the dangerous childhood years, one method of birth control was total abstinence from sexual intercourse; henceforth husband and wife lived together as brother and sister. Little information survives on the subject of contraceptive devices and potions, hut it seems that they were used primarily by prostitutes, adulterous married women, or unmarried women engaged in an illicit love affair. These women might make use of herbal ointments or suppositories that served as spermicides or barriers preventing fertilization of the egg; the vaginal pessaries were usually made of wool soaked in honey, alum, white lead, or olive oil. Women might also resort to magical means of contraception, such as the amulets recommended by Aetios of Amida consisting of a portion of a cat's liver or (even more impractical) of the womb of a lioness worn in an ivory tube attached to the left foot.

Abortion was strongly condemned by both civil and canon law, and was punished with such penalties as exile, flogging, or excommunication Yet inevitably many women resorted to it to terminate unwanted pregnancies, especially prostitutes and other single women, such as slave girls who feared the wrath of their masters, or even nuns. Thus, before she married Emperor Justinian, the actress/prostitute Theodora reportedly underwent many abortions. On one occasion, however, her pregnancy was sufficiently advanced that she was unsuccessful in aborting it and bore a son. Prokopios comments that she probably would have killed the unwanted infant, but he was rescued by his father. A fourteenth-century synodal document records the case of a nun from the Constantinopolitan convent of St. Andrew in Krisei who had intercourse with Joasaph, a monk from the Hodegon monastery. When she became pregnant, Joasaph sought out a physician-sorcerer from whom he purchased an abortifacient potion for the substantial sum of 5 gold hyperpyra plus a cloak and a glass vessel from Alexandria. The drug did produce the desired effect, but the monk's transgression came to light and he was punished by the synod. Another method of inducing abortions was to place a heavy weight on the abdomen.

Running the Household

In Byzantium the running of a domestic household was labor-intensive: food was prepared from scratch, cosmetics and ointments were concocted, and all stages of garment making from carding wool to sewing the cloth into garments were carried out in the home. In lower-class households, women performed these necessary duties themselves, for example, child care and food preparation (sometimes including the grinding of grain). The wife of Philaretos the Merciful baked bread, gathered wild greens, and roasted meats. Women were responsible for cleaning and laundering as well as for domestic cloth making. Women of the upper classes instructed and supervised maidservants in these tasks but seem to have remained involved in spinning and weaving despite their social status. As George Tornikes commented in his funeral oration for Anna Komnene, "women are born for spinning and weaving." Even though there were professional male weavers, the distaff and loom were inextricably linked with women in the popular consciousness, and cloth making was considered to be the most appropriate occupation for them. Michael Psellos criticized the eleventh-century empress Zoe because she did not engage in the activities normally performed by women, namely, spinning and weaving. Wives of artisans may have assisted their husbands in the workshop, which was normally located in the same building as the living quarters. In the countryside the concept of household was even broader, peasant women's domain extended to the garden and vineyard out-the house.

Dress and Jewelry

Because of the prevalent ideal of modesty for Byzantine women, they wore garments that concealed virtually all of their body except for their hands. Typical garb was a full-length, long-sleeved tunic, with additional layers added as necessary for warmth. Lower-class women might wear sleeveless tunics. Proper women were always expected to have their heads covered when they were out in public, wearing the maphorion, a jet-length veil, over a tight headdress that concealed their hair.

Despite these restrictions, however, women of means devoted much to their personal appearance, spending large sums of money on woven fabrics, sometimes embroidered and encrusted with precious stones. They further adorned their garments with brooches and jeweled sashes or belts, and wore elegant headdresses. They adorned their hair hairpins and ornamented mesh nets and bands. The numerous preserved examples of jewelry, including earrings, bracelets, and necklaces, demonstrate the fine workmanship of Byzantine goldsmiths and the wealth of the upper classes, as well as the popularity of costume jewelry among poorer women. Much to the dismay of the church fathers, women tried to enhance their natural beauty with cosmetics: they used bean flour to wash their faces, powdered their faces to make their complexion fairer, reddened their lips and cheeks, dyed their eyebrows black, and used eye shadow and hair dye.

Marital Relations, Divorce, and Adultery

As in other societies in which betrothals are arranged by the parents, couples in Byzantium had no expectation of romantic love in marriage but wed their union as a sacrament ordained by God for the perpetuation of the family and, secondarily, as the merger of the economic assets of two families. The woman was expected to be obedient and subservient to husband, to produce heirs, and to run the household. For the most the arranged marriage seems to have worked well, and often true affection and even love developed between husband and wife. There were instances, however, in which the couple was incompatible, and sometimes marital discord led to adultery, divorce, or flight to a monastery. A synodal document records the sad outcome of premature marriage: a girl married at the age of eight came to detest her husband to such a degree after a period of five years that the synod agreed to annul the original betrothal on the grounds that it was made in contravention of canon law.

