Theodora (11th century)

Theodora Porphyrogenita

Byzantine coin showing Jesus Christ on the left and Empress Theodora on the right.
Empress of the Byzantine Empire
Reign 19 April 1042 - 31 August 1056
Predecessor Zoe Porphyrogenita & Michael V Kalaphates
Successor Michael VI
Co-reign Zoe Porphyrogenita[1]:2038 (1042–50)
Constantine IX (1042–55)
Born c. 980
Died August 31, 1056
(aged 75–76)
Burial Church of the Holy Apostles, Constantinople
Dynasty Macedonian
Father Constantine VIII
Mother Helena

Theodora (Greek: Θεοδώρα, Theodōra; 980 – August 31, 1056) 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 regnant from 11 January 1055 to 31 August 1056. She was the last of the Macedonian line, and upon her death the empire entered a period of decline that lasted until the ascension of Alexios I Komnenos in 1081.

Early life

Theodora was the youngest daughter of the Byzantine Emperor Constantine VIII and Helena, daughter of Alypius.[1]:503 As an eligible imperial princess, she was considered as a possible bride for the Holy Roman Emperor in the west, Otto III in 996.[2]:253 However, Theodora was overlooked in favour of her sister Zoe, who was selected as the potential bride, but Otto III died before the wedding.[2]:259 From that point onwards, Theodora lived a life of obscurity in the imperial gynaeceum.[2]:269 However, after her uncle Basil II died childless, and her father died without siring any sons, she was forced to the centre of imperial politics.[3]:265 Intelligent and possessing a strong and austere character, Theodora defied her father by refusing to marry the man he had chosen to succeed him, Romanos Argyros, stating that Romanos was already married – his wife having become a nun to allow Romanos to marry into the imperial family.[4]:465 Theodora further claimed that since Romanos and she were third cousins, it was too close a blood relationship for marriage to occur.[2]:270 Consequently, Constantine VIII chose Theodora’s sister, Zoe, who married Romanos instead in 1028.[3]:257

With the accession of Romanos, Theodora prudently retreated back into the gynaeceum, with its daily religious routines,[2]:276 but this did not save her from her sister’s envy. Never having forgiven Theodora for being their father’s first choice,[3]:269 Zoe persuaded her husband to appoint one of his own men as the chief of Theodora’s household, with orders to spy on her.[4]:469 Shortly afterwards, Theodora was accused of plotting to usurp the throne with Presian of Bulgaria. Although Presian was blinded and then sent to a monastery, Theodora was not condemned, but in 1031 she was implicated in another conspiracy, this time with Constantine Diogenes, the Archon of Sirmium.[1]:627 Accused of being part of the conspiracy, Theodora was forcibly confined in the monastery of Petrion. Zoe later visited her sister and forced her to take Holy Orders.[4]:471 She would remain there for the next thirteen years, as Zoe managed the empire with her husbands, Romanos III and, after his death, Michael IV.

Co-empress with Zoe

Depiction on Empress Theodora on the Monomachus Crown

With Michael IV’s death in December 1041, Zoe adopted Michael’s nephew, who was crowned as Michael V.[4]:495 Although he promised to respect Zoe, he promptly banished her to a monastery on Princes' Islands on charges of attempted regicide.[2]:295 This treatment of the legitimate heir to the Macedonian Dynasty caused a popular uprising in Constantinople, and on 19 April 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,[2]:297 but his insistence that he continue to rule alongside Zoe was rejected.[4]:496 Key members of the court decided that flighty Zoe needed a co-ruler, and that it should be her sister Theodora. A delegation headed by the Patrician Constantine Cabasilas[2]:298 went to the monastery at Petrion to convince Theodora to become co-empress alongside her sister.[4]:496 Theodora rejected their pleas out of hand, and fled to the convent chapel to seek sanctuary. Constantine and his retinue pursued her, forcibly dragged her out and exchanged her monastic clothes for imperial ones.[2]:298 At an assembly at Hagia Sophia, the people escorted a furious Theodora from Petrion, and proclaimed her empress along with Zoe.[2]:299 After crowning Theodora, the mob stormed the palace, forcing Michael V to escape to a monastery.[2]:300

Zoe immediately assumed power and tried to force Theodora back to her monastery, but the Senate and the people demanded that the two sisters should jointly reign.[4]:497 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, but Theodora was made of firmer stuff. She initially guaranteed Michael’s safety before ordering that Michael be blinded and spend the rest of his life as a monk.[2]:301 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.[2]:304 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 on the administration of justice.[4]:498 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.[2]:305

