Women in the Byzantium

March 25th, 2020


The article below was originally written in the form of an undergraduate assignment for the Greek Open University in 2005, during a period when the author's academic skills were still under development. Although the quality of this article does not match the quality of later examples of the same author's work, it is written in a thorough manner and contains useful information to nowadays students and other readers with non-specialised knowledge; therefore, it has been proudly included on this website.

The reader needs to be warned that the original assignment, on which this article was based on, was written in Greek and was intended to be read by specialised academics. Despite the author's best intentions to present his essay in the clearest way possible, some points and arguments might still be lost in translation. The author recommends that for any unknown words or specialised vocabulary, the readers should refer to the web for additional information.

The author admits that the bibliography for this article is limited, matching the requirements of an undergraduate assignment of this level. The author did not include any additional bibliography during the translation of his work in English due to time and access limitations. It must also be noted that the original bibliography for this article was studied from translated copies in Greek; therefore, the page numbers suggested in the citations below match the page numbers of the translated copies and not the original volumes.


This article discusses the position and the role of women in the Byzantine society. It focuses on various aspects of the female everyday life and is divided in three broader sections. The first section discusses the domestic life of Byzantine women, particularly in relation to their marriage, family role, and potential divorce. The second section discuses the public activities of Byzantine women, focusing on their social, economic and political involvement. It also examines how such public activities were affected by the fluctuating social mobility in the Byzantium. The third section examines the religious life of Byzantine women as a separate entity, although this discussion could have been included in the second section. The religious activities of Byzantine women are compared with the religious life of Byzantine men. The section also discusses the role of Byzantine women in the church, in monasticism and in sanctification. The final section of the article presents some general conclusions on the broader role of women in the Byzantium and the development of their social position along the centuries.

The domestic life of Byzantine women

Marriage was probably the only important social event in the domestic life of Byzantine women (Vakaloudi 1998, 47). The purpose of marriage was reproduction, which was protected and regulated by law. The Nearae introduced by Leo VI the Wise (AD 886-912) suggest that the law was more likely intended to ensure female fertility than to protect married women in general.

Choosing the most suitable bridegroom was the duty of a lady's father. The most common marriage age for girls was roughly twelve or thirteen years, mainly due to high infant mortality. However, there is a recorded case of marriage for a seven-year-old girl, even though there was strict legal prohibition (Nikolaou 2000, 16-20).

According to the law, marriage was supposed to equalise of legal rights of women and men, but in reality marriage was another form of subordination for women. Women were strictly confined to the their homes and their roles were completely and contemptuously defined by their husbands. Byzantine social and religious popular beliefs dictated that women should obey the commands of their husbands, even if these were totally tyrannical. The 'equality' between man and woman in married couples was only suggested by the church, but again, only in terms of physical reproduction. According to the laws of Leo VI, the equality of men and women only concerned the conditions of their marriage and not the exercise of power, which belonged exclusively to the men (Vakaloudi 1998, 44-8).

For the marriages of low status social groups, either urban or rural, wives were expected to be of the same religion and same denomination as their husbands. The married couple was also expected not to have any blood relation of any kind. Female virginity (Partheneia) was highly valued. Although women were allowed to get married for the second time, there was a strong perception that re-married women were impure (Vakaloudi 2000, 50-1).

By contrast to marriage in low-status social groups, imperial and aristocratic marriage was not subject to the same rules and social perceptions. Imperial brides were chosen by the palace with specific care to match the Emperor's personality. Palatial envoys were sent to the Empire's provinces to look for a suitable wife on the basis of her noble ancestry, virginity and natural beauty. Some 8th and 9th century AD accounts of the imperial bride's selection process are reminiscent of today's beauty contests (Penna 2001, 48-9).

The Imperial daughters were usually offered to aristocrats, usually the sons of noblemen, army generals, or high-level court officials. For diplomatic reason, there were several occasions of arranged marriages between Byzantine princesses and foreign rulers, even non-Christians, despite the religious ban by the Church. Theophano, the niece of Emperor Ioannis I Tsimiskis (AD 969-976), married King Otto II the Red (AD 973-983) of the Holy Roman Empire. Theodora, the daughter of Ioannis VI Kantakouzenos (AD 1347-1354), married the Ottoman Sultan Orhan Gazi (AD 1323/4-1362). The violation of the religious and moral rules set by the Church to prevent misconduct during Imperial marriages does not stop here. Despite the fact that girls used to get married at a young age, between twelve and fourteen years, Simonis, the daughter of Emperor Andronikos II Palaiologos (AD 1282-1328), was offered to be the bride of the Serbian ruler Stefan Uroš II Milutin (AD 1283-1321), when she was only five years old. There are examples of Imperial weddings between relatives, such as the one of Emperor Heraclius (AD 610-641) and Martina, who was the niece of his deceased first wife Eudocia. Although there were strict religious restrictions allowing the Emperor to get married three times, Leo VI got married for the fourth time with Zoe Karvounopsina. This wedding was finally accepted by the society despite the Patriarch's objections (Penna 2001, 49-53).

