Zoe and Theodora, 11th century
Art by Sushu Xia (website)
Byzantine Emperor Constantine VIII (960-1028) fathered three daughters and no sons. When it became clear that neither Constantine VIII nor his brother would produce a male heir, Constantine decided to arrange a marriage between his youngest daughter, Theodora, and the prefect of Constantinople Romanos III Argyros. Theodora, then nearly fifty years of age, refused the marriage on the grounds that Romanos III was already married and as third cousins they were too closely related to wed. Constantine VIII’s middle daughter Zoe did not share these objections and after Romanos III divorced his wife, he and Zoe married.
Bitter over being second choice, Zoe placed spies in her sister’s household and repeatedly accused her of treason. Eventually Theodora was forced to retreat to a convent and take Holy Orders. Constantine’s oldest daughter, Eudokia, had remained above the fray as a nun in a distant convent.
Meanwhile, Zoe ruled the Byzantine Empire with Romanos III and, after his death, her second husband Michael IV. Neither marriage was happy. Michael IV pushed Zoe to adopt his nephew Michael V as her heir. After the death of Michael IV, Michael V banished Zoe to a convent, breaking his promise that they would rule together for the rest of her life. The people of Constantinople revolted and Zoe regained her throne quickly. However, many members of the court believed Zoe was unfit to rule alone so Theodora was forced to leave the convent and become her sister’s co-regent.
Zoe and Theodora ruled together for two months. Although technically the junior Empress, Theodora was the guiding figure during this period of the Byzantine Empire. Zoe remarried quickly and her husband Constantine IX Monomachos pushed Theodora out of power, although she remained popular with the people. Zoe died in 1055 and after Constantine IX died in 1055, Theodora returned to the throne as Empress. Theodora died on August 31, 1056. She was the last ruler of the Macedonian dynasty as she named a non-relative, Michael VI Bringas, as her successor.
Although neither Zoe nor Theodora was considered a particularly effective ruler, they were popular at the time and they are historically significant as the last of their line. Zoe and Theodora are also unique in their position as sister co-regentss. Additionally, while Zoe disdained jewelry and fancy clothes, she has a deep interest in perfumes and ointments that could possibly slow aging. In her private rooms, Zoe set up a laboratory and oversaw a staff who created new perfumes and lotions for her.