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gender bias in ancient history

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carolartbeat View Drop Down
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    Posted: 23 Sep 2013 at 22:06

The Legacy of Eve


There’s actually something called “the great man theory of history.” True, it was first floated by the British writer Thomas Carlyle in the 1840s, so it’s not exactly cutting-edge news. Carlyle decided world history was determined not by social, economic, and political forces but by outstanding men, saying, “the history of the world is but the biography of great men” such as Luther, Napoleon, or Shakespeare. Many influential thinkers—all men—signed on to support his proclamation, including Nietzsche, Emerson, and Kierkegaard.

            In the 1960s the feminist movement tried to put women back into the equation and published books recounting women’s achievements omitted from official histories written by—you guessed it—men. To reverse centuries of neglect, this version changed the word “history” into “herstory,” but it could also be called “sistory,” growing out of the “sisterhood is powerful” ethos.

            What does this have to do with 6th-century Empress Theodora of Constantinople, heroine of my new historical novel The Eagle and the Swan? A lot. Because the standard histories describing Theodora represent a clear case where her reputation and legacy have been undervalued or distorted.

            In general parlance, the “great man theory” is countered by the adage “Behind every great man there’s a great woman”–either mother, wife, daughter, lover, or assistant. Feminists add, “Behind every man there’s a great woman…rolling her eyes.” History is rife with examples of men getting credit for women’s contributions. Plenty of writers have rescued female figures from oblivion.

            Theodora didn’t have the problem of invisibility. Because of her notorious past as a circus performer, stripper, and courtesan, she was, in her day, all too visible. Probably it was because of her low social status that she could develop (and display) her audacity.

Upper-crust women in the late-Roman period were prohibited from public life. They could go to church, but that was about it. Even there, they had to sit in separate areas in the rear or on the balcony concealed by curtains. Young girls were severely restricted, isolated in their homes, forbidden to look out of windows. Women could go to the public baths only at specific times. They wore tunics and scarves that covered them from head to toe. In general, women married in their teens and were expected to be either pregnant or nursing throughout their fertile years. Birth control was unobtainable except for prostitutes who used an herbal concoction of dubious utility.

Performers and courtesans, on the contrary, were free to mingle in men’s activities. Cladding themselves in opaque coverups was not in the cards. As Jean-Paul Sartre said, “Freedom is what you do with what’s been done to you.” That’s where Theodora showed what she was made of. She started with nothing but her wits and talent and beauty, and—maybe because she always had to fight for everything—she rose to a position of power whose influence has radiated through the ages.

In the late Classical period and early centuries of Christianity women were considered spiritually and morally weak, the source of evil and temptation. They were blamed for man’s fall from grace, due to his susceptibility to imbecillitate sexus (the feebleness of her sex). In the sixth century B.C.E. Pythagoras decreed: “There is a good principle, which created order, light, and man, and an evil principle, which created chaos, darkness, and women.” Martin Luther climbed on board in 1533, saying, “Girls begin to talk and to stand on their feet sooner than boys because weeds grow more quickly than good crops.”

Lacking any allegiance to such conventional notions, Theodora used her freedom from expectations to become a revolutionary and evolutionary leader. As co-ruler of the Late Roman Empire with her husband Justinian, she was not only his partner and intellectual equal but a source of reforms that improved legal rights for women, children, and the oppressed. She outlawed pimps and procurers who lured (or stole) girls from poor homes to sell in the sex trade. In Constantinople Theodora saved 500 prostitutes. Even her enemy the court historian Procopius admits, she “set free from a licentiousness fit only for slaves the women who were struggling with extreme poverty.”

A generous patron, she established churches, monasteries, hospitals, and convents throughout the Empire. She was instrumental in granting women equal property rights, rights of inheritance, and in making concubines equal to legal wives. Women gained guardianship of their children and their dowries. Infanticide was outlawed under her watch. Women guilty of a crime were sent to nunneries rather than prison to keep them from being raped by guards. Together she and Justinian diminished social barriers, relying on merit for appointments, as in the proclamation: “In the service of God, there is no male or female, nor freeman nor slave.”

Because of the sublime mosaic showing her in the Church of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy, Theodora is the most visible woman of her day. Yet, as to her character, she remains the most mysterious, forever maligned by the gossipy historian Procopius.