Pallakeia, the maintenance of concubines (Pallakidae) was customary and accepted by the church until the 6th century AD. Basil I the Macedonian (AD 867-886) reacted against the maintenance of concubines and introduced a law that equated Pallakeia with prostitution; still, Pallakeia was never recognised and never officially treated as a form of adultery. The final abolition of Pallakeia came during the era of Leo VI the Wise (AD 886-912), with the introduction of new laws that secured the position of legal wives as sole partners in marriage (Vakaloudi 1998, 46).

In relation to the structure of the typical Byzantine family, the position of women was generally downgraded. Justinian's laws (AD 527-565) declared the absolute omnipotence and superiority of the father over the mother, which justified traditional patriarchy. During the reign of the Isaurian Dynasty (AD 717-802), there were attempts to assimilate women in traditionally male-related functions of the Byzantine family, together with the introduction of laws that established favourable treatment for women. Unfortunately, the laws that were later introduced by the Macedonian dynasty (AD 867-1056), re-established the former patriarchic structure of Byzantine families. The only form of equality between men and women in the Byzantine society was perhaps related to a specific law introduced by Leo VI the Wise (AD 886-912), which recognised that in cases of slave-couples, there was no effective separation of male and female. The only case of Byzantine women that enjoyed favourable treatment and more privileges than the men, were the widows. Due to the forced absence of a spouse, they were treated as the heads of their families, and exercised full control over their children (Nikolaou 2000, 18-21).

The young daughters of low-income families were considered less preferable wives, as their fathers were in most cases unable to offer substantial dowry. Such girls would normally work from a young age and contribute the family's income. Despite their contribution to the household's economy, there were many cases of young girls from poor families that were abandoned, or were even systematically exploited by their own parents. According to 6th century AD textual sources, Emperor Justinian (AD 527-565) set up nurseries for abandoned children and introduced laws prohibiting their sale or mortgaging; unfortunately, such practices continued sporadically until the 15th century AD (Nikolaou 2000, 14-15).

The 11th century Strategikon by Kekaumenos records the practice of husbands to isolate and restrain their wives within the boundaries of their oikos under the fear of adultery. The same practice applied for young maidens, who were isolated from visitors in order to protect their honour (Penna 2001, 144). Anna Komnene, the daughter of Emperor Alexios I Komnenos (AD 1081-1118) records that during her time, women used to exit their homes with their faces almost fully covered, a practice that implies the fear of social stigma. Despite his views on adultery, Kekaumenos believed that having a good wife was the guarantee for raising a fortunate family. Kekaumenos praises loyalty between husband and wife and suggests that in cases of widowhood, the widowed spouse should never re-marry. By contrast to the ideas of Kekaumenos, it appears that within the imperial court of the Komnenian Dynasty during the 12th century AD, adultery was a common and widely accepted practice. Such moral decline probably arose from the wider contempt for the ethical and religious restrictions of that period, particularly in relation to incest and adultery. An example of such behaviour was Emperor Manuel I Komnenos (AD 1143-1180), who shared his house with his niece Theodora, even though she was already married to Sevastos Nikephoros Chaloufis (Kazdan and Warton Epstein 1997, 160-5).

In cases of marriage dissolution, the wife probably had more legal rights compared to any other case of dispute against her husband. The main reasons for divorces in the Byzantium were either the inability of a spouse to bear children or the unfair treatment of the wife by her husband (Nikolaou 2000, 20-1). During the reign of Justinian (AD 527-565) divorce was granted if a wife wished to retire to monasticism (Nikolaou 2001, 23) or if a husband maintained a concubine within their home (Vakaloudi 1998, 46). According to the laws by Leo VI the Wise (AD 886-912), the wife was entitled to a divorce if her husband committed adultery against her; if he charged her with adultery without evidence; if he committed criminal offences, in general; if he willingly acted in a mentally unstable manner; and finally, if he had failed for three consequent years to perform his marital duties as a husband. The husband was equally allowed to file for divorce for the same exact reasons, including other causes, such as the disobedience of his wife, particularly for attending a banquet with other men and for visiting the theatre or the hippodrome without his permission (Nikolaou 2000, 20-4). A husband could finally divorce his wife after the first night of their wedding. According to the customs of the time, the wedding ceremony was followed by the couple's first intercourse, after which, the husband had to present the bride's cloak to their relatives and guests. The wedding cloak was presented in common sight to verify that the bride was no longer virgin. If the cloak carried no stains, this was a disparaging fact for the husband's reputation, who had the right to immediately divorce his wife (Vakaloudi 1998, 54).

