byzantine women


Women’s History Month - Day 8 Anna Comnenus

Anna Comnenus was the daughter of Byzantine Emperor Alexius Comnenus. Later in her life, Anna compiled an account of her father’s reign, the account spanned 15 volumes and was called the Alexiad. Her work is where most of the information about late 11th century and 12th century Byzantine history. Prior to her father’s death, Anna worked hard to ensure that her husband Nikephoros was made emperor, however her brother, John was made emperor on her father’s death bed. Anna was a part of the assassination attempt against her brother, at her father’s funeral - however she was unsuccessful. An incredible woman, under her father, Anna ran a large hospital and an orphanage, teaching medicine at the hospital, and treating her father Alexius Comnenus when he became sick.

“The covering of the head with a veil symbolizes the reality of woman sheltered in the side of her Source and becoming one with Him. She becomes covered and hidden in her Divine Spouse.” St. John Chrysostom

historical women 2/?: Empresses Zoe and Theodora, 978-1050 and 980-1056

Zoë and Theodora were two of the few Byzantine empresses who were Porphyrogenita, or “born into the purple”. Spending years in the same restrictive quarters with her sister, Zoë came to loathe Theodora… Zoë convinced Romanos to appoint one of his own men as the chief of Theodora’s household, with orders to spy on her. Shortly afterwards, Theodora was accused of plotting to usurp the throne… Theodora was forcibly confined in the monastery of Petrion. Zoë later visited her sister and forced her to take religious vows. Key members of the court decided that Zoë needed a co-ruler, and that it should be her sister Theodora… Zoë immediately assumed power and tried to force Theodora back to her monastery, but the Senate and the people demanded that the two sisters should jointly reign.

Women's history: seclusion of Byzantine women

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The abysmal literacy rates among the Byzantine patrician class discussed in an earlier post would undoubtedly have been higher had Byzantine society believed in educating their women. Unfortunately, not only were they not educated, it appears that Byzantine women led an extremely cloistered life, actively kept away from anyone other than their family members (with several very notable exceptions, of course) to protect them from something as terrible as being looked upon by strange men. Although the historical record is sparse on the matter, a quote from Saint Philaretos “the Merciful” is quite telling as to the daily life of unmarried women.  

But first, you may be interested in a little history:

In 788, Empress Irene - acting as regent for her son - broke off the five-year engagement of her son Emperor Constantine VI and Princess Rotrud (Rohtrud, Rotrude; meaning “red”), daughter of King Charles (Charlemagne) of the Franks

(Although breaking off the engagement was used as propaganda to bolster the power and prestige of the Byzantine Emperors (i.e. they were so powerful that they needed no foreign alliances), the more probable reason was simpler. Later that same year, the Byzantines sent an army headed by Adalgis (Adalchis) - the son of former Lombard King Desiderious, whose lands had been absorbed by the Franks - in an attempt to increase their Italian landholdings… they were unsuccessful.)

Almost immediately, Empress Irene sent out imperial messengers to scour the empire for suitable brides in the so-called “First Bride Show.” When the men came to the home of Philaretos (“the Merciful”) and requested to see his granddaughters, the Saint was greatly distressed, exclaiming:

for even though we are poor, our daughters have never left their chambers!” 

***It should be noted that it was written that Constantine was unhappy with the break-up of his nuptials but he wasn’t consulted. He also wasn’t consulted when his first wife - Maria of Amnia - was chosen by his mother on his behalf. Unsurprisingly, as soon as he was able to remove his mother from power, Constantine divorced his unloved wife and instead married his mistress, Theodote - the koubikoularia or a lady-in-waiting to his mother, Irene. His divorce and remarriage caused a religious “Moechian” schism within the Byzantine Empire and that, coupled with his military losses, enabled Irene not only to regain her power (Constantine named her co-ruler in an attempt to bolster his image and shore up his power base), but to later overthrow her son, after ordering that he be blinded. 

This tale of woe resulting from a forced marriage will be repeated countless times throughout history, often with endings even more tragic than that of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet”!


Theodora Of Byzantium.

According to Procopius, Theodora’s father was the bear and animal keeper at the Hippodrome, and her mother, after her husband died, started Theodora’s acting career, which evolved into a life as a prostitute and mistress of Hecebolus, whom she soon left.

She became a Monophysite, and, still working as an actress, or as a wool-spinner, she came to the attention of Justinian, nephew and heir of the emperor Justin. Justin’s wife may also have been a prostitute; she changed her name to Euphemia upon becoming empress.

Theodora first became the mistress of Justinian; then Justin accommodated his heir’s attraction to Theodora by changing the law that forbid a patrician from marrying an actress.

That there is an independent record of this law being changed lends weight to at least the general outline of Procopius’ story of Theodora’s lowly origins.

Whatever her origins, Theodora had the respect of her new husband. In 532, when two factions (known as the Blues and the Greens) threatened to end Justinian’s rule, she is credited with getting Justinian and his generals and officials to stay in the city and take strong action to suppress the rebellion.

