views updated Jun 27 2018


The civilization of Byzantium, centered on Constantinople (modern Istanbul), was unquestionably patriarchal throughout its long history (330–1453), and Byzantium's self-appointed role as the preserver of Christian Orthodoxy led to a focus on virginity, celibacy, and asceticism as the highest social ideals.


Total sexual abstinence was always considered the highest state. The early church maintained an order of virgins as a class, and female ascetics would generally take a vow of perpetual virginity. The same standard of virginity existed for holy men, though self-castration for the purposes of moral purity was considered a sin. Monks and nuns, of course, did not marry, though it was not uncommon for men and women to marry young and then separate to different monastic institutions after their children had grown up. Priests and deacons were allowed to have wives, provided that they married prior to taking orders; bishops had to separate from their wives before their appointment, and their wives had to retire to a monastery. A priest was not allowed to remarry after his wife's death. Double monasteries, separate communities of men and women within the same institution, initially common, were finally prohibited in the eighth century because of the dangers caused by the proximity of monks and nuns.

Although all monastics were expected to follow an ascetic regime, it could be taken to extremes by hermits and stylites (pillar dwellers), who were committed not only to celibacy and fasting but to mortifying their flesh with hairshirts and chains, self-flagellation, sleeping on the floor or in caves, and continual prayer in pursuit of attaining apatheia (or freedom from emotion). Such ascetics (women in early Byzantium as well as men) frequently became saints and are shown as totally immune to sexual temptation. The true holy man is thus capable of indifference even to female nudity, and in hagiography, women often make sexual advances to the holy man, in real life or in dreams, to corrupt him by their devilish wiles. The naked body is seldom depicted in art, and Byzantine costume was careful to conceal what lay beneath.


Some of the more fundamentalist Christian sects, such as the Marcionites and Gnostics, considered marriage contrary to the message of the Gospels and as the work of the devil. Mainstream Orthodoxy, however, worked out a compromise between the total rejection of marriage and the type of free marriage normal in the late Roman Empire. The church fathers decreed that marriage was a divine institution (though inferior to celibacy) instituted for the procreation of children and the prevention of fornication. Girls could marry at the age of twelve (though this was not the norm) and boys from fourteen; parental consent was essential. Women (and ideally men) were expected to preserve physical virginity until their wedding night; when possible, to avoid seduction, daughters were kept segregated and chaperoned, meeting only the men of their own family.

Second marriages were permitted a decent interval after the death of a spouse, but a third was generally considered undesirable (St. Basil the Great [c. 329–379] termed a third marriage as prostitution) and was only permissible under certain circumstances (such as childlessness). Third marriages were legislated against by certain emperors, such as Leo VI (r. 886–912)—who, in order to have a legitimate heir, was later in the embarrassing position of himself taking a fourth wife in the teeth of monastic opposition. Divorce was increasingly restricted throughout the empire, and from the eighth century was only permissible on the grounds of a wife's adultery, attempted poisoning, or the lengthy impotence of the husband. The late Roman practice of concubinage was considered as quasi-prostitution and was abolished by Leo VI, though in practice it still continued in some areas. Punishments for adultery could vary, but the eighth-century law code, the Ekloga, specified that the adulterous couple should have their noses cut off, and the woman could be confined in a monastery.

Despite this moral code, immorality and mistresses were often rife at the imperial court and were little frowned on by the church as long as they did not threaten the sacred institution of marriage. The Moechian (adulterous) controversy sparked when Constantine VI (r. 780–797) divorced Maria Amnia and married his mistress, Theodote; the situation was unusual in that it provoked extreme monastic opposition, and many churchmen con-sidered the remarriage uncanonical. Constantine's mother, Irene, later used his unpopularity over this as a factor in deposing and blinding him and ruling on her own account (797–802). But emperors, married or unmarried, often publicly kept mistresses. Leo VI married two of his mistresses after the death of his first and third wives, and Constantine IX Monomachos (r. 1042–1055) was nearly lynched in 1044 because the people thought he intended to divorce or exile his elderly wife, Zoe, in favor of his mistress, Maria Skleraina. Illegitimate children could also be recognized at court. Manuel I Komnenos (r. 1143–1180), whose mistress (and niece), Theodora, had a retinue greater than that of the empress, gave his illegitimate son by her high rank at court in default of a legitimate heir. This was not an unknown practice and, under the Palaiologue dynasty (1259–1453), illegitimate daughters were frequently married to Asian rulers, such as Turks and Mongols, as dynastic pawns.


