- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 17, 2002

Empress Irene wore the purple robes reserved for royalty. She bore her only son, heir to the Byzantine crown, in the Porphyra, a special chamber lined with purple. And a generation later, when her son had turned against her, Irene had him blinded his eyes stabbed out in the same Porphyra, his birthplace. Such was the court of Byzantium during the late-8th century A.D. The time and place come alive for us today in "Women in Purple: Rulers of Medieval Byzantium," a work of remarkable scholarship by Judith Herrin, professor of Late Antique and Byzantine Studies in King's College, London. She has examined the lives of three formidable women contemporaries of Charlemagne and his heirs who wielded the power of Second Rome.
Consider the adjective "Byzantine." It can turn lexicographers into poets as the word modifies architecture ("the richness of lace") and art ("perpetually fresh and living") and government ("devious … deceitful … a surreptitious manner of operation"). In every sense, the three empresses Irene, Euphrosyne, and Theodora touched these things Byzantine. Each one was engaged in the construction of buildings, the veneration of art, and the intriuges of statecraft. Two of them were even acclaimed as saints, a challenging feat in such an ambiance.
The author begins with Irene, a teenage girl whose name meant "peace." She came from Athens and was selected by Emperor Constantine V as the bride for his young son and heir Leo. Constantine V was a bold warrior, intent on spreading the power of his Syrian dynasty and strengthening his control in Greece. He had also become a zealous iconoclast, thanks to a curious geological event beneath the Aegean Sea in the year A.D. 726.
"A volcano below the seabed threw up a new island … causing the sky to be darkened by solidifying lamps of lava for three days," as the author describes it. "In the Middle Ages such natural phenomena were understood as divine warnings." Court advisors said that God was vexed by Christian idolatry, the veneration of icons. This interpretation, the author asserts, "was surely influenced by the Arab prohibition of such objects." And indeed, "people put great faith in the power of icons to heal, to protect homes, and shield cities from attack… . It was only a short step from praying to icons for intercession to … adoring such material objects."
The author points out parallels of the iconoclasts with Oliver Cromwell's Puritans, and we could add the recent destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas by the Taliban. In any case, Constantine V was a convinced iconoclast whose policies "intensified the separation of Latin Rome from Greek Constantinople."
Constantine V had already named his son Leo as his co-emperor. With her wedding, young Irene became empress. The author describes in great detail, the rituals of these ceremonies so important in the court, the "kissing of the knees," the chants and acclamations, the wedding banquet in the Hall of the Nineteen Couches. Style and substance were never distant in old Byzantium.
Thirteen months after her wedding, Irene gave birth to a son, and four years later old Constantine was wounded in battle and died. The new emperor, Leo IV, continued to suppress the worship of icons. But not for long. He died at the age of 30 under mysterious circumstances. Irene, at 25, a widow and mother of a nine-year-old emperor, began to rule the empire as a member of the Regency Council.
From the first, Irene "demonstrated a flair for publicity." She put down rebellions, had the plotters scourged, tonsured, and banished. Some were forced into clerical robes, which meant that they could not marry. Others she blinded. She promoted the eunuchs from her household staff. And, though castration was forbidden in the empire, the imported eunuchs the "beardless men" or third sex could even serve as priests in Byzantium. Irene placed her loyal eunuchs in charge of her treasury and her armed forces. And most conspicuously, she brought back the veneration of icons.
When her son tried to claim his right to rule the empire, Irene out-maneuvered him and finally foreclosed his future at age 26 by having him blinded. Irene ruled the empire as sole emperor (she used the masculine form of the word) for five years. But she had made enemies. A palace coup removed her and she went into exile until her death at some 50 years of age. Still, Irene had established the precedent of women rulers.
And rule they did. Irene's granddaughter was Euphrosyne (her name meant "joy"), born to an empress whose husband had banished her and forced her into a nunnery. It was not a joyous life. Some of the nuns ate only bread and water. "Their basic clothing was made of rough goat hair; they only owned one robe and it was changed once a year at Easter. Sometimes they reclined on stones at night, not even lying down."
Euphrosyne's father, the Emperor Constatnine VI, lost a war and his life in a battle against the Bulgars. (The emperor's skull was said to have been mounted in a silver cup so Slavonic tribes could drink to other victories over the Byzantines.) A luckless successor was later murdered in the palace chapel on a Christmas Day while singing the Christmas liturgy. And, in turn, that emperor's successor, the warrior Michael II, a widower with one small son, came to power with no royal connections. His remedy was to marry the royal Euphrosyne. ("Her genes are her fortune," notes the author.)
So, returning to court from the nunnery where she had lived with her mother, Euphrosyne became empress and stepmother to Michael's young son. Eight years later, Michael II died peacefully in bed, leaving his crown and scepter to his son Theophilos the first peaceful transition of power in half a century. The widowed Empress Euphrosyne ruled during a regency, then set about selecting a wife for her stepson. By means of a bride-show actually a kind of beauty contest Euphrosyne arranged for Theophilos to "choose" the beautiful Theodora, our third woman in purple, and a dedicated devotee to icons. Euphrosyne then gracefully, regally retired once again to her nunnery.
The beautiful Theodora came from Paphlagonia, a rustic area that was the butt of many earthy jokes.(The region was famous, notes the author, for raising pigs and for supplying the court with eunuchs.) Whatever her origins, Theodora proved a devoted consort for the emperor. She quickly bore him three daughters, then a son who died quite young, two more daughters and at last another son. She supported her iconoclast husband loyally until his death from dysentery at age 29. Then as sthe mother of the 2-year-old Emperor Michael III, she directed the Regency toward a restoration of icons.
Theodora announced that her dying husband had repented on his deathbed, that indeed he had become converted to the power of icons.
The iconoclasts were then eased out of power in the church; the exiled iconophiles returned. The empress skillfully maneuvered her court; she mastered both policy and pageantry; and she dealt with picturesquely named officials: the Keeper of the Ink Pot, Leo the Mathematician, and John the Grammarian. Her promotion of missionary work led the holy brothers Cyril and Methodios to devise an alphabet the Cyrillic to convert Bulgars to Christianity. No wonder that Theodora's tomb would become the center of a cult, and that she would be remembered as a saint in the Orthodox Church.
Throughout her book, the author explains the court intrigues and theological debates with outstanding clarity. She evaluates sources and mediates scholarly quarrels sometimes in excess.
She expresses her resentment of ancient chroniclers and "male historians" who refer to an empress of "manly nobility in feminine garb," calling such expressions "a typically sexist formulation." She notes that "Church Fathers, theologians, monastic leaders and lay writers all men had … set limits on what women were permitted to do." She notes that "medieval men, who kept most of the records, did not share our twenty-first century interest in the female half of humanity." Quite true. But it is often difficult to reform the past.
Princeton University Press has helpfully included full color reproductions of historic icons, coins, and other artifacts, along with a map, a family tree of the rulers, notes, and bibliography.
Perhaps the author's most valuable contribution is her evaluation of the times and her informed conjectures. "Byzantium's successful resistance to Islam in the East … permitted the rise of western Christendom." This line of defense "provided the framework for first feudalism and then the Renaissance."
Not a bad legacy from the purple-robed rulers of old Byzantium.

Bart McDowell is the author of "Inside the Vatican," published by the National Geographic society.

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