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Nine things you didn’t know about love and marriage in Byzantium

The Byzantine civilization has long been regarded by many as one big curiosity. Often associated with treachery and superstition, their traditions and contributions to the ancient world are often overlooked. Referencing A Cabinet of Byzantine Curiosities, we’ve pulled together nine lesser known facts about love and marriage in Byzantium.

Beauty pageants

The imperial court would often organize bride shows, basically beauty pageants, to find a wife for the heir to the throne, who would give the winner a golden apple. The most famous show was for the Byzantine Emperor Theophilos. He was allegedly smitten by the beautiful but sharp-tongued Kasia, and tested her by saying, “the worst evil came into the world through woman,” referring to the temptation of Eve. To this she responded, “And so did the best of the best,” referring to the promise of salvation, Jesus, born of Mary. Theophilos didn’t like the riposte and chose Theodora instead, giving her the golden apple.

Rules and restrictions

By the eleventh century, the Church had put in place a complicated set of restrictions on marriage. Among other rules, marriage was forbidden between two persons who were connected by up to seven degrees of genealogical relation, counting inclusively. Additional rules prohibited marriage between persons related via spiritual kin­ship, especially that established by baptism, or by the prior marriage of mutual relatives. It was a complicated enough business that special treatises were required to sort it all out.

A Cinderella story

Court officials touring the provinces in search of suitable brides for the imperial prince were apparently given a painting of what a perfect or ideal match should look like, and they tried to match it to the candidates they met. They also carried an impe­rial shoe of the right length for the ideal bride and tested it on their feet.

Men and divorce

By law, a man could ask for divorce if his wife had questioned his mas­culine honor—say, through infidelity or immoral behavior; caused him bodily harm by attempts on his life through magic or physi­cal violence, or jeopardized his attempts to procreate. He could also demand divorce if his wife was incapable of fulfilling her conjugal duties due to an incur­able illness— say, madness or leprosy. Madness was sometimes distin­guished from demonic possession, which did not constitute grounds for divorce.

Women and divorce

Women could demand divorce if the marriage threatened their chastity— say, through incitement to prostitution or accusations of infidelity; or their bodily integrity by attempts on their life through magic or physical violence; or if the man could not fulfill his duties because of an illness (again, madness or leprosy), was implicated in serious crimes, or was sexually impotent for more than three years or absent for more than five. A woman could also ask for divorce if her husband was convinced that she was cheating on him and persisted in this belief even after discovering that he was wrong.

Image Credit: “Emperor Theophilos Chronicle of John Skylitzes.” Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.


Ecclesiastical writer and priest Anastasios of Sinai used soil as an analogy to explain why some rich people desire to have children but cannot, whereas many poor people can easily have many children: soil that has received too much water is not fertile, whereas soil that has been watered mod­erately is.


There was a statue of Aphrodite near the hospital of Theophilos in Constantinople which was said to have the following power: if a woman was a virgin or a chaste wife, it would allow her to pass unmolested, but if she had been naughty or adulterous, it would cause her to lift up her dress and expose the shame of her privates for all to see. It was, accordingly, used to perform chastity tests. But the sister-in- law of the emperor Justin II had the statue destroyed because it did this to her when she was passing by on other business.

Dream interpretations

According to a book of dream-prediction attributed to Ahmet, if you dream that you have relations with

  • a classy escort, it means that you will become rich
  • a nun, it means that grief is in store for you
  • a common whore, your wealth will grow, but by unjust means
  • a beautiful woman, you will find joy and wealth within a year
  • an old woman, you will obtain power from an ancient source

Featured image credit: “Marriage Ring with Scenes from the Life of Christ” provided  by the Walters Art Museum. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Janet

    Featured on this week’s ‘No Such Thing as a Fish’ podcast: https://open.spotify.com/episode/1WaXuZL27gjIQNTg9SiK8Q

  2. Maarten

    Thanks for this article. Much appreciated.
    Question: is it ‘a woman’ or ‘women’ that Theophilos meant?

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