Inspirational early Byzantine Women: Part Two

Sorry I was going to post this sooner, but have been sick this week,

nothing serious. So here is the second half from my previous post commenting on  Procopius’ presentation of women in his writings:


Procopius’ Vision of Women

Some sixth-century Eastern Romans, however, appeared uncomfortable with women’s “usurpation” of traditional masculine roles. Procopius’ oeuvre reflects this reality. Throughout his writings, and particularly in the Secret History, Procopius seems ill at ease with the power wielded by women in the sixth-century Eastern Roman Empire. This attitude probably reflected the views of his primary audience, the upper-classes of the Byzantine Empire. In the Secret History, Procopius scathingly attacked the two leading women of his day: Antonina and Theodora. Indeed, Procopius devotes the first five chapters of Secret History undermining Antonina and Theodora as “unwomanly.”[1] In contrast to ideal Roman women, who were subservient, pious, merciful, and chaste, Theodora and Antonina were, in Procopius’ view, no better than immoral prostitutes eager to subvert their proper feminine roles in Byzantine society.

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.”[2] 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.[3]

Here we have many 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. As Peter Brown points out, “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.”[4] 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 Manicheans (a religion founded by the Persian Mani [216-276]).[5] 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.”[6] 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 instead 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.”[7] 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. In 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.[8]

Procopius condemned Antonina as well for not realizing that her adulterous behavior would reflect poorly on her children: “And remember that the sins of 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.”[9] 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 exemplified one of the fundamental Roman customs. To be seen as virtuous, women needed to separate themselves completely from their sexual nature. Within an idealized 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.”[10]

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 became once again Antonina’s “faithful slave, not her husband.”[11]

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.”[12]

The field of battle had long represented a masculine realm in the Roman and Byzantine world.[13] Procopius deftly revealed how troubles in one’s domestic world could spill over into the public domain. Procopius emphasized that once a man became enslaved to a woman he could never be a superior leader of men. In Procopius’ mind Belisarius’ “abandonment of his manhood [ἀρρενωπὸν ἀπελελοίπει],” had made the general an unmanly shell of his former self:

Thinking not one worthy thought nor even remembering that he had ever been a man, but perspiring constantly, with his head swimming, trembling violently in helpless despair, tortured by servile fears, and apprehensions, which were both cowardly and unmanly [ἀνάνδροις]).[14]

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.”[15]


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 wicked, 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 like many early Byzantines 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.[16]

It is important to note that Procopius may not have been a misogynist. Indeed we should be careful not to apply modern standards to judge an ancient culture such as sixth-century Byzantium. Like most conservatives, Procopius inferred that he was protecting women from attacks on their femininity. In fact, as one recent study has noted, Procopius’ positive portraits of women in his writings far outnumber his negative ones.[17] As we have seen, Procopius showed that 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.[18]

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, attempting 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 represented the ultimate act of a noble woman: she safeguarded her own virtue, while defending her male family member. Procopius 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.[19]

For Procopius, women’s powerful role in Byzantine politics were 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.[20] 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.”[21] Procopius 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 essential functions within the domestic and political arenas.[22] While Theodora was largely confined to the palace, Antonina followed her husband on military campaigns and even took control of the troops.[23] As with Belisarius, it is difficult to know when Procopius developed his dislike 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 may have 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.[24]

Sharing power with a woman may have annoyed the conservative historian.[25] However, despite his scathing attack of Antonina in the Secret History, in the Wars, the historian 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.[26] Antonina may be seen as the typically protective Roman wife, looking out for her husband and for other men’s welfare—the polar opposite to how she behaves in the Secret History.

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.[27] This case demonstrates that Theodora had the “ear of the emperor,” and could be sought out when someone needed clemency.[28] Furthermore, it shows once again 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.[29] Lynda Garland regards this episode as an instance of Theodora taking on a masculine and martial role. I would agree with Averil Cameron however, that the speech is better understood as another example of the traditional “protective wife” supporting and defending male family members. All of these instances described above, however, reveal that Procopius believed that women could have influential and essential roles in Byzantine society, especially as wives and mothers. [30]

The Manly Gothic Queen

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

Now Amalasuintha, 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.[31]

The Wars and the Secret History portrayed Amalasuintha positively. In a statement that may have been a dig at the lowborn Theodora, Procopius described Amalasuintha as “an aristocrat and a queen.” He continued by illustrating her beauty and wit. Many of these traits, however, Procopius attributed to Amalasuintha’s “extraordinary masculine bearing.” [μεγαλοπρεπὲς καὶ διαφερόντως ἀρρενωπόν].[32]

Procopius’ depiction of Amalasuintha as a “manly woman” needs some explanation because it seems to go against his assertions discussed above that “masculine” women transgressed nature. Certainly, as we have seen above, the Secret History hoped to stress 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”.[33] Although Amalasuintha ruled briefly within her own kingdom, she remained subordinate to Justinian and dependent upon men within the Gothic aristocracy for her survival.[34] Procopius indicated 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.

