Medieval women had few rights anywhere. However, in the 11th century and early 12th century a number of Byzantine women held positions of great influence and consequence. In general, women had opportunities for education that the rest of Europe did not provide until centuries later.
Zoe and Theodora
The 11th century did not start out in a promising way for women. The renowned soldier and lifelong bachelor Emperor Basil II ruled. But Basil’s childlessness meant that eventually the throne went to his niece, Zoe (pictured above). Flighty and silly Zoe was not the best example of female leadership, but the Byzantine people loved her. When her adoptive son, Michael V, attempted to remove her, packing her off to a monastery, the citizens of the city revolted. After a few days of rioting, young Michael ended up blind and died 4 months later. Contemporary historians made particular mention of the women, rarely seen in public, who came out to riot against the removal of their well-loved empress.
After the death of Zoe and the last of her three husbands, her sister Theodora ruled for about a year and a half. Theodora was a more responsible ruler than Zoe, but she was elderly by then. She was also the last ruler to be buried in the Church of the Holy Apostles, next to her sister Zoe. These two women were the only two who inherited the Byzantine throne in their own right.
The next few years record little about women in leadership. Then in 1067 Constantine X Ducas died and his widow, Eudokia Makrembolitissa, became regent for their son, Michael VI. Michael was in his late teens by that time and should have been capable of ruling. The historical record says nothing about why he required a regent, but no one objected.
Maria of Alania
Michael eventually married the renowned beauty of that time, Maria of Alania. However, when left to his own devices as ruler (a painful and complicated story), he proved incapable. He eventually abdicated for the monastic life. Maria, being the mother of the heir (a young Constantine), was convinced to marry an elderly general, Nikephoros Botaneiates. Botaneiates was verging on senile and the match was not a success. Maria became concerned about her son’s welfare and decided to find a protector for him. She helped to engineer the young Alexios Comnenus onto the throne with the assistance of his mother, Anna Dalassena.
Anna Dalassena herself was a formidable woman. Alexios left her in charge of the civil running of the empire during his many absences on campaign for at least the first fifteen years of his reign. Arguably, one could argue that Anna Dalassena wielded more real power than any other medieval woman. She was also the grandmother of Anna Comnena, the first female European historian.
Beyond these leadership roles, during these years women of the upper and middle classes were taught to read, and the historical records shows women employed as physicians. They received half the pay of their male counterparts, and expected to work more hours, but it was a long time before that would change!
Women’s influence faded in the mid-12th century. Perhaps it resulted from the sway western Europeans had in the court of Manuel I Comnenus, or the vicious struggles for power after Manuel’s death. Still, for over 100 years, Byzantine women reached a pinnacle that western Europe did not reach for many more centuries.