Zoë & Theodora Porphyrogenita – How two sisters ruled the Byzantine Empire

(public domain)

Empress Zoë Porphyrogenita was one of the four women in the Byzantine Empire to rule in her own name. She was crucial in establishing the principles of the dynastic successions of the Byzantine Empire.[1] She was also the second Empress of Byzantium who held supreme power. Despite her accomplishments, Empress Zoë Porphyrogenita led a turbulent life, and she was married three times. All three of her marriages were unhappy, and she remained childless. She briefly co-ruled with her sister, Theodora, until she ousted her from power. 

Empress Zoë Porphyrogenita was born around 978 C.E in Constantinople.[2] Her father was Emperor Constantine VIII, who co-ruled with his brother, Emperor Basil II.[3] Her mother was Empress Helena. Princess Zoe had two sisters; Eudokia and Theodora. Eudokia was disfigured due to a childhood illness and would be sent into a convent to become a nun.[4] Her younger sister, Theodora, would become the sole ruler of the Byzantine empire in 1055 C.E.

Princess Zoë was selected to become the wife of Otto III, the Holy Roman Emperor.[5] She set sail in 1001 C.E., but upon arrival at Barri, she learned that he had died in February 1002 of fever.[6] Thus, she had to return home to Constantinople.[7] Emperor Basil II died in 1025 C.E., and Emperor Constantine VIII became the sole ruler of the Byzantine Empire.

In November 1028 C.E., Emperor Constantine VIII was dying, yet he had already chosen a husband for Princess Zoë. He chose Romanos Argyros, the prefect of Constantinople.[8] He was older than Princess Zoë and already had a wife named Helena.[9] Helena was forced to enter the convent.[10] With his wife now a nun, Romanos Argyros and Princess Zoë were married and were crowned Emperor and Empress on 8 November 1028 C.E. On 11 November 1028 C.E., Emperor Constantine VIII died.

The marriage between Empress Zoë and Emperor Romanos III was very unhappy. Empress Zoë did not produce any children, and the Emperor took a mistress.[11] Zoë fell for Michael, her chamberlain.[12] They quickly became lovers. Zoë decided to eliminate her husband Romanos and make her lover emperor.[13] On 11 April 1034 C.E. (Good Friday), Empress Zoë had Romanos III drowned in his own bath.[14] This cleared the way for her to marry Michael. They married on the same day her husband had died, and her lover became Emperor Michael IV.[15]

The marriage between Empress Zoë and Emperor Michael IV was initially a happy one. Since Empress Zoë had a hand in Romanos III’s death, Michael IV began to distrust his wife, and he was heavily influenced by his brother, John the Orphonotrophos.[16] Michael IV also feared that his wife would murder him as she did his predecessor and confined her to her rooms.[17]  Shortly afterwards, he stopped seeing her altogether.[18] In 1037 C.E., she tried to have John poisoned, but the plot was discovered.[19] Empress Zoë was kept under close supervision.[20]

In 1041 C.E., Emperor Michael IV was dying of epilepsy, and he had retired to the monastery of Sts. Kosmas and Damian.[21] Empress Zoë was forced to adopt Michael’s nephew, who was also named Michael, as her son.[22] Emperor Michael IV died on 10 December 1041 C.E. Before his death, he released his wife from confinement.[23] Empress Zoë forgave her husband for his mistreatment of her.[24] She was on her way to visit him, but he died before she arrived at the monastery.[25] 

Emperor Michael V was crowned on 13 December 1041 C.E. The first few days of Emperor Michael V’s reign, Empress Zoë had complete control of the government.[26] She banished three of Michael IV’s brothers, John, Constantine, and George.[27] Empress Zoë was also given precedence of her name before Emperor Michael V in public proclamations.[28] Because her name was said first before the Emperor, Michael V began to hate his adopted mother.[29] He brought back all of his uncles except Constantine.[30] On the night of 18 April 1042 C.E., Emperor Michael V banished her to a monastery on Principius. This caused public outrage, and on 19 April 1042 C.E., the mob ousted Emperor Michael V.[31] On 21 April 1042 C.E., the public crowned Empress Zoë and her sister Theodora.[32] Emperor Michael V was deposed, blinded, and banished to a monastery.[33] Thus it was the first time that Byzantine was ruled solely by two Empresses.[34]

The two sisters decided that since Empress Zoë was the elder, she would be given precedence over Empress Theodora.[35] The sisters abolished the sale of offices, raised many to the senate, and gave many generous donations to the people.[36] The government was at peace.[37] They settled lawsuits, made decisions on taxation and administrative issues, and held audiences with the ambassadors.[38] However, the two began to have different beliefs in governing the empire, and each wanted to be the sole ruler.[39] Two months after they were crowned jointly, Zoë (who was sixty-four years old) staged a coup against her sister.[40] This time, she became the sole ruler of the Byzantine empire.[41] 

