Zoë

The Byzantine empress Zoë (ca. 978-1050) and her sister, the last living members of the great Macedonian dynasty, prolonged their house through marriages and independent rule. The frivolities of their court, however, helped hasten the empire's rapid decline.

Zoë was the second of three daughters of Emperor Constantine VIII (reigned 1025-1028), younger brother and unworthy successor to the great Basil II (reigned 976-1025). Little is known of her early life. She remained unmarried until her father lay dying and, with no son to continue the dynasty, sought a son-in-law. Zoës elder sister, scarred by disease, had become a nun, while her younger sister, Theodora, was unattractive and uninterested in marriage. Zoë herself, still lovely despite her 50 years, eagerly accepted long-delayed conjugality. Her husband, the vain and incompetent aristocrat Romanus III Argyrus, soon tired of her, and his neglect drove her ardently to various lovers.

After Romanus's murder in 1034, Zoë arranged to make one of her lovers his successor as emperor and husband. This replacement, Michael IV the Paphlagonian (reigned 1034-1041), was not without ability and dedication, but he was also of poor health and, in his guilt and remorse, likewise came to neglect Zoë. Kept under careful watch this time, she grudgingly accepted her eclipse and then acquiesced in the succession of his nephew Michael V Calaphates (the Caulker, reigned 1041-1042).

The new emperor, misjudging his position, decided to dispense with this unpredictable old lady and had her bundled off into exile. But he reckoned without the irrational but profound love in which the populace held Zoë, as the last representative of the beloved dynasty. Ferocious rioting staggered Michael V's regime, and he tried the maneuver of bringing Zoë back. But it was too late: driven from the palace, he was murdered by the mobs. Meanwhile, Theodora had been brought out from the confinement into which her jealous sister had placed her, and she was set on the throne by one governmental faction. The two women confronted each other, reconciled, and agreed to rule together. But Zoë was frivolous and irresponsible, while Theodora was dour and aloof; despite some positive efforts, their disagreements prompted the desire within a month for another man at the helm. Theodora again declined marriage, but Zoë, though in her mid-60s, readily accepted a third husband in June 1042. The new choice was another docile aristocrat, a puppet of the civil bureaucrats: Constantine IX Monomachus (reigned 1042-1055), previously one of Zoë's lovers.

Genuinely well-meaning and not unintelligent, but imprudent, prodigal, and disastrously unperceptive as a sovereign, Constantine was Zoë's worst failure among her husbands. No more than politely fond of her, he longed desperately for his beloved mistress, Sclerina, and he soon arranged to bring her to court, installing her openly as his consort. Her ardor perhaps on the wane at last, Zoë accepted this public sharing of her husband and yielded herself to religious ecstasies or to her hobby of making perfumes in her apartments; while Theodora—theoretically also sharing power—settled into the background and devoted herself to hoarding money. After Sclerina died, Constantine replaced her with a new mistress, an Alan princess, who was likewise complacently accepted.

In this appropriately inane court setting, Zoë died in 1050. Constantine mourned her genuinely but consoled himself and reigned on disastrously for some 5 more years. At his death (January 1055) Theodora was left to rule alone, as sovereign in her own exclusive right, for 18 months, until her death in 1056 ended the Macedonian dynasty definitively.

Further Reading on Zoë

Zoë figures prominently and vividly in the court memoirs of the contemporary scholar and official Michael Psellus, The Chronographia, which was translated into English by E. R. A. Sewter (1953). An illuminating commentary on this account by J. B. Bury, "Roman Emperors from Basil II to Isaac Komnenos," is reprinted in his Selected Essays, edited by Harold Temperley (1930). A lively sketch of Zoë is in Charles Diehl, Byzantine Empresses (trans. 1963), and she is also described in Joseph McCabe, The Empresses of Constantinople (1913). For the political context of her career see The Cambridge Medieval History, vol. 4 (1923), and the second edition, pt. 1 (1966); George Ostrogorsky, History of the Byzantine State (trans. 1956; rev. ed. 1969); and Romilly Jenkins, Byzantium: The Imperial Centuries (1966).

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