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]”. According 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.[35]

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.[36]It seems likely that, in Procopius’ mind, as a “barbarian”, Amalasuintha could more easily break established gender roles.[37] Indeed, in the classical tradition “manly women” represented largely a foreign phenomenon. Moreover, manly women ruled typically in places where men were unmanly.[38] Procopius’ depiction of Amalasuintha was probably 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), whom Procopius described in Gothic Wars as “unmanly by nature.”[39]

Procopius indicated in his writings 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 and Theodora 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 women as both Eve and Mary. Women, in Procopius’ mind, were admirable when they were obedient, aristocratic, maternal, chaste and thus feminine. Yet the historian 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 world where men’s and women’s roles were being redefined, powerful women and “femininity” 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 indicated 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, at its core, the sixth-century Byzantine Empire remained an androcentric culture.

In closing, Procopius’ writings aptly illustrate the close partnership of history and literature in Late Antiquity. While it is impossible to know if these often contradictory characterizations of women and femininity truly represent Procopius’ personal sentiments, they do provide his modern readers with evidence of the various principles that made up early Byzantine constructions of feminine virtue and vice. Moreover, though Procopius often provided cartoon-like depictions of Amalasuintha, Antonina, and Theodora, these portraits can provide the modern reader with insight into these dynamic women who helped shape the age of Justinian.












[1] James, Empresses, 16-7.


[2] Procopius, Secret History 17.36.


[3] Procopius, Secret History 9.17-19. 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. Brubaker (“Sex, Lies,” 100) is more skeptical, seeing Procopius’ account as largely a rhetorical trope.

[4] Brown, Body and Society, 320.


[5]Procopius, Secret History 22.25-26.


[6] Procopius, Secret History 1.12.


[7] Procopius, Secret History 16.5-18.



[8] Procopius, Secret History 17.17-23. There is no evidence that John was Theodora’s son. Evans (Empress Theodora, 16) suggests that he was an imposter, given that Theodora had previously recognized an illegitimate daughter.


[9] Procopius, Secret History 2.10.


[10] Procopius, Secret History 6.1-17.


[11] Procopius, Secret History 4.29-30.


[12] Procopius, Secret History 1.24-30.


[13] Myles Mc Donnell, Roman Manliness: Virtus and the Roman Republic (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.


[14]Procopius, Secret History 4.22-26

[15]Procopius, Secret History 4.42.


[16]Allen, “Contemporary Portrayals”, 98.


[17] Warren Treadgold, The Early Byzantine Historians (New York: Palgrave, 2007), 215.


[18] Procopius, Secret History 10.2-3.


[19]Procopius, Secret History 7.37-38, 17.17.


[20] Procopius, Secret History 17.32.


[21]Procopius, Secret History 3.10.


[22] The sixth-century Liber Pontificalis (60.8) corroborates Procopius’ portrayal of both Antonia’s dominate role within her marriage and her confidence in political matters.


[23] Brubaker argues (“Gender and Society,”) that Theodora is largely absent from Wars because Procopius— following Roman and Byzantine constructs— expected men to dominate the public arena. Yet, while this assessment it is likely correct, it does not explain her “absence” from Wars. I would point out that because most of the narrative deals with warfare and occurs on the fringes of the Empire, Justinian also plays a relatively minor role in Wars. So too, as I discus below, did Amalasuintha play an important part in the opening of the Gothic Wars. In fact, before her death in 548, Theodora features in several important scenes of Wars: e.g., 1.24.33; 1.25.22-30; 4.9.13; 7.31.14.


[24] Procopius, Wars 6.4.19-20.


[25] Of course this conclusion depends on whether the views found in the Secret History accurately reflect Procopius’ “real” sentiments.


[26] Procopius, Wars 3.13.24.


[27] Procopius, Secret History 4.18-19.


[28] Lefkowitz, “Influential Women,” 61.


[29] Procopius, Wars 1.24.32-9.


[30] Garland, Byzantine Empresses, 32-33; Cameron, Procopius, 65


[31] Procopius, Wars 5.2.3-4.


[32]Procopius, Secret History 16.1.


[33] Procopius, Wars 5.3.13.


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


[35] Procopius, Wars 8.3.1-7.


[36] Averil Cameron (Procopius, 199-200), in particular, criticises Procopius for this seeming inconsistency.


[37] For a similar gendered presentation of Amalasuintha in Cassiodorus’ Variae, as well as a full discussion of the historical context of the gendered relationship between Amalasuintha and Theodahad, see Cristina La Rocca, “Consors regni: a problem of gender? The consortium between Amalasuntha and Theodahad in 534,” in Studies in the earlier Middle Ages in Honour of Pauline Stafford (London, 2012), 127-143.


[38] Sarah E. Harrell, “Marvelous Andreia: Politics, Geography, and Ethnicity in Herodotus’ Histories,” in Andreia: Studies in Manliness and Courage in Classical Antiquity (Boston: Brill, 2003), 83.


[39] Procopius, Wars 5.9.1


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