The Story of Zoe and Her Three Husbands

Byzantine Empress Zoe

Byzantine Empress Zoe

Once upon a time, in the distant city of Constantinople that was the golden capital of the Roman Empire in the 11th century, lived Princess Zoe. Unfortunately, Zoe’s story diverges from the usual fairy tales with their happy endings.

Our Zoe was not a young princess when the story opens. In fact, she was about 50 and was eldest surviving daughter of Constantine VIII (he had no sons). Belatedly, on has deathbed, he decided that Zoe should marry someone who would take on the responsibilities of ruling. He first chose a highly esteemed general, Constantine Dalssenus who lived over a week’s journey away. Before he arrived, the emperor realized he would not survive much longer and instead chose a man living in the city, Romanos Argyros.

Romanos III Argyros

Romanos was a distant cousin of Zoe’s, ten years her senior then, and possessed of an inconvenient wife. No matter, the wife soon learned she had a new-found religious vocation, received the tonsure and entered a monastery. Zoe and Romanos married, her father dying three days later.

Zoe was eager to start a family and reputedly made energetic efforts in that area until Romanos told her it would not work. He took to avoiding Zoe, instead spending time with his mistress. John, a eunuch and court official with the title of Orphanotrophos (the Orphan Master) introduced lonely Zoe to his handsome brother, Michael the Paphlagonian. (See more about the Orphanotrophos here: https://eileenstephenson.com/lesser-known-11th-century-byzantines-part-1-john-the-orphanotrophos-and-his-brothers/)

The Orphanotrophos, as he is and was invariably referred to (almost as though it was dangerous to say his name), was an intelligent and politically ambitious eunuch. He had been rising in the court’s bureaucracy for at least 15 years and took this opportunity to reach its pinnacle.

Michael IV

Zoe was soon thoroughly enamored of 20-something Michael and would stop at nothing to have him sitting beside her on the throne. There are rumors that she attempted to poison old Romanos, but when that failed, she and her lover proceeded to drown him in his bath. Later that same day, Zoe took Michael as her second husband. He ruled as Michael IV.

Michael and the love-besotted Zoe’s marriage was briefly happy before the need to hide his epilepsy and his worry that Zoe might turn on him caused a split. He spent more and more time apart from her and the now very powerful Orphanotrophos confined her in the Great Palace’s women’s quarters. Zoe believed the Orphanotrophos had turned her husband against her and tried unsuccessfully to poison him.

This blighted marriage lasted seven and a half years until Michael’s ailments finally did him in on Dec. 10th, 1041.

Michael V

A few months prior to Emperor Michael’s death, he convinced Zoe to adopt his sister’s son, another young Michael. On his uncle’s death, this nephew took the throne as Michael V. A foolish young man, he thought now he was emperor, he could do whatever he wanted with impunity. He shipped the Orphanotrophos into exile on a remote island. Then, a few months later, he decided he could do without Zoe, packing her off to a monastery.

Big mistake. The people of Constantinople turned on him and within three days he found himself blinded and consigned to a monastery (convenient that there were so many monasteries in the empire!). He died of the infection caused by the blinding a few months later. Zoe was empress again and soon husband-hunting!

Constantine IX Monomachos

Zoe must have thought the third time’s the charm. Her first choice this time returned to her father’s first choice – Constantine Dalassenus. However, he made it abundantly clear that he was not interested. Her next choice was a certain Constantine Atroklines. This Constantine was willing but married at the time. His wife, certain she had no religious vocation, poisoned him rather than be forced into a monastery.

Finally, Zoe settled on the widowed Constantine Monomachos from a family of bureaucrats. The Orphanotrophos had exiled him to Lesbos for suspected rebellion some years earlier. He accepted, returned to Constnatinople, and became Zoe’s third husband. The happy couple soon became a threesome – no, not from a miraculous late-in-life child, but rather with Monomachos’ long-time mistress joining them in the Palace.

This final marriage lasted until Zoe’s death some eight years later in her late 70’s. Poor Zoe – inheriting a great empire, but not trained for it; and desperate for love but so unlucky in it. It’s not always good to be a princess!

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Eileen Stephenson

Eileen Stephenson

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