In about A.D. 978, a daughter, Zoe, was born to the Byzantine Emperor
Constantine VIII, who then co-ruled with his elder brother, Basil II
(976 to 1025). Since Zoe’s father was a reigning emperor, she was born
“into the purple” (porphyrogenita), an exalted status that few in the
Byzantine world enjoyed.
The 11th century chronicler Psellus describes Zoe as a woman of
exceptional beauty, whose pedigree and beauty were her principal
assets. Her younger sister, Theodora, is described as plain in
appearance, yet possessing a sharp intellect.
Two marriages to Holy Roman Emperors were arranged for Zoe early in
her life, but both failed to materialize. Thereafter, she did not
marry until age 50. In the intervening years, Zoe lived in the
palace’s women’s quarters (the gynaeceum), apparently engaging in
frequent adulterous affairs.
In 1025 Zoe’s uncle, the emperor Basil II, died, leaving Zoe’s
father, Constantine VIII, as sole emperor. Three years later, when he
neared death, a marriage was urgently sought for both of his daughters
to preserve the family dynasty.
The elderly urban prefect of Constantinople was chosen, even though
he was a relative and had to divorce his current wife to make a new
marriage possible. The youngest daughter, Theodora, was Constantine’s
first choice, but she refused.
The choice then fell upon Zoe, and in the last days of Constantine
VIII’s life, in 1028, Zoe was married to the prefect, who became the
next emperor, Romanus III (1028 to 1034).
Tension between sisters
By this stage of her life, Zoe had grown to despise her sister, and
upon becoming empress she compelled her husband to send Theodora to a
monastery, where she was forced to take holy orders. In the meantime,
Zoe sought magical formulas to become pregnant, but it proved
impossible. This, along with her continued adulterous affairs, drove a
wedge between Zoe and her husband.
Romanus III grudgingly overlooked his wife’s affairs, until one,
with a nobleman named Michael, was so serious that rumors circulated
that it would lead to a palace coup. Michael denied the implications.
When Romanus III was found dead in his bath on April 11, 1034, some
speculated that Zoe and Michael were responsible. Shockingly, Zoe
married Michael, after which — that same day — he became the Emperor
Michael IV (1034 to 1041).
Having himself been the beneficiary of Zoe’s loose behavior, Michael
IV was inclined to restrict her to the gynaeceum, and he shared his
authority with one of his brothers, John, a eunuch. When Michael IV’s
health began to fail, John forced Zoe to adopt one of the emperor’s
nephews. The young man, known to history as Michael V, was made
Caesar, and when Michael IV died on Dec. 10, 1041, the nephew was
Ungratefully, Michael V soon banished Zoe and John, and established
himself as sole emperor. This backfired instantly, however, and the
day after her banishment, Zoe was restored, this time as co-empress
with her sister, Theodora. Michael V was deposed, blinded, castrated,
and sent to a monastery.
After these dramatic events there no longer was an emperor in the
Byzantine world, which was now co-ruled by the Empresses Zoe and
Theodora. Though Theodora had greatly resisted being crowned, once in
place she took her duties seriously and begun to upstage her sister,
giving rise to factions within the palace.
Zoe resented having to take her new responsibilities seriously, yet
she refused to allow Theodora the prestige she was gaining with her
dedicated service. Thus, Zoe sought to resolve the problem by marrying again.
Her first two attempts failed — the first by way of rejection, the
second because her candidate died mysteriously just days before the
wedding. Her next choice was a noble, charming widower named
Constantine who she had known intimately, and who had been exiled for
that reason by her second husband, Michael IV.
For both Zoe and Constantine, this would be a third marriage, the
maximum allowed by the Orthodox Church. After Constantine was recalled
from exile, the two were married, and the Byzantine world had a new
emperor, Constantine IX (1042 to 1055). Consequently, Theodora now
assumed a subordinate status.
An odd arrangement
Despite his new marriage, Constantine refused to part with his
mistress, Maria Skleraina, and Zoe agreed that Maria could live with
them in the palace. This unorthodox circumstance soon became known to
all, and an official treaty of friendship was signed. Maria was
granted an official title, sebaste, and was allowed to accompany
Constantine, Zoe and Theodora at processions and ceremonies.
Even if the imperial family had no objections to this odd
arrangement, the public was less forgiving. Rumors began to circulate
that Constantine IX and his mistress planned to murder Zoe and
Theodora, and in an uprising in 1044, Constantine’s life was spared
only because the sister-empresses calmed a mob.
Constantine and his three imperial women were irresponsible
stewards, and the fortune that had been amassed by Basil II was soon
dissipated. Psellus states that the once-overflowing treasury: “…
became the plaything of these women, to be expended on their
pleasures. Presents were exchanged or given as rewards one after
another. Some of the money was even paid out to strangers, and soon
all was spent and exhausted.”
After a long and eventful life of 77 years, Zoe died in the year
1050, being survived by her husband Constantine IX and her sister,
Theodora. As Constantine IX neared death in 1055, he tried to pass
authority to the doux or leader of Bulgaria, but his efforts were
trumped by the resilient Theodora, who defended her rights as a
The family dynasty thus was preserved, however briefly, as Theodora
ruled alone for about a year and a half (1055 to 1056) until her
health, too, began to fail. Before Theodora died, she passed her power
to an elderly patrician, who became the next emperor, Michael VI (1056
to 1057), who ruled for only about one year before he was forced from
power in the face of a rebellion.
Though many coins were issued in the names of Zoe’s uncle, father
and three husbands (and even a respectable number were issued for
Theodora), virtually none were struck for Zoe. Only bronze patterns
for yet-unknown gold and silver coins exist for her sole reign in
1041, and only a few gold histamena survive from her two-month
joint-reign with Theodora in 1042.
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