Courageous and wicked women in early Byzantium

At the moment much of my work is on looking at men as a gender in Late Antiquity. What follows is a piece I wrote in 2002 about constructions of ideal an non ideal women in the seminal Byzantine historian Procopius.


The sixth-century Byzantine historian Procopius is arguably the most important writer to survive from Late Antiquity. Procopius has received much needed attention in the past thirty-five years. Much of this work has been the byproduct of the upsurge of research focusing on the role of women in the early Byzantine Empire. [i] Procopius’ views on gender—particularly his attitudes towards Theodora, Antonina, Belisarius, and Justinian found in the Secret History—have received particular attention.

Yet as specialists on the ancient historian have recognized, uncovering Procopius’ own views is problematic.[ii] Indeed, without careful analysis, Procopius’ three works: the Buildings, the Secret History, and the Wars, may appear either to have different authors, or to be the work of one severely schizophrenic individual. In Buildings, Procopius extolled Justinian as God’s messenger on earth, leading the Empire back to glory. In contrast, in the Secret History Justinian appeared as the “Lord of the Demons,” driving Byzantium to disaster.[iii] The Wars took the middle ground, mixing negative and positive descriptions of the emperor. Some of these discrepancies, however, merely reflect the nature and the limitations of the historical models that Procopius followed. The Wars was a work of secular history that focused on great men and great battles. The Secret History followed the literary genre of psogos (invective) and komodia (satire), while the Buildings followed the restrictions of “the most artificial of all classical genres to modern taste, that of panegyric.”[iv]        

These oft-times paradoxical characterizations make it difficult for modern scholars to understand Procopius’ attitudes towards key players in his accounts.[v] Moreover, his reliance on genre and classical tropes may mean that Procopius’ accounts do not reflect early Byzantine conditions or people as they actually were.[vi]

Keeping the difficulties discussed above in mind, this paper considers Procopius’ concept of “good” and “defective” women. While it analyzes Procopius’ descriptions of a wide range of women, it focuses on three of the most influential aristocratic women of his age: Justinian’s wife, the empress Theodora; the Byzantine general Belisarius’ wife, Antonina; and the Ostrogothic queen, Amalasuntha. It argues that, despite Procopius’ distrust of women who acted outside what he considered the normal realm of female behavior, he revealed that women, at times, could abandon what he held to be their naturally subservient role and become heroes.

Reality and Rhetoric

As Leslie Brubaker has argued, Procopius’ construction of feminine virtues followed Roman and Christian precepts.  Particularly in the Secret History, Theodora represents “everything a late Roman should not be.”[vii] Brubaker, in fact, questions whether Procopius tells us anything about the “real” Theodora.  Peter Heather too warns that Procopius’ portrait of the individuals in Secret History may have had no bearing on his true beliefs. Indeed, Heather suggests that the Secret History was primarily meant to create a comical view of Theodora, Justinian, Belisarius and Antonina. The ancient audience was not supposed to be shocked by these characterizations, but amused (Heather: 2013, 111-116).

Certainly challenges confront the researcher attempting to separate the “real women” from the “constructed” one.  Kate Cooper has shown convincingly that Roman literary descriptions of women were often used as a means to describe men’s character. She suggests that in Plutarch’s writing it is men’s inability to control their passion for women that threatens social stability. The conflict between “the public man and his rival for power, the legitimate wife and the adulterous temptress” was a common theme in Roman literature.  This conflict is a problem for one seeking to interpret Procopius’ writings, particularly Secret History. I would agree with Cooper’s further contention, however, that an understanding of these rhetorical constructions helps provide a more detailed “picture of how ancient woman understood themselves.” [viii] Indeed, by examining Procopius’ writings we get a glimpse beneath the cracks and see the ‘real’ Theodora and Antonina.