Husbands often beat their wives, sometimes as the result of excessive drinking, other times in anger at their wives' behavior or excessive spending of the family fortunes. Some of these battered wives endured their plight stoically, and some took refuge in a convent. The reverse situation was not unknown, as in Prodromos' description of a henpecked husband. Some men supported concubines, either because they failed to find satisfaction in their marriage or because their wives could not have children. Concubines usually, but not always, came from the lower classes and might be maidservants. Both men and women might be driven by un happy marital relationships to engage in adultery, although it was severely condemned by both civil and canon law. In the early centuries of the empire, civil law specified death as the punishment for adultery; later legislation provided for the more lenient penalty of mutilation, cutting off the nose of both guilty parties. A woman convicted of adultery was some-times sent to a convent in punishment; her husband was then entitled to her dowry. Civil law applied a double standard for adultery: husbands were punished only for engaging in sexual relations with a married woman. Canon law punished adultery with excommunication and penance.

Although both civil and canon law emphasized the indissolubility of marriage, some unhappy couples decided to go through with a formal divorce procedure. Legislation restricted justifiable causes for divorce: under Justinian a husband could seek a divorce if his wife was guilty of adultery or inappropriate behavior, such as dining or bathing with strange men, or attending circus games or the theater without his consent. Other grounds for divorce were insanity or the impotence of the husband. An alternative to divorce was the separation of the couple to enter monastic life, often on the basis of an amicable agreement, but sometimes as a solution to an intolerable marital situation.

Widowhood and Old Age

Although female life expectancy in Byzantium was lower than that of men, widowhood was still a common phenomenon: husbands tended to be older than their wives and thus were likely to predecease them; also many men died in battle. Second marriages were permitted by law but condemned by some moral rigorists. The traditional image of the widow was that of an unfortunate and helpless woman, linked in the popular perception with orphans and the poor. Christians were urged to be solicitous of widows, who were singled out for special charitable distributions. Some philanthropic institutions called cherotropheia were established especially to house indigent widows. Some women who lost their husbands entered convents where they found physical sustenance and emotional support.

In Byzantium, however, as in other societies, widowhood was a stage in which many women achieved the greatest esteem and power. Since widows were normally middle-aged or elderly, they were no longer viewed as sexual temptresses but as mature, reliable, and respectable. In the early church there was a special ecclesiastical order of widows who performed charitable services. Numerous widows attained greater financial security by recovering total control over their dowries; many of the most generous Byzantine patronesses were in fact widows at the time when they founded churches or monasteries or commissioned works of art. Danelis, who owned vast estates in the Peloponnese in the ninth century, is an example of an extremely wealthy widow. Many widows became heads of households, even when they lived with adult sons.

Beyond the Household: Women Outside the Home

As mentioned earlier, young girls, especially those of good family, ere carefully chaperoned to protect their virginity and reputations. With regard to married women, there were wide variations in practice, depending on the woman's social class, whether she resided in the city or the countryside, and perhaps on the era in which she lived. Peasant women obviously had to spend a great deal of time outside the house, tending garden and feeding the chickens. Poorer urban women, who had no servants, had to do their own shopping and sometimes held jobs outside home. Since they lived in small houses, there were no separate woman quarters to which they could retire. Middle- and upper-class women, the other hand, tended to be more confined to their homes and may have spent most of their time in certain rooms reserved for their use. The historian Agathias commented that after the earthquake of 557 the social order in Constantinople was disrupted, as women of the nobility mingled freely with men in the streets. Likewise in 1042 during the popular rebelion that overthrew Emperor Michael V and brought Zoe to the throne, Psellos remarked with amazement that some women, "whom nobody till then had seen outside the women's quarters, [were] appearing in public shouting and beating their breasts and lamenting terribly at the empress's misfortune." He also noted that young girls joined the mob attacked and destroyed mansions belonging to the family of Michael The historian Attaleiates, when describing the earthquake that struck Constantinople in 1068, commented that women forgot their innate modesty and ran into the streets. In the mid-fourteenth century, the noble women of Constantinople rushed to Hagia Sophia to help clear the rubble when the church's great dome partially collapsed during another earth-quake.

In wartime, especially during sieges, women left their homes to help defend their city, carrying stones to repair the walls or for use in catapults and slingshots, bringing wine and water to the thirsty troops, and nursing the wounded. Sometimes women even assumed military command, as when Irene, wife of Emperor John VI Kantakouzenos, was placed in charge of the garrison at Didymoteichon during the civil war of 1341-47, or in 1348 when she took responsibility for the defense of Constantinople during her husband's absence. Even in ordinary circumstances, however, women were frequently to be found outside the home, for work and for worship, for recreation and for burial of the dead.

