My favorite empress is Zoe Porphyrogenita, from the Greek meaning “born into the purple,” signifying the child was born to the reigning emperor, for the prince or princess would see the purplish porphyry columns within the ornate palace. She was the daughter of Emperor Constantine IX, the perfect embodiment of frivolity and indifference during his long reign. He produced only two daughters, Zoe and Theodora. One day, it occurred to him that at age seventy, he was not getting any younger. Now, Constantine had never been particularly concerned with his successor, yet both his daughters were unmarried at age fifty. Distraught at the prospect of soon dying and leaving his empire without a man to take the reigns, he informed his daughters that they would be wed immediately. “Never,” cried Theodora, the younger yet stubborn as an old woman. “Right away,” Zoe stated loudly and clearly, as the dutiful eldest. She had blond hair, hazel eyes, and was already full-figured. Zoe and passed most of her time in her private laboratory, where she could be found day and night, developing scented creams and crafting perfumes.
And so the search began for a suitable husband for the young princess. They soon found a decorated general with a long, glorious career full of victories, a man with an iron fist. His name was Romain Argyre. He was older and not particularly amusing, neither of which dissuaded Zoe, and so they soon wed. Zoe was on cloud nine, finally knowing love. Following the death of her father, Zoe and Romain rose to the throne. Unfortunately, Romain proved to be a much better general than husband. Perhaps it was his age, or maybe a lack of interest. In short, Zoe did not feel he showed her the honor she felt she deserved. Romain loved to take long baths in the pool, yet because of his age a slave was tasked with helping him wash. Zoe seduced the slave, who later held Romain’s head below the surface of the water for too long, before pulling out his lifeless body.
Zoe was overjoyed, finally free. She immediately took a young, handsome, and charming lover, and fell madly in love. They were quickly married and the husband ruled under the name Michel IV. Shortly thereafter, however, the husband had an epileptic attack, which provoked a sort of mystical shock. He locked himself in a monastery and refused to come out. Zoe, still madly in love, was utterly confused and ran to the monastery. Her husband refused to come out or to see her. While Zoe was pulling her hair out in madness, the young husband died from another particularly violent attack.
Out of love for him, Zoe adopted one of his nephews, who succeeded him and ruled under the name Michel V, “the Caulker,” in reference to his family’s trade. The young man was a repugnant intriguer and most ungrateful. Once on the throne, he was determined to eliminate Zoe and Theodora, the only legitimate heirs, so as to rule alone. Through a sort of coup d’état, he had the two sisters locked in a convent; this was a clear miscalculation. They sisters were, after all, descendents of the glorious Macedonian dynasty, and immensely well liked by the people of Constantinople. The people revolted and chased the Caulker from the throne, replacing him with the liberated sisters, who were now well into their sixties.
Theodora, the young old woman, was only interested in money. Rather than govern, she would pass her days counting her money while on the throne she shared with her sister. Zoe, for her part, was only interested in perfumes and men. The situation could not last. Once again, the sisters were advised to marry, and once again Theodora flatly refused, whereas Zoe could not be happier at the prospect of another marriage. After some time, an old beau by the name of Constantine Monomaque was selected; Zoe quickly accepted. Unfortunately, Constantine Monomaque himself objected, as he had at that time a young mistress, Sklerene, whom he refused to leave at any price, even for the throne. There was no other solution, no other suitable candidate could be found, and the only one suitable refused to leave his young mistress. Tough luck. The mistress would stay, and at Constantine’s request a treaty was drawn up, marked with three signatures: his, Zoe’s, and that of his mistress, Sklerene. It was agreed that certain days would be spent with the empress and others with the mistress, the same held for the nights too.
With the contract signed, Constantine married Zoe and became emperor. Zoe was then aged sixty-four, and Constantine was no spring chicken himself. The marriage was nonetheless consummated and the house of three advanced quite harmoniously. To the shock of everyone, it was the mistress, Sklerene, who died first. Zoe, still delighting in adventures, having grown evermore sage with time, followed Sklerene to paradise later that same year. Constantine remained alone on the throne. Finding displeasure in solitude, he married a young Georgian princess. He died shortly thereafter, during the fifth year of his reign. Who then was to rule? Who was to rise from obscurity and sit upon the throne? It was Theodora, the younger sister, henceforth the sole heir of the Macedonian dynasty. There was no other option; Theodora was the only legitimate candidate. So she was placed upon the throne in the belief that her being somewhat senile would inhibit her from meddling in State affairs. Here everyone was mistaken, as Theodora, alone on the throne, developed an energy and a taste for power that shocked observers. Yet her reign would last only one year, and thus did one of the grandest lineages come to and end, in a rather wild, bizarre fashion.
Whenever I visit Constantinople, I make sure to pay a visit to Zoe. I enter the Basilica of Saint Sophia, I climb the gallery of the first floor and make my way towards the end, to the right of the high alter, where the mosaic imperial portraits are lined up. I first greet Emperor Jean Comnème and his wife, Empress Irene, the Hungarian. Then stop before my heroine. I read the inscription with great care, “Zoe, born into the purple, faithful to God, the Queen, Empress of the Romans.” She is simply beautiful. Small, almost fragile, beneath a crown of rubies and emeralds rests a thin face, big dark eyes, a delicate nose, a miniscule mouth, a dimpled chin, and her blonde hair. Her beauty outshines the many jewels that surrounded her. Next to her is her husband, Constantine Monomaque, who also shines with jewels, wearing a crown adorned with pearls and diamonds, taller than that of the empress. I notice something this time, something that had eluded me during my previous visits. Constantine’s crown, jewels, and hands are perfectly well designed. In contrast, his face in mosaic is a bit unclear and confused, and the lettering of his inscription is imprecise. After some time I realized that the mosaic was changed after each new husband, which, given the number, rendered the face and the titles rather vague. I return to Zoe and notice that her face is also less clear that her ceremonial dress. And that is when I cracked her secret: before each new husband she wanted to appear younger. And so at sixty-four years of age, at the time of her marriage to Constantine Monomaque, Zoe underwent a facelift, not on her ephemeral, earthly visage, but on her portrait, fixed for eternity within the Basilica of Saint Sophia.