The Byzantine Empress Theodora
Only a few women reached the zenith of power in the male-dominated world of the Byzantines. One of them was the 9th century Empress Theodora. She was a native of Paphlagonia near the coast of the Black Sea and a daughter of a military officer who came from a wealthy family. She married the Byzantine Basileus and Augustus Theophilos not long after his accession as co-emperor to his father Emperor Michael II. Empress Theodora and her son, Emperor Michael III are recorded on the Bible Timeline Poster with World History at 820 AD.
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One story dominated Theodora’s rise as Theophilos’ wife and empress of the Byzantines. She was certainly part of the bride-show organized by Theophilos’ mother Thekla or his stepmother Euphrosyne. But Theodora’s rise as Theophilos’ wife was only a postscript in the legendary contest of wits between the Byzantine intellectual Kassiani and Theophilos.
The star of this tale, Kassia, took part in the bride show at the same time as Theodora. She caught the eye of Theophilos immediately, but he told her that, “A woman was all fount and source of man’s tribulations” (he referred to Eve and the original sin.) To which the intelligent Kassia replied, “And from a woman sprang the course of man’s regeneration” (she referred to Mary’s birth of Jesus). Theophilos, taken aback by the rebuttal, rejected Kassia and chose Theodora as his wife instead.
Another less popular tale about Theophilos and Theodora’s marriage was that during the bride show, the future emperor gave out golden apples to the candidates and told them to come back to the palace the day after. Theodora was the only one who brought back the golden apple among the candidates and Theophilos handed her another golden apple as a sign that he had chosen her as his bride.
Her husband was known to be a capable and intelligent administrator after he spent eight years as Michael the Amorion’s co-emperor. His reign, although considered lackluster, brought relative stability to the empire. He then became a popular ruler because of his sense of justice. Before Michael III was born, the couple had four daughters and a son named Constantine. Theophilos elevated the boy to Augustus at a young age, but Constantine did not live long enough to succeed his father, so Theophilos appointed his son-in-law Alexios (husband of his daughter Maria) as Caesar. But Maria died soon after, and Alexios retired to a monastery following his wife’s death. Another son, Michael III, was born some time later.
Theophilos died of dysentery on January 20, 842 AD, but not before he secured Michael’s succession by ordering the death of a usurper, and appointing Manuel (Theodora’s uncle and Byzantine chief magister) and Theoktistos (Logothene of the Court) as regents for his son. As she was Michael’s mother, Theodora became her son’s automatic regent upon the death of Theophilos.
One of her first acts as empress was to convoke a synod that restored the veneration of icons and reinforced the decrees of the Second Council of Nicaea. The empire was relatively stable under Theodora, but her power was greatly hampered by her co-regents Manuel and Theoktistos. When Michael reached seventeen, Theodora decided it was time for her son to marry, so she assembled a bride show and chose a noblewoman named Eudokia Dekapolitissa as his wife. In truth, the mother was eager for her son to marry because she wanted to prevent him from marrying his long-time mistress, Eudokia Ingerina. Michael went on to marry Eudokia Dekapolitissa, and she was proclaimed as the Byzantine empress, but the emperor abandoned her almost immediately to go back to Eudokia Ingerina.
Michael turned eighteen in 856 AD, and two of his mother’s brothers, Bardas and Petronas, had risen to prominence at that time. In the same year, Bardas concocted a plot to get rid of Theodora so that Michael could rule alone, so the boy and his uncle conspired to get rid of the Empress’ most important ally, Theoktistos, who they had ordered stabbed. Theodora was now without an ally, and since the Senate had decreed that Michael was now of the right age to rule alone, she grudgingly handed the reins of power to her son.
Theodora stayed in the palace for two more years, but during these years Michael never stopped hounding her to retire to a monastery. Michael first tried to coerce the Patriarch of Constantinople Ignatius to convince Theodora and his sisters to commit themselves to a monastery, but the patriarch refused—an act that resulted in his deposition and exile. The deposition of Ignatius and Michael’s choice of Photius as his successor resulted in the controversial Photian Schism which further severed Byzantine ties with the Pope. He finally succeeded in forcing his mother and his sisters to retire to a nunnery some time later and ruled with his uncle afterward.
