49th Annual Byzantine Studies Conference

Conference Date: Oct 26, 2023–Oct 29, 2023 Location: Simon Fraser University Vancouver V5A 1S6 Session Title: Intersecting Sexes: Byzantine, Sasanian and Eurasian Masculinity (session 7A) Session Date: Oct 28, 2023 (2:15 PM - 4:15 PM)


Geoffrey Greatrex (University of Ottawa)


Eve MacDonald (Cardiff University)

Co-organizer and panelist

Ferdowsi’s Rum and the Middle Persian Characterisation of Roman Masculinity

There are very few representations of Roman/Byzantine hegemonic masculinity in the Sasanian world. A few are portrayed in Abolqasem Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh, written in the late 10th/ early 11th century CE, that preserve much older stories originating in the myths, legends and historical records of the Sasanian Persian and Parthian Empires. The character filled epic is a visual and often canny telling of key personalities of the Sasanian dynasty and their struggles, with only the rare instances of any memory or mention of the Romans whose centuries of conflict with Sasanian Persia are largely subsumed into more complex tales of hero, prince, or priest.

The only ideal man from the west who is fully presented in the Shahnameh is Iskander or Eskander, the heroic Alexander, whose evolution from Hellenistic conqueror to Iranian hero is a well-researched tale. Middle Persian texts do preserve another Alexander however, and he has more than one identity in the Shahnameh that embody aspects of both the hero and epic villain. This duality is rooted in the nature of idealised male identity in a Zoroastrian context but also reflects the sources Ferdowsi accessed in constructing his tales. Where it is possible to discern, as studies by Mantaghi (2018, Alexander the Great in the Persian Tradition: History, Myth and Legend in Medieval Iran) and Shayegan (2011, Arsacids and Sasanians) have clearly shown, the negative view of Alexander’s (the ‘accursed’) actions as portrayed in the Shahnameh seems to come from the Sasanian period sources as opposed to other routes, ie. Parthian, Syriac or Quranic versions.

In the middle Persian texts all Hellenistic or Roman leaders are called ‘Caesar’ and judgement of their actions is rooted in constructs of Sasanian good and ‘other’ bad, of truth and lies. This paper seeks to analyse the negative portrayal of masculinity attributed to the ‘accursed’ Alexander described in these texts and how it correlates more broadly with the Sasanian ideas of the typical ‘western’ or Roman man in the assessment of hegemonic masculinity of their contemporary world. The visual evidence, of short haired and duplicitous Roman Emperors on Sasanian rock reliefs, and the actions of these rulers on the accompanying inscriptions present just such an image: a subservient, lying and duplicitous enemy who challenge the true and rightful king. In the surviving literature from the Sasanian period to the early Persian romances we see the Roman, Hellenistic, or Greek male all mixed into a singular masculine type, as someone whose alterity resides in the Sasanian conception of the antithesis to ideal masculinity. This paper will explore the presentation of key identities attributed to this bad Alexander and illustrate how other examples from the texts and images of the Sasanian period can help us piece together just what they made of the ‘western’ man, otherwise known as Ferdowsi’s Rum.

Sean Strong (Cardiff University)

‘What a Man, What a Man, What a Mighty Good Man’: Theophylact Simocatta on the Masculinity of Military Men in the Late Roman and Sasanian World

A soldier’s embodiment of martial virtue, and by extension their masculinity, was a critical theme reflected on by ancient authors. For Late Antique historians, who followed the grandiose Greek classical style of writing, such as Procopius, Agathias, Menander, and Theophylact, it can be argued that masculinity was at the centre of their narratives because substantial emphasis was placed on campaigns, battles, and more widely political conflict; instances where individuals could prove their masculinity through martial virtue. This phenomenon did not end in the Late Antique period but continued to be an important theme touched upon by later Byzantine historians, such as Nikephoros Bryennios (the Elder) and Anna Komnena, in the twelfth century (Neville: 2016, 2019). Theophylact Simocatta’s decision to comment on masculinity in political and military contexts was therefore not unique. Despite this, scholars have traditionally not approached Theophylact’s History in this vein; accordingly, a further examination of his narrative should be undertaken. Michael Stewart (2016) has proven that investigating masculinity in the Late Roman period, and specifically in the age of Justinian (2020), demonstrates that contemporary authors measured a general’s battlefield success and a ruler’s legitimacy against their masculinity. For this reason, it is important to assess how and why Theophylact chose to identify masculinity in a period of transition, and whether these characteristics impacted a military man’s career (general or ruler) and battlefield prospects.

This paper explores Theophylact’s presentation of masculinity pertaining to Roman and Sasanian military men. It considers what Theophylact believed masculinity embodied, alongside how and why masculinity could be secured or lost. By assessing how military men are presented on and off the battlefield, we can begin to find patterns which demonstrate that ideals of masculinity, and in the same vein martial virtue, were universally shared across political and cultural borders. In addition, Roman and Sasanian rulers in the late sixth and early seventh centuries needed to realign their identities to encompass military characteristics. Consequently, authors started to praise and critic rulers’ masculinities in direct connection to military virtues, such as courage, leadership, and martial fortitude. Therefore, it is critical to evaluate whether the identification and presentation of masculinity was also shared, vertically across societal hierarchies, between military commanders and their respective monarchs.

Using case studies from the late sixth century, we can assess how Theophylact moulded his ideas surrounding military masculinity in Roman and Sasanian contexts. By interacting with how Theophylact implemented his masculine identities onto military commanders, such as Philippicus and Bahram Chobin, and then also rulers who held military identities, such as Emperor Maurice (582-602) and Sasanian shah Khosrow II (590/591-628), we can unveil whether he articulated the ideal masculine identity into a singular shared identification across all societal and cultural classifications or whether certain individuals and cultures had distinguishable characteristics. Significantly, this paper will add Theophylact to the ongoing scholarly debate surrounding gender and masculinity at the end of Antiquity; thus, diversifying our understanding of military masculinity in the wider Late Antique and Byzantine world.

