The Classical Association in Northern Ireland finished off its 2016 programme with ‘Some Byzantine Women and Their Husbands’ delivered by Professor Theresa Urbainczyk of UCD on 15th December in the Old Staff Common Room of Queen’s University Belfast.
Specifically, Professor Urbainczyk was looking into the prominence of women in Nicetas’ history and how the historian was perhaps trying to depict that prominence as a symptom of the moral, societal and political decay of the Komenoi dynasty which eventually led to the Sack of Constantinople in 1204 by the ‘Latins’ of the Fourth Crusade and the fragmentation of the Roman Empire.
While there are other examples, the focus was on Empress Irene and Anna, wife and daughter of Alexius I Komnenos (1081-1118) and Euphrosyne, wife of Alexius III Angelos (1195-1203). The former pair would encourage Alexius I to make Anna his imperial heir despite him having sons. Reputedly the emperor pretended to be deaf or contemplative when tired of his wife’s lecturing…
Even with this nagging, the founder of the Komnenoi dynasty refused to be dissuaded from having his son John succeed him to the throne; however, that was not the end of the matter with Irene and Anna attempting unsuccessfully to supplant the newly crowned John II with Anna and her husband Nikephoros Bryennios.
The brashness of such women could only be a symptom of trouble, and it only got worse for the empire as the 12th century progressed, culminating in the “monstrous evil” (Nicetas Choniates 460) of Euphrosyne Doukaina Kamaterina, wife of Alexius III Angelos. Her initial crimes were initially having a manly spirit and an eloquent tongue, which were bad enough as it saw her essentially rule over the empire in the name of her husband. However, her crimes expanded to include magic, a love of finery and adultery, for which she was denounced by her own family and condemned to a convent. But so important had she and her family come to be to the imperial government and so weak was the character and government of Alexius III that she was released after for just 6 months. According to Nicetas, such power and influence in the hands of a women showed that the empire was on the brink.
And yet, while Nicetas might show prominent, wilful women as a symptom of imperial decline, he also has no problem with using women in a less negative light, portraying the city of Constantinople as Penelope, wife of Odysseus (Nicetas Chionates 498-499).
This potential for Nicetas presenting a moralising tale perhaps somewhat in the mould of Plutarch and his use of Homer has suggested that while Nicetas was a classicising historian, he may have intentionally limited his classicising to the Greek tradition, ignoring the Latin tradition in order to differentiate the ‘Byzantine’ Ρωμαίοι/rhomaioi/Romans from the Latin Crusaders he had just witnessed gutting the Roman Empire.
After the talk and some questions, there was some Christmas refreshment and conversation regarding whether or not other eras of major change in the Roman state were greeted with suspicion over the prominent roles of women – Lucretia at the founding of the Republic, Fulvia and Cleopatra at the end of the Republic, the Julio-Claudian women in the early Principate etc. The question was also raised if any intentional differentiating of themselves from the ‘Latin’ Crusaders by Nicetas and his fellow ‘Byzantine’ Ρωμαίοι could be seen as similar to Republican Romans intentionally changing their origin story to Aeneas and the Trojans at a time when then were at war with Greeks, Etruscans and Italics, who were their actual ancestors.
The year’s-end sees interest in the ancient world in Belfast in robust good health and a fascinating spring programme to come in 2017!