Imperial Women in the Roman and Byzantine Empires

Posted by Powee Celdran 

For my own part, I adhere to the maxim of antiquity, that throne is a glorious sepulchre” -Empress Theodora of Byzantium, 532

From the Julio-Claudian to the Palaiologos Dynasties 


Welcome back to another Byzantium Blogger article! In the past 2 months, I have done a 3-part series on extremely long articles comparing the the civilization of the Roman Empire and its successor, the Byzantine Empire in which both are basically the same empire except in name and location. Now, it’s all over with the extremely long articles, so here is a much more concise and straight to the point article, though this may be more of an excerpt article from the 2nd part of the 3-part series which was the comparison between Roman and Byzantine imperial systems; now if that long article talked about the men who officially ran the Roman Empire, this one will focus entirely on the women behind the power of these influential men who ran the Roman Empire for over a thousand years. In the long history of Rome including the Roman Empire era known as the Principate from its beginnings under Rome’s first emperor Augustus Caesar in 27BC to the move of the Roman Empire to the east under Emperor Constantine I the Great in 330 and all the way up to the final end of the Roman (Byzantine) Empire in 1453, women have at times on and off played an important role in running the empire behind their husbands, sons, or brothers usually in the form of giving them advice in the running the empire, encouraging them to impose certain policies, or at times even make crucial decisions for the empire when the male ruler himself couldn’t decide. Ancient ruling women really were not supposed to have much of a powerful role but for giving birth to imperial heirs but there were a few rare cases where women just could not help it but had actually run the empire from behind scenes even going as far as to commanding armies in times of emergency, which will be discussed more as you continue reading this. Basically, in Ancient Rome, women could be citizens but did not have equal rights as men so they could not vote or be elected to government positions, although Roman and Byzantine women could have jobs such as shopkeepers, artisans, doctors, weavers, and traders. However, women at home did play a major part not only in managing the home but in the upbringing of Roman children as mothers were usually the first teachers of their children, they taught their boys the basics of reading and writing and also basic Roman virtues such as Pietas or duty to the state while mothers taught and trained their daughters to run the house, which was mentioned in the previous article I wrote on Roman and Byzantine cultural similarities and differences. Rome’s first emperor Augustus Caesar in his reign (27BC-14AD) passed laws for the ideal Roman family in which he encouraged people to marry and for wives to be loyal to their husband which was the ideal Roman family, although behind his back, Augustus’ wife Livia had been plotting against him and she would not be the only Roman empress to do this as countless after her all the way till the end of the Byzantine Empire in 1453 would do this for their own power. Since women even if being the empress known as the Augusta did not officially hold power, they still wanted to, and many ambitious empresses thought of all sorts of means to actually hold power even long after their husbands died whether or not they had sons. As there was no Roman imperial law that emperors had divine rights and were to be immediately succeeded by their eldest sons which continued all the way down to the medieval Byzantine Empire, emperors thought of all sorts of means as well to make their family rule and the most basic being appointing their eldest son as co-emperor to gain the support of the army, senate, and people long before the emperor dies otherwise the army or senate would choose their own candidate for the throne. However, if it wasn’t the emperor who thought of means to create a dynasty, the women which were the empresses did especially when wanting to keep themselves in power. Many of these ambitious Roman and Byzantine empresses either remarried a powerful general after their husband’s death who would take the throne with the empress still there, others poisoned and eliminated rivals to secure their son’s position so that the mother empress could rule for their sons, others declared war on political rivals, other imperial women even got involved in sex scandals as a way to plot against and eliminate their ruling husbands, while others actually plotted against their husbands or sons to take the throne for themselves which was the case with the full time Empress Irene of Byzantium (r. 797-802). Otherwise, women of Roman imperial families especially imperial daughters or sisters if not having so much influence and ambition were just marriage tools for a political alliance between two factions in a civil war or to make a an alliance with a foreign king. The Roman Empire which was based in Rome was never ruled solely and officially by a woman for years, the first Roman empress to rule alone using the title of “emperor” would be the Byzantine empress Irene although being a woman ruler made her taken less seriously by the people leading to her dethronement in 802. In the Byzantine Empire like in Imperial Rome before them there were many influential women rulers behind their husbands whereas in Rome these included Augustus’ wife Livia and Claudius I’s wife Agrippina the Younger while in Rome’s continuation which was Byzantium, the most influential woman behind her husband’s power was most probably Theodora, the wife of Emperor Justinian I (r. 527-565) who said this memorable quote above showing great in courage in time of death saying death is better than dethronement but she was not a sole empress the way Irene years later would be. Other than Irene, another Empress Theodora (r. 1055-1056) would be the second sole female ruler of Byzantium but only for a year to fill in the place while there was no male heir left, although her sister Zoe previously was the official co-ruler of her 3 emperor husbands from 1028 to her death in 1050. Now in both the Roman Empire and its medieval successor Byzantium, nothing really changed on how women played a part behind the throne and in many times imperial women played a crucial part in the events of Roman/ Byzantine history not just in creating a dynasty and putting their sons in power but in events like saving the empire from some invasions and in restoring and making the veneration of religious icons official. Now this article will cover a long time period from the founding of the Roman Empire and end of the Republican era at 27BC to the Fall of Constantinople, the “New Rome” in 1453, but to make things simpler this article will not so much cover the entire history of Rome and Byzantium’s internal and external conflicts as long as imperial women played a part in them, whether in leading to the empire’s downfall or bringing back the imperial glory. This article though will not mention every Roman/ Byzantine imperial women only those who played a significant part in the empire’s long history, the article too will be divided according to time periods of the empire’s history from 27Bc to 1453.

