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Theodora Porphyrogenita (11th century)

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Theodora Porphyrogenita
Empress and Autocrat of the Romans
Byzantine coin showing Jesus Christ on the left and Empress Theodora on the right.
Empress of the Byzantine Empire
Reign 19 April 1042 – 31 August 1056
Predecessor Zoë Porphyrogenita & Michael V Kalaphates
Successor Michael VI Bringas
Co-regent Zoë Porphyrogenita[1]:2038 (1042–1050)
Constantine IX Monomachos (1042–1055)
Born c. AD 980
Died 31 August 1056
(aged 75–76)
Burial Church of the Holy Apostles, Constantinople
Dynasty Macedonian
Father Constantine VIII
Mother Helena

Theodora Porphyrogenita (Greek: Θεοδώρα, Theodōra; AD 980 – 31 August 1056) was a Byzantine Empress born into the Macedonian dynasty that ruled the Byzantine Empire for almost two hundred years. She was co-empress with her sister Zoë for two months in 1042 and sole empress regnant from 11 January 1055 to 31 August 1056. She was the last ruler of the Macedonian line.

Theodora's life was entwined with that of her older sister Zoë. In 1028 her father, Constantine VIII, attempted to extend the dynasty by marrying Theodora to the urban prefect of Constantinople, Romanos Argyros. Theodora refused, and Zoë was married to him instead; three days later he became emperor. Angry that Theodora had been the first choice to marry Romanos, Zoë had her sister closely watched. After two foiled plots, Theodora was exiled to an island monastery in the Sea of Marmara. Twelve years later, the people of Constantinople rose against Michael V, Zoë's adopted son, and insisted that Theodora return to rule alongside her sister. After 65 days Zoë married again to Constantine IX, who assumed the imperial responsibilities.

When Constantine IX died, the seventy-four-year-old Theodora returned to the throne, in the teeth of fierce opposition from court officials and military claimants. For eighteen months she was a strong empress before being struck down by a sudden illness and dying on 31 August 1056 aged seventy-six.

Early life

Histamenon depicting Basil II and Constantine VIII, holding a cross.

Theodora was the third and youngest daughter of the Byzantine Emperor Constantine VIII and Helena, daughter of Alypius.[1]:503 She was Porphyrogenita,[2]:259 "born into the purple"; this was the appellation for a child born in the capital to a reigning emperor. Her father became co-emperor in 962 and sole emperor in 1025.[citation needed] His reign as sole emperor lasted less than three years, from 15 December 1025 to 15 November 1028.[1]:503

As an eligible imperial princess, she was considered as a possible bride for the Holy Roman Emperor in the west, Otto III in 996.[2]:253 However, Theodora was overlooked in favour of her sister Zoë. Otto III died before any marriage could occur.[2]:259 Theodora's uncle Basil II prevented his nieces from marrying any of the Byzantine nobility, calculating that such a marriage would have given their husbands a claim on the imperial throne. As women, Theodora and Zoë were unable to exercise any state authority, their only say in this was in choosing, or more likely accepting or not, a husband who would acquire their authority upon marriage.[3] Consequently, Theodora lived a life of virtual obscurity in the imperial gynaeceum (women's quarters).[2]:269

Basil II died childless in 1025 and Constantine VIII became sole emperor at the age of 65. As he had no sons, Theodora and Zoë were catapulted into the centre of imperial politics.[citation needed] Intelligent and possessing a strong and austere character, Theodora defied her father by refusing to marry the man her father had chosen to succeed him, Romanos Argyros, stating that Romanos was already married – his wife having become a nun to allow Romanos to marry into the imperial family.[4]:465 Theodora further claimed that since Romanos and she were third cousins, it was too close a blood relationship for marriage to occur.[2]:270 Consequently, Constantine VIII chose Theodora's sister. Zoë married Romanos three days before her father died.[citation needed]