Despite the presence of laws, in cases of adultery, women seeking divorce were treated in a relatively unfair manner compared to men seeking divorce for the same offence. Although the husband could divorce his wife for any act of adultery, the wife was only granted divorce if her husband had cheated on her with another married woman, or with an 'inappropriate' spouse inside their own house, or with a spouse sharing another home together with her husband, within the same city as the legal wife (Vakaloudi 1998, 48). A husband's love affairs with single, widowed or divorced women were not treated by the law as acts of adultery associated with the husband; instead, they were treated as acts of prostitution associated with the women (Nikolaou 2000, 22).

The public activities of Byzantine women

According to the beliefs presented in the texts of the Holy Fathers of the Orthodox Church between the 1st and 5th centuries AD, public interaction for woman was expected to be as limited as possible. Women were almost exclusively expected to manage their own households and their associated tasks. According to the perceptions of the time, when exiting their domestic space, women were expected to have their faces covered and to be accompanied by another female servant of their oikos. Furthermore, the only justified reason for exiting their domestic space was to attend the service at the church, or to participate in a religious celebration.

Despite these popular perceptions, the reality on the social life of Byzantine women was slightly different. According to textual accounts, the public engagement of women differed in relation to their social status. There were Byzantine women from poor backgrounds, who used to work and interact with people outside the boundaries of their oikos, and also high-status Byzantine women, who were involved in a variety of charities and other public events (Nikolaou 2000, 33-4). Bertha von Sulzbach, the wife of Emperor Manuel I Komnenos (AD 1143-1180) was actively engaged in various charities (Kazdan and Warton Epstein 1997, 165), as was St. Thomais of Lesvos (mid 10th century AD), who descended from a typical urban Byzantine family. It is interesting that St. Thomais of Lesvos used to walk freely on her own across the streets of Constantinople without drawing any negative attention, which would have been the case for any other married women of her time (Laϊou 1998, 241-3).

The property and savings of typical Byzantine families were owned by the women. Such assets were either the wife's official dowry or came from various wedding donations, which were set to sustain the married couple at the early stages of their marriage. If the wife died, her assets were either inherited by her children, or if she had no children, they had to be returned to her parents. According to the law, children and parents were entitled the legal possession of such assets, while husbands were only granted usufruct. In case of mismanagement of the wife's assets by her husband, the wife had the right to appeal to court and claim the full compensation of her loss by her husband. If the mismanagement of the family's assets by the husband was proven, the wife was entitled full management of the family's financial assets at her own will. Such laws protecting the wife's assets as part of the family's assets were so important in Byzantine society, that remained unchanged until the 13th-14th century AD, when they were finally abandoned (Nikolaou 2000, 25-6).

For the rural families of the Byzantine provinces, along with their dowries in money, wives often owned the family's house. Children could receive their mother's maiden name instead of their father's, a fact that demonstrates the importance of matriarchy in some rural parts of the Empire. The widows not only managed their own property at will, but were also required to pay the same taxes as those for the households of male farmers. According to the popular perception of the time, wives with certain dowry were neither supposed to work, nor leave their homes for unnecessary reasons. Despite such perceptions, women in the rural provinces had a significant contribution in household economy: they kneaded bread, they sheared sheep, the produced wool, the weaved textiles, the harvested the land and they cultivated their gardens, not only to meet their families' needs, but also to sell their products to the local markets (Laϊou 2002, 53-55). Occasionally, women of rural provinces were involved in specific military tasks. For example, during the siege of Antalya by the Arab fleet in AD 825, women dressed in men's clothes took defensive positions along the city walls (Kazdan and Warton Epstein 1997, 161). In spite of their rich involvement in economic activities, the main 'duty' of wives in the rural Byzantine provinces was reproduction (Laϊou 2002, 53-55).

