But a greater change had come over the Eastern Empire with the exile and death of Irene. Her elevation had, as we have seen, severed the connection between East and West and led to the appointment of a Western emperor in the person of Charlemagne. Hence, from this time onward the interests and sympathies of the two sections of the later Roman Empire diverge more and more, and the government at Constantinople becomes ever more Oriental in its proclivities. It is, therefore, more appropriate to use the adjective Byzantine for the remaining centuries of the history of Constantinople to its conquest by the Turks in 1453.
The careers of Irene and her successor, Theodora, the two image-worshipping empresses, in the contrast of the vicissitudes of their lives with the rapidity of their rise and the splendor of their power, offer materials for romance more truly than for sober history. Each was born in private station; and in each case it must have required rare beauty and fascination and high intellectual gifts to fill so successfully the exalted position of Empress of the Romans, and to overturn the iconoclastic reforms of their predecessors on the throne. Each of them, too, when regent, was grossly neglectful of the son over whose youth she presided, and whom she should have fitted for the high station to which he was destined. Yet herein lies the marked difference between the two queens: Irene finally expelled her son from his royal station, and sent him to pass his life as a blinded monk in a secluded cell; Theodora, finding she could no longer control the wild nature of her son, whose training she had neglected, retired from the court and sought relief in a life of penitence. For their pious acts, both empresses were canonized as orthodox saints, but Irene must ever be regarded as a demon at heart, while Theodora must pass as a misguided and self-deceived woman, who, in the performance of her religious duties, overlooked the most important task just at hand. But we are anticipating our consideration of Theodora, the second Irene.
The iconoclastic controversy was renewed by Nicephorus, who usurped the throne of Irene, as he was of Oriental extraction and therefore in sympathy with the so-called heretics. Neither Nicephorus nor his successor during a period of political anarchy came to a peaceful end, but Michael II., in 829 died a natural death in the royal palace, still wearing the crown he had won, and leaving the throne to his son Theophilus, destined to rank as the Haroun Al Raschid of Byzantine romance and story. Michael had married Euphrosyne, the daughter of Irene's son, Constantine VI., and the last scion of Leo the Isaurian. Euphrosyne had already taken the veil, but, to bring about a union which might probably continue the line of Leo, the patriarch absolved her from her vows, and she passed from the convent to the palace as Empress of the East. Yet, so far as we know, there was no issue of the marriage, and Michael's son -- Theophilus -- by a former wife succeeded his father on the throne. Euphrosyne remained for a time in the palace as empress-dowager, and seems to have been on the best of terms with her stepson, whom she at length assisted in the important but difficult task of selecting a consort.
Theophilus, since the time of Constantine VI., was the first prince to be brought up in the purple, and his education was the best the age afforded. The ninth century was an age of romance, both in action and in literature, and Theophilus was inspired with many of the ideas of Oriental monarchs. His reign, therefore, furnishes a series of anecdotes and tales like to those of the Arabian Nights, and was surrounded with an Oriental glamour and mystery. And, like his predecessors, he was a pronounced iconoclast.
Theophilus was unmarried when he ascended the throne, and the matter of choosing a wife presented many difficulties to the absolute ruler who could have his choice from among the daughters of the aristocratic families of Constantinople, or even from the provinces of his dominions. He finally took counsel with the attractive empress-dowager Euphrosyne, and between them they devised a plan which would permit of a wide range of choice and yet possess all the romance of mythical times.
The empress-dowager one day assembled at her levee all the most beautiful and accomplished daughters of the nobles of the capital. While the maidens were engaged in the interchange of friendly greetings, Theophilus suddenly entered the room, carrying, like Paris of old, a golden apple in his hand. He cast his eyes over the room, and there was a flutter in many a feminine heart over the object of his coming and the possible recipient of the golden apple. Struck by the beauty and grace of the fair Eikasia, one of the noted belles of the day, he paused before her to address a word to her. Already in the heart of the proud beauty there were anticipations of an imperial career. But Theophilus found no better topic to commence a conversation than the ungallant remark: "Woman is the source of evil in the world;" to which the young lady quickly replied: "Woman is also the cause of much good." Either the ready retort or the tone of her voice jarred on the captious mind of the monarch, and he passed on. His eye then fell on the modest features and graceful figure of the young Theodora, a rival beauty, and to her, without risking a word, he handed the apple. The shock was too severe for the slighted Eikasia, who had for a moment felt the thrill of gratified ambition, and was conscious of the possession of the endowments that would adorn the throne. She straightway retired to a monastery which she founded, and devoted her time to religious practices and intellectual pursuits. Many hymns were composed by her, which continued long in use in the Greek Church.
Perhaps it would have been better for Theophilus had he chosen Eikasia. Theodora, with all her modest demeanor, was self-assertive and proud, and as a devoted iconodule she caused her husband many an unhappy hour during his lifetime; and as soon as he was dead she set to work to undo his policy. The Empress Euphrosyne too soon realized the masterful spirit of the new empress as did Theodora's own mother, Theoktista, and the two dowagers retired into the monastery of Gastria, which afforded them an agreeable retreat from the intrigues of the court.
