The sisters Zoe and Theodora, as nieces of the childless Basil II and daughters of his younger brother Constantine VIII and Helena Alypia, were the only heirs to the Macedonian dynasty in the new generation. They were also its last representatives. While Theodora was later to reign briefly in her own right, it was Zoe who was initially given the chance to secure the future of the imperial family, a chance which she embraced with enthusiasm. Like many a twenty-first century starlet, she married three husbands, adopted a likely young lad as her son and heir, and indulged in numerous affairs. As the embodiment of the dynasty, Zoe legitimised the reign of each of her three husbands, who received the throne by right of marriage to her, and like her grandmother Theophano was implicated in the decease of one of these husbands, whose presence she considered to have become superfluous to requirements. Immensely popular with the inhabitants of the capital, she was protected by them when her position was threatened, despite the fact that she was not only childless but frivolous and extravagant as well, with no concern for the realities of government. But her status was assured by the fact that she (and not her connections by marriage) was the ‘Macedonian’ and heir of Basil II. Though she had no taste for administration or the details of government, Zoe was not helpless: as well as her role in the death of her first and elderly husband Romanus III Argyrus, she was reported to have plotted against her second husband, Michael IV, when he restricted her activities, and against her adopted son Michael V, when he too sidelined her from the centre of government, as well as having attempted to have poisoned her husband’s brother, John the Orphanotrophus, one of the highest-ranking administrators of the empire.
The death of Constantine VIII
Constantine VIII succeeded his brother Basil II in 1025. Basil had never married, and Constantine had only three daughters, yet neither brother seems to have made any other provision for the succession. The eldest of the three daughters, Eudocia, had suffered an attack of smallpox during her childhood which had disfigured her appearance. She had always been unlike the rest of her family in her gentleness and quiet disposition, and as a result of her illness had entered a convent.[] The remaining sisters were forced to reside in the women’s quarters of the palace until their father Constantine was close to death in 1028. While the exact date of Zoe’s birth is not known, she was clearly born c. AD 978, as Psellus states that she was seventy-two years of age when she died in AD 1050, and so may already have been in her fiftieth year at this point.[] The lethargy of both Basil and, Constantine in arranging matches for the younger generation is therefore unaccountable, for even at Basil’s death, when Zoe might have expected to be married off, she was in her later forties, which is hardly the best age at which to start bearing children. As it was, Zoe and her younger sister had remained unwed, while their relationship not unnaturally developed into a state of mutual irritation and animosity which is confirmed by all sources. Indeed, Zoe seems to have been intensely jealous of Theodora.[]
Hope for the future
One positive light had shone on Zoe’s youth, for a marriage had been arranged for one of the sisters, presumably Zoe, with Otto III, the western emperor. Otto was himself the son of the Byzantine princess Theophano, niece of John I Tzimisces, who had married Otto II in St Peter’s in Rome in 972.]] Regrettably the highly eligible young bridegroom (Otto had been born in 980) had died before the princess arrived at Bari in February 1002, and she had had to turn round and come home again.[] Such an opportunity would not reoccur. In any case this marriage would not have solved the problem of the succession, and Basil’s unwillingness to find suitable matches at home for his nieces may have been due to some reluctance of his to allow other noble families access to power. Certainly, Psellus tells us, the rebel Bardas Sclerus had advised Basil to ‘admit no woman to the imperial councils’, while Basil’s reluctance to take a wife himself may have been due to a monastic vow he took early in his reign in the face of military defeat.[] The girls therefore spent a lonely life in the palace for several decades, until Constantine VIII, who is portrayed as concerned primarily with the pleasures of life,]] was at death’s door, when clearly some measure had to be taken with expedition.
Constantine had a little time in which to survey possible candidates. Initially, his first choice was Constantine Dalassenus, who had been governor of Antioch in 1025, but he then changed his mind and decided on Romanus Argyrus, the eparch (prefect of the city), who was widely tipped as the favourite candidate.[] The family of the Argyri were both noble and wealthy, and Romanus’ sister Maria Argyropoulaina had been chosen by Basil II as a suitable bride for the son of Peter II Orseolo, the doge of Venice, in 1005. Maria’s use of rose-water, forks, and incense was seen as blasphemous and arrogant by local clerics, such as Peter Damian, and her death from plague in 1006 was thought to have been a righteous judgement upon her.[[9[[ All in all, Zoe, with her love of luxury and pleasure, might not have received a very warm welcome in the West.
