Woman’s position in the Eastern Roman (‘Byzantine’) society

The Byzantine noble women were burning with anxieties and were passionately pursuing to participate in political chess, to excel in letters and to spread the culture of Byzantium.

The life of a great woman of Byzantium, princess Anna Komnena the Porphyrogenita, is indicative of this passion for power and education. Her touching death encapsulates a life full of tension and intense contradictions: Anna was a revolutionary female for her time. To achieve her goals she did not use female “weapons” (charm, cunning), but purely male “means” (power, boldness, perseverance). She may have been the first feminist in human chronicles.

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In the late 11th and 12th centuries, the family institution was strengthened, starting with the emperor himself, who concentrated power around his family. There were conditions of family honor and virtue, and being a member of the Komnenian family required specific ethical principles. In parallel, at the same time, the role of women in the family, especially in the upper classes, was also strengthened. Although the families remained patriarchal, women played a more dynamic role, as many of them have apparently acquired significant education and they have appeared active even in political life. Prominent female celebrities of the Komnenian era were Anna Dalassena, mother of Alexius I Komnenos (1081-1118), Maria Komnena, daughter of Manuel I, Anna Komnena, daughter of Alexius I.

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The case of Anna Komnena constitutes, of course, an excellent example of an educated Byzantine of the upper aristocracy, as the girls of her social class were educated at home – and the majority of them received very good education. Byzantine girls, according to Steven Runciman, often had better education than boys because they enjoyed more private attention.

It is a fact that many of the Byzantine ladies of noble descent were “exposed” to politics and were actively involved in the political affairs of their time; as a result, they left a serious legacy of friction with the public things for the next-generations of women. Indeed, some of the Byzantine Empresses ended up assassinating their own children so that they don’t take their power from them. Other Byzantine noble women shone through their backstage presence.

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Certainly, according to scholars, the position of woman in Byzantium was much better than that of ancient Greece. In Byzantium there were women emperors, women leaders, women doctors: from the first centuries until 1453, in all the major cities of the empire, social welfare and care services were recorded, in whose function women played an important role: a fine example is the 12th century Pantokrator Hospital in Constantinople, which had a female doctor, four female alternate assistants and another two female alternate assistants of the latter. In addition, Byzantine women were not considered unworthy to hold the highest office of state just because they were women.

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Four Empresses ruled on their own — without a spouse — without facing any objection from anyone because of their sex; Zoe (914-919), Irene (797-802), Theodora and Zoe (1042), Theodora (1054-1056). In the view of the outstanding Byzantinologist Steven Runciman, “There was no constitutional barrier to the assumption of high power by a woman in Byzantium. And in the end, the cause of Irene’s decline was more because of her poor health rathen than her gender. The reign of these women was never considered illegitimate.” (St. Runciman, Byzantine Culture). And of course at this point we must also consider the women who essentially ruled the state, having a man in the spotlight for reasons of force majeure or “public relations”. The state of women in Byzantine society, with all its difficulties and problems … was admittedly more bearable, compared to their state in Greek antiquity. In this relative upgrading, Christianity played its role: it brought out the woman and liberated her from the ancient, pagan phallocraticism.

Mosaïque de l'impératrice Zoé, Sainte-Sophie (Istanbul, Turquie)

While the above cases of noblemen and women of the upper aristocracy indicate an upgraded position of women in Byzantine society, it should not be overlooked that the broader masses of women were excluded from the forefront of the political and social action of their time.

Certainly, the female presence contributed to the shaping of the Byzantine society at a time when the female ideal was closely linked with charity and social welfare, in opposition to the male ideal which was associated with war and violence.

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The action of the less eponymous women, and even more the action of the anonymous women of the middle and lower class, has been intense during the period of the great heresies and especially during the period of Iconoclasm. In these cases, entire crowds of women, according to the sources, left the private sphere of their daily lives and entered the more exciting one of public life and activation.

A great chapter in the History of European Culture is the spread/diffuse of the Byzantine civilization in Western Europe by the Byzantine princesses who married foreign nobles. When Otto II married the princess Theophano Porphyrogenita, following this determined female, a crowd of Byzantines from the East and southern Italy went to the north and organically joined the German imperial court. There, Theophano scandalized the local aristocrats because of wearing silk and because she was bathing, according to the customs of Constantinople: in the 12th century Constantinople had 33 public baths and, on average, the Byzantines, aristocrats and the public, were taking their bath in them three times a week. “Horrible” habits that, according to the vision of a strict German nun, would send Theophano to hell (St. Runciman, Byzantine Culture). Her cousin Maria Argyre encountered the same problems in Venice, where she got married, because she introduced the use of the fork.

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Some historians, researching the sources, found that already since the 4th century AD there have been teachers for the girls; it was also possible for the middle class to send them, together with the boys, at the Grammar School (elementary education) so that they learn how to read and write. We also have testimonies that just as boys went to men’s monasteries to educate, so did the girls in women’s monasteries. It is also certain that the girls of the richer classes were receiving almost the same education as their brothers, as they were trained at home by private teachers.

Throughout the whole Byzantine social scale the wife is, before anything else, the lady of the house and then, if she is still a little pretty and young, she is the mistress, too.

The crystallization of the nuclear family, which had already been completed in the 9th century, radically changed the social role of women. During the Iconoclastic period women were still actively involved in the public matters, and were even actively involved in the images worship debate. It is no coincidence that the restoration of the images was promoted by two women, the Empresses Irene and Theodora. There is a valuable detail in the Life of Antonius the New, showing that women’s activity was not confined to religious conflicts: when the Arab fleet, around 825, attacked Antalya, the city’s ruler gathered on the walls not only men but also young women dressed in men’s clothing.

