Byzantine bride-shows: mothers dominate sons in choosing wives

bride show in 19th-century Russia

A seldom-recognized historical antecedent to today’s beauty pageants is bride-shows that occurred early in the Byzantine Empire. Byzantine bride-shows selected from a wide-ranging search the bride for the Emperor or the Emperor’s heir. After becoming Empress, she sometimes went on to rule in her own right. The Byzantine bride-show thus provided a remarkably open opportunity for a woman to gain a place at the top of society.[1] In relation to ordinary person’s lives, Byzantine bride-shows suggest risks in a mother dominating the choice of her son’s wife even in a relatively tolerant society.

Men in pursuing intimate relationships are usually attracted to beautiful women. Today, that preference tends to be disparaged. For being attracted to a woman who was not fat, one young man recently was called bigoted and mean, and he was slapped. At a much higher level of social salience, the Harvard men’s soccer team recently had their whole season canceled because some team members were privately rating the attractiveness of members of the women’s soccer team. Simply stating that young, slender, warmly receptive women are much more sexually attractive than old, fat, bitterly men-hating women is well on its way to becoming a criminal offense in modern, democratic societies.

Compared to such societies, medieval Byzantine society was more tolerant and allowed greater personal freedom. In the fourteenth-century Byzantine romance Belthandros and Chrysantza, the King of Eros ordered Belthandros to select the most beautiful woman from among forty noble women. Belthandros told one that she had “flabby and superfluous flesh.” After she stepped forward for his judgment and stepped back from his rejection, her body was “drenched with much perspiration.” Belthandros rejected other women for having a frigid mind, red and bleary eyes, a unibrow, an improperly proportioned body, bad teeth and hairy hands. The woman Belthandros selected as the most beautiful he described as having fallen from the bosom of the moon:

Her hair is the color of gold and matches her figure. Its thickness is like that of the grass of Paradise or of celery in a garden. All the graces of the world seem to sit upon her and make her their dwelling. Certainly, beyond any doubt, her forehead bears your {the King of Eros’s} imprint of mottled gold. If a man casts a glance at her eyes, they immediately tear at the roots of his heart. In the depths of their lake tiny cupids swim, shoot their arrows and sport. Art created her jet-black eyebrows and with consummate skill made them bridges. The Graces forged the fair one’s nose and to the Graces belong her mouth and her pearly teeth. Her cheeks are rose-red, her lips have the color of nature. Certainly, her mouth is perfumed. Her chin is round in shape, she is tall and her arms are white and delicate, her neck is as from a lathe. Her waist is slender and shows the great skill of the one who fashioned it like a thin reed. As for the angle of her neck and her litheness! Indeed, her body is so perfect in composition that the Graces seem to come from her. Her bosom is a paradise of love. The apples {of her breasts} shine even on a casual glance. Her look and gait are miraculous. When she walks with confidence and glances up and down, she ravishes your senses and tears at discretion. [2]

This description strangely omits the women’s buttocks. Nonetheless, Belthandros and Chrysantza indicates that men in medieval Byzantium had considerable freedom of expression in judging women’s beauty.

The marriage of Sophia of Montferrat and John VIII Palaiologos in Constantinople in 1421 underscores the importance to men of a bride’s appearance. John agreed to marry Sophia, sight unseen, as part of a grand strategy to build a political alliance and gain military aid for Constantinople. However, aspects of Sophia’s appearance turned out to be unpleasant:

The young woman was extremely well-proportioned in body. Her neck was shapely, her hair blondish with braids flowing down to her ankles like glimmering golden streams. Her shoulders were broad and her arms, bosom, and hands well-proportioned. Her fingers were transparent. She was tall in stature and stood very straight — but her face and and lips, the condition of her nose, and the arrangement of her eyes and eyebrows were extremely unpleasant. In general, she may be described in the words of the vulgar adage: “Lent from the front and Easter from behind.” [3]

John never slept with his wife Sophia. After five years of sexless marriage, Sophia returned home and became a nun in the Dominican convent at Trino.

Byzantine mothers recognized men’s interest in women’s beauty. The Emperor’s wife Eudocia in 882 arranged a bride-show for her son Leo. She selected twelve beautiful women from her own native city. She interviewed them and then narrowed the group to three for closer examination:

All the rest she ordered to go home, after she had provided them with many presents and much money. Only these three she took with her to the Palace. Examining them in a bath and finding that the saint {Theophano} by far surpassed the other two in beauty, she dressed her in imperial garments, took her by the right hand and went in to see her husband the Emperor Basil. Throwing her at his feet, she proclaimed her a worthy bride for their son. [4]

At his wife’s behest, the Emperor forced their son Leo to marry Theophano. While Theophano apparently was quite beautiful in the nude, Leo found her unattractive in other ways. He complained, “{I} did not marry her of my own free will, but out of fear of my father, and greatly distressed.”[5] Soon after marrying Theophano, Leo took a mistress. About five years after their marriage, Theophano retired to a convent and lived as a nun. After she died, Leo promptly married his mistress.[6] Even if a mother makes a thorough inspection of a potential wives in a bride-show, her son’s marital pleasure isn’t ensured.

In Byzantine bride-shows, the royal mother dominated the selection of her son’s wife. For example, the Byzantine Empress Irene in 788 organized a bride-show for her eighteen-year-old son Constantine VI. Under her orders, envoys searched across the full expanse of the Empire for suitably beautiful women. The envoys carried an imperial measure, an ideal portrait, and a shoe to evaluate women’s height, facial appearance, and feet.[7] Thirteen promising candidates were brought to the Byzantine capital. Empress Irene and Stauracius, the head of government, reviewed the women. They judged Maria of Amnia to have the most beauty, intelligence, and grace.[8] Constantine VI, however, disliked the choice of Maria of Amnia for his wife. He soon came to hate her. He even claimed that she was trying to poison him. In 795, Constantine sent Maria and her daughters to live in convent. He then remarried in the following year.[9] In remarrying, he presumably chose his own wife.