Theodora is the heroine of another tale which illustrated an unbecoming trait in her character and the love of justice of Theophilus. It was the practice of money-loving officials to engage secretly in trade and to avoid the payment of custom duties by engaging the empress, or members of the imperial family, in commercial adventures. By these practices, gross injustice was done the merchants, and the revenues of the state suffered. Theophilus learned that the young empress had lent her name to one of these trading speculations, and he determined to handle the matter in such a way that, in future, a repetition would be impossible. He ascertained the time when a ship laden with a valuable cargo in the empress's name was about to arrive in Constantinople. He assembled his whole court on the quay to witness its arrival, and when the captain of the ship demanded free entry in the empress's name, Theophilus compelled him to unload and expose his precious cargo of Syrian merchandise, and then publicly burn it; then, turning to his wife, he remarked that never in the history of man had a Roman emperor or empress turned trader, and added the sharp reproach that her avarice had degraded the character of an empress into that of a merchant.
Theophilus died in 842, leaving the throne to his three-year-old son, Michael. His mother, Theodora, as she had been crowned empress, was regent in her own right, and she quickly proved herself one of the most self-assertive of Byzantine princesses. As Theophilus and his predecessors overturned the work of Irene, so Theodora immediately began to undo the iconoclastic policy of her deceased husband; and as her successors continued her policy, the regency of Theodora marks the end of iconoclasm and the permanent establishment of image worship in the churches of the East, as of the West.
Within the first month of the commencement of the new reign, images had appeared once more in the churches of Constantinople, and the banished image worshippers were recalled from their places of exile. John the Grammarian, the patriarch who had served Theophilus, was deposed because he refused to convoke a synod for the repeal of iconoclastic decrees, and Methodius was appointed in his stead. A council of the church was held the same year at Constantinople, composed largely of the lately exiled bishops, abbots, and monks who had distinguished themselves as confessors in the cause of image worship. All the prominent bishops who had held iconoclastic opinions were expelled from their sees, and their places were filled by the orthodox. The practices and doctrines of the Iconoclasts were formally anathematized and banished forever from the orthodox church.
While the synod was being held, in the heart of Theodora a conflict was going on between her love of image worship and her affection for her deceased husband. She did not waver in her zeal for the orthodox church, but she did dread to think of her husband as consigned, as a heretic, to the pangs of hell. Consequently, she presented herself one day to the assembled clergy, and requested the passage of a decree to the effect that her deceased husband's sins had all been pardoned by the Church, and that divine grace had effaced the record of his persecutions of the saints. Deep dissatisfaction showed itself on the faces of all the clergy when she made this singular request, and when they hesitated to speak she uttered, with innocent frankness, a mild threat that if they did not act favorably on her petition, she would not exert her influence as regent to give them the victory over the Iconoclasts, but would leave the affairs of the Church in their present status. The patriarch Methodius finally found his voice to tell her that the Church could use its office to release the souls of orthodox princes from the pains of hell, but unfortunately the prayers of the Church were of no avail in obtaining forgiveness from God for those who died without the pale of orthodoxy; that the Church was intrusted with the keys of heaven only to open and shut the gates of salvation to the living, while the dead were beyond its help.
Theodora, however, was determined all the more to secure salvation for her deceased husband. She declared that in his last moments the dying Theophilus had tenderly grasped and kissed an image she had laid on his breast. Although the probabilities were that the soul of Theophilus had already sped ere such an event took place, the wily Methodius saw in the statement an escape from the dilemma that faced the synod; and upon his recommendation the assembled clergy consented to absolve the dead emperor from excommunication and to receive him into the bosom of the orthodox church, declaring that, as his last moments were spent in the manner Theodora certified in a written attestation, Theophilus had found pardon with God.
Like her more celebrated predecessor Irene, Theodora exhibited a masterful ability in governing, and, in spite of her persecuting policy toward the Iconoclasts, she preserved the tranquillity of the Empire and enhanced its prestige. Like Irene, too, she became so engrossed in things religious and political that she shamefully neglected the education of her son. It is a sad commentary on the history of the Church that in the long series of emperors from Theodosius to Basil only two were utterly unfit for the high station to which they fell heir, and these were the sons of the two empresses whose names figure so largely in the triumph of the image worshippers, -- Irene's son, Constantine VI., and Theodora's son, Michael III.
Theodora, absorbed in imperial ambition, abandoned the training of her child to her brother Bardas, of whose profligate life she could not have been ignorant. Bardas reared the young Michael in the most reckless and unconscientious manner, permitting him to neglect his serious studies, and teaching him his own vices of drunkenness and debauchery. Michael proved to be an apt pupil in profligacy, and before he reached his majority had become a confirmed dipsomaniac. Meanwhile, his mother, with the aid of her minister, Theoktistus, arrogated to herself the sole direction of public business, and viewed with indifference her brother's corruption of the principles of her son. Perhaps she saw in his ruin the continuance and perpetuation of her own power; perhaps she feared that his influence would be cast with the Iconoclasts, as had been his father's before him, and that only by his wild career could he be prevented from overturning the cherished plans of her heart.
