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Women's choices in the Byzantine Empire: embracing God, embracing a family, or embracing indecency

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The Earliest Sugar Daddies

Career options for women in the Byzantine empire were, to say the least, limited. In a world where social mobility was possible almost exclusively through the government’s theocratic, patriarchal structure, women were confined to careers such as small-scale artisans or midwives. For the most part, women could only choose between becoming a nun or becoming a wife to start a family. A third option, though controversial and perhaps even indecent to some existed: prostitution. Although most women who chose this path were not all that well-off to begin with, prostitution in this era could prove to be quite the lucrative line of work. “High-class” prostitutes used their sexuality to manipulate men in power for money and, in some instances, their own political gain. Affluent men, even those arrogant of their own power and dominance, were forced to surrender in the face of female sexuality.

Not all women were able to achieve political power through this means. The Byzantine prostitution hierarchy was born out of the ancient Greek tradition, which ranked these women into four categories based on class and income. The lowest of these were pornai, or street-walkers. Hetairai were much “classier” prostitutes who were educated in the liberal arts to hold intelligent conversations with their partners. An even more exclusive option were the pallakai, who were essentially commissioned lovers that stayed with one man until the money stopped flowing. The last class consisted of performers, or auletrides, which were the Byzantine equivalent of porn stars. By the beginning of the Byzantine empire, this system had evolved into only two brackets, known as pornai and scenicae. The pornai remained the majority, and the group usually consisted of girls from rural areas who had run away to larger cities like Constantinople. They were illiterate, had no legal status, and were essentially sex-slaves, as their only “income” came in the form of clothes, shelter, and food. These women were very inexpensive, and seldom belonged to anyone important; farmers and merchants were the largest demographic of owners. Although pornai had a small chance of rising to the rank of scenicae, this group was made up mainly of the children of other scenicae, or “actresses”. Actresses combined elements of the Greek hetairai, pallakai, and auletrides to create an allure irresistible to even Christian priests. The art of beauty was passed on from generation to generation; mothers taught their daughters skills such as dancing, singing, acting, as well as how to dress and act provocatively. Many of these skills are highlighted in Lucian’s Dialogues of the Courtesans. In one titled “The Education of Corinna”, a young girl’s mother identifies these traits in another girl to exemplify the ideal prostitute.

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“Well, in the first place, by dressing elegantly and being amiable and cheery with everybody. She does not giggle at any little thing, as you do; instead, she only smiles, which is much more attractive. She treats shrewdly, but without double-crossing, the men that come to see her or take her to their houses. She never approaches them first. When she is paid to assist at a banquet, she takes care not to get drunk–it is foolish and men can’t bear it–and she does not stuff herself with food like an imbecile, so that when she gets into bed she is in condition to serve her lover well. She no more than touches the various dishes served–delicately, with her fingertips, and always in silence. And she never guzzles her wine, but drinks slowly, quietly, in gentle little sips.”

These girls were forced to be aware of every aspect of their personality, no matter how small. Charisma wasn’t only an attribute, but a product; personality could be bought and sold. Prominent political leaders, soldiers, and generals all frequented “the theater”, and often fell victim to the seductive nature of the actresses, who enjoyed the company and wealth of these affluent men.

Men of all backgrounds were preoccupied with jealousy and lust over these more sophisticated prostitutes. Although the concept of love in the modern sense wouldn’t originate until well after the fall of the Byzantine empire, male customers had a tendency to develop a strong attachment to their expensive lovers that often left them in severe mental distress. Evidence of the power of this intoxicating lust is found in art and literature such as poetry, namely that found in the Greek Anthology, a compilation of important works spanning from the classical to the Byzantine period. An entire book focused on the effects of love exist in the text; many poems mention love as a service exchangeable for money. In almost every case, love comes with surprisingly negative connotations and is compared to death in some instances, like Rufinus’ description of being “swallowed up”, as well as an anonymous poem’s account of being “shipwrecked”. Many poems allude to Cupid’s arrows, a metaphor for the piercing quality of love. In these cases, the women shoot the poisonous arrows at the men, rather than a mythical creature shooting both parties- a commentary on how often, feelings of love were not reciprocated, but maliciously projected onto these men, or so they interpret . The courtesans, who were not struck by love’s arrow, regard these men with an apathetic detachment bordering on aggression in some instances. In Lucian’s dialogue between Dorio and Myrtale in the Dialogues of the Courtesans, Myrtale’s only motivation to maintain her relationship with Dorio is the payment she receives, which has, to Dorio’s disappointment, run dry. Although he stands “impoverished” and “weeping before the door”, Myrtale has no sympathy for her former lover. After counting up the total amount of payment she has received, which according to Dorio is “the whole of a sailor’s wealth”, she ridicules him. This isn’t as much hostility as it is a strategic, conscious decision; prostitutes were forced to maintain a certain level of detachment from their customers in order to be successful in their business. The result of this very one-sided relationship was a remarkable amount of power over these high-ranking men in exchange for nothing but sexual favors and feminine charm.