The Roman Empire at its height, 117AD
The Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empire at its fullest extent in 565, 1020, and 1360

Related Articles by the Byzantium Blogger:

7 Reasons to be Interested in Byzantium

The 94 Byzantine Emperors

The Complete Imperial Byzantine Genealogy

Byzantine Imperial Personalities Part1

Byzantine Imperial Personalities Part2

Byzantine Imperial Personalities Part3

The Ravenna Mosaics and What to Expect

Byzantine Constantinople- The Queen of Cities 

12 Turning Points in Byzantine History

The Ethnic Origins of the Byzantine Emperors

The Sieges of Constantinople

Thoughts on Quarantine, Self-Isolation, and Social Distancing- COVID-19 Related

Roman and Byzantine Empires Comparison Part1: The Army

Roman and Byzantine Empires Comparison Part2: Emperors and Imperial System

Roman and Byzantine Empires Comparison Part3: Imperial Life and Culture


Related Roman and Byzantine Lego movies from No Budget Films:

Revenge of Germania (2018)

The Rise of Phokas (2019)

Killing a Byzantine Emperor (2019)

War of the Sicilian Vespers (2020)


I. The Julio-Claudian Dynasty (27BC-68AD)


The first Roman Emperor Augustus Caesar, was born Gaius Octavius Thurinus in 63BC and brought up by his mother Atia as his father died when he was only 4, though his mother had dreamed for him to be Rome’s ruler in the future and it was she who was responsible for making him be recognized by her cousin Gaius Julius Caesar, Rome’s dictator (48-44BC) who eventually adopted him and named Octavius his heir, though Atia died in 43BC long before her son Octavian became Augustus, the first emperor of Rome. Between Julius Caesar’s assassination in 44BC and Augustus’ rise to power in 27BC, Octavian as Caesar’s heir was at conflict with Caesar’s general Mark Antony who also had claim to Caesar’s empire and to support his position, Mark Antony allied himself with the queen of the Greek Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt, Cleopatra VII although Antony became her lover and later husband allowing himself to be under Egypt’s influence causing Octavian and Rome to believe Antony betrayed Rome, though in 31BC Octavian’s forces defeated Antony at Actium, therefore in the next year Antony and Cleopatra’s plans to rule Egypt and Rome together failed and both committed suicide leaving Octavian as the sole ruler of Rome annexing Egypt now as his personal province. When becoming emperor in 27BC, Augustus was already married to Livia, a Roman noblewoman who had been married earlier to the general Tiberius Claudius Nero and had 2 sons Tiberius and Drusus but the marriage to Augustus was so that she could rule through him and for 41 years she had been the power behind Augustus’ decision making but had secretly manipulated her way behind him to make her son Tiberius succeed Augustus. Together, Augustus and Livia had no children of their own, though Augustus from his previous marriage had one daughter, Julia the Elder who had married Augustus’ close friend and general Marcus Agrippa and together had 5 children. Augustus despite his strong rule over the empire could not rule his wife and stop her from her plots; basically, Augustus was unaware that Livia may have been behind the deaths of Augustus’ potential heirs including Agrippa (died 12BC) and his 2 older sons with Julia, which were Augustus’ grandsons Gaius (died 4AD) and Lucius (2AD) who had all died under mysterious circumstances in which Livia may have been the one who had bribed their soldiers to kill them in their campaigns while Augustus had all thought his son-in-law and grandsons just died naturally. Livia may have also had Augustus’ daughter Julia get involved in scandals leading to her banishment from her father for behavior, although Julia with her behavior had slept with so many men causing her father who stood strongly for the Roman virtue of purity to be enraged that he banished Julia to live in isolation at the small island of Pandateria (Ventotene) off the western Italian coast. Meanwhile, Augustus’ last grandson and son of Julia and Agrippa which was Postumus had shown such bad behavior possibly influenced by Livia as well and Augustus fearing this grandson would overthrow him exiled him as well, although this may have also been all planned by Livia because at the end, Livia got her way and as Augustus died in 14AD he was left with no one else but Livia’s older son Tiberius to succeed him; now to eliminate all rivals, Livia and Tiberius had ordered Postumus’ death right after Augustus died in Nola, Italy and several years earlier, it is possible that Livia may have been behind the death of her younger son the general Drusus the Elder in 9BC having one of his soldiers knock him off his horse injuring him fatally fearing he would be a threat to her and Tiberius. Livia would be one of the most remembered powerful women in Rome as for decades she had been the power behind Augustus’ and Tiberius’ reigns, though many say it was all about power that drove her to do such scheming acts, but in her mind she