Holy Mothers of Orthodoxy

by

Eva Catafygiotu Topping


In Their Own Write

As in all patriarchal societies, so in Byzantium. Letters and learning were reserved for men only. Sentenced to subordination and silence by societal and ecclesial traditions, most Byzantine women did not know how to read and write.

Nor were they encouraged to write books. In fourth-century cosmopolitan Alexandria, a prominent Christian teacher and theologian shuddered at the thought of female authors. Women, Didymos declared, should be prohibited from writing books "in their own right." Seventeen years after his death a mob of monks lynched Hypatia of Alexandria, the brilliant author of books on astronomy, philosophy and mathematics. Her murder occurred during Great Lent, 415.

Hence in the history of Byzantine literature the names of women are conspicuously rare. These few women writers belonged to the upper strata of society. They were fortunate to have been given an education. I call your attention to two of this small select company.

The first is Eudokia of Byzantium, 421-460. The daughter of a pagan professor she was named Athenais after the city of her birth. From her father, Leontios, and two of his colleagues, Athenais received a classical Greek education. Despite the ancient belief that silence is woman's most sublime virtue, she was also trained in the art of public speaking.

Shortly before her marriage in 421 to the emperor Theodosios II, the pagan Athenais was baptized a Christian and given the name Eudokia. Keenly interested now in theology, Empress Eudokia befriended monks, nuns and clergy. She built churches in Constantinople and Jerusalem, as well as hospitals, rest homes and shelters for the sick and homeless. For her eusebia and philanthropia Eudokia was canonized and is commemorated on Aug. 13.

This educated Byzantine basilissa championed Greek culture in the Queen City. An enthusiastic patron of academics, poets and men of letters, she saw to it that the Greek curriculum at the University of Constantinople was expanded. Eudokia was herself a woman of letters, a poet and orator. Seated on a golden throne in Antioch, she delivered a memorable speech before the senate. And although women were not supposed to write books, this literary empress, a true daughter of Athens, wrote several. She composed a poetic version of the first eight books of the Old Testament, and of the Prophets Zechariah and Daniel. She is the author of a hagiographical poem on the martyrdom of St. Kyprianos. In another book written in Homeric verses St. Eudokia related the life and miracles of Christ. Thus as a writer she combined the old with the new, classical Greek culture and Christian teachings.

Our second writer is Anna Komnene, the world's first woman historian. The eldest child of Emperor Alexios I, she was born in Constantinople on Dec. 2, 1083. This learned imperial princess died sometime after 1148 in the convent Kecharitomene, where in enforced retirement from court politics she had lived for over thirty years and where she wrote the Alexiad, the history of her father's long reign (1081-1118).

Anna Komnene was probably the most intellectual and best educated woman in the Byzantine millennium. In the Alexiad she repeatedly thanks her parents for educating her. She boasted of her great "zeal for learning" and of the purity of her Greek. This Byzantine bluestocking looked down her imperial nose at barbarians who did not know Greek and at Greeks who did not speak Greek as well as she did. Indeed she spent most of her life studying and learning. The pages of her history document her knowledge of the Bible, theology, philosophy, history, medicine, rhetoric, mathematics and classical poetry, especially Homer.

Although she failed in her attempt to become empress of Byzantium, Anna Komnene succeeded in becoming the "golden queen" of its intelligentsia. She turned her apartments in the convent into an institute for advanced studies. There the scholarly princess presided over a circle of the empire's most original theologians, philosophy and men of letters, one of whom compared her to a bright comet appearing among fixed stars.

By any standards Empress Eudokia and Princess Anna Komnene were remarkable women. Called an "astonishing woman," Anna wrote an important history "in her own write." And "in her own write," Eudokia wrote poetry. Both were gifted and fortunate in the circumstances of their birth into the privileged classes of Byzantine society. Thus they were able to cultivate their talents, to enrich their minds with the heritage of ancient Greece and in their own right to write books, expressing in new ways the Christian Greek ideals of culture.