Working Women

As we have seen, women's primary duties within the home were raising children, preparing food, and making cloth. Many of the jobs that women held outside their own homes were an extension of these basic household occupations. Women employed as cooks, bakers, and washerwomen were performing traditional female labor but were paid to perform this work for other households or for institutions. There is evidence that some women made cloth not just for their own families but on a larger scale in urban workshops. A short eleventh-century treatise by Michael Psellos describes a Constantinopolitan festival of Agathe, held on II May, which was celebrated by women engaged in the carding and spinning of wool and the weaving of cloth. The festival included church services as well as dancing; at one point in the ceremonies the participants evidently gathered around a representation (in fresco?) of women carding and weaving, some less skillfully than others; the incompetent workers were whipped in punishment. These women may have been members of a cloth makers' guild. There is even firmer evidence that women were associated with the silk makers' guild.

There is very little data about women working as other kinds of artisans, although they probably assisted their husbands or sons, as suggested by the panel on an ivory casket in Darmstadt which depicts Eve working the bellows in a smithy while Adam is at the forge.

Women were also active in retail trade, especially as the sellers of groceries; female purveyors of bread, vegetables, fish, and milk are at-tested. This was no doubt seen as a suitable occupation for women be-cause many of their dealings were with other women (or their maidservants) doing the grocery shopping. Retail vendors sometimes peddled their goods from house to house, thus obviating the need for their customers to leave their homes. Neither cloth production nor retail trade was exclusively limited to women, however, since the sources describe male weavers, grocers, butchers, and fishmongers.

Women not only worked as salaried employees in retail operations, sometimes owned the stores or workshops themselves. The sources mention women owners or part owners of an ointment/perfume shop and a dairy shop; they also ran exchange offices, engaged in trade, invested mining operations, and owned mills.

Another category of professions is those involving intimate contact women and/or children which were necessarily practiced by women: examples are matchmakers, gynecologists, attendants in the female ward a hospital, midwives, wet nurses, children's nurses, maidservants, deaconesses, hairdressers, and attendants at public baths for women. The sources mention with some frequency female physicians, who not only served as obstetricians and gynecologists but may also have cared for suffering from a variety of ailments. One of the physicians at the ward of the hospital at the Pantokrator monastery in Constantinople was female, as were all the nurses and nursing assistants. These nurses received the same pay as male attendants at the hospital, but, for reasons hat remain unclear, the sole woman doctor received half the salary of her male colleagues (3 instead of 6 nomismata) and a smaller ration of grain (26 modioi instead of 36). It is curious that at the hospital of the Lips convent, which had twelve beds reserved for women, the staff was exclusively male with the exception of the washerwoman. Female doctors and midwives were sometimes called as expert witnesses in lawsuits, for example, to pronounce on the virginity of a bride, to determine whether a woman was pregnant, or to attest to the birth of a child.

One should also group together disreputable occupations such as prostitutes, innkeepers and tavern keepers (who frequently functioned as prostitutes on the side), and public entertainers (dancers, actresses).

There is little information on the work of peasant women. In addition to cultivating gardens near their homes and tending domestic fowl, they occasionally worked in the vineyards, as vinedressers and harvesters, and might help with reaping grain, as is suggested by a panel on a tenth-century ivory pyxis in New York depicting Adam cutting wheat with a sickle while Eve carries the harvested sheaves on her shoulders. A thirteenth-century text states, however, that women assisted with the grain harvest only under abnormal circumstances, such as wartime. The biographer of Cyril Phileotes relates that the saint's wife worked the land with the help of her children, while he retired into seclusion within their home. Some girls and women worked as shepherdesses; an unusual case is that of the Vlach women who pastured sheep on Mount Athos. This was viewed as a great scandal, especially when it was learned that they were delivering cheese and milk to the monasteries.

Activities Outside the Home

Entertainment and Diversions

Like their young daughters, married women spent most of their day at home, primarily in the company of relatives and servants. They some-times kept birds or small dogs as pets. Evidently the family dined together on everyday occasions; but if there were male guests, well-bred women stayed in their chambers. Still there were numerous reasons for excursions outside the home: to the public baths, to churches for services, to shrines to visit relics, to see a holy man, and to attend religious processions and funerals as well as family celebrations such as the birth of a child or a wedding. It was considered unseemly for a woman to attend chariot races or other spectacles at the Hippodrome; Justinianic legislation established that a husband could sue for divorce if his wife engaged in such inappropriate behavior. Only rarely did women of the aristocracy or empresses go hunting on horseback.

Religious Activity

Worship and Pilgrimage. As in other societies in which women lead a relatively secluded existence, religious worship played a vital part in the lives of the women of Byzantium. For laywomen, attendance at church services and processions and visits to shrines provided socially approved opportunities for them to leave their homes, in addition to satisfying emotional and spiritual needs.

