Inspirational Roman and Byzantine Women





This week’s blog is a bit of a cheat since it is an excerpt from an article I am preparing for publication. It has been sent off and received a good response. It was mostly written in 2002 for my 2003 MA thesis on Procopius. Having picked it up after not reading it for over ten years I realised it might be worthy of publication, so I gave it a good update and refresh. Luckily the writing style was better than I would have thought…so I left much of it as is.

One thing I noted as I gave it an edit is how many of the modern sources I consulted are written by women. This should not surprise since primarily women write about ancient women; why this should be so is not so clear. I am certainly just a interested in reading about battles as I am in consulting the latest book on the role of women in Byzantium. In contrast much of what I read about “regular” Roman and Byzantine history is written by men…with some notable exceptions of course,   wink wink Maria…Of course I was raised by my mother and three dynamic women cut from much the same cloth as Antonina, Theodora and Amalasuintha! So enjoy the first half…

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 by-product of the upsurge of research focusing on the role of women in the early Byzantine Empire. Procopius’ views on gender—particularly in the Secret History—have received particular attention. [1]

Yet as specialists on the ancient historian have recognized, uncovering Procopius’ “true” views is problematic.[2] Undoubtedly, 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.[3] The Wars took the middle ground, incorporating negative and positive descriptions of the emperor. Some of these discrepancies, however, partly 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.”[4]        

These oft-times paradoxical characterizations make it difficult for modern scholars to understand Procopius’ attitudes towards the key players in his accounts.[5] 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.[6]

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, Amalasuintha. 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 act heroically.[7]


Rhetoric versus Reality

As Leslie Brubaker has argued, Procopius’ construction of feminine virtues closely followed classical Roman and Christian precepts. Particularly in the Secret History, Theodora represents “everything a late Roman should not be.”[8] Brubaker, in fact, questions whether Procopius tells us anything about the “real” Theodora. She goes so far as to claim that the Secret History “is useless as a source of history about “what really happened.” [9] Peter Heather too warns that Procopius’ portrait of the individuals in the Secret History may have had no bearing on his true beliefs. Heather goes so far as to posit that Procopius in this work aimed primarily 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.[10] Though I doubt aspects of both assertions above, they serve as another timely reminder of the difficulties facing the modern interpreter attempting to uncover the “truths” in Procopius’ writings.

Certainly challenges confront the researcher attempting to separate the “real women” from the “constructed” one. Kate Cooper has shown convincingly that Roman writers often crafted literary descriptions of women as a means to describe men’s characters. She suggests, for instance, that in Plutarch’s works, men’s inability to control their passion for women frequently threatened social stability. The conflict between “the public man and his rival for power, the legitimate wife and the adulterous temptress” represented a common theme in Roman and Byzantine literature. Moreover, 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.” [11]   

This conflict presents a real problem for anyone hoping to interpret Procopius’ writings, particularly the Secret History. I would agree, however, 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.”[12] Other scholars agree with this view. For instance, using a wide-range of sixth-century sources describing the Empress Theodora, Clive Foss has shown that they shared many similarities with Procopius characterization.[13] So, I would suggest that by examining Procopius’ writings we may get a glimpse beneath the cracks and see the “real” Amalasuintha, Antonina, and Theodora.


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 remained 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.[14]

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.[15]

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.[16]

Christian intellectuals 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.[17] 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.[18]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 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.”[19] 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.[20] Although Victor had political reasons for emphasizing the importance of religious loyalty over familial ties, his account accurately reflects the Church’s attempts to break the strong ties of Roman kinship.

Most women’s lives from the upper-crust of society remained highly restricted. Following Roman custom, upper-class Byzantine women tended to be segregated from all men other than immediate members of their family. Ironically, this isolation 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. Rigorist Christians, however, looked upon these activities with suspicion and frequently condemned these women as little better than prostitutes.

