Zoe (empress)

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Zoe (in Greek: Ζωή, Zōē, meaning "Life"), (c. 978–1050) was Empress of the Byzantine Empire with co-rulers November 15, 10281050, and senior reigning Empress from April 19 to June 11, 1042.

Zoe was one of the few Byzantine empresses "born into the purple" (that is, as the child of a reigning emperor). She was daughter of Constantine VIII, who had become co-emperor in 962, and sole emperor in 1025. He reigned for only three years between December 15, 1025 and November 15, 1028. Her mother's name was Helena.

Worried by the prospect of associating another man with the imperial house, Constantine VIII had prevented his daughters from marrying until the very end of his life. Before dying, Constantine had married Zoe to his chosen heir Romanos III Argyros, the prefect (eparch) of Constantinople, on November 12, 1028. By this time Zoe had turned 50 and, in spite of several attempts, failed to produce any heir. Romanos III had succeeded to the throne together with Zoe 3 days after they married, but this failure helped alienate the spouses. Paying less attention to his wife and curtailing her expenditures, Romanos incurred her animosity, while Zoe herself became enamoured of her courtier Michael.

On April 11, 1034, Romanos III was found dead in his bath, and rumor speculated that Zoe and Michael may have had him strangled or drowned. Zoe married Michael later the same day, and he reigned as Michael IV, until his death in 1041. Although Michael proved a more uxurious husband than Romanos, Zoe remained excluded from politics by the monopoly on government enjoyed by Michael's brother John the Eunuch. The disgruntled empress even conspired, in vain, against John in 1037 or 1038.

Shortly before the death of Michael IV in December 1041, the spouses adopted as their son Michael V, the son of Michael IV's sister. After several months of rule, the new emperor exiled his adoptive mother to a convent. The population of Constantinople, loyal to Zoe, quickly forced Michael V to recall the empress and her younger sister Theodora in April 1042. The sisters deposed Michael V, blinded him, and exiled him to a monastery, where he died later the same year. For two months Zoe shared the government with Theodora, until she could find yet another husband, her third and the last she was permitted according to the rules of the Orthodox Church. Her choice fell upon Constantine IX Monomachos (reigned 1042–1055) who outlived her by four years. Zoe died in 1050.

By the time she first married, Zoe had turned 50. Despite her advanced age, she married two more times, to supply Byzantium with emperors. Ironically, the most capable of her husbands was the one who was least well prepared to be emperor (Michael IV). It is said she was stunningly beautiful and one writer even commented that, like a well baked chicken "every part of her was firm and in good condition". She realised her charms and meant to keep and use them for as long as possible. With typical Byzantine ingenuity, she had many rooms in her chambers converted into laboratories for the preparation of arcane ointments. Thus, she was able to keep her face free of wrinkles till she was 60.


  • (primary source) Michael Psellus, Chronographia.
  • The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium, Oxford University Press, 1991.

Preceded by:
Michael V
Byzantine Empress
Succeeded by:
Constantine IX

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