Women of the upper classes were able to attend services in private chapels attached to their houses, but the majority frequented churches in their own neighborhoods or even at some distance from their homes. Thus the pious St. Mary the Younger walked to church twice a day, in all sorts of weather, even though she had to cross a stream to reach the church. Her biographer tells us, however, that she remained in the darkest part of the church to worship and that when she moved to a larger city, she said her prayers at home so as to avoid the crowds in public places of worship. Within the church building, women were separated from men, being relegated either to an upper gallery or to a side aisle, depending on the size and plan of the structure. The early fourteenth-century patriarch Athanasios I suggested one rationale for such segregation of the sexes when he criticized noblewomen who came to Hagia Sophia not out of piety but to show off their jewels and finery and painted faces. Later in the century a Russian pilgrim described how at the same church the women stood behind translucent silken draperies in the galleries so that they could observe the services without being seen by the men in the congregation.

A favorite activity for women was visiting shrines, where they prayed the health and salvation of themselves and their families, or might a miraculous cure from illness or injury. We are told that Thomais Lesbos, who became a saint even though she was married and had used to pray at churches in various parts of Constantinople, even naming for nocturnal vigils at the sanctuary of the Virgin at Blachernai. During the early centuries of the empire, some women, especially those from the imperial family or members of the aristocracy, made the long pilgrimage to the Holy Land. After the Arab conquests of the seventh century, however, women rarely ventured to make this perilous journey and restricted their travels to local shrines.

Involvement in Religious Controversy. Excluded for the most part from participation in political life, many women became ardently involved in the religious controversies of the day. In the eighth and ninth centuries, for example, when the emperors adopted a policy of Iconoclasm, forbidding the veneration of images, women were in the forefront - the opposition. They were passionately devoted to icons, which they venerated in churches and kept at home as their most treasured possessions. Michael Psellos vividly describes Empress Zoe's attachment to her icon of Christ, embellished with precious metal. She believed it could foretell the future and in moments of anxiety clutched the sacred image in her hands and talked to it as if it were alive. It is reported that at the very beginning of the iconoclastic period, when a soldier was dispatched to destroy the image of Christ above the Chalke Gate at the Great Palace, a group of nuns led by St. Theodosia pulled down the ladder on which he was standing. These women became the first iconodule martyrs, as they were all executed by order of Leo III. Another iconodule nun, St. Anthousa of Mantineon, was tortured by having the hot embers of burned icons poured over her body. Many women of the imperial family opposed the policies of their husbands and fathers and continued to venerate icons in the privacy of their chambers. Furthermore, it was two empresses who restored image veneration after the death of their husbands: in 787 Irene convoked the Second Council of Nicaea which reinstated icons for a short time, and in 843 Theodora, the widow of the iconoclast emperor Theophilos, presided over the permanent restoration of image veneration as official doctrine of the Orthodox Church. In the late thirteenth century, women played a prominent role in the opposition to Michael VIII's policy of reuniting the churches of Constantinople and Rome; some of his female relatives were even sent into exile for their condemnation of the Union of Lyons in 1274.

Women as Deaconesses and Religious Teachers. Women were excluded from the clergy, except for the order of deaconesses which survived until the twelfth century. Deaconesses originally assisted with the baptism of women at the time when adult baptism by immersion was customary, and then evolved into a group of women who performed charitable services, functioning as social workers and visiting nurses. Laywomen did engage in private religious teaching, instructing their children in the Christian faith, teaching them the Psalms, and telling them stories of the saints of old. Others organized private reading and study groups, as we learn from the Life of Athanasia of Aegina, who assembled neighborhood women on Sundays and feast days and read to them from the Scriptures, "inculcating in them fear and love for the Lord." Much more rare were nuns such as St. Anthousa of Mantineon, who taught the monks of the double monastery over which she presided, or Irene, abbess of the Chrysobalanton convent in Constantinople, who preached to crowds of men and women, including women and girls from senatorial and other prominent families.

Charitable Activities

An important and socially acceptable activity for women outside the home was the performance of charitable services. Wealthy women might help the needy indirectly, by donation of funds to institutions that pro-vided social services, such as orphanages, poorhouses, old age homes, hospitals, and monasteries. Others preferred a more personal involvement in ministering to their unfortunate brethren and came into direct contact with the sick and poor. Some volunteered in hospitals, helping to feed and bathe patients; some visited prisons, consoling those in confinement; others roamed the streets, seeking out beggars and homeless people in order to give them clothing, food, and money. This spirit of philanthropy was motivated by Christian piety and was viewed as an honorable way of serving Christ. In the ninth and tenth centuries, a few women, like Mary the Younger and Thomais of Lesbos, even attained sanctity on account of their devotion to helping the poor.

