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Unrivalled Influence

Unrivalled Influence: Women and Empire in Byzantium

Judith Herrin
Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 160
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    Unrivalled Influence
    Book Description:

    Unrivalled Influenceexplores the exceptional roles that women played in the vibrant cultural and political life of medieval Byzantium. Written by one of the world's foremost historians of the Byzantine millennium, this landmark book evokes the complex and exotic world of Byzantium's women, from empresses and saints to uneducated rural widows. Drawing on a diverse range of sources, Judith Herrin sheds light on the importance of marriage in imperial statecraft, the tense coexistence of empresses in the imperial court, and the critical relationships of mothers and daughters. She looks at women's interactions with eunuchs, the in-between gender in Byzantine society, and shows how women defended their rights to hold land. Herrin describes how they controlled their inheritances, participated in urban crowds demanding the dismissal of corrupt officials, followed the processions of holy icons and relics, and marked religious feasts with liturgical celebrations, market activity, and holiday pleasures. The vivid portraits that emerge here reveal how women exerted an unrivalled influence on the patriarchal society of Byzantium, and remained active participants in the many changes that occurred throughout the empire's millennial history.

    Unrivalled Influencebrings together Herrin's finest essays on women and gender written throughout the long span of her esteemed career. This volume includes three new essays published here for the very first time and a new general introduction by Herrin. She also provides a concise introduction to each essay that describes how it came to be written and how it fits into her broader views about women and Byzantium.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-4521-7
    Subjects: History, Sociology
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Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Abbreviations (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction (pp. xiii-xxii)

    At first there was women’s history, then the history of gender, and now a vastly more sophisticated theory and methodology of studying historical men and women. When I first started working on women in Byzantium in 1976, there was very little research published specifically on the female half of its society. Only a few empresses, princesses, nuns, and other famous (or infamous) individuals received attention. And most of it was scurrilous, designed to illustrate their weak characters and dangerous impulses, as male authors perceived them. Yet women not only accounted for 50 percent of the population in the Byzantine Empire...

  5. 1 Women in Byzantium (pp. 1-11)

    The Runciman Lecture was established at King’s College London in 1991 by Nicholas Egon in honor of the historian Sir Steven Runciman. It regularly attracts a large mixed audience, from ambassadors to school-children. On 5 February 2009, when I was honored to give the lecture, a novel element was added by the presence of Boris Johnson, the new mayor of London. A classicist by training, who attributes his blond hair if not his sense of humor to Ottoman genes, he enjoys the second largest direct vote in Europe after the president of France. He’s also responsible for patronizing a scheme,...

  6. 2 In Search of Byzantine Women: THREE AVENUES OF APPROACH (pp. 12-37)

    It is now widely recognized that the analysis of male-dominated societies should not be undertaken as if men alone counted in their histories. Women can play a significant role economically and culturally, even if it is only the exceptional individual—usually the wife of a ruler—who manifests overt political power. Female influence is doubly veiled from us: it is often silent, unvoiced by the women themselves, and frequently ignored, either deliberately or as a matter of course in the sources written by men. A full theory of the potential role of women in large preindustrial societies will require evidence...

  7. 3 Women and the Faith in Icons in Early Christianity (pp. 38-79)

    The cult of icons presents several paradoxes. It runs directly counter to the Old Testament prohibition of “graven images,” which was binding on early Christian communities, and it represents an essentially pagan art form, the commemoration of the dead, ancestors, rulers, heroes, and divinities both mortal and immortal. This prompts the question: how did icons come to hold such a central position in Christian art? Had the church simply ignored the heathen roots and Mosaic interdiction of this type of representative art? Or had it justified a Christian adaptation and re-employment of older art forms by theological argument? One answer...

  8. 4 Mothers and Daughters in the Medieval Greek World (pp. 80-114)

    In an idyllic scene of devoted mother and obedient daughter created by the poet Claudian, the young girl sits with her mother, drinking in her words, learning from her example, imitating her model behavior. Serena, the mother, is described as teaching her daughter Maria the old songs of Homer, Orpheus. and Sappho. Into this imaginary setting Venus suddenly arrives to announce that Maria is to marry the young emperor, Honorius—for this is a wedding speech that conforms to the Late Antique genre of theepithalamion.¹ All the more reason to discount the construct designed to flatter the young couple...

  9. 5 “Femina Byzantina”: THE COUNCIL IN TRULLO ON WOMEN (pp. 115-132)

    Μὴ ἐξέστω ταῖς γυναιξὶ ἐν τῷ καιρῷ τῆς θείας λειτουργίας λαλεῖν (Do not allow women to speak during the holy liturgy).¹ With this command, followed by a quotation from St. Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians (I Cor. 14.34), the Council in Trullo instructed that women were to remain silent during church services. Canon 70 is typical of clerical attitudes toward women. Yet even in their predictable prejudice they are interesting, for they contain gender-specific material that is quite rare in Byzantine records. However skewed, such evidence adds to our meager knowledge of Byzantine women. The declarations of the Council...

