Theoctista (c. 740–c. 802)

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Theoctista (c. 740–c. 802)

Byzantine nun whose religious scruples helped to bring about the downfall of Emperor Constantine VI. Born around 740; died around 802; daughter of a Byzantine bureaucrat; married Photinus; children: three sons, Theodore, Joseph and Euthymius; one daughter (name unknown).

Born in Byzantium around 740, Theoctista was seven years old when her mother and her father, a Byzantine bureaucrat, died of plague. An uncle, an employee of the imperial treasury, raised Theoctista, her older brother Plato, and their sister (name unknown). Plato received the requisite education for a post in the civil service, and initially pursued such a career. He did not, however, remain a bureaucrat for long, preferring instead the monastic life. Theoctista and her sister received little formal schooling, but their uncle arranged suitable marriages for both. Theoctista's husband Photinus was a colleague of her uncle in the treasury. Their marriage produced three sons—Theodore, Joseph and Euthymius—and a daughter (name unknown). According to Theodore (who wrote his mother's eulogy at the time of her death), Theoctista was modest, virtuous, devout, ran a good house, took good care of her family, and never coveted material baubles. Theoctista was also generous to the underprivileged and to her servants, although when the latter broke the rules of the house, Theodore admitted, she could be excessively stern. Theodore also noted his mother's energy, willfulness, and ambitions for her children, especially her sons. Theoctista not only stressed the education of her children, she was also personally involved in it after first educating herself. After raising her children, however, Theoctista fully embraced her spiritual side by convincing Photinus that they should henceforth live chastely, as if brother and sister instead of husband and wife.

Having always been pious, Theoctista was greatly affected by the Iconoclastic Controversy which raged throughout her entire lifetime. This dispute revolved around the use of icons as aids to religious education. In 726, the Byzantine emperor Leo III had proclaimed that all icons were really nothing more than idols which the religiously ignorant were physically worshiping. He then banned their use throughout his realm and encouraged their destruction. Icons, however, had their defenders, including popes in Rome and monks throughout the Byzantine east, so a struggle ensued over their use and even their continued existence. Despite the widespread unrest which Leo III's iconoclastic attitude created, his immediate successors continued to support that ban, including Leo IV (r. 775–780), even though that emperor was not as virulently iconoclastic as had been his father and grandfather. At least part of the reason why Leo IV began to soften the iconoclastic fervor of his predecessors was the fact that his wife and empress Irene of Athens was herself a devotee of icons and an ally of the monks who stood steadfast against the destruction of religious images. When Leo IV died, his and Irene's son, Constantine VI, was only ten. Irene became her son's regent, and was even recognized as his co-emperor. Her accession was challenged by an iconoclastic faction, but she suppressed the revolt which followed and pushed for the rehabilitation of icons. When she did this, many who had not been welcome in Constantinople when iconoclasm had been imperial policy returned to the capital and its court. One of these was Theoctista's brother Plato, by that time a monk of some standing.

The reunion with her brother energized Theoctista, whose house was thrown open to icon-venerating monks. Further, her entire family—upon her insistence—rededicated themselves to the devotion of God. As one (including even three of Photinus' brothers), the family renounced worldliness and embraced a religious life. Under Plato's influence, Theoctista sold most of the property she had inherited from her parents, as well as what she and Photinus had amassed together. The proceeds thus collected were mostly distributed to the poor. Theoctista then swore to live a religious life and retired with the rest of her family (except, notably, her sister) to an estate at Saccudium in Bithynia which had not been liquidated. There, under Plato's rule, a monastery was founded where all things feminine (including animals) were banned, except Theoctista, her daughter, and another female relative. Although these women were allowed to reside on the property under Plato's authority, they agreed to live somewhat apart from the others so as to intrude as little as possible upon the masculine enclave. After living for a while under such conditions, Theoctista decided to enter an established convent. She had difficulty with her fellow nuns, however, and was required to leave the convent, at which time she returned to the authority of her brother.

There she lived, until Constantine VI (now an adult in the process of trying to assert his authority against the continued influence of his mother) sought to divorce his first wife Maria of Amnia to marry Theodota , both a woman of the court and a close relative of Theoctista. Since divorce was not religiously permitted unless there was grave cause, Constantine accused Maria of trying to poison him. The charge, however, was doubted by many, including the community at Saccudium which felt especially scandalized by the whole affair since the object of the emperor's passion was a member of Theoctista's family. Constantine initially attempted to placate the community, which was now led jointly by Theoctista's son Theodore and Plato, but when it proved adamant in its opposition to the marriage, the emperor had Plato arrested and Theodore (and others) beaten. In addition, the Saccudium community was dispersed, and its leaders sent to Thessaloniki in exile. Although she managed to stay with Plato and Theodore for awhile (against the imperial will) in order to console them, Theoctista was eventually forced to take up residence in Constantinople. There she did everything she could to raise opposition to Constantine and to maintain contact with her exiled family. Constantine imprisoned Theoctista for her continuing opposition, but by then her punishment only served to make a martyr of her in the eyes of the capital's masses. In 797, Irene of Athens staged a coup which toppled Constantine from the throne and ended the crisis.

Freed by Irene, Theoctista returned to Saccudium where she lived such an ascetic life that it even embarrassed her son Theodore. Nevertheless, she continued to care for her family and to use what little of her wealth remained to do good works. Theodore claimed that in her old age, Theoctista received the gift of prophecy—at least she is said to have correctly predicted that Photinus, Euthymius, and her daughter would all die before she did. Bereft of family when she perished (since Theodore was away on business), Theoctista died, probably in 802.

William Greenwalt , Associate Professor of Classical History, Santa Clara University, Santa Clara, California

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Theoctista (c. 740–c. 802)

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