Romanus had been born c. 968 (Psellus records that he was more than ten years older than Zoe), and certainly, at sixty or more, he was no spring chicken — but then neither was Zoe.[] A greater obstacle was the fact that he was already married. Constantine VIII had a reputation for brutality and a short temper, and he was not going to let this stop him. Romanus’ wife Helena was informed that she had to retire immediately to a convent and take the veil as a nun (thus releasing Romanus from his marriage);[] if she refused to do so, her husband would be blinded. This loving wife put her husband’s interests first and prudently withdrew to a monastic institution, under the new name of Maria. Romanus and Zoe were married forthwith and crowned in November 1028, three days before Constantine’s death on 12 November 1028. Interestingly, Romanus clearly valued his wife’s self-sacrifice: he gave Helena-Maria the title of sebaste (an honorific title, which originally was a translation of Augusta into Greek). He also made huge charitable donations on her death.[] Zoe does not seem to have made (or felt) any objections to the match. Scylitzes and Zonaras, however, record that in contrast Theodora had originally been given the choice of marrying Romanus, but had enough scruples to decline it, either because of the degree of kinship between them (they were cousins in the seventh degree), or because Romanus’ wife was still alive and she had not freely chosen the divorce.[]
The first marriage
After fifty years in the women’s quarters, broken only by the brief sea trip to Bari, Zoe had a lot of wasted time to make up for. One of her first actions was to ensure that Theodora retired from court to the convent of Petrion: there was only room at court for one empress, and that was Zoe herself.Romanus, however, ensured that Theodora was granted certain imperial favours, despite her possible involvement on two occasions in the conspiratorial activities of Constantine Diogenes while Romanus was away on campaign, incidents that Zoe dealt with in her husband’s absence.[]
Zoe was every inch an empress, and very much like her father — arrogantly regal, short-tempered and quite prepared to have people blinded at the slightest provocation.[] She was also extraordinarily extravagant, a characteristic she shared with Romanus who desired to show himself a great builder, general, and administrator. Basil II had left 200,000 talents in the treasury, and they showed a spirited determination to spend the lot.[] Quite naturally, they also shared a common desire to continue the dynasty. They consulted medical experts, and Zoe took to the use of magic amulets and other non-mainstream practices. When no children eventuated, Romanus made the mistake of considering Zoe rather an embarrassment: he ignored her, stopped sleeping with her, and publicly took a mistress.[] To make matters even worse, he forbade her access to the treasury and made her keep to a fixed allowance.[] This was the ultimate insult — after all Romanus was only emperor by right of his marriage to Zoe, who was the true Macedonian. As the marriage careered towards breakdown, Zoe, in an imperial audience one day, caught sight of a handsome young man in his twenties. This lucky youth was Michael, the brother of one of the court’s high-ranking eunuchs, John the Orphanotrophus (‘director of an orphanage’), who was actually in charge of the administration of the empire and had brought his brother to court to further his interests. Zoe was no shrinking violet: dazzled by Michael’s attractions, she immediately invited him to visit her in her quarters and propositioned him. Scylitzes calls her infatuation a ‘demonic and mad love’, but psychologically Zoe was understandably ready for a passionate affair with a ‘toy boy’. Michael’s reaction is not so clear, though Psellus sees him as unwillingly suffering the empress’ attentions while bearing in mind the power and influence he would gain through this relationship.[] Michael’s family too saw the empress’ affection as a road to power, and his brother John (whose experience in relationships at court had led him to anticipate this outcome) instructed him on how best to please the empress. The court was hardly a private place, especially for the imperial family: Zoe and Michael were found together in a number of compromising situations (including in bed). Zoe indeed was not concerned to conceal her feelings, and one unfortunate eunuch was shocked to find her embracing Michael, who was not only on the throne at the time but fully equipped with the imperial sceptre, at which Zoe boasted that she could make him emperor — indeed, she had already made him so.[]
Romanus was blind to the danger. His redoubtable sister Pulcheria and her friends warned him of the possible consequences, but he took no notice. Zoe was better kept occupied, and the affair with Michael consumed her time and stopped her sleeping around more widely — the names of Constantine Catepanus and Constantine Monomachus, at least, were linked with hers at this time in this context.[] With Zoe not concerned with concealment, the situation was publicly canvassed at court and in the capital, yet Romanus took no steps against either party, and was satisfied with Michael’s assurance that he was not sleeping with the empress.[] This was not a shrewd move. Zoe considered that she had wasted enough of her youth and, after possibly trying to have Romanus poisoned, grew impatient for his termination and on Good Friday (11 April) 1034 had him drowned in his bath by Michael’s attendants. She came in, took one look to make sure that he was actually dying, and swept out to marry Michael and set him on the throne that same night.[]
The second marriage
Zoe quite correctly saw herself as the embodiment of legitimisation. With Romanus dead, whomever she next chose as her husband would automatically become emperor. Entirely ignoring the prudent advice of her officials and retainers, she had Michael proclaimed emperor that evening. The patriarch Alexius the Studite was summoned to an audience with ‘the emperor’, and was thunder-struck to find not Romanus but Michael on the throne next to Zoe. The payment of fifty lbs of gold to him and another fifty to his clergy ensured his acquiescence in their marriage,[] and the citizens happily acclaimed Michael emperor on the following day.[]
As Michael IV Paphlagon (‘the Paphlagonian’) the new emperor began by falling in with Zoe’s wishes and arranging various amusements for her.[] There was, however, a snag: Michael suffered from epilepsy, and our sources suggest that this was intensified by his feelings of guilt over Romanus‘ murder and over his perjury to Romanus. Psellus also suggests that Michael may have deliberately distanced himself from Zoe because he did not want her to see him suffering an epileptic fit.[] On the pretext that Zoe was plotting against him he had her confined to the women’s quarters. Her visitors were restricted, her eunuchs and faithful maid-servants dismissed, and she was confined to her rooms, while Michael stopped seeing her. According to Psellus, the emperor’s family seems to have felt some genuine apprehension of Zoe, viewing her in the role of a potentially ferocious lioness.[]