The participation of Byzantine women in household economy in the urban centres differed little compared to that in the rural provinces. A significant number of women, coming from diverse social backgrounds, were engaged in textile production. Some were employed by the weaving industries, which supplied the market, while others worked for the Royal House, where there was no financial need to sell its products. Despite popular perceptions that expected women to work and interact within the restricted boundaries of their households, the reality of the Byzantine market was different. For example, during the 11th century AD, the religious festival of St. Agathe of Constantinople was exclusively held by women weavers, who sold their goods freely in the streets. Indeed, some modern scholars have suggested that the festival was not associated with the church, but with a guild of female weavers. A variety of textual sources between the 4th and 14th century AD record various women practising civil professions, such as doctors, midwives, head physicians of the palace, tavern owners, supervisors of weights and transaction measures (Stathmouchoi), and others. After the 11th century AD, textual sources record female owners or employees of small retail businesses, mainly for foodstuffs, while there are limited cases of women engaged in loans and capital investments. The widows in the urban centres of the Byzantine Empire were involved more actively in profit-making compared to the wives, who were attached to their oikos. There are accounts of widows controlling relatively large commercial and financial enterprises, who also paid significant taxes on their income (Nikolaou 2000, 26-31).

The women of the palace and the aristocracy were given more opportunities to be actively involved in the social and economic life of the Empire compared to all other women of lower social status. Such opportunities were also related to their education. Emperor Basil I the Macedonian (AD 867-886) offered his daughters the same education as his sons (Penna 2001, 36), while the education of Anna Komnene, daughter of Emperor Alexios I Komnenos (AD 1081-1118), was admirable for the time (Penna 2000, 110). The ladies of the aristocracy were offered honorary titles and relevant positions in the palatial hierarchy, such as that of Zoste Patrikeia, the Chief Attendant of the Empress. During the Middle Byzantine period (AD 717-1204), the Zoste Patrikeia was ranked fourth in the hierarchy for non-eunuchs, at least according to the Kletorologion by Philotheos, a list of court offices and palatial titles published in AD 899 (Penna 2000, 59-60).

Wealthy aristocratic women were often involved in economic activities in various towns. The widow Danieleida of Patras, contemporary of Basil I (AD 867-886), is recorded to have owned large sums of money, large plots of land that included entire villages and towns, large carpet workshops and textile processing facilities (Penna 2000, 152). Empress Theodora, the wife of Emperor Theophilos (AD 829-842), was involved in trade and is recorded to have owned a large and luxurious merchant ship. Emperor Theophilos, however, ordered this ship to be set on fire because he considered his wife's activities disgraceful (Nikolaou 2000, 29-30). This was probably due to the popular beliefs of the time, when ladies of imperial status were not supposed to engage in trade and profit-making.

The abolition of social restrictions for women, at least for those of imperial status, came with their first involvement in politics during the 8th century AD. Women such as Irene the Athenian (AD 775-780 and AD 792-797) the wife of Leo IV, Theodora the wife of Theophilos (AD 842-855), and the two nieces of Basil II, Zoe Porphyrogenita (AD 1028-1050) and Theodora Porphyrogenita (AD1042-1056), were all crowned Empresses of the Byzantium. It is noteworthy that in spite of the Byzantine perceptions of women in general, no one ever questioned the possession of such power and authority by these Empresses (Nikolaou 2000, 34-5).

After the 11th century AD, there appeared some significant changes in the Byzantine society, which resulted to a breakdown of family ties in the imperial court, probably due to shifting power dynamics. From this period onwards, political decisions were not made exclusively by the monarch, who was also the head of the typical 'nuclear' imperial family; instead, political decisions were made by the monarch and his 'extended' imperial family, which included his closest relatives and other members of his court. During the Komnenian period (AD 1081-1185), this situation increased the social status of women associated with the imperial court, the most educated of whom became highly active in politics. Augusta Anna Dalassene practically co-reigned with her son Alexios I Komnenos between AD 1081 and 1118. Irene Doukaina, the wife of Alexios I Komnenos, used to accompany her husband to his military campaigns. Anna Komnene and Sevastokratorissa Irene Komnene not only played an important cultural role during the 12th century AD, but were also politically active against Emperor Manuel I Komnenos (AD 1143-1180). Maria Komnene, the daughter of Manuel I, led a conspiracy against her father in AD 1181, while Euphrosyne, the wife of Emperor Alexios III Angelos (AD 1195-1203), was the one who practically managed all Byzantine state affairs towards the end of the 12th century AD (Kazdan and Warton Epstein 1997, 163-4).

