BMCR 2005.01.07

Women of Byzantium

, Women of Byzantium. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004. xvii, 396 pages, [16] pages of color plates : illustrations, maps ; 26 cm. ISBN 0300099576. $45.00.

As Carolyn Connor (hereafter C) rightly states in the introduction of her new book reviewed here, “everyone has a story” (p. xi). Nevertheless, it was as late as the end of the nineteenth century when scholars and philosophers of the West started realising that women also have stories. As for Byzantinists, they came to realise much later that Byzantine culture cannot be fully understood without studying Byzantine women. It is in the last three decades and particularly from the nineties onwards that Byzantinists started showing a growing interest in women’s studies, as the lengthy and expanding online bibliography on Byzantine Women edited by Alice-Mary Talbot attests.1 Despite the abundance of studies on Byzantine women, these women have not yet been studied thoroughly, therefore C’s book is to be warmly welcomed.

Written for a broad readership, C’s accessible and informative book is the first study which explores many of the roles and activities of Byzantine women over centuries of Byzantine history. That C aims to reach a wider audience is admirable. Byzantine civilisation in general and Byzantine women in particular should be accessible not only to Byzantinists, but also to other readers who are interested in learning about Byzantium and the situation of Byzantine women.

The women investigated by C include known and anonymous, rich and poor, noble and lowborn, literate and illiterate. C’s project is very ambitious and at the same time extremely difficult, since it has to be based on heterogeneous material that covers the whole spectrum of Byzantine history. C’s book includes a brief general introduction, a main part, a map of the early Christian and Byzantine world, a plan of Byzantine Constantinople, two appendices (the genealogy of Theodosian women and a list of Byzantine emperors and empresses mentioned in the book), colourplates, notes, a useful glossary for the non-byzantinist, bibliography and a general index.

The main part of the book is organised chronologically. It consists of four parts each of which corresponds to a certain period. The first part is devoted to the years 250-500 which for C and some other scholars represent late antiquity. The second part covers the years 500-843 which according to C is the early Byzantine period (for most Byzantinists, however, the eighth and ninth centuries belong to the middle Byzantine period), the third part refers to the years 843-1204 (middle Byzantine period) and the last part is on the years 1204-1453 (late Byzantine period). Each part has an introduction followed by a number of chapters. The epilogue of the book is not independent but belongs to the book’s last part: it is one of its two chapters. Most chapters concentrate on a particular role or activity undertaken by Byzantine women. Each of these chapters is divided into two sections. In the first section there is a general introduction into a certain role or activity, where major issues, historical events and the approach to be taken in the chapter are presented. In the second section there is a case study focusing on a certain woman. The introductions of all four parts and each chapter are followed by a reading list which is not always satisfactory.

The content of the introductions to the four parts varies considerably in scope and is loosely connected to the chapters that follow. As is the case with the second sections of most chapters, the introduction of the book’s first part (chapters 1-3) is devoted to a particular woman, Saint Thecla. Despite Thecla’s questionable historicity, C uses her story as a source for women’s lives and situation during the years 250-500. In order to validate her use of Thecla’s story as historical evidence, C makes a personal and unprovable statement: “I believe there is a grain of truth in it [ Acts of Thecla ], a real person named Thecla, on which the story was based” (p. 2). In general, C tends to employ saints’ Lives which have little or no historical value as sources for the lives of Byzantine women. Already in the early 1970s Peter Brown and Evelyne Patlagean showed us convincingly that these texts should be read as a whole for their contribution to ideology and mentality and not as mines of historical evidence. The introduction to the second part (chapters 4-7) of the book, which could have been part of the book’s general introduction, discusses mainly the “problematic” for a study of women in Byzantium by repeating some of the conclusions expressed by Judith Herrin in an article written in 1983. There follows a very brief and superficial presentation of women’s situation in early Byzantium. The introduction of the third part (chapters 8-11) refers to the historical event of the restoration of icons and presents women’s role during the period of iconoclasm and their importance in this restoration. It also describes very briefly women’s life in the middle Byzantine period. The introduction of the last part (chapters 12-13) discusses in brief women’s lives, occupations and social roles in the Paleologan period.

In chapter 1 there is a general presentation of female asceticism and religious life in early Christianity. The case study employed here is the Life of Macrina written by her brother Gregory of Nyssa. Chapter 2 is on female pilgrimage in the early centuries of Christianity. In the second part of the chapter the account of Egeria’s pilgrimage is examined. Chapter 3 is devoted to the imperial women of the Theodosian house. Galla Placidia serves as a case study of the deeds of a princess of the fifth century. Her life and activities are thoroughly presented.

Chapter 4 is on female saints who used to be sinners. The Life of Pelagia and the Lives of cross-dressing women are briefly discussed. The case study for this chapter is Mary of Egypt. C draws on both Mary’s Life and her depictions on the walls of churches. C appears to believe that Mary was a real woman characterised by enormous sexual lust. In fact, when in her Life Mary relates her story to Zosimas she presents herself as a woman who used to be incredibly lustful. Her former sexual life appears so excessive that it cannot represent reality. What Mary says about her previous sexual life does not constitute evidence about women’s sexuality in the seventh century or about how these women perceived their own sexuality but rather represents a male perception of female sexuality. Mary’s Life was written by a man and was originally addressed to monks for spiritual improvement. C suggests that the skeletal figure of Mary of Egypt as depicted in a fresco in the church of Asinou in Cyprus encouraged fasting during Lent by women who identified with her. This is simply impossible because Mary’s depiction is not to be found in a place that could be seen by everybody. It is located inside the sanctuary. In fact, if Mary as depicted in Asinou functioned as a model for some people, these were not the women who entered the church, but the priests.