In spite of his irregular life, however, Michael manifested a strong will of his own, and, as the time of the attainment of his majority approached, he came to an open quarrel with his mother. He had fallen violently in love with Eudocia, the daughter of Inger, of the powerful family of Martinakes, and Theodora and her ministers saw in an alliance with this house the probability of a potent opposition to their own political influence. Theodora realized that she must in some manner prevent this marriage, and she exerted her maternal influence so strongly that she compelled the lad of sixteen to marry another lady named Eudocia, the daughter of Dekapolitas -- thus repeating the unfortunate policy of Irene on a similar occasion. The young roue, however, balked in his purpose to make Eudocia Ingerina his wife, straightway made her his mistress, and thus brought public disgrace on the court life of the day. His marriage also incensed him against the regency; and at the first opportunity, he asserted his majority, sanctioned the murder of the prime minister Theoktistus, and grew weary of the presence of his mother.
He succeeded in dismissing his mother and sisters from the palace, and even attempted to persuade the patriarch to give them the veil. With the hope of regaining her power over her son, Theodora formed a plot to assassinate her brother Bardas; but the plot was discovered, and Michael compelled her to retire to the monastery of Gastria, the usual residence of the ladies of the imperial family who were secluded from the world. Yet, the empress-mother never descended to the baseness of Irene, so as to seek the injury of her ungrateful son.
Meanwhile, Michael selected as his boon companion the courtier Basil, who had begun his career as a groom in the stables of some nobleman of the court. The two gave their time to debauchery and lust; and as a token of his favor, Michael compelled Basil to marry his discarded mistress, Eudocia Ingerina.
In the solitude of the cloister, Theodora deplored the ingratitude, the vices, and the inevitable ruin of her worthless son, and, repenting of her earlier folly in neglecting his bringing up, endeavored to make amends for the mistake of her past life. Finally, after the death of her brother, Theodora regained some of her maternal influence and was permitted to reside at the palace of Saint Mamas, where occurred the last sad tragedy of her career.
Basil, who in spite of all carousals could always keep his head, observed how his friend Michael had thrown away the high privileges of his station and had become an object of contempt in the eyes of all good men. His overweening ambition to mount the throne overcame every noble sentiment, and he plotted to assassinate the emperor and to usurp supreme power. The tragedy occurred in the palace of the empress-mother. Basil and his wife, Eudocia Ingerina, were invited by her to a feast at her house, where Michael was present. An orgy ensued; Michael was carried to his room in a state of intoxication, and Basil and his conspirators succeeded in despatching him in his drunken sleep. Basil mounted the throne, and was destined to found the longest dynasty in the annals of the Empire. Theodora, bowed down with sorrows, and distressed beyond measure at the cruel destiny of her first-born, died in the first year of the reign of Basil I.
Theodora, because of her zeal for image worship, was eulogized as a saint by the ecclesiastical writers of both the Western and the Eastern Church, and is honored with a place in the Greek Calendar. Had her devotion to her children equalled her self-sacrificing loyalty to church affairs, she might have changed the course of Byzantine history. But, failing in her maternal duties, her name shared the ignominy as well as the glory of Irene, and, while not possessing the wickedness of the latter, she must rank as a queen who in neglecting her son brought disgrace on the Empire.
Basil I. was one of those remarkable men who after a career of infamy are sobered by great responsibilities and perform well the part which it was destined for them to play. But in his relations with women he had to endure the natural outcome of his earlier licentiousness. His first wife, whom he married at the beginning of his career, had lived but a few years, leaving him a son, Constantine, whom he associated with him on the throne, but who died after a lapse of ten years. Eudocia Ingerina, whom Michael had compelled him to marry, had a son, Leo, who succeeded Basil on the throne, but the emperor was ever haunted with the suspicion that this lad was the son not of himself but of Michael. The adventures of this empress and of Michael's sister, Thekla, who also shared imperial honor, are sad proofs of the corruption of morals of the age. With her brother's consent, Thekla had become the concubine of Basil, and after he had assassinated Michael and ascended the throne, Thekla consoled herself with other lovers. On one occasion it happened that an attendant employed in the household of Thekla was waiting on the emperor, when the latter asked the shameless question: "Who is living with your mistress at present?" The attendant imprudently told the name of the successful lover; Basil's jealousy was aroused, and he ordered the paramour of the woman he had put aside to be seized, scourged, and immured for life in a monastery. It is even said that he ill treated Thekla and confiscated part of her property. But the Empress Eudocia Ingerina avenged the unfortunate princess in a manner more pardonable in the mistress of a besotted debauchee than in the wife of an emperor. When her amours were discovered, the empress was prudent enough to avoid scandal by merely compelling her lover to retire privately to a monastery.
In pleasing contrast to the story of these licentious princesses, revealing the absence of any shame in the high life of Constantinople, is that of the widow Danielis who played the lady bountiful to Basil in his earlier years, and to whom he delighted to show his gratitude after he had mounted the throne.