Participation in politics was not restricted to women of aristocratic descent, but was also possible for common women. Due to the social mobility in the Byzantine society, women from the lower social strata managed to ascend to high-status positions and even become Empresses through marriage. Theodora, the wife of Justinian (Ad 527-565) was a performer in the theatre, which used to be a disparaging profession in general. Theophano, the wife of Emperor Romanos II (AD 959-963), used to work in taverns (Nikolaou 2000, 34-5). Despite their low social status, such women stood out because of their physical appearance and beauty, and therefore, they managed to marry Emperors and become actively involved in politics as Byzantine Empresses (Penna 2001, 48).

Byzantine women and religious affairs

As mentioned in the previous section, the participation of women in religious activities, such as the Divine Liturgy, was an acceptable practice that justified their absence from the narrow confines of their homes. Although taking up religious and ecclesiastical duties was not uncommon, in the ecclesiastical hierarchy women could only reach to the office of deaconess. This office was only granted to widows or unmarried women up to the age of sixty, an institution that was finally abolished in the 12th century AD (Euthemiadis 2001, 245-6). The participation of women in monasticism was more common, although the reasons that led Byzantine women to monasteries differed depending on their social status. The women from the poorer social strata had the option to become nuns instead of getting married and starting a family. Many times they were led to monasticism after the death of their husband or due to a miscarriage. Prestigious women of aristocratic background used to retire to the monasteries after having been married (Nikolaou 2000, 16). A special case was married women diagnosed with 'insanity'. In such cases, if a husband filed for divorce and there were no other relatives to take care of his former wife, then the local bishop would intervene and sent the former wife to a monastery for her own protection (Nikolaou 2000, 23).

In Byzantine religion there were many cases of women performing miracles and receiving sanctification. Flavia Iulia Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine the Great (AD 306-337), was sanctified by the Orthodox Church as her son, who also received the title of 'Isapostolos' (Equal-to-Apostles). According to the Byzantine tradition, during the 4th century AD Saint Helen launched expeditions and recovered the Holy Cross of Jesus Christ, the crosses of the two bandits who were crucified next to Him, the lance, the sponge and the Thorny Wreath of His Martyrdom (Penna 2001, 26). Until the 9th century AD, the typical female saints were characterised by their harsh ascetic life and their struggles for the conquest of salvation through the rejection of the social norms of female conduct. From the 9th century AD onwards, however, a new model of female saint appeared in the Byzantine tradition: instead of living an isolated ascetic life, saints such as Maria Nea and Thomais of Lesbos were ideal wives, who also had strong feelings for their communities (Kazdan and Warton Epstein 1997, 161).

Thomais of Lesbos was a married woman of the urban Byzantine 'bourgeoisie', who was sanctified because of her charities and without pursuing a monastic lifestyle. According to the tradition, she died at the age of thirty-eight after hardships inflicted by her own husband. She anticipated her death and continued to perform miracles even after that. Other Byzantine women who gained sanctification were Saint Theodora, the wife of the emperor Theophilos, who restored the veneration icons after the Iconoclasm Period; Saint Theophano Martinakia, wife of Leo VI the Wise, who was sanctified because of her devotion to the Church; and Saint Maria Nea. Unlike Thomais of Lesbos, the other three female saints came from an aristocratic background and had significant property. The type of female Byzantine saint, who combined marriage, ordinary sex-life and holiness through charity and other communal actions, without the necessity of following monasticism, was a new element in Byzantine Hagiology of the 9th and 10th centuries AD, which only last for a short period of time (Laϊou 1998, 239-50).


In theory, the position and role of Byzantine women in modern scholarship is perceived to have been degraded due to the popular Byzantine social beliefs, which were based on patriarchy and the principles of Christianity. In practice, however, the social position and the role of Byzantine women was not always as degraded as we might think today.

It is true that marriage was not decided by Byzantine women; it was their fathers' decision, made when women were at young age. Furthermore, the presence of Byzantine women in the oikos was overshadowed by their husbands' omnipotence. Despite these conditions, Byzantine women were the foundation of the oikos due to their dowry. They had active roles in domestic production of goods and the management of household economy. They were legally capable of pursuing divorce against their husbands; they had every right to expand their financial activities beyond the narrow confines of the oikos; and finally, they were active in a variety of professions that were also practised by men. Woman of higher social status had access to education, politics, and profitable economic activities. Rarely, such privileges were also earned by women of lower social status due to the social mobility that existed in the Byzantine society.

In relation to their role in Byzantine religion, women had limited access to the ecclesiastical hierarchy: they could reach to the office of deaconess until the 12th century AD, when this privilege was finally abolished. Furthermore, they had strong presence in monastic life, and through monasticism, they could even gain sanctification. Although there were significantly more male Byzantine saints than women, female saints gained equal prominence through their participation in the establishment of early Christianity and through the exercise of charity.


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