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Zoë Porphyrogenita

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Zoë Porphyrogenita
Empress and Autocrat of the Romans
Zoe mosaic Hagia Sophia.jpg
Empress Zoë as depicted in a mosaic from the Hagia Sophia
Empress of the Byzantine Empire
Reign 10 April to 11 June 1042
Predecessor Michael V Kalaphates
Successor Constantine IX and Theodora
Born c. 978
Died June 1050 (aged 72)
Burial Constantinople[1]
Spouse Romanos III (1028–1034)
Michael IV (1034–1041)
Constantine IX (1042–1050)
Dynasty Macedonian
Father Constantine VIII
Mother Helena

Zoë (Greek: Ζωή "life" Medieval Greek: [zo'i]; c. 978 – June 1050) reigned as Byzantine Empress alongside her sister Theodora from 10 April to 11 June 1042. She was also enthroned as the empress consort to a series of co-rulers beginning with Romanos III in 1028 until her death in 1050 while married to Constantine IX. Zoe lived a life of relative obscurity until the age of 50. Then her uncle Basil I died leaving the Byzantine throne to her father, Constantine VIII.

As he had no sons Constantine hoped to continue the dynasty by marrying off one of his daughters. So Zoe was married to Romanos Argyros, who three days later become emperor on her father's death. The marriage was unhappy and after less than five years Romanos was drowned in his bath by Zoe's teenage lover. He in turn married Zoe and was crowned emperor, as Michael IV. Seven years later, with her husband clearly dying, Zoe was persuaded to adopt his nephew, also called Michael. Michael IV died shortly after, and Michael V came to the throne. He promptly exiled Zoe, sparking a popular revolt which dethroned him and installed Zoe and Theodora as joint empresses. Zoe married for a third time; after two failed courtships she settled on former lover Constantine Monomachos, who was installed as Constantine IX. After eight uneventful years Zoe died aged 72.

Early life: c. 978 – 1028

Zoë was one of the few Byzantine empresses who was Porphyrogenita,[2] or "born into the purple" ; that is, she was born to a reigning emperor. She was the second daughter of Constantine VIII and his wife Helena.[3] Her father became co-emperor in 962 and sole emperor in 1025.[4] His reign as sole emperor lasted less than three years, from 15 December 1025 to 15 November 1028.[3]

As an eligible imperial princess she was considered a possible bride for the Holy Roman Emperor, Otto III, in 996.[5] A second embassy sent in 1001, headed by Arnulf, Archbishop of Milan,[6] was tasked with selecting Otto’s bride from among Constantine’s three daughters. The eldest, Eudocia, was disfigured by smallpox, while the youngest, Theodora, was a very plain girl. Arnulf therefore selected the attractive 23-year-old Zoë, to which her uncle Basil II agreed.[2] In January 1002 she accompanied Arnulf back to Italy, only to discover when the ship reached Bari that Otto III had died, forcing her to return home.[2] Another opportunity arose in 1028, when an embassy from the Holy Roman Empire arrived in Constantinople with a proposal for an imperial marriage. Constantine VIII and the fifty-year-old Zoë rejected the idea out of hand when it was revealed that the intended groom Henry, the son of Conrad II, was only ten years old.[7]

Worried by the prospect of associating another man with the imperial house, Basil II prevented his nieces from marrying any of the Byzantine nobility.[8] Consequently, Zoë lived a life of virtual obscurity in the imperial gynaeceum (women's quarters).[7] Her uncle Basil II died childless in 1025 and her father became sole emperor at the age of 65. As he had no sons Zoe and her surviving sister, Theodora, were forced into the centre of imperial politics.[9]

