Women and Power at the Byzantine Court

Kathryn M. Ringrose

in Servants of the Dynasty

Published by University of California Press

Published in print October 2008 | ISBN: 9780520254435
Published online March 2012 | e-ISBN: 9780520941519 | DOI:
Women and Power at the Byzantine Court

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  • Medieval and Renaissance History (500 to 1500)


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The Byzantine Empire is an easy target for the historian's orientalizing reflexes. Long accused of oriental decadence and overlaid by centuries of Western perceptions of the oriental harem, the Byzantine court has been stereotyped by observers as a place where women lived in harems—in oriental seclusion guarded by fierce eunuch guards. Like aristocratic women elsewhere in Byzantium and in many other aristocratic societies, Byzantine court women lived in settings segregated from men. They did not, however, live in enclosed communities of wives and concubines available for the emperor's pleasure. In the first place, the Christian Byzantine emperors were, in accordance with church law, allowed to have only one wife at a time. The two most powerful empresses of middle period Byzantium were Irene and Theodora. This chapter shows that Byzantine women's access to power was possible despite the specially gendered nature of palace space and that this access was facilitated through the mediation of eunuchs, who were uniquely able to transcend the boundaries between the gendered spaces in the palace.

Keywords: Byzantine Empire; court women; empresses; harems; eunuchs; Byzantium; power; palace; emperors; Byzantine court

Chapter.  7248 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: Medieval and Renaissance History (500 to 1500)

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