Chapter 5 focuses on the artistic patronage undertaken by women. The case study concerns the aims and deeds of Anicia Juliana, a princess of sixth century Constantinople. Chapter 6 lacks the introductory part of the previous chapters. It is devoted exclusively to the empress Theodora, the wife of the emperor Justinian I. This chapter, like the previous ones, is divided into two sections, the first considering textual evidence about Theodora and the second section the visual depictions of Theodora. C’s textual investigation of Theodora is based on Procopius’ Secret History, which should be treated cautiously, since it constitutes an attack of Procopius against Theodora and is in fact a libel. Therefore, I cannot agree with C that the Secret History is “an extraordinary well of information about Theodora’s personality, style of joint rule, relationship with her husband, and innovative influence” (p. 132). Chapter 7 differs from the chapters discussed so far in that it is not divided into two sections. Like chapter 6, this chapter does not have an introductory part. It is devoted to a single text, the Life of Theodore of Sykeon. Based on this text, C examines the situation of lowborn women from the countryside. In this chapter, C states among others that “demon possession is a common problem of women” (p. 155). This statement suggests that C believes that a situation such as demon possession exist and that this is something that characterises women. Without using any other text or source, C draws the conclusion that the lives of the women depicted in Theodore’s Life are “representative of a major part (about half) of the population of Byzantium” (p. 157).

Chapter 8 investigates female monasticism in the middle Byzantine period. The fictitious Life of Irene of Chrysobalanton serves as case study. Chapter 9 deals with the presentation of women in art. The focus is on the depictions of Saint Helena. Chapter 10 refers to imperial marriage in the eleventh century. The case of Zoe is examined here. In chapter 11 the world of aristocratic women, their education and diplomatic roles are discussed. The case study is Anna Komnene who is examined as a well-educated princess and author.

Chapter 12 is on female monastic life in the late Byzantine period. Women’s role as founders of monasteries is examined. It is correct that late Byzantine typika of female monastic communities are used as testimonies. The case study is Theodora Synadene, the niece of Emperor Michael VIII, who was a monastic founder, an abbess and an author of a typikon. The first section of chapter 13 constitutes the book’s conclusion, while the second section is devoted to a woman of late Byzantium, Mary Paleologina, sister of Emperor Andronicus II, who was sent as a bride to the khan of Mongols.

The book has its share of typographical errors, repetitions and misconceptions. For example, in Greek the verb testify is martureo and not marturevo (p. 30). The original of Pelagia’s Life was not written in Syriac, but in Greek (p. 80). According to her Life, Pelagia does not enter a monastery, but lives as a recluse in a cell on the Mount of Olives. The Lives of holy women who cross-dress do not disappear in the ninth century (p. 82). There is a Life written in the eleventh or twelfth century ( Life of Marina of Sicily) and another Life of the fourteenth century ( Life of Euphrosyne the Younger).

C shows successfully that women were an integral part of Byzantine society and that they undertook a variety of roles such as the ascetic, the pilgrim, the empress, the patroness, the scholar, the author, the wife , the mother, the abbess and the founder of monasteries. Some roles are investigated more thoroughly than others. For example, the ascetic is examined in all periods of Byzantine history whereas in the case of the pilgrim only the female pilgrims of late antiquity are discussed. There are roles, such as the ascetic and the empress, to which more than one chapter are devoted. The important role of the mother, on the other hand, is not the subject of even one single chapter.

In order to show women’s roles in Byzantine society, C. draws on both visual and textual evidence. She discusses the depictions of holy women and empresses on frescoes, mosaics, statues, coins and various objects. C’s textual sources are inscriptions on the walls of churches and on different objects as well as Byzantine texts. C does not use all or even most of the existing sources on the women and the female roles she examines, but only those which are translated into English. Her arguments are based on translations which are sometimes misleading. This fact makes some of her arguments, especially those that have a generalising and categorical character, less persuasive.


1. Many Byzantine texts on female saints have been translated into modern languages, and volumes have appeared which contain translations of texts devoted to holy women (Brock, S. and S. Harvey 1987. Holy Women of the Syrian Orient; Talbot, A.-M. (ed.) 1996 Holy Women of Byzantium). There are studies presenting women’s legal status, their role in society and their religious lives (see, for example, Beaucamp, J. 1990, 1992. Le statut de la femme à Byzance, Talbot, A.-M. (ed.) 2001. Women and Religious Life in Byzantium and the studies of Angeliki Laiou and Judith Herrin). Other studies examine the achievements and importance of women in Byzantine society (see, for example, Garland, L. 1999. Byzantine Empresses: Women and Power in Byzantium, AD 527-1204 and Holum, K. 1990. Theodosian Empresses: Women and Imperial Dominion in Late Antiquity).