Marrying the Mongol Khans: Byzantine Imperial Women and the Diplomacy of Religious Conversion in the 13th and 14th Centuries

Marrying the Mongol Khans: Byzantine Imperial Women and the Diplomacy of Religious Conversion in the 13th and 14th Centuries

By AnnaLinden Weller

Scandanavian Journal of Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies, Volume 2 (2016)

Concerning this matter also a dread and authentic charge and ordinance of the great and holy Constantine is engraved upon the sacred table of the universal church of the Christians, St Sophia, that never shall an emperor of the Romans ally himself in marriage with a nation of customs differing from and alien to those of the Roman order, especially with one that is infidel and unbaptized, unless it be with the Franks alone, for they alone were excepted by that great man, the holy Constantine, because he drew his origin from those parts; for there is much relationship and converse between Franks and Romans.

This familiar passage from the De Administrando Imperio amply demonstrates that Byzantine imperial rhetoric consistently frowns upon the practice of marrying women of Byzantine imperial and noble houses to foreign rulers. Nevertheless, the DAI is an idealized – and thus never-achieved – model of imperial statecraft, and such marriages occurred frequently. So frequently, in fact, that the historiography of Byzantine foreign relations contains the foreign marriage as a standard category. Byzantine emperors contracted foreign marriages out of political necessity. The marriages secured military alliances, guaranteed peaceful relations, and reinforced open trade agreements – in essence, they preserved or created Byzantine influence outside Byzantine-controlled territories. Most of these foreign marriages were contracted with Western sovereigns – and in those cases where the recipient of a Byzantine noble bride was not a Frankish lord, as Constantine VII and the compilers of the DAI would prefer, he was at least a Christian one. However, the political turmoil of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries necessitated an expansion of the practice of foreign marriage of Byzantine imperial brides to include men who were at best, pagan, and at worst, Muslim: the Mongol khans of the Il-khanate and the Golden Horde of the Ukrainian steppe (a Mongolo-Turkic polity ruled by the descendants of Chinggis Khan’s son Jochi).

Click here to read this article in the Scandanavian Journal of Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies.

Sign up to get a Weekly Email from

* indicates required

Sign up for our weekly email newsletter!