By Judith Herrin
Women Rulers in Europe: Agency, Practice and the Representation of Political Powers (XII-XVIII), edited by Giulia Calvi (European University Institute, 2008)
Introduction: Even historians wo have no interest in or knowledge of the Byzantine Empire know about some women identified as Byzantine: Theodora, the circus entertainer who became the wife of Emperor Justinian in the sixth century; Theophano, who was sent to marry the western Emperor Otto II in the tenth, or Sophia Palaiolgina who carried her Byzantine destiny to Russia when she married Ivan III after the Ottoman capture of Constantinople. All three are generally considered to personify certain features of Byzantine culture, and to have influenced the environment in which they lived. It is striking that they are particularly associated with regions outside the imperial capital. Theodora’s most famous portrait remains in the church of San Vitale in Ravenna. In contrast, none of her monuments in Constantinople survive, although many are recorded, including a porphyry statue raised by the citizens of the city in her honour. Theophano is represented in western medieval art by is simply not mentioned in contemporary Byzantine sources. Information about Byzantine women of power and influence who lived in the eastern capital during its long history from AD 330-1453 is often concealed in references that either minimize or demonize women (a familiar problem). In this brief contribution I will draw attention to three features of Byzantine society that favoured female authority: structural reasons for the prominence of women at the centre of imperial power; legal justifications for the power of mothers and widows; gendered reasons connected with the existence of eunuchs, who formed a ‘third sex’.