Classical and Christian Constructs of Ideal Women


To comprehend Procopius’ philosophy about women it is first necessary to return to an earlier era. Roman women had long held a paradoxical position in Roman society. In Fathers and Daughters in Roman Society: Women and the Elite Family, Judith P. Hallett describes Roman women’s role during the era of the Republic. These portrayals are valuable despite the distance in time because they are strikingly similar to Procopius’ traditional concepts of ideal “Roman” women. Rome was a patriarchal society dominated by men, yet through longstanding tradition, women from upper-class families could be held in high esteem and exercise considerable political power. Although aristocratic Roman women could influence their husbands and fathers as wives and daughters, it was in their role as mothers and sisters that they asserted the most civic clout. Nonetheless, this political function was highly regulated and mostly limited to maternal or sisterly roles as the protectors and the teachers of male family members. Ideal mothers often served as guides seeking to protect and further the ambitions of their male relatives,  and this influence continued even when the boys reached maturity.[ix] In contrast to fathers or other male relatives who could become potential political rivals, mothers and sisters could be depended on to support their sons’ or brothers’ political goals. A woman’s authority, however, was limited, and if she spoke out on her own behalf, she risked being condemned as egotistical, licentious, and greedy. Women’s peripheral position in Roman society allowed them to serve as mediators for male members of their family in a very turbulent and competitive culture. This system permitted women to hold significant power, but it excluded them from overtly participating in society to promote their personal aspirations. Any woman who took on too dominant a role risked being labeled as non-womanly and non-Roman.[x]

In sixth-century Byzantium, the construction of the ideal woman continued to reflect this ambiguity. Furthermore, with the growth of Christianity two additional stereotypical images of women emerged: the first was that of the Virgin Mary, who combined virginity with motherhood, and could be sought out for motherly protection and mercy; and the second was that of Eve, who represented the sexual side of women. For many Christians, Eve was a natural temptress like all women, responsible for original sin and mankind’s subsequent fall from grace.[xi]

The Church had long struggled with the question of whether ideal Christians could be married. As chastity came to be seen as the supreme act of the idealised Christian, even married Christians accepted that they were inferior to their brothers and sisters who vowed themselves to celibacy.[xii] Some members of the Church did attempt to promote the family and marriage as a basic unit of society, and the idea of the Virgin Mary as the ultimate mother figure. But by the sixth century, the Christian ideal of celibacy increasingly clashed with the promotion of marriage and its legitimization of sexual relations in marriage as an indispensable means of creating more “Roman” citizens.

More and more, Christian constructions of ideal women revealed that, to be considered heroic, women needed to sever their traditional ties of loyalty to their families. An example of this view may be seen in the late fifth-century CE work of Victor of Vita. In his History of the Vandal Persecution, Victor suggested that the ideal women married Christ, and not mortal men. He described a young woman, Maxima, attempting to explain to her suitor, Martinianus, why she had rejected his marriage proposal: “O brother Martinianus, I have dedicated the limbs of my body to Christ and as there is a heavenly and true being to whom I am already betrothed, I cannot enter a human marriage.”[xiii] Victor argued that ideal women maintain loyalty, not to their families, but to their faith:

There was a married woman, Victoria, who conformed to her name. While she was being tortured by being left hanging for a good while in the sight of the common people, she was addressed in the following terms by her husband, already a lost man, in the presence of their children: ‘Why are you suffering, wife? If you hold me in disdain, at least have mercy on the little ones to whom you gave birth. . . . Where are the covenants of married love? Where are the bonds of that relationship which written documents once brought about between us, in accordance with the law which pertains to respectable folk?’


Victor seemed satisfied that Victoria ignored both her husband’s pleas and the “wailing of her children,” and willingly deserted her family in order to die for her faith.[xiv] Although Victor had political reasons for emphasizing the importance of religious loyalty over family ties, his account accurately reflects the Church’s attempts to break the strong ties of Roman kinship.

 Despite this relative freedom, however, most women’s lives from the upper-crust of society remained highly restricted. Following Roman custom, upper-class women tended to be segregated from all men other than immediate members of their family. Ironically, this separation created opportunities. Women were required to perform jobs usually reserved for men: serving as attendants in public baths for women and as medical practitioners who would not be sullied by interacting with women’s bodily functions. Additionally, women from the lower classes could earn a living and a certain amount of independence by performing as actresses, mimes, and dancers. The Church, however, looked upon these activities with suspicion and frequently condemned these women as little better than prostitutes. According to Judith Herrin, medical practitioners often lacked medical expertise, and relied on superstitious practices “such as the wearing of amulets or incantation of magic spells in order to obtain supernatural assistance.” This dependence on “magic” made these women particularly susceptible to accusations of “anti-Christian beliefs and heretical ritual.” The use of magic must have appealed to Roman women, who typically were expected to play a subservient role in Roman society. The use of spells and magic allowed them to compel others to comply with their wishes, and increasingly their sexuality could also be used as a type of “magic” to achieve similar goals. Nevertheless, women who used magic or their sexual charms risked being looked upon with suspicion.12

