[Coin depicting Empress Theodora (Christ on obverse), 11th century]
[Source: Wikimedia Commons]
As with her sister, we know very little of her early life other than that she was probably raised in luxury in the women’s quarter of the palace and received an education befitting a Byzantine princess. When she was 40 however, Theodora to marry his chosen successor, Romanos Argyros. She refused on the grounds that she considered him still married,* leading to her sister became Empress instead. For this among other reasons, Zoe became jealous and soon exiled Theodora to a monastery on conspiracy charges, eventually forcing her to become a nun.
When the people of Constantinople rose and deposed Zoe’s adopted son Michael, they also went to fetch Theodora, intending to make her Empress. She did not go willingly and had to be dragged out of her monastery. Once out, however, she showed her strength of personality and a willingness to do what she had to. One of her first acts was to have the previous emperor Michael blinded and packed off to a monastery.
The two sisters, Zoe and Theodora, ruled together for seven weeks** before Zoe gave the Empire into the hands of Constantine Monomachos. Theodora was apparently excluded from all power at this point, though she retained its outward signs. As Constantine lay dying in January 1055 he tried to prevent her from taking the throne. Theodora, however, would have none of this and was proclaimed Emperor and autokrator (sole ruler) just after his death.
At this point many expected her to pick a man to marry and make Emperor, because she was a woman and because she was in her 70s. Taking her late sister’s example as a warning, however, she chose to rule in her own right. She was often criticized for being short-tempered and distrustful of Constantine’s appointees,*** but she ruled well, keeping her nobles in line where they had previously had free reign. When the general Bryennios rebelled, she stymied his attempts to take the throne. She died in August 1056 at age 76, just over a year and a half after becoming the second woman to act as sole ruler of the Byzantine Empire.
*His wife had become a nun so he could be Emperor. Whether this was one of her actual reasons or an excuse is something we cannot know.
**Michael Psellos claims that it was a dismal failure, but his general misogyny and dislike of their love of entertainment should be taken into account.
***And by the Patriarch for appointing bishops, as he considered that his job, not hers.