Once when he was an attache of the courtier Theophilitzes, whom Theodora had sent on public business into the Peloponnesus, he fell sick at Patras. A wealthy widow, Danielis by name, who had been struck with the handsome looks of the gallant attache, had him removed to her house and carefully nursed him through his illness. When he recovered, she made Basil a member of her family, by uniting him with her own son John in those spiritual ties of brotherhood sanctioned by the Greek Church with peculiar rites; also she bestowed on him considerable wealth so that from that time on he could play well the part of a courtier, and had the means to make himself the boon companion, friend, and colleague of the erratic Michael.
The lasting friendship between the widow and the emperor constitutes the most interesting episode in the checkered career of Basil. When he became emperor, he displayed his gratitude by sending for the son of his former benefactress and making him protospatharios, or chief of the guards. He also urged the widow to visit him, and see her adopted son seated on the throne. The account of her journey to Constantinople, is a most valuable commentary on the life of Greek women in the ninth century, and shows how vast was the wealth of the few on Greek soil, and what an important part a wealthy widow could play in the affairs of state; the story is as follows:
"The lady Danielis set off from Patras in a litter or covered couch, carried on the shoulders of ten slaves; and the train which followed her, destined to relieve these litter bearers, amounted to three hundred persons. When she reached Constantinople, she was lodged in the palace of Magnaura, appropriated for the reception of princely guests. The rich presents she had prepared for the emperor astonished the inhabitants of the capital, for no foreign monarch had ever offered gifts of equal value to a Byzantine sovereign.
"The slaves that bore the gifts were themselves a part of the present, and were all distinguished for their youth, beauty, and accomplishments. Four hundred young men, one hundred eunuchs and one hundred maidens, formed the living portion of this magnificent offering; while there were in addition, a hundred pieces of the richest colored drapery, one hundred pieces of soft woollen cloth, two hundred pieces of linen, and one hundred of cambric, so fine that each piece could be enclosed in the joint of a reed. To all this, a service of cups, dishes, and plates of gold and silver was added. When Danielis reached Constantinople, she found that the emperor had constructed a magnificent church as an expiation for the murder of his benefactor, Michael III. She sent orders to the Peloponnesus to manufacture carpets of unusual size, in order to cover the whole floor, that they might protect the rich mosaic pavement, in which a peacock with outspread tail astonished, by the extreme brilliancy of its coloring, every one who beheld it. Before the widow quitted Constantinople, she settled a considerable portion of her estate in Greece on her son, the protospatharios, and on her adopted child, the emperor, in joint property.
"After Basil's death, she again visited Constantinople; her own son was dead, so she constituted the Emperor Leo VI. her sole heir. On quitting the capital for the last time, she desired that the protospatharios, Zenobius, might be dispatched to the Peloponnesus, for the purpose of preparing a register of her extensive estate and immense property. She died shortly after her return; and even the imperial officers were amazed at the amount of her wealth; the quantity of gold coin, gold and silver plate, works of art in bronze, furniture, rich stuffs in linen, cotton, wool and silk, cattle and slaves, palaces and farms, formed an inheritance that enriched even an Emperor of Constantinople. The slaves of which Emperor Leo became the proprietor were so numerous that he ordered three thousand to be enfranchised and sent to the theme of Longobardia (as Apulia was then called), where they were put in possession of land which they cultivated as serfs. After the payment of many legacies, and a division of part of the landed property, according to the disposition of the testament, the emperor remained possessor of eighty farms or villages."
This narrative furnishes a curious glimpse into the condition of society in Greece during the latter part of the ninth century, which is the period when the Greek race began to recover a numerical superiority and prepare for the consolidation of its political ascendency over the Slavonian colonists in the Peloponnesus.
It seems almost incredible that such wealth and power could be concentrated in the hands of one woman; and only when we consider the grinding poverty of the masses of the population through the extortions of the rich and the oppressions of the governing classes can we account for the resources which permitted the lavish luxuries of the aristocrats.
The fourscore years succeeding the death of Basil the Macedonian were taken up by the two long reigns of Leo VI. -- reputed to be the son of Basil, but in all probability the son of Michael, -- and Leo's son, Constantine Porphyrogenitus. These years were important for literature, as both son and grandson of the founder of the dynasty were authors of renown; but in historical interest and especially as regards the story of Byzantine womanhood they were the most uneventful and monotonous in the many centuries of the Empire's existence.
Constantine Porphyrogenitus was the child (by his fourth wife) of Leo's old age, and was only seven years old when he fell heir to the Empire. He was brought up under the tutelage of guardians; and so devoted was he to the composing of books and the painting of pictures, that he was forty years of age before he assumed entire control of the reins of government; yet, twenty years of supreme power fell to his lot.
In his works, we have a beautiful picture of his domestic life. We do not know much of his wife, Helena, but he was devoted to his son Roman us, a gay, pleasure-loving prince, and to his daughters, of whom the youngest, Agatha, was his favorite secretary and the constant companion of his studies. "Seated by his side, she read to him all the official reports of the ministers; and when his health began to fail it was through her intermediation that he consented to transact public business. That such a proceeding created no alarming abuses and produced neither serious complaints nor family quarrels is more honorable to the heart of the princess than is her successful performance of her task to her good sense and ability."