Empress Zoë tonsures her sister Theodora

With the accession of Romanos, Theodora prudently retreated back into the gynaeceum, with its daily religious routines,[2]:276 but this did not save her from her sister's envy. Never forgiving Theodora for being their father's first choice,[citation needed] Zoë persuaded her husband to appoint one of his own men as the chief of Theodora's household, with orders to spy on her.[4]:469 Shortly afterwards, Theodora was accused of plotting to marry Presian of Bulgaria and usurp the throne with him. Presian was blinded and sent to a monastery; Theodora was not punished. In 1031 she was implicated in a similar conspiracy, this time with Constantine Diogenes, the Archon of Sirmium.[1]:627 Theodora was forcibly confined in the monastery of Petrion. During a visit, Zoë compelled her sister to take Holy Orders.[4]:471 Theodora remained there for the next eleven years, as Zoë managed the empire with her husbands, Romanos III and, after his death, Michael IV.[5]

Co-empress with Zoë

Gold histamenon of Zoë and Theodora, 1042.

With Michael IV's death in December 1041, Zoë adopted Michael's nephew, who was crowned as Michael V.[4]:495 Although he promised to respect Zoë, he promptly banished her to a monastery on the Princes' Islands on charges of attempted regicide.[2]:295 This treatment of the legitimate heir to the Macedonian Dynasty caused a popular uprising in Constantinople, and on 19 April 1042, the people dethroned Michael V in support of not only Zoë, but Theodora as well. Michael V, desperate to keep his throne, initially brought Zoë back from Princes' Island and displayed her to the people,[2]:297 but the population rejected his proposal that he continue to rule alongside Zoë.[4]:496

Key members of the court decided that flighty Zoë needed a co-ruler, and backed the people's demand that it should be Theodora. A delegation, headed by the patrician Constantine Cabasilas,[2]:298 went to the monastery at Petrion to convince Theodora to become co-empress.[4]:496 Theodora, accustomed to a life of religious contemplation, rejected their pleas out of hand, and fled to the convent chapel to seek sanctuary. Constantine and his retinue pursued her, forcibly dragged her out and exchanged her monastic clothes for imperial ones.[2]:298 At an assembly at Hagia Sophia, the people escorted the now furious Theodora and proclaimed her empress with Zoë.[2]:299 After crowning Theodora, the mob stormed the palace, forcing Michael V to escape to a monastery.[2]:300

Zoë immediately assumed power and tried to force Theodora back to her monastery, but the Senate and the people demanded that the two sisters should jointly reign.[4]:497 As her first act Theodora was called upon to deal with Michael V. Zoë, weak and easily manipulated, wanted to pardon and free Michael, but Theodora was far more strict. She initially guaranteed Michael's safety before ordering that he be blinded and spend the rest of his life as a monk.[2]:301 With Michael V dealt with, Theodora refused to leave Hagia Sophia until she had received a formal invitation from Zoë, some 24 hours after they had been crowned.[2]:304 Officially Theodora was the junior empress, and her throne was situated slightly behind Zoë's on all public occasions. In practice she was the driving force behind the joint administration. The sisters administered the empire, focusing on curbing the sale of public offices and on the administration of justice.[4]:498 Although contemporary historian Michael Psellus claimed the joint reign was a complete failure, John Scylitzes stated that they conscientiously rectified the abuses of the previous reigns.[2]:305

Theodora (left), Constantine IX (centre), and Zoë (right) depicted on the Monomachus Crown

Although Theodora and Zoë appeared together at meetings of the Senate or when they gave public audiences, it was soon apparent that their joint reign was under considerable strain.[2]:306 Still jealous of Theodora, Zoë had no desire to administer the empire, but she would not allow Theodora to conduct public business alone. Court factions formed behind each empress.[2]:306 After two months of increasing acrimony between them, Zoë decided to search for a new husband, thereby denying Theodora the opportunity to increase her influence through her obvious talents for governing.[4]:499 She eventually married Constantine IX, on 11 June 1042, and the management of the empire reverted to him.[2]:307 Although Theodora and Zoë continued to be recognised as empresses, and although Theodora continued to appear at all official functions, power devolved onto her brother-in-law. Nevertheless, Theodora exerted influence at court, as demonstrated by her ordering the arrest and blinding of John the Eunuch, the powerful administrator who had been the chief minister of Romanos III, the brother of Michael IV, and the uncle of Michael V; he had lived in exile after the fall of Michael V.[4]:505

