The Paris Review

The Misunderstood Byzantine Princess and Her Magnum Opus

The history of the Byzantine Empire is threaded with dynastic clashes and family feuds. The Byzantines do not hold the same familiar spot in the Western imagination as their Roman forbears, but the narrative history of their scandals and intrigues is easily as compelling as the episodes Tacitus, Suetonius, and Cassius Dio recorded of Caesar, Caligula, and Nero. For a millennium, rivalries between and among Byzantine noble families propelled public life, with the kind of bloody factional maneuvering that makes the Tudors look like the Waltons in comparison.

Though political power was usually a male privilege in Byzantium, a striking feature of the Byzantine tales is the prominence of women as political players, whether they were power-grabbing populists, slick backroom schemers, or principled reformers. It started with Empress Theodora, sometimes described as a kind of sixth-century Eva Perón, who interceded in a wave of riots that shook Constantinople, put an end to the fighting, won the adoration of the public, and saved her husband’s throne. Irene, an empress from the late eighth century, ruled for several years with a mixture of silky court diplomacy and unflinching ruthlessness—to maintain her grip on power, she ordered that her chief rival, who also happened to be her son, be blinded.

The princess Anna Komnene was another of these influential women. To Edward Gibbon, who framed her reputation for modern audiences with his book , she was a Lady Macbeth character who attempted to bump off

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