Late Antiquity also witnessed an increase in the empresses’ political authority. At the beginning of each emperor’s reign, elaborate court rituals were performed that emphasized the link between the dual power of the imperial couple.13 Since these ceremonies portrayed the emperor as God’s representative on earth, it was natural for his partner to attain as well an aura of authority. The more powerful the emperor, the more powerful the empress, indeed in Justinian’s reign, the emperor’s dominant position was matched only by the Empress Theodora’s influence. While Justinian served as a mediator between the spiritual and secular realm, his wife acted as the intermediary “between the public world of men and the private world of women.” In Justinian’s world, all the different members of Byzantine society, officials, soldiers, priests, and women had a place in the earthly and divine hierarchy.14 Despite the limitations imposed on women in the sixth-century Eastern Roman Empire, they had a more prominent position than in Western Europe at the same time. In Justinian and Theodora, Robert Browning suggests, “if a civilization can be judged by the way it treated women . . . the age of Justinian and Theodora deserves to be rated high.”15


Procopius’ Vision of Women


Some sixth-century Eastern Romans, however, were uncomfortable with women’s “usurpation” of traditional masculine roles.  Procopius’ writing reflects this reality. Throughout his writings, and particularly in the Secret History, Procopius seems uncomfortable with the power wielded by women in the sixth-century Eastern Roman Empire. For traditional Eastern Roman men like Procopius, Byzantine women may have represented the idea of the dangerous “other,” even more vividly than foreigners. In the Secret History, Procopius scathingly attacked the two leading women of his day: Antonina and Theodora. Procopius portrayed Antonina and Theodora as “unwomanly.”16 In contrast to ideal Roman women, who were subservient, pious, merciful, and chaste, Theodora and Antonina were, in Procopius’ view, immoral prostitutes eager to take on unnatural masculine roles.

According to both traditional Roman and Christian standards, if the Virgin Mary was the paradigm of the ultimate woman, non-virginal women were vulnerable to attacks on their sexual morality. Procopius illustrated the importance of a bride’s virginity: “When Saturninus had slept with his new bride and found out that she had been deflowered, he informed one of his friends that the girl he had married was nothing but damaged goods.”17 Procopius used Theodora and Antonina’s supposed immorality as a means to discredit their involvement in the political realm. He emphasized their disreputable origins and immoral early years as a means to cast suspicion upon them.  Procopius, unable to find any instances of infidelity during Theodora’s marriage to Justinian, focused instead on her reputed sordid past:

One night she went to the house of a distinguished citizen during the drinking, and, it is said, before the eyes of all the guests she stood up on the end of the couch near their feet, pulled up her dress in a most disgusting manner as she stood there and brazenly displayed her lasciviousness. And though she brought three openings into service, she often found fault with Nature, grumbling because Nature had not made the openings in her nipples wider than is normal, so that she could devise another variety of intercourse in that region. Naturally, she was frequently pregnant, but by using pretty well all the tricks of the trade she was able to induce immediate abortion.18


Here we have some of the elements that made Procopius and many members of his audience uncomfortable with women. Procopius claimed that Theodora used her uncontrolled sexuality to corrupt an esteemed Roman citizen and, even worse, her insatiable sexual appetite promised that she would constantly be on the prowl for additional male victims. Moreover, overwhelmed by lust, she readily abandoned her nurturing role and aborted her potential offspring with mystical medical potions. Peter Brown points out that, “Procopius wrote to prove that the Empress had once been a ‘non-person.’ What had happened in public made plain that she was a girl of the lower classes: the good Christian senators of Constantinople could look on a body thus exposed with impunity.”19 Furthermore, Procopius’ disgust with Theodora’s ability to induce abortions may reflect his anxiety with women’s role as doctors. Procopius argued that exposing her body in public had permanently damaged Theodora’s character.

Procopius also hinted that Theodora might not have been a devout Christian by insinuating that from a young age she had been obsessed with sorcerers and demons, and that she continued to have friends who were Manichaeans (a religion founded by the Persian Mani [216-276]).[xv] Procopius used the same tactic against Antonina, condemning her “profligate kind of life”, indicating that before she met Belisarius she had “continually been in the company of her father’s magic-mongering friends” learning “the arts essential to her trade (SH 1.1).”20 Procopius knew that in an increasingly devout culture, one way to curb women’s power was to suggest that instead of being dedicated Christians they were dangerous heretics.

