Gender and Class in Byzantine Society

The conference was held in honour of Professor John Melville-Jones.

Plenary Speakers

Dr Tom Brown, Reader, School of History, Classics and Archaeology, The University of Edinburgh
Professor John Melville-Jones, Classics and Ancient History, University of Western Australia

Gender and class were key social indicators in Byzantine society, as in many others. However, masculine and feminine roles were not always clearly defined, while eunuchs made up a ‘third gender’. Social status was also in a state of flux, as much linked to patronage networks as to wealth, as the Empire came under a series of external and internal pressures. This fluidity applied in ecclesiastical as much as in secular spheres.

The Conference was held 16-18 April 2010 at the University of New England in Armidale, New South Wales, Australia.

Into a Class of Her Own: The Early Byzantine Transformation of the New-Testament Mary

Professor Pauline Allen, Australian Catholic University

In this paper I concentrate on the transformation of the New-Testament image of Mary, the mother of Jesus of Nazareth, which was effected by early Byzantine homilists down to the seventh century. These include Proclus of Constantinople, Severus of Antioch, Abraham of Ephesus, Anastasius of Antioch and Sophronius of Jerusalem. As an example, I take the episode of the Annunciation by the angel Gabriel, where Mary’s role can be construed (and indeed was construed) as negative or at least ambiguous. I show that the infirmities of Mary’s gender in the Biblical accounts were gradually sanitized by homilists to the extent that she emerged as a figure who was in control of the Biblical narrative. Only after her transformation into a woman of autonomy and stature could her humanity be comfortably show-cased, as it came to be from the Middle Byzantine period onwards.

Eunuchs and Angels in Byzantine Art and Culture

Dr Amelia Brown, University of Queensland

At first glance, the earth-bound eunuchs and heavenly angels of Byzantium have nothing at all in common. Angels were messengers of God, spiritual creatures who brought ‘good tidings of great joy’ to humanity; eunuchs, at least in literature, were venal, corrupt and evil, the friends of prostitutes, corrupters of virgins and unnatural monsters of entirely human creation. We would thus expect eunuchs to be depicted as demons in the visual arts, if they were depicted at all. However, from Late Antiquity into the Middle Ages, the iconography of both Byzantine eunuchs and Byzantine angels was closely linked, probably as a result of their similar occupations as messengers and the representational tradition brought to bear upon the problem of depicting angels, traditionally conceived of as bodiless creatures. Some textual sources for the respective function and appearance of each group begin to reveal these connections, but it is only when Byzantine representational art is examined closely that the relationship between depictions of eunuchs and angels becomes clear. For while angels were celestial beings who could appear however they chose, Byzantine eunuchs had a very particular appearance, characterized in both textual and artistic sources and based on the inevitable physical manifestations of castration. The visual arts offer evidence not only about their distinctive physical appearance, but also about their customary dress, their function in court ceremonial and their role in Byzantine society. Thus when Byzantine painters depicted the Annunciation, the Adoration of the Magi, or almost any other Christian scene featuring angels, they drew, consciously or not, on the iconography of the court eunuch. This borrowing was only one element of the influence of Byzantine imperial iconography on Christian art, yet it is fascinating for what it reveals about characterizations of eunuchs and angels and their respective roles in Byzantine society and Christian art.

Perceptions of Byzantine Virility Among the Lombards and Normans in Pre- and Post-imperial Italy (c. 960s-1080s)

Dr Paul Brown, University of New England

The image of ‘effeminate’ Byzantine males is, of course, a commonplace of Latin chronicles of the crusades from the twelfth century onwards. Based on often unselective use of southern Italian works written by Lombards and Normans in the eleventh century, it is widely held by scholars that this perception was also common in the Mezzogiorno. Yet this paper will emphasise, as it were, the reverse side of the muliebris coin. For example, a late tenth-century Lombard chronicle refers to the emperor Nikephoros II Phokas as ‘a brave, just man and conqueror of diverse peoples’. Over a century later, Alexios I Komnenos was described by William of Apulia as ‘the mighty ruler of the Roman Empire’ who, quite unlike ‘cowardly’ (ignavus) predecessors such as Michael VII Doukas, was more than capable of engaging in ‘manly [virilis] battle against the Normans’. While those who favour the ‘effeminate’ perception tend also to argue that it was simply a reiteration of an age-old stereotype, a necessarily brief assessment of representations of the Byzantines in Latin historical writing from the sixth until the eleventh centuries will demonstrate that although a stereotype did exist, it was of ‘treachery’ or ‘cunning’ rather than of effeminacy.