Role as Mourners at Funerals

Just as women were the principal figures at the time of the birth of children, as mothers, midwives, and nurses, so women also assumed a prominent role at the time of the death of a family member. First of all, they helped to prepare the corpse for burial, washing the body, sprinkling it with fragrant oils and spices, and clothing it. Then, during the wake, they were the chief mourners, demonstrating their grief by wailing, tearing their hair, lacerating their cheeks with their fingernails, beating their breasts, and ripping apart their garments. Not only female relatives of the deceased, but also hired professional female mourners sang dirges, praising the virtues and lamenting the death of the departed one. Women mourners continued their wailing and lamentations as they accompanied the corpse to the cemetery. This practice elicited criticism by church fathers who complained that the mourning women in their paroxysms of grief resembled Maenads in a Bacchic frenzy and were indulging in shameful behavior by uncovering their heads and tearing their garments so as to reveal portions of their bodies. The church urged that funeral processions be conducted in a solemn, dignified manner and provided trained choirs of men and women to sing psalms and funeral hymns. Both male and female relatives of the deceased came to the cemetery on the third, ninth, and fortieth day after the death to make offerings at the tomb. In addition, women were assiduous in their commemoration of their deceased relatives, preparing kollyba (a mixture of boiled wheat grains and dried fruits) and attending commemorative services on the anniversary of their death.

Cultural and Intellectual Life

There is very little evidence that women engaged in artistic activity be-sides the production of fine textiles and embroideries; one case is attested of a woman in seventh-century Syria who gave drawing lessons. Likewise only a few female scribes are known, at least one of whom, Irene, was the daughter of a calligrapher, the late thirteenth-century Theodore Hagi-opetrites. Theodora Raoulaina, a niece of Michael VIII Palaiologos, copied a manuscript of Ailios Aristeides that is now preserved in the Vatican.

Women of imperial and aristocratic families did, however, play an important role in the cultural life of Byzantium, especially through their patronage of the arts. Not only did they commission deluxe manuscripts and liturgical vessels, but they also founded churches and monasteries, some of which still stand. In the early sixth century, a prominent patroness was Anicia Juliana, the daughter of Olybrius, who was briefly emperor in the West in 472. As his only child, she inherited great wealth and built or embellished a number of churches in Constantinople, including St. Euphemia en tois Olybriou and the huge basilica of St. Polyeuktos, recently excavated at Sarachane in Istanbul. Anicia Juliana was also responsible for the production of the lavishly illustrated manuscript of the herbal of Dioskorides, which is presently one of the treasures of the Austrian National Library in Vienna.

Many of the monastic complexes in Constantinople that are known to us today, either because of the chance preservation of their monastic rules (typika) or because of the survival of the church buildings, were founded by noblewomen or empresses. Although women occasionally founded male monasteries, it was more common for them to establish nunneries, usually intended as a future home for their daughters or them-selves. Empress Irene Doukaina, wife of Alexios I Komnenos, founded the Kecharitomene convent in the twelfth century and drafted a lengthy set of regulations for its nuns. From the Palaiologan period, the Lips convent, restored by Theodora Palaiologina, widow of Michael VIII, is known both from its typikon and from the church she added on the south side of the existing church as a mausoleum for the Palaiologan family (Fenari Isa Camii). Theodora Raoulaina restored the convent of St. An-drew in Krisei and built the small monastery of Aristine to house Patriarch Gregory II of Cyprus after his abdication from the patriarchate in 1289. Irene Choumnaina, the young widow of Despot John Palaiologos, used much of her inherited wealth to establish the double monastery of Christ Philanthropos and became its abbess. Another of the magnificent churches that still adorns Istanbul, the parekklesion of the church of the Virgin Pammakaristos (Fethiye Camii), was built by Maria-Martha, widow of Michael Tarchaneiotes Glabas, as a mausoleum for her husband. Somewhat atypical was the convent called Repentance, which was established by Justinian's wife Theodora to house former prostitutes.

In addition to the Vienna Dioskorides, as examples of deluxe manuscripts commissioned by women one could mention the typikon for the Palaiologan convent of the Virgin of Sure Hope, with its introductory series of portrait pages (Lincoln College Typikon), and the group of six-teen codices attributed to workshops patronized by a certain Palaiologina, perhaps to be identified as Theodora Raoulaina or Theodora Palaio-logina, respectively the niece and wife of Michael VIII.

In the realm of literary production, we find a few highly educated women who were themselves writers and a number of others who encouraged literati with correspondence and outright financial support, by lending them books, and by holding literary salons. Without question the most important work written by a Byzantine woman was the Alexiad of Anna Komnene, daughter of Alexios I Komnenos. This lengthy and subjective history is not only the basic source for her father's reign and the First Crusade, but also provides detailed information about three generations of strong-willed imperial women: Alexios' mother, Anna Dalassene, his wife, Irene Doukaina, and Anna herself. A few women tried their hand at poetry and hymnography, the most successful of them being the ninth-century Kassia, who entered a convent after she failed to win the hand of the crown prince Theophilos. Likewise only two or three women hagiographers are attested, such as the abbess Sergia, who in the seventh century wrote a brief account of the translation of the relics of St. Olym-pias, the founding mother of her convent. Many centuries later, the versa-tile The odora Raoulaina composed a lengthy Life of the iconodule brothers Theodore and Theophanes, the Graptoi. Abounding in classical allusions that attest to the literary tastes of its author, the work has been interpreted as a veiled allusion to the suffering endured by her own brothers who opposed the unionist policies of Michael VIII.