Constantine determined that the ruling house would be continued by one of them being married to an appropriate aristocrat. The first potential match was the distinguished noble Constantine Dalassenos, the former dux of Antioch.[10] The emperor's advisors preferred a weak ruler whom they could control and they persuaded him to reject Dalassenos after he had already been summoned to the capital. Romanos Argyros, the urban prefect of Constantinople, was selected instead.[8] Theodora defied her father by refusing to marry Romanos as he was already married – his wife having been forced to become a nun to allow Romanos to marry into the imperial family[11]:465 – and that as third cousins they had too close a blood relationship for marriage to occur.[12] Consequently, Constantine VIII chose Zoe to marry Romanos instead.[13][14] They married on 10 November 1028 in the imperial chapel of the palace. Three days later Constantine died and the newly-weds were seated on the imperial throne.[15]

From Romanos III to Michael V: 1028–1042

Spending years in the same restrictive quarters with her sister, Zoë had come to loathe Theodora.[7] She had never forgave her for being their father’s first choice to marry Romanos.[16] So Zoë convinced Romanos to appoint one of his own men as the chief of Theodora’s household, with orders to spy on her.[17] Shortly afterwards, Theodora was accused of plotting to usurp the throne, first with Presian of Bulgaria in 1030, followed by Constantine Diogenes, the Archon of Sirmium, in 1031.[18] Zoë accused her of being part of the conspiracy, and Theodora was forcibly confined in the monastery of Petrion. Zoë later visited her sister and forced her to take religious vows.[19]

Zoë was similarly obsessed with continuing the Macedonian dynasty.[8] Almost immediately upon marrying Romanos the fifty-year-old Zoë tried desperately to become pregnant. She used magic charms, amulets, and potions, all without effect.[20] This failure to conceive helped alienate the couple, and soon Romanos refused to share the bed with her.[21] Romanos incurred his wife's animosity by paying little attention to her and limiting her spending,[22] while he tolerated her various affairs and took a mistress himself.[23] In 1033, Zoë became enamoured of a low-born teenaged servant called Michael. She flaunted her lover openly and spoke about making him emperor. Hearing the rumours, Romanos was concerned and confronted Michael, but he denied the accusations.[22]

On 11 April 1034 Romanos III was found dead in his bath, and there was speculation that Zoë and Michael had conspired to have him poisoned, then strangled or drowned.[23][24] Zoë and Michael were married on the same day that Romanos III died.[8] The next day the couple summoned the Patriarch Alexios I to officiate in the coronation of the new emperor.[25] Although he initially refused to co-operate, the payment of 50 pounds of gold helped change his mind.[8] He proceeded to crown Michael as the new emperor of the Romans and he reigned as Michael IV until his death in 1041.[26][27]

Although Zoë believed Michael would prove to be a more devoted husband than Romanos, she was mistaken. Michael IV was concerned about Zoë turning on him the way she had turned on Romanos,[28] so he excluded Zoë from politics by placing all power in the hands of his brother, the eunuch John the Orphanotrophos.[29] Zoë was confined again to the palace gynaeceum, and kept under strict surveillance,[28] while Michael’s visits grew more and more infrequent.[9] The disgruntled empress conspired against John, but in vain.[8]

The murder of Romanos III Argyros in a bath, from the Chronicle of John Skylitzes.

By 1041 it was obvious that Michael IV was dying.[30] John the Eunuch, eager to ensure that power remained in his hands, forced Zoë to adopt the son of Michael IV's sister, also called Michael.[23] On 10 December 1041, Michael IV died, refusing to the last to see his wife who begged that she be allowed to visit him one more time before he died,[31] and Michael V was crowned emperor.[32] Although he promised to respect Zoë, he promptly banished her to a monastery on Principus, an island in the Sea of Marmara, on charges of attempted regicide.[33] This treatment of the legitimate heir to the Macedonian Dynasty caused a popular uprising in Constantinople. On 19 April 1042 the people dethroned Michael V in support of not only Zoë, but also Theodora. Michael V, desperate to keep his throne, initially brought Zoë back from Principus and displayed her to the people,[34] but his insistence that he continue to rule alongside her was in vain.[35]

