Zoe (empress)
Zoe (c. 978 – June 1050) reigned as Byzantine Empress alongside her sister Theodora
Theodora (11th century)
Theodora was a Byzantine Empress. Born into the Macedonian dynasty that had ruled the Byzantine Empire for almost two hundred years, she was co-empress with her sister Zoe for two months in 1042 and sole empress from 11 January 1055 to after 31 August 1056...

 from April 19 to June 11, 1042. In addition, she was also enthroned as the Empress Consort
Queen consort
A queen consort is the wife of a reigning king. A queen consort usually shares her husband's rank and holds the feminine equivalent of the king's monarchical titles. Historically, queens consort do not share the king regnant's political and military powers. Most queens in history were queens consort...

 to a series of co-rulers beginning with Romanos III in 1028 until her death in 1050 whilst married to Constantine IX.

Early Life: 978 – 1028

Zoe was one of the few Byzantine empresses who was Porphyrogenita, or "born into the purple" (that is, she was born to a reigning emperor). She was the second daughter of Constantine VIII and Helena, daughter of Alypius
Helena, daughter of Alypius
Helena, daughter of Alypius was the wife of Constantine VIII, Emperor of Constantinople.-Life:The Chronographia by Michael Psellos mentions her only briefly:...

. Her father had become co-emperor in 962, and sole emperor in 1025. His reign as sole emperor lasted for only three years, from December 15, 1025 to November 15, 1028.

Her position as an eligible imperial princess saw her considered as a possible bride for the Holy Roman Emperor
Holy Roman Emperor
The Holy Roman Emperor is a term used by historians to denote a medieval ruler who, as German King, had also received the title of "Emperor of the Romans" from the Pope...

 in the west, Otto III in 996. A second embassy sent in 1001, headed by Arnulf
Arnulf II, Archbishop of Milan
Arnulf II was Archbishop of Milan from 998 to 1018.He descended from the noble family of Arsago, being the son of Dagibert of Arsago...

, Archbishop of Milan 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 Zoe, to which her uncle, Basil II agreed. in January 1002 she accompanied Arnulf back to Italy, only to discover when the ship reached Bari
Bari is the capital city of the province of Bari and of the Apulia region, on the Adriatic Sea, in Italy. It is the second most important economic centre of mainland Southern Italy after Naples, and is well known as a port and university city, as well as the city of Saint Nicholas...

 that Otto III had died, forcing her to return home. Another opportunity arose in 1028, when an embassy from the Holy Roman Empire
Holy Roman Empire
The Holy Roman Empire was a realm that existed from 962 to 1806 in Central Europe.It was ruled by the Holy Roman Emperor. Its character changed during the Middle Ages and the Early Modern period, when the power of the emperor gradually weakened in favour of the princes...

 arrived in Constantinople
Constantinople was the capital of the Roman, Eastern Roman, Byzantine, Latin, and Ottoman Empires. Throughout most of the Middle Ages, Constantinople was Europe's largest and wealthiest city.-Names:...

 with a proposal for an imperial marriage. Constantine VIII and the fifty-year-old Zoe rejected the idea out of hand when it was revealed that the intended groom Henry
Henry III, Holy Roman Emperor
Henry III , called the Black or the Pious, was a member of the Salian Dynasty of Holy Roman Emperors...

, the son of Conrad II
Conrad II, Holy Roman Emperor
Conrad II was Holy Roman Emperor from 1027 until his death.The son of a mid-level nobleman in Franconia, Count Henry of Speyer and Adelaide of Alsace, he inherited the titles of count of Speyer and of Worms as an infant when Henry died at age twenty...

 was only ten years old.

Worried by the prospect of associating another man with the imperial house, Basil II prevented his nieces from marrying any of the Byzantine nobility until the very end of his life. Consequently, Zoe lived a life of virtual total obscurity in the imperial gynaeceum
A Gynaeceum or Gynaeconitis in Ancient Greece was a building or was the portion of a house reserved for women, generally the innermost apartment. In other words, a women's quarters, similar to the Persian zenana...

until circumstances (her uncle Basil II dying childless and her dying father not siring any sons) forced her into the centre of imperial politics.

The first potential match for Zoe was the distinguished noble Constantine Dalassenos
Constantine Dalassenos (duke of Antioch)
Constantine Dalassenos was a prominent Byzantine aristocrat and general of the first half of the 11th century. An experienced as well as popular general, he twice came close to ascending the imperial throne and marriage to the porphyrogenita empress Zoe, and suffered a long period of imprisonment...

, the former doux
Dux is Latin for leader and later for Duke and its variant forms ....

of Antioch
Antioch on the Orontes was an ancient city on the eastern side of the Orontes River. It is near the modern city of Antakya, Turkey.Founded near the end of the 4th century BC by Seleucus I Nicator, one of Alexander the Great's generals, Antioch eventually rivaled Alexandria as the chief city of the...

. He was eventually overlooked for Romanos III Argyros, the urban prefect of Constantinople
Constantinople was the capital of the Roman, Eastern Roman, Byzantine, Latin, and Ottoman Empires. Throughout most of the Middle Ages, Constantinople was Europe's largest and wealthiest city.-Names:...