Theodora seemed to recognize that, as a powerful woman with a dubious past, she was particularly vulnerable to accusations of immorality, and Procopius disclosed that she took great pains to protect her reputation. When rumors began to spread that she might have had a love affair with a servant named Areobindus she had him whipped, and he immediately “disappeared.”19 Theodora’s reaction may be compared with Antonina’s, who, despite her husband and many others apparently knowing about her infidelity, continued to pursue her lovers.  For Procopius, Antonina was a typical woman incapable of controlling her lust .20In contrast, during her marriage to Justinian, Theodora maintained command over her own sexuality and willingly sacrificed her servant instead of suffering accusations of adultery. One might think that even Procopius would have grudgingly respected Theodora’s ability to overcome her “natural feminine weakness” by displaying heroic resolve and abandoning her “lover.” Nevertheless, Procopius condemned her because she acted not out of concerns over her own morality, but purely in an attempt to maintain her political position.

Procopius continued his diatribe by alleging that Theodora had abandoned her “natural” role as a mother. The historian divulged that her son from a former relationship, John, had traveled to Constantinople seeking his mother. John sought out Theodora’s attendants and as Procopius exclaimed: “They, never imagining that she would feel any differently from the generality of mankind, reported to the mother that her son John had arrived.” Theodora, though, was not a “normal” woman, and the young man vanished, never to be heard from again.21

Procopius condemned Antonina as well for not realizing that her adulterous behavior would reflect poorly on her children: “And remember that the sins of the women do not fall on their husbands only: they do still more damage to their children whose misfortune it will almost certainly be to incur a reputation for having a natural resemblance in character to their mothers.”22 Procopius suggested that mothers played a vital role in creating “good” Romans. In a culture in which a mother’s devotion to her family overrode all other duties, these attacks on Theodora and Antonina were particularly damning. 

For Procopius, women’s submissiveness was one of the fundamental Roman customs. To become virtuous, women needed to separate themselves completely from their sexual nature. Within a Classical Roman marriage, a dominant husband could control a wife’s passionate character. It was the aberrant reversal of masculine and feminine roles, in both Theodora’s and Antonina’s unions, that Procopius claimed, “destroyed the greatness of Rome.”23

So too did Procopius make Antonina the culprit for Belisarius’ military failures. By using their sexuality to feminize men, women remained a constant threat to men’s proper position in a marriage. Procopius revealed that it was not rival generals or insubordinate troops that brought about Belisarius’ downfall, but an even more formidable enemy: his wife. Procopius, who praised Belisarius for his ability to govern even the most fearsome barbarians, condemned his superior for becoming a slave to his own lust. Like any good warrior, Belisarius did not give in without a fight and he waged a difficult campaign against her “womanly wiles.” Repeatedly, he attempted to escape his wife’s clutches and for brief moments, he was able to restore his honor by rejecting Antonina’s “tricks of magic,” and thereby he became a good man once more. Each time, however, the respite was fleeting, and Belisarius returned once again to be Antonina’s “faithful slave not her husband.”24

Procopius drew attention to how a “real” man handled disruptive women when he presented the general Constantine berating Belisarius for ignoring Antonia’s suspected adultery: “If I had been in your shoes, I should have got rid of that woman instead of the youngster [Theodosius, Antonina’s lover].” It was not the man who was to blame for the affair but the woman whom Belisarius needed to exile. Belisarius not only refused to heed Constantine’s advice, but also as Procopius related, a short time afterwards had the general executed at Antonina’s behest. These actions evoked the “bitter hostility of the Emperor and of the influential Romans one and all.”25

Procopius emphasized that once a man became enslaved to a woman he could never be a superior leader of men. Belisarius’ concern over his wife’s depravity led him to sacrifice the most vital interests of the state to his own domestic concerns. According to Procopius, Belisarius’ obsession with Antonina led to the Byzantine setbacks in the war against the Persians. “Incapacitated by his wife’s waywardness,” Belisarius refused to travel far beyond the boundaries of the Empire, and thus failed to take the initiative against the Persians. By allowing Antonina to take on the dominant role in their marriage, Belisarius not only sacrificed his manliness, but at that moment, “the hand of God was unmistakably against him.”

