Women Empresses of Constantinople from a Byzantine Historian

A mosaic that depicts Constantine IX (left), Jesus Christ (center), and Zoe (right) at Hagia Sophia in Istanbul

Context, Writer, and Content

Psellos (1018-1096)

The Byzantine Empire lasted more than one-thousand-year and witnessed numerous developments with successes and defeats. The Macedonian Period (867-1056) was one of the fundamental eras in terms of the revival of Byzantine power in various areas. Described as a “Golden Age”, this era saw a high number of intellectuals and philosophers. Psellus (1018-96) was one of these intellectuals in Constantinople. As a philosopher, he was a defender of Platonism in a time when Aristotelianism was appreciated. In this framework, Psellus impacted the rise of Neo-Platonism in the Byzantine cultural climate.

He educated himself in many fields such as philosophy but today we mostly remember him as a “historian” because he wrote the history of the Byzantines from its peak under Basil II (d. 1025) to the impacts of Manzikert with Michael VII (d. 1078). As stated above, the Macedonian Period was a time of territorial and cultural rise but this followed with the loss of enormous lands including Central Anatolia during the Doukas Dynasty (1059-81). So, Psellus both narrates expansions and fragmentations of the Byzantine State. He counted not only military activities but also reflected social and cultural aspects along with intrigues in the court of Constantinople. We could trace several details and clues about Byzantine life thanks to this work. The time-scale of the book follows over a century from 976 to 1078.


Four of Fourteen Rulers


Before I start my summary, I have to list the name of rulers to understand the book’s chronological structure. 14 Emperors and Empresses were Basil II, Constantine VIII, Romanus III, Michael IV, Michael V Calaphates, Theodora, Zoë, Constantine IX Monomachos, Michael VI, Isaac Comnenus, Constantine X, Eudocia, Romanus IV Diogenes, and Michael VII. Psellus designed this book into seven parts (books) the piece assigned us for the exam was, of course, shorter than that. Do not worry! What I emphasize below are two parts among seven namely the reigns of four rulers as Michael V, Theodora, Zoë, and Constantine IX with fifty pages. It is necessary to shortly recognize who was who in grasping the inner meanings of Psellus.

  • Zoë: A leading Byzantine empress who had three wives as emperors. Michael IV, her second husband, persuaded Zoë to adopt his nephew Michael (V) to be emperor before he was dead. After she abdicated Michael V, he ruled the country with her sister Teodora and much later married Constantine IX, her last husband.
  • Theodora: Zoë’s younger sister and co-empress with her. After a life of exile in a monastery under the shadow of her sister, she became the empress with the abdication of Michael V. Their father was Constantine VIII.
  • Michael V: He was the co-ruler of the Byzantines for a relatively short time (1041-2). He exiled her “mother” Zoë to Procopius but this paved the way for people’s insurrection. Finally, he was enthroned and lost his eyes.
  • Constantine IX: He was coming from a bureaucratic family who had power under Basil II’s court. Why Zoë chose him as her husband was to prevent Theodora’s probable threat in the future. Psellus became a prominent official in his period and praised him. Nevertheless, Psellus did not abstain from being critical towards the rule of Constantine Monomachos.

As an eye-witness of what happened, Psellus’ account and memoirs occupy a significant place in understanding the eleventh century of the Byzantine Empire.

The political and administrative map of the Byzantine Empire in 1045


Summary and Analysis


Book V


When Michael IV was about to die, he let his nephew Michael (V) take the throne in 1041. Michael V was jealous of his uncle John since his “intellectual capacity was wider and deeper….”. Psellos tries to be realistic as much as he would. I “witnessed…and having seen with my own eyes what really happened, I am now committing the story to write. I will describe the scene exactly.” (p. 122) Statesmen informed Zoë about this adoption and continued that Michael V will not have real power apart from the name but the empress will be the genuine ruler as before. That’s why Zoë trusted in her surroundings to proclaim Michael V as the new emperor.