was doing this to secure the rule of her family, the Claudians in order for Rome to be under the rule of one family otherwise civil war may return once again. Livia may have had such big dreams for her son Tiberius as emperor but Tiberius in return did not really want the job since he was happy with his life as a soldier and did not desire to rule the empire but he did anyway even if the job tired him too much, Livia though died in 29AD at a really old age while Tiberius focused his reign making the Roman government strong while all he wanted to do was retire and leave the senate in charge of the empire. Now in Tiberius’ reign (14-37AD), there were other strong women like Agrippina the Elder wife of the general and Tiberius’ nephew Germanicus and daughter of Agrippa, a military woman who was not afraid to stand up to Tiberius in making her sons the next emperor when Tiberius had plans to make his son Drusus the Younger his successor, Agrippina too was sure in accusing Tiberius of poisoning her husband Germanicus in 19AD, however her plans had failed when Tiberius suspected her of plotting against him, in 29AD she was exiled to the same island her mother Julia was sent to where she died in 33AD, her mother Julia though had died back in 14AD and not in the island anymore but in mainland Italy. Some time before, I have made a Lego Roman film which focuses on Agrippina’s story in Germania during Germanicus’ campaigns, you can watch it by selecting the link above, this film is “Revenge of Germania”. Another powerful woman at this time was Augustus’ niece Antonia the Younger, the daughter of Augustus’ sister Octavia and Mark Antony as well as the mother of Germanicus and the future emperor Claudius I in the sense that she uncovered the plot of the scheming Praetorian Prefect Lucius Aelius Sejanus and through her slave Caenis had reported the plot to Tiberius in 31AD thus having Sejanus and his conspirators executed. Some years later, Claudius I (r. 41-54) became emperor after the assassination of his nephew Emperor Caligula (r. 37-41AD) by the Praetorian Guard, and being proclaimed the new emperor by the guard, Claudius was married Valeria Messalina who later on while Claudius was away in his conquest of Britain (43AD) had affairs with countless senators and commoners, in fact she even entered a sex tournament with Rome’s most notorious prostitute in sleeping with the most number of men in which Messalina had won. Later on, she ended up deciding to marry a senator to overthrow her old husband Claudius until the plot was discovered as Claudius returned to Rome and she was executed by the Praetorian Guard in 48AD. Claudius though thought he would not marry again but a year later he did to his niece Agrippina the Younger, the daughter of Germanicus and Agrippina the Elder, though Agrippina the Younger had already been married before and had a son who was renamed Nero as Claudius adopted him to the imperial family and behind it all, Agrippina secretly plotted against Claudius being impatient to kill him and make Nero the emperor and in 54AD she poisoned Claudius with mushrooms to quickly make her son Nero Claudius’ successor, though previously she had played around with his mind to make him accept Nero as his heir rather than his son with Messalina which was Britannicus. Before dying, Claudius knew his wife was up to no good seeing Nero would be failure but before Claudius could change his mind and make Britannicus his successor, Claudius was poisoned, Britannicus died the next year poisoned by either Nero or his mother to remove him as a threat. As emperor, Nero wanting to get rid of his mother’s influence ordered her death in 59AD trying all sorts of methods including crashing the ceiling on her and sinking her ship but when none worked, he sent his guards to just stab her to death. Nero’s marriages too did not turn out well, with his first wife Claudia Octavia he accused her of adultery and banished her but as the people demanded her to be returned, in 62AD Nero’s mistress Poppaea instead ordered Octavia’s execution and returned her head to Nero. Before Nero and Poppaea married, Poppaea was married to the Roman aristocrat Otho who Nero banished to be governor of distant Lusitania (Portugal) so that Nero could marry her, although in 65AD, Nero suddenly kicked her to death either enraged of her constant complaining or fearing that their child in which she was pregnant with would be a threat. Nero’s later reign was thus tragic and he ended becoming declared a public enemy by the senate and the legions rose up against him so in 68AD he committed suicide leading Rome to fall into chaos with 4 emperors succeeding him after his death, and the 4th of these emperors, which was Vespasian (r. 69-79AD) the founder of the Flavian Dynasty (69-96AD) who had married Caenis, the same slave of Antonia who now became free, though this was an unusual case as a citizen of his rank could not marry an ex-slave, although she was just his mistress but acted practically like his wife as his wife had died earlier.

