Holy Mothers of Orthodoxy


Eva Catafygiotu Topping

Three Outstanding Byzantine Women

How appropriate it is to celebrate the Three Hierarchs and Greek letters in this church which is dedicated to a learned woman saint Katherine of Alexandria, Glorious and All-Wise Great Martyr. For a moment let us reflect on her significance for this celebration.

St. Katherine was born and martyred in a city famous for its schools and libraries, its poets, scientists and philosophers, including the martyred woman philosopher Hypatia. At a time when most women were illiterate, unable to read or write, this aristocratic Christian girl had mastered the rich cultural and literary legacy of ancient Greece. She had studied Homer, the medical writings of Hippocrates and Galen, the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle. Katherine had also been trained in rhetoric, the art of public speaking. She could express her thoughts clearly and persuasively. All Alexandria, we are told, admired her erudition and wisdom.

When she was just 18 years old, Katherine won the immortal crown of a Christian heroine. Bravely resisting pressures and persecution, she brilliantly and publicly defended her faith before giving her life in its defense. Far from corrupting her, a pagan Greek education had strengthened Katherine's Christian commitment and assured her triumph. This young girl scored a stunning victory by silencing Alexandria's most eloquent and clever philosophers. She also converted them to Christianity. Her 150 converts then shared St. Katherine's martyrdom. Our patron saint, like the Three Hierarchs, symbolizes the synthesis of Hellenism and Christianity. Likewise, she symbolizes Greek Orthodox womanhood, spiritually and intellectually created in God's image and likeness.

Because their sex was normally denied opportunities for education, the number of Greek Christian women intellectuals and writers is small. There are, however, three whom we should honor today.

The first of these is Eudokia, Empress of Byzantium from 421-460 A.D. She was born in Athens and died in Jerusalem. The daughter of a pagan professor, she was named Athena after the city of her birth. From her father Leontios and two of his colleagues Athenais received a classical Greek education. Like St. Katherine she was also trained in the art of public speaking, despite the ancient belief that silence is woman's most sublime virtue.

Shortly before her marriage in 421 to the emperor Theodosios II, the pagan Athenais became a Christian. Baptized by Attikos, Patriarch of Constantinople, she was renamed Eudokia. Keenly interested now in theology, Empress Eudokia befriended monks, nuns and clergy. She built churches in Constantinople and Jerusalem.

She used part of her great wealth to endow hospitals, rest homes and shelters for the poor, sick and homeless. For her eusebeia and philanthropia Eudokia was canonized and the Orthodox Church commemorates her on August 13.

Proving herself a true daughter of Athens, Eudokia has an honorable place in the history of Greek Letters. This educated Byzantine basilissa championed Greek culture in the imperial city. When in 425 the University of Constantinople was reorganized Eudokia saw to it that its Greek curriculum was expanded. Always she was the enthusiastic patron of academics, poets and men of letters.

Eudokia was herself a poet and woman of letters. She won fame as a public speaker. Seated on a golden throne, she delivered a brilliant speech in Antioch before the senate. Although women were not supposed to write books, even if they could, Eudokia wrote several. She composed a poetic version of the first eight books of the Old Testament, and of the Prophets Zechariah and Daniel. She is also the author of a long hagiographical poem on the martyrdom of St. Kyprianos, who, like the imperial poet, was a convert to Christianity. In another book written in Homeric verse Eudokia related the life and miracles of Christ. Thus in her writings St. Eudokia combined the old and the new, classical Greek culture and Christian teachings.

After this intellectual and literary basilissa four centuries passed before another important woman writer appeared in Byzantium. She is known to us all, Kassia, the ninth century nun-hymnographer. In the long tradition of Greek Letters she is by far the most beloved woman writer. Born into the aristocracy of Constantinople, Kassia, like Sts. Katherine and Eudokia, received a thorough classical Greek education. While she was still young, Kassia's learning and literary style were praised as unusual for one of her age and for the time. She was equally admired for her courage and loyalty to Orthodoxy in face of iconoclastic persecution.

Had not the spirited young woman defended women against Theophilos' sexist slur, Kassia would have been a second Byzantine empress-author. Instead, she built a convent on Xerolophos, Constantinople's seventh hill and became a nun. She lived there until her death in the second half of the ninth century. A stern, energetic abbess, Kassia governed her nuns and regulated life and worship in the convent. And she found time to pursue her literary interests, evidenced by the secular works and the sacred poetry preserved in a number of manuscripts.