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This Week In History

December 10, 1041. The love of Zoe.

The_murder_of_Romanos_III_in_his_bath

Zoë Porphyrogenita reigned as Byzantine Empress alongside her sister Theodora from 10 April 1042 to June 1050. She was also enthroned as empress consort to a series of co-rulers between 1028 and 1042.

Zoë was born to a nominal co-emperor, Constantine VIII, but lived a life of relative obscurity until the age of 47. Her uncle Basil II then died, leaving the Byzantine throne entirely to her father. As he had no sons, Constantine hoped to continue the dynasty by marrying off one of his daughters and determined that the ruling house would be continued by one of them being married to an appropriate aristocrat.

Romanos Argyros, the urban prefect of Constantinople, was the next to be considered as a match, after considering Constantine Dalassenos “too strong and difficult to manipulate”. Theodora defied her father by refusing to marry Romanos, arguing that he was already married and that as third cousins they had too close a blood relationship for marriage to occur. Consequently, Constantine VIII chose Zoë to be Romanos’s wife instead of Theodora. Zoë and Romanos 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.

Zoë was obsessed with continuing the Macedonian dynasty. 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. This failure to conceive helped alienate the couple.

Zoë, furious and frustrated, engaged in a number of affairs. Romanos tolerated these and took a mistress himself. In 1033 Zoë became in love with a low-born servant called Michael. She flaunted her lover openly and spoke about making him emperor.

In early 1034 Romanos became ill and it was widely believed that Zoë and Michael were conspiring to have him poisoned.  On 11 April Romanos was found dying in his bath. According to court official and later chronicler Michael Psellus some of his retinue had “held his head for a long time beneath the water, attempting at the same time to strangle him”.

Zoë and Michael were married on the same day that Romanos III died. The next day they summoned the Patriarch Alexios I to officiate at the coronation of the new emperor, to reign as Michael IV until his death in 1041.

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,  so he excluded Zoë from politics by placing all power in the hands of his brother, the eunuch John the Orphanotrophos.  Zoë was confined again to the palace gynaeceum, and kept under strict surveillance. The disgruntled empress conspired against John but in vain.

By 1041 it was obvious that Michael IV was dying. John the Eunuch, eager to ensure that power remained in his hands, forced Zoë to adopt Michael IV’s nephew, the son of his sister, also called Michael. On 10 December 1041, Michael IV died, and Michael V was crowned emperor, and promptly exiled Zoë. This sparked a popular revolt which dethroned him and installed Zoë and her sister Theodora as joint empresses. After a two-month joint reign Zoë married a former lover, who was installed as Constantine IX Monomachos, transferring power to him.

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