The Julio-Claudian family tree


II. The Height of the Roman Principate (98-235AD)


Not so long after the year of chaos (69AD) following Nero’s death, the Roman Empire would be at its ultimate height of power as well as a time of peace and order, this was made possible under Rome’s “5 Good Emperors” beginning with Nerva (r. 96-98) who however had no children so he named the general Trajan his successor after his death. In the successful reign of Emperor Trajan (r. 98-117AD), like Augustus he too had a powerful wife, this was Plotina who was from Southern Gaul, and while Trajan was busy fighting wars to expand the empire she was busy in managing the palace and taking care of the succession issue as the couple had no children. In his reign Trajan expanded Rome’s borders to its farthest annexing Dacia across the Danube (today’s Romania) to the empire also expanding the farthest eastwards conquering Mesopotamia to the Tigris River and all the way down to the Persian gulf as well as annexing Armenia all the way to the Caspian Sea and even parts of the Arabian Peninsula to the Roman Empire. However as Trajan was busy building his empire he died in 117 not being able to have a child but instead, his wife advanced the career of Trajan’s nephew Hadrian a general who Trajan appointed as governor of Syria but wasn’t so sure of in succeeding him but when Trajan died in Asia Minor, his wife was present and he accepted her plan and Hadrian succeeded him. For Hadrian on the other hand, his marriage to Vibia Sabina was not a happy one and they had no children, also she died in 136, 2 years before Hadrian did, but as for Hadrian he was much closer to his young male lover the Greek Antinous who died in 130 by drowning in the Nile which caused Hadrian such grief that he had a city dedicated to him and statues of him built all over the empire. Hadrian (r. 117-138) ruled a long reign which saw Rome being at its height of civilization building cities and landmarks all over the known world but despite his success, Hadrian did not do well in handling succession as he had no children of his own so as it was the standard practice of these 5 Good Emperors, he had to choose someone in the government capable enough, at the end he chose the senator Antoninus Pius who in return had to adopt Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus who Hadrian saw as potential successors although they were too young so the older Antoninus Pius (r. 138-161) had to fill in as emperor for the meantime. At this time of the 5 Good Emperors, the emperors of Rome thought it would be best that a trained successor should inherit the empire which would be a man of great political and military ability and not a son, although having a son would make succession stable but having a son as an heir could not always be trusted, which would be the case with Marcus Aurelius’ successor, his son Commodus. Marcus Aurelius (r. 161-180) was best remembered as a stoic philosopher while being emperor and was married to Antoninus Pius’ daughter Faustina, together they had 13 children, although when Marcus Aurelius died in 180 he was left with no one to succeed him but his son, Commodus who since the beginning of his reign would already begin slowly ruining the stability of Rome by ignoring his imperial duties and focusing his time entertaining the people at the arena fighting as a gladiator killing other combatants and animals. Just 2 years into Commodus’ reign (182), this time a woman from the imperial family seeing Rome’s future would be doomed plotted against him in a coup to assassinate him and save Rome, this here was Commodus’ older sister Lucilla and together with her husband Claudius Pompeianus, they attempted to assassinate Commodus and make themselves the rulers of Rome but just as the assassination was to be done, Commodus’ guards came in and uncovered the plot. Lucilla was then banished by Commodus to Capri where he later had her executed by strangling, though Claudius was left unpunished as his part in the plot wasn’t uncovered, Commodus ruled until he himself was eventually assassinated by orders of the senate in 192 leaving the empire again in chaos in 193 known as the “Year of the 5 Emperors”. At the end of 193, the general who would eventually be the official emperor of Rome was the North African Septimius Severus (r. 193-211) the founder of the Severan Dynasty (193-235) and at this time, more women had played a bigger part in the imperial family beginning with the empress Julia Domna who also a philosopher was a Syrian and the wife of Septimius Severus, she too was the mother of his 2 sons Geta and Caracalla and when Severus died in 211 she held a powerful position as a secretary under her 2 sons who were co-emperors but had hated each other, though later on in 211 Caracalla wanting to rule alone had his younger brother Geta killed by the Praetorian Guard in front of their mother, Geta then died in his mother’s arms. Caracalla was assassinated in 217 by one of his soldiers as he urinated somewhere in Asia Minor as part of a plot of the general Macrinus to usurp the throne and when hearing of this, Julia Domna who was in Antioch committed suicide by starvation while the usurper Macrinus was emperor for a year (217-218) but Domna’s older sister Julia Maesa in Syria had secretly plotted to restore her family to the throne and in 218 the army revolted against and killed Macrinus and proclaimed Maesa’s grandson Elagabalus a 14-year-old Syrian priest of the sun god and the son of her daughter Julia Soeamias. During the reign of the young and scandalous Elagabalus, it was his mother that ran the state affairs behind while he was busy being involved in scandals like marrying a Vestal Virgin and at times had affairs with men seeing himself as the woman. The grandmother Julia Maesa growing unhappy with her grandson’s bad behavior now plotted to remove him by instead making her other grandson Severus Alexander be the new emperor by bribing the Praetorian Guards with her wealth to assassinate Elagabalus, although she had tricked Elagabalus into this by making him adopt Severus Alexander. In 222 both Elagabalus and his mother were eventually assassinated by the Praetorian Guard and replaced by his younger cousin Severus I Alexander (r. 222-235) who was also young so it was for his mother Julia Mamaea sister of Soeamias had also acted as the power, meanwhile the grandmother Julia Maesa would be dominating both her daughter and grandson until her death sometime between 224 and 227. Severus Alexander barely had any experience in running the empire and had to keep depending on his mother while the empire was in fact in extreme danger as the Parthian Empire of Persia was beaten by a new and much deadlier enemy, the Sassanids, which would be an even deadlier threat to Rome. Facing war in the east against the new Sassanids and in the north against Germanic tribes left the soldiers discontent with the emperor and his mother who had been unsure in decisions and cutting their pay, so in 235 as the legions could no longer handle the rule of Severus Alexander who was at their camp in Germania with mother, they stormed the imperial quarters and murdered both mother and son, thus proclaiming their centurion, the massive Thracian man Maximinus Thrax as emperor.