On the streets of the capital itself, prostitution remained a stable feature of Byzantine society, and prostitutes could be found both in organized brothels and in the inns, baths, theaters, and hippodrome (actresses and other female entertainers being considered prostitutes by definition). The church regularly outlawed prostitution, and emperors attempted to provide protection and escape, such as houses of repentance, for those girls forced into it, but it was never eradicated. The empress Theodora (wife of Justinian, 508–548), herself an ex-hippodrome performer, founded the Monastery of Repentance for such unfortunates in the sixth century, and saints' lives told of repentant prostitutes attaining sanctity, such as Pelagia the Harlot and Mary of Egypt, following the exemplum of Mary Magdalene.


The family was the fundamental unit of Byzantine society, and though—because of the idealization of celibacy, attitudes toward women were ambivalent—wives and mothers were increasingly seen as playing a decisive role within the household. Unless women went into monastic life, their major preoccupations were expected to be marriage and children. Women in theory were a marginalized group not to be seen or heard in public, and segregation of the sexes was the ideal, but this seldom took place in practice. The women's quarters in the palace and noble homes were not areas to which women were confined but where they could enjoy some privacy and engage in female occupations such as spinning and weaving. While these areas were generally staffed with eunuchs, males were not excluded, but those from outside the immediate family would not enter without invitation. The majority of the female population was often out in public and mingling on the streets as part of their daily routine, and women were deeply involved in retail trade. Aristocratic women could be shop owners or supervise a workshop in their home, and they were expected to take an active role in the maintenance of their household and supervision of family, servants, and property. Byzantine women also had very important rights: A woman possessed her dowry and daughters could inherit equally with their brothers in cases of intestate succession.

Whatever their social status, within the church women were prohibited from giving instruction or from holding any priestly functions. However, the church acknowledged that women were spiritually equal to men, and the Theotokos (Mary, the God-bearer) was always a central figure in the devotion of both men and women. Women, moreover, could play an important role as abbesses, and noble ladies frequently founded monasteries to which they could retire upon widowhood.


Byzantium also possessed a third gender: that of eunuchs, a class inherited from the late Roman Empire and from the civilizations of Asia. They could play an important part at court and in the church (and even in the army). Certain high positions within the palace hierarchy, such as that of the Grand Chamberlain, were reserved for eunuchs, who could also be found working in aristocratic families. Considered trustworthy because they were unable to take the throne and distinguished by their marked physical characteristics, they maintained a high profile in the palace, including the women's quarters, and generally acted as the officials of ruling and regent empresses as well as for most emperors prior to the late eleventh century. Although legislation banned castration, the operation was often performed on children and adults—in the case of children, sometimes by their own families to ensure them a glittering future at court. Illegitimate children within the royal family—such as Basil the Nothos (Illegitimate), son of Romanos I (r. 920–944)—could be castrated and promoted through the bureaucracy to work alongside the future emperor, their legitimate half brother. Other eunuchs were imported from the Caucasus and the Slav and Arab worlds. Eunuchs were in charge of the imperial bureaucracy until the late eleventh century.

Eunuchs are often linked to the practice of homosexuality and, in sharp contrast to the generally laissez faire attitude toward extramarital relationships, church fathers denounced this as the sin of sodomy. It could be punishable by death according to criminal law. Homosexual practices are documented in both male and female monasteries, and several monastic institutions refused access to beardless youths or eunuchs to avoid temptation for the monks, and they also tried to limit physical contact between members of the monastic community. However, there were monasteries especially for eunuchs: the monastery of St. Lazaros in Constantinople was restricted to eunuchs by Leo VI when emperor, and there were other communities of eunuch monks at various periods. Eunuchs were prominent as bishops, abbots, and patriarchs, the last being Eustratios Garidas (r. 1081–1084).


In general, erotic or romantic love between the sexes was viewed with suspicion. Indeed, sexuality and carnal love were seen in Byzantium as inspired by the devil and as tending to lead to fornication, and worse yet, adultery. But conjugal love was praised, though the church fathers, often recommended limitations on conjugal sex. The Byzantines knew of erotic literary genres. The ancient romances continued to be read in Byzantium, though episodes of extramarital sex within them are severely criticized, and Byzantine readers seemed to have interpreted these works as metaphorical descriptions of the soul's struggle for salvation. Similarly, the terminology of erotic love is often transferred to the relationship between God and man. The romance as a literary genre, however, reappears in the twelfth century, perhaps influenced by contacts with European literature during the crusades, whereas more popular, orally transmitted works from the fourteenth century adapt European plots and love themes into a Byzantine setting. It can therefore be assumed that the later Byzantine public, literate or illiterate, had a taste for love stories and fictional romances despite the negative attitude toward sexuality that prevailed in Byzantium.


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                                                  Lynda Garland


views updated Jun 08 2018

Byzantium an ancient Greek city, founded in the 7th century bc, at the southern end of the Bosporus, site of the modern city of Istanbul. It was rebuilt by Constantine the Great in ad 324–30 as Constantinople.