Imperial Passions by Eileen Stephenson
Byzantium in 1039 is not a time and place known well to many in the modern western world. The author sweeps away many misconceptions in her historical novel, Imperial Passions. One fascinating view is of the role of women.
While medieval women had few rights in most parts of the world, Eileen shared with me that “Byzantine women held positions of more consequence than elsewhere, and they had opportunities that women in the rest of Europe did not have until centuries later.” Two women ruled Byzantium in the 12th century, “Empress Zoe and Empress Theodora, who the people of Constantinople were fond of, despite their flaws. I think it just got people used to the idea that women could be in positions of authority.” Importantly, as Eileen noted, literacy became common in 11th and 12th century Byzantium, reaching down into the middle classes and included women, which helped them accomplish more.
Eileen gives us tantalizing views of female doctors and empresses, minority groups, generals and deposed kings, all in this cosmopolitan city. It is the many glimpses of women which are so fascinating and personal from Xene, abused and isolated by her husband to main character Anna Dalassena, who handles finances, households, became an expert in chess, that was to help her learn the basics of political success, so necessary as the mother of an emperor, when she ruled during his frequent absences due to war. “Arguably, Anna Dalassena could be said to have wielded more power than any other medieval woman… Emperor Alexios I Comnenus would not have made it onto the throne without the help of his mother, Anna Dalassena.”
While much about daily life was different from our lives almost 1,000 years later, there are moments that remain the same: joy at the birth of a child, sadness at death, fear of war and disease and yearning for safety and comforts of life, whether in the city or on the farm. Eileen includes meals in her revealing of daily life that was of tremendous interest to me. Except for special feasts, the everyday fare was simple. The family served meat occasionally, often goat or lamb, fish and the frequent small loaves of bread with cheese, olives, almonds and local in-season fruits. When on the farm, despite their status, Anna worked in her vegetable gardens and her husband, the famous General John Comnenus, hunted and fished when on their farm. This is quite an interesting contrast with the upper class or royalty in modern times.
The political intrigues, corruption and violent change of rulers brought exiles, tortures, abrupt changes of fortune and instability. This is especially true in empires like the Byzantine, kept in check by military force. Eileen told me, “The people of Constantinople were known for their willingness to riot if they didn’t like the way things were going.”
Eileen writes that she is in love with the Byzantium era. Anna Dalassena was a catalyst to her interest in the era and she is an intriguing character in Imperial Passions. There are more books in this series and I certainly will be a reader of them all.
Small loaves of bread were served at most meals. With the abundance of olives and varieties of nuts, this bread could certainly have been baked and eaten during this time. We did use active yeast, not available during this era, and modern ovens! We hope Anna and her family would have enjoyed this delicious bread.