Almost from its earliest days, the Byzantine Empire had women who ruled – either in their own name or as regent. Typically, popular opinion preferred a male ruler who could lead armies. However, intelligent and strong-willed women, or women in a fortunate dynastic spot, still found their way to the highest position of power. This departed from the Western Roman Empire which no woman ever ruled directly.
The first woman to rule was Pulcheria, the 5th century daughter of Emperor Arcadius. At the age of 15 she declared herself Augusta and Regent for her younger brother, Theodosius (of “Theodosian Walls” fame). She ruled until he came of age a few years later. Even after he reached adulthood, Pulcheria continued to wield great influence and, when he died in 450, took the reins of power again. Although a devout consecrated virgin, she eventually agreed to a sexless marriage with a general, Marcian. The two of them co-ruled the empire.
The 6th century renowned consort of Justinian I, Theodora, probably needs little introduction. A woman of low origins and a courtesan, she ruled jointly with Justinian for over 20 years until her death in 548. The story of her improbable rise from the daughter of a bear trainer to co-ruler of the empire makes a fascinating story. A gossipy contemporary of hers, Procopios, wrote some of the more salacious tales about Theodora in “The Secret History” (available in paperback from Penguin Classics). A couple of modern novelists, Stella Duffy and Stephanie Thornton, gave more balanced recountings of this remarkable woman’s life.
Irene the Athenian
Irene the Athenian’s life in the 8th century was almost as unusual as Theodora’s. The widow of Emperor Leo IV, and mother of Constantine VI, her popularity was due to her ending iconoclasm (the destruction of religious icons). She also had her son blinded. There is some uncertainty about her son’s ability/success as an effective ruler, and whether his blinding was justified. However, the historical record is clear that she supported the use of icons, whereas her husband’s family were iconoclasts. This could explain why she was allowed, at least initially, to rule on her own, the first empress to do so. There was some talk of her marrying the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne, but this did not materialize. Following her son’s blinding, she ruled for about five years until the empire’s patricians conspired against her and she lost the throne.
The Sisters Zoe and Theodora
The next two women rulers were the daughters of Constantine VIII in the 11th century. The sisters did not get along at all. Pretty and flighty, the elder Zoe married three men who took the title of emperor. Thankfully, Zoe herself rarely ruled in her own name, since most of her decisions were poor (i.e., her choices for husbands).
Zoe’s younger sister, Theodora, eventually reached the throne in her mid-70’s after spending most of her life in the convent Zoe had forced her into. She ruled alone for about 19 months before dying. Although brief and with its own flaws, her short reign was a marked improvement over her older sister’s.
The last woman to rule the empire, also in the 11th century, was neither the wife or the daughter of an emperor, but the mother of one. Anna Dalassena was the mother of Alexios I Comnenus and the force behind his rise to the throne. She had many relations who had been close to it. Her uncle Constantine Dalassenos had twice been proposed as a husband for the much married Empress Zoe. Emperor Constantine X Ducas’s first wife was a Dalassena. The Emperor Romanus IV Diogenes was a distant cousin. And her husband’s brother was the Emperor Isaac I Comnenus. When Isaac abdicated due to ill health, Anna unsuccessfully tried to get her husband, John, to succeed him.
After Alexios became emperor, he had to spend most of the next 15 years on campaign against the Turks, the Pechenegs, and the Normans, and spent little time in Constantinople. He issued a chryssobull, a Golden Bull, stating that his mother, Anna Dalassena, was to rule in his absence and any order she gave was the same as though he made it. She ruled until retiring in her 70’s.
My first novel, Imperial Passions – The Porta Aurea, takes place in 11th century Byzantium and recounts the first half of the life of Anna Dalassena. However, you can read a short story about an incident in Alexios’s life on my website (The Missing Story). Also, in my book, Tales of Byzantium, there is another story about Alexios’s grandfather, Manuel Comnenus.