There is no evidence that Zoe had been involved in a plot against Michael, but she may have seen Michael’s brother John as her main enemy and Scylitzes reports that in 1037 she had one of her eunuchs (Sgouritzes) bribe John’s doctor to poison him instead of giving him a purgative. The plot was uncovered when one of the doctor’s servants informed John, and the doctor was exiled, as was the courtier (a protospatharius) who provided the poison, while Zoe from then on was more closely supervised.[]
As Michael’s life expectancy was short due to his epilepsy, his family was concerned to line up a successor. Perhaps in 1035 John (who was now in charge of government) suggested to Zoe that she adopt one of their nephews, another Michael, as her heir. This Michael, known derisively as Calaphates (‘the Caulker’) from his father’s trade, was proclaimed Caesar, thus securing the family’s fortunes.[] The new heir felt no gratitude: rather he determined to plot against both his uncle John and the empress.[] In the face of approaching death, Michael IV rebuilt the grand church and monastery of Sts Cosmas and Damian, which he entered as a monk before his death on 10 December 1041.[] Zoe clearly had more freedom of movement at this point, for at the news that he was dying she was so overcome by emotion that she forgot all his ill-treatment of her and crossed the city without her retinue and on foot (Psellus is greatly shocked at this), to see him for one last time: however, sadly, he refused to let her be admitted.[]
The adopted son
Between 10 and 13 December 1041 power reverted to Zoe, though after consideration she agreed to the young Michael assuming the throne. John and his family flattered her and swore that Michael would be emperor only in name and that he would follow all her orders, treating her ‘as sovereign lady, mistress, and mother’.[] Once again power was vested in her to select the new emperor and first, in council with her father’s eunuchs, she took the opportunity to banish three of Michael’s uncles, including John, who was sent to a monastery. Michael did not reign long enough to issue his own coinage, but, significantly, two patterns for gold coins during Michael’s reign seem to depict not Michael, but Christ Antiphonetes (Zoe’s favourite icon) and Zoe and her father Constantine VIII.[] After Michael V’s accession, for the first few days she was proclaimed before him, and he behaved like a junior colleague, though this was not to last. When Michael became jealous of her status and popularity, he refused her access both to the council chamber and (worse) to the treasury, while she and her servants were kept under supervision; he also recalled his favourite uncle, Constantine the nobilissimus. According to Scylitzes, Constantine advised Michael not to trust Zoe but to watch her in case she plotted against him as she had against Romanus III and Michael IV, and John (from exile) did the same by letter.[] Five months after becoming emperor, Michael determined to exile her and, after consultation with his councillors and astrologers, had her tonsured (made a nun) and dispatched her to a monastery on the island of Principo (one of the Princes’ islands) on the night of 18/19 April 1042. His excuse was that she was trying to poison him.[] Psellus has Zoe, while on board ship, tearfully declaiming a speech in which she apostrophises her uncle Basil and highlights her own status as his heir:
‘It was you, my uncle and emperor, you who wrapped me in my swaddling clothes as soon as I was born, you who loved me, and honoured me too, more than my sisters, because, as I have often heard them say who saw you, I was like yourself. It was you who said, as you kissed me and held me in your arms, “Good luck, my darling, and may you live many years, to be the glory of our family and the most marvellous gift to our Empire!” It was you, also, who so carefully brought me up and trained me, you who saw in my hands a great future for this same Empire. But your hopes have been brought to nothing, for I have been dishonoured… I beg you, watch over me from Heaven and protect your niece.’[]
The senate was convinced by Michael’s accusation (which Psellus dismisses as a fabrication), but the city as a whole was restive, and the imperial guard were particularly unhappy. Nevertheless, it was the people who first took action out of concern both for Zoe’s safety and her imperial status,[] the catalyst being Michael’s proclamation on 19 April, read by the eparch (city prefect) Anastasius in the forum of Constantine, stating that Zoe had been banished for treason and the patriarch Alexius deposed.[]
Riot and deposition
A spontaneous riot erupted, with the cry ‘we don’t want the cross-trampling Calaphates as our emperor, but our ancestress and heir to empire, our mother Zoe.’ During the three days of anarchy that followed, which saw some 3,000 dead, even women and children joined in the rioting in defence of the empress:
‘Where can she be,’ they cried, ‘she who alone is noble of heart and alone is beautiful? Where can she be, she who alone of all women is free, the mistress of all the imperial family, the rightful heir to the empire, whose father was emperor, whose grandfather was monarch before him – yes, and great-grandfather too? How was it this low-born fellow dared to raise a hand against a woman of such lineage?’[]
The mob attacked the houses of the emperor’s family as well as the palace,[] and Michael decided to have Zoe recalled to defuse the situation, though she agreed to stay a nun.[] However when he displayed Zoe to the crowd in the hippodrome, tonsured and dressed not in her imperial robes but in nun’s dress, this made the situation still more unstable, and some refused to recognise their resplendent empress in this black-robed figure.[] At this point some of Michael’s opponents seem to have feared that Zoe would again knuckle under and allow him to retain power. As they could not get to her in the Great Palace, the populace, in conjunction with the senators and palace eunuchs, instead massed at the convent of Petrion and made Theodora their figure-head. She was at first reluctant to be involved, but once dressed in suitably magnificent robes allowed herself to be taken on horseback to St Sophia where both elite and people paid her homage. Early in the morning of 21 April the two sisters were jointly proclaimed empress.[]
The decisiveness which Theodora was later to show as sole empress is apparent at this point. Having accepted that it was her fate to become empress, she appointed her officials while in St Sophia and ensured that Michael was deposed.[] Afraid that Zoe would pardon Michael, and that in her jealousy of Theodora she would do anything to keep her sister from power, Theodora’s supporters seized Michael and his uncle Constantine, both of whom had taken shelter in the Studium monastery, and had them blinded, to great popular acclaim.[]
The two sisters
The situation was unprecedented. The empire now had two empresses, one of whom was in the Great Palace and the other in St Sophia. The senate was unable to decide which was superior to the other — Zoe as the elder, or Theodora as the agent of liberation from ‘tyranny’. Psellus has Zoe making the first move and offering to share the empire with her younger sister:
The question of the government was thus resolved by agreement between them. Next, Zoe brought Theodora to live with herself, escorted by a procession of great magnificence, and made her joint-ruler of the Empire. As for Theodora, she lost none of her respect for her sister, nor did she encroach on her prerogatives. On the contrary she allowed Zoe to take precedence and, although both were empresses, Theodora held rank inferior to the older woman.[]
In Scylitzes’ account Zoe was forced by the populace into co-rule with Theodora, and she did so unwillingly, while Zonaras has the senate persuading her.[] They were acclaimed as autocratores (’emperors’),[] and in the seven weeks that followed (21 April to 12 June) they issued coinage and ruled jointly,[] though as the junior empress, Theodora sat slightly behind Zoe during their court audiences.[] Psellus is critical of their approach to government, stating that ‘they tended to confuse the trifles of the women’s quarters with pressing matters of state’, which implies (in view of Theodora’s practical grasp of administration in 1055-1056) that Zoe at this point took the lead. Their measures included the removal of Michael V’s relations from office, abolishing the sale of offices, creating new senators, and making generous donations to the citizens. Michael’s uncle Constantine was brought back from exile to confess that he had 5,300 lbs of gold hidden in a cistern in his house, and was then returned to exile (Theodora was as noted for her parsimony as Zoe was for her extravagance), while the workings of government continued as usual.[] The sisters issued their own coinage, on the reverse of which was depicted the crowned busts of the empresses, wearing jewelled robes with deep collars and the traditional crowns with triangular plaques, holding between them a labarum (standard).[]
Psellus notes that, in the empresses’ performance of duties, their officials were primarily responsible for decisions, though when necessary they gave orders ‘in a soft voice’, and used their own judgement or their officials’ advice in responding to queries. However, he sees both as temperamentally unfit to govern. The court suddenly took on a dramatic quality, with reality becoming image and officials acting as if on stage, while under Zoe’s guidance the treasury lavishly dispensed money, and ‘any trifles hidden away there were distributed by her with generous abandon’. It may be in this that his criticism of their administration lies, for Zoe was the sort of woman, he tells us, who could exhaust a sea teeming with gold-dust in a single day, while army pay and expenditure was diverted to those who pleased and flattered the empress.[]
The key-note of this regime seems to have been set by Zoe, and during these seven weeks she clearly became tired of sharing power with Theodora. Each of the empresses had her own supporters who disagreed as to precedence. Moreover, the minutiae of government may not have been to Zoe’s taste and she took steps to redefine the position.[] At approximately sixty-four she decided to remarry and give the empire an emperor, being careful to choose someone she knew well from her own court circle. Various possibilities were canvassed.[] Constantine Dalassenus (who had earlier been considered a possibility for Zoe’s first husband by Constantine VIII) again appeared to be a suitable candidate, but when summoned to the palace to see Zoe he blew his chances by his abrupt comments and decided views on government, and for the second time failed to marry Zoe and become emperor. Another possibility, the handsome Constantine Catepanus, whom Zoe might have currently been having an affair with (she had certainly been rumoured to have been close to him earlier in Romanus’ lifetime) died suddenly — some said poisoned by his jealous wife who refused to lose him to the empress. As the possible candidates decreased, Zoe finally lighted on the twice-married Constantine Monomachus as the person to be honoured with her hand and empire.[]
The third marriage
Zoe and Constantine Monomachus knew each other well. They had indulged in clandestine meetings in the lifetime of her first husband, and before the adoption of Michael V he had been considered a possible successor to Michael IV because of his intimacy with Zoe.[] Zoe spoke to her bodyguard and retinue, and then, with their concurrence, informed the senate. Constantine, who was currently in exile on Mytilene, having been sent there on suspicion of conspiracy by John the Orphanotrophus, was recalled to the capital — a summons which initially gave him some unease.[]
Constantine, whom several people (including Michael IV) had seen as a potential emperor, had been accompanied, during his seven years in exile on Mytilene, by his devoted mistress, Maria Scleraina, his second wife’s cousin,[] who was to be prominent at court over the next few years.[] The couple had not married because of the restraints of canon law which prohibited both third marriages and marriage within their degree of relationship. She was the great-grand-daughter of Bardas Sclerus, who in the reign of Basil II had three times proclaimed himself emperor, and she had long had political ambitions for Constantine. In fact she was hoping to see Constantine on the throne, ‘no less than himself (says Psellus) she was sustained by hopes of power; nothing else mattered if only in the future she might share the throne with her husband. I say husband because at that time she was convinced that their marriage would be legally sanctioned, and all her desires fulfilled when Constantine, as emperor, overruled the laws [banning third marriages].’[] Zoe’s choice of Constantine upset Scleraina’s plans; not only would he be marrying Zoe, not herself, but she feared Zoe’s jealousy when she should discover the relationship. However, no reprisals eventuated. As it was the third marriage for both Constantine and Zoe, the patriarch did not perform the marriage ceremony himself, delegating this to a priest called Stypes. The marriage was not technically illegal for, though Zoe was in her 60s and thus well over the canonical age for third marriages, she was childless, which was an extenuating factor, and Alexius was prepared to allow the marriage and crown Constantine as Constantine IX Monomachus. []
Whatever Scleraina’s concerns, Constantine was a faithful lover. At his very first meeting with Zoe in the capital, he was prepared to disclose his relationship with Scleraina, describing her more as his wife and fellow-sufferer than as his mistress and requesting that she be recalled from exile and given suitable status at court. Zoe at the age of sixty-four philosophically consented. Scleraina on Mytilene was surprised to receive two letters, under the escort of an imperial bodyguard, one from Constantine, written the day after his marriage (the day on which he was crowned, 12 June, and hence his first official communication) summoning her to the city, and one from Zoe, promising her a friendly reception.[]