Men deserve the right to choose freely a beautiful wife according to their own sense of beauty. In four out of the five historically documented Byzantine bride-shows, the mother of the groom organized the bride-show and either chose or effectively rigged what sort of woman became her son’s wife. In the remaining bride-show, the mother couldn’t dominate because she apparently was dead.[10] A leading historian of the Byzantine bride-shows observed:

bride-shows generally served the imperial parents well, even if they served the imperial bride-grooms rather less well. … In most cases the wishes of the bridegrooms were ignored. [11]

Today, parents who understand the extent of anti-men discrimination in family courts might well encourage their sons not to marry. But if a man wants to get married, he should be able to have a bride-show, judge the participants as he considers appropriate, and make his own free choice.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] On the historicity of the bride-shows, Treadgold (2004). On women at the top of Byzantine society, see the highly regarded gynocentric scholarship of Judith Herrin, e.g. Herrin (2001) and Herrin (2013). Men’s opportunities to ascend to the top of society are much more tightly circumscribed than women’s are.

Today, beauty pageants privilege women who are already extraordinarily privileged in attractiveness. These beauty pageants are relatively insignificant gynocentric spectacles.

[2] Belthandros and Chrysantza, from Greek trans. Betts (1995) p. 18. The previous short quotes are from id., pp. 15-7. Belthandros went on to marry the woman he selected as most beautiful, but that marriage didn’t follow directly from the beauty pageant.

[3] Doukas (fifteenth-century Byzantine historian), Fall of Constantinople, from Greek trans. Magoulias (1975), quoted and revised by Gilliland Wright (2013) p. 135. The vulgar adage, “Lent from the front and Easter from behind” suggests the frigidity of death and Boccaccio’s sense of the resurrection of the flesh. A current, less cultured version of that adage is, “She’s a butterface {but-her-face}.”

[4] Life of Saint Theophano, excerpt, from Greek trans. Rydén (1985) p. 185. Treadgold (1979) p. 407 provides a similar translation. The Life of Saint Theophano was written after 900 GC, probably by Magister Slocacas, a relative of Theophano. Alexakis (1995).

The bride selection process described in Esther 2:2-18 involved the king sleeping with each candidate successively. That rather modern selection process goes further than having one’s mother inspect naked wife-candidates. Both procedures help to lessen a concern expressed in Theophrastus’s Golden Book on Marriage.

[5] Vita Euthymii, excerpt trans. Treadgold (1979) p. 408.

[6] Theophano died about 897. Leo VI’s mistress and subsequent wife was Zoe Zaoutzaina. She died about 899. Leo then married Eudokia Baïana, who died in 901. Despite strong church opposition, Leo married a fourth time (to Zoe Karbonopsina).

All of Leo’s wives were “immortalized by unofficial sainthood and by imperially sanctioned art.” Gerstel (1997) p. 707. A contemporary commenter related the popular adoration of Theophano to Lucian’s account of Alexander’s attempt to deify his close friend Hephaestion:

the same thing has also happened in our time and everybody is seized by a hysteria characteristic of women so as to proclaim the emperor’s {late wife} Theophano a saint.

Scholiast, attributed to Magistros Slokakas, from Greek trans. Alexakis (1995) p. 47.

[7] The specific characteristics of the imperial measure (βασιλικóν μéτρον), the ideal portrait (λαυρᾶτον), and the shoe (τζαγγιον) aren’t known. The original Greek terms are given in Rydén (1985) p. 175.

[8] Women in the bride-shows were not judged merely on beauty. Treadgold (1979) pp. 409-10. Cf. Vinson (2004) pp. 105, 119: “the winner was chosen solely on the basis of physical appearance”; Byzantine bride shows defined “beauty as the sole measure of a woman’s worth.” Vinson nonetheless declares:

This heart-wrenching disparity between the fictionalised ideal of courtship and the lived reality of elite women should instill in us a healthy sense of caution as we approach the problem of Byzantine bride shows.

Id. p. 105.

[9] For the evidence on the bride-show for Constantine VI, see Treadgold (1979), pp. 397-400, and Rydén (1985), pp. 175-6.  The account of this bride-show indicates the challenges of maintaining solidarity among women:

The merciful man’s granddaughter {Maria of Amnia} suggested to the others, “My sisters, let us make an agreement among ourselves of the kind called sisterhood by adoption that the one of us who becomes empress should take care of the others.” But Gerontianos’ daughter, who was very rich and good-looking, answered, full of conceit, “I know for certain that I am the richest and noblest and best-looking and that the emperor will choose me.” Maria blushed and said no more.

From Nicetas of Amnia, Life of St. Philaretos the Merciful (dated 821/22), from Greek trans. Rydén (1985) p. 175. Rydén (2002) provides a full critical edition. Solidarity among women is more easily maintained in oppressing men.

jury for 1973 Miss Ansterdam beauty pageant

[10] On Stauracius’s mother apparently being dead, Treadgold (1979) p. 409. In three of the five bride-shows, the father was dead. Here’s a table of the bride-show participants and parents. Two facts underscores mothers’ dominance in organizing and running the bride-shows: a mother (Irene) organized the first one, and a mother (Eudocia Ingerina) dominated the bride-show in which the father was also living. Vinson (1999) discusses how bride shows affirmed traditional gender roles.

Having the father run the bride-show, which was less consistent with traditional gender roles, also didn’t serve the son’s interests. Nicephorus I, Stauracius’s father, organized and ran the bride-show for Stauracius in 807. Nicephorus reportedly debauched two participants. He married his son to Theophano, a less beautiful participant. Moreover, Theophano had already been betrothed and had already had sex with her betrothed many times. Treadgold (1979) p. 401.

[11] Treadgold (1979) p. 413, Treadgold (2004) p. 50. Serving to buttress dominate ideology, Vinson declares:

In creating the illusion of romance and equality, the accounts of the Byzantine bride shows conceal the darker truth that their focus on female beauty serves as a means of disempowering the bride and her family and placing the wife under the exclusive control of her husband. The marriages arranged in this manner can thus be seen as a reversion to a type of wedlock common in the old Roman republic

Vinson (2004) p. 120. For nineteenth-century American context relevant to Vinson’s perspective, consider Sanger’s influential work on prostitution and the Crabtree case.

