Women in the Byzantine Empire

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Empress Theodora with her retinue. Mosaic of the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna, VI century

Women in the Byzantine Empire played an important role, but many details of their lives are a matter of debate. Numerous sources (chronicles, legal texts, hagiographic literature) paint a picture of the Byzantine patriarchal society in which women did not have independent significance and were imprisoned in a gynaeceum. For a long time, the attention of historians was attracted only by prominent Byzantine women, mainly the Empress, especially the wife of Emperor Justinian I Theodora, who had a significant influence on the events of the first half of the VI century.

The scientific study of the legal and economic status of women in the Byzantine Empire began in the second half of the 19th century and is currently intensively ongoing. The subject of study is both women in general and related issues of family and property law. The scarcity of surviving sources leads to diverse assessments of the place of women in Byzantine society. With the development of gender studies in the 1970s, there is a tendency to revise early views, according to which this role was not significant.


Ascetic ideal of a woman[edit]

According to Judith Herrin, sexuality in the Byzantine Empire was saturated with hypocritical double standards, as in any other medieval society. On the one hand, men appreciated female charm and resorted to the services of prostitutes and mistresses, on the other hand, demanded moral purity from their relatives.[1] Moreover, in Byzantium, the Christian church played a huge role, whose ideas about the relationship of the sexes were formed in the period Early Christianity. Christianity has inherited beliefs from Classical antiquity that women are physically and morally weaker than men, more prone to the needs and desires of their bodies, and therefore less able to understand what is good, and if they understand, to adhere to it.[2] Finally with rare exceptions, Byzantine literature was created by men and reflects their views.[3] Until the 12th century, in the Byzantine Empire there was no erotic literature and erotic art in general, and the subject of expression of feelings was the attitude of ascetic to God, which implied the complete elimination of sexuality.[4]. According to the general idea, a woman was responsible for the desire arising to her in a man[2], and even for a monk, the best way was not to look at women. There was no general consensus on whether disgusting sexual desire is always dangerous. Some Christian authors of the 4th century agreed that the desire was given by God for the purpose of procreation, and a married person can lead a Christian life no less than one who adheres to celibacy. Some believed that a chaste man and woman could live in the same house without risk to their souls, however, the practical experience of ascetics indicated that sexual desire was almost impossible to contain. In this sense, even a mother or sister could become a reminder to the ascetic of all the other women and the rejected worldly life in general. In this regard, for an ascetic woman, it was necessary to abandon an attractive appearance, wear clothes hiding the figure, and abandon her social status. The washing was condemned, as it once again attracted attention to the rejected body.[5]


Dancing Miriam, miniature from Khludov Psalter, mid-9th century

The prostitutes were at the bottom of the social ladder and were known by a variety of names - hetairai, “public women”, “(women) from the attic» (Ancient Greek: αἱ ἐπὶ τοῦ τέγους). They are more known from hagiographic literature (where they appear under the designation "humiliated» (Ancient Greek: ταπειναί) or “miserable» (Ancient Greek: οἰκτραί)) or in civil or church law attempting to limit this phenomenon. Probably, prostitution has always been prevalent in Byzantium. However the word Ancient Greek: πορνεία referred not only to communication with prostitutes, but to many other deviations from the recommended sexual behavior. Prostitution flourished in capital and the largest cities of the empire - Alexandria, Antioch, Beirut and Edessa, later in Thessaloniki and ports of Asia Minor. Engaging in this activity was relatively voluntary when the daughters of actors or artisans were seduced by tales spread by the brothel holders (Ancient Greek: πορνοβοσκοί) about the luxurious life of getters; also prostitutes could become slaves and prisoners. Mistresses of brothels also went to the provinces to find suitable girls, buying them in poor families. However, such transactions were illegal, and the found father of the family was deprived of parental rights and could be sent as a punishment to the mines; for the members of the Church, the punishment was excommunication. But, obviously, these measures were applied without much success, and at least in the 12th century, prostitution was not only voluntary. Attempts to limit prostitution geographically were also futile even in Constantinople - founded even under Constantine the Great Lupanar was empty, and under the emperor Theophilos (829-843) the building was transferred to the hospital.[6]

Women whose activities involved trading of their bodies also included mime artists, performers on flute, and singers at weddings or banquets. According to the Byzantines, engaging in secular art is not befitting an honest man, and women of these professions were considered prostitutes of a separate kind. The lower class prostitutes were considered to be maidservants in taverns and xenodochiums, about which, according to the tradition dating from ancient times, it was believed that they should satisfy all the needs of the guests.[7].

