Dr. A.L . McClanan

title.none: Garland, Byzantine Empresses (McClanan)

identifier.other: baj9928.0007.005 00.07.05

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Dr. A.L . McClanan , Portland State,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2000

identifier.citation: Garland, Lynda. Byzantine Empresses: Women and Power in Byzantium, A. D. 527-1204. London: Routledge, 1999. Pp. vii, 343. $45.00. ISBN: 0-415-14688-7.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 00.07.05

Garland, Lynda. Byzantine Empresses: Women and Power in Byzantium, A. D. 527-1204. London: Routledge, 1999. Pp. vii, 343. $45.00. ISBN: 0-415-14688-7.

Reviewed by:

Dr. A.L . McClanan
Portland State

Lynda Garland apparently loves a good story, and this attribute yields many of the greatest strengths and weakness of her recent book, Byzantine Empresses, Women and Power in Byzantium A.D. 527-1204. Its historical timeframe extends from the era of Theodora, the wife of Justinian, until the moment before the savage conquest of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusade. The Epilogue briefly delineates the final gasp of the empire*s existence and concludes in the fifteenth century. This book seems aimed at a general audience, for its lively discussion of this group of women could well serve to open up the field to interested laypeople. It is the first attempt at an overview of this sort and its ambitious scope leaves the work open to the predictable pitfalls of such a wide-ranging project.

This Australian philologist*s work aims to fill a large gap in existing scholarship, since arguably the field of Byzantine studies seems to an unusual degree defined more by articles rather than books. This lack of synthetic works offers few appealing gateways into the field for a newcomer. Given the relative infamy of the sixth-century Empress Theodora, who has been the subject of more biographies in the twentieth century than any other Byzantine historical figure, the topic seems well-chosen for this sort of cross-over study. Earlier general works on the subject of Byzantine imperial and aristocratic women, such as those by Diehl or Nicols, consist of isolated case studies with no attempt at a continuous historical narrative. Garland adopts their style of biographical portrait to her wider purview. The paucity of more wide-reaching work on the subject is evident even in the fact, pointed out by Michael McCormick several years ago, that we did not even have a list of Byzantine empresses. In a very clear fashion Garland has now answered that need in both a helpful table of Byzantine rulers and their known spouses that extends from the fourth century with Constantine the Great until the fall of the empire in 1453 under Constantine XI. At several places the table also includes the names of mothers, daughters and daughters-in law when significant. Likewise the set of genealogical charts elucidate some of the complexities of Early and Middle Byzantine imperial lineage.

To begin the body of the work, Garland delves with enthusiasm into recounting the historian Procopius' scurrilous anecdotes from Theodora*s pre-imperial life, and, although it is cited, neglects the implications of work by scholars such as Averil Cameron in evaluating obvious smear tactics. She repeats as fact, for instance, Procopius' sneering insinuation that Theodora*s sexual appetites were so rapacious she would copulate with the entire constituency of a dinner party and their servants (the only limits to Garland*s credulity seem to be that she leaves out the Procopius' claim that Theodora then immediately repeated this feat). Garland*s seeming gullibility when faced with the predictable maneuvers of invective appear also in her ready acceptance of similar tropes used in the case of Helena, mother of Constantine the Great. These parallels are typical of the kind of juxtaposition that this project often yields, and that will now no doubt stimulate a great deal of further historical analysis of broader trends.

The author is more attuned to the biases framing the sources for the Theodora*s niece and successor to the role of empress, Sophia, who enjoyed an exceptional range of political powers in the wake of her husband*s mental illness. The discussion of the Syriac text of John of Ephesus is quite illuminating, and she does a good job of placing Sophia and Justin II in the context of religious controversies of the time. The preceding coverage of the same dimension of Theodora and Justinian*s rule is similarly balanced and insightful. Garland also makes an important corrective to the interpretation of Sophia*s tenacious grip on the title of augusta, sensibly asserting that the main issue was maintaining status. She slips back into the other framework later, though, in her analysis of Zoe Porphyrogenneta. At a point such as that it might be useful to then think about how these controversies play into an institutional history of the role of augusta, and pursue some of the possibilities of that status. Likewise a bone of contention in that debate was the service of the court of women, yet there is remarkably little consideration of the empress' court in this work. The opportunity for this discussion is also tantalizingly presented later in the mention of Maria of Alania holding an 'alternative' court in the Mangana Palace. The reader encounters one of the book*s gaps as the text skips from Sophia to Martina, in this case divided by only a few years. The following jump from Martina to Irene is more disconcerting, for it spans more than a century. The textual sources on empresses, as on most subjects, are limited during this period sometimes termed the Byzantine "Dark Ages," but some kind of a bridge indicating the paltry scraps known would help round out the work and make sense of the processes of historical change.

The discussion of the eighth-century Empress Irene, ardent supporter of icons, poses similar problems. In her discussion of the brideshow, a practice in which the future Byzantine empress was supposedly chosen in a kind of beauty pageant, she relegates the main point of controversy to a footnote. Several significant scholars such as Speck and Ryden have argued that the peculiar custom is merely a literary invention. Although I concur with Garland that brideshows in some form did occur, the weight of the debate is such that it needs to be addressed more expansively. Her consideration of Irene maintains the consistently strong treatment of numismatic and sigillographic evidence to support points based on textual evidence. Most of the illustrations in the work are coins, and Garland carefully utilizes both the inscription and image to corroborate her claims.

As she moves into the Middle Byzantine era following Iconoclasm, Garland shifts onto surer footing, for this period is more within the purview of her previous publications in the field. She admirably utilizes at several points more popular sources, such as songs commenting on the tenth-century Nikephoros and the eleventh-century Zoe Porphyrogenneta, which offer a glimpse of an entirely different perspective on these imperial intrigues. Because these sources are less familiar, their coverage would benefit from further study in these terms. In her use of visual evidence she also makes a valiant attempt to incorporate a broader range of material, with varying degrees of success. These interpretations are sometimes hampered by an anachronistic tendency to view the images as portraits in a more modern sense, such as Maria of Antioch*s depiction in the Church of Hagia Sophia being taken as a straightforward rendering of her person. Just as in the case of the conventional language of court rhetoric, these images are schooled by highly traditional norms. This study of type could be usefully addressed in the context of a fuller introduction or conclusion, instead of the cursory Epilogue given. Some prominent themes of this book, such as the political methods of Byzantine empresses characterized as underhanded by Garland, could likewise be revisited in some of the terms proposed in Leslie Peirce*s superb study of Ottoman imperial women, The Imperial Harem. To what extent do modern distinctions of appropriate boundaries between the public and private frame the way medieval court realities of power are depicted?

Inevitably an attempt to bring together so many sources is somewhat uneven in its coverage, but Byzantine Empresses' scope deserves praise. This book opens up the field effectively to further work and manages to marshal together a great range of types of sources from a daunting chronological spread. Some of the benefits of such an overarching study remain to be tapped, and the implications of this project for understanding issues of the institutional history of the position and longstanding conventions of representation now warrant additional research.