The 5 Good Emperors of Rome
The Severan Dynasty family tree


III. Crisis of the 3rd Century, Tetrarchy, and New Rome (235-395)


The death of Severus Alexander and his mother Julia Mamaea in 235 marked the start of the 50-year Crisis of the 3rd Century, a time of military takeovers proclaiming any powerful commander as emperor who would either lose the throne with a civil war as the army would proclaim another powerful commander as emperor or if not than some of these emperors of this time died in battle against the Sassanid Persians or the Goths at the north or if at a civil war assassinated or killed in battle by a Roman. Therefore at this time, there was no time for powerful women to plot and secure the throne to create a dynasty, instead it was the men who held power themselves and had made their sons co-emperors in order to make a stable succession which would never really happen at this time except for Valerian (r. 253-260) who made his son Gallienus (r. 253-268) his co-emperor and with Valerian defeated and captured by the Sassanids in 260, he lost the throne therefore Gallienus was full emperor, however 2 breakaway empires came in splitting from the central rule of Rome. The first to declare independence was Gaul, Germania, and Britain forming the Gallic Empire in 260 which was however still Roman but not under Rome, then at the same time in the east the governor of the city of Palmyra in Syria drove away the Sassanid army that defeated Valerian and raided Roman territory, this governor was Odaenathus who made himself ruler of Palmyra although still swearing loyalty to Rome and Emperor Gallienus as a protector. Gallienus however ended up assassinated in 268 and replaced as emperor by Claudius II (r. 268-270); Odaenathus meanwhile died in 267 leaving his young son Vaballathus to succeed him under the regency of his mother Zenobia. Though not a Roman ruler from Rome, Zenobia would be the powerful woman of the 3rd Century Crisis ruling the breakaway Roman Empire of Palmyra and in 270 she marched her armies to conquer Egypt cutting most of Rome’s grain supply, soon enough she ruled the whole Roman Eastern Mediterranean coast (the Levant), Syria, Egypt, and parts of Asia Minor, and in response to this the emperor in Rome itself Aurelian (r. 270-275) prepared to march his armies and take back Zenobia’s breakaway empire, thus in 272 Zenobia made herself full time empress of Palmyra. However, Zenobia’s armies were no match to Aurelian’s and at the Battle of Emesa in 272, Zenobia’s forces were defeated and she was captured by Aurelian, thus the Palmyrene Empire would later be destroyed and returned to official Roman rule. Now in 274, with the Palmyrene Empire destroyed, Aurelian headed west and defeated the Gallic Emperor Tetricus II finishing off the Gallic Empire and returning it again to direct Roman rule. Both Zenobia and Tetricus II were then captured and paraded in Rome at a military triumph, Zenobia though died that year and Aurelian was given the title Restitutor Orbis or “Restorer of the World” for reuniting the empire. In 275 however, Aurelian was assassinated by the Praetorian Guard in Thrace and back in Rome, the senate took some time to name a new emperor so for the meantime Aurelian’s wife Ulpia Severina, although without much evidence ruled them empire being the only woman known to have ruled the full Roman Empire, although ruling it for a short period of time the evidence of her rule could only be seen with the coins she minted with her name and face as eventually the senate elected the senator Marcus Claudius Tacitus (r. 275-276) as the new emperor. For quite a while there wouldn’t be an influential woman in the empire until the early 4th century in the years of Diocletian’s Tetrarchy, which was St. Helena, a Christian woman- in which legend says she comes from Britain- and the wife of the general turned Caesar of Gaul, Britain, and Germania Constantius I Chlorus a Roman-Illyrian who was said to be Emperor Claudius II’s grandnephew, Constantius then would be one of the 4 emperors in Diocletian’s Tetrarchy and together their son was Constantine I the Great. Constantius had met the innkeeper Helena in the Balkans while he was a solider in Aurelian’s army on the march to Palmyra to defeat Zenobia’s empire, at this time during Aurelian’s reign, Constantine the Great was born. Under Diocletian’s Tetrarchy (293-305) the Tetrarchs Diocletian and Galerius ruling the east and Maximian in the west had persecuted Christians but Constantius I who ruled Britain and Gaul instead protected the Christians, it is not clear though if he was secretly a Christian but possibly under the influence of his ex-wife he kept the Christians protected in those parts. Helena had however divorced Constantius I earlier as Constantius I became Caesar or junior emperor having to marry Maximian’s stepdaughter Theodora to seal their alliance in the west but Helena stayed with their only son Constantine possibly influencing Constantine’s toleration and later conversion to Christianity. Constantius I though having 6 children with Theodora did not live long as he had a sickness and in 306 only 1 year into his reign as Augustus of the west, he died in Britain with Constantine at his side thus he named his son Constantine Augustus of the west creating great confusion in the Tetrarchy. During Constantine I’s long reign (306-337) as he fought rivals to secure his hold of the whole empire, his mother had helped spread and build up Christianity in the empire, founded churches and monasteries, and travelled to Jerusalem and retrieved the True Cross. Constantine I though accepting Christianity was known to have had some family members executed in order to claim the whole empire and restore order which included his father-in-law and brother-in-law the Tetrarchs Maximian and Maxentius, and his other brother-in-law Licinius. Again, like before the formation of the Roman Empire where Octavian had the west and Mark Antony had the east and both were connected in the political marriage of Octavian’s sister Octavia to Mark Antony, for Constantine and Licinius it was the same case, Licinius was married to Constantine’s half-sister Constantia to form a political alliance although both ended up at war with each other, Constantine having the west and Licinius at the east, at the end of it in 324, Constantine like Octavian won the east, defeated Licinius and claimed the whole empire. Constantine though had married Maximian’s daughter and Maxentius’ sister Fausta and had 6 children together, however Constantine from his previous marriage had a grown son, Crispus in which Fausta in 326 used in a plot to eliminate him to make one of her sons with Constantine his successor; here Fausta put the blame on Crispus for trying to attack her, thus Constantine out of anger had his son executed, though later on Constantine had learned from his mother Helena that Fausta was behind it, therefore Constantine out of more anger had Fausta suffocate to death in a steam bath. St. Helena died in 330, the same year Constantine established his new city Constantinople which was to be the New Rome and the new capital for the next thousand years, Constantine’ sons though were to be brought up by their aunts, Constantine’s half-sisters Constantia and Anastasia. Constantine the Great after his death in 337 was succeeded by a joint rule of his 3 sons Constantine II who had the least important western provinces of Gaul, Britain, and Hispania, Constans I who had Italy and Germania as well as North Africa, and Constantius II who had the east ruling from Constantinople. At the end of it, Constantine II was first to die killed in battle against Constans I in Italy in 340, while Constans I was assassinated by his Praetorian Prefect in 350, Constantius II was then left as emperor until he died in 361 succeeded by his cousin Julian, son of Constantine I’s half-brother Julius Constantius, however when launching an invasion of the Sassanid Empire in 363, Julian was killed in battle and without any children, the general Jovian was proclaimed emperor by the army. Though in the next year (364) Jovian suddenly died, the army then elected their commander Valentinian I as emperor who then chose to rule the western half from Milan leaving his younger brother Valens to rule the east from Constantinople. Valentinian I (r. 364-375) later died of a stroke out of his own anger in 375 leaving the west to his son Gratian while in the east, Valens died in battle against the Goths in Adrianople in 378 with his body never found and as the Goths advanced to Constantinople, it was his wife Albia Dominica had led the defences of the city and successfully saved it from the Goths. However, despite being in the city as empress-regent while there was no emperor in Constantinople for the meantime, she did not rule as full empress. Gratian who was ruling the west decided he could not rule both east and west and thought Constantinople was too far for him to travel to so he appointed the general Theodosius from Spain to rule the east while Theodosius despite his young age had already retired to his native land after his father’s execution. In 379, Theodosius I arrived in Constantinople and became emperor of the east and with his wife had 2 sons; Gratian then was assassinated in 383 succeeded by his younger brother Valentinian II as emperor of the west who however died mysteriously in 392 and with Theodosius I defeating all rival claimants to the empire, he himself in 395 died the last sole ruler of the whole Roman Empire before its final division, also becoming the emperor to make Christianity now the empire’s official religion at the same time abolishing the Olympics in 394.

The Roman Empire divided with the Gallic and Palmyrene Empires, 260-274
Map of Diocletian’s original Tetrarchy (293-305)
Family Tree of the Tetrarchs and Constantinian Dynasty (284-363)
Map of the division of the Roman Empire among Constantine I’s sons (337-361)