Key members of the court decided that Zoë needed a co-ruler, and that it should be her sister Theodora. A delegation headed by Patrician Constantine Cabasilas[36] went to the monastery at Petrion to convince Theodora to become co-empress alongside her sister.[35] At an assembly at Hagia Sophia the people escorted a furious Theodora from Petrion and proclaimed her empress along with Zoë.[37] After crowning Theodora the mob stormed the palace, forcing Michael V to escape to a monastery.[38]

Ruling with Theodora and Constantine IX: 1042–1050

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.[39] 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 clear and adamant. She initially guaranteed Michael’s safety before ordering him to be blinded and to spend the rest of his life as a monk.[40] Officially Theodora was the junior empress, and her throne was situated slightly behind Zoë’s in all public occasions. In practice she was the driving force behind the joint administration. Both sisters proceeded to administer the empire, focusing on curbing the sale of public offices and on the administration of justice.[41] Although contemporary historian Michael Psellus claimed the joint reign was a complete failure, John Scylitzes stated that they were very conscientious in rectifying the abuses of the previous reigns.[42]

Gold histamenon of Zoë and Theodora, 1042.

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 strain.[43] Zoë was still jealous of Theodora and had no desire to administer the empire, but she would not allow Theodora to conduct public business alone. The court began to split, with factions forming behind each empress.[43] After two months of increasing acrimony, Zoë decided to search for a new husband – her third, the last she was permitted according to the rules of the Orthodox Church[8] – thereby denying Theodora the opportunity to increase her influence.[44]

Her preference was Constantine Dalassenos, who had been her father’s first choice as her husband back in 1028. He was brought for an audience before the Empress, but during their conversation his independent and forceful manner displeased Zoe, and he was dismissed from her presence.[43] Her next choice was the married Constantine Atroklines, a court official with whom it was rumoured that she had had an affair during the reign of Romanos III.[23] He died under mysterious circumstances a few days before the wedding was to take place, possibly poisoned by his own soon to be ex-wife.[43] Zoë then remembered the handsome and urbane[43] Constantine Monomachos, another former lover.[23] The pair were married on 11 June 1042, without the participation of Patriarch Alexis, who refused to officiate over a third marriage (for both spouses).[45] On the following day Constantine was formally proclaimed emperor together with Zoë and Theodora.[45]

Zoë got more than she bargained for when Constantine decided to bring with him to his new station his long standing mistress Maria Skleraina.[46] Not content with bringing her to court, he insisted that he be allowed to publicly share his life with her, and that she obtain some official recognition.[47] Surprisingly the 64-year-old Zoë did not object to sharing her bed and her throne with Skleraina. The sisters granted Skleraina the title of sebaste and she took rank after Zoë and Theodora, being called despoina, mistress or empress, like them and taking her place behind them in official processions and ceremonies.[8]

In the eyes of the public however, Constantine IX’s preferential treatment of his mistress was a scandal, and eventually rumours began to spread that Skleraina was planning to murder both Zoë and Theodora.[48] 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.[49] The mob was only quieted by the appearance at a balcony of Zoë and Theodora, who reassured the people that they were not in any danger of assassination.[49] During Constantine’s reign, Zoë handed over all imperial power and responsibility to him. Until her death in 1050[50] she enjoyed various amusements, and her rooms in the palace were filled with boiling pots and pans for the manufacture of ointments and perfumes.[8]

Zoë was fifty when she first married, yet despite her age she married twice more. Ironically, the most capable of her husbands was the one who was least well prepared to be emperor, Michael IV.[51] It is said she was stunningly beautiful, and Michael Psellos in his Chronographia commented that "every part of her was firm and in good condition".[52] She was aware of her charms and meant to keep and use them for as long as possible. With typical Byzantine ingenuity, she had many rooms in her chambers converted into laboratories for the preparation of secret ointments, and it was said she was able to keep her face relatively youthful until she was sixty.[8]