The most interesting figure about him, however, was his daughter-in-law Theophano, who was destined to play a fatal part in the story of the Basilian house. Theophano was lowly born, and her beauty and grace could never win the court circle and the public to pardon a low alliance which disgraced the majesty of the purple. Hence, the vilest scandals were circulated about her, which must be taken with some degree of allowance.
According to the chroniclers, she was wildly ambitious and utterly lacking in natural affection, charming in manner, but cruel in heart. She and Romanus made a most striking couple as they appeared together in the court or took part in the public processions. Romanus was conspicuous for his beauty and strength, tall and erect, fair and florid in complexion, with aquiline nose and sparkling eyes. Theophano was of the pure Greek type in features, yet small of stature and of infinite ease of manner and movement. According to the Byzantine writers, she craved eagerly for supreme power, and poisoned her father-in-law to hasten her husband's elevation to the throne. Constantine did not take enough of the beverage administered by her hand to end his life, but his constitution was weakened, and after a short period of time he passed away. Romanus's name was also embraced in the story, he having been induced, through the wiles of his wife, to enter into a conspiracy against their father and benefactor. But Constantine's picture of his own family life is so amiable, that it is as difficult to give credence to the accusation brought against Romanus and Theophano as it is to Procopius's tales regarding Theodora Justinian.
Romanus II. had held the throne but five years when he too sickened and died, and it was rumored that Theophano had mingled for him the same deadly draught which she had prepared for her father-in-law. The young empress was left as regent of her two little sons, Basil, aged seven, and Constantine, who was only two. She aspired first to reign alone; but soon realizing the Byzantine dislike for feminine rule, she found a protector and a guardian for her sons in Nicephorus, the most valiant soldier of the Empire. He was given the hand of the beautiful empress-dowager, and was crowned as the colleague of the two young Caesars. His personal ugliness and deformity rendered it impossible for Theophano to love him, and the match was one of interest rather than of affection. But Nicephorus proved himself a most affectionate co-regent, and paid scrupulous regard to the rights of the young princes. Much of his time was spent in the field, and many were the victories which he won for the Byzantine arms. But even his great achievements could not enchain the heart of the capricious empress.
Theophano, during the absence of her grim and ugly husband, had become enamored of his favorite nephew, John Zimisces, who was also a warrior of note. John listened to the voice of the tempter, not so much for lust as for ambition, and conspired with the empress against his uncle and benefactor. The treacherous murder was accomplished one December night in the year 969, in the imperial apartments of the palace.
Some of the conspirators had been concealed in the chamber of Theophano. John Zimisces and his principal companions crossed the Bosporus in a small boat, landed under the palace walls, and in the darkness of night silently ascended a ladder of ropes which was cast down by the handmaidens of the empress. Nicephorus, as was his custom, was sleeping on a bearskin on the floor of his chamber, when he was awakened by the noisy entrance of the conspirators. Their daggers were drawn, and, at the word from John, were plunged into the body of the valiant general, who exclaimed in his death agony: "Oh, God! grant me thy mercy." Though by this base deed John came to the throne, he showed deep contrition for the slaughter of his uncle; and through the connivance of the patriarch and treachery toward his friends, he avoided marriage with the partner of his guilt.
"On the day of his coronation, he was stopped on the threshold of Saint Sophia by the intrepid patriarch, who charged his conscience with the deed of treason and blood, and required as a sign of repentance that he should separate himself from his more criminal associate. This sally of apostolic zeal was not offensive to the prince, since he could neither love nor trust a woman who had violated the most sacred obligation; and Theophano, instead of sharing his imperial throne, was dismissed with ignominy from his bed and palace." Deprived of her place as regent, and repudiated by her sons on whom she had brought shame, Theophano passed the remaining years of her life in a monastery.
Of the two sons of Theophano, Basil II., after a long reign of over half a century, -- 963-1025, -- distinguished by his many victories over the Bulgarians, died childless, and was succeeded by his brother, Constantine IX., who was destined to be the last male of the Macedonian house. After his short reign of three years, the story of the remaining twenty-nine years of the Basilian dynasty gathers itself about the names of his two elderly daughters, Zoe and Theodora, and the series of princes who owed their position on the throne solely to them. It is a period of decadence, and the reader cannot help but pity the two sisters who were endeavoring to uphold a decaying dynasty in the midst of corruption and folly. Zoe constitutes the central figure of the period; but Theodora was vastly her superior, and casts a sort of glamour about the closing years of the house of Basil the Macedonian.
Zoe, however, was notable not so much for her ability to govern as for her extraordinary vanity and love of adulation. Yet, for some reason, she had reached the age of forty-eight before she found a husband. Upon his deathbed, Constantine summoned Romanus Argyrus, an aged nobleman, to the palace and informed him that he had been selected to mount the throne, but that he must divorce his wife and marry one of the imperial princesses. Romanus hesitated, not that he cared not for the throne, but because the conditions were too severe; he loved his wife, and he did not fancy joining his lot with one of the elderly maidens. But he was told that he must either obey or lose his eyesight. To relieve the situation, his wife, with self-sacrificing devotion, took the veil and entered a monastery. Constantine destined Theodora, the younger and more capable of his daughters, for the throne as spouse to Romanus, but through religious compunctions she refused to marry the husband of another woman, and consequently Zoe was chosen as bride and empress at the tender age of forty-eight. Romanus was sixty when he ascended the throne.
