Medieval women had few rights anywhere, but in the 11th century and into the early 12th century, Byzantine women held positions of more consequence than elsewhere, and they had opportunities that women in the rest of Europe did not have until centuries later.
The 11th century did not start out in a promising way for women, with the renowned soldier and lifelong bachelor Emperor Basil II ruling. 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 she was popular with the Byzantine people. So popular that when her adoptive son, Michael V, attempted to have her removed and packed off to a monastery, the citizens of the city revolted against him and he ended up blind and died about 4 months later. Contemporary historians made particular mention of the women, rarely seen in public in Byzantium, who came out to riot against the removal of their well-liked 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 had been, but she was quite elderly at that point. She was also the last ruler to be buried in the Church of the Holy Apostles, where Constantine the Great was buried.
The next few years record little about women in leadership, until 1067 when 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 able to rule himself. The historical record says nothing about why he would have required a regent, but there were no objections either, leading us to think there had to be some good reason for it.
Michael eventually married the renowned beauty of that time, Maria of Alan. However, when left to his own devices as ruler (how that happened is complicated), he really messed up and abdicated for a monastic life. Maria, being the mother of the heir (a young Constantine), was convinced to marry an elderly general, Nicephoros Botaneiates. This match was not a success and Maria, with the assistance of Anna Dalassena, helped to engineer Anna’s son, Alexios Comnenus, onto the throne.
Anna Dalassena herself was a formidable woman. Alexios left her in charge of the civil running of the empire during his many absences for military reasons for at least the first fifteen years of his reign. Arguably, Anna Dalassena could be said to have wielded more 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 there were women employed as physicians. They were paid half what their male counterparts were paid, 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. This may have been due to 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.