Gender in the Byzantine Empire

Prior to the Byzantine Empire, during the time of the Roman Empire there were many Eunuchs running about the empire. Generally it was looked down upon and considered shameful from outsiders of the empire to accept the Eunuchs but this is not how the Roman Empire viewed it. They needed the extra help running the empire and were more than happy to accept them into their society.

So what is a Eunuch you might ask? Well a Eunuch are men who have been castrated usually early in their life but this was not always the case. Eunuchs were in high demand during the Roman Empire and Byzantine Empire. They were wanted mainly for having a unique vocal range due to the lack of testosterone or to hold positions in jobs that either men couldn’t be trusted with such as guarding females quarters. Since castration was illegal in the Byzantine Empire most of the Eunuchs were foreign slaves that had been castrated prior to being transported to the Empire or they were castrated illegally in secret.

Gender structures in the Byzantine Empire were quite different than they are in contemporary society. Today most of society tends to see gender as a binary male or female situation even though this is not the case and there are many different variations of gender in society. During the time of the Byzantine Empire there were the Eunuchs who were considered as a third or separate gender from male and female.

The eunuchs were slaves more often than not giving them less rights in the Byzantine Empire than the locals who lived within the Empire. Females in the empire also had less rights and were considered to be less than men in the Empire. They mostly had the roles of being housekeepers and procreating children. Domestic violence was a huge problem in families and women were not able to divorce their husbands unless the husband had been unloyal to them.

Many of these inequalities women had were changed when Theodora and Justinian came into power. Theodora was able to help alter the laws with her connections to Justinian, she knew what it was like to be a lower class woman since she had lived most of her life as such. “Theodora had a real effect on the political decisions of the empire. Justinian writes, for instance, that he consulted Theodora when he promulgated a constitution which included reforms meant to end corruption by public officials. She is credited with influencing many other reforms, including some which expanded the rights of women in divorce and property ownership, forbid exposure of unwanted infants, gave mothers some guardianship rights over their children, and forbid the killing of a wife who committed adultery” (Lewis). Therefore she made it so they were able to leave the actress profession if they felt so inclined to, women were not able to do so prior. She also made every effort she could to undermine and kill off the business of prostitution in the Empire, and she made it legal for women to divorce their husbands if they wanted to.

Even though we’ve come a long way in society to have more equal rights across all human beings there are still currently differences between genders and some genders are still not correctly being identified. I believe we can look back in history at how the Romans and Byzantines accepted and wanted the Eunuchs in their society and we can see how Theodora was able to make changes that affected women immensely in the Byzantine empire and take some advice to be more accepting to all and be able to progress our society as a whole.

Sources:

Lewis, Jone Johnson. “Theodora: Biography of 6th Century Byzantine Empress.” About Education. About Education, n.d. Web. 02 Mar. 2015. <http://womenshistory.about.com/od/medbyzantempress/a/theodora.htm>.

The Vizier. “The Vital Roles of Eunuchs in Byzantium.” Neo Byzantium . Neo Byzantium, 05
Nov. 2010. Web. 25 Feb. 2015.
<http://neobyzantium.com/thevitalrolesofeunuchsinbyzantium/>.

3 thoughts on “Gender in the Byzantine Empire

  1. Nina Knorr

    This topic is really interesting to me, because I did my paper on women’s rights in modern-day Turkey. IT seems like a decent portion of your paper focused on eunuchs, and you did a good job explaining what a eunuch is, but I don’t really understand why they were castrated? Did this also remove sexual drive? You said that they were asked to do jobs that men could not be trusted with, so I was wondering what kind of identity they were given? Were they considered something in between? What were the dynamics between eunuchs and the rest of society? I know that they were sought after, but what social class were they? Did they hold any real power in society?

    The part that connects well with my paper was your portion about Theodora, who I did not know about, because I focused on the modern. You said, “She also made every effort she could to undermine and kill off the business of prostitution in the Empire, and she made it legal for women to divorce their husbands if they wanted to,” which connects directly with my paper, because Ataturk made reforms later on to allow women who have divorced their husbands to hold the same rights as their husbands.

    You did a really fantastic job of explaining what exactly Theodora did, but I’m curious about how those new laws were actually upheld and implemented, and if they fell by the wayside. It seems like she said a lot of things, but I’m not sure how well these things were taken or used in a patriarchal society. One of my main points was that, although there were a lot of reforms made during Ataturk’s time, and violence against women in is being taken seriously, there is not yet the societal foundation to uphold those reforms, and I think that’s what could have happened with Theodora’s reforms.

    I think you also could have touched on sexuality in this paper. While I understand that gender is separate from sexuality, I think that how the Byzantine Empire identified sexualities is very interesting, and could have tied together neatly, as women– particularly concubines and courtesans– played a large role in the early Byzantine Empire, which speaks to the gender and power dynamics there as well.

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  2. Brianna Kinville

    I thought it was intriguing that you talked about the issue of gender. I am currently in Minority Report and did a final project on a religion called Sufism. Sufism is a peaceful loving religion that focuses on the spiritual self and and a love of God. It is prevalent in the Middle East. Sufism believes there is a relationship between the soul, the heart, and the spirit. Because Sufism does not focus on the physical aspects of a person, there are some male Sufi’s that believe in gender equality, or do not not think gender is important at all. Unfortunately this does not hold true for all, but I still found this fact very interesting since gender equality is a massive problem in the Middle East. As you mentioned, although gender equality has come a long way, there is a lot more progress to be made, and people still don’t fully understand the concept of gender.

    Reply
  3. Brianna Kinville

    I thought it was intriguing that you talked about the issue of gender. I am currently in Minority Report and did a final project on a religion called Sufism. Sufism is a peaceful loving religion that focuses on the spiritual self and and a love of God. It is prevalent in the Middle East. Sufism believes there is a relationship between the soul, the heart, and the spirit. Because Sufism does not focus on the physical aspects of a person, there are some male Sufi’s that believe in gender equality, or do not not think gender is important at all. Unfortunately this does not hold true for all, but I still found this fact very interesting since gender equality is a massive problem in the Middle East. As you mentioned, although gender equality has come a long way, there is a lot more progress to be made, and people still don’t fully understand the concept of gender.

    Reply

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