Iconoclasts no match for imperial widows

Women in Purple
September 6, 2002

Luxuriously jacketed in purple and gold, this book makes a striking addition to a series of recent works on Byzantine empresses. It follows hard on the heels of Lynda Garland's Byzantine Empresses: Women and Power in Byzantium, AD 5-1204 (1999) , Barbara Hill's Imperial Women in Byzantium 1025-1204: Power, Patronage and Ideology (1999) and Liz James's Empresses and Power in Early Byzantium (2001) . There is clearly a revival in the study of the Byzantine empress that has its origins in Charles Diehl's series of biographical portraits of imperial women contained within his Figures Byzantines (1906) . This revival reflects a current general interest in issues of gender and power in history.

Judith Herrin embraces the biographical approach established by Diehl and continued by Garland (though eschewed for thematic approaches by Hill and James) but is distinctive in focusing on three imperial women in a specific context of Byzantine history, the "iconoclast crisis" of the 8th and 9th centuries ("central to the concerns of this book"). The three empresses are Irene, Euphrosyne and Theodora. These women are not just linked by imperial status and historical context, but by ties of family and dynasty; Irene was the grandmother of Euphrosyne, and Theodora was Euphrosyne's daughter-in-law.

Of the three, Irene and Theodora are the better known given their association with the restoration of icons in 787 and 843 respectively. Irene has the added distinction of being one of the few Byzantine empresses who reigned in her own right (797-802), a position secured by the deposition of her son Constantine VI, blinded in the chamber of his birth. Euphrosyne's moment of fame is usually limited to her release from monastic exile to become the wife of the emperor Michael II the Amorion (820-829), thus lending him legitimacy through her membership of the Syrian dynasty. Herrin, however, emphasises her key place in the chain from Irene to Theodora.

The biographies of the three women are sandwiched between an introductory chapter on the Byzantine empire and its history up to 775, and a general conclusion. Herrin's thesis is that: "These three widowed women exercised imperial power and managed the course of the empire's history in purposive, deliberate and connected fashion", and to an extent that they "profoundly altered the course of history". Herrin investigates the ways in which these imperial women could exercise power, but also, drawing on her recent article "The imperial feminine in Byzantium" (in Past and Present ), how this was acceptable in their patriarchal society through precedents and circumstances. Herrin is notably alive to historical issues beyond the question of women and power. She suggests that without these women, the restoration of the icon to its central place within Byzantine culture was not guaranteed, and that the character of future art could have been radically different. She also hypothesises that the failure to restore icons would have had significant political repercussions for the medieval world.

One of the most perplexing features of this book is the envisaged readership. The introductory chapter on Byzantium, the broad historical perspective, the confining of vital discussion of methodology and sources to the end of the book with the notes, and the select referencing and bibliography all suggest a more general, non-specialist audience. Yet there is also an assumption of some knowledge, and Byzantinists will certainly want to digest the book's views and arguments.

It is unfortunate that the issues of methodology and sources are relegated to the back as they are crucial. Here we are faced with the paucity of the evidence for the study of these women (as well as its difficult nature), and Herrin's method of "imaginative reconstruction" is revealed. Her practice of using the present tense rather than the more accurate conditional at certain points in the book would have been better declared at the book's beginning.

The biographical approach to the women may be cause for concern. Yet alternative approaches can be sampled in the work of Hill and James and, as Herrin anticipates, "serious study of female rulers in Byzantium will continue". (One also looks forward to male rulers being studied in the light of gender and power.) The biographical approach also dilutes some key debates. Are the "bride-shows" literary invention or historical reality? How significant was the "iconoclast crisis"? Were women more naturally iconophile? Was iconoclasm on the wane before the death of Theophilos or not? All these questions are still open. Ultimately, though, if Herrin's book does nothing but convey to a general audience that there is more to Byzantine empresses than the infamous 6th-century Theodora, it will have provided a valuable service.

Shaun Tougher is lecturer in ancient history, Cardiff University.

Women in Purple: Rulers of Medieval Byzantium

Author - Judith Herrin
ISBN - 0 297 64334 7
Publisher - Weidenfeld and Nicolson
Price - £20.00
Pages - 304

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