Procopius disclosed that a married couple could work for good or for evil, and he insisted that Theodora and Justinian had destroyed the Roman Empire together. Both were bad, however, in different ways. Theodora refused to be swayed by others, and was a formidable enemy; in contrast, Justinian was easygoing and readily influenced by others. While Theodora indulged in luxuries like bathing, eating and sleeping, Justinian practiced asceticism and spent his nights wandering the hallways of the palace. Pauline Allen suggests that Procopius believed that husbands and wives complemented one another.  If the partners ignored Roman or Christian ideals, they would enhance each other’s bad qualities; if they embraced these virtues, their individual natures would improve.27

It is important to note that Procopius may not have hated women.  Like most conservatives, he inferred that he was protecting them from attacks on their femininity. In fact, as one recent study has noted, Procopius’ positive portraits of women far outnumber his negative ones. (Treadgold) Procopius showed that, especially within their marriages, women could play a significant part in Roman culture. The historian described his notion of the ideal “Roman” wife:

He [Justinian] was in position to take his pick of the Roman Empire and select for his bride the most nobly born woman of the world, who had enjoyed the most exclusive upbringing, and was thoroughly acquainted with the claims of modesty, and had lived in an atmosphere of chastity, and in addition was superbly beautiful and still a virgin – or as they say firm breasted. 28


This ideal fictitious woman represented everything that Antonina and Theodora were not: she was noble, virtuous, and properly educated. In another illustration of Procopius’ adulation of righteous Roman women, he revealed in his description of an attempted rape that not all women were harlots. An aristocratic man and his wife suffered an attack while wandering the suburbs of Constantinople. His wife, trying to protect her husband’s life, went along willingly with her attackers. Before departing onto a boat with the men, she whispered to her husband “to have no fear.” Once in the boat, she jumped into the water and drowned. According to Procopius, this sacrifice was the ultimate act of a noble woman: she safeguarded her own virtue, while defending her male family member.27Procopius lamented, however, that during his era these virtuous women were disappearing, and, by ignoring marital traditions, almost “all women had become morally depraved.” Now, instead of shielding their husbands, women found guilty of adultery were allowed to bring a counter suit and drag their husbands into court. Procopius blamed all of these developments on Theodora’s influence.

For Procopius, women’s powerful role in Byzantine politics was even more alarming than their leading position in their domestic relationships. Although Theodora led a cloistered life, Procopius provided numerous examples of her interference in Byzantine politics: appointing men to positions within the Church and state, as well as arranging political marriages.28 It is important to note that, each time Procopius condemned Theodora’s political meddling, he had to argue that the empress had become involved in political matters for personal reasons. This commentary suggests that empresses were allowed to participate in politics as long as it was on behalf of their sons or husbands. Procopius revealed his disgust with Theodora’s conduct toward aristocratic men, and claimed that, once within her grasp these men were “turned” into animals. Referring to such an example, he wrote: “And so the poor fellow stood continuously at his manger, eating and sleeping and performing all natural functions and he resembled an ass in every particular short of braying.”29Procopius suggested that women’s political power over men was even more dangerous than their sexual control; by allowing this perversion, men had become little better than animals.

Even more than Theodora, Antonina typified the dynamic female, taking on heroic functions. While Theodora was confined to the palace, Antonina followed her husband on military campaigns and even took control of the troops. As with Belisarius, it is difficult to know when Procopius developed his hatred of Antonina. That she took an active and “masculine” part in the military campaign, however, must have made her an easy target once things went wrong in the war.  Procopius’ disapproval of Antonina probably increased when he began working with her during the war in Italy. Procopius described their professional relationship:

He [Procopius] collected not fewer than five hundred soldiers there, loaded a great number of ships with grain, and held them in readiness. And he was joined not long afterwards by Antonina, who immediately assisted him in making arrangements for the fleet.30


 Sharing power with a woman must have annoyed the conservative historian. However, despite his scathing attack of Antonina in the Secret History, Procopius, at times in the Wars, suggested that she could be a valuable asset on the campaign. Antonina had helped avert a disaster when the troops, while preparing their assault on Africa, had their entire water supply spoiled. Luckily, Antonia had safeguarded some extra water by hiding it in the hull of the ship.31 Still, one must note that in this circumstance Antonina may be seen as the typically protective Roman wife, looking out for her husband and for other men’s welfare.

 In certain instances, Procopius praised women for taking on active political roles. Antonina’s association with Theodora, and the empress’ subsequent influence on Justinian, allowed Belisarius to escape execution when the emperor thought that the general was plotting against him.32 This case demonstrates that Theodora had the “ear of the emperor,” and could be sought out when someone needed clemency.33 Furthermore, it shows that Procopius supported women when they made decisions that defended male family members. Another instance of the protective wife occurred when Theodora stiffened Justinian’s resolve during the Nika revolt, convincing him not to flee Constantinople but to remain in the capital and fight.34 All of these instances above show that women could have influential roles, especially as wives.