There is no one example of the fragility of the male ego in regards to women more extensive than Procopius’ Secret History. This tabloid-like document scandalizes the private lives of Belisarius and his wife Antonia and the emperor Justinian and his wife Theodora, two couples that had enormous influence over the Byzantine empire in the 6th century. According to Procopius, both men were idiotic, ineffective, and even irresponsible. Their wives, both of whom had backgrounds in prostitution, are slandered as promiscuous and manipulative, as, according to Procopius, they had only married for the power their husbands held. It is ironic that a document that criticizes women in power was influenced by Procopius’ own jealousy; Theodora and Antonina had enough control over the historian drove him to dedicate countless hours on a work that wasn’t even published during his lifetime. Although there is some controversy over the accuracy of Procopius’ information, the Secret History still provides insight into the enormous scale of influence these women were able to achieve.

Antonina, the daughter of a prostitute and most likely one herself, married Belisarius even after previous marriages and multiple children. The union was riddled with issues from the start. While Belisarius was on military duty, Antonina and her husband’s adopted godson, Theodosius, had an affair that continued on even after Belisarius discovered their secret. Antonina felt neither love nor sympathy for her husband, and most likely only married him for his power. In the beginning of their marriage, the two traveled the world together on Belisarius’ campaigns in the Vandalic war until it became too dangerous, and Antonina was sent to live in safer conditions. With Belisarius, the ex-prostitute was able to live a charmed life, free from the worries of possible poverty and economic constraints. Antonina’s son, Photius, was promoted to consul, a position he could only have dreamed of in their old life. Even after Belisarius discovered her affair, the general was completely blinded by lust, and according to Procopius “willingly allowed himself to be deceived by his wife”. He was even ready to kill his own son over Antonina, and nearly did before sending him into exile instead. This preoccupation with his personal life lead to a complete lack of responsibility in his career. In the war against Chosroes, after capturing the fortress of Sisauranon, his troops retreated before reaching the city of Ctesiphon so Belisarius could go home to take care of his wife. Procopius asserts that he could have single-handedly taken all of Assyria if he had stayed in the campaign. In effect, a prostitute managed to change the course of history, intentionally or unintentionally, not in spite but because of her desirability.

The changes Theodora made were definitely intentional. Procopius despised the empress even more than he did Antonina. He introduces her in his Secret History as “a bird of fowl omen”, a promiscuous actress only out for herself and completely unempathetic toward others- especially her husband. Procopius psychoanalyzes her for entire chapters, coming to the conclusion that she’s a sociopathic nymphomaniac, no small charge for an empress. Theodora came from a family of actresses, and became one herself despite not having any special skill to sing or dance. However, she was “unusually clever”, and was willing to strip completely naked for whoever was willing to pay the price. After this lengthy career in the art of payed seduction and erotic entertainment, Theodora settled down with Hecebolus, an administrator for Pentapolis, a relationship wherein she went through a series of rough events while traveling with him. When she finally came back to Byzantium, she became Justinian’s mistress, and after Justinus, the emperor at the time, changed the Byzantine law stating that government officials could not marry actresses, his wife. Everyone seemed to be fine with this change (except, of course, Procopius), and the senate was said to “do obeisance to the woman as though she were a god”. The fact that the law was changed just for Theodora set up a precedent that would continue throughout the marriage. When Justinian finally became emperor in 527, Theodora became much more than a wife and was treated by her husband as a sort of advisor. For instance, Justinian most likely would have fled during the Nika revolts if it weren’t for the empresses assistance in ending them in massacre. She would do anything to keep her crown, no matter the cost. Justinian also allowed his wife to implement policies for her own benefit, for example the Convent of Repentance, a program that reformed young prostitutes and allowed them to marry affluent men to start a new life. To Procopius, this looked like the queen was silencing her husband to help out her prostitute friends with royal funds. Justinian turned a blind eye during these selfish policy decisions, and his wife continued to manipulate those around her for the remainder of her career .

Not all women in the Byzantine era were weak, powerless, and compliant to their husbands. Prostitution became a way to live independently through sovereign financial and personal decisions that would be impossible had these women had husbands. Men, who have historically valued their intelligence and skill above that of women, fell slave to beauty and become completely at the whim of their lovers. Antonina and Theodora were able to continue their own autocracy even after marrying as a result of the training they received through the theater. In the Byzantine empire, average women had the chance to transcend gender roles and gain power through sexuality.


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