A social reformer and innovator, Theodora ascribed to the credo of Catherine the Great of Russia, another powerful monarch: “Behave so that the kind love you, the evil fear you, and all respect you.” Unfortunately for Theodora’s memory, Procopius did not respect her because of her theatrical background, and his are the slanderous words that have come down to us in history.

When the young Queen Victoria asked Lord Melbourne if she should read the works of Horace, her mentor told her it was sufficient to know he existed. It’s not sufficient only to know that Theodora existed and that her beauty still illuminates the dim nave of San Vitale. The Eagle and the Swan tells the buried tale of a performer who played her act on the world stage with panache and brilliance. We know her now through the resonance of her performance in our hearts after the lights go out.


To find out more about Theodora’s life and legacy, go to http://www.theeagleandtheswan.com (text-only version for free preview now and enhanced eBook to be published by Erudition Digital in November).

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lirelou View Drop Down

Joined: 26 Mar 2009
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote lirelou Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 24 Sep 2013 at 03:59
So, Trung Trac, Joan of Arc, Cristine de Pisan, Mary Tudor, Elizabeth the First, Malintsin, the Maharani Jindeen, Isabela of Castille, Teresa de Avila, Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz, Jeanne d'Albret of Navarre, Catherine de Medici, the Maharani Lakshmibai of Jhansi, the Queen Myeongseong (Min) of Korea, and all the other women who have shaped history never lived? Someone had to have written about them, and many of those someones had to have been men.   
Phong trần mài một lưỡi gươm, Những loài giá áo túi cơm sá gì
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Guests Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 24 Sep 2013 at 06:00
Theodora is certainly remarkable for her ability to climb the social ladder in a time and society where doing so was enormously difficult; regardless of whether one's genitals were internal or external.

Procopius does indeed paint a very negative picture of her. Having read his Secret Histories, it becomes clear that she and Justinian worked in tandem. They even held different courts at the same time to administer different matters. And when Justinian was deathly sick with plague she took on sole responsibility for administrative duties in his stead. Justinian had found a woman who was nowhere near as educated as he, but whose mind was just as sharp and practical and married to the same vision as his. She could be trusted to speak with his voice and make decisions using his authority. Procopius became hostile to the regime and so that meant attacking both man and woman in his last work. Some criticisms are reasonable, others are simply obvious malicious invention.

To claim that women were simply invisible in the late Roman Empire is not something I would agree is true. Women at court, and royals especially, were often highly educated and influential. Women formed part of the regency for their underage sons who became Emperor. The actions of women like Galla Placidia, Honoria, Arcadius' wife Eudocia (who had more influence than her husband), and Pulcheria all demonstrate how active and influential women were in the late Empire.

One cannot also claim that women were treated the same throughout the whole Empire. The further east one went the more women tended to be segregated and shut away. Though at least nominally all part of the same geopolitical bloc, individual variations in local culture still existed. The Roman (Latin/Italian) matron had always had more freedoms and a larger public role than women in Greece. Along the Rhine you and in the areas which became Germanised women were considered an asset economically and so their marriage (and loss to another family) was compensated by the bride from the husband's family to the bride's - the exact opposite of a dowry.

Like many prominent Byzantines, she should be considered as an example of a very remarkable person able to shine through in a moribund society which had lost the gusto to innovate and explore - for which she deserves all the more credit.
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sadashivan View Drop Down
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote sadashivan Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 01 Feb 2014 at 09:56
Most ancient inscription Rig Veda(10.17.10) inscribes “O’ Mothers! Purify us with your compassion, understanding and enlightenment. The women cleanse us all from all our sin, corruption and defects. We come out firm, pure and noble from their blessed company. Atharveda 6.61.7 O’ enlightening Mother! You have the potential to destroy the evil. In antiquity women had dominant role in family and the society which fetched her the status of "Mother Goddess" prevailed in all the ancient civilization. In the below link we can view pictures. However, with the influence of trade and exchange growth, regional wars triggered sex slaves and prostitution. Thus the women role and status was limited to stay back in home.
Vedic Age Women
Mother’s instinct, emotion & attentive nurturing together privileged upper hand in the family. Her extreme sacrifice protecting children & family revered her as saviour honoured her as Mother Goddess
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