Women in Purple: Rulers of Medieval Byzantium

Women in Purple: Rulers of Medieval Byzantium

Language: English

Pages: 288

ISBN: 0691117802

Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub


In the eighth and ninth centuries, three Byzantine empresses--Irene, Euphrosyne, and Theodora--changed history. Their combined efforts restored the veneration of icons, saving Byzantium from a purely symbolic and decorative art and ensuring its influence for centuries to come.

In this exhilarating and highly entertaining account, one of the foremost historians of the medieval period tells the story of how these fascinating women exercised imperial sovereignty with consummate skill and sometimes ruthless tactics. Though they gained access to the all-pervasive authority of the Byzantine ruling dynasty through marriage, all three continued to wear the imperial purple and wield tremendous power as widows. From Constantinople, their own Queen City, the empresses undermined competitors and governed like men. They conducted diplomacy across the known world, negotiating with the likes of Charlemagne, Roman popes, and the great Arab caliph Harun al Rashid.

Vehemently rejecting the ban on holy images instituted by their male relatives, Irene and Theodora used craft and power to reverse the official iconoclasm and restore icons to their place of adoration in the Eastern Church. In so doing, they profoundly altered the course of history. The art--and not only the art--of Byzantium, of Islam, and of the West would have been very different without them.

As Judith Herrin traces the surviving evidence, she evokes the complex and deeply religious world of Constantinople in the aftermath of Arab conquest. She brings to life its monuments and palaces, its court ceremonies and rituals, the role of eunuchs (the "third sex"), bride shows, and the influence of warring monks and patriarchs. Based on new research and written for a general audience, Women in Purple reshapes our understanding of an empire that lasted a thousand years and splashes fresh light on the relationship of women to power.

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Ohrid and defeated and captured the Latin emperor, Peter of Courtney. By 1224 he had control of Thessalonike and went on to capture Adrianople (modern Edirne), only a couple of days’ march from Constantinople. When he was crowned emperor (basileus) in the cathedral of Thessalonike by the senior metropolitan, Demetrios Chomatenos of Ohrid in around 1225/7, he made good his claim to inherit the mantle of Byzantium. For nearly twenty years, Theodore ruled the second city of the empire as well as the

other women wanted to follow. Empresses like Irene (780–90, 797– 802), Theodora (842–56), Zoe (914–19) and Theophano (963–9), although they were always patronized by men and documented only by male writers, evidently shaped and directed imperial power. Those like Theodora who married into the ruling dynasty, rapidly learnt to exploit court tensions to their own benefit. Irene’s career provides striking evidence of this ability: she cultivated the support of court factions and the Church to rise

their religious world was filled by other beliefs: unconverted polytheists, adherents of the eastern cults, followers of Zoroaster and Mani, as well as long-established Jewish communities. Islam made a profound impact throughout this world on all who lived on the eastern and southern shores of the Mediterranean, in Syria and Spain and all regions in between. In the eighth century, the first official destruction of icons (iconoclasm) in Byzantium provoked ordinary people to die for the sake of

overlooking the Bosphoros there were two temples dedicated to Rhea, the mother of the gods, and to Fortuna Romae (the Fortune of Rome). In the central Forum of Constantine stood a dramatic porphyry column made of drums of purple stone brought from Egypt. At the top, a pagan statue of Apollo was adapted to represent the emperor. Works of art decorated the porticoes around this circular public space, which had triumphal arches at east and west marking entry to the Mese (the main thoroughfare).

to the empress. In most of these events, the eunuch courtiers direct each stage and signal the participation of different groups. Among the numerous foreigners who recorded their impressions of the Byzantine court and its workings, Liutprand of Cremona provides two vivid, detailed and contrasting accounts. As the envoy of Berengar of Italy in 949–50, the first reflects his positive reception by Constantine VII, cited in chapter 14. Eighteen years later, the second was dominated by Nikephoros II

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