Constantine IX's preferential treatment of his mistress in the early part of his reign caused rumours that he was planning to murder Theodora and Zoë.[2]:309 This led to a popular uprising by the citizens of Constantinople in 1044, which came dangerously close to actually harming Constantine who was participating in a religious procession along the streets of Constantinople.[6] The mob was only quieted by the appearance on a balcony of Zoë and Theodora, who reassured the mob they were in no danger of assassination.[4]:503

Return to power

Hagia Sophia mosaic of a seated Christ Pantocrator, with Zoë standing to his left and Constantine IX standing to his right

After Zoë's death in 1050, Theodora seems to have retired to a convent, leaving Constantine IX to rule alone until his own death on 11 January 1055. As Constantine lay dying, he was persuaded by his councilors, chiefly the logothetes tou dromou John, to ignore the rights of Theodora and to pass the throne to the doux (Duke) of the Byzantine Theme of Bulgaria, Nikephoros Proteuon.[4]:527 However, Theodora preempted their plans when, despite her advanced age, she vigorously asserted her right to rule. She came out of retirement and convened the Senate, and the imperial guard proclaimed her "emperor" shortly before Constantine's death.[7][8]:596

A purge of senior officials and the leadership of the European military units followed. Nikephoros Bryennios, whom the western tagmata apparently wanted to proclaim emperor instead, was dismissed and exiled on Theodora's orders,[1]:329[8]:597 after which she confiscated his estates and banished his supporters from court.[4]:527

Her second period of rule proceeded where the first left off.[citation needed] With her firm administration, she controlled the unruly nobles and checked numerous abuses. She damaged her reputation, however, with excessive severity toward private enemies and undue employment of such menials as Leo Paraspondylos as her advisors.[4]:528 Military and court offices were filled by her household eunuchs, and such able commanders as Isaac Komnenos were replaced with minor functionaries.[4]:528 Determined to centralize as much power in her hands as possible, she presided in person in the Senate and heard appeals as supreme judge in civil cases. Her appointment of clerics offended the Patriarch Michael Keroularios, who considered this the duty of men, not women.[1]:2038

Theodora was fit, well and active and disinclined to face her own mortality, despite her age of seventy-six. The patriarch Michael Keroularios advocated that Theodora advance a subject to the throne through marriage to her, something which would have assured the succession, but she refused to consider marriage, no matter how token. She also refused to name an heir to the throne. Theodora became gravely ill with an intestinal disorder in late August 1056. On 31 August her advisors, chaired by Leo Paraspondylos, met to decide who to recommend to her as a successor. According to Psellus, they selected Michael Bringas, an aged civil servant and former military finance minister whose main attraction was that "he was less qualified to rule than he was to be ruled and directed by others". Theodora was unable to speak, but Paraspondylos decided that she had nodded at an appropriate moment. Hearing of this the Patriarch refused to believe it. Eventually he was persuaded and Bringas was crowned as Michael VI. Theodora died a few hours later and with her death, the Macedonian dynasty's 189 year rule ended.[4]:529[2]:327

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e f Kazhdan
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t Norwich
  3. ^ Garland, Zoe Porphyrogenita
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p Finlay.
  5. ^ Norwich 276, 279.
  6. ^ Finlay, pg. 503
  7. ^ Garland (1999), pp. 165–66
  8. ^ a b Treadgold (1997).


Primary sources

  • Michael Psellus, Chronographia.
  • Thurn, Hans, ed. (1973). Ioannis Scylitzae Synopsis historiarum. Berlin-New York: De Gruyter. ISBN 978-311002285-8. OCLC 1025783.

Secondary sources

External links

  • Theodora coinage
Theodora Porphyrogenita (11th century)
Born: 984 Died: after 31 August 1056
Regnal titles
Preceded by
Michael V and Zoe
Byzantine Empress
with Zoe (1042–1050)
Constantine IX (1042–1055)
Succeeded by
Michael VI
Retrieved from ""
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