Through her relationship with her husband, who seems to have treated her as his intellectual partner, Theodora had a real effect on the political decisions of the empire. Justinian writes, for instance, that he consulted Theodora when he promulgated a constitution which included reforms meant to end corruption by public officials.

She is credited with influencing many other reforms, including some which expanded the rights of women in divorce and property ownership, forbid exposure of unwanted infants, gave mothers some guardianship rights over their children, and forbid the killing of a wife who committed adultery. She closed brothels and created convents where the ex-prostitutes could support themselves.

Theodora remained a monophysite Christian, and her husband remained an orthodox Christian. Some commentators – including Procopius – allege that their differences were more a pretense than a reality, presumably to keep the church from having too much power.

She was known as a protector of members of the Monophysite faction when they were accused of heresy. She supported the moderate Monophysite Severus and, when he was excommunicated and exiled – with Justinian’s approval – Theodorus helped him to settle in Egypt.

Another excommunicated Monophysite, Anthimus, was still hiding in the women’s quarters when Theodora died, twelve years after the excommunication order.

She sometimes explicitly worked against her husband’s support of Chalcedonian Christianity in the ongoing struggle for the predominance of each faction, especially at the edges of the empire.

Theodora died in 548, probably of cancer. At the end of his life, Justinian, too, is supposed to have moved significantly towards Monophysitism, though he took no official action to promote it.

Although Theodora had a daughter when she married Justinian, they had no children together. She married her niece to Justinian’s heir, Justin II.

Theodora, detail of a Byzantine mosaic in Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna

Probably one of the most recognizable figures of the byzantine millennium. Theodora left behind a legacy which formed all her successors in the imperial throne of Constantinople.

  Though from humble origins she managed to married Justinian and elevate to the highest byzantine rank for a woman of her age. The law which forbidden a patrician to get married to a common woman had to change first, and it was her courage and strength that backed Justinian during the Nika riots; when he suggested fleeing she replied : “ Purple makes a fine winding sheet." 

Although Procopius very often criticized her immoral habits of taking long baths and participating in orgies, it was her character that shaped an emperor and indeed a very important one.

A mosaic of the Byzantine empress Theodora wearing an elaborate crown and pieces of jewelry. Her halo, averted gaze, and unusually large eyes are all motifs in Early Byzantine imperial portraiture that are meant to symbolize her rule by divine authority. 

Pieced together out of tesserae (glass crystal, rock, gold, etc).

Made in 546 in the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy.

historical women 7/?: Anna Porphyrogenita, 963-1011

Anna was the daughter of Byzantine Emperor Romanos II and the Empress Theophano…  Anna did not wish to marry Vladimir and expressed deep distress on her way to her wedding. Grand Prince Vladimir was impressed by Byzantine religious practices; this factor, along with his marriage to Anna, led to his decision to convert to Eastern Christianity. Due to these two factors, Grand Prince Vladimir also began Christianizing his kingdom. By marriage to Grand Prince Vladimir, Anna became Grand Princess of Kiev, but in practice, she was referred to as Queen or Czarina, probably as a sign of her membership of the Imperial Byzantine House. Anna participated actively in the Christianization of Rus.

Apranik was a Military Commander and Resistance Leader of the Persian Sasanian Empire in the 7th century.

The daughter of Piran, a renowned Persian general, Apranik was raised in a time when the Sasanian Empire was coming to the end of it’s 400-year existence, having been weakened by war with the Byzantine Empire. Motivated by national pride, Apranik followed in her father’s footsteps and joined the army after finishing her schooling. She rose through the ranks from a petty officer to becoming a fully-fledged Commander.

When the Sasanian Empire fell to a full-scale invasion by the Islamic Rashidun Caliphate, Apranik took command of major battalion of the surviving Persian Army and mounted an ongoing war of resistance against their conquerors. She found that conventional warfare did not work against the guerilla tactics employed by the Caliphate soldiers, who often melted away into the desert. In response she led the Persians in hit-and-run attacks designed to inflict maximum damage in a short time.

While the Empire was never restored, Apranik’s determination and refusal to surrender inspired a wider movement of resistance. She is said to have died fighting in combat as it was preferable to capture. The white horse she rode became a symbol of freedom still recognised today and she inspired a number of other Persian female resistance fighters who were nicknamed ‘Apraniks’.

historical women 9/?: Empress Irene, 752-803

Irene of Athens was Byzantine empress from 797 to 802. Although she was an orphan, her uncle or cousin Constantine Sarantapechos was a patrician…  She was brought to Constantinople by Emperor Constantine V and married to his son Leo IV…  Irene’s most notable act was the restoration of the veneration of icons… in 784, she summoned two church councils. The first of these, held in 786 at Constantinople, was frustrated by the opposition of the iconoclast soldiers. The second, convened at Nicaea in 787, formally revived the veneration of icons and reunited the Eastern church with that of Rome. 

theangryfox  asked:

what do you want your next tattoo to be?

so my current goal is to get another alphonse mucha piece on my arm.  i currently have one of his byzantine women on my right arm–

and i want to get the companion piece on my left.  after that, i would like to get queen elizabeth using an assault rifle on my right forearm, and then sarah palmer removing her face in a bar on her right shoulder.