By Jessica R. Lee
BA Thesis, Scripps College, 2014
Abstract: The scholarship on female basileia in the Byzantine Empire is generally spilt into two polarized camps, divided over how to reconcile female agency within a patriarchal society. The crux of the issue is how these women achieved power and how their power was perceived. Did the emulation of men elevate these women or was their imperial worth tied exclusively to their aspects of their femininity? The disparity in contemporary scholarship often ignores the idea of a middle ground. Imperial women achieved a remarkable degree of power, yet they still existed within a male centered, almost misogynistic context. The frequency and relative consistency with which these powerful women appear in the historical record bars them from being categorized as anomalies.
In approaching the issue of early Byzantine empresses, I was very aware of the parallels in gender construction with female saints. The simultaneous masculinization and feminization of these women served to further distinguish them from women as a whole. They were unattainable paragons, their success largely determined by their adherence to a feminine version of the imperial persona. While emperors had long since developed a public persona to favorably communicate their imperial power, it wasn’t until the advent of the Christian Empire in the East that we see a pattern of imperial women with access to genuine imperial power. Though still existing within a relentlessly androcentric society, imperial women were able to negotiate rather than negate their gender to secure power within a Christian imperial structure. I examine three empresses, Pulcheria (398-453 CE), Theodora (500-548 CE), and Irene (752-803 CE), in the hopes of illuminating their claims to imperial power while also placing them in the context of a larger historical tradition.