IV. The Eastern and Western Roman Empires (395-518)


Right after Theodosius I died in 395, the empire was now formally and completely divided between his sons 18-year-old Arcadius who got the east which would from then on be the Byzantine Empire based in Constantinople and 10-year-old Honorius who took the west, both as independent empires, though both were incompetent rulers blind to the threats both empires were facing externally such as barbarian invasions and internally such as scheming advisors and generals, though aside from those 2 sons, Theodosius I’s daughter with Valentinian I’s daughter Flavia Galla which was Galla Placidia would be a powerful woman ruler in the Western Roman Empire based in Ravenna, although after the Visigoth’s sack of Rome in 410 led by Alaric, Honorius had his half-sister Galla Placidia marry the Visigoth king Athaulf in Southern France in order to make peace, though Athaulf had died in 415. After Honorius died in 423, Galla Placidia’s son from her second marriage, the young Valentinian III would eventually become emperor but in the earlier part of his reign from 425 to 437 he was under the regency of his mother who was a powerful regent figure and had played an important role in the politics of the empire building impressive churches and palaces in Ravenna and even appointing generals but after 437 she would lose her influence and her son even though now an adult would still be dominated by another person, this time the ambitious Goth general Flavius Aetius, Galla Placidia would then die in 450 but Valentinian III would later declare he would not want to be controlled by Aetius anymore so he killed Aetius himself in 454 but a year later the emperor himself was assassinated. In the east meanwhile, in the reign of Arcadius (395-408) he did not do much but let his wife Aelia Eudoxia the daughter of his father’s Frankish general Bauto, the general Gainas, Rufinus, and Anthemius, the eunuch Eutropius, and the Patriarch of Constantinople St. John Chrysostom be the ones actually running the affairs of the empire. Arcadius meanwhile focused his mind mostly on religious matters while the Visigoths were attacking his empire although they turned west instead, meanwhile his wife Aelia Eudoxia was much more powerful in presence than him and it was she who banished Patriarch John Chrysostom in 403 for his controversial speeches about her and the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) elites, Aelia Eudoxia however died in 404. Arcadius died 4 years later in 408 and was succeeded by his young son Theodosius II (r. 408-450) and in his early reign, his regent Anthemius the Prefect of Constantinople who served under Arcadius was basically in charge of running the empire and it was he who supervised the building of the powerful walls of Constantinople but behind Theodosius II’s rule, there was a woman behind his decision making, this was his older sister Pulcheria. It was Pulcheria who trained Theodosius II to be both a competent and pious Christian emperor although she did not have a good relationship with Theodosius II’s wife the Greek Eudocia, but in running the imperial court, this time it was the emperor’s sister and not his wife, Pulcheria too would be treated as an equal among men in her younger brother’s court, she too was responsible for many construction projects like the 2nd Hagia Sophia. Theodosius II ruled long and died from a riding accident in July of 450 and since he had no sons except for one daughter with his wife who had left him years ago, Pulcheria stepped in as regent empress of the Byzantine Empire for 4 months but was not officially crowned an official empress so instead she needed to marry someone to be the actual ruler. In November of 450, Pulcheria despite having a vow of virginity married the general Marcian and was also influential behind his rule, though she died in 453 long before Marcian died in 457, and since she was a virgin their marriage was childless. Behind the reigns of her brother and husband, Pulcheria had helped organize two of the most important Church Councils, the Council of Ephesus (431) during her brother’s and the Council of Chalcedon (451) during her husband’s. With Marcian dead, the Byzantine Empire’s powerful Goth general Aspar stepped not as emperor since being born outside the empire could not allow him to take the throne, instead he nominated his friend the Thracian soldier Leo Marcellus as the new emperor. Leo I (r. 457-474) would eventually have a powerful wife Aelia Verina, who was though a woman of humble origins from the Balkans but with her brother the general Basiliscus was from a military family, though during her husband’s reign she did not have much importance until after his death as she plotted to remove from power her son-in-law Leo I’s appointed successor Emperor Zeno the Isaurian, husband of her daughter Ariadne early in 475 as she was not content with being a widowed empress. Together with her lover Patricius, brother Basiliscus, and the generals the Isaurian Illus and Theodoric Strabo they got rid of Zeno giving him a message that he has to flee or they’ll kill him forcing him with his wife to flee back to his native Isauria in the mountains of Asia Minor and Basiliscus was made emperor until Illus sent by Basiliscus to kill Zeno instead as an Isaurian defected to Zeno’s side returning the following year overthrowing Basiliscus sending him to exile in Cappadocia where Basiliscus died of starvation imprisoned in a cistern but Verina was still at it to overthrow Zeno again but when her plot was discovered in 477, Zeno banished her to Isauria where she died in 484. Zeno’s rule was at most times unstable for him being an unpopular ruler for being an Isaurian, the people that the Romans of Constantinople thought were backwards but Zeno ruled till his death in 491 facing numerous plots to overthrow him. As Zeno died, the Eastern Roman Empire was left stable while the Western Roman Empire based in Ravenna had already fallen in 476 when the barbarian general Odoacer overthrew the last emperor and declared independence recognizing Zeno as the official emperor; however the Eastern Romans after Zeno and his predecessors no longer wanted a violent ruler and instead wanted more peace so they got the finance minister Anastasius I (r. 491-518) as their emperor after he married Zeno’s widow Ariadne who on the other hand never possessed much power herself in terms of controlling her husbands, rather she would be remarkable for being the one to continue holding the dynasty of her father Leo I in her marriages to Zeno and Anastasius I but also for being loyal to her husband Zeno who her family had hated when many other empresses were disloyal to their husbands especially when wanting great power; she however died in 515 and her marriage to Anastasius was childless, therefore Anastasius died without any named successor, so the imperial guard nominated one of their own, the Illyrian peasant Justin I as the new emperor beginning the Justinian dynasty.

Division of the Eastern and Western Roman Empires between Arcadius and Honorius after Theodosius I’s death in 395