 . Although they were third cousins, they married on November 10, 1028 in the imperial chapel of the palace, and by November 12, they were seated on the imperial throne.

From Romanos III to Michael V: 1028–1042

Spending years in the same restrictive quarters as her sister Theodora led to the situation where Zoe by now loathed Theodora. Never having forgiven her sister for being their father’s first choice for Romanos' wife, Zoe convinced Romanos to appoint one of his own men as the chief of Theodora’s household, with orders to spy on Theodora. Shortly afterwards, Theodora was accused of plotting to usurp the throne, firstly with Presian of Bulgaria
Presian II of Bulgaria
Presian II was emperor of Bulgaria for a short time in 1018. The year of his birth may have been 996/997; he may have died in exile in 1060/1061...

, followed by Constantine Diogenes, the Archon
Archon is a Greek word that means "ruler" or "lord", frequently used as the title of a specific public office. It is the masculine present participle of the verb stem ἀρχ-, meaning "to rule", derived from the same root as monarch, hierarchy, and anarchy.- Ancient Greece :In ancient Greece the...

 of Sirmium
Sirmium was a city in ancient Roman Pannonia. Firstly mentioned in the 4th century BC and originally inhabited by the Illyrians and Celts, it was conquered by the Romans in the 1st century BC and subsequently became the capital of the Roman province of Lower Pannonia. In 294 AD, Sirmium was...

 in 1031. Zoe accused her of being part of the conspiracy, and was forcibly confined in the monastery
Monastery denotes the building, or complex of buildings, that houses a room reserved for prayer as well as the domestic quarters and workplace of monastics, whether monks or nuns, and whether living in community or alone .Monasteries may vary greatly in size – a small dwelling accommodating only...

 of Petrion. Zoe later visited her sister and forced her to take Holy Orders
Holy Orders
The term Holy Orders is used by many Christian churches to refer to ordination or to those individuals ordained for a special role or ministry....


Zoe’s other obsession was to continue the Macedonian dynasty. Almost immediately upon marrying Romanos, the fifty-year-old Zoe tried desperately to fall pregnant. She tried using magic charms, amulets and potions, all without effect. This failure to conceive helped alienate the couple, and soon Romanos refused to share the bed with her. Romanos incurred his wife's animosity by paying little attention to her and limiting her spending, while he tolerated her various affairs. Eventually however, in 1033 Zoe herself became enamoured of her courtier 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. Then, on April 11, 1034, Romanos III was found dead in his bath, and there was speculation that Zoe and Michael had had him poisoned, then strangled or drowned.

Zoe married Michael later the same day, and he reigned as Michael IV until his death in 1041. Although Zoe believed Michael would prove to be a more devoted husband than Romanos, she was sadly mistaken. Michael IV was concerned about Zoe turning on him the way she had turned on Romanos, and so he excluded Zoe from politics by placing all power in the hands of Michael's brother John the Eunuch
John the Eunuch
John the Eunuch, also known as the Orphanotrophos , was the chief court eunuch during the reign of the Byzantine Emperor Romanus III . Being unable to father children himself, he sought to found a dynasty for his family through his brother Michael, to which end he introduced him to the reigning...

. Zoe was confined again to the palace gynaeceum, and kept under strict surveillance, while Michael’s visits grew more and more infrequent. Nevertheless, the disgruntled empress conspired in vain against John in 1037 or 1038.

By 1041 it was obvious that Michael IV was dying. John the Eunuch, eager to ensure that power remained in his hands, forced Zoe to adopt Michael V, the son of Michael IV's sister. On 10 December 1041, Michael IV died, refusing to the last to see his wife who begged that she be allowed to see him one more time before he died.

With Michael IV’s death, Michael V was crowned in December 1041. Although he promised to respect Zoe, he promptly banished her to a monastery on Principus
Büyükada is the largest of the nine so-called Princes' Islands in the Sea of Marmara, near Istanbul, with an area of about two square miles...

 (one of the Princes' Islands
Princes' Islands
The Princes' Islands , are a chain of nine islands off the coast of Istanbul, Turkey, in the Sea of Marmara. The islands also constitute the Adalar district of Istanbul Province...

) on charges of attempted regicide. This treatment of the legitimate heir to the Macedonian Dynasty caused a popular uprising in Constantinople
Constantinople was the capital of the Roman, Eastern Roman, Byzantine, Latin, and Ottoman Empires. Throughout most of the Middle Ages, Constantinople was Europe's largest and wealthiest city.-Names:...

, and on April 19, 1042, the people dethroned Michael V in support of not only Zoe, but Theodora as well. Michael V, desperate to keep his throne, initially brought Zoe back from Princes’ Island and displayed her to the people, but his insistence that he continue to rule alongside Zoe was rejected. Key members of the court decided that Zoe needed a co-ruler, and that it should be her sister Theodora. A delegation headed by the Patrician
The term patrician originally referred to a group of elite families in ancient Rome, including both their natural and adopted members. In the late Roman Empire, the class was broadened to include high council officials, and after the fall of the Western Empire it remained a high honorary title in...