[images] (1) Choosing a Bride for the Grand Duke. Oil on canvas painting by Ilya Repin, 1884-87. Held in the Perm State Art Gallery, Russia. The Grand Duke is probably Grand Duke Nikolay Nikolayevich Romanov of Russia (the Elder, 1831-91). Thanks to Wikimedia Commons; (2) Jury for the 1973 Miss Amsterdam beauty pageant. Dutch National Archives, The Hague, Fotocollectie Algemeen Nederlands Persbureau (ANeFo), 1945-1989, Nummer toegang Bestanddeelnummer 926-4364. Thanks to Wikimedia Commons.


Alexakis, Alexander. 1995. “Leo VI, Theophano, a ‘Magistros’ Called Slokakas, and the ‘Vita Theophano’ (BHG 1794).” Byzantinische Forschungen 21 (Stephanos Efthymiadis, Claudia Rapp, and Dimitris Tsougarakis, eds. Bosphorus: Essays in the Honour of Cyril Mango): 45-56.

Betts, Gavin. 1995. Three medieval Greek romances. Garland Library of Medieval Literature, vol. 98. New York: Garland Pub.

Gerstel, Sharon E. J. 1997. “Saint Eudokia and the Imperial Household of Leo VI.” The Art Bulletin. 79 (4): 699-707.

Gilliland Wright, Diana. 2013. “The Brides of 1420: Men Looking at Women’s Bodies.” Ch. 8 (pp. 133-52) in Neil, Bronwen, and Lynda Garland, eds. Questions of gender in Byzantine society. Farnham, Surrey, England: Ashgate,

Herrin, Judith. 2001. Women in purple: rulers of Medieval Byzantium. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Herrin, Judith. 2013. Unrivalled influence: women and empire in Byzantium. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Magoulias, Harry J. trans. 1975. Doukas. Decline and fall of Byzantium to the Ottoman Turks. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.

Rydén, Lennart. 1985. “The bride-shows at the Byzantine court: history or fiction?” Eranos: Acta Philologica Suecana. 83(1-2): 175-191.

Rydén, Lennart. 2002. The life of St Philaretos the merciful written by his grandson Niketas: a critical edition with introduction, translation, notes, and indices. Uppsala: Uppsala University Library.

Treadgold, Warren T. 1979. “The Bride-Shows of the Byzantine Emperors.” Byzantion: revue internationale des études byzantines
(Brussels). 49: 395-413.

Treadgold, Warren. 2004. “The Historicity of Imperial Bride-Shows.” Jahrbuch der Österreichischen Byzantinistik. 54: 39-52.

Vinson, Martha. 1999. “The life of Theodora and the rhetoric of the Byzantine bride show.” Jahrbuch Der Österreichischen Byzantinistik. 49: 31-60.

Vinson, Martha. 2004. “Romance and reality in the Byzantine bride shows.” Ch. 6 (pp. 102-20) in Brubaker, Leslie, and Julia M. H. Smith, eds. Gender in the early medieval world: East and West, 300-900. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

characterizing Mary at the cross in Byzantine competition for attention

Mary at the foot of the cross

In Byzantine culture, Mary, the mother of Jesus, was a central figure. Byzantine laments for the crucifixion sometimes directed more attention to the weeping Mary than to the crucified Jesus.[1] In sixth-century Byzantine kontakia of Romanos the Melodist, realistic, emotional dialogue set within Christian salvation history richly characterizes Mary. These imaginative developments are best understood as a result of the Byzantine church intensely competing for attention with secular theater.

In Romanos’s kontakion On Mary at the Cross, Mary is an ordinary mother in extraordinary circumstances. Jesus the Christ set his face like flint to Jerusalem and resolutely went to his death according to the will of God the Father. Mary wearily followed her son Jesus to the cross. She insistently questioned him:

Why do you follow this swift path?
Is there another wedding in Cana,
and do you rush there to turn water into wine?
Should I go with you, my child, or should I wait for you?
Give me word, O Word, some word, and do not pass me by in silence.[2]

Where are you going? Should I wait for you? Why don’t you talk to me? These are common questions of mothers to their children. Mary’s subsequent exclamation, “Woe is me,” is also a common refrain of women in gynocentric society and in tragedy.[3] Mary reminds Jesus that his men friends have forsaken him:

Peter does not accompany you —
he who said to you,
“I shall never deny you, even if I die.”
Thomas has left you — he who said: “Let us all die with him.”
And again the others, well-known and intimate friends.[4]

Implicit in Mary’s recounting of Jesus’s missing friends is Mary’s presence. Mary implicitly reminds Jesus that she is more loyal to him than are his closest friends.

Mary argues with her son Jesus and doesn’t easily relent. Jesus urges Mary to stop weeping, to banish her grief, and to be joyful. He figuratively reminds her that she is the center of the church and that all those in the church will serve her. Mary responds:

I rub the tears from my eyes,
and I rub my heart still more,
but my thinking cannot be silenced.

She then reminds Jesus about what he has done in the past. She questions why he is behaving differently now and putting himself in peril:

Raising up the dead, you did not become dead
nor rest in a tomb, O my son and my life. Why, then,
do you say,
“If I do not suffer, Adam is not redeemed?”
Command, O Savior, and straightaway the cripple picking up
his bed walks.
Indeed, even if Adam had been buried deep in a tomb,
as you have raised up Lazarus from the tomb with your voice,
do even so with him.
All things serve you as the Creator of all.
Why, then, do you hasten, my child? Do not
hurry to slaughter.
Do not court death.

Understanding women’s preferential concern for other women, Jesus tells Mary that he also seeks to save Eve. Even then Mary persists in objecting to Jesus following God the Father’s way. If Jesus continues in that way, when will she see him again? Will she no longer be able to visit him? In response to these implorings, Jesus promises to Mary that she will be the first to see him risen from the tomb. He promises to her that she’ll see Eve risen to her former life. He also declares that he must suffer to redeem all suffering and fallen persons. Mary finally acquiesces with self-focus and self-concern:

I shall conquer, child, I shall conquer my suffering.

Grant that I come with you, for it helps me to look upon you.