V. The Justinian Dynasty (518-602)


The 6th century Byzantine (Eastern Roman Empire) was dominated by powerful imperial women, being the wives of the emperors of the Justinian Dynasty, the most notable being Empress Theodora, wife of Justinian I and although she was of low birth, born to a family of circus performers in Cyprus in around 500, her father Akakios was a bear trainer and her mother who is not named was a dancer, she too had an older sister Comito and younger sister Anastasia. Theodora’s father was a supporter of Byzantium’s green political faction though he died when she was only 4 so her mother switched sides to the blue faction, therefore Theodora from then on would be an undying supporter of the blue faction in which she would later meet the young Justinian then Flavius Petrus Sabbatius fell in love with her when meeting her in Constantinople while she was still an actress of the blue faction, afterwards he planned to marry her but the law prohibited people of the imperial court wherein Sabbatius was at that time to marry actresses as performers were seen as the bottom of society. Sabbatius though was of humble origins and his uncle Justin I (r. 518-527) became emperor after serving many years in the army and the imperial guard or Excubitors and bribed his way to power, and though he was emperor he was illiterate; Sabbatius who was much more intelligent being educated in Constantinople despite his low birth as a peasant in the Balkans then had his uncle who was already old and dying change the law of marriage and Sabbatius married Theodora, then in 527 they were crowned emperor and empress, Sabbatius then became Justinian I. Empress Theodora though has a mixed reputation as written by her contemporary historian Procopius of Caesarea (500-570), as in his book The Wars of Justinian Theodora is described as a courageous empress but in his Secret History, he probably tells the truth portraying her as a vicious and scheming woman with an insatiable lust that Procopius even says that before marrying Justinian she wasn’t an actress but a prostitute- although back then actresses were equivalent to prostitutes and not global celebrities- with a great lust for sexual pleasure that she had even cover her naked body in food for swans to eat from it. It is however quite clear as the mosaic of her in Ravenna depicts that the Greek-Cypriot Theodora had quite a perfect body with an hourglass shape and was both tall and attractive, in age she was 17 years younger than her husband Justinian I who became emperor at 44 while she was 27. It was Theodora who was behind many of Justinian’s decisions including acting quick with violent solutions in times of trouble when no peaceful solution or at least threatening to kill troublemakers could be done like when the Nika Riot of 532 broke out, here Justinian thought of fleeing, making peace with the rioting blue and green factions who sought to overthrow him, or threatening to kill them if they continued burning the city streets but Theodora firmly stood up and said it is better to kill them all rather than losing the throne, so she had her husband order the army to massacre them killing 30,000 rioters at Constantinople’s Hippodrome and saving them the throne, the candidate of the people to replace Justinian which was Anastasius I’s nephew Hypatios was executed too, he never even wanted the throne anyway even after his uncle died in 518. In 540, Theodora had the powerful general Belisarius suspended and put in house arrest after his successful reconquest of Italy from the Ostrogoths, making Theodora fear his growing influence that could eventually lead to him overthrowing her and Justinian; though Theodora had been Justinian’s advisor behind many of his reforms as well, though she was only empress consort and never had a title like co-emperor. In 542 when Justinian got the plague and fell ill and unconscious, she ran the empire herself for months while generals in the east hearing that the emperor had died plotted to take over, but as Justinian recovered, Theodora had those rebellious generals imprisoned. Their marriage although was childless, possibly due to Justinian’s lack of time and constant need to manage his growing empire; Theodora then died in 548 possibly from the effects of the plague 6 years earlier while Justinian lived another 17 years refusing to remarry as his only love was her. The old Justinian though despite losing Theodora was still mentally strong and with his generals Belisarius and Narses continued expanding the empire reconquering the west all the way to Southern Spain which the Romans had lost a century earlier, he then died at his 80s in 565 and without a son he was succeeded by his nephew Justin II (r. 565-578), although at Justinian I’s death in 565, the Byzantine Empire was again almost like the old Roman Empire except not as large though in controlled the entire Mediterranean again. The emperor Justin II too was highly influenced by his wife Empress Sophia, said to be Theodora’s niece (born 530), and during the part of his reign when Justin II became mentally insane in around 572 due to too much pressure in running the empire especially with the Lombards beginning to take Italy, Sophia acted as regent empress in his last 4 years (574-578) taking care of Justin II’s mental health as he ran around the palace screaming and biting attendants but she had taken care of financial matters too, although Justin II had appointed the commander of the imperial guard Tiberius who he also adopted to act as emperor regent (574-578). After Justin II died in 578, Tiberius II was full emperor till his death in 582 and as emperor, he got rid of Sophia’s influence banishing her from the palace even if she asked to marry him as Tiberius was already married to Aelia Anastasia who in Tiberius’ coronation in 578 was crowned his empress. Tiberius II though only ruled as Augustus for 4 years and before his death in 582, he married his daughter Constantia to the Cappadocian general Maurice who was made Tiberius’ successor, and among the 3 women Tiberius’ wife was first to die in 593, though their daughter Constantia and the retired empress Sophia were quite close, Sophia then died in 601 a year before Maurice and his 6 sons with Constantia were executed by the usurper Phocas (r. 602-610) after deposing Maurice and the Justinian Dynasty. With Maurice and sons dead, Constantia wasn’t left unpunished and instead of being executed, Phocas locked her up in a monastery to be tortured, she would then be executed in 605.

Imperial court of Justinian I with Empress Theodora
Justinian I’s Reconquests of North Africa, Spain, and Italy making the Roman Empire “great again”