The View From the Provinces: Gender and Society in Byzantine Italy from Justinian to Robert Guiscard

Dr Tom Brown, University of Edinburgh

In many ways Byzantium is still the poor relation of western medieval studies when it comes to gender studies. One reason for this is the relative lack of evidence from outside the capital and especially in the form of documents, before the 11th and 12th centuries. However, one area has left a considerable and diverse range of evidence, including documents and archaeological and art-historical material, as well as narrative sources, namely Italy.

This paper will begin by outlining the various areas of Italy which remained in imperial hands from 540 AD to 1071 AD and discuss the type of source material which survives. It will then examine this evidence with reference to a number of key themes including: attitudes towards gender and sexual stereotypes, including misogyny; the level of female literacy; women’s and property rights; and evidence for general power and influence exercised by women.

It will then attempt to examine the extent to which gender roles and rights in the Byzantine areas of Italy differ from those of the Late Roman world and the Byzantine West and to suggest whether some of the conclusions which may be drawn apply to Byzantine provincial society as a whole or reflect a particular ‘one-off’.

Fully Human, Beyond Gender: Insights from St Maximus the Confessor

Revd Dr Doru Costache, St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College

The paper explores an aspect pertaining to the spiritual vision of St Maximus the Confessor, relevant to a holistic understanding of Byzantine anthropology.

Although a major representative of early Byzantine monastic tradition, St Maximus (d. 662) displayed a broad and nuanced concept of spiritual life, of interest to a wider Christian audience. Thus, in spite of the customary monastic anti-Eve rhetoric to which he sometimes seemed to subscribe, he remained faithful to the Pauline note on the genderless character of Christian identity (cf. Galatians 3:28). This aspect powerfully emerges in two very important Maximian texts. The first is the interpretation of the Lord’s transfiguration (cf. Book of Difficulties 10), more precisely the passage that takes Moses and Elijah as illustrating the two ways of spiritual life, marriage and celibacy respectively. Far from favouring either of the two ways, St Maximus the monk was aware that the spiritual path could be walked irrespective to social circumstances. The second is the famous text on the five polarities and syntheses within the whole order of reality (cf. Book of Difficulties 41), more precisely the fifth polarity and respectively the first synthesis, explicitly dealing with gender. Whilst acknowledging the tensions associated with gender division, St Maximus advanced a superior solution to the simplistic patriarchal and matriarchal approaches, namely the ascetical achievement of a state of personal transcendence. Traditionally termed as apatheia (dispassion or serenity) this state was taken as corresponding to an important stage toward the fulfilment of human potential.

My contention is that far from representing a marginal trend, spirituality as depicted by the Maximian vision was considered by the Byzantines a prerequisite of the holistic “actualisation” of human potential. Likewise, and correlatively, that they found within the spiritual tradition the necessary inspiration and resources for a mature understanding of the rapports between genders. In fact, within the patriarchal structure of their culture, this represented a revolutionary understanding that may be also contemplated as an interesting alternative to our “gender-aware” context.

Along the lines of the two Maximian texts, I will support these assertions by proposing

  • First, that Byzantine spirituality was seen as a path towards perfection open to both men and women;
  • Second, that pointing beyond genders it was taken as a privileged framework within which become possible the full achievement of humanity through participation in the divine life;
  • Third, that the spiritual path was understood as constituting an ongoing transformative experience;
  • And fourth, that this transformative experience was considered impossible – for both men and women – without undertaking the ascetic effort of reshaping one’s life.

In light of the above, the two texts have immense consequences for our understanding of Byzantine asceticism and anthropology. For this reason, they will be thoroughly analysed and interpreted within their immediate Maximian and broader Byzantine contexts.

Psellos on Divination

Assoc. Prof. Matthew Dillon, University of New England

Divination was central to the religious practices of the ancient Greeks and Romans. Many Byzantine methods of divination had classical precedents and various Byzantine works concern divination, such as John Lydus’ On Omens and treatises on brontologia. Various types of divination that the ancient Greeks and Romans would have recognised were practised in the Byzantine world. It is clear, however, that while the Byzantines were aware of classical precedents, they employed their own particular forms of divination, such as bibliomanteia. Despite meeting with the disapproval of orthodox Christianity, divination was still very much in vogue.