In Romanos’s kontakia, Mary isn’t an idealized, abstract figure. She has numerous roles, including God-bearer, intercessor, and protector. She also has the character of an “ordinary woman of the people,” a “suburban mum.”[5] Her character is unbounded (“well rounded”) in the sense of requiring empathetic understanding. Mary reveals in Romanos’s imagined dialogue the complex, engaging emotions of a living mother.

Romanos’s characterization of Mary includes large emotional swings. In the kontakion On Mary at the Cross, the refrain “my son and my God” evokes the Apostle Thomas declaring “my Lord and my God.” Thomas sought simple, objective evidence of Jesus’s resurrection. When he touched the wounds of the crucified Jesus, Thomas jumped to the wholly different mode of encountering Jesus as a personal relation to the divine. Mary continually moves between mundane sense and divine sense with the refrain “my son and my God.” Indicating emotional lability, Jesus tells Mary, “do not lament, Mother, but rather cry with joy.”[6]

Romanos’s kontakion On the Annunciation similarly characterizes Mary as a vital, unbounded person and evokes rapidly shifting emotions. Mary is the blessed virgin:

Hail, virgin undefiled, hail, maiden called of God,
hail, chaste, and beautiful and delightful virgin,
hail, virgin full of grace, who did not know a seed time, chaste,
hail, mother who knew no man,
hail, virgin wife. [7]

This characterization disparages men’s sexuality and idealizes Mary’s distance from ordinary sexual relations with men. Yet when the angel Gabriel comes to announce Mary’s forthcoming pregnancy, she responds with worldly suspicion and shrewdness. She declares to Gabriel:

Concerning what you have said, do not conceal from me where it was said.
Was this matter about me spoken of in Heaven?
Why, then, do you not tell me that you are an angel and not human?

Mary treats Gabriel as if he might be an ordinary man trying to seduce her. She questions Gabriel further. With figurative language, Mary shows keen appreciation for heterosexual functioning:

As for the sea that you mentioned to me, the prophet
cleft it with his rod.
This miracle did not happen without some intermediary.
At first it was Moses, then prayers, and the rod were intermediaries.

She confesses to Gabriel that “your beauty, your appearance, your voice” frighten me terribly. Nonetheless, she ultimately recognizes that Gabriel is sent to her from Heaven, and she rejoices in their encounter. With a lovely touch of ordinary, personal psychology, Mary later blames her husband Joseph for the affair:

Where were you, my wise husband?
Why did you not guard my virginity?

Like those to whom Romanos addressed his kontakia, Joseph represents the ordinary community of Christian believers. He responds with his sense of Mary’s emotional range and lability:

Both terrible and sweet does she appear
to me now, and it gives me pause.
I gaze upon burning heat in snow,
Paradise in a furnace,
I gaze upon a smoking hill, upon a divine flower with young freshness,
upon an awesome throne, on a pitiable footstool!

Persons difficult to categorize simply are engaging characters. In Byzantine culture, Mary the mother of Jesus was such a character.

Byzantine homilies had techniques in common with theater. A recent scholarly book entitled The Necessity of Theater defined theater and characters broadly enough to make theater and characters unavoidable in any human society:

Theater is the art of finding human action worth watching, and it mostly does this by finding human characters worth caring about. [8]

A more subtle, historically engaged study distinguished orthodox ritual in Byzantium from theater:

As a solo performer confronted with a virtual sea of hundreds if not thousands of people, some of them easily distracted, the priest relied on the principles of classical rhetoric to keep the laity both engaged and informed. … Of particular interest for theatre scholars is the use of ēthopoieia, “characterization,” by the clergy. In the context of an exegetical homily, ēthopoieia often took the form of a fictional dialogue involving two or more biblical characters. In the past, homilies with dialogue have been ideologically positioned as proto-dramatic on the naïve assumption that all ritual, being primitive, represented a lower-order of cultural development. But the clergy’s long acquaintance with theatre, their theological objections to play-acting; and above all the conservative mode of self-presentation assumed in classical rhetoric argue heavily against this theory. Even when reciting dialogue “in character” as it were, the clergy worked within a carefully constructed regime of diction and gesture, transmitted orally and visually for centuries, which they regarded as distinct from theatre. [9]

Orthodox ritual in Byzantium presented human characters worth caring about from a Christian perspective.[10] More generally, theatrical techniques have long contributed to Christian understanding. The biblical story of Jesus and the Canaanite women makes best sense when understood dramatically. De Maria Magdalena, written in Latin about 1200, is meaningfully interpreted as theatrical lectio divina. Using theatrical techniques while disdaining theater is eminently feasible.

Byzantine circumstances of reception plausibly drove emphatic characterization and emotional lability in Byzantine homilies. The extent of empathetic characterization and emotional lability is generally associated with the intensity of competition for attention relative to competition for acclaim. Christian ritual in Byzantium was heavily engaged in competition for attention:

most if not all of his {John Chrysostom’s} congregation came to {church} services after years of attending theatrical shows year-round, and lacked the training or appreciation for rhetoric Chrysostom took for granted. Chrysostom couldn’t help but notice how restless his flock was every time he stepped up to speak, competing as he did with everything from social climbers to the occasional pick-pocket. … competition between clergy and mimes for audiences was clearly intense. What developed throughout late Antiquity was the equivalent of a media war in which the ambo {platform from which clergy addressed the church congregation} served as the launching pad for anti-theatrical invective while the public stage responded with biting clerical critiques. Both venues enjoyed an avid following, and the popularity of Christian satire was so great that as late as the sixth century Emperor Justinian still had to remind his subjects that it was illegal to masquerade as church folk [11]

Empathetic characterization and emotional lability aren’t necessarily related to any specific medium or abstract form. Byzantine clerics could reject liturgical drama, yet embrace empathetic characterization in homilies. On the other hand, liturgical drama could present scripturally circumscribed, static, indicative characters rather than unbounded, dynamic, empathetic characters like Mary in Romanos’s kontakia. Byzantine icons plausibly generated a stronger sense of personal presence than did many conventional, realistic images.[12] In late eighteenth-century Europe, competition for attention in print was associated with empathetic characterization and romantic sensibility of the sublime in proliferating novels. The nature of symbolic competition, rather than the abstract form of expression, drives the extent of engaging characterization and emotional dynamics.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Alexiou (1974) p. 62. In the Epitáphios Thrénos, “she {Mary}, rather that Christ, is the central figure.” Id. p. 65. That lament is known to have existed from the fourteenth century. It continues to be performed within the liturgical calendar of the Greek Orthodox Church. Id.

