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Some of the more unusual female professions were sorcerers and matchmakers. There was nothing to prevent women from owning their own businesses such as inns and shops.

Holy Women of Byzantium: Ten Saints' Lives in English Translation

Illustrating that women could own their own business and do very well indeed is the case of the well-connected aristocrat Anicia Juliana c. Anicia did not simply save her fortune but was a celebrated sponsor of church buildings and art, notably building and furnishing the Saint Polyeuktos and Saint Euphemia churches in Constantinople with fine artworks.

Byzantium: The Lost Empire - John Romer (Complete)

The former was probably the largest church in the capital until the reconstruction of the Hagia Sophia by Justinian I. The lowest class of women were the prostitutes and actresses, who were considered to be pretty much the same thing in Byzantine society, at least in the eyes of the upper classes. Brothels were present, especially in the busy ports of the empire such as the capital and Ephesus. Actresses were usually expected to deliver pornographic singing and dancing routines in theatres or public arenas like the Hippodrome of Constantinople - hence their dubious reputation.

There was likely very little movement between classes in Byzantine society but there was one quick route that could be taken from the very bottom to the very top of the social ladder. This was the imperial bride show organised for an emperor to find himself an empress. Naturally, a girl from an important family, even a foreign one, might have had an advantage as she provided a means to strengthen diplomatic relations at home or abroad but a common girl might just get chosen if she were pretty and bright enough.

Empress Irene became one such case when she was plucked from the obscurity of a modest Athenian family and chosen to be the wife of Emperor Leo IV r. A less ambitious target for mothers was to send their daughters to the imperial court where they might gain employment as ladies-in-waiting. Women had certain rights regarding property.

Women in the Byzantine Empire

A wife could not be separated from her dowry and daughters could inherit an equal portion of the family estate with their brothers if no specific will was made. If a husband died, his wife became the official guardian of the children.

Women could, then, become landowners in their own right, head a household and be subject to taxes like any landowning male. A woman could not perform any judicial duties or any significant religious function in the Church with the exception of widows over 40 years of age who could act as deaconesses or be involved with services specifically aimed at women such as female baptisms.

There were many monasteries devoted to women and at these they held all posts, including that of the abbess. Such nunneries attracted not only those wishing to devote their lives to Christ but also women who had become widows or lacked the means to live independently in the outside world. They were also a place of refuge and help for female victims of crime, illness and general misfortune. A Byzantine woman may not have enjoyed exactly the same rights and privileges as a male but in one area they were regarded as equal: that of the Christian faith.

There was spiritual equality and many of the most revered saints and martyrs were women. Mary Theotokos the Mother of God holding the infant Christ was one of the most common images in icons of the Byzantine Church. Women may not have had much opportunity in the formal church hierarchy but they could make their mark as individual holy persons who inspired others to follow them.

Byzantine ascetics achieved celebrity for their great feats of endurance and personal sacrifice in order to be closer to God and a small number of these were women.

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Celebrating the Women of Byzantium - Part II - Gallery Byzantium

The most famous is perhaps the 5th-6th century CE Saint Matrona of Perge who, following a vision, cut off her hair, disguised herself as a eunuch and entered a male-only monastery in Constantinople, calling herself Babylas. There she outdid the male monks in her fasting and ascetic lifestyle but, when discovered by the abbot, she was forced to move out to a female monastery in Emesa, Syria.

Performing miracles, her reputation grew so that she could return to Constantinople where she established her own famous monastery which included clientele who were members of the imperial family. Her ascetic life did her no harm physically and she lived to the ripe old age of Byzantium has a long history and it involves many women of note. Perhaps the first Byzantine woman to achieve lasting fame is Helena born c.

According to legend Helena discovered the True Cross on her travels and brought it back to Constantinople. Hypatia of Alexandria c. Hypatia met a violent end for her pagan views: she was stabbed to death with quill pens or hit with tiles in another version of events by a group of pro-Christian hospital attendants. Empress Theodora r.


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Overcoming the stigma of her early career as an actress in the Hippodrome of Constantinople, she would become an invaluable support for her husband, famously convincing him to face and put down the dangerous Nika Revolt of CE. She is also the subject of one of the most celebrated Byzantine artworks, the mosaics of the San Vitale church in Ravenna, Italy. It is an iconic image of Byzantine womanhood that has coloured how empresses and aristocratic women of the period are viewed ever since it was made.

The wife of Leo IV r. From to CE she ruled as emperor in her own right, the first woman to do so in Byzantine history. Her troubled reign, scheming plots to keep her throne and the infamous blinding of her son, have led to her gaining the darkest of reputations - and this is not helped by such conceits as Irene being the only Byzantine ruler to ever put her face on both sides of her gold coins. Zoe had a hand in the succession of five different emperors, three of whom were her husband: Romanos III r.

She is the subject of a colourful biography by the 11th century CE Byzantine historian Michael Psellos. There were several Byzantine women writers of note who wrote hymns, verses and biographies of saints but none were more famous than Anna Komnene, who wrote her Alexiad on the life and reign of her father Alexios Komnenos r. Besides her own work, Anna sponsored that of other scholars such as Eustratius of Nicaea.

Finally, in this brief summary of only a few of the notable Byzantine women, there is Kassia the poet. Further on her, see A. See Geor-gios Sphrantzes. Memorii —, ed. Grecu Bucharest, , chap. There is also the occasional virgin who is con-secrated to monastic life at a tender age Elisabeth the Wonderworker. After the seventh century there is a remarkable shift to married women in theranks of female saints,18 although earlier types of saints are occasionally 13 On this, see A.

Gregory commemorated his sister St. Gorgonia d. He eulogized his mother Nonna. The few women whose sanctity was recognized in the middle Byzantineperiod were restricted to local cults22 and, with one exception, their vitae arepreserved in a limited number of manuscripts. Gregory of Nazianzos, or. McCauley et al. Mary the Younger, below, pp. Philaretos the Merciful 8th century ,Euthymios the Younger 9th century , Philotheos of Opsikion uncertain date , andCyril Phileotes 11th—12th centuries. Only the vita of Theoktiste achieved wide popularity, asattested by the twenty-seven manuscripts in which it survives.

The sculpted image of Theodora. To their number can be added images of sainted empresses like Helena, themother of Constantine, and to a lesser extent the iconodules Irene and The-odora. I thank Sharon Gerstel for advice on this subject. Her conclusions are supported by theobservations of J. Cotsonis; see note 25, above. The only two attested medieval Greekfemale hagiographers are Sergia, who wrote an account of the translation of the relicsof St. The Syriac vita of St. Brock, S. Thus the Lives ofthose women who did achieve sanctity are of particular interest for the insightsthey give us into attitudes toward the status of women in Byzantium.

Our understanding of the everyday life of Byzantine women wouldbe much poorer without these sacred biographies, which open a door into thecloister and into the homes of ordinary people. A Note on the Translation The aim of the translators has been the production of a text that is closeto the original Greek, yet at the same time readable and comprehensible.

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See also the remarks of P. Greek proper names and technical terms have been strictly transliteratedfor the most part, except in instances where a traditional latinized or angli-cized form e. In a few cases where the Brenton or KingJames translations are misleading, the translators have substituted their own rendering.

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A word of thanks also tothree students, Deborah Fitzl, Rachel Rezek, and Jonathan Talbot, who re-viewed portions of the typescript and made useful suggestions from the view-point of the undergraduate reader.