The Manly Gothic Queen

 Procopius portrayed other women acting heroically. In this description of the Ostrogothic queen, Amalasuntha, Procopius disclosed that sometimes a woman could transgress the “limitations” of her sex and become a hero: 

Now Amalasuntha, as guardian of her child, administrated the government, and she proved to be endowed with wisdom and regard for justice in the highest degree, displaying to a great extent the masculine temper. As long as she stood at the head of government, she inflicted punishment upon no Roman in any case either by touching his person or by imposing a fine.35


In both the Wars and the Secret History Amalasuntha was described positively. In a statement that was an obvious slight to the lowborn Theodora, Procopius described Amalasuntha as “an aristocrat and a queen.” He continued by illustrating her beauty and wit. Many of these traits, however, Procopius attributed to Amalasuntha’s “extraordinary masculine bearing.”36

Procopius’ depiction of Amalasuintha as a “manly woman” needs some explanation because it seems to go against his assertions elsewhere that “masculine” women transgressed nature. The first five chapters of Secret History, in fact, traced the disastrous consequences of allowing women to take on men’s dominate masculine roles in the political and the private arenas. A closer examination of Procopius’ description of Amalasuintha’s character reveals, however, that she fit into his and classical Greco-Roman literary visions of femininity. Despite her manly virtues, Amalasuintha’s leadership depended on men’s support, and Procopius portrayed her as a defenseless woman in need of Justinian’s protection. When her political position became too tenuous she attempted to hand “over the power of the Goths and Italians to the Emperor Justinian, in order that she herself might be saved”. [xvi]Although Amalasuintha ruled briefly within her own kingdom, she remained subordinate to Justinian and dependent upon men within the Gothic aristocracy for her survival.[xvii]Procopius suggested that only under exceptional circumstances should women take on masculine roles. He suggested that Amalasuintha faced such a situation at the outset of Athalaric’s reign when she needed to take on an active role in order to protect her family from her enemies within Gothic Italy.39

An examination of Procopius’ depiction of the Amazons from book eight of the Gothic Wars adds further insight into his attitudes towards Amalasuintha’s or any women’s ability to take on what he considered “masculine” responsibilities. He made it clear that the Amazons were not “a race of women endowed with the qualities of men”, but the remnants of a people whose men had been destroyed in war. Fear of their people’s annihilation, not a reversal of human nature, had forced these women to embrace “manly valour [ἀρρενωπὸν]”, by arming themselves and performing “a deed of the utmost courage [ἄριστα ἔργα ἀνδρεῖα]”.39According to Procopius, although women like the Amazons and Amalasuintha could put on temporarily a “masculine nature” and perform heroic deeds, it went against the natural order. Sheer necessity compelled both the Amazons and Amalasuintha to take on masculine roles. In the case of the Amazons, the death of all of their male soldiers drove them to take up arms to face their enemies. Similarly, after the death of Theoderic, a lack of suitable male heirs forced Amalasuintha to fill the void and take on a leading role in protecting her son and the Italian people from the barbarous elements in the Gothic leadership. For Procopius, this reversal of gender roles had its limits. While Amalasuintha and the Amazons could for a time display manly valour and emulate the excellence of men, without the support of real men, they all were fated to die young.

This reliance on ancient Greek literary conceptions of “manly women” helps to explain why Procopius depicted Amalasuintha’s taking on a masculine role positively, whilst he attacked Theodora and Antonina in Secret History for doing the same thing by stepping outside their gender constraints.40It seems likely that, in Procopius’ mind, as a “barbarian”, Amalasuintha could more easily break established gender roles. Indeed, in the classical tradition “manly women” represented largely a foreign phenomenon. In addition, manly women ruled typically in places where men were unmanly.41One may presume then that Procopius’ depiction of Amalasuintha was based on these traditional precedents, and as such, Procopius used her manliness as a means to, on the one hand, praise the Gothic queen and, on the other, to comment on the character defects of her male rivals to the Gothic throne, and in particular, her royal colleague after Athalaric’s death, the Gothic king Theodahad (ruled 534-536).