While Zoe was clearly prepared to be complaisant towards her husband’s mistress, Constantine initially had Scleraina move with an ‘undistinguished’ bodyguard into a relatively ordinary house at Kynegion. Nearby, he began the construction of the magnificent complex of St George of Mangana, so that he could visit Scleraina on the pretext of overseeing the building works. On such visits, he would entertain Zoe’s supporters among his retinue with a magnificent feast, for which they themselves were allowed to select the menu. As a result, he quite did away with any indignation they might have felt on behalf of the empress, and ensured that they were as willing for the visits to take place as himself. Soon the affair was no longer a secret: Constantine lived openly with Scleraina.[] St George at Mangana became a great foundation, with a palace, gardens, a monastery and church of St George, a home for the elderly, a home for the poor, a residence for foreigners, and a hospital, as well as the school of law, with extensive real estate in the capital and provinces — the surplus income from which was granted to Scleraina.[] On her arrival Constantine had also sent her enormous sums of money as gifts, and, according to Psellus, he ‘wasted the imperial treasures in satisfying her every whim’.[]
Inevitably Constantine wanted Scleraina to move into the palace, and Zoe agreed not only to her living there, but to her being publicly granted all the honours of an empress and member of the imperial family. To protect her interests, an official document was drawn up, witnessed by the senators, in which Zoe promised to treat Scleraina as an equal:
“A treaty of friendship was set out in a document and an imperial pavilion built for the ceremony of ratification. In front sat Zoe, Constantine, and Scleraina, while the Senate filed in to witness this extraordinary contract, blushing and for the most part talking in undertones. Despite their embarrassment, the senators still praised the agreement as if it were a document sent down from heaven. They called it a ‘loving-cup’ and lavished on it all the other flattering epithets that deceive and cajole frivolous and empty-headed persons. The contract being signed and the oaths administered, she who had hitherto been only a lover, was now introduced to the private apartments of the palace, no longer called ‘mistress’, but ‘My Lady’ and ‘Empress’ officially.”[]
The sisters granted Scleraina the title of sebaste (the Greek translation of ‘Augusta’) and she took rank after Zoe and Theodora, being called despoina, mistress or empress, like them and taking her place behind them in official processions and ceremonies.[] Psellus, however, admits that while Constantine discussed affairs of state with both Zoe and Scleraina he was influenced more by the views of ‘the junior empress’. In any case, Zoe had little interest in imperial concerns, and preferred to leave government in Constantine’s hands,[] so the fact that Constantine tended to rely more on Scleraina’s advice would not have caused friction.[] As far as their living quarters were concerned, Zoe’s, Theodora’s and Scleraina’s apartments all adjoined Constantine’s, but Scleraina’s were the more private, and Zoe never visited the emperor without first sending to find out if he were alone.[] Prior to his accession Scleraina appears to have borne to Constantine a daughter, who would also have been received at court and been acknowledged as his illegitimate daughter; this princess apparently married Vsevolod of Kiev after 1046 and gave birth to Vladimir II Monomachus in 1053.[]
The civilised arrangement at court was suspect in the eyes of the citizenry. On 9 March 1044, when Constantine prepared to mount at the Chalke gate of the palace for his ceremonial ride to the shrine of the Holy Martyrs, a cry went up: ‘we don’t want Scleraina as empress, nor for our mothers, the purple-born Zoe and Theodora, to be killed for her sake’. Constantine would have been lynched, or deposed, but for the prompt action of Zoe and Theodora who gestured their affection for him from the palace balcony.(] Outside in the city, Zoe and Theodora were seen as the legitimate ‘rulers’ and shared the imperial dignity with Constantine. When Constantinecelebrated his triumph over the rebel general George Maniaces in 1043, Zoe and Theodora sat on either side of him, though it was not usual for empresses to be present at triumphal ceremonies: their presence highlighted the fact that they were the source of Constantine’s imperial authority.[] Both empresses appear with Constantine in a highly ornate manuscript of St John Chrysostom (Codex Sinait. gr. 364), where they stand on either side of the emperor. The trio is titled ‘the shining trinity of earthly sovereigns’. Zoe is dressed in red and Theodora in blue, and Zoe has dark hair in two plaits. Theodora’s face is badly damaged, but her regalia match Zoe’s, and both are described as Augustae and porphyrogennetae, with Zoe also given the epithet ‘most pious’. Rays descend to the heads of Zoe and Theodora from the hands of the Christ above the trio, while rays from his feet reach Constantine.[] The threesome also appear on the ‘Crown of Monomachus’, which, on the front, depicts the Pantokrator flanked by Modesty and Truth with Constantine Monomachus and Zoe and Theodoraunderneath; on the back King David is shown between Sophia (Wisdom) and Propheteia (Prophecy); underneath them three dancing girls are depicted, suggesting that the crown celebrated a festivity such as a wedding. []
Just as Scleraina had had political ambitions for Constantine, she used her influence with him to promote the career of her brother, Romanus Sclerus, and gain him high rank.[] Constantine had made her extremely wealthy, and she was able to flatter Zoe and Theodora and other courtiers with expensive presents, so that her position was not resented.[] Indeed, she seems to have been well-liked at court (everyone flatters the emperor’s favourite), and Psellus stresses that she had a lovely voice, though she was not attractive, and that she had a lively intelligence and had frequent conversations with him about Greek mythology.[] Scleraina’s position was obviously a subject of great discussion and her future was seen as Constantine’s main concern: ‘it is possible that the emperor intended to fund an empire for her in the future – at least there was much talk of it. How it was to be done I do not know, but he certainly cherished ambitions in that direction’.[] Obviously the court expected that Zoe would predecease Scleraina, and that in some way Scleraina would become empress-consort (in fact if not in name), but it was the younger partner who was to die c. 1045 from asthma and severe chest pains. She was buried in the church of St George of Mangana, and Constantine showed his devotion by choosing at his death to be buried beside her, not by Zoe.[] Constantine was overwhelmed with grief,[] and part of the estate at Bessai which belonged to St George of Mangana was donated by Constantine to St Lazarus Galesiotes, in return for prayers for the deceased Scleraina and himself.[] Psellus wrote a lengthy composition in verse (446 lines) on Scleraina’s demise to console Constantine, and advised him to take comfort in his grief in the empresses Zoe and Theodora.[]
