Almost from its earliest days, the Byzantine Empire had women who ruled – either in their own name or as regent. Typically, a male ruler who could lead armies was preferred, but intelligent and strong-willed women, or women in a fortunate dynastic spot, still found their way to the highest position of power. This was a departure from the Western Roman Empire which never had a woman ruling directly.
Pulcheria, the 5th century daughter of Emperor Arcadius, was the first such woman. At the age of 15 she declared herself Augusta and Regent for her younger brother, Theodosius (of “Theodosian Walls” fame), until he came of age a few years later. She continued to wield great influence over him 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, who co-ruled with her as emperor.
The 6th century renowned consort of Justinian I, Theodora, probably needs little introduction. A woman of low origins and reputation, 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 cannot be summarized easily, but makes a fascinating story. A gossipy contemporary of hers, Procopius, 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, have more balanced recounting of this remarkable woman’s life.
Irene the Athenian’s life in the 8th century was almost as unexpected as Theodora’s. The widow of one emperor and mother of another, she is best known for both ending iconoclasm (the destruction of religious icons) and having 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. Following her son’s blinding, she was on the throne for about five years before being deposed when the empire’s patricians conspired against her.
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, Zoe was the elder and married three men who took the title of emperor. Zoe herself rarely ruled in her own name, which was probably a good thing since the few decisions she did make (i.e., her choices for husbands) tended to have poor outcomes.
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 she was 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 before – her uncle Constantine Dalassenos had twice been proposed as a husband for the much married Empress Zoe; a Dalassena was the first wife of the Emperor Constantine X Ducas; 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 was crowned, he was forced to spend most of the next 15 years on campaign against the Turks, the Pechenegs, and the Normans, and could not spend much 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 to be treated as though he had made it. Which she did until retiring in her 70’s.
The novel I am working on takes place in 11th century Byzantium and recounts 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.