Mary’s lament at the foot of Jesus’s cross was a sub-genre of religious lyric in western Europe. Examples include Carmina Burana, additional 4, “Weep, loyal souls {Flete, fideles animae}”; and Carmina Burana, additional 14, “Not previously knowing lamentation {Planctus ante nescia}.” For Latin text and English translation, Traill (2018).

[2] Romanos the Melodist, On Mary at the Cross, st. 1, excerpt, from Greek trans. Carpenter (1970) vol. 1, p. 196. In this and subsequent quotations, I have modernized the English of Carpenter’s translations to make the text more accessible to ordinary readers. Lash (1995) provides an alternate English translation.

On Jesus setting his face like flint to fulfill the Father’s will for him in Jerusalem, see Luke 9:51 and Isaiah 50:7.

[3] Alexiou has astutely observed:

when “religion” passes from church to hearth, from liturgy to dance and song, from Communion to family meal, women do not only mediate — they take over. … Through tales, songs, and dances, women have been at least equal partners in the transmission of Greek language, myth, and metaphor.

Alexiou (2002) pp. 406, 412. The phrase “at least equal partners” is consistent with seldom-discussed gynocentric dominance. On deep roots of gynocentrism in Jewish and Christian tradition, consider Genesis 2:24.

Tradition known from about the ninth century figures Mary as inspiring Romanos. On Christmas Eve, Mary gave Romanos a papyrus scroll and ordered him to eat it. The textual food from Mary inspired Romanos to preach and sing melodiously. Thus, on Christmas Eve, Mary symbolically gave birth to Romanos as a sacred homilist and poet. Gador-Whyte (2013) p. 77, provides an English translation of the relevant text. Cf. Revelation 10:9-11, Ezekiel 3:3.

[4] Romanos the Melodist, On Mary at the Cross, st. 3, excerpt, trans. Carpenter (1970) vol. 1, p. 197. The subsequent three quotes from this kontakion are likewise st. 7, p. 199 (I rub the tears…); st. 8, pp. 199-200 (Raising up the dead…); st. 15, p. 202 (I shall conquer…).

[5] “Mary reacts to her son’s theological arguments not as a woman who is divinely inspired, but as an ordinary woman of the people.” Alexiou (1974) p. 63. Romanos depicts Mary as an “ordinary, caring mother”; “ordinary human being”; “loyal mother.” Gador-Whyte (2013) pp. 77, 87, 90. Gador-Whyte attributes to Roger Scott the sense of Mary as “suburban mum,” but doesn’t provide a specific citation. See id. pp. 87, 91.

Men, most of whom are ordinary human beings, aren’t mothers. Men, however, are often caring human beings. Most men are also loyal to their families despite facing acute anti-men sex discrimination in family courts. Romanos’s characterization of Mary isn’t constrained by gender stereotypes. His characterization of Mary is more like describing an ordinary, caring, loyal father.

[6] Romanos the Melodist, On Mary at the Cross, st. 3, excerpt, trans. Carpenter (1970) vol. 1, p. 198. The refrain “my son and my God” occurs at the end of every strophe of the kontakion. For the apostle Thomas’s exclamation, “my Lord and my God,” John 20:28.

[7] Romanos the Melodist, On the Annunciation I, st. 1, excerpt, from Greek trans. Carpenter (1970) vol. 2, p. 9. The Akathistos, which Carpenter attributes to Romanos, alternates strophes with long lists of hails to Mary. For a translation, id. pp. 300-9.

Subsequent quotes from On the Annunciation are from st. 6, pp. 11-2 (Concerning what you have said…); st. 9, p. 13 (As for the sea…); st. 11, p. 13 (your beauty…); st. 12, p. 14 (Where were you…); st. 13, pp. 14-5 (Both terrible and sweet…).

[8] Woodruff (2008) p. 22.

[9] White (2015) pp. 59-60. For Byzantine homilies interpreted as proto-drama, see, e.g. Bogdanos (1976). On the sources and influence of Romanos’s dramatic techniques, Cunningham (2008).

[10] Romanos constructed himself within his homilies as one such person. Gador-Whyte has observed:

As a preacher, Romanos is concerned to make his congregation follow this call {to live according to Christ’s example}. One way he does so is by vivifying the Gospel events, creating dialogues for characters and presenting them as believably real and believably sixth-century characters. He makes the Gospel present. … The congregation is encouraged to identify with Romanos’ personae on a number of levels, so that he need only place himself within the story to make the congregation feel that they too are participating in it.

Gador-Whyte (2011) p. 36.

[11] White (2015) pp. 61, 74. Dialogue in homilies “seem to represent at least a ‘wake-up call’ to the audience.” It served the need to “engage the listener’s attention.” Carpenter (2003) pp. 112-3. White (2015), p. 72, states:

priests distrusted applause and regarded it as their duty to enlighten their congregations, not entertain them.

Priests may have supported such ideology, but surely they needed to get persons to attend church and listen to homilies in order to enlighten them. Disliking and distrusting competition for attention isn’t sufficient to free persons from it.

Writing about 1100, Honorius of Autun explicitly compared traditional Greco-Roman theater with the Christian Mass:

It is known that those who recited tragedies in the theaters represented to the people, by their gestures, the actions of conflicting forces. Even so, our tragedian represents to the Christian people in the theater of the church, by his gestures, the struggle of Christ, and impresses upon them the victory of his redemption.