See also


  1. ^ Norwich, pg. 325
  2. ^ a b c Norwich, pg. 259
  3. ^ a b Kazhdan, pg. 503
  4. ^ Canduci, pg. 252
  5. ^ Norwich, pg. 253
  6. ^ Norwich, pg. 258
  7. ^ a b c Norwich, pg. 269
  8. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Garland, Zoe Porphyrogenita
  9. ^ a b Canduci, pg. 267
  10. ^ Finlay, pg. 464
  11. ^ Finlay.
  12. ^ Norwich, pg. 270
  13. ^ Candui, pg. 257
  14. ^ Norwich, pg. 270
  15. ^ Norwich, pg. 271
  16. ^ Canduci, pg. 269
  17. ^ Finlay, pg. 469
  18. ^ Kazhdan, pg. 627
  19. ^ Ostrogorsky, 1957, p 289
  20. ^ Norwich, pg. 272
  21. ^ Norwich, pg. 275
  22. ^ a b Norwich, pg. 276
  23. ^ a b c d e Kazhdan, pg. 2228
  24. ^ Norwich, pg. 278
  25. ^ Norwich, pg. 279
  26. ^ Treadgold, pg. 586
  27. ^ Finlay, pg. 478
  28. ^ a b Norwich, pg. 280
  29. ^ Finlay, pg. 480
  30. ^ Norwich, pg. 286
  31. ^ Norwich, pg 289
  32. ^ Finlay, pg. 495
  33. ^ Norwich, pg. 295
  34. ^ Norwich, pg. 297
  35. ^ a b Finlay, pg. 496
  36. ^ Norwich, pg. 298
  37. ^ Norwich, pg 299
  38. ^ Norwich, pg. 300
  39. ^ Finlay, pg. 497
  40. ^ Norwich, pg. 301
  41. ^ Finlay, pg. 498
  42. ^ Norwich, pg. 305
  43. ^ a b c d e Norwich, pg. 306
  44. ^ Finlay, pg. 499
  45. ^ a b Norwich, pg. 307
  46. ^ Finlay, pg. 501
  47. ^ Norwich, pg. 308
  48. ^ Norwich, pg. 309
  49. ^ a b Finlay, pg. 503
  50. ^ Finlay, pg. 526
  51. ^ Norwich, pg. 290
  52. ^ Sherrard, Philip, Byzantium, Time-Life Books (1966), pg. 79


Primary sources

  • Michael Psellus, Chronographia.
  • Thurn, Hans, ed. (1973). Ioannis Scylitzae Synopsis historiarum. Berlin-New York: De Gruyter. 

Secondary sources

  • Kazhdan, Alexander, ed. (1991). The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-504652-8. 
  • Norwich, John Julius. (1993), Byzantium: The Apogee, London: Penguin, ISBN 0-14-011448-3 
  • Canduci, Alexander. (2010), Triumph & Tragedy: The Rise and Fall of Rome's Immortal Emperors, Millers Point, N.S.W.: Pier 9, ISBN 978-1-74196-598-8 
  • Garland, Lynda. Zoe Porphyrogenita (wife of Romanus III, Constantine IX, and Michael IV), De Imperatoribus Romanis (2006)
  • Ostrogorsky, George. History of The Byzantine State (Rutgers University Press, 1956, New Brunswick) OCLC 422217218
  • Treadgold, Warren. A History of the Byzantine State and Society (Stanford University Press, 1997) ISBN 0-8047-2630-2
  • Finlay, George. History of the Byzantine Empire from 716 – 1057, William Blackwood & Sons, 1853
Zoë Porphyrogenita
Born: c. 978 Died: June 1050
Regnal titles
Preceded by
Constantine VIII
Byzantine Empress
15 November 1028 – June 1050
with Romanos III (1028–1034)
with Michael IV (1034–1041)
with Michael V Kalaphates (1041–1042)
with Constantine IX (1042–1050)
with Theodora (1042–1050)
Succeeded by
Constantine IX and Theodora
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