Sex and Political Legitimacy: an Examination of Byzantine Empresses (399 -1056 c.e.)

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Sex and Political Legitimacy: an Examination of Byzantine Empresses (399 -1056 c.e.)

By Cheridan E. Austin

Honors Thesis, Pace University, 2010

Abstract: The breadth and depth of academic work relating to the Byzantine Empire is copious. With the exception of author and historian Charles Diehl, who examined the lives of Byzantine Empresses as early as 1906, women in Byzantium have recently come to the forefront of scholarly work in this field. Previously, the role of women had been over looked and under examined. With the work of such historians as Judith Herrin, Lynda Garland and Liz James, the lives of women in Byzantium, and more importantly, the lives of Empresses in Byzantium have become a subject of academic attention. An analysis of the state of the field at this time proved that, while women’s issues were indeed being addressed and acknowledged, the majority of the subject focused around gender roles and the society’s concept of the female. The intent of this paper was to examine another aspect of the life of Byzantine Empresses: their ability to assert political power. Through an examination of primary sources and recent scholarly work, it became clear that Empresses were able to assert political power three ways within the Byzantine Empire and thereby take part in the political process.

An Empress, or Augusta, could assume political power through inheritance, or the bloodline, through marriage, and through co-regency which occurred when a mother would come to power if the heir to the throne was too young to rule. Pulcheria (399-453) and the sisters, Zoe (978-1050) and Theodora (984-1056), the last of the Macedonians, were able to establish the succession to the throne. For Pulcheria, when her brother the Emperor Theodosius II died suddenly she was able to arrange a fictive marriage to the army general Marcian and the imperial power remained with the Theodosian dynasty. Upon the death of their father, Constantine VIII, the aged sisters Zoe and Theodora asserted their power in the years following. Zoe removed her husband from the position of emperor when he no longer suited her. The sisters ruled for a short time with no emperor at all, and upon the death of Zoe and her third husband, Theodora ruled for a year unchallenged. One of the most famous imperial couples, Justinian and Theodora (527- 565) exhibit the second assertion of female political power. In contemporary accounts, it is evidenced that Theodora exhibited significant power over her husband and was thereby able to accomplish political goals. The last category of female assertion of political power examined exhibits Irene (780-802). Upon the death of her husband, the Emperor Leo, her young son Constantine VI was only ten years old. She assumed power and would continue to rule after her son attained majority.




When working in medieval history, it is important to remember to examine primary sources with discretion. In the instance of court historian, Michael Psellus, who gives us an account of court life within the time period of Zoe and Theodora, students of history are warned to examine his work with an editing eye. Flattery, egoism and embellishments are all present in his work. Procopius, who offers an account of Justinian and Theodora’s reign, authored both an “official” version and his own Secret Histories, enumerating the things he hated about the imperial couple. Theophanes, church historian and primary source for Irene often attributed Irene’s actions to her gender and her inability to think like a man.

The glamour and allure of the imperial Byzantine lifestyle will continue to attract academic attention and Empresses will remain a topic to be examined. The intent of this paper is to explore the ways in which imperial women, namely Empresses, could exercise legitimate political power. Gender roles of the time period create a significant portion of the academia; however, gender in the societal context is not addressed here. The framework in which political legitimacy was studied within this paper simply considered the biological fact that the Empresses ere female. Hence the title, “Sex and Political Legitimacy,” referring to sex rather than gender, in order to avoid invoking an examination of gender roles

Click here to read this thesis from Pace University

Sharan Newman