{ Sciendum quod hi qui tragoedias in theatris recitabant, actus pugnantium gestibus populo repraesentabant. Sic tragicus noster pugnam Christi populo Christiano in theatro Ecclesiae gestibus suis repraesentat, eique victoriam redemptionis suae inculcat. }

Gem of the Mind {Gemma animae}, Book 1, Chapter 83, Latin text and English translation from Bevington (1975) p. 9. Honorius of Autun (Honorius Augustodunensis) was a student of Amalarius of Metz. Here’s a English translation of the full chapter. The full Latin text is available in Patrologia Latina 172:541ff.

[12] On (eastern) icons in relation to (western) liturgical drama, Maguire (2003). Introductions to some medieval Byzantine vernacular Greek romances underscore the popular appeal of emotional lability. Here’s the introduction to Belthandros and Chrysantza:

Come! Attend a moment all you young people. I wish to tell you the fairest tale, a beautiful and usual story. Whoever wants to taste of its sadness and joy will also wonder at its account of daring and bravery.

Trans. Betts (1995) p. 5. The introduction to Kallimachos and Chrysorroi similarly declares:

Joy and grief are mixed, even blended together. … if you read this tale and learn the matter of its verses, you will see the workings of Love’s bitter-sweet pangs.

Id. p. 37. Likewise Livistros and Rodamini:

come now and hear with me of love’s passion in the fair story which I shall tell. … I am going to tell a wonderful tale of love and of the terrible sufferings endured by a man of many trials and woes whom Love persecuted.

Id. p. 95.

[image] Icon of the Crucifixion, Novgorod School, c. 1360. Held in Musée du Louvre, Paris. Thanks to Wikimedia Commons.


Alexiou, Margaret. 1974. The ritual lament in Greek tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Betts, Gavin. 1995. Three Medieval Greek romances. New York: Garland.

Bevington, David M. 1975. Medieval Drama. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Bogdanos, Theodore. 1976. “Liturgical Drama in Byzantine Literature.” Comparative Drama. 10 (3): 200-215.

Carpenter, Marjorie, trans. & ed. 1970. Kontakia of Romanos, Byzantine melodist. Columbia: University of Missouri Press.

Cunningham, Mary. 2003. “Dramatic device or didactic tool? The function of dialogue in Byzantine preaching.” Ch. 7 (pp. 101-13) in Elizabeth Jeffreys, ed. Rhetoric in Byzantium: papers from the thirty-fifth Spring Symposium of Byzantine Studies, Exeter College, University of Oxford, March 2001. Aldershot: Ashgate.

Cunningham, Mary B. 2008. “The reception of Romanos in middle Byzantine homiletics and hymnography.” Dumbarton Oaks Papers. 62: 251-260.

Gador-Whyte, Sarah. 2011. “Self-Construction: ‘Auto-Ethopoeia’ in Romanos’ Kontakia.” Melbourne Historical Journal. 39(2): 23-37.

Gador-Whyte, Sarah. 2013. “Changing Conceptions of Mary in Sixth-Century Byzantium: The Kontakia of Romanos the Melodist.” Ch. 5 (pp. 77-92) in Neil, Bronwen, and Lynda Garland, eds. 2013. Questions Of Gender In Byzantine Society. London: Ashgate Publishing Group.

Lash, Ephrem, trans. 1995. Romanos the Melodist. On the life of Christ: kontakia. San Francisco: HarperCollins Publishers.

Maguire, Henry. 2003. “Byzantine rhetoric, Latin drama and the portrayal of the New Testament.” Ch. 14 (pp. 215-34) in Elizabeth Jeffreys, ed. Rhetoric in Byzantium: papers from the thirty-fifth Spring Symposium of Byzantine Studies, Exeter College, University of Oxford, March 2001. Aldershot: Ashgate.

Traill, David A. 2018, ed. and trans. Carmina Burana. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, 48-49. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

White, Andrew Walker. 2015. Performing Orthodox ritual in Byzantium. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Woodruff, Paul. 2008. The necessity of theater: the art of watching and being watched. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kassia redeemed classical culture with repentance of fallen woman

By now the Huntress had reached Olympus heights
and made her way to the bronze-floored house of Zeus.
And down she sat on her Father’s lap, a young girl,
sobbing, her deathless robe quivering round her body.
But her Father, son of Cronus, hugged her tight
and giving a low warm laugh inquired gently,
“Who has abused you now, dear child, tell me,
who of the sons of heaven so unfeeling, cruel?
Why, it’s as if they had caught you in public,
doing something wrong ….” Wreathed in flowers
the one who halloos the hunt cried out at once,
“Your own wife, Father! The white-armed Hera beat me!
This strife, this warfare plaguing all the immortals —
Hera’s all to blame!”

{ ἣ δ᾽ ἄρ᾽ Ὄλυμπον ἵκανε Διὸς ποτὶ χαλκοβατὲς δῶ,
δακρυόεσσα δὲ πατρὸς ἐφέζετο γούνασι κούρη,
ἀμφὶ δ᾽ ἄρ᾽ ἀμβρόσιος ἑανὸς τρέμε: τὴν δὲ προτὶ οἷ
εἷλε πατὴρ Κρονίδης, καὶ ἀνείρετο ἡδὺ γελάσσας:
“τίς νύ σε τοιάδ᾽ ἔρεξε φίλον τέκος Οὐρανιώνων
μαψιδίως, ὡς εἴ τι κακὸν ῥέζουσαν ἐνωπῇ;”
τὸν δ᾽ αὖτε προσέειπεν ἐϋστέφανος κελαδεινή:
“σή μ᾽ ἄλοχος στυφέλιξε πάτερ λευκώλενος Ἥρη,
ἐξ ἧς ἀθανάτοισιν ἔρις καὶ νεῖκος ἐφῆπται.” }[1]

Artemis sought comfort in the arms of the Father. Perhaps she had been caught behaving in public in the manner of Mary of Egypt. Could that be, she who seemed impervious to Eros and despised men gazing on her? No matter. The Father God Zeus, infinitely merciful to women, wreathed her in flowers. He hugged her tightly and gently suggested that men had abused her. This Father, a master of deceptions, knew how to seduce women.

Artemis the Huntress spent her time hunting in the woods rather than studying the liberal arts. She lacked learning in the dominant ideology and was less easily duped. She inadvertently blurted out the truth: the ruling goddess Hera viciously perpetrated domestic violence and incited war. The Father God, on his throne in the ethereal heights, laughed deep in his heart. While carrying out his many amorous affairs, he delighted in seeing female and male gods engaging in all-out conflict.