VI. The Byzantine Dark Ages (610-867)


Now at the 7th century following Maurice’s execution in 602, the unstable reign of Phocas, and his overthrow in 610 by the Exarch of Africa’s son Heraclius the Younger, there would be no influential empress particularly during the period of the Heraclian Dynasty (610-695) as the empire was now in constant threat first from the Sassanid Persians and then the Arabs so now it was turn for the men who were by blood military commanders to run the empire, and the emperors of this time which were Heraclius (610-641), Constans II (641-668), Constantine IV (668-685), and Justinian II (685-695) were all strong soldier rulers despite Constans II, Constantine IV, and Justinian II coming to power at a young age. The only exception in this time was the empress Martina, the second wife and niece of Heraclius who after his death in 641 also known as the “Year of the 4 Emperors”, she had allegedly poisoned Heraclius’ son and successor Constantine III and was regent for her young son with Heraclius named Heraklonas but the Byzantine Senate voted to depose both her and her son that year and replace them with Constantine III’s 11-year-old son Constans II ruling under the regency of his general, a friend of Constantine III. At this time, the golden age of Justinian I’s time was long gone as a long war with Persia and the Arab invasions ruined the empire a lot bringing in the dark age, from 695 to 717, Byzantium went through 22 years of military anarchy with 7 changes of emperor including one which was Justinian II returning for a second reign (705-711) until his execution, the anarchy would last until the last one which was Leo III the Isaurian in 717 becoming emperor and establishing the Isaurian Dynasty which lasted till 802, here women would later have an influential role not so much behind their husbands, sons, or brothers but in influencing the empire as a whole. Leo III as emperor was a strong military commander with strict practical beliefs and seeing continued military success after defeating the deadly Arab Siege of Constantinople of 717-718, he instituted the Iconoclast movement making religious icons illegal and having his army destroy religious icons all over the empire, which was a popular movement among men and army as they believed the icon veneration made God angry but this movement was hated by women that even Leo III’s wife Empress Maria had secretly supported the use of icons, their daughter Anna too was a supporter of icons and had secretly helped monks and nuns keep them safe but their son Constantine V was like his father and even a more die hard iconoclast. For Constantine V his sister Anna who was the opposite of him had been married to the Armenian general Artavasdos, her father’s former partner in the army in taking the throne in 717 who was also a supporter of the icons but kept it a secret to stay loyal to his friend the emperor as Artavasdos too was appointed the manager of the palace or Kouropalates. Leo III died in 741 and was succeeded by Constantine V but a year later, Artavasdos feeling he was the rightful heir as Leo III promised him the throne and his daughter usurped the throne and in that year (742-743), he tried to bring back the use icons but his plan failed as Constantine V took the throne back and exiled him and his sons to a monastery blinding them too where Anna was forced to stay to take care of them, however Constantine V’s first and second wives the first being the Khazar princess Tzitzak and the other one being Eudokia were strong iconophiles too and so was his and Eudokia’s daughter Anthousa who had struggled to keep icon veneration as a nun while his 5 sons with her which were Christopher, Nikephoros, Niketas, Anthimos, and Eudokimos were strong supports of Iconoclasm like their father who ruled a long reign which was successful in military matters, he then died in 775. However, none of these women here were successful in restoring icon veneration until Irene of Athens, an orphan from the noble Sarantapechos clan of Athens and the daughter-in-law of Constantine V and the wife of his son Leo IV the Khazar (r. 775-780), the son of Constantine V and Tzitzak and as Leo IV who was also an Iconoclast but due to his poor health remained relaxed in his policies towards it and as his health worsened he died with his and Irene’s son Constantine VI still a child. Irene as her son’s regent began the regency with a Church council at Nicaea that had officially restored icon veneration in the empire in 787 but Irene not only restored icon veneration as in 797 she overthrew her incompetent son who exiled her to make himself full time emperor, then she blinded him and became the sole empress even calling herself not just empress, regent, or Augusta but “emperor” which had shocked the west where it was impossible for a woman to rule so in 800 the pope in Rome crowned the Frankish king Charlemagne as the new “Emperor of the Romans” as he had built a massive empire including France, the Low Countries, Germany, Italy, Northern Spain, and Austria thus beginning the Holy Roman Empire but the Byzantines too were shocked when Irene agreed to marry the new emperor in the west as the Byzantine being the real descendants of imperial Rome saw that Charlemagne was a barbarian and in now way a Roman so in 802 Irene was deposed and exiled to Lesbos where she died a year later and replaced by Nikephoros I (r. 802-811). Irene may have caused such scandal in the empire by agreeing to marry a barbarian ruler and bankrupting the economy but this marriage could have actually restored an even larger Roman Empire controlling most of Europe and at the same time she had returned the well-loved tradition of icons, therefore Constantine V despite his hatred to icons chose the right woman for his son Leo IV even if not seeing where things would go. Irene’ successor Nikephoros I as a banker improved the economy and he too supported icon veneration but as a warrior emperor he was intent to wipe of the Bulgarians from the map but in 811 he in battle against the Bulgarians Irene’s cousin Theophano of Athens had married Nikephoros’ son Staurakios who was only emperor for 2 months in 811 after his father died in battle and due to his injuries Staurakios had to abdicate thinking of making his wife his successor since her cousin Irene though a woman made herself empress but the patriarch disapproved of it and instead of Theophano, Staurakios’ brother-in-law Michael I became emperor who was overthrown in 813 and replaced by the Armenian general Leo V (r. 815-820) returning Iconoclasm again, though he was assassinated in 820 yet the next emperor Michael II (r. 820-829) and his son Theophilos were both iconoclasts, though Michael II’s second wife Euphrosyne who happened to be Irene’s granddaughter was a strong icon supporter. The next powerful empress in Byzantium was another Theodora, a Paphlagonian Greek and wife of Emperor Theophilos (r. 829-842) who chose her as his wife in a bride show arranged for him, the same way Leo IV chose Irene and how Staurakios chose Theophano, and when Theophilos died in 842, Theodora acted as regent for her young son Michael III (r. 842-867) and like Irene who also acted as regent for her son, Theodora again set up another Church council in 843 that finally put an end to Iconoclasm for good legalizing the veneration of icons, but Theodora’s end was not a good one as when Michael III grew up he banished her to a monastery but Michael III in 867 was assassinated by the Macedonian Basil I who became emperor and founded the Macedonian Dynasty.

Watch this to see an alternate history if Irene married Charlemagne (from Althistory).


VII. The Macedonian Dynasty (867-1057)


Now in Byzantium’s new golden age in the long-lived Macedonian Dynasty there were many times when women played an important role first being Basil I’s wife Eudokia Ingerina which was one reason how Basil came into power as she was Michael III’s mistress at first and to keep her close he married her to his courtier the Macedonian peasant wrestler Basil but Basil instead ended up killing Michael III, but it is believed that Basil’s son Leo was actually Eudokia and Michael’s son. Leo VI became emperor after Basil I died 886 and had 4 marriages 3 of them being unsuccessful in producing a male heir and only the controversial fourth marriage with Zoe Karbonopsina was. When Leo VI died in 912 he was succeeded for a year by his brother Alexander who was unmarried and died in 913 and succeeded by Leo VI and Zoe’s young son Constantine VII who ruled under the regency of his mother which was troublesome as a regency council was set up for him which had gotten rid of the empress and later tried to even get rid of the young emperor until the Armenian admiral Romanos Lekapenos in 920 stepped