Psellos himself was interested in the Chaldean Oracles and had detailed knowledge of astrology and horoscopes. In his short treatise, Peri omoplatoskopias kai oionoskopias, he discusses these two particular forms of divination: from shoulder blades and birds. But how accurate is his account and just how sound was his knowledge of ancient divination? Does his discussion of how features of the ancient divinatory sacrifice and bird movements provide any useful information to the ancient historian, or is his treatise a discussion of how he thought ancient divination worked, or does it reflect purely Byzantine practices?

Sophia of Byzantium (6th Century): ‘Mistress Manipulator or Strategic Manager?’

Marie Fisher, University of New England

Imperial women in antiquity were supposed to be elegant, support their husbands and not be seen to take an active role in managing empires. However, recent literature reviewing sixth-century Byzantium invites us to delve deeper into primary sources to locate evidence to show that royal women like Sophia were capable of managing the empire in their own right rather than relying on their husbands. Traditionally chroniclers like Procopius have dismissed the role of women as ‘meddling, manipulating their husbands and interfering with the running of the state’. In this paper Sophia’s character will be explored with relation to her wielding power as a woman to keep the empire running.

Queen of Heaven or Suburban Mum? The Multi-faceted Mary in Romanos the Melode

Sarah Gador-Whyte, PhD candidate, University of Melbourne

Mary plays a number of roles in the kontakia of the sixth-century hymn-writer Romanos the Melode. She is the second Eve, who redeems all womankind. At other points Romanos paints a picture of her as the caring and gentle mother. She is at once intercessor, humble virgin and Theotokos. This paper will investigate the different ways Romanos presents the Virgin Mary and how these different representations reflect changes in ideas about Mary in the sixth century.

‘Till Death do us Part?’: Family Life in the Byzantine Cloister

Professor Lynda Garland, University of New England

This paper considers Byzantine families in the context of monastic life and analyses the ways in which Byzantine families remained united even when their members entered monastic institutions. It discusses the existence and role of double monasteries and those that were deliberately established to be institutions to house family members of either sex. As well as utilising hagiographical texts to explore the topic the paper makes particular use of typika, monastic foundation documents, and discusses to what extent these can be used as evidence for studying the Byzantine family and its interests. The paper also considers the expectations of family members on joining such institutions and the ways in which family concerns prevailed within them, with particular regard to the multigenerational women who became nuns in the female establishments of the Theotokos Kecharitomene, Constantine Lips, Anagyroi, Philanthropos Soter and Bebaia Elpis.

Queen to Empress: The Tragic Appeal of Brunhild to Constantina

Dr Andrew Gillett, Macquarie University

“I beseech you: may my little grandson be returned to my embrace, to console a heart that heaves with the heaviest grief at his absence; may I who have lost my daughter not loose also this sweet trace of her which yet remains to me.”

This plea was made in a letter from Brunhild, dowager queen in the late sixth-century Frankish kingdom in Gaul, to Constantina, augusta of the emperor Maurice. Correspondence between royal women is hardly commonplace among our ancient sources; as Fergus Millar has recently pointed out, “the only example from Classical antiquity of a letter from a woman to a woman on a major matter of public policy” is the mid-fifth century correspondence between the Theodosian augustae Galla Placidia and Pulcheria in the lead-up to the Council of Chalcedon (Millar, A Greek Roman Empire, 2006, pp. 230-31). So it is striking that we have multiple examples of letters from the following century between female members of ruling courts, addressing matters of diplomatic and military significance. Letters from royal women of the post-imperial kingdoms in the former Roman West to imperial women at Constantinople appear in Cassiodorus’ Variae, the epistolary poems of Venantius Fortunatus and the Gallic letter-collection Epistulae Austrasicae. The latter includes five letters of Brunhild (who was also a correspondent of Pope Gregory I). Amongst these, Brunhild addressed two augustae: Constantina, Maurice’s wife, and Anastasia, dowager empress of the former emperor Tiberius II.