A number of women with literary interests became the patrons of writers and scholars. The sebastokratorissa Irene, wife of Andronikos Komnenos and sister-in-law of Manuel I, seems to have been particularly partial to poetry. She encouraged the work of the poets Theodore Prodromos and Manganeios Prodromos, as well as that of John Tzetzes who wrote Homeric commentaries and versified commentaries on his own collection of letters. Constantine Manasses, another of Irene's protege's, dedicated his universal history (written in fifteen-syllable verses) to his patroness, calling her "a foster child of learning." Theodora Raoulaina was an erudite bibliophile who at one point owned an important manuscript of Thucydides, was praised for her learning by her contemporaries, and cor-responded with Nikephoros Choumnos and Patriarch Gregory II of Cyprus. Irene Choumnaina possessed a substantial library of secular and religious works, exchanged books with her spiritual director, commissioned the copying of manuscripts, and seems to have held a sort of salon for literati at her convent.

Monastic Life

Convents offered a variety of opportunities and services to Byzantine women. Frequently described in the sources as a safe and tranquil harbor, the nunnery was a place in which women could enjoy a calm and ordered existence in a community of sisters whose lives revolved around the daily offices and prayers for the salvation of mankind. For young women, con-vents were the principal alternative to marriage; for women afflicted by family troubles, illness, or old age, they offered a refuge; for poor lay-people, they provided charity in the form of food and clothing and occasionally health care. Convents also provided an institutional environment in which women were expected to have reached a certain level of education and could hold positions of responsibility.

As in the medieval West, young girls entered Byzantine convents for many reasons. Some maidens, drawn to the life of piety from childhood, preferred marriage to Christ, the heavenly bridegroom, to earthly marriage. Although most parents supported their daughters in their decision to renounce the world, there were instances in which the parents arranged a marriage against the girl's wishes and resisted her desire to take the monastic habit. Occasionally a girl entered monastic life more out of necessity than vocation; for example, she might be considered unmarriageable because she had been scarred by smallpox or was mentally ill. Although most surviving monastic rules declare that no financial contribution was required in order to enter a convent, the norm was for the girl's family to make a substantial donation to the nunnery, often the money or property that would have been her dowry. After a novitiate of three years, the girl took monastic vows.

The placement of girls in convents before the age of ten was discouraged since they were viewed as a potential disruptive influence on the monastic community; nevertheless, very young girls were sometimes admitted. There were instances of parents bringing their children to con-vents at a very tender age as an offering of thanks to Christ or the Virgin, especially if they had conceived the child after years of infertility or if the child had miraculously survived while her brothers and sisters had died (as in the case of the daughter of Theodora of Thessalonike). Orphan girls might also be raised in convents. These girls were taught to read and write, to chant the office, and to do handiwork. Once they had reached the age of informed consent, they could decide if they wished to remain permanently at the nunnery and take formal vows. The rule of the Lips convent stated that girls raised by the nuns from infancy or childhood had to wait until their sixteenth birthday before taking the habit.

Many women took the habit at a later stage in life, in middle or even old age. It was extremely common for a woman to enter a convent after she had been widowed; in a monastic environment, she could find spiritual solace, companionship, and support for her old age. A number of documents survive that describe the financial arrangements made on such an occasion: the widow would make a substantial contribution to the nunnery of cash or property, and in exchange would receive the tonsure, be supported for the rest of her life, and after her death would be properly buried and commemorated in annual services. In some cases the widow did not take monastic vows, but lived in the convent as a lay pensioner or remained outside the cloister and received regular allotments of food. It was not only widows who adopted the monastic habit in middle age; not uncommonly a husband and wife would agree to end their married life once their children were grown and would retire to separate monasteries.

A variety of other motives led women to the gate of the convent: for some, such as battered or unhappy wives, refugees from enemy invasions, or the mentally ill, the convent was indeed a refuge. For others, it was more like a prison or place of confinement, as in the case of empresses whose husbands had been deposed, women found guilty of adultery, or sorceresses and heretics condemned by the synod to take monastic vows to atone for their sinful behavior.

Nuns were normally of aristocratic or middle-class background, but women of the lower classes also lived and worked in convents both as private maidservants and as menial help. Despite the stated ideal of equality in a monastic community, many noblewomen who entered convents later in life found it difficult to renounce their comfortable lifestyle and were permitted to live in separate apartments with their former retainers and to take their meals privately.