Zoe never forgave her sister Theodora the fact that because of her more stable character their father had offered his younger daughter the throne; Romanus had no love for her because she had refused him. Consequently, spies were set over her movements, and every effort was made to connect her with the various plots of courtiers who had designs upon the throne. Finally, accused of being privy to the plans of one of the most hostile of the courtiers, Theodora was driven from her palace and imprisoned in the monastery of Petrion; sometime after, Zoe, upon a visit to the monastery, compelled her sister to assume the monastic habit.
Romanus and Zoe were never an affectionate couple. He devoted himself strictly to affairs of state and looked with indifference upon the many intrigues of his amorous spouse, who, like Queen Elizabeth, believed herself to be the mistress of all hearts. But one of these amours, perhaps, cost him his life.
The royal consorts had turned the management of the palace largely over to eunuchs. One of these, John the Paphlagonian, became very powerful, and, as he was precluded from the imperial title himself, sought to raise a brother to that high honor. This brother, Michael, had begun life as a goldsmith and money changer, but his brother appointed him to a place in the imperial household. Owing to his personal beauty and graceful and dignified manners, he soon became the favorite chamberlain to his royal mistress. Unfortunately, however, he was subject to sudden and violent attacks of epilepsy. This, instead of repelling Zoe, merely aroused her pity, and she fell in love with her handsome servant and carried on an amorous intrigue with him. Romanus was duly informed of his wife's conduct, but remained indifferent to it and probably deemed the accusation untenable because of the epilepsy of Michael. Zonaras, an ancient chronicler, tells the story that in the night the emperor frequently called Michael to rub his feet when he was in bed with Zoe. And he naively adds: "Who can refrain from supposing that the hands of the young valet-de-chambre did not find an opportunity of touching also the feet of the empress?" During the last two years of his life, Romanus was afflicted with a wasting disease and rumor had it that it was due to a slow poison administered either by Zoe, or by the eunuch John, who wished to bring about his brother's elevation. At any rate, in his dying moments, before the breath had left his body, the empress quitted his bedside to take measures with John the Paphlagonian for placing her epileptic paramour on the throne.
The moment Romanus III. ceased to live, Zoe called an assembly of the officers of state in the palace and invested Michael IV. with the diadem and the purple robe. He was straightway proclaimed Emperor of the Romans, and was formally seated beside Zoe on the vacant throne. The patriarch Alexius was filled with disgust at this flagrant display of contempt for decency, but for reasons of state and to avoid greater scandal, he celebrated the marriage between the empress and her paramour. "Thus a single night saw the aged Zoe the wife of two emperors, a widow and a bride, and Michael a menial and a sovereign."
Michael was twenty-eight when he wedded Zoe at the age of fifty-four and ascended the throne. In spite of his humble origin, he showed himself a capable ruler, and succeeded in repelling some of the enemies of the Empire. But his usefulness was hindered by his epileptic fits and by the unfriendly attitude of his subjects who regarded his disease as evidence of the divine wrath because of his ingratitude toward his benefactor, Romanus. He became a hopeless invalid before the age of thirty-six, and, when he felt his end approaching, he renounced the world and all the vanities of imperial station, and retired to the monastery of Saint Anarghyras where he became a monk. He died on December 10, 1041, after a reign of seven years and eight months.
After the death of her second husband, the irrepressible Zoe at first attempted to carry on the Empire alone, with the assistance of the eunuchs of her household, but the prevailing aversion to female sovereignty and her own disinclination to be without companionship of the male sex led her to a realization of the necessity of giving the Empire a male sovereign. The alternative which presented itself was whether she should adopt a son or marry a husband. Having twice experienced matrimonial bliss, but never having tasted the joys of filial devotion, for the sake of a new sensation Zoe adopted the former expedient.
She selected for the honor another Michael, the nephew of her late husband, but, as she was aware of his volatile character, she made him take a solemn oath, before conferring on him the crown, that he would ever regard her as his benefactress and treat her as his mother. Michael was ready enough to promise everything, and the diadem was placed on his head.
But as soon as he was established in power, Michael V. revealed his meanness of soul, and showed both insolence and ingratitude toward the woman through whom he had attained his elevation. He finally carried his insolence so far that he banished the empress Zoe to Prince's Island and compelled her to adopt the monastic habit. But this base act was more than the people could stand. Their fury burst through every restraint. The mob paraded the streets and proclaimed the reign of Michael at an end. They threatened to seize him and scatter his bones abroad like dust. An assembly was held in the church of Saint Sophia, to which the aged Theodora was brought from the monastery of Petrion, and she was proclaimed joint empress with her sister Zoe. In the meantime, Michael, alarmed at the rapid and overwhelming spread of the sedition, had Zoe brought back to the palace, and endeavored to pacify the people by persuading her to appear on a balcony overlooking the Hippodrome. But it was impossible for him to stem the current of the popular fury. The palace was stormed, and three thousand people were killed in the conflict which followed. Michael saved his life by escaping to the monastery of Studion; his eyes were finally put out, and he passed the rest of his days in the garb of a monk.
