Unrivalled Influence: Women and Empire in Byzantium

Unrivalled Influence: Women and Empire in Byzantium

Unrivalled Influence: Women and Empire in Byzantium

Unrivalled Influence: Women and Empire in Byzantium


Unrivalled Influence explores the exceptional roles that women played in the vibrant cultural and political life of medieval Byzantium. Written by one of the world's foremost historians of the Byzantine millennium, this landmark book evokes the complex and exotic world of Byzantium's women, from empresses and saints to uneducated rural widows. Drawing on a diverse range of sources, Judith Herrin sheds light on the importance of marriage in imperial statecraft, the tense coexistence of empresses in the imperial court, and the critical relationships of mothers and daughters. She looks at women's interactions with eunuchs, the in-between gender in Byzantine society, and shows how women defended their rights to hold land. Herrin describes how they controlled their inheritances, participated in urban crowds demanding the dismissal of corrupt officials, followed the processions of holy icons and relics, and marked religious feasts with liturgical celebrations, market activity, and holiday pleasures. The vivid portraits that emerge here reveal how women exerted an unrivalled influence on the patriarchal society of Byzantium, and remained active participants in the many changes that occurred throughout the empire's millennial history.

Unrivalled Influence brings together Herrin's finest essays on women and gender written throughout the long span of her esteemed career. This volume includes three new essays published here for the very first time and a new general introduction by Herrin. She also provides a concise introduction to each essay that describes how it came to be written and how it fits into her broader views about women and Byzantium.


At first there was women's history, then the history of gender, and now a vastly more sophisticated theory and methodology of studying historical men and women. When I first started working on women in Byzantium in 1976, there was very little research published specifically on the female half of its society. Only a few empresses, princesses, nuns, and other famous (or infamous) individuals received attention. and most of it was scurrilous, designed to illustrate their weak characters and dangerous impulses, as male authors perceived them. Yet women not only accounted for 50 percent of the population in the Byzantine Empire and, however restricted, must have influenced their male relatives, they could also be studied in their own terms. the moment I started to look for them, I found frequent records of women taking initiatives in a wide range of sources, which indicated a far greater visibility than had been assumed of women outside the imperial court, as well as within.

Forty years of researching and writing about the distinctive features of Byzantium are presented in this book and its companion volume, Margins and Metropolis: Authority across the Byzantine Empire. Each chapter has been lightly edited to remove the particularities of the original version, but I have not tried to rewrite them. At the same time, at my editor’s suggestion I’ve added a personal account of how I came to write each chapter and who and what influenced me in doing so. a selection of the most important and relevant new publications are noted. Each volume traces a historian’s journey across the Byzantine Empire, traveling on different but related paths. This trek began in the 1960s, at Cambridge, when I chose to become a historian, and those very radical times naturally left their influence. I still feel myself a part of that period, am proud to have contributed to its radicalism, and am happy to say that it has marked my work ever since.

Through family circumstances I grew up in a house surrounded by active women who worked, earned, and enjoyed living. So I felt an . . .

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