The Fascinating Theophano
The story of Theophano is one that typifies Imperial Byzantine politics. She was born a commoner but soon became Empress Theophano. Her boys would follow her as emperors. One of them, Basil II, would be one of the greatest rulers the Byzantine Empire would know. Her daughter Anna would marry Vladimir of Kiev, bringing the Kievan Rus into the Byzantine orbit.
In 958, Romanos, heir apparent to the throne, was told by his father Emperor Constantine VII, to marry Hedwig of Bavaria. Romanos was a young widower whose first wife, an Italian named Bertha, died soon after the marriage. The wedding preparations were suddenly stopped after Romanos met the daughter of a Peloponnesian inn keeper. She was a stunning beauty and Romanos had to have her. He was also very attractive. They soon married. She was eighteen years old.
Romanos’ father relented and the marriage to a commoner was allowed. This was not the first time in Byzantine history that this had happened. In the sixth century, the great Emperor Justinian married Theodora, an “entertainer”, the daughter of a bear-keeper.
Theophano dominated her new husband. She saw his mother Helena, and his five sisters as rivals. She forced Romanos to sequester his mother in a forgotten corner of the palace and to compel his sisters to become nuns. They did not do so willingly, but the new empress had her way.
Soon Emperor Constantine died of dysentery. Many felt that his new daughter-in-law had a hand in this. In 963, Romanos died of poisoning. Many in the palace suspected the Empress, but none pressed their accusations. However, Theophano was still a step away from the power she craved. The eunuch Joseph Bringas, a good friend of her now-dead father-in-law, was the prime minister, and he ran the Empire. However, this inconvenience was not unsurmountable. The widow Theophano secretly sent for the general who had wrestled Crete from the Arabs, Nikephoros Phokas. He was very popular, popular enough to lead his army to the gates of Constantinople and overthrow Bringas. However, he was also very ugly. It was said that he was a hairy, dark olive-skinned man who was as wide as he was tall. Phokas at first showed no interest in Theophano and he removed her from the palace and placed her securely in an old fortress. But Theophano’s beauty soon worked its magic on this ascetic man, whose only interests were the army and the Bible. He was austere and crude and he planned to become a monk after retiring from the army, despite the fact that his Christian kindness often gave way to overwhelming cruelty. However, Beauty tamed the Beast.
Upon marrying Theophano, the former general became Nikephoros II, co-emperor with Theophano’s son Basil, age six. Theophano’s position was again secure. After five years of marriage, Theophano took a lover. He was the head of the Eastern Army, John Tzimesces, Nikephoros most trusted general, without whose help, Nikephoros would never had taken the throne. However, Nikephoros and Tzimesces had fallen out. The Emperor had removed his general from command and exiled him.
As their liaison progressed, John’s and Theophano’s passion grew. They soon realized that there was no room for Nikephoros in their world.
On the moonless night of December 10, 969, conspirators dressed as women snuck into the Empress’ quarters. Beneath their robes were the tools of death. However, Theophano’s lover had not yet arrived. Nikephoros had a disturbing premonition and had his men search the palace for interlopers. None were found.
Earlier that night, Theophano had invited her husband to sleep with her. He couldn’t say no to her. As he crawled into bed, Theophano arose, stating that she had forgotten to make final preparations for a young Bulgarian princess, who was coming the next day. She asked her husband to wait for her in her bed, and to leave the door to her room unlocked, so she could quickly return to his side.
Soon John crossed Sea of Marmara in a small boat with three other conspirators. They reached the palace as snow began to fall. Theophano and the other conspirators lowered willow baskets to the ground where her lover was waiting. The last four conspirators joined the group. The cabal proceeded to the Empress’s bedroom, only to find her bed empty. Had the plot been discovered? Before panic overwhelmed the conspirators, a eunuch pointed to a figure sleeping on the floor. It was Nikephoros and this practice was not unusual for the ascetic general.
The plotters ran to the Emperor and kicked him awake. They hacked at his head , creating a deep wound. He cried for the protection of the Virgin Mary, but the attackers ignored him and dragged him before Tzimesces, who insulted and assaulted the Emperor, but all Nikephoros did was plead with God and the Virgin. Finally, Tzimesces split open the Emperor’s skull with a sword. The other conspirators continued to beat the dead man’s body. Theophano heard the entire event from behind the door.
Their dream was almost complete. They were rid of the wretched Nikephoros. They would marry and raise her sons together. He had already become their protector. But it was not to be.
The Patriarch Polyeuktos had had enough of Theophano’s schemes. While Nikephoros and John had both seized the throne, it could be argued that the former had done so in a cleaner manner. Nikephoros was invited by the Empress to take the capital, which he did peacefully, for the most part. He married her after he was crowned emperor. John was an adulterer and a murderer. He had plotted to overthrow and then kill the Emperor. Polyeuktos gave John Tzimesces a choice. He could marry Theophano or he could take the throne. He couldn’t have both. It didn’t take John long to decide. Theophano was taken to a convent and John Tzimesces was crowned Emperor John I, co-emperor with Theophano’s son Basil. Ten years later, John’s life would be taken by an assassin.
What goes around comes around.
To learn more about Theophano check out these two books.
“Byzantium: The Apogee”; John Julius Norwich, 1995.
“Byzantium”: Rene Guerdan, 1957.