 Constantine Cabasilas went to the monastery at Petrion to convince Theodora to become co-empress alongside her sister. At an assembly at Hagia Sophia
Hagia Sophia
Hagia Sophia is a former Orthodox patriarchal basilica, later a mosque, and now a museum in Istanbul, Turkey...

, the people escorted a furious Theodora from Petrion, and proclaimed her empress along with Zoe. After crowning Theodora, the mob stormed the palace, forcing Michael V to escape to a monastery.

Ruling with Theodora and Constantine IX: 1042–1050

Zoe immediately assumed power and tried to force Theodora back to her monastery, but the Senate
Byzantine Senate
The Byzantine Senate or Eastern Roman Senate was the continuation of the Roman Senate, established in the 4th century by Constantine I. It survived for centuries but was increasingly irrelevant until its eventual disappearance in the 13th century....

 and the people demanded that the two sisters should jointly reign. In her first act, Theodora was called upon to do what her sister would not – deal with Michael V. Zoe, weak and easily manipulated, wanted to pardon and free Michael. Theodora was made of firmer stuff; at first she guaranteed Michael’s safety before she ordered that Michael be blinded and spend the rest of his life as a monk. With Michael V dealt with, Theodora refused to leave Hagia Sophia until she had received word from Zoe, some 24 hours after Theodora had been crowned. Officially, while Theodora was the junior empress, and her throne was situated slightly behind Zoe’s in all public occasions, she was the driving force behind the joint administration. Both sisters then proceeded to administer the empire, focusing on curbing the sale of public offices and the administration of justice. Although 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.

Although Theodora and Zoe 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. Zoe was still jealous of Theodora, and had no desire to administer the empire, but would not allow Theodora to conduct public business alone. The court soon began to split in two, with factions forming behind each empress. After two months of increasing acrimony between the two, Zoe decided to search for a new husband, her third, and the last she was permitted according to the rules of the Orthodox Church, thereby denying Theodora the opportunity to increase her influence, stemming from her sister’s obvious talents for governing.

Her first preference was Constantine Dalassenos, who had been her father’s first choice as her husband back in 1028, but after he displayed his contempt for the empress, she threw him out of her presence. Her next choice was the married Constantine Atroklines, a court official, with whom it was rumoured that she’d had an affair with during the reign of Romanos III. He died a few days before the wedding took place under mysterious circumstances, possibly poisoned by his own soon to be ex-wife.

Zoe then remembered the handsome and urbane Constantine Monomachos
Constantine IX Monomachos
Constantine IX Monomachos, Latinized as Constantine IX Monomachus , c. 1000 – January 11, 1055, reigned as Byzantine emperor from June 11, 1042 to January 11, 1055. He had been chosen by the Empress Zoe as a husband and co-emperor in 1042, although he had been exiled for conspiring...

, another former lover. The pair were married on June 11, 1042, without the participation of Patriarch
Originally a patriarch was a man who exercised autocratic authority as a pater familias over an extended family. The system of such rule of families by senior males is called patriarchy. This is a Greek word, a compound of πατριά , "lineage, descent", esp...

 Alexius I of Constantinople, who refused to officiate over a third marriage (for both spouses). On the following day Constantine was formally proclaimed emperor together with Zoe and her sister Theodora.

Zoe got more than she bargained for when Constantine decided to bring with him into his new station his long standing mistress, Maria Skleraina. Not content with bringing her to court, he insisted that he be allowed to publicly share his life with her and further, that she obtain some official recognition. Surprisingly, the 64-year-old Zoe didn’t object sharing her bed and her throne with Skleraina. The sisters granted Scleraina the title of sebaste
Augusta (honorific)
Augusta was the imperial honorific title of empresses. It was given to the women of the Roman and Byzantine imperial families. In the third century, Augustae could also receive the titles of Mater castrorum and Mater Patriae .The title implied the greatest prestige, with the Augustae able to...

and she took rank after Zoe and Theodora, being called despoina
In Greek mythology, Despoina, Despoena or Despoine, was the daughter of Demeter and Poseidon and sister of Arion. She was the goddess of mysteries of Arcadian cults worshipped under the title Despoina,"the mistress" alongside with her mother Demeter,one of the goddesses of the Eleusinian mysteries...

, mistress or empress, like them and taking her place behind them in official processions and ceremonies.

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 Zoe and Theodora. 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. The mob was only quietened by the appearance of Zoe and Theodora at a balcony, who reassured the people that they were not in any danger of assassination.

During Constantine’s reign, Zoe gladly handed over all imperial power and responsibility to her husband. Until her death in 1050, she enjoyed various amusements, with her rooms in the palace were filled with boiling pots and pans, for the manufacture of ointments and perfumes.

Although Zoe was fifty when she first married, 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. It is said she was stunningly beautiful, and Michael Psellos
Michael Psellos
Michael Psellos or Psellus was a Byzantine monk, writer, philosopher, politician and historian...

 in his Chronographia commented that, like a well baked chicken, "every part of her was firm and in good condition." 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 she was able to keep her face free of wrinkles until she was sixty.

Secondary Sources

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