Medieval Mondays: Zoe Porphyrogenita

Hello everyone! This is the start of a new feature, Medieval Mondays, in which I will tell you about ten of my favourite lesser known medieval women. We begin with Zoe Porphyrogenita, my favourite medieval Byzantine Empress.*

Zoe was born in about the year 980, the daughter of Constantine VIII, and thus the niece of his brother and co-emperor, Basil ‘the Bulgar Slayer’. She was the second of three daughters, with an elder sister who apparently caught smallpox, joined a convent, and vanished from the historical record, and a younger sister, Theodora.

Zoe enters the historical record properly in her early 20s, when she was suggested as a potential bride for Otto III of the Holy Roman Empire (who had a Byzantine mother himself). Unfortunately, Otto died before any marriage could take place. Unusually, this appears to have been the only marriage suggested for Zoe. Basil was himself unmarried, and doesn’t seem to have been all that fussed about ensuring the succession of the Empire. Zoe and her sister Theodora spent most of their lives in the women’s quarters together. It did not lead to a convivial relationship.

Basil died in 1025, and Constantine followed in 1028. At this point, Zoe stepped onto the political stage.

A word about sources. The majority of our information about Zoe comes from Michael Psellos, who I can say without hesitation did not like Zoe. At all. He spends a lot of time explaining why things that went wrong were Zoe’s fault, and how Zoe was clearly a murderess and harlot, saying that To put it quite candidly (for my present purpose is not to compose a eulogy, but to write an accurate history) neither of them was fitted by temperament to govern. They neither knew how to administer nor were they capable of serious argument on the subject of politics. For the most part they confused the trifles of the harem with important matters of state.” Psellos is all about how amazing Psellos is.

So, on her father’s death in 1028, Zoe, aged 50, was married to her third cousin Romanos. Psellos says that Romanos held out hopes that they would have a child “even in the face of natural incapacity”, but presumably everyone else had put two and two together and made four. By five years in, things had gone sour. “Two things more than any other vexed [Zoe]: the fact that Romanus did not love her, and that she herself was unable to squander money.” Apparently, despite being “past the age for love” Zoe met a man called Michael the Paphlagonian and “at once fell victim to his charm, and from some mystic union between them she conceived a love for him.” Romanos died very shortly afterwards, and Zoe married 

*Second favourite Byzantine Empress of all, because Aelia Eudoxia, who went off to Jerusalem, joined a convent, and wrote Homer/Bible crossover fic, exists.


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