A frequent topos of Byzantine hagiographic literature was the spiritual degeneration of the “harlot," who, repenting, "acquired holiness for herself." So, for example, this happened with a saint of the V century Pelagia of Antioch or a saint of the VI century Mary of Egypt. According to the suggestion of Judith Herrin, the mother of Constantine the Great Saint Helena was a prostitute in the tavern.[8]

Political participation[edit]

Regarding the participation of women in the political life of the Byzantine Empire, there are two main points of view. According to one of them, women were isolated from the rest of society in a gynaeceum. In this case, historians refer to the relevant statements of Michael Psellos, Kekaumenos and Michael Attaleiates. Another points of view, more common at the present time, is that the isolation of women in the sources does not reflect the real state of affairs, but the ideal idea of Byzantine men. Since the 12th century, numerous examples of the opposite have been known. Talking about how her mother accompanied Alexios I on campaigns, Anna Komnene speaks not only about how she took care of the emperor’s sore legs, but also was his adviser, who helped identify the conspirators. According to the writer, “these were the reasons that overpowered the natural shame of this woman and gave her the courage to appear before the eyes of men”[9]. The wife of Emperor John VI, Irene Asanina, ruled the city of Didymoteicho during the absence of her husband during the second civil war (1341–1347). Their daughter Maria ruled the fortress of Enez a few years later, in place of her husband Nikephoros, who was the Despotate of Epirus.[10]

According to A. Laiu, the role of Byzantine women in the political life of the country was significant in the late period of its history in connection with the consolidation of the aristocracy, whose position became dominant. Within this ruling class, women were important because they possessed significant property and had influence over their children. The importance of family ties in the Komnenos period was noted by the Soviet-American Byzantinist Alexander Kazhdan.[11]



  1. ^ Kazhdan 1991, p. 1885.
  2. ^ a b Clark 1998, p. 34.
  3. ^ Cameron 1997, p. 2.
  4. ^ Cameron 1997, p. 8.
  5. ^ Clark 1998, p. 38.
  6. ^ Grosdidier de Matons 1967, pp. 23-25.
  7. ^ Grosdidier de Matons 1967, p. 25.
  8. ^ Kazhdan 1991, p. 1741.
  9. ^ Anna Komnene, Alexiad, XII, 3
  10. ^ Laiou 1981, pp. 249-250.
  11. ^ Laiou 1981, pp. 251-253.


in English
  • Cameron, A. (1997). "Sacred and Profane Love Thoughts on Byzantine Gender". Women, Men and Eunuchs: 1–23.
  • Clark, G. (1998). "Women and Asceticism in Late Antiquity: The Refusal of Status and Gender". Ascetism: 33–48.
  • Dawson, T. (2006). Garland, L. (ed.). "Propriety, Practicality and Pleasure: the Parameters of Women's Dress in Byzantium, A.D. 1000–1200". Byzantine Women. Varieties of Experience, A.D. 800-1200: 77–90.
  • Garland, L. (1999). Byzantine Empresses. Women and Power in Byzantium, AD 527-1204. Routledge. ISBN 0-203-02481-8.
  • Herrin, J. (2013). Unrivalled Influence. Women and Empire in Byzantium. Princeton university Press. ISBN 978-0-691-15321-6.
  • Kazhdan, A. (1998). "Women at Home". Dumbarton Oaks Papers (Dumbarton Oaks Papers ed.). 52: 1–17. doi:10.2307/1291775. JSTOR 1291775.CS1 maint: date and year (link)
  • Kazhdan, Alexander (1990). "Byzantine Hagiography and Sex in the Fifth to Twelfth Centuries". Dumbarton Oaks Papers. 44: 131–143. doi:10.2307/1291623. JSTOR 1291623.
  • Kazhdan, Alexander, ed. (1991). The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium. N. Y. ISBN 0-19-504652-8.
  • Laiou, Angeliki E. (1981). "The Role of Women in Byzantine Society". Jahrbuch der Oesterreichischen Byzantinistik. 31 (1): 233–260.
  • Laiou, A. (1985). "Observations on the Life and Ideology of Byzantine Women". Byzantinische Forschungen. IX: 59–102.
  • Laiou, A. (1986). "The Festival of "Agathe": Comments on the Life of Constantinopolitan Women". Byzantium: Tribute to Andreas N. Stratos: 111–122.
  • Steven Runciman (1984). "Women in Byzantine Society" (The Byzantine Aristocracy IX to XIII Centuries ed.). ed. by M. Angold: 10–22. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
in German
  • Ariantzi D. (2012). Kindheit in Byzanz. Emotionale, geistige und materielle Entwicklung im familiären Umfeld vom 6. bis zum 11. Jahrhundert. Berlin: De Gruyter.
in French