Psellos emphasizes how bad Michael was “the hardness of his heart was hidden deep inside and covered over” (p. 123). His goal both to eliminate two rivals, his uncle and the empress. For this reason, he collaborates with Uncle John’s brother Constantine. Again, Psellus interrupts his narrative to examine Michael V’s “mental and spiritual outlook”. In short, he argues that Michael’s personality was peculiar since his interest in several subjects and “the contradiction in his heart and tongue”. “He would think and say something quite different.” (p. 125) Psellus overwhelmingly criticizes him because of his evilness:

“no man was ever more cringing, in deed and word…The man was a slave to his anger, changeable, stirred to hatred and wrath by any chance happening. So there burned secretly in his heart a loathing for all his family, but to get rid of them was a different matter.” (p. 126)

Michael began to intervene in what Uncle John did in politics by using not himself but his other uncle Constantine. At last, the crisis between the two emerged in signing the order of documents (so-called reason) with an ultimatum. These two did not speak to each other, there was no sincere conversation. It can be kept in mind that this is not a work of one sole day or a simple decision. I would rather say that this was exactly the famous “the Byzantine intrigue”.  Why I depict it as intrigue since, as Psellos writes, Michael “gradually developed this theme and presently launched a big-scale attack. He recalled John’s arrogance in the past, exposed his ill-will and deceit in the present”. (p. 128) He wanted to depart from Constantinople but failed due to people’s reactions. John understood that “the bond of friendship was broken”. After a short time, Michael ordered his uncle to sail, which simply means exile. John was blinded in prison and “the Rascally Michael now took upon his own shoulders the sole control…His arrogant speech and manners terrified” officials right now.(p. 130) In this respect, Michael decided to destroy “the Augusta” Zoë with the same intention.

“When she approached him, he turned a deaf ear; the council chamber was closed to her, and worse still, she was denied all access to the imperial treasury… Indeed, I would go further than that he made her an object of ridicule, for he treated her like a prisoner of war”. (p. 132)

There was a funny point among these events. Michael consulted astrologers to learn what the future holds. Psellos, as a scholar, debates that he studied astrology but does not believe in it.

“I am no believer in the theory that our human affairs are influenced by the movements of the stars. That, however, is a problem that…gives rise to too many controversies on either side. Let us return to the reigning emperor.” (p. 134)

Astrologers consulted the emperor to delay his revenge but he mocked and laughed at them by blaming them for fraud. Finally, Zoë was accused of several charges such as treachery (betrayal) and exiled to Prinkipo (Büyükada). Psellus again met with witnesses of Zoë’s fall.

“They told me, that when the ship had put out to sea for the voyage, Zoë looked back at her royal home…spoke of her father and her ancestors…and when she recalled her uncle — I am speaking now of the famous Basil [II]…then her eyes suddenly filled with tears and she exclaimed: ‘It was you, my uncle and emperor, you who wrapped me in my swaddling clothes as soon as I was born, you who loved me, and honored me too, more than my sisters, because, as I have often heard them say who saw you, I was like yourself. It was you who said, as you kissed me and held me in your arms, ‘Good luck, my darling, and may you live many years, to be the glory of our family and the most marvelous gift to our Empire!’…But your hopes have been brought to nothing, for I have been dishonored. I have disgraced all my family, condemned on most horrible charges and expelled from the palace, driven away to I know not what place of exile, convicted of crime…I beg you, watch over me from Heaven and with all your strength protect your niece!'(p. 135)

“As for the events that followed, words are inadequate to describe them,” says Psellus after Zoë was exiled. “Divine Justice” and its working could not be comprehended in Psellus’ view. People objected to the oppression of Michael and formed like soldiers in favor of Zoë. Even there was no ally in the palace for the emperor. People “determined then to recall the empress from exile”. People broke out a revolt with fights on the streets and brought Zoë from the island. “God was working for her”. Zoë did not think of punishment against Michael and two together went to the balcony of the imperial palace to see rebels. Instead of ceasing riot, this moment accelerated and activated people’s insurrection. Toppling down Michael is the mere resort and Theodora must be the new co-ruler rather. Even though two sisters are from the same mother, “jealousy divided two sisters” and so her younger sister is in exile. Despite this envy, the mob of rebellion (the citizen army) found Theodora and forced her to this struggle. “They [elites and poor together] led her to the great church of St. Sophia”. Michael ran away to a monastery but a guard commander who is a friend of Psellus found him there. “He had invited me” and “a flood of tears beyond control poured from my eyes” because of these “strange” ages. (p. 135-147)

“The tyrant…said, ‘Truly, God is not unjust’…With these words, he again laid hold of the Holy Table. Then he prayed…For my own part, I thought their turbulence would go no further. I was still fascinated by the drama of the thing. The unraveling of the plot bewildered me. But this proved to be indeed only a short prelude to the worse tragedies which followed.” (p. 147)

Even though Theodora thought of forgiving him, rebels contrarily blinded Michael in the monastery and “hurried back to Theodora”. The Senate was in hesitation among two sisters but they hugged themselves with affection and two agreed to control affairs together.