Zoe immediately entered upon the duties and responsibilities of power, of which for a time she had been deprived, and she endeavored to force her sister back into religious retirement; but the Senate and people insisted upon the joint reign of the two sisters. But this singular union lasted less than two months. In temperament and in interests the two sisters were antipodal. Different factions were their support, the clerical party favoring the devout Theodora, and the worldlings the volatile Zoe. For a time, the twain appeared always side by side at the meetings of the Senate and at the courts of justice. Unlike Zoe, Theodora showed great aptitude for public business, and took pleasure in performing her administrative duties.
Zoe's plots against her sister being frustrated, and recognizing that Theodora was rapidly gaining the ascendency, she bethought herself of taking a third husband, to whom she might resign the throne and thus deprive her sister of the influence she was rapidly acquiring.
Hence, at the advanced age of sixty-two, Zoe began to cast about for a third husband, in spite of the canons of the Church, which forbade a third marriage. Her thoughts first turned to a powerful nobleman, Constantine Dalasennus, whom her father had once chosen for her in her earlier years, and about whom her recollections cast a halo of romance. But in place of the gallant hero of her imagination she found she had summoned to the palace for an interview a stern old gentleman, who strongly expressed his disapprobation of the existing imperial system; who censured in unmeasured terms the vices of the court, and who took no pains to conceal his contempt for her own questionable conduct. Such a spouse would have been a most excellent antidote for the prevailing corruption of the Empire, but Zoe had no desire to submit to the control of so severe a master, and she quickly made up her mind to look elsewhere.
A former lover, Constantine Artoclinas, then became the object of her matrimonial designs. But he already had a wife, who was not of the self-sacrificing disposition of the wife of Romanus. As soon as she heard of the honor to which Zoe destined her husband, Constantine Artoclinas fell ill and did not long survive. It was the general opinion that his wife had poisoned him, either through jealousy of Zoe, or because she felt an aversion to passing the rest of her days in a convent. Zoe, however, was readily consoled.
She again selected an old admirer, Constantine Monomachus, whom Michael IV. had banished to Mitylene because of his attentions to the empress, but who had been recalled on the accession of Zoe and Theodora and appointed to a high official position in Greece. An imperial galley was despatched with a royal courier to notify him of the new dignity that awaited him, and to bring him back to Constantinople. Upon his arrival he was invested with the imperial robes. His marriage with Zoe was performed by one of the clergy, for the patriarch Alexius declined to officiate at the third marriage of the empress, which in this case was doubly uncanonical, as both Zoe and Constantine had been twice married.
The choice made by Zoe is a sad commentary on the immorality of the age. The life and character of Constantine X. show the utter lack of moral principle which prevailed in the court circles. After he had buried two wives, Constantine Monomachus had won the affections of a beautiful and wealthy young widow called Sclerena, who openly became his mistress and accompanied him in his exile to Mitylene. Yet, in the eyes of the orthodox, her position as mistress was more respectable, as being less uncanonical than if she had become his third wife. As Sclerena had stood by him in the days of his adversity, Constantine insisted upon her sharing with him his prosperity, and when he assumed the purple he bargained with Zoe that he should retain his mistress, a condition to which Zoe in her shamelessness agreed. Hence, "the people of Constantinople were treated to the singular spectacle of an Emperor of the Romans making his public appearance with two female companions dignified with the title of Empress, one as his wife, the other as his mistress."
Sclerena was officially saluted with the title of Augusta, and possessed a rank equal to that of Theodora, whose relative importance had been reduced by the advent of the Emperor Constantine X. She held a court of her own and was installed in apartments of the imperial palace.
Owing to her beauty and her elegant manners she gathered about her a brilliant court circle, which in its sumptuousness and ostentation contrasted greatly with the dull ceremony and sombre atmosphere of the apartments of the elderly sisters, Zoe and Theodora. Sclerena's disposition, too, was amiable and winning, and she was admired for the constancy with which she had clung to her lover in the days of his misfortune. Constantine, in return for her self-sacrificing devotion when he was an impoverished exile, sought to repay her by the most lavish expenditure of the public funds. Her apartments were made the most elegant and luxurious in the city, and her toilettes were the envy of all the aristocratic ladies of Constantinople.
Though Constantine showed in every way his partiality for his mistress, it did not disturb the domestic tranquillity of the imperial household. Zoe and Sclerena lived on the best of terms, and the utter absence of jealousy in the aged wife is less remarkable than her utter shamelessness.
The moral feelings of the people, however, were not so completely corrupted as those of their superiors. They resented the lavish expenditures of the public moneys upon the concubine of the emperor, and they also resented the insult thus put upon their empress. They felt that the lives of the aged sisters, the only survivors of the Macedonian house, could not be safe in a palace where vice reigned supreme, and where secret murders had so often occurred.