While Constantine IX was occupied with Scleraina, Zoe had her own occupations and amusements which Psellus describes at some length. She liked exercising imperial power, in that she was both outstandingly generous and given to inflicting blinding on those who committed even the slightest error. Indeed Constantine had on several occasions to countermand her orders, or courtiers would have been blinded for no reason.[] She also possessed a rather robust sense of humour and Psellus describes how she and Theodora were entertained in the women’s quarter of the palace with buffoonery and crude jokes.[] An especial key to her favour was praise of her family, particularly the achievements of her uncle Basil II. The treasury emptied faster than revenues could come in. The right to empty the treasury was in Zoe’s view an integral part of the perquisites of the heir to the empire and courtiers took advantage of this. Those who wished to flatter her – and Psellus states that many did – would throw themselves on the floor at her approach, as if struck by lightning at her appearance, and she would reward them magnificently with ‘chains of gold’; on the other hand over-effusive thanks (if obviously insincere) would see the recipient in chains of iron instead. But in general she lacked interest both in the details of matters of state, and in the conventional womanly occupations of spinning and weaving, and occupied herself with more mundane pursuits. Her rooms in the palace were filled with boiling pots and pans, for the manufacture of ointments and perfumes:
“Her own private bedroom was no more impressive than the workshops in the market where the artisans and the blacksmiths toil, for all round the room were burning braziers, a host of them. Each of her servants had a particular task to perform: one was allotted the duty of bottling the perfumes, another of mixing them, while a third had some other task of the same kind. In winter, of course, these operations were demonstrably of some benefit, as the great heat from the fires served to warm the cold air, but in the summer-time the others found the temperature near the braziers almost unbearable. Zoe herself, however, surrounded by a whole bodyguard of these fires, was apparently unaffected by the scorching heat. In fact, both she and her sister seemed naturally perverse. They despised fresh air, fine houses, meadows, gardens; the charm of all such things meant nothing to them.”[]
At least in old age, Zoe disdained cloth-of-gold, necklaces, diadems and the ornate heavy robes which were normal for her rank, preferring instead thin dresses, but she still enjoyed flattery of her appearance.[] In her youth she had been extremely beautiful – plump, though not very tall, with a perfect figure, large eyes and imposing eyebrows, golden hair and a beautifully white complexion. Even as an old woman she made a commanding figure, with her smooth skin, though her hands were unsteady and her back bent.[] The famous portrait of Zoe on the panel in the south gallery of St Sophia, in which she offers a legal document to Christ, while Constantine IX offers a donation of money (she was originally depicted with Romanus III), is evidence for her appearance, and for her perception of it, in old age.[] It also acts as a statement of Zoe’s imperial status, as empress and legitimate heir of the empire.
But her main concern in this manufacture of cosmetics may not have been vanity but piety. In old age, she was particularly devoted to an icon of Christ which she had commissioned. This was a copy of the miracle-working icon of Christ ‘Antiphonetes’ which responded to questions put to it by changing colour and which foretold coming events,[] and her manufacture of ointments was primarily in order to make offerings for this icon. This presumably reflected marginal magical and astrological practices.[] Psellus reports that he often saw Zoe clasping the icon and talking to it, or lying on the ground in front of it beating her breasts: ‘if she saw the image turn pale, she would go away crestfallen, but if it took on a fiery red colour, its halo lustrous with a beautiful radiant light, she would lose no time in telling the emperor and prophesying what the future was to bring forth.’[] It appears then that these perfumes and ointments were offerings. Indeed, Psellus later repeats that Zoe was not interested in normal female pursuits, but in one thing alone: ‘the offering of sacrifices to God. I am not referring so much to the sacrifice of praise, or of thanksgiving, or of penitence, but to the offering of spices and sweet herbs, the products of India and Egypt.’[] So it seems that the manufacturing process in her apartments was for the purposes of offerings to the Antiphonetes icon and for invoking its ‘magical’ divinatory properties.
Zoe died from a fever in 1050, aged approximately seventy-two. Prior to her death she remitted debts and granted an amnesty to condemned criminals. For the last time she squandered gold from the treasury ‘like a river’.[] She was buried in the church that she founded in honour of Christ Antiphonetes.[] Constantine (though he chose to be buried next to Scleraina) shed tears at her tomb, and insisted that the growth of a mushroom on her grave was a miracle showing that her soul was numbered amongst the angels. Psellus is derisive of this but Constantine’s belief was supported by many more sycophantic courtiers.[]
Zoe had legitimated four emperors by marriage or adoption. Modern judgements on her are somewhat harsh: ‘Empress Zoe, though historically significant… was politically a pathetic figure, more concerned with unguents, ointments and the marriage bed than with the affairs of state.’[] Yet, she certainly played a part in commissioning the death of her first husband and may well have conspired to poison John the Orphanotrophus and plotted against Michael IV and Michael V, though she took little interest in the details of administration and government. She took after her acerbic father, Constantine VIII, in more ways than one (choosing pleasure before politics), yet throughout everything remained the darling of the populace, who saw her as their beloved mother and mistress:
‘… she who alone is noble of heart and alone is beautiful, she who alone of all women is free, the mistress of all the imperial family, the rightful heir to the empire…’[]
Anna Comnena (Anna Komnene). Anne Comnène, Alexiade, ed. & tr. B. Leib, 3 vols, Paris: Budé, 1937-45, repr. 1967; English translation by E. R. A. Sewter, The Alexiad of Anna Comnena. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1979.
Attaliates, Michael. Michaelis Attaliotae Historia, ed. E. Bekker, Bonn: CSHB, 1853.
Cedrenus, George. Compendium Historiarum, ed. I. Bekker, 2 vols, Bonn: CSHB, 1838–9.
Choniates, Nicetas. Historia, ed. J.-A. van Dieten. Berlin/New York: CFHB,1975; English translation by H. J. Magoulias, O City of Byzantium: Annals of Niketas Choniates. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1984.
Psellus, Michael. Chronographia, ed. & tr. E. Renauld, 2 vols. Paris: Budé, 1926-8; English translation by E. R. A. Sewter, Michael Psellus. Fourteen Byzantine Rulers. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1966.