However, Empress Zoë feared that her rule was insecure. To consolidate her rule, Empress Zoë needed to find a strong husband.[42] Empress Zoë chose Constantine Monomachos, a civil aristocrat who was in exile in Mytilene, to be her husband.[43] On 11 June 1042 C.E., the two married, and he was crowned as Constantine IX. He brought with him his mistress, Maria Skleraina.[44] She was treated as a minor Empress and second to Empresses Zoë and Theodora.[45] The public did not like how Constantine IX paraded his mistress in Constantinople.[46] On 9 March 1044 C.E., a popular revolt against Maria Skleraina took place. Constantine IX, who was out on the streets, was almost harmed by the mob.[47] In 1045 C.E., Maria Skleraina died from chest pains and asthma.[48] She was buried in the Church of St. George of Mangana.[49]

Empress Zoë did not meddle much in politics at this point in time, and she gave the reins of power to her husband, Constantine IX.[50] She loved spending her free time making cosmetics and perfumes.[51] She was also very pious.[52] She founded a church in honour of both Christ Antiphonetes and her husband Constantine IX.[53] She commissioned a copy of an icon of Christ Antiphonetes in the Church of the Virgin in the Chalkoprateia.[54] Empress Zoë died in 1050 C.E. at the age of seventy-two.[55] Before her death, she remitted debts and pardoned criminals.[56] She is depicted in the famous gold and glass mosaic in the Hagia Sophia with the inscription, “Zoë, the most pious Augusta.”[57]Thus, regardless of Zoë’s murderous history, her Byzantine people revered her as their Princess and Empress.


Cartwright, M. (2018, 19 April). Empress ZoeWorld History Encyclopedia. Retrieved from https://www.worldhistory.org/Empress_Zoe/.

Garland, L.(2011). Byzantine Empresses: Women and Power in Byzantium AD 527-1204. New York: Routledge.

“Zoé Porphyrogenita (980–1050).” Dictionary of Women Worldwide: 25,000 Women Through the Ages, edited by Anne Commire and Deborah Klezmer, vol. 2, Yorkin Publications, 2007, p. 2066. Gale eBooks, link.gale.com/apps/doc/CX2588825696/GVRL?u=uphoenix&sid=bookmark-GVRL&xid=a5aa274a.

Zoe. (2017). In Encyclopaedia Britannica, Britannica concise encyclopedia. Britannica Digital Learning. Credo Reference: https://go.openathens.net/redirector/phoenix.edu?url=https%3A%2F%2Fsearch.credoreference.com%2Fcontent%2Fentry%2Febconcise%2Fzoe%2F0%3FinstitutionId%3D198.

[1] “Zoé Porphyrogenita (980–1050).” para. 2

[2]Zoe. para. 1

[3] “Zoé Porphyrogenita (980–1050).” para. 2

[4] Garland, p. 205

[5] “Zoé Porphyrogenita (980–1050).” para. 2

[6] Garland, p. 205

[7] Garland, p. 205

[8] Garland, p. 205

[9] Garland, p. 206

[10] Garland, p. 206

[11] Garland, p. 207

[12] Zoe. para. 1

[13]Zoe. para. 1

[14] Garland, p. 207

[15] Garland, p. 207

[16] Garland, p. 208

[17] Garland, p. 208

[18] Garland, p. 208

[19] Garland, p. 209

[20] Garland, p. 209

[21] Garland, p. 210

[22] Garland, p. 209

[23] Garland, p. 210

[24] Garland, p. 210

[25] Garland, p. 210

[26] Garland, p. 211

[27] Garland, p. 211

[28] Garland, p. 211

[29] Garland, p. 211

[30] Garland, p. 211

[31] Zoe. para. 1

[32] Zoé Porphyrogenita (980–1050).” para. 2

[33]  Zoe. para. 1

[34] Zoé Porphyrogenita (980–1050).” para. 2

[35] Garland, p. 215

[36] Garland, p. 215

[37] Garland, p. 216

[38] Garland, p. 216

[39] Garland, p. 216

[40] Garland, p. 216

[41] Garland, p. 216

[42]  Zoe. para. 1

[43] Garland, p. 218

[44] Garland, p. 218

[45] Garland, pp. 222-223

[46] Garland, p. 224

[47] Garland, p. 224

[48] Garland, p. 225

[49] Garland, p. 225

[50] Garland, p. 226

[51] Garland, p. 226

[52] Garland, p. 227

[53] Garland, p. 231

[54] Garland, p. 231

[55] Garland, p. 232

[56] Garland, p. 232

[57]Cartwright, para. 14

About Lauralee Jacks 183 Articles
I am a former elementary teacher in Tennessee. I have a bachelor’s degree in Liberal and Civic Studies from St. Mary’s College of California, a master’s in Elementary Education from the University of Phoenix, and a doctorate in Educational Leadership from the College of Saint Mary. Because my family are from East Asia, I have a passion for historical Chinese and Korean television shows. I always wanted to separate fact from fiction in dramas. Writing articles from History of Royal Women gives me a chance to dig deeper and explore these royal women as they might have been in real life. Also, it gives me a chance to look at the history and culture of where my family originated. I love researching East Asian royalty because they rarely get enough attention in the West often being overshadowed by European royalty. I find these royal women to be just as fascinating and their stories deserve to be told. Thus, I am excited to write for History of Royal Women!

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.