Among mortals, the gender structure of violence was less just than among the gods. The harlot Helen of Tory incited men and gods to seek to kill each other in the long and terrible Trojan War. In intense fighting, the goddess of wisdom Athena struck the god of war Ares in the neck with a huge boulder. Helen merely watched men kill other men. So it has long been in earthly violence, as if a matter of divine indifference.

Kassia repented for Helen and Trojan War

Deeply engaged in classical culture, Byzantine intellectuals pondered the Judgment of Paris and the Trojan War. An account of the bride-show for Emperor Theophilos in Constantinople in 830 alluded to these events. Theophilos’s mother instructed him to give a golden apple to the woman with whom he was most pleased. The beauty of the young, noble woman Kassia struck Theophilos. With acute awareness of the matter of Troy, he said to her:

Through a woman the common evils flowed.

{διὰ γυναικὸς ἐρρύη τὰ φαῦλα.} [2]

Byzantine culture combined classical Greek culture and Christian culture. Kassia responded:

And also through a woman superior things well up.

{ἀλλὰ καὶ διὰ γυναικὸς πηγάζει τὰ κρείττω.}

Utterly shocked by what Kassia said, Theophilos passed by her and gave the golden apple to another woman. Kassia used the present tense in describing a woman’s effect. Superior things cannot begin in merely recalling the events of ancient Greek epic.[3]

A highly learned woman and a leader of a convent, Kassia reformed classical culture and repented women’s role in violence against men. Among Kassia’s maxims:

I hate the one who does everything for the sake of vainglory.

It is better to be defeated than to win unfairly.

It is better to possess grace from the Lord,
than beauty and wealth that does not gain grace.

{ Μισῶ τὸν δόξης χάριν ποιοῦντα πάντα.

Κρεῖσσον ἡττπασθαι τοῦ νικᾶν ἀπεικότως.

Χάριν κεκτῆσθαι κρεῖττον παρὰ κυρίου
ἤπερ ἀχαρίτωτον κάλλος καὶ πλοῦτον. }[4]

Ancient Greek men competed for glory and strove to be heroes. Kassia hated classical men heroes. Drawing upon the celebrating cunning of Odysseus, the Greeks defeated the Trojans with the trick of the Trojan horse. Within Kassia’s values, it would have been better for the Greeks to have been defeated. While Kassia recognized that a woman’s bodily beauty provides consolation, she regarded that beauty as less important than a woman being an instrument of grace from the Lord.

Most importantly, Kassia utterly re-figured the relation of women to God. Invoking terms from classical Greek tragedy — woe to me (Οἴµοι) and lamentations of my heart (στεναγµοὺς τῆς καρδίας) — she recognized women’s culpability in the tragic fate of men. She recognized that women, like men, cause harm through desire for wrongful behavior (ἔρως τῆς ἁµαρτίας). She appreciated a man’s sacrifice for her, to the extent of his giving up his life for her. With specific acts of love, the woman repents of her behavior that has caused so much harm to men. Rejecting the privilege of special paternal solicitude for women, she humbly appeals for mercy in the judgment of God.[5]

Lord, the woman fallen
into many sins,
recognizing your Divinity,
rises to the status of myrrh-bearer,
and mourning brings to you myrrh
before your burial.
Woe to me, she says,
for night holds for me
the ecstasy of intemperance
gloomy and moonless,
a desire for sin.
Accept the springs of my tears,
you who with clouds spread out
the water of the sea:
bend down to me
to the lamentations of my heart,
You who made the heavens incline
by your ineffable humiliation.
I will tenderly kiss your sacred feet,
I will wipe them again
with the hair of my head;
the feet whose sound
Eve heard in Paradise
in the afternoon,
and hid in fear;
who can delineate
the multitude of my sins
and the depths of your judgment,
my Redeemer, savior of souls?
Do not disregard me, your servant,
you whose mercy is infinite.

{ Κύριε, ἡ ἐν πολλαῖς ἁµαρτίαις
περιπεσοῦσα γυνή,
τὴν σὴν αἰσθοµένη Θεότητα,
µυροφόρου ἀναλαβοῦσα τάξιν,
ὀδυροµένη µύρον σοι
πρὸ τοῦ ἐνταφιασµοῦ κοµίζει·
Οἴµοι! λέγουσα,
ὅτι νύξ µοι συνέχει
οἶστρος ἀκολασίας.
ζοφώδης τε καὶ ἀσέληνος,
ἔρως τῆς ἁµαρτίας·
δέξαι µου τὰς πηγὰς τῶν δακρύων,
ὁ νεφέλαις στηµονίζων
τῆς θαλάσσης τὸ ὕδωρ·
κάµφθητί µοι
πρὸς τοὺς στεναγµοὺς τῆς καρδίας,
ὁ κλίνας τοὺς οὐρανοὺς
τῇ ἀφράστῳ σου κενώσει·
καταφιλήσω τοὺς ἀχράντους σου πόδας,
ἀποσµήξω τούτους δὲ πάλιν
τοῖς τῆς κεφαλῆς µου βοστρύχοις·
ὧν ἐν τῷ Παραδείσῳ
Εὔα τὸν δελινὸν
κρότον τοῖς ὠσὶν ἠχηθεῖσα,
τῷ φόβῳ ἐκρύβη·
ἁµαρτιῶν µου τὰ πλήθη
καὶ κριµάτων σου ἀβύσσους
τίς ἐξιχνιάσει,
ψυχοσῶστα, Σωτήρ µου;
µή µε τὴν σὴν δούλην παρίδῃς
ὁ ἀµέτρητον ἔχων τὸ µέγα ἔλεος. }[6]

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Homer, Iliad, 21.505-13, Greek text of Oxford 1920 edition, English translation from Fagles (1990) p. 536. Freely available online is the English translation Murray (1924) for the Loeb Classical Library.