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.[2]:306 Zoe was still jealous of Theodora and had no desire to administer the empire, but she would not allow Theodora to conduct public business alone. The court soon began to split in two, with factions forming behind each empress.[2]:306 After two months of increasing acrimony between the two, Zoe decided to search for a new husband, thereby denying Theodora the opportunity to increase her influence, stemming from her sister’s obvious talents for governing.[4]:499 She eventually married Constantine IX Monomachos, on 11 June 1042, and the management of the empire reverted to him.[2]:307 Although officially Theodora and Zoe continued to be recognised as empresses and Theodora continued to appear at all official functions, all power devolved onto her brother-in-law. Nevertheless, she was still able to exert some influence at court, as demonstrated by her ordering the arrest and blinding of John the Eunuch, the powerful minister who ran the courts of Romanos III, Michael IV, and Michael V, and who had been living in exile after the fall of Michael V.[4]:505

Constantine IX’s preferential treatment of his mistress in the early part of his reign led to rumours that he was planning to murder Zoe and Theodora.[2]:309 This led to a popular uprising by the citizens of Constantinople in 1044, which was only quieted by the appearance at a balcony of Zoe and Theodora, who reassured the mob that they were not in any danger of assassination.[4]:503

Return to power

Zoe died in 1050 and Constantine IX died on 11 January 1055. As Constantine lay dying, he was persuaded by his councilors, chiefly the logothetes tou dromou John, to ignore the rights of Theodora and to pass the throne to the doux (Duke) of Bulgaria, Nikephoros Proteuon.[4]:527 However, their plans were preempted by Theodora, who, in spite of her seventy years of age, vigorously reasserted her dormant rights to rule. She was brought out of her retirement in a convent, convened the Senate and was proclaimed "emperor" by the imperial guard shortly before Constantine's death.[5][6]:596

A purge of senior officials and the leadership of the European military units followed. Nikephoros Bryennios, whom the western tagmata apparently wanted to proclaim emperor instead, was also dismissed and exiled on Theodora’s orders,[1]:329[6]:597 after which she confiscated his estates and banished his supporters from court.[4]:527

Her second period of rule proceeded where the first left off.[3]:270 By her firm administration, she controlled the unruly nobles and checked numerous abuses. She damaged her reputation, however, with excessive severity toward private enemies and undue employment of menials for advisers, including her influential minister Leo Paraspondylos.[4]:528 Military and court offices were filled by her household eunuchs, and even able commanders such as Isaac Komnenos were replaced with minor functionaries.[4]:528 Determined to centralize as much power in her hands as possible, she presided in person in the Senate and heard appeals as supreme judge in civil cases. Her appointment of clerics offended the Patriarch Michael Keroularios, who considered this the duty of men, not women.[1]:2038

Inevitably, Leo Paraspondylos's faction was interested in maintaining its control of government through the aging empress, while the patriarch Michael Keroularios advocated that Theodora advance a subject to the throne through marriage to her, something which would have assured the succession. This was not accomplished.

Theodora became gravely ill with an intestinal disorder in late August 1056 and died a few days later, on 31 August 1056, at the age of 76.[4]:529 Having no children and being the last member of her dynasty, she had chosen one of her favorites, the former military finance minister, Michael VI Bringas, as her successor on the recommendation of her chief minister, Leo Paraspondylos.[1]:1366 Hoping to recover her health, Theodora made her chosen successor swear that he would always obey her orders while she was alive. In the end he would not have to obey her long, for Theodora survived his nomination by only a few hours.[2]:327

As Michael VI was not related to the Macedonian dynasty that had ruled the Byzantine Empire for 189 years, he did not receive universal support, resulting in a series of conflicts for the throne among various noble families lasting from 1056 until 1081, the beginning of the Komnenian dynasty.


Primary sources

Secondary sources

See also


  1. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Kazhdan.
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 Norwich.
  3. 1 2 3 4 Canduci.
  4. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 Finlay.
  5. Garland (1999), pp. 165–66
  6. 1 2 Treadgold (1997).
Theodora (11th century)
Born: 984 Died: after 31 August 1056
Regnal titles
Preceded by
Michael V and Zoe
Byzantine Empress
with Zoe (1042-1050)
Constantine IX (1042-1055)
Succeeded by
Michael VI
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