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Women Who Loomed Large in Greek History

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“The Daughters of Theodora” portrayed one of the most well-known and respected women in Greek history, Empress Theodora. Credit: Madrid Skylitzes/Public Domain

Women in Greek history have persevered, protected, challenged, and led in many realms over the centuries. On the bicentennial of the Greek War of Independence in 2021, the Consulate General of Greece in Boston and the Boston Lykeion Ellinidon presented a panel discussion spotlighting women changemakers in Greek history to the present day.

The event, titled “Changemakers: Greek Women from 1821 to 2021,” featured Dr. Ioli Kalavrezou, the Dumbarton Oaks Professor of Byzantine Art History, Harvard University.

Dr. Eurydice Georganteli, a lecturer in art history and numismatics at Harvard University, moderated the discussion. These internationally-recognized women from Boston’s academic, scientific, and business community have also left their mark on society, as noted by the host, Greece’s Consul General to the United States in Boston, Stratos Efthymiou.


Theodora, wife of Theophilos, ruled as regent for her son and is depicted on gold coins from the Byzantine Empire. Credit: BY-SA 3.0

Each woman contributed a unique perspective on the multifaceted but often underemphasized role of women in Greek public life throughout history.

Georganteli noted that the roles of women throughout Greece’s long history have included innovators, masters of religious diplomacy, disruptors, scholars, benefactors, and entrepreneurs.

Kalavrezou, a professor of Byzantine Art at Harvard senior research fellow at Dumbarton Oaks, is a prolific scholar and mentor, publishing on early Byzantine art and material culture.

Anna Komnena’s groundbreaking work, the “Alexiade,” Credit: Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence/CC BY 3.0

Among her areas of expertise include the relationship between church and state, the cult of the Virgin Mary and the women of Byzantium. She created the book and accompanying exhibit titled “Byzantine Women and their World” in 2002, which still serves almost twenty years later as a major reference point in the study of Byzantine women.

The professor stated that during the Greek Middle Ages, women had a dynamic presence in society that resurfaced later in the formation of the Greek state—outlasting the years of the Ottoman occupation.

Of the identifiable women we know of today from that era, she stated, those whose names we know from that culture, which lasted more than one thousand years, were only from the aristocracy.

Empress Theodora, c. 500 to June 28, 548

The only reason that we know their identities at all, Kalavrezou says, is a result of their unusual positions in society, their behavior, or political situations that required their presence. Most famous among these females was of course Empress Theodora, c. 500 – June 28, 548 who reigned over the Byzantine Empire with Emperor Justinian. In one surviving mosaic, she is pictured holding a globe, which presents “an exceptional case,” according to Kalavrezou, as it says clearly that this woman was exceptionally powerful.

Another Theodora, who lived in the ninth century, also made her permanent mark on Byzantine society—and on Christianity itself—as she was instrumental in the defeat of the iconoclasts, people who believed any artistic representations of Christ or God in any form were idolatrous.

Calling her a “rather brave figure,” the professor said she almost single-handedly put an end to iconoclasm and reintroduced paintings and mosaics in churches after many of them had been destroyed over several centuries of iconoclastic infighting.

Theodora, consort of Emperor Theophilos, 815 – 867

Theodora, who lived from 815 and died sometime after 867, was the spouse of the Byzantine emperor Theophilos, and regent of her son, Michael III, from Theophilos’ death in 842 to 855. For her restoration of the veneration of icons, which ended the Byzantine iconoclasm, she is venerated as a saint in the Eastern Orthodox Church; her Feast Day is February 11th. Several churches hold her as their patron saint.

Theodora is said to have intervened to save Lazarus Zographos from further torture under her husband. Whether their opposing religious beliefs strained their relationship is unclear, according to historians.

Amazingly there is even a written record of this amazing woman’s role as a grandmother, in the form of an illustrated chronicle called “Theoktisti,” which shows her introducing—secretly—the veneration of icons to her granddaughters, who had grown up in an era of iconoclasm.

“Here we have a record of three women, three generations who, respecting tradition, played a most important role in its religious and ceremonial rites of Orthodoxy. These were matters of fundamental importance for the ages,” Kalavrezou states.

This Theodora was even depicted on gold coins, which survive to this day, one of which shows her, her husband Theophilus, and her children all together, revering an icon that is held by a priest.

Anna Komnenos, author of the Alexiade

Another famous and amazingly accomplished woman in Greek history was the daughter of Alexis Komnenos, who in the twelfth century wrote a historic biographical text relating the many accomplishments of her father called The Alexiade. This groundbreaking work, composed by a woman, is still extant.

Kalavrezou states that the work is “unique from a female author,” although some girls even at that time did learn to read in the Byzantine world.

The account of the reign of her father, the Byzantine emperor, Alexios I Komnenos, resides today in the Laurenziana Library in Florence, Italy. The Alexiade is the most important primary source of Byzantine history of the late 11th and early 12th centuries.

Although she is best known as the author of The Alexiade, Anna played an important part in the politics of the time and attempted to depose her brother, John II Komnenos, as emperor and seize the throne herself.

Following her father’s death in 1118, Anna and her mother attempted to usurp John II Komnenos; however, her husband refused to cooperate with them, and the usurpation failed. As a result, John exiled Anna to the Kecharitomene Monastery, where she spent the rest of her life, but while she was confined there, she dedicated her life to the writing of The Alexiade.

Kassiane, writer of the “Hymn of Kassiane”

Kassiane, a contemporary of the Theodora who ended the year of iconoclasm, had gifts that were so staggering that, despite all the restrictions on women’s lives at that time, she even became a famous composer and hymnographer due to her great talents in those areas.

Still, Kalavrezou states that “few texts describe lives of ordinary women in those times in Byzantium. We take what we can from the material and visual evidence from what we have left.”

“Artifacts,” she states, “comprise independent records of an historical reality. Clothing, jewelry, household furnishings, implements, give us a sense of their individuality—which of course is very incomplete. From existing representations, we can glean a little of the activities and responsibilities of women in those days,” she says.

Ordinary women in Byzantium “handed down culture, maintained civilization”

A woman’s primary responsibility was the home. After courtship, marriage was considered a partnership, although she was solely responsible for raising the children. Her dowry always remained her property—unlike in the West, where a woman’s dowry would become the husband’s property upon marriage.

As a property owner, she had an important position in the household, Kalavrytou states. In another difference to Western culture at that time—and long afterward—divorce was even allowed if there was adultery, abuse, or if the husband had been taken captive by an enemy and had not returned after three years. In that case, or if she was widowed, she would have a right to keep her dowry.

Women were not confined to the home—as they often were during the years of Ottoman occupation in Greece much later. They routinely left the home and could work as tailors. They could also work in spinning, weaving, and selling textiles such as curtains and blankets.

The professor says there was even evidence of guild-like institutions in the eleventh century of women who worked in textiles, including the women who worked in the famous workshops of Thebes. Nursing and midwifery were also common professions, and women could be innkeepers. sellers of products in markets, and agricultural workers.

There are paintings of Byzantine women harvesting grain and grapes in the eleventh century. They could also work as hired dancers for festivities and parades. Dancing was an integral part of court festivities, the annual Panegiri and other festivals.

In conclusion, the professor stated, the passing on of traditions was one of the most important roles of women in the Byzantine world. Their independence within that world pointed to the strong role women occupied in those times.

Women fostered knowledge, beliefs, and customs and passed down from generation to generation, allowing the Byzantine tradition to survive, she said, “maintaining civilization down to the strong, intelligent individuals that we recognize today” in Greek history.

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