In the letter cited above, Brunhild pleads with Constantina to support her appeal to Maurice to return to Gaul her grandson Athanagild. Athanagild and his mother, Brunhild’s daughter, had been seized by Byzantine forces in the West and used as hostages to put political pressure on Brunhild’s kingdom; the mother had died en route to Constantinople, leaving the orphaned Athanagild alone in the imperial city. Brunhild appeals to Constantina as a fellow mother, asking her to imagine the pain of losing a child herself and so to be merciful to one who has. The family feeling and maternal longing portrayed in this letter is at odds with near-contemporary representations of Brunhild as ‘a second Jezebel’ responsible for the deaths, inter alios, of ten royal relatives. Nevertheless, the letter has usually been read as a direct expression of Brunhild’s own emotions, indeed sometimes seen as penned by her personally: “while palace officials could indeed have drafted an appeal, it would not have sounded like this” (Dronke, Women Writers of the Middle Ages, 1984, p. 27).

This paper will look at the context of Brunhild’s letter, as part of a wider series of exchanges between Gaul and Constantinople. Several features indicate that the letter was not purely a personal expression of grief but part of a strategy of communication and negotiation. Conceptions of both gender and emotion were exploited in these strategies: Brunhild is linked to the persona of women of Classical tragedy as a means to elicit not sympathy but moral behaviour from the court of Constantinople.

The Deplorable Life and Disgusting Death of Andronicus I Comnenus, Emperor of the Romans

Professor John Melville-Jones, University of Western Australia

Andronicus was a cousin of one of the greatest of the eastern Roman emperors, Manuel I. He seems to have spent much of his life competing with his relative, not only by trying to plot against him but in the bedroom also. When Manuel died in 1181 he was succeeded by his son Alexios, who was still a minor, with the boy’s mother acting as regent. Within two years Andronicus had managed to seize power for himself and dispose of both of them. He thus achieved his ambition in his sixty-seventh year. But his success was a brief one: he was deposed and murdered by the Constantinopolitan mob in less than two years.

Download the full text of this paper.

Studies in Byzantine Sigillography in the Territory of Republic of Macedonia (1999-2000)

Dr Robert Mihajlovski, La Trobe University

This paper is a result of my research studies in the Byzantine sigillography during the period between 1999 and 2009, in the various medieval sites through the territory of Republic of Macedonia:

  • A Byzantine lead seal from Heraclea Lyncestis (medieval Pelagonia): the seal of Michael Saronites the duke of the West, in 1071 (published in Revue des etudes Byzantines, 2000).
  • Three Byzantine seals found at the fortress of Devolgrad (ancient Audaristos): the seals were analysed in their historical context and they belong to Georges Palaiologos and two anonymous owners (published in Byzantine Narrative, Byzantina Australiensia 16, 2006).
  • A Byzantine seal found in the vicinity of the church of St Demetrius in Varosh, Prilep: the seal of Nikephoros protosynkellos, an unknown church prelate (in Byzantinoslavica, 2010).
  • The archaeological excavations at the fortress of Kale in Skopje; in the period between 2007 and 2009, over fifty lead seals were uncovered. They belong to the various imperial, administrative, military, ecclesiastical and private owners (a catalogue is in preparation).
  • During the archaeological excavations in the Yeni mosque in Bitola (2008-2009): two lead seals were unearthed in the 11th-14th century basilica’s foundations (a paper was presented at the Australian Early Medieval Association conference, 2009).

Regarding Women on the Throne: Representations of Irene, Byzantine Emperor

Dr Bronwen Neil, Australian Catholic University

Irene, wife of Emperor Leo IV and mother of Constantine VI, imperial regent (780-797) and later sole ruler on the Byzantine throne (797-802), defender of icons and Byzantine saint, is a complex and enigmatic figure, who has only recently attracted the scholarly attention she deserves (Lilie 1996; Garland 1999; Herrin 2001). It has become a commonplace that the West used the fact of Irene’s gender to claim that the Byzantine throne was vacant, “making way for the claim that the Empire of the Romans could be reconstituted under Charlemagne” (Louth 2007:64). This supposition is sometimes claimed to be the reasoning behind Pope Leo III’s readiness to crown the Carolingian emperor “Emperor of the Romans” on December 25, 800. Our sources for this momentous event in Western history are limited and ambiguous, relying mostly on Frankish and Byzantine chronicles. Some Frankish chroniclers declared that the dignity of empire had ceased among the Greeks because a woman had sat on the throne (Whalen 2009:18-19). Ninth-century Frankish sources for such contemptuous attitudes towards the Byzantine ruler include Annales regni Francorum, Chronicon Moissiacense and Anskarius’s Vita sancti Willehadi.