The traditional image of the patriarchal, nuclear Byzantine family is depicted by Kekaumenos. The family is a self-contained entity, surrounded by an invisible wall that separates it from the rest of the world. Anyone who is not intimately attached to her, even a friend, can, by penetrating this inner circle, seduce women, learn family secrets, and generally disturb the family’s order. A good wife, adds Kekaumenos, is the half of life; the promise for a good fortune. Spouses should be faithful and avoid second marriages when widowed. The upbringing of children is also treated very seriously.
Children must fear and respect the head of the family, but this attitude must be the result of good upbringing and not of punishment and beating. Unmarried girls, of course, were not allowed to be exposed to the looks of men who are not relatives. This restriction of women, wives and daughters, is also implied indirectly from other texts of the same time.

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The social and personal life of the middle and lower Byzantine woman was as follows: when the Byzantine daughter turned 12 years old, her parents through relatives or friends, acting as match-makers, were looking for a husband who has at least completed 14 years of age. This of course did not exclude love, which was not uncommon in Byzantium. The engagement/betrothal, which lasted no more than two years, was a very important event, with almost religious formality and written ratification. Prior to the wedding, another contract was signed, which stipulated the bride’s dowry and groom’s gifts. The future bridegroom was leading the bride to the church, having received her from her father’s house, as the head of a procession. After the wedding ceremony an official dinner followed. State law, despite the church’s dissent, recognized the right to divorce when both parties wanted it. The second marriage was condemned by the church, but not by the State. The third marriage was leading to severe penalties, while the fourth was usually leading to apostasy from the Church.

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The first of the Christian emperors, Constantine the Great, issued in 331 AD the following divorce law: “When a woman sends a divorce notice, only the following accusations should be investigated: is there evidence that he is a murderer, a magician or a grave robber? If so, then this woman should be commended and restored to all her dowry. But if she has filed for divorce for reasons independent of these three categories, she should even leave her last hairpin at her husband’s house and be displaced to an island for her high pride. If men send a divorce notice, the following three categories should be investigated: Do they want to renounce an adulteress, a witch or procuress? If a man persecutes his wife who has no proven connection with these charges, he must return the whole dowry to her and not marry again. If he indeed does something like this, then she is allowed to enter her former home and transfer to herself all the dowry of the second wife as compensation for the damage she has suffered” (G. Clarck, Women in Late Antiquity).

However, the feminine figure that embodies and condenses the positive and praiseworthy, of the otherwise weak and incomplete, qualities of the female nature is, for the whole of Byzantine society, is the Virgin and Mother of God. She, with Her perfection, virginity, tenderness and charity, constitutes the other, positive aspect of the coin: it is Eve’s counterweight that has hurt Humanity with her credulity. So Eve and the Virgin both make up the female enigma for the Byzantine ideological universe.

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Due to Her association with war events during the Byzantine period, the Virgin also received the distinctive agnomen “Our Lady of Victory” or “Nikopios” (the Victory maker). Since the early Byzantine years, Theotokos (the Mother of God) became the Protector of the Byzantine Empire. Already under the Emperors Mauritius, Fokas, Heraclius, the Theotokos was depicted on seals and coins of the State, in place of the Goddess Nike (Victory). And just as Niki was holding the shield, similarly did the Virgin Mary, holding a shield-like disk that depicted Christ, who was the chief sponsor of victory.

We must not forget that Constantinople was dedicated to Our Lady. This is evidenced by the multitude of temples, monasteries and pilgrimages that existed in Her honor. The same is confessed by the many miraculous icons of the Virgin Mary that were kept in the City. In Constantinople, therefore, it had become public consciousness that the Virgin was their great Protector. They considered it a great blessing that the Maphorio (the ‘Skepi’) and the Belt (the ‘Zone’) of the Virgin, transferred from Jerusalem, were kept in the Reigning City (‘Βασιλεύουσα’). So during the difficult war times they resorted to the help and shelter/aegis of the Virgin Mary.

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Throughout the Byzantine years women’s activity and presence in church and society has been continuous. Of course, at times, the monastic and strict conservative spirit limited her, but she was always finding fertile ground for fruitfulness, for contribution to developments and initiatives of all kinds. Byzantine women’s monasteries were particularly distinguished for their philanthropic and social welfare work. They fostered poor women, they provided destitute women with knowledge and employment in the weaving and knitting art, so that with the manufactured articles the orphans of the poorhouses and orphanages, that were usually situated near to monasteries, could dress. In many of them there was an employer sister. Many of the female nuns had medical and pharmaceutical knowledge and treated sick women. In orphanages the younger inmates were usually trained by female nuns. The sisters supervised the little girls in learning weaving, embroidery, music and other useful practical arts.

In the monasteries there were two boxes, the purpose of which is evident from their inscriptions: one reads «εις αιχμαλώτων ανάρρυσιν» (‘for the return of the captives’) and the other «εις πενήτων διατροφήν» (‘for the food of the poor’). With the money raised, the sufferers were taken care of and the captives redeemed from pirates who were roaming the Mediterranean seas and by raiding barbarians. “Bath-aiding” nuns («λουτράρισσες») offered their services by soaping and sponging the released prisoners and leading them to rest beds.

(Source: “The position of women in Byzantine society”, by Amalia K. Heliadis)

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Research-Selection-Translation (original text in Greek) for NovoScriptorium: Anastasius Philoponus

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