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Byzantium: Empress Zoe

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Byzantium: Overview | Constantine and the Founding of Constantinople | Justinian and the Nika Riots | Heraclius and the Persians | Irene and Iconoclasm | Constantine Porphyrogenitus | Basil the Bulgar-Slayer | Empress Zoe | Romanos Diogenes and the Loss of Anatolia | The Sack of Constantinople | Constantine XI and the Fall of Constantinople | The Walls of Constantinople | Hagia Sophia
Empress Zoe

This series of Entries has concentrated on the strong emperors of Byzantium. They were the ones that survived, lived to achieve greatness and so went down in the history books. But there were many emperors who were weak, cruel, sick, or just plain boring, and are not remembered kindly. We'll meet quite a few of these in the story of the Empress Zoe.

Zoe and Theodora were the daughters1 of Constantine VIII, and nieces of Basil II the Bulgar Slayer. Of the pair, Zoe was the elder and she was supposed to be very beautiful - short and plump, she had golden hair and smooth white skin. Theodora was taller and thinner, and considered plain. The two sisters did not get on with each other.

Zoe was born in 978 during the reign of her uncle Basil. For nearly 50 years of her life, Basil ruled as Emperor and was a very good one. In 1001, when Zoe was 23, she was promised in marriage to the ruler of Western Europe, Otto III. This would have united the Eastern and Western Empires, and if they had had a son, there would have been one Roman Emperor, ruling over the whole of Europe. Zoe was actually en route to the wedding in the West with her retinue, and had got as far as Bari in Italy, when the news came that Otto had died suddenly. She returned to Constantinople, where she continued to live a single life, pampered by her father with everything that money could buy.

Constantine VIII

Basil died when Zoe was 47, leaving the throne to her father, Constantine. Officially, Constantine had ruled jointly with Basil for all of Basil's period as Emperor, but in fact he had never made any decisions and had left the entire affair to his older brother. Now he was sole ruler at the age of 65, and totally unsuited to the job. Various stern measures introduced by Basil were immediately relaxed by Constantine, because the Anatolian nobility put him under pressure. At the same time, he could be incredibly cruel, torturing and mutilating people he didn't like, then tearful and repentant afterwards. Thankfully for the Empire, he only lived another three years.

On his deathbed, Constantine decided that his daughter Zoe should marry, so that his son-in-law would become the new Emperor. It was not thought that a woman could rule the Empire effectively, although it wasn't specifically forbidden by law. Constantine chose a man of 60 for his daughter - Romanus Argyrus. Romanus was already married, so Constantine offered him the choice of divorce or being blinded. His wife made the choice for him, shaving her head and withdrawing to a convent.

Romanus Argyrus

Zoe was married to Romanus on 10 November, 1028. On 11 November, Constantine died. On 12 November, the couple were crowned Emperor and Empress of Byzantium.

Zoe and Romanus now set about trying to produce an heir. Romanus bought all sorts of aphrodisiacs to assist in this. But Zoe was already 50, so no child was forthcoming. Soon Romanus lost heart, he lost all interest in Zoe and took a mistress. More importantly as far as Zoe was concerned, he cut off her spending allowance; she was a pampered woman and now suddenly she couldn't buy anything she wanted.

Zoe vented her anger on her sister Theodora; in 1031, she sent her off to a convent, a convenient way of disposing of a female relative without actually killing her.

Romanus was not a successful Emperor. He proved to be a bad general - at the first sight of the enemy, he turned tail and ran. He was a mediocre administrator. The only thing he did for the city was to order the construction of a large and expensive church and monastery in the southwest of the city, the St Mary Peribleptos.

Michael IV

Left in the cold by her husband, Zoe befriended a young man called Michael, known as Michael the Paphlagonian2. She fell madly in love with him, although he was more than 30 years younger than her. In 1034, Romanus was found dead in his bath - it's not known whether he had a heart attack and drowned, or was held under the water. Subsequent events would certainly make us suspect the latter. The Patriarch (the ruler of the Christian church in Constantinople) was summoned to the palace. He was brought into a room where he saw to his horror the semi-naked body of the dead emperor. Then he was brought into the next room, where Zoe and Michael sat side by side in full imperial regalia. He was ordered to marry them, and he then invested Michael as Emperor Michael IV.

Michael was a good emperor. As well as being physically very good-looking, he also cared a lot about his rule - and worked hard to set the Empire to rights. He was an efficient administrator, and put much work into improving the city, building churches and monasteries. However, he was not a well man: he suffered from epilepsy and dropsy3, an unpleasant swelling of the tissues due to excessive lymphatic fluid, which made him impotent. Perhaps because of this, and perhaps because of feelings of guilt, he did not reciprocate Zoe's infatuation, and quickly took to avoiding her, eventually confining her to the women's quarters and cutting off her access to the state treasury.

Michael was not without his faults, though. He appointed his own brother-in-law, Stephen, to a senior position on a military manoeuvre to recover Byzantine Sicily from the Saracens. When Stephen fought with the general, the general was recalled to Constantinople and Stephen was put in charge of the whole affair, resulting in the loss of all the territory that they had earlier gained.

As time went on, Michael became sicker, his dropsy causing his body and particularly his legs to swell hideously, and he was in constant pain. Despite this, he personally led a successful campaign against Bulgarian rebels in 1040. He died in December of the same year; he was only 31. Zoe was now a widow for the second time.