Moreover, 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.[21] 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.”[22]

Late Antiquity also witnessed an increase in the empress’ 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.[23] 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.[24] 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.”[25]

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; Kate Cooper, The Virgin and the Bride: Idealized Womenhood in Late Antiquity (Cambridge Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996); Lynda Garland, Byzantine Empresses: Women and Power in Byzantium, AD 527-1204 (London; Routledge, 1999); Liz James, Empresses and Power in Early Byzantium (London: Leicester University Press, 2001); Leslie 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), 83-101; Harmut Ziche, “Abusing Theodora: Sexual and Political Discourse in Procopius,” Βυζαντιακὰ 30 (2012-13): 311-322.


2 See e.g. Averil Cameron, Procopius and the Sixth Century ((London: Duckworth, 1985); Anthony Kaldellis Procopius of Caesarea (Philadelphia: Penn Press, 2004); Dariusz Brodka, Die Geschichtsphilosophie in der spätantiken Historiographie. Studien zu Prokopios von Kaisareia, Agathias von Myrina und Theophylaktos Simokattes (Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 2004); Henning Börm, Prokop und die Perser: Untersuchungen zu den römisch-sasanidischen Kontakten in der ausgehenden Spätantike (Stuttgart, 2008).  


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


4Cameron stresses (Procopius 25, 60) 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,” BMGS 18 [1994]: 101-114), maintaining that the 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. Opposing these views, Henning Börm (Procopius and his Predecessors, and the Genesis of the Anecdota, forthcoming) has proposed recently that the hasty composition of the Secret History indicates that it was produced because Procopius feared a coup was inevitable, and he wanted to disassociate himself from Justinian’s inner circle. Therefore, the views portrayed in this work are merely an attempt by Procopius to ingratiate himself to the “new” regime, and therefore not reflective of his “true” views at all. I see the points of view expressed by Procopius in the Secret History as exaggerated, yet sincere. and representative of the historian’s pessimistic mindset towards Justinian’s floundering Gothic campaign when he probably composed (550-552) the diatribe.


5 For a thorough discussion of Procopian scholarship in the past twenty years, see Geoffrey Greatrex, “Recent work on Procopius and the Composition of Wars VIII”, BMGS 27 (2003): 45-67; “Perceptions of Procopius in Recent Scholarship,Histos 8 (2014): 76-121.


[6]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; Henning Börm, “Procopius, his Predecessors, and the genesis of the Anecdota,” (forthcoming).


[7] Such inversions play an important literary role throughout Procopius’ writings, see Michael Edward Stewart, “Contests of Andreia in Procopius’ Gothic Wars,” Parekbolai 4 (2014): 21-54.


[8] Brubaker, “Sex, Lies,” 87, 100-101.


[9] Leslie Brubaker, “The Age of Justinian: Gender and Society,” in The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Justinian, ed. Michael Maas (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 432.


[10] Peter Heather, The Restoration of Rome: Barbarian Popes and Imperial Pretenders (London: Macmillan, 2013), 111-116.


[11] Cooper, Virgin and the Bride, 11-14.


[12] Cooper, Virgin and the Bride, 11-13.


[13] Clive Foss, “The Empress Theodora,” Byzantion 72 (2002): 141-76.


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


[15] Mary R. Lefkowitz, “Influential Women,” in Images of Women in Late Antiquity, eds. Averil Cameron and Amelie Kuhrt (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1983), 59.


[16] Herrin, “Byzantine Women,” 167.


[17] Peter Brown, The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988), 148, 299.


[18] From the seventh-century, icons of the Theotokos were used to protect the Empire’s cities and its armies. According to some texts during a siege of Constantinople in 626 the Virgin Mary acted as the ultimate “protective mother,” indeed, she was even seen partaking in the battle. For a slightly different take on this development, see Anthony Kaldellis, “The Military use of the Icon of the Theotokos and its Morale Logic in the Historians of the Ninth-Twelfth Centuries,” Estudios byzantinos 1 (2013): 56-75.


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


[20] Victor of Vita, 3.26.


[21] Alice-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.


[22] Fritz Graf, Magic in the Ancient World, trans. Franklin Philip (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), 189-90.


[23] James, Empresses, 164.


[24] Jas Elsner, Art and the Roman Viewer: The Transformation of Art from the Pagan World to Christianity (Cambridge: Cambridge university Press, 1995), 180-2.


[25] Robert Browning, Justinian and Theodora (New York: Praeger, 1971), 257.


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