  10. 6 Public and Private Forms of Religious Commitment among Byzantine Women (pp. 133-160)

    The purpose of this chapter is to examine the development of the different forms of religious commitment expressed by women who lived in the Byzantine Empire between the sixth and eleventh centuries AD—a development predicated on their gradual exclusion from displays of public religiosity. Over this long period, as the church consolidated its organization through an administration grafted on to Roman imperial government, the ecclesiastical hierarchy of male bishops effectively excluded women from prominent public positions. This development can be traced through canonical rulings laid down at ecumenical and local church councils, which defined the Christian practice appropriate for...

  11. 7 The Imperial Feminine in Byzantium (pp. 161-193)

    Ever since Edward Gibbon wrote hisDecline and Fall of the Roman Empirethe phrase has captured a vital process in the historical development of Europe. It is often forgotten that he went on to chronicle the history of the East Roman Empire, which we call Byzantium, through its millennial existence right up to its final conquest by the Ottoman Turks. By extending his definition of “Roman,” Gibbon effectively wrote a history of the East Mediterranean to the middle of the fifteenth century. He found the eastern Romans of the Middle Ages, centered on their capital Constantinople, an effete and...

  12. 8 Political Power and Christian Faith in Byzantium: THE CASE OF IRENE (REGENT 780–90, EMPEROR 797–802) (pp. 194-207)

    While it is unusual to find women exercising political power in medieval Europe, in Byzantium there was a stronger tradition that permitted wives, widows, and mothers to take a leading role. This is a gendered difference that requires analysis. The Christian Roman Empire in the East with its capital at Constantinople survived the sack of Rome in 410 and the fall of the West to barbarian control. It perpetuated imperial traditions until its fall to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. Byzantium was not a hereditary state, but fathers generally tried to arrange the succession for their kin. A son only...


    Like the kings of France who all wanted to be buried in Saint Denis, rulers of Byzantium had a specific burial place, which had been established by Constantine I—the imperial mausoleum later attached to the Church of the Holy Apostles.¹ Similar preoccupations are found in many cultures and civilizations, where perpetual commemoration may be manifested in buildings, from the original tomb of Mausolos to the Chinese ceramic army, from the Pantheon to Westminster Abbey. In Constantinople the eponymous founder of the city was the first to be laid to rest in the mausoleum he had constructed, which was probably finished...

  14. 10 The Many Empresses of the Byzantine Court (and All Their Attendants) (pp. 219-237)

    In the political ideology of the Byzantine Empire, there was place for only one ruler, the emperor “crowned by God” and blessed by the church, who united all his subjects within the known world,oikoumene. The notion of one state, one faith, and one emperor predominated, paralleled by only one court, the imperial court at Constantinople. Although aristocratic families might maintain palaces both in the provinces and in the capital, there was nothing to rival the Great Palace on the acropolis of the capital. And while many conflicts and civil wars were fought over the succession, once an emperor had...


    When Theophano arrived in Rome in 972 to marry the young German prince, Otto II, she was presented as a Byzantine princess. While there may have been some doubt as to her precise relationship to the ruling emperor, her clothing and demeanor, her retinue, and her extravagant gifts confirmed a close imperial connection. Not only did she bring with her the luxurious silks and jewels that fascinated Western commentators on the marriage, but also in some way she embodied a prestige associated with brides from Constantinople, qualities that made these Greek princesses especially desirable.

    This particular marriage had been pursued for...

  16. 12 Toleration and Repression within the Byzantine Family: GENDER PROBLEMS (pp. 261-280)

    In the context of the family, tolerance and repression seem to be concepts which barely apply before our own times. Issues of child abuse and wife beating are probably universal, but they have not been identified as suppressive and intolerable until quite recently. The individual human rights of women and children have only slowly been recognized, over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and there is no way we can project such notions back into the medieval past. Although the Byzantine understanding of family and gender is quite unlike ours, it is nonetheless interesting to reflect upon toleration...

  17. 13 The Icon Corner in Medieval Byzantium (pp. 281-301)

    From Classical times onward, one of the basic tasks of women was to take care of the householdlares, representatives of the ancient gods, whose presence was felt to protect and assist the family. In every dwelling with a hearth female members attended these deities with appropriate rituals. Even though it might require no more than a token offering of incense or a gesture of respect, such actions helped to guarantee the well-being of the entire family. In the form of statuettes, often gilded, as well as framed wooden panel paintings, local deities occupied a prominent domestic space long into...


    Since the challenging aim of the gathering held by the World History Association in Istanbul in 2010 was to compare the Byzantine and the Ottoman empires, I thought it would be appropriate to pursue the theme of marriage in imperial statecraft. Like many other features of medieval organization, the Ottomans inherited and adapted a diplomatic system from Byzantium, which was then developed in the inner rooms of Topkapı, with fountains playing to protect state secrets. In his recent, highly stimulating book,The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire, Edward Luttwak has demonstrated the significance of diplomacy in keeping the medieval...

  19. Index (pp. 321-328)