Michael V

Zoe and Michael had had no children, so before he died he persuaded Zoe to adopt his nephew, also called Michael, as her son. This young man was known as Michael the Caulker, because of a profession of his father. When Emperor Michael IV died in 1041, Zoe was 63 years old. She was persuaded to let Michael, as her adopted son, become Emperor, and he was crowned Michael V.

Michael very quickly showed that he was made of stern stuff. He detested the aristocracy, the stodgy bureaucracy of the Byzantine court, and anybody telling him what to do. He cleared many people out of the palace, replacing the guards with ones of his own choosing, and exiling his uncle John who he felt was interfering in his rule. Many of the changes made by Michael were genuine improvements.

After only four months as emperor, Michael went one step too far. On 18 April, 1042, he arrested his adoptive mother, Zoe, on a charge of having attempted to kill him. Without trial, he declared her deposed, had her head shaved and packed her off to a convent on a nearby island. This was announced to the people the next day, but Michael was in for a shock - the people were outraged! It seemed that the Byzantines really were fond of Zoe; she had been empress for 14 years, and had been a princess in the palace for all of her long life. The people weren't going to put up with this treatment of her, and there was rioting in the streets. Michael retreated to the Imperial Palace, which was fortified, and sent the order to retrieve Zoe from the convent. Meanwhile, the rioting continued and more than 3,000 people were killed.

When Zoe returned, she and Michael appeared together in the imperial box at the Hippodrome, but the people were not happy. They considered that Michael was holding her prisoner. They wanted nothing further to do with him, and made this clear.

Empresses Zoe and Theodora

Someone got the idea that Theodora was still alive and well in the convent. She was also born to the purple, so she could rule jointly with Zoe. She was quickly brought, against her will, to Hagia Sophia, where they crowned her Empress. Michael was declared deposed. Zoe was furious when she heard that she had to share her throne with her hated sister. But when she heard the crowds chanting Theodora's name, she realised it was what the people wanted.

Meanwhile, Michael fled the palace by boat and sailed along the coast to the monastery of Studium, where he hoped he would be safe. Not so. The crowds tracked him down and he was dragged out, put on a donkey and driven back to the centre of the city. On the way, soldiers arrived with orders from Theodora: he was to be blinded. They carried out the order on the spot. Michael lived for only a few months more, in shame, in a monastery.

Zoe and Theodora ruled together for about a year, but they disagreed on most issues, forcing the court into two opposing camps. The joint rule wasn't working, so it was suggested that one of the two sisters should marry. Theodora refused, but Zoe was delighted.

Constantine IX Monomachus

There was a man called Constantine Monomachus who Zoe had been friendly with before. He was living with his mistress on the island of Lesbos. Zoe decided he would make the perfect third husband for her, so she fetched him to Byzantium. The couple were married and he was crowned Emperor Constantine IX.

By now, Zoe was under no illusions about her abilities as a wife. She appears to have been really fond of Constantine and wanted him to be happy, so she wrote to the mistress, Maria Skleraina, who was still living in Lesbos, and suggested that she should come and live with them in the palace. Maria agreed. The love between the emperor and his mistress was officially confirmed in a 'loving-cup' ceremony in front of the Senate.

At last, Zoe had found a man who was willing to live life to the full, and to let her do so as well. The two spent and spent - rumours told that Zoe had rooms full of equipment to make cosmetics so that her skin could remain unblemished into her seventies. Constantine, meanwhile, tried to encourage an atmosphere of learning and enlightenment in Byzantium, and succeeded. There was a Renaissance of the arts and sciences, and the University of Constantinople became renowned throughout the known world.

Unfortunately, this was all achieved to the detriment of more important issues: national defence and the army. Constantine let the army be reduced to its lowest ever, to save money. Who needed an army when he had peace treaties with his neighbours? The result of this was that the northern Danube frontier was invaded, the Normans continued their conquest of Byzantine Southern Italy, and the Seljuk Turks built up their forces on the Eastern borders, getting ready for the conquest of Anatolia, the heart of the Empire, only 20 years or so later. All in all, Constantine Monomachus is considered one of the worst emperors, because the Empire was falling apart around him and he did nothing to stop it, if he even noticed at all.

The Death of Zoe

Zoe died in 1050, aged 72. In contrast to the first 50 years of her life as a princess, the last 22 as an empress had certainly been eventful. She had been married three times, and had possibly assisted in the murder of one of those husbands. She had adopted a son and proclaimed him emperor, only to have him depose and banish her. Plus she had ruled along with her sister.

Constantine ruled for five years after the death of Zoe, before succumbing himself. Theodora ruled for another year, and then she too died. In the 31 years starting with the death of Basil, Byzantium had experienced seven different rulers, including women, sick men, cruel men and possible murderers. There would be another six in the next 25 years until stability was restored by Alexius Comnenus in 1081. All this took its toll on the Empire; lack of strong leadership is fatal to an Empire so rich and so beset with enemies.

1There was a third, older sister, Eudokia, but she became a nun very early on and is not heard of again in the histories.2Paphlagonia was a region on the north coast of what is now Turkey, looking onto the Black Sea.3Dropsy is now known as oedema or edema.

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