Psellus, Michael. Michaelis Pselli Scripta Minora, 2 vols, ed. E. Kurtz & F. Drexl. Milan: Società editrice ‘Vita e pensiere’, 1936-41.
Sathas, K. N. Bibliotheca graeca medii aevi, vol. 7. Venice & Paris, 1894.
Scylitzes, John. Ioannis Scylitzae Synopsis Historiarum, ed. I. Thurn. Berlin/NY: CFHB, 1973.
Zonaras, John. Epitome Historiarum, ed. T. Büttner-Wobst, vol. 3. Bonn: CSHB, 1897.
Angold M. 1997. The Byzantine Empire, 1025-1204: a political history, 2nd ed., London and New York: Longman.
Crostini, B. 1996 ‘The emperor Basil II’s cultural life,’ Byzantion 66: 76-79.
Dölger, F. 1925. Regesten der Kaiserkunden des oströmischen Reiches, vol. 2: Regesten von 1025-1204, Munich & Berlin: Olderbourg.
Garland, L. 1988. ‘The Life and Ideology of Byzantine Women: A Further Note on Conventions of Behaviour and Social Reality as Reflected in Eleventh and Twelfth Century Historical Sources,’ Byzantion 58: 361-93.
Garland, L. 1994. ‘The Eye of the Beholder: Byzantine Imperial Women and their Public Image from Zoe Porphyrogenita to Euphrosyne Kamaterissa Doukaina (1028-1203),’ Byzantion 64: 19-39, 261-313.
Garland, L. (1995/96) ‘”How Different, How Very Different from the Home Life of Our Own Dear Queen”: Sexual Morality at the Late Byzantine Court, with Especial Reference to the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries,’ Byzantine Studies/Études Byzantines n.s. 1/2: 1–62
Garland, L. 1999. Byzantine Empresses. Women and Power in Byzantium, AD 527-1204, London, Routledge.
Grierson, P. 1973. Catalogue of the Byzantine Coins in the Dumbarton Oaks Collection and in the Whittemore Collection, vol. 3.2. Washington DC: Dumbarton Oaks.
Grumel, V. 1989. Les regestes des actes du patriarchat de Constantinople, vol. 1 (fasc. 2 & 3), revised ed., Paris: Institut français d’études byzantines.
Hill, B., L. James & D. Smythe (1994) ‘Zoe: the Rhythm Method of Imperial Renewal’, in P. Magdalino (ed), New Constantines. The Rhythm of Imperial Renewal in Byzantium, 4th-13th Centuries, Aldershot: Variorum, 215-29.
Kalavrezou, I. 1994. ‘Irregular Marriages in the Eleventh Century and the Zoe and Constantine Mosaic in Hagia Sophia,’ in A. E. Laiou & D. Simon (eds), Law and Society in Byzantium, Ninth to Twelfth Centuries. Washington DC: 241-59.
Kazhdan, A. P. and Epstein, A. W. 1985. Change in Byzantine Culture in the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries, Berkeley, Los Angeles, & London: University of California Press.
Laiou, A. E. 1992. ‘Imperial Marriages and their Critics in the Eleventh Century; the Case of Skylitzes,’ Dumbarton Oaks Papers, 46: 165-76.
Spadaro, M.D. 1975. ‘Note su Sclerena,’ Siculorum Gymnasium 28: 351–72.
[]For this Theophano (Theophanu), who died in 991, see Kaiserin Theophanu: Prinzessin aus der Fremde – des Westreichs grosse Kaiserin, ed. G. Wolf, Cologne, 1991; Kaiserin Theophanu: Begegnung des Ostens und Westens um die Wende des ersten Jahrtausends, 2 vols., ed. A. von Euw and P. Schreiner, Cologne 1991; and The Empress Theophano: Byzantium and the West at the Turn of the First Millennium, ed. A. Davids, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.
[]Dölger Regesten 784, 787; G. Wolf, ‘Zoe oder Theodora: die Braut Kaiser Ottos III.? (1001/1002),’ in Kaiserin Theophanu: Prinzessin aus der Fremde — des Westreichs grosse Kaiserin, ed. G. Wolf (Cologne: Böhlau, 1991). 212-22, argues that Theodora, not Zoe, was the princess concerned.
[]Scylitzes, Synopsis Historiarum, 386; J.-F. Vannier, Familles byzantines: les Argyroi (IXe-XIIe siècles) (Paris: Sorbonne, 1975) 37. Her epitaph calls her the sebaste Maria: see G.N. Sola, ‘Giambografi sconosciuti del sec. XI,’ Rome e l’Oriente 11 (1916), 152-3.
[]Psellus, Chronographia, 2.10 (Renauld 1.30-1); cf. Scylitzes, Synopsis Historiarum, 374; Zonaras, Epitome, 3.572–3. This degree of relationship, though it carried a penance from which Zoe and Romanus were exempted, was not in fact an impediment to marriage until 1038: A.E. Laiou, ‘Imperial Marriages and their Critics in the Eleventh Century; the Case of Skylitzes,’ Dumbarton Oaks Papers, 46 (1992), 169; Grumel, Regestes 836; Scylitzes, Synopsis Historiarum, 374.
[]Psellus, Chronographia, 3.26, 4.1 (Renauld 1.50-2); Scylitizes, Synopsis Historiarum, 390-1; Zonaras, Epitome, 3.584-5; J.-C. Cheynet, Pouvoir et Contestations à Byzance (963-1210) (Paris: Sorbonne, 1990), 44-5.
[]Psellus, Chronographia, 4.1-2 (Renauld 1.53-4); A.E. Laiou, ‘Imperial Marriages and their Critics in the Eleventh Century; the Case of Skylitzes,’ Dumbarton Oaks Papers 46 (1992), 169-70 notes that a charge of adultery, if proved in court, would have invalidated the marriage.