Procopius indicated that many of the problems within the Byzantine Empire could be explained by the rapid social and political changes that had occurred during Justinian’s reign. One of these developments was women’s increasing influence. Procopius suggested that the power wielded by Antonina, Theodora, and other women was dangerous for Eastern Roman men’s welfare and manly identity. Although Procopius often followed Classical Roman constructions of women’s behavior, he also followed the ambiguous Christian notion of woman as both Eves and Marys. Women were admirable when they were obedient, aristocratic, maternal, chaste and thus feminine. Yet Procopius also demonstrated that femininity was symbolized by women’s “wild lust”. This made him extremely suspicious of active women, whom he tended to portray as appalling wives and mothers, concerned only with their own political and sexual satisfaction. Procopius assumed that strong women needed strong men to put them in their place. He hinted, however, that he lived in an age where many men had become flawed, and had abandoned their masculinity. In a changing society in which men’s and women’s roles were being redefined, powerful women and “femininity” served as the dangerous “other,” and therefore represented a threat to men’s natural dominant role in society. Although Procopius indicated that, under extraordinary circumstances, women could take on leading functions and act heroically, he thought that the majority of the time they should be subservient to men.  Procopius’ writings reveal that despite the puissance of women like Theodora and Antonina, the sixth-century Byzantine Empire remained an androcentric culture at its core.







1See e.g., Judith Herrin, “In Search of Byzantine Women: Three Avenues of Approach”, in Images of Women in Antiquity, ed. Averil Cameron, and Amelie Kuhrt (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1983),167-89, Pauline Allen, “Contemporary Portrayals of the Byzantine Empress Theodora (A.D. 527-548)”, in Stereotypes of Women in Power: Historical Perspectives and Revisionist Views, ed. Barbara Garlick, Suzanne Dixon, and Pauline Allen (New York: Greenwood Press, 1992), 93-103, Talbot, “Women”, 117-43, James, Empresses, Brubaker, “Gender and Society”, 427-47. Lynda Garland, Byzantine Empresses: Women and Power in Byzantium, AD 527-1204 (London; Routledge, 1999).


2See e.g. Averil  Cameron, Procopius and the Sixth Century ((London: Duckworth, 1985); Anthony Kaldellis Procopius of Caesarea  (Philadelphia: Penn Press, 2004).


3Procopius, Buildings 1.1.16, Procopius, The Secret History (trans. G.A. Williamson [London: Penguin Books, 1966, reprint 1981] ) 30.34. The Secret History, largely because of its highly sexualized language and lurid portraits of the leading figures of sixth-century Byzantine culture has proved particularly popular on modern college campuses.


4Cameron stresses (Procopius 25, 60), I believe correctly, that seeing the Secret History simply as an exaggerated satire does not give “justice to its complexity and its earnestness, and should not be used to obscure the substantial portion of the work that is devoted to detailed political accusation.” Greatrex goes further (“Procopius the Outsider”) maintaining that Secret History is not a separate genre from Wars, but was made up of material that Procopius hoped to insert into Wars if the emperor predeceased him.


5 So too have modern historians come to frequently opposing conclusions concerning both Procopius’ merits as a historian, and his attitudes towards the Emperor Justinian’s reconquest . Cameron (Procopius and the Sixth Century) and Kaldellis (Procopius of Caesarea) provide thorough reviews of the earlier literature, and interesting, if at times opposing, ideas on Procopius’ religion, methods, intentions, and merits as a historian.  Warren Treadgold’s (Byzantine Historians, 176-226) short study provides a good basic summary of the content of Wars as well as some interesting insights into Procopius’ creative process. For Procopius as a relatively accurate source on the Persians, see Henning Börm, Prokop und die Perser: Untersuchungen zu den römisch-sasanidischen Kontakten in der ausgehenden Spätantike (Stuttgart, 2008).  For other recent scholarship, see Geoffrey Greatrex, “Recent work on Procopius and the Composition of Wars VIII”, BMGS 27 (2003): 45-67. Even formerly dormant debates have been revived. Indeed, through an analysis of his “hidden messages” found in Procopius’ texts, a recent study has questioned the idea that the historian was a Christian, suggesting instead that he was at the center of a neo-Platonic revival in sixth-century Constantinople. Kaldellis (2004); Modern consensus has largely rejected Kaldellis’ claims. For an overview of the response to Kaldellis’ methodological approach to Procopius and other Early Byzantine intellectuals, see Michael Whitby, “Religious Views of Procopius and Agathias” Electrum 13 (2007): 73-93.


[vi]Anthony Kaldellis, “The Study of Women and Children Methodological Challenges and New Directions,” in P. Stephenson, ed., The Byzantine World (London: Routledge, 2010), 61-71.


33Lesile Brubaker, “Sex, Lies, and Texuality: the Secret History of Prokopios and the Rhetoric of Gender in Sixth-century Byzantium”, in Gender in the Early Medieval World: East and West, 300-900, ed. Leslie Brubaker and Julia Smith (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 86-87, 100-101.


34Cooper, 11-13.

