In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Women in the Byzantine Empire

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Anthologies
  • Bibliographies
  • Marriage and Family
  • Women’s Professions
  • Female Literacy and Authorship
  • Female Patronage
  • Female Piety
  • Women and Law
  • Women and Medicine
  • Artistic and Literary Representations of Women
  • Ideologies about Women
  • Sexualities

Medieval Studies Women in the Byzantine Empire
Stavroula Constantinou
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 June 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0337


In premodern societies, such as Byzantium where the dominant ideology was male-centered, there was much discussion in various texts—moralist, legal, philosophical, religious, medical, and literary—about women’s weakness and inferiority, their “right” social and cultural place, and their responsibilities and rights. At the same time, epigraphic evidence and non-textual sources have much to say about actual women’s daily lives and worlds. However, systematic research on premodern women—in this case Byzantine women—did not start earlier than the 1970s, that is, the time when women’s studies emerged as an independent field. Earlier, Byzantinists (mostly male) did not consider women’s social and cultural roles as historically important. Now women’s studies have been largely replaced by gender studies, yet we are far from achieving a good understanding of Byzantine women’s roles, activities, behavior, treatment, and ideologies as determined by their origin, class, financial status, profession, and familial and health situation within a large period lasting more than a millennium and a huge territory that was changing through time. Most studies on Byzantine women concern urban and particularly Constantinopolitan wealthy women. These are chiefly individual elite women (empresses and women of the aristocracy) and nuns (mostly associated with the upper classes of Byzantine society) of the middle Byzantine period. What unifies all non-slave Byzantine women irrespective of origin and status was their responsibility to become wives, mothers, and caregivers of their children—either on their own or with the help of nurses and servants. All women were also responsible for the household and its invalid or sick members. However, Byzantine women’s familial lives have not yet received systematic scholarly attention. Even though there are many research gaps in the study of Byzantine women, existing scholarship has provided important information about their many achievements: they acted as rulers of the empire; they sustained the economy of a highly military society by running factories, mills, rural estates, and commercial enterprises; they founded monasteries and churches; they built hospitals and orphanages; they commissioned the creation of important monuments, artworks, and manuscripts; they organized literary circles; and they composed texts and music. Although they were acting in an androcentric society, Byzantine women often achieved much more than their male counterparts, a reality that renders their work even more noteworthy. The bibliography provided here constitutes an overview of studies, mostly in English, focusing on various aspects of the lives, representations, and ideologies of Byzantine women.

General Overviews

There is no up-to-date account of Byzantine women and their multifarious roles. The latest introduction, James 2008, is now more than fifteen years old and is based on scholarship that was mostly produced in the previous century. Earlier general overviews, such as Laiou 1999, Talbot 1997, Clark 1993, Herrin, et al. 1991, Laiou 1981, and Grosdidier de Matons 1967 present female roles as deriving essentially from male models, biases, and ideologies. Concerning the more recent Kalavrezou 2003, it is mostly influenced by the first wave of feminist criticism. These overviews do not thus provide insight into current research trends.

  • Clark, Gilian. Women in Late Antiquity: Pagan and Christian Lifestyles. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993.

    DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780198146759.001.0001

    This book deals with questions concerning late antique and early Byzantine women’s (3rd–6th centuries) possibilities in terms of law and morality; tolerance, prohibition, and protection; health; domesticity, and asceticism. A central argument of the book is that Christianity allowed women to renounce traditional female roles, such as those of the wife and mother, while at the same time it reinforced established ideologies about female inferiority and weakness.

  • Grosdidier de Matons, José. “La femme dans l’empire byzantine.” In Histoire Mondial de la femme. 4 vols. Edited by Pierre Grimal, 11–43. Paris: Nouvelle Librairie de France, 1967.

    This is the most complete of the earlier studies examining Byzantine women. The author discusses the legal, social, familial, ecclesiastical, and ideological position of Byzantine women.

  • Herrin, Judith, Alexander Kažhdan, and Anthony Cutler. “Women.” In The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium. 3 vols. Edited by Alexander Kažhdan, Alice-Mary Talbot, Anthony Cutler, Timothy E. Gregory, and Nancy P. Ševčenko, 2201–2204. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991.

    This short encyclopedic entry offers a very general overview on Byzantine women, their professions, and their representations in art. Furthermore, it discusses Byzantine ideologies about women.

  • James, Liz. “The Role of Women.” In The Oxford Handbook of Byzantine Studies. Edited by Elizabeth Jeffreys, John Haldon, and Robin Cormack, 643–651. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

    After offering a brief overview of 20th-century scholarship on the roles of Byzantine women, this chapter presents prevailing misogynistic and patriarchal ideologies and how these informed the lives of actual women. It points out that sources allow only a partial and biased picture of Byzantine women and their social roles. This is the most recent, complete, and systematic overview we have.

  • Kalavrezou, Ioli, ed. Byzantine Women and Their World. New Haven, CT, and London: Yale University Press, 2003.

    This volume was created to accompany an exhibition in Arthur M. Sackler Museum at Harvard University (25 October 2002 to 27 April 2003), which included around 200 objects (4th–15th centuries). The choice of the objects—personal items, luxury goods, utilitarian and religious items—was chiefly determined by their representation of women. The volume’s thematic essays discuss some of the daily and religious activities, as well as the wifely and motherly duties of Byzantine women.

  • Laiou, E. Angeliki. “The Role of Women in Byzantine Society.” Jahrbuch der Österreichischen Byzantinistik 31.1 (1981): 233–260.

    This article presents some of the roles that Byzantine women undertook in the framework of marriage and family. It also discusses women’s economic activities, the involvement of aristocratic women in politics, public affairs, property management, as well as female literacy. Finally, it examines Byzantine attitudes toward women.

  • Laiou, E. Angeliki. “Women in Byzantine Society.” In Women in Medieval Western European Culture. Edited by Linda E. Mitchell, 81–94. New York and London: Routledge, 1999.

    This chapter, which is to a great extent an updated version of Laiou 1981, shows how Byzantine women’s roles were determined by the structure of political power, law, economy, social class, and Christian ideology in relation with previous ideological models.

  • Talbot, Alice-Mary. “Women.” In The Byzantines. Translated by Thomas Dunlap, Teresa Lavender Fagan, and Charles Lambert. Edited by Guglielmo Cavallo, 117–143. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1997.

    Talbot describes aspects of Byzantine women’s lives both within and outside household. After giving a general description of different phases in women’s lives—girlhood, wifehood, motherhood, widowhood, and old age—including contraception and abortion, divorce and adultery, the author discusses women’s activities in the public domain. These activities are related to work, entertainment, piety, charity, death rituals, religious controversies, and monastic life.

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