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Reviewed by:
  • The Empress Theodora: Partner of Justinian, and: Women in Purple: Rulers of Medieval Byzantium
  • Mary A. Valante (bio)
The Empress Theodora: Partner of Justinian by James Allan Evans. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002, 172 pp., $29.95.
Women in Purple: Rulers of Medieval Byzantium by Judith Herrin. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002, 320 pp., $29.95.

Very little has been written about Byzantine empresses recently. For example, despite the appeal of Theodora, due to the scandalous way she is presented in the primary sources, no monograph has been written about her in English for more than 20 years. That said, Evans's work is by far the more satisfying of the two. Despite what is implied by the title, Herrin's monograph is not an investigation of the roles of Byzantine empresses; instead, it is about three empresses in the eighth and ninth centuries, two of whom reigned and one who did not, and especially their contributions to the debate on iconoclasm which was raging in the East at the time.

Herrin identifies the military and church as the most important concerns of Byzantine emperors during this period. She focuses on iconoclasm and the Church because, she says, female rulers, like their male counterparts could order generals to lead armies, but they had little ability to influence the Church unless they insisted on taking such powers for themselves. Since there is in fact a long tradition of women influencing the Church—founding churches and monasteries, becoming powerful [End Page 218] abbesses, influencing important secular or ecclesiastical men—this supposition cannot be maintained. However, the impact of at least two of the empresses in question on iconoclasm in the East is clearly demonstrated, even if it was well known before this work.

Like Herrin, Evans argues that Theodora's most important contribution was ecclesiastical. His grasp of the sources is impeccable, as demonstrated by his refusal to fall into the traps of other scholars—reviling Theodora as did the contemporary historian Procopius or elevating her to the emperor's co-ruler. Instead, here is a balanced portrait of a lowborn woman with questionable background who rose to power and influence during a crucial period of history. He is always careful to analyze the agendas of the primary source authors. For example, the famous Nika revolt—for which Theodora is often credited with saving Justinian's throne—is downplayed, as is Theodora's supposed influence on foreign policy.

The empresses Herrin discusses are Irene, Euphrosyne, and a ninth-century Theodora, not the same one discussed by Evans. Irene was married to the iconoclast emperor Leo IV, who died in 780. Irene then took over rule of the empire on behalf of her nine-year-old son, Constantine. At first she was his regent and co-ruler, and when Constantine came of age Irene refused to allow him to rule. He was able to displace her, though after two years he was forced to bring her back to court. A few years later she overthrew her own son, had him blinded, and once again began to reign, this time alone. Interestingly, it is not these power struggles that Herrin sees as Irene's most valuable contribution to the definition of empress. Instead, it is her involvement in the Seventh Ecumenical Council that Herrin views as Irene's most lasting contribution. Because the Council declared iconoclasm a heresy and restored the worship of icons to the Eastern Church, Irene effectively overthrew the policies of her three male predecessors.

The next empress, Euphrosyne, is the least well known of the three, and for good reason. Herrin herself admits that there is very little mention of her in any of the sources for the period. Euphrosyne is Irene's granddaughter who marries into a later dynasty to help legitimize it. But she never rules in her own right, is never regent, and her role in the anti-iconoclast movement is very unclear. Her stepson, the next emperor, is another iconoclast who marries a woman named Theodora. Theodora's mother is usually credited with teaching a love of icons to the next generation, but Herrin argues that Euphrosyne did so first. However, there...


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