Perspectives of Power: Byzantine Imperial Women

Perspectives of Power: Byzantine Imperial Women

By Carina Nilsson

Preteritus, Vol 1 (2009)

Abstract: This paper offers a brief overview of my preliminary M.A. thesis research into the lives of Byzantine imperial women and their political authority and influence. While identifying the lack of attention Byzantinists past and present have paid to these women, and redefining the notion of what constitutes “power,” this article aims to incorporate the important experiences of Byzantine imperial women into the larger historical narrative.

Introduction: When examining the political power and position of Byzantine imperial women from the sixth until the twelfth century, it becomes quite apparent that there is a clear omission of powerful imperial women within contemporary Byzantine historiography. Despite their visibility within the primary sources, the traditional definition of “power” within the current field overwhelmingly places legitimate authority solely in the hands of a male, while the lives of imperial women remain absent within most texts. Through this exclusion a distorted version of history has been created, where the considerable position and influence of imperial women in politics has been largely ignored. Rather than being relegated to a specialized field, or chronological compilations of biographies, the lives of imperial women need to be made visible once again and incorporated into the larger historical narrative. It is in this way that their authority and political involvement can finally be recognized as being integral to the history of the Byzantine Empire as a whole.

When a field of historical study has been carved out, the frameworks chosen to represent it are arguably more important than the material itself. Analytical structures can either provide a path into an expanded understanding of the subject or they can misrepresent the material by subordinating it to the scholar’s preconceived ideas. This can lead to the unfortunate result of a field remaining saturated by an exclusive mentality and a narrowly defined perspective. It is from the inception of the Byzantine historical discipline that the Byzantines and their Empire began to be constructed as something other than what they actually were.

The “Byzantine Empire” is a historiographical label that was created in the seventeenth century, and has been used since that time to describe the fluctuating territory of the Eastern Roman Empire. The people of this Empire, which existed from 330 A.D. to 1453 A.D., considered themselves to be Romans, called themselves Romans, and believed their Empire to be the Roman Empire. However, much scholarship has worked to separate the Byzantines and their history from its Roman legacy and has created an image of the Empire as a creatively sterile, Orthodox Christian, military state. However, there exist today many Byzantinists who are working hard to refashion a more accurate representation of the Byzantine Empire and its people. Although their success has been tremendous, the lives of imperial women and women in general continue to be underexplored and are still in serious need of acknowledgement.

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