Meet the People: Byzantine Women

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"My Grandmother had an exceptional grasp of public affairs, with a genius for organisation and government; she was capable, in fact, of managing not only the Roman Empire, but every other Empire under the sun as well"
(From a description of the Byzantine noblewoman Anna Dalessena, by her Granddaughter - the historian Anna Komnena)

Byzantium: A Medieval Patriarchy, with Exceptions

Like Anna Dalessena, almost women who feature as identifiable individuals in Byzantine histories belong to families which were particularly powerful in political or economic terms. Most of the documented examples of individual womenís lives in Byzantium are therefore drawn from the elite of Byzantine society, although extracts from sources such as saints' lives, legal documentation, medical manuals and the rules governing convents also offer fascinating glimpses into the lives of more 'ordinary' women.

Almost inevitably given itís time and place, Byzantium was a patriarchal society. Despite this, women certainly participated in some way in many of the aspects of Byzantine society covered by this site: They ran businesses, participated in the church as nuns or deaconesses, and from time to time took an active role in political affairs. It is also readily apparent that the middle-period Byzantine military structure, based a round the participation of 'part-time' thematic soldiers, could not have functioned without the participation and forbearance of women. Certain elite Byzantine women, such as the 8th Century Empress Irene or her 14th century namesake, Irene Kantakouzena, even found themselves acting as military commanders.

Although generally discriminatory, certain aspects of Byzantine legal practice also favoured a degree of female economic independence which is striking in the context of a pre-modern society: Women had equal rights to bequeath and inherit property, and married women maintained ultimate ownership over their dowries. One of the best known Byzantine business empires, for example, belonged to Danelis - an extremely wealthy widow, and benefactor of the future Emperor Basil I. Other women are attested as owners of small shops and manufacturing concerns.

Social status could also be transmitted through both male and female lineage: Byzantine aristocrats, for example, often preferred their mother's surname if it offered greater social prestige.

Nevertheless, the ability of Byzantine women to participate in public life was restricted in comparison with their male counterparts. Byzantium's comparatively literate society did ensure that many girls learned to read and write, but more advanced learning opportunities were limited for most women, albeit with some very notable exceptions such as the historian-princess Anna Komnena and the 13th Century scholar Theodora Raoulaina. Girls were encouraged instead to develop their domestic skills in preparation for marriage.

Arranged marriages were regarded as normal at all levels of Byzantine society. Byzantine women tended to marry early, often in their mid-teens, and generally expected to have a large number of children in a relatively short space of time. Childhood mortality was very high by modern standards, and parents did not expect all of their offspring to survive early childhood.

Byzantine attitudes particularly favoured the role of mother: cultural and legal practice maintained primacy for the Byzantine mother as head of the household and protector of her childrens' interests, especially if she had been widowed whilst her children were still young.

Amongst the elite, several Empresses ruled as Regents for their underage children: most notably the Empress Irene in the late eight century, Saint Theodora, for her infant son Michael III in the ninth century, and Zoe Karvounopsina, fourth wife and widow of the Emperor Leo VI, in the tenth century.

The role of widow as family matriarch is strikingly illustrated by the subject of our opening quote: Anna Dalessena was mother of the Emperor Alexios Komnenos I and grandmother of Anna Komnena. Anna Dalessena played a critical part in Alexiosís rise to power and Alexios, a decisive and capable man, continued to rely upon her political and administrative expertise to run the Empire.

Anna Dalessena aside, a widowed mother would be expected to relinquish much of power once her children reached adulthood. If she remarried, she would also generally be expected to defer to the wishes of her new husband. Some women may have been understandably reluctant to co-operate with this socially sanctioned loss of independence. The eighth century Empress Irene solved the problem by simply refusing to stand aside for her son, Constantine VI, once he reached adulthood. After an uneasy period of joint rule and political conflict, Ireneís supporters deposed and eventually murdered Constantine - to pave the way for a period of sole rule by Irene. Irene is generally treated as a notorious character due to the murder of her son. But the fact remains that she was one of few Byzantine women ever to rule the Empire in her own right; even to the extent of taking the male title Basileus (Emperor) in preference to the usual official status of Empress.

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