6Judith Hallett, Fathers and Daughters in Roman Society: Women and the Elite Family (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984), 49-52, 232.


7Mary R. Lefkowitz, “Influential Women,” in Images of Women in Late Antiquity, eds. Averil Cameron and Amelie Kuhrt (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1983), 59.  Kate Cooper suggests that the influence of the enlightenment and the modern “conception of individual autonomy” has hindered scholars’ attempts to comprehend the experience of Roman men and women.  She stresses that “the notion of a private sphere divested of public significance would have seemed impossible (and undesirable) to the ancient mind. The domus [household], along with its aspect of family and dynasty, was the primary unit of cultural identity, political significance, and economic production.”  Kate Cooper, The Virgin and the Bride: Idealized Womanhood in Late Antiquity (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996.), 14.


8(ref to be added)


9 Brown, Body and Society, 148, 299.


10 Victor of Vita, History of the Vandal Persecution, (trans. John Moorhead [Liverpool, Liverpool University Press, 1992]), 1.31.


11Victor of Vita, 3.26.


12Alice-Mary Talbot, “Women,” in The Byzantines, ed. Guglielmo Cavallo, trans. Thomas Dunlap, Teresa Lavander Fagan, and Charles Lambert (Chicago: The Chicago University Press, 1997), 177-8. Fritz Graf argues: “Women, marginalized and excluded from the society of men,” were considered dangerous. They were often accused of practicing veneficiis et cantionibus (sorcery and incantation). The accusation of magic served two purposes: first, it revealed the danger “that women’s love constitutes for the autonomy of the men,” and finally it provided a means “to excuse social faults,” such as “mad love felt by men.” Graf, 189-90.


13 Liz James, Empresses and Power in Early Byzantium (London: Leicester University Press, 2001), 164.


14Elsner, 180-2.


15Browning, 257.


16James, 16-7.


17Procopius, Secret History 17.32.


18Procopius, Secret History 9.17-20. Evans asserts that as an actress, Theodora may have prostituted herself before she married Justinian. He suggests that while “the stories Procopius relate about Theodora’s early life in his Secret History may be only half true they are representative of the gossip that floated through the streets of the capital.” Evans, Empress Theodora, 15. Leslie Brubaker (Sex, lies, 100) is more skeptical seeing Procopius’ account as a largely a  rhetorical trope


19Brown, Body and Society, 320.


20E.g. Procopius, Secret History 1.40


21 Procopius, Secret History 1.41, 17.17. There is no evidence that John was Theodora’s son. Evans suggests that he was an imposter, given that Theodora had previously recognized an illegitimate daughter. Evans, Empress Theodora, 16.


22 Procopius, Secret History 2.13.


23 Procopius, Secret History 6.1-17.


24Procopius, Wars 6.4.19-20.


25 Procopius, Wars 3.13.24.


26Procopius, Secret History 4.18.


27Lefkowitz, 61.


28Procopius, Wars 1.24.32-9.


29 Procopius, Wars 5.2.3-4.


30 Procopius, Secret History 16.5.


31 Procopius, Wars 5.3.13.


32A. Daniel Frankforter, “Amalasuntha, Procopius and a Woman’s Place”,  JWH 8 (1996): 42.


6 thoughts on “Courageous and wicked women in early Byzantium

    1. mikeaztec Post author

      The emperor Justinian was his patron for Wars and Buildings. Funny enough he does criticize Justinian directly and indirectly throughout the Wars, whilst Building is unabashed panegyric. Scholars are mixed on the genre and purpose of Secret History. Most consider a piece of invective created for a select audience of like minded individuals. Geoffrey Greatrex has made the interesting suggestion that Procopius hoped to integrate it into wars when and if Justinian died. Unfortunately, for him, Procopius seems to have died before the emperor.

      1. crafty theatre

        Could Wars be a for personal use document or does it exist in multiple copies? I am having difficulties reconciling Procopius giving Justinian stick if Justinian was his patron? Would Justinian allow him to get away with it? Would Theodora allow it? ( for her own reputation as well as her husbands)?

  1. mikeaztec Post author

    Wars was available throughout the Empire, and according to Procopius himself very popular. A good number of copies of it have come down to us. Only one copy of Secret History survives.His criticisms in Wars of the imperial power-brokers are much more hidden here, and indeed, he gives fairly positive views of Theodora and Antonina. Justinian would have never seen Secret History, though once an emperor died Procopius “true”views could be known. The ecclesiastical historian, Evagrius for instance who wrote after Justinian died provides us with a similar negative view of the emperor.


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