The choir sisters and officials of the nunnery had to be able to read and write, and were often women of considerable education who found an outlet for their talents in the monastic environment. The mother superior, who was not only the spiritual leader of the community but also responsible for supervising the maintenance of the physical complex and the management of its financial resources, had to be a shrewd business-woman who combined a stern will and strict discipline with a spirit of loving-kindness toward the nuns in her charge and psychological under-standing of the problems that could arise in such a close-knit group of women.

Convents required the services of several officials for their administration, the size of the staff depending upon the number of nuns in a given institution, which might range from a handful to a hundred or so. In a small convent one nun might combine functions that were held by two or more individuals in a larger establishment. One of the most important officials, who had to be musically inclined and steeped in the intricacies of the liturgy, served as the ekklesiarchissa. Her duties were the supervision of the church sanctuary and services, including the proper chanting of the office by the choir sisters. The sacristan skeuophylakissa) was responsible for the safekeeping of liturgical vessels, while the treasurer (docheiaria) was in charge of finances and purchasing supplies such as food for the refectory and clothes for the nuns. The archivist (chartophylakissa) had the duty of safeguarding the monastic archives, principally documents pertaining to grants of imperial privileges, gifts and purchases of land, and tax exemptions. This group of officials had to have excellent skills of organization, record keeping, and financial accounting. Other positions held by nuns included those of gatekeeper and infirmarian. The steward (oikonomos), in charge of the management of the monastic estates, might be a layman who lived outside the nunnery, but in some con-vents the post was held by a mature nun with much practical experience. She was expected to go out of the cloister as necessary to visit the far-flung properties of the convent, check on the progress of the harvest, and attend to revenues from the sale of crops.

Although the convent provided an environment where women could assume major responsibility for the management of a complex establishment, there were still limitations on their independence from male authority. Because women could not serve as priests, of necessity male clergy came from outside the cloister to officiate at the liturgy. Likewise the confessor had to be a man, as was the physician who visited the convent on a regular basis. Furthermore, the convent was often placed under the authority of a male ephoros, or supervisor, who could overrule the mother superior if he judged it necessary.

The nuns' daily routine varied according to their specific assignment but revolved around the chanting of the office, private prayer and study of the Scriptures, handiwork such as spinning, weaving, and embroidery, and performance of household duties. Some nuns also worked in the con-vent's vineyard and garden. In contrast to male monasteries where monks sometimes engaged in artistic or intellectual endeavors, such as calligraphy, hymnography, musical composition, or the writing of chronicles and saints' lives, nunneries offered little opportunity for artistic expression. There were nuns who worked as scribes, hymnographers, or hagiogra-phers, but they were rare indeed.

Convents differed in other ways from male monasteries. They tended to be smaller, less well endowed, and located in cities rather than the countryside. Nuns took seriously the requirement of monastic stability, that is, remaining for life in the monastery in which one takes vows. Unlike monks, who tended to move restlessly from one monastery to another, or to alternate between a cenobitic lifestyle and the arduous existence of the hermit, nuns almost always remained in the same convent until their death. They also lived almost exclusively in cenobitic establishments; after the ninth or tenth century, female hermits are hardly ever mentioned in the sources.

Furthermore, nuns for the most part strictly observed rules of monas-tic enclosure and rarely left the cloister. However, some typika, especially in the later centuries, as a concession to human frailty, relaxed monastic discipline and permitted nuns to visit their families upon occasion. Younger nuns had to be accompanied by mature, experienced nuns if they went out of the convent; likewise if nuns received male visitors at the gate of the convent, an older nun was supposed to supervise the visit. Occasionally nuns who held official positions at the convent had to leave the cloister to conduct various kinds of business: petitions to the synod, appearance at a law court, rent collection, visits to monastic estates, or escorting the abbess at the time of her installation by the patriarch. Ordi-nary nuns might go out to attend a relative's funeral, to visit a spiritual confessor or a shrine, or to perform charitable services.

Women of the Imperial Family

Empresses and other women of the imperial family have appeared occasionally above, primarily in connection with their role as patrons of the arts or their involvement in religious controversies. In a number of ways, the lives of the wives, mothers, sisters, and daughters of emperors resembled those of other women: they spent much of their time in their private quarters; they were generally pious and assiduous in their church attendance; for many, a principal concern was philanthropy to the less fortunate members of society; others made generous contributions for the construction, restoration, or maintenance of churches, monasteries, and charitable institutions or the production of manuscripts and works of art. Still their wealth, high birth, and constitutional position set them apart from the norm.

