[Empress Zoe mosaic in Hagia Sophia, 11th century, source: Wikimedia Commons]
She was the second of three children, all daughters, born to Constantine VIII and Helena. Her uncle was Basil the Bulgar Slayer.** We know little of her childhood other than that she was raised in luxury in the women’s quarters of the imperial palace. When she was in her early twenties she sailed to Italy to marry Otto III only to find that he had just died.
When Zoe was about 50, her father, being on his deathbed and having made no arrangements for the succession, married her to Romanos Argyros, the eparch of Constantinople, and made the pair Emperor and Empress. The fact that they seemed unable to have children was a source of animosity between them, as was Romanos’ blatant disregard for Zoe and her wishes after this came to light.
When Romanos was found dead in his bath in 1034, Zoe quickly married her lover Michael and had him crowned Emperor. Her hopes that he would treat her better than Romanos had were soon dashed. He confined her to the women’s quarters, limited her spending, and put political power in the hands of his brother John.
Shortly before Michael died in 1041, John convinced her to adopt his nephew Michael and make him Emperor. This did not end well for Zoe either. The new Emperor soon charged her with attempted regicide and banished her to a monastery, which backfired on him when it sparked a riot in Constantinople. The people dethroned Michael and retrieved not only Zoe, but also dragged her hated sister Theodora*** out of her monastery and set up the two women as co-empresses.
The two sisters ruled together for about seven weeks**** before Zoe decided to marry again. She chose Constantine Monomachos, placing responsibility for the Empire in his hands. Zoe lived out the rest of her life in luxury, being accorded an Empress’s honors and privileges without having to worry about ruling or sharing her husband’s bed. (He had a mistress with whom she apparently got on quite well.) She died in 1050, having created four different emperors in her lifetime.
*This is not a family name. It means “born in the purple” and designates her as having been born to a reigning emperor, though in this case he was only a junior emperor at the time.
**His title makes me giggle.
***The claim has been maid that Zoe hated her because Theodora was their father’s first choice to marry Romanos but refused him, possibly because he was already married, possibly for other reasons. In 1031, when she was still married to Romanos, Zoe accused her of conspiring against the Emperor and Empress and forced her to become a nun.
****Michael Psellos claimed their reign was a complete failure. While he should be given some credence for actually having lived through it, his strong misogynistic bias must also be taken into account.
Michael Psellos, Chronographia (Books Three, Four, Five, and Six) - Internet History Sourcebooks Project
Garland, Lynda. Byzantine Empresses: Women and Power in Byzantium AD 527-1204. London: Routledge, 1999.
Zoe Porphyrogenita - De Imperatoribus Romanis
Zoe Porphyrogenita - Wikipedia