Michael proclaimed Bardas as Caesar and next in line to the throne after Theodora retired. Bardas, for the most part, was a capable administrator who took on the reins of governing the empire when the pleasure-seeking Michael was busy elsewhere. Bardas was credited with a significant victory against the Saracens in 863 AD, as well as the conversion of Bulgarians to Christianity; the young emperor, meanwhile, sunk lower into the dissolute lifestyle and became known to drink too much that he later earned nicknamed ‘the Sot.’ He was known to be extravagant and frequently used public funds for personal expenses, but his greatest past time apart from drinking was horse racing. And this was where he met his future co-emperor Basil I the Macedonian.
The Rise of Basil the Macedonian
Basil was born around 812 AD from a poor Armenian family who lived in Adrianople during the height of Krum the Bulgar’s incursion into Byzantine territory. His family was settled in the Macedonian part of Krum’s territory which was why he was nicknamed as ‘the Macedonian.’ He escaped from Macedonia at the age of 25 and eventually found himself in Constantinople where he served as a groom for a man named Theophilitzes. It seemed Basil was a superbly talented horse whisperer or simply lucky as he found another benefactor, a rich woman named Danelis, who supported the groom and gave him some of her wealth.
Some time later, Michael received an untamed horse as a gift and Theophilitzes suggested for the emperor to summon his talented groom Basil to deal with the horse. Basil successfully tamed the horse which impressed Michael so much that the former groom was promoted to captain of the palace’s foreign guards as a reward. He soon became a strator, then a prostator, and finally rose to High Chamberlain when Bardas’ chamberlain was deposed.
Michael’s Crowded Domestic Arrangement
Meanwhile, Michael and Eudokia Ingerina still continued their relationship even when the emperor was still married to Eudokia Dekapolitissa. This complicated arrangement did not sit well with the conservative people of Constantinople, the noblemen, and the patriarchs. So Michael concocted a strange domestic arrangement to cover up his liaison. Since he and Basil were close friends, he had the former groom marry Eudokia Ingerina, but they still continued to see each other even after Basil and his mistress were married. To satisfy Basil, he summoned one of his sisters, Thekla, out of a nunnery to serve as Basil’s mistress. Meanwhile, Eudokia Ingerina gave birth to two sons that Basil acknowledged as his but many in Constantinople suspected as Michael’s.
The Fall of Bardas
Bardas’ importance and influence had diminished by this time, and Basil, eager to get rid of rivals, ordered him stabbed as they prepared for a war against the Saracens in Crete in 866 AD. With his uncle dead, Michael elevated Basil as Basileus and Augustus on May 26 of the same year, but this clever arrangement and their joint rule unraveled one year later because of Michael’s own impulsiveness.
Death of Michael III
In September, 867 AD, Michael dined with Basil, Eudokia Ingerina, and a patrician named Basiliskianos after a horse race. Basiliskianos showered Michael with compliments, so the emperor ordered their guest to remove the imperial boots from his feet and wear them. The patrician hesitated and looked to Basil for permission as this might offend him; Basil discreetly signed for Basiliskianos to decline but this did not escape Michael’s notice, and he berated both men for this. Michael then remarked to his guests that he could easily remove Basil from his position; Basil was enraged and proceeded to plot against the emperor.
On the 24th of September, Michael retired to his room after a night of heavy drinking, and Basil took advantage of this to have him murdered. Emperor Michael III was buried in a monastery in Chrysopolis, and he was mourned by his mother and sisters who outlived him.
Picture By Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant – Art Renewal Center Museum, image 7554., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1848404
Bradbury, Jim. The Routledge Companion to Medieval Warfare. London: Routledge, 2004.
Bury, J.B. A History of the Eastern Roman Empire: From the Fall of Irene to the Accession of Basil I (A.D. 802-867). London: Macmillan and, Limited, 1912.
Scylitzes, John. A Synopsis of Byzantine History, 811-1057. Translated by John Wortley. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
Shepard, Jonathan, ed. The Cambridge History of the Byzantine Empire. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.
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