I will examine the various representations of this unique Byzantine ruler in a range of sources – including Frankish chronicles, papal letters, Byzantine histories, coins and imperial records – looking for evidence of gender stereotyping that has passed down, seemingly unquestioned, into contemporary scholarship. Primarily I focus on the question of whether Irene was regarded as a ‘real’ emperor, in Roman, Frankish and Byzantine sources. Finally, I ask what we can know of how Irene regarded herself when she was sole ruler between 797 and 802. What is the significance of the fact that she adopted the title of basileus for herself in written documents, but issued coins as basilissa?

Kassia: Gender and Class in Ninth-Century Byzantium

Dr Anna Silvas, University of New England

The great hymnographer, poet and nun, Kassia (c.810-865), offers an exceptional case study of gender and class in the Byzantium of her time. Through the education she received as one of her privileged class, her formation in the all-class ‘feminine resistance’ of the second Iconoclast period, and her literary survival through her friendship with St Theodore the Studite and the monks of Studion, we see how she negotiated and transcended the social limitations of her gender to a remarkable degree.

Social Advancement Through the Church in Twelfth-Century Byzantium

Dr Andrew Stone, University of Western Australia

This study will examine the phenomenon of social mobility via the church in late twelfth century. Some rose from relative obscurity to positions as high as the ecumenical patriarch. A summary will be made of five different bishops: Nicholas Hagiotheodorites, Michael Anchialos, Eustathios of Thessalonki, Euthymios Malakes and Michael Choniates. The career path of each bishop was not in the manner of a set cursus honorum in the Roman model, rather ad hoc, ad hominem measures were taken by the emperor; for example, Michael Anchialos became consul of the philosophers prior to his appointment as ecumenical patriarch and Eustathios master of the rhetors before becoming metropolitan bishop of Thessaloniki. Perhaps the most interesting career was that of Nicholas Hagiotheodorites: he received a variety of posts, including teacher of the pagans, before becoming finally metropolitan of Athens. It was an education which made this social mobility possible.

Bearding Byzantium: Masculinity and the Byzantine Life Course

Dr Sean Tougher, Cardiff University

This paper will focus on one of the distinctive aspects of Byzantine culture: the adoption of the beard as a vital signifier of adult men. This marked a key transformation from the late Roman to the Byzantine world (there are other transformations beyond faith), though the importance of the growth of facial hair for the life course of males in the classical period had been recognised (i.e. the place of the dedication of hair in ritual). The embracing of beards in Byzantium, however, has been little discussed, despite its centrality in Byzantine culture. This paper will explore when and why this development occurred. It will also consider what impact it had on the understanding of the male life course in Byzantium, particularly in relation to eunuchs. Since eunuchs could not grow beards were they never fully adult males, but eternal youths? If so, how was their holding of political, military and ecclesiastical office justified? Does this suggest that they were indeed Byzantium’s third gender? The paper will be concerned especially with the middle Byzantine period, but will also consider the late antique background. It will draw on both literary and material sources.

The Brides of 1420: Men’s Views, Women’s Lives

Dr Diana Gilliland Wright, Independent Scholar

In 1420, two brides were shipped out of Venice to marry sons of Manuel II Palaiologos: Sophia of Montferrat for John VIII, and Cleofe Malatesta for Theodoros, Despot of Mistra. Both were related to Pope Martin V who had chosen them for the marriage gambit which was to contribute to church union. Both of these women were sexually rejected by their husbands and it is fair to wonder how much these rejections had to do with family dynamics, and with Manuel’s treatise on marriage.

After six years of being ignored, and after Manuel died, Sophia returned to Italy, perhaps with assistance from the palace. Very nearly the only sources for this story are by Doukas and Chalcocondyles who have somewhat different versions, although Doukas has become the preferred version, perhaps because there exists an English translation. An evaluation of the translation reveals strong prejudices on the part of Doukas and his translator: a retranslation taken in conjunction with Chacodondyles suggests a narrative very different from the accepted.

Shortly after six years of being ignored by Theodoros who had taken a six-year vow of chastity, Cleofe became pregnant. Her death in a second childbirth four years later stimulated an unparalleled outpouring of tributes from Mistra intellectuals and, most movingly, from her husband. Chalcocondyles’ report is brief but perceptive. The intellectuals give a description of her and her life that, to judge from her personal letters and those of her family, she would have found totally unrecognizeable. Her beauty, brilliance, piety, charity and generosity were reported incomparable, and her doctor presented her as an intercessor for the empire at the right hand of God. Her husband called her his sunergos, his fellow-poet.