Book VI

Monomachus Crown represents three leading figures (Emperor and Two Queens) in the Byzantine Empire within the eleventh century, Hungarian National Museum, Budapest.

This chapter begins with the co-reign of two sisters and “both the civilian population and the military caste were working in harmony…” in 1042 (p.155). However, there are sharp differences between the two sisters. According to Psellus, Zoë was quicker and more passionate than Theodora like a sea-wave. Besides, she is open-handed to give money, unlike her younger sister. Theodora was dull and stingy but had a lively tongue. In short, “neither of them” is capable of administering state affairs for these reasons. Two sisters are so different that in personal appearance Zoë was plump and middle-height but Theodora was small in size and tall. The cause of future disasters stemmed from this divergence. Particularly, Zoë’s generosity to promote state officials opened the imperial treasury:

“In fact, all this squandering, together with the high standard of living, was the beginning of the utter decline…and the cause of our subsequent humiliation. But that was clear only to the prophets: only the wise saw what was really happening. The prize-money for the soldiers and the revenues devoted to army expenditure were quite unnecessarily diverted and put aside for the use of other persons”. (p. 158)

Zoë held all power from her sister and looked for a new husband since “the country needed a man’s supervision” (p. 159). For Psellus, an experienced man would skillfully direct the country, especially against invasions. Constantine of Dalassa was a suitable option because of his physical and (more essentially) social appearances. He was handsome, wealthy, noble, and experienced in military bureaucracy. We can deduce the most apparent requirements to be an emperor from this. Romanus II was impressed by his administration but Michael V put him into prison because of jealousy. This marriage plan did not take place since he was suddenly dead. Another option was Constantine Monomakhos (IX).

“Because of his family, this man held a very high rank in the Empire. He had the additional advantage of great wealth, and his appearance was singularly charming. Beyond all doubt, he seemed a fit person to marry into the most illustrious families…but his wife fell ill and died.” (p. 162)

Like his namesake, Romanos promoted Constantine but Michael was envious and exiled him to Lesbos (Midilli). Zoë proceeded to look for him and was recalled from exile for marriage. So, after a joint rule of three months, the sisters retired from public life.”

An old depiction of Serpent Column at Hippodrome

The interpretation of Constantine IX by Psellus was very hard because the emperor supported and encouraged our writer in state positions; however, he witnessed several mistakes and false decisions of the emperor. Psellus was anxious to write his reign since his account might be a mere fabrication rather than a history book and future historians could call him not a history-lover but “a scandalmonger”. The emperor assisted him on every occasion whatever condition was. Respectively, Psellus wrote literary works like eulogy and panegyrics for him. In this book, Psellus largely discusses the differences between literary and historical accounts. At first, he wanted to “keep dark” and “avoid imputing any blame to him”. Nonetheless,

“I cannot bring myself to distort the facts of history, where truth is of more importance than anything else…What I am writing now is not an indictment…but a true history… No wonder then that no sovereign’s life has been blameless. Naturally, I would have wished that my favorite emperor had been perfect…but the events of history do not accommodate themselves to our desires. So, divine soul [the emperor], forgive and…pardon me.” (p. 168)

We can realize that Psellus was careful in history-writing and identify his respect for the emperor and more importantly “truth”.

What Psellus disliked about Constantine IX was essentially his exhaust of treasury and inability of governing. He distributed not only money but also honor and privileges to officials. He also depleted economic sources and “abolished all rules of advancement” in the state hierarchy. The Senate opened its doors to “all the rascally vagabonds of the market” and “the whole gang was elevated to the highest offices”. The luxury for ceremonies increased state expenses and such economic faults and social acts will trigger more dangerous problems soon. Briefly, Psellus did not prevent his criticism from his benefactor in any case (p. 170-71).

Our passage ends here. For quotes, I used Penguin Classics’ Fourteen Byzantine Rulers (1966) translated by E.R.A. Sewtwer. As a footnote, the Turkish translation of our book: “Mikhail Psellos’un Khronographiası”, TTK Publications, (1992), translated by Işın Demirkent”.

One of the earliest representations of Maiden’s (Leander’s) Tower in Scutari [Üsküdar]

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