The most distinguishing feature of Byzantine empresses (and occasionally princesses) is that they were the only women who had any involvement in the political arena. Sometimes they played a key role in the perpetuation of a dynasty; on occasion they actually exercised imperial authority, either as regent or as sole ruler; not infrequently they exerted influence on husbands, sons, or brothers. In cases where there was no male heir to the throne, empresses or princesses could transmit the imperial power through marriage. Thus Ariadne, daughter of Leo I, took as first husband the Isaurian chieftain Zeno, who reigned from 474 to 491. When Zeno died without leaving a son, Ariadne married Anastasios who was emperor from 491 to 518. Likewise the princess Zoe, daughter of Constantine VIII, prolonged the Macedonian dynasty by her successive marriages to three men who became emperor -- Romanos III Argyros (1028-34), Michael IV Paphlagon (1034-41), and Constantine IX Monomachos (1042-55) -- and by her adoption of Michael V Kalaphates (1041-42). Widowed empresses like Irene in the eighth century and Theo-in the ninth served as regents for minor sons, while Anna Dalassene entrusted with the regency by her adult son Alexios I Komnenos when he left the capital for an extended military campaign.

In a few instances an empress refused to step aside when her son attained his majority, or was unwilling to take a consort, and for brief periods held sole power. Thus Irene, after a ten-year regency, was reluctant to hand over the reins of authority to her son Constantine VI; after a power struggle, she eventually ordered his arrest and blinding in 797 and ruled in her own right for the next five years until she was overthrown. In 1042 Empress Zoe, discouraged by the manner in which her consort, Michael IV; and her adopted son Michael V had relegated her first to the women's quarters and then to a convent, ruled for a few months with her sister Theodora after a popular rebellion had removed Michael V from the throne. She was persuaded to give her hand in marriage once more, however, this time to Constantine (IX) Monomachos. Following the deaths of first Zoe and then Constantine, Theodora, the third daughter of Constantine VIII, ascended the throne in 1055 and ruled in her own name for nineteen months. Before her death she transmitted the imperial power by marriage to Michael (VI) Stratiotikos, who survived her by only a year. The Macedonian dynasty had at last totally died out, but through the sisters Zoe and Theodora it had been prolonged for almost thirty additional years, from 1028 to 1056.

Legally women could sit on the throne, but sole female rule was viewed as irregular and improper. The position of a ruling empress was ambiguous. Irene signed documents as "emperor of the Romans" and was praised for her masculine spirit, whereas on her coinage she was titled "empress." Michael Psellos sharply criticized Zoe and Theodora for their incompetence, stating that "neither of them was fitted by temperament to govern" and that the empire "needed a man's supervision." He commented that, during Theodora's sole rule, "everyone was agreed that for the Roman Empire to be governed by a woman, instead of a man, Was improper." The historian Doukas attacked the regency of Anna of Savoy, likening the empire in female hands to "a weaver's shuttle spinning awry and twisting the thread of the purple robe." He deliberately used the simile of a loom, reminding his readers that handiwork, not imperial affairs, was the proper domain of women.

Only three women sat alone on the imperial throne of Byzantium; women regents were more numerous, tended to stay in power for a longer time, and sometimes played a decisive role in determining the future course of events. We should not forget that both Irene and Theodora were regents for minor sons when they reversed the iconoclastic policy of their deceased husbands and restored the traditional veneration of images.

Yet other empresses had an indirect but significant influence on events through persuasion or manipulation of their husbands. Prokopios vividly described the dramatic episode in the palace at the time of the Nika revolt (532) when Theodora persuaded Justinian I not to flee and abdicate his throne but to stand firm and crush the popular rebellion. Indeed, he was able to retain his throne and ruled for thirty-three more years. Empresses became involved in negotiations about the marriage of their children, took a strong interest in religious affairs, recommended promotions and demotions of courtiers who had pleased or displeased them, and some-times even accompanied their husbands on military campaigns.


The Byzantine attitude toward women was ambivalent. Under the influence of two stereotyped female images, the Virgin Mary, who miraculously combined virginity with motherhood, and Eve, the sexual temptress, they vacillated between revering women as mothers and criticizing them as weak and untrustworthy. This may be a partial explanation for the wide variety of female saints, who ranged from consecrated virgins to reformed prostitutes to charitable matrons. Although the Byzantines idealized virginity and considered it superior to marriage, the family was still the key unit of their society. Women played an indispensable role in the perpetuation of the family line and in the transmission of property from one generation to the next. They assumed particular prominence at the critical passages of life: at birth, as mother, midwife, wet nurse; at marriage, as bride; at death, as mourner.

Because of the emphasis on chastity for maidens and fidelity for women tended to lead secluded lives within the confines of the home. Within this domestic sphere, however, their position was assured as they carried out the tasks of raising the children and running the household. If women did leave their families to become nuns, in effect they joined another family, the spiritual sisterhood of the convent under the leadership of the mother superior. In taking monastic vows, a woman became the bride of Christ, embarking upon a spiritual marriage while retaining her virginity. Thus a woman was always linked with a family, whether at home or in the convent.

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Last modified: Mon Apr 25, 1999