Wives, Mothers, and Widows in 12th-century Constantinople: Aristocratic Women in the Epigrams of Nicholas Kallikles
Best known as a renowned physician at the court of Alexios I (1081-1118) and John II Komnenos (1118-1143), Nicholas Kallikles is credited with the authorship of about thirty poems. These were mostly dedicatory epigrams referring to liturgical or profane art objects, and epitaphs composed for members of the imperial family and the court entourage. Such texts could be inscribed or performed; they were intended to commemorate a variety of religious and social events, which provided the ruling elite with an opportunity to overtly reaffirm its status and consolidate its networks of relationships.
A remarkable feature of this epigrammatic corpus is the conspicuous presence of aristocratic women among the patrons and recipients of Kallikles’ poetry. The prominent role played by female figures in the literary expressions of aristocratic family memory certainly mirrors the increased importance of marriage bonds and maternal kinship in the definition of social rank, as means of association with the newly established Komnenian dynasty. Through the literary voices Kallikles lends to his female patrons, we can also have a glimpse into recurrent events of Byzantine family life, such as pregnancy, illness, mourning and widowhood. This allow us to explore the perception and literary representation of individual emotions, family roles and gendered identities, which the author elaborates in dialectical relation with a set of shared social and cultural models.
Kallikles’ literary production thus provides a vivid example of the role played by epigrammatic poetry in the social life of the Komnenian aristocracy and in the shaping of a distinctive elite culture.
Luisa Andriollo is a postdoctoral researcher at Bamberg University. She holds a joint PhD in Byzantine History from Pisa University and University Paris Sorbonne, and has been a postdoctoral research fellow at the Center for Hellenic Studies at Princeton University. Her work has focused primarily on the administrative and social history of Byzantine Asia Minor, and on the aristocratic culture of the Middle Byzantine period and the Komnenian era. Her current research also investigates the work of the imperial chancery and the uses of recorded proceedings in Late Antiquity and Byzantium, as part of an ERC project on the acts of the ecumenical councils.