The incensed populace raised a sedition on the feast of the Forty Martyrs, when it became the duty of the emperor to walk in solemn procession to the church of Our Saviour in Chalke, whence he proceeded on horseback to the church of the Martyrs. As the procession was about to move from the palace, a cry was raised: "Down with Sclerena; we will not have her for empress! Zoe and Theodora are our mothers -- we will not allow them to be murdered!" The mob then sought to lay hands on the emperor to tear him in pieces, but the tumult was quieted by the sudden appearance of Zoe and Theodora on the balcony and the people were dispersed without serious damage being done.
The Empress Zoe died in 1050, at the age of seventy. Constantine X. survived to the year 1055. He, before the end came, was anxious to name his successor, but as soon as Theodora heard of the attempt of her brother-in-law to deprive her of the throne, she hastened to the palace, where the Senate was quickly convened, and presented herself as the lawful empress. With universal acclamation, Theodora was proclaimed sole sovereign of the Empire.
Though seventy-five years of age when she became sole ruler of the destinies of the Eastern Empire, Theodora exhibited great vigor of character and her short reign was a fortunate period for the Byzantines, owing to her attention to public business and the freedom from external conflicts. To preserve power in her own hands, Theodora presided in person at the meetings of the Cabinet and the Senate, and heard appeals as supreme judge in civil cases. Her long monastic life had developed in her the narrow views and acrimonious passions of a recluse, but an ascetic spirit was a relief after the sensual performances of the court of Constantinople. Even at the advanced age of seventy-six, Theodora felt so robust that she looked forward to a long life. The monks flattered her with prophecies that she was to reign for many years. But in the midst of her plans, she was suddenly attacked by an intestinal disorder that speedily brought her to the grave. Theodora was the last scion of a family which had upheld with glory the institutions of the Empire for nearly two centuries, and had secured to its subjects a degree of internal tranquillity and commercial prosperity far greater than that enjoyed during the same period by any other portion of the human race. "And with her, expired the race of Basil, the Slavonian groom, and the administrative glory of the Byzantine Empire, on the 30th of August, 1057."
[Illustration 6: BYZANTINE INTERIOR, NINTH CENTURY From a water-color by S. Baron, after a restoration by P. Benard.
In this period military exigencies did not permit of numerous apartments. We find the great room, the place of reunion, a sumptuously decorated apartment, in which also the meals were served and the bed was placed. The floor was of bricks, and the apartment was warmed by hot air supplied from a hypocaustum, placed below the floor, and admitted through a painted iron grating. The wall decorations presented an infinite variety of beautifully executed mouldings and scroll designs of flowers and foliage, common to the Byzantine manner. The furniture of the room was sober in style. The bed was shaped and ornamented somewhat like a modern sofa. A curtain on sliding rings served to screen from draughts, as well as to separate beds. In this room the lady received her guests.]
What a contrast is offered between the empresses of these later centuries and the great names of the earlier period, Eudoxia and Pulcheria and Eudocia and the great Theodora! We have fallen on evil times; and in the general corruption, woman has degenerated. During the remaining centuries which it falls to our lot to consider, we shall find that the chronicles of women continue to exhibit the downward march of womanhood, until with the utter debasement of woman, the fabric of society gives way, and all is darkness in the history of the sex.
We have had a glimpse of the luxury with which the Empress Eudoxia surrounded herself in her palace on the Bosporus, and our curiosity and interest may be satisfied concerning the domestic surroundings of a woman of rank during the period of the Byzantine decadence. The only truly original Christian art, down to the eleventh century, was the Byzantine; it dominated both Christian and pagan artists. In the period to which we refer, military exigencies did not permit of numerous apartments. We find the great room, the place of reunion, a sumptuously decorated apartment, in which also the meals were served and the bed was placed.
This chief room showed little constructive quality, but it was superbly decorated. The square, heavy door was usually contrived below a relieving arch, whose archivolt was richly charged with sculptured and painted ornaments; the twin windows were supported by a pied-droit or on small columns. The flat walls rarely had a real projecting entablature; the ends of joists were simulated by cornices resting on consoles or modillions; the architrave and the frieze were only a painted effect. The floor was of bricks. Chimneys were not yet used, and the apartment was warmed by hot air supplied from a hypocaustum, placed within the walls or below the floor, and admitted through a painted iron grating.
The wall decorations presented an infinite variety of beautifully executed mouldings and scroll designs of flowers and foliage, common to the Byzantine style. A prominent feature of the mural decoration was the numerous figures, in stiff attitudes, draped with garments falling in meagre folds, and decked with abundant fringes and precious stones, after the Oriental fashion; close to these figures were placed groups of Greek letters.
The furniture of the room was sober in style. The bed was shaped and ornamented somewhat like a modern sofa. The occupant reclined rather than lay on it, for the cushions were heaped up increasingly toward the head of the bed. It was customary to sleep without garments, the only covering being an ample sheet. A curtain on sliding rings was indispensable; it served to screen from draughts, as well as to separate beds; moreover, it supplemented the scanty furniture of the room.
Over the bed was a lighted lamp. This was invariably used, for darkness was dreaded, and it was believed that the light kept off evil spirits and prevented baleful apparitions. In this room the great lady of our period received her guests; here intrigues were plotted; here she partook of her repasts, waited upon by her many serving-maids; here she passed, indeed, most of her life.