Shaun Tougher (Cardiff University)

Co-organzier and panelist

Military Masculinity in Tenth-Century Byzantium: The History of Leo the Deacon

The Byzantine Empire in the tenth century is a good period to study military masculinity. In this phase of its history the empire experienced recovery and conquest, notably on its eastern frontier with the Abbasid Caliphate, but it also campaigned to the north, with Bulgaria and the Rus’, and to the west in Italy. Byzantium was able to go on the offensive; significant successes were the recovery of Crete in 961 and the recapture of Antioch in 969. Famously these campaigns and successes were not generally commanded and achieved by emperors of the ruling dynasty, but rather by their generals. To explore the subject of military masculinity in the period this paper focuses on a specific text, the History of Leo the Deacon. Leo was a member of the palace clergy under Basil II (976-1025), and his History dates to the late tenth century. It narrates the reigns of two emperors, Nikephoros II Phokas (963-969) and his nephew John Tzimiskes (969-976), who were both successful generals before becoming emperors and continuing to campaign (and who were both also depicted and celebrated in the ‘pigeon church’ in Cappadocia). The History is particularly concerned to relate the campaigns undertaken by these men, and in the course of doing so offers rich reflections on gender identity. While the interest of Leo the Deacon’s History for the subject of gender has been recognised, for instance in an article by Athanasios Markopoulous (in Greek in 2000, and an English translation of this published in 2004) and in the Introduction to the translation of the History by Alice-Mary Talbot and Denis F. Sulliavn (2005), this paper will demonstrate the fuller depth of interest of its depiction of masculinity in relation to those who played military roles.

Not only will the paper analyse how Leo the Deacon presents the two main figures of Nikephoros and John, but also how he presents others who feature in the History: successful commanders and soldiers, commanders who fail, and non-Byzantine commanders. For instance, Leo also reflects on figures such as: the brave and physically scarred general Nikephoros Pastilas who nevertheless was killed on the Cretan campaign; the unimpressive specimen John Kourkouas who met a brutal death at Dorostolon for his sins; Peter ‘Phokas’ who was a successful general despite being a eunuch; Nikephoros’ brother Leo Phokas, who transitioned from an admirable general to a greedy and unmanly administrator; Anemas the son of the last Emir of Crete who ended up as one of Byzantium’s imperial bodyguards and fought bravely against the Rus’; the Rus’ leader Sphendosthlavos himself, hot-headed and cruel but who demonstrated intelligence by recognising the need to save his men. In the construction of the masculinity (or lack of it) of military men Leo reflects on a range of aspects, including bravery, cowardice, leadership, impiety, virtue, physical bodies, and ethnicity. It will thus be demonstrated that the History is a perfect vehicle of exploring military masculinity in tenth-century Byzantium, but also for exploring the nature of Byzantine historiography itself.

Alison Vacca (Columbia University)

Of Men, Monsters, and Martyrs

At the end of the eighth century, the Khazar khagan proposed a marriage with Šušan, one of four daughters of the late Xosroiani king Arč‘il of K‘art‘li and Kaxet‘i (d. c. 786). After she turned him down, the Khazars spread their incursions over Georgia and took her and her brother prisoner. On their passage into Khazaria, Šušan declared her purity of body and mind and ended her own life before she could be handed over to the khagan. This story was first recorded in Georgian in the eleventh century, but the earliest manuscript evidence we have is in Armenian from the twelfth or thirteenth centuries. This paper analyzes the Armenian version of Šušan’s story by reading it in a broader context of Armenian, Georgian, and Arabic sources about Khazar intermarriages.

First, it asserts the significance of an Armenian model of hegemonic masculinity through the comparison to irreligious beasts. This paradigm is very familiar across the late antique and medieval world—the irreligious and ignorant man is compared to or becomes a beast due to his inability to grasp true religion, demonstrating his irrationality. In these stories, hegemonic masculinity is constructed against the beast, a figure that is commonly described in feminine form for greatest rhetorical affect. Emotions—particularly the control over anger, or lack thereof—become a marker of masculine behavior, as proof of rational humanity or irrational bestiality. However, the Armenian version of the story of Šušan (contrary to the Georgian) asserts the bestiality of the khagan with specific characteristics that resonate in Armenian historiography. Šušan becomes an echo of the revered Hṙip‘simē, the Roman saint who introduced Christianity to Armenia in the third century who died resisting the sexual advances of the pagan Armenian king Trdat, who is himself transformed into a beast due to his behavior towards her and could only be cured by converting Armenia to Christianity.

Second, this paper continues the study of Šušan by challenging the consideration of martyrs through a lens of female masculinity. This line of analysis draws on scholarship about early Christianity, Byzantium, and early Islam, which analyzes pious women as men through their defense of the faith and rationality. This paper instead reads the centrality of the Hṙip‘simēan model as an alternative route of producing a pious and rational femininity. In part, this position is clarified by reading the story of Šušan against other examples of female masculinity in the stories about Khazar intermarriages of the eighth century (e.g., Khātūn bt. Taʿāṭir, the wife of Yazīd b. Usayd al-Sulamī).

The two main topics of this paper—the beast as the antithesis of hegemonic masculinity and the female masculinity of martyrs—both read the story of Šušan in light of other sources in Armenian, Georgian, and Arabic and engage with topics that are familiar across Muslim and Christian contexts of late antique and medieval Eurasia. However, the Hṙip‘simēan model stands as a reminder of how shared concepts about masculinities find local expressions familiar to specific audiences.