[2] Kassia’s name occurs in numerous variants, including Kassiani and Cassiane. This and the subsequent quote are from the chronicle of Symeon the Logothete, Greek text of Kazhdan, Khronika Simeona Logofeta, Viz. Vrem. XV (1959), as cited in Afinogenov (1997) p. 11. The twelfth-century Byzantine historian Ioannes Zonaras provides a nearly identical Greek text (see 3.354 in Ioannis Zonarae, Epitomae Historiarum, libri XIII-XVIII, ed. Th. Büttner-Wobst, Bonn 1897). The translation is mine, drawing upon Rydén (1985) p. 187, Afinogenov (1997) p. 11, and Silvas (2006) p. 21. The phrases occur in a homily written between 431 and 530. Afinogenov (1997) p. 11, citing Patrologia Graeca 50.791-6 and 10.1171-77.

An alternate text for the exchange between Theophilos and Kassia is:

Through a woman evils came to man.
{Ἐκ γυναικὸς τὰ χείρω.}

Through a woman better things began.
{Kαὶ ἐκ γυναικὸς τὰ κρείττω.}

Greek text of Leo Grammaticus (Bonn ed., (1824), pp. 213-4), trans. Treadgold (1979) p. 403. Id., n. 29, notes comparison with the Greek text of Pseudo-Symeon (“Symeon Magister”), Bonn. ed (1838) pp. 624-5. The above text seems to have been relatively influential. It appears in Bourboulis (1953) pp. 3-5, the Wikipedia entry for Kassia, and McLees (2011) p. 57. Treadgold (2004) p. 43, n. 17, observes that the text “is still not properly edited.” The couplet may have become well-known in variant forms. The form cited above seems to me more classically poetic.

[3] Scholars have facilely associated the couplet with the contrasting figures of Eve and Mary, the mother of Jesus:

In the dialogue Theophilos refers to the story of the Fall in the Old Testament. Kassia, on the other hand, reminds him of the incarnation through the Virgin Mary, and thus reveals his primitive state of mind.

Rydén (1985) p. 188. “The references, quoted in verse, are of course to Eve and the Virgin.” Treadgold (2004) p. 43. From a Byzantine perspective, the incarnation through the Virgin Mary was a specific event in history and would invoke the past tense. Cf. the rationalizing effort of Silvas (2004) p. 21, n. 10. Moreover, there’s no apple, no less a golden one, nor a beauty contest in the Genesis account of the serpent seducing the innocent Eve. The matter of the Trojan War deeply infused learned Byzantine culture. The Judgment of Paris and Kassia’s troparion on the woman’s repentance are the most relevant contexts for interpreting the dialogue.

[4] Kassia, Maxims and Gnomic verses, Greek text and English translation from Zugravu (2013) pp. 210, 213, 216. Id. provides a slightly modified version of the Greek texts and translations of Tripolitis (1992).

[5] Literary scholarship, along with culture in general, has tended to obscure men’s distinctive gendered being. One result has been terrible misunderstandings. Consider, for example, the obfuscation of men’s being in an influential interpretation of Kassia’s troparion on the fallen woman:

the individual expectation of salvation becomes extended to all mankind; the specific vice is blurred, and Mary’s cry of the heart is the expression of everyman’s {sic} psychological suffering: I am a sinner but God is merciful.

Kazhdan, Sherry & Angelidē (1999) pp. 319-20.

[6] Kassia, “Κύριε, ἡ ἐν πολλαῖς ἁµαρτίαις” (“The Fallen Woman”) sticheron idiomelon sung presently in Orthodox liturgy for Holy Wednesday, Greek text and English translation from Zugravu (2013) p. 234, following Tripolitis (1992). Here’s an easily accessible online Greek text, an alternate English translation, and performed versions in Greek and in English. Kassia’s tetraodion on Holy Saturday was still in liturgical use in the Eastern Church in the first half of the fourteenth century. Simic (2014).

[image] “Great deeds! Against the dead!” Los desastres de la guerra, plate No. 39 (1st edition, Madrid: Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, 1863). By Francisco Goya, 1810-20. Thanks to Museo del Prado (Spain) and Wikimedia Commons.


Afinogenov, Dmitry. 1997. “The Bride-show of Theophilos: Some Notes on the Sources.” Eranos: Acta Philologica Suecana. 95: 10-18.

Bourboulis, Photeine P. 1953. Studies in the History of Modern Greek Story-Motives. Thessalonike: Etaireia Makedonikōn Spoudōn.

Fagles, Robert, trans. and Bernard Knox, intro. and notes. 1990. The Iliad. New York, N.Y., U.S.A.: Viking.

Kazhdan, Alexander P., Lee Francis Sherry, and Christina Angelidē. 1999. A history of Byzantine literature. Vol. 1. 650-850. Athens: National Hellenic Research Foundation, Institute for Byzantine Research.

McLees, Nectaria Mother. 2011. “Byzantine Bride-Shows and the Restoration of Icons: A Tale of Four Iconophile Empresses.” Road to Emmaus 51:34-69.

Rydén, Lennart. 1985. “The bride-shows at the Byzantine court: history or fiction?” Eranos: Acta Philologica Suecana. 83: 175-191.

Silvas, Anna M. 2006. “Kassia the Nun, c.810-c.865: An Appreciation.” Ch. 2 (pp. 17-39) in Garland, Lynda, ed. Byzantine women: varieties of experience 800-1200. Aldershot: Ashgate.

Simic, Kosta. 2014. “‘Senseless and Old’: A Note on the Nachleben of Kassia’s Poetry.” Ephemerides Liturgicae 128: 238-248.

Treadgold, Warren T. 1979. “The Bride-Shows of the Byzantine Emperors.” Byzantion: revue internationale des études byzantines
(Brussels). 49: 395-413.

Treadgold, Warren. 2004. “The Historicity of Imperial Bride-Shows.” Jahrbuch der Österreichischen Byzantinistik. 54: 39-52.

Tripolitis, Antonia, ed. and trans. 1992. Kassia: the legend, the woman, and her work. New York: Garland.

Zugravu, Gheorghita. 2013. Kassia the Melodist. And the Making of a Byzantine Hymnographer. Thesis (Ph.D.) — Columbia University, 2013.