[]Psellus, Chronographia, 4.22-3 (Renauld 1.66-8); Scylitzes, Synopsis Historiarum, 416; cf. Zonaras, Epitome, 3.605; on adoption, see R. Macrides, ‘Kinship by Arrangement: the Case of Adoption,’ Dumbarton Oaks Papers 44 (1990), 109–18, esp. 117.
[]Psellus, Chronographia, 5.44, 46 (Renauld 1.112-13); Scylitzes, Synopsis Historiarum, 420; Attaliates, Historia, 17; Zonaras, Epitome, 3.612; for the festivities on this occasion, seeL. Garland, ‘Political Power and the Populace in Byzantium Prior to the Fourth Crusade,’ Byzantinoslavica 53 (1992), 17-52; eadem, ‘Street-life in Constantinople: Women and the Carnivalesque,’ in L. Garland (ed), Byzantine Women: Varieties of Experience A.D. 800-1200 (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006), 161-74, esp. 163-5.
[]Psellus, Chronographia, 6.16-18 (Renauld 1.125-6); Zonaras, Epitome, 3.615; for Constantine’s second wife, see W. Seibt, Die Skleroi. Eine prosopographisch-sigillographische Studie (Vienna: Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1976), 70-1.
[]N. Oikonomides, ‘St. George of Mangana, Maria Skleraina, and the “Malyj Sion” of Novgorod,’ Dumbarton Oaks Papers 34/35 (1980/81), 239–46, esp. 241-2. For the church at Mangana, see R. Janin, La géographie ecclésiastique de l’Empire byzantin, 1: Le siège de Constantinople et le patriarchat oecuménique, 3. Les églises et les monastères, ed. 2 (Paris: Institut français d’études byzantines, 1969), 70-6.
[]Psellus, Chronographia, 6.61 (Renauld 1.146); Psellus, ‘On the Death of Scleraina,’ ed. M.D. Spadaro, In Mariam Sclerenam. Testo critico, introduzione e commentario (Catania: University of Catania, 1984), line 214.
[]For the identity of this bride, see A. Poppé, ‘La dernière expédition russe contre Constantinople,’ Byzantinoslavica 32.2 (1971) 267 n. 181, who believe her to be Scleraina’s daughter; Seibt, Eine prosopographisch-sigillographische Studie, 71 n. 250; A. Kazhdan, ‘Rus’-Byzantine Princely Marriages in the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries,’ Harvard Ukrainian Studies 12-13 (1988/89), 414–29, esp. 416-17.
[]Psellus, Chronographia, 6.88 (Renauld 2.7); M. McCormick, Eternal Victory. Triumphal Rulership in Late Antiquity, Byzantium, and the Early Medieval West (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 204.
[]L.-A. Hunt, ‘Comnenian Aristocratic Palace Decorations: Descriptions and Islamic Connections,’ in M. Angold (ed), The Byzantine Aristocracy IX to XIII Centuries (Oxford, British Archaeological Reports, 1984), 138–57, esp. 139-41. N. Oikonomides, ‘La couronne dite de Constantin Monomaque,’ Travaux et Mémoires 12 (1994), 241-62 considers that the crown may be a nineteenth-century fake.
[]Psellus, Chronographia, 6.144 (Renauld 2.40-1); see L. Garland, ‘Imperial Women and Entertainment at the Middle Byzantine Court,’ in L. Garland (ed), Byzantine Women: Varieties of Experience A.D. 800-1200 (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006), 175-89, esp. 180-3.
[]Psellus, Chronographia, 6.6, 158 (Renauld 1.120, 2.49); L. Garland, ‘”The Eye of the Beholder”: Byzantine Imperial Women and their Public Image from Zoe Porphyrogenita to Euphrosyne Kamaterissa Doukaina (1028-1203),’ Byzantion 64 (1994), 32-3.
[[]The mosaic originally dates to the reign of Romanus III, but all three heads (those of Zoe and Christ as well as Romanus) have been changed: Th. Whittemore, The Mosaics of Hagia Sophia at Istanbul. Third Preliminary Report. Work done in 1935-1938. The Imperial Portraits of the South Gallery (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1942), 19-20; idem, ‘A Portrait of the Empress Zoe and of Constantine IX,’ Byzantion 18 (1946-8), 223-7. The debate as to why is unresolved: see esp. N. Oikonomides, ‘The Mosaic Panel of Constantine IX and Zoe in St Sophia,’ Revue des Études Byzantines, 36 (1978), 219–32, esp. 221; R. Cormack, ‘Interpreting the Mosaics of S. Sophia at Istanbul,’ Art History 4 (1981), 131–49, esp. 141-4; Hill & et al, ‘Zoe: the Rhythm Method,’ 223-5; N. Teteriatnikov, ‘Hagia Sophia: The Two Portraits of the Emperors with Moneybags as a Functional Setting,’ Arte Medievale 10 (1996), 47-66 esp. 54-64 (who thinks the mosaic originally depicted Michael). A web image can be found at: http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/ikon/cp-hsof3.gif, where the alteration to the inscription above Constantine’s head can be clearly seen.
[]Psellus, Chronographia, 6.6, 6.159 (Renauld 1.120, 2.49); J. Duffy, ‘Reactions of Two Byzantine Intellectuals to the Theory and Practice of Magic: Michael Psellos and Michael Italikos,’ in Byzantine Magic, ed. H. Maguire (Washington DC: Dumbarton Oaks, 1995), 83–97, esp. 88-90.
[]Psellus, Chronographia, 6.183 (Renauld 2.60-1), Scripta Minora 1.29; C. Chamberlain, ‘The Theory and Practice of Imperial Panegyric in Michael Psellos. The Tension between History and Rhetoric,’ Byzantion 56 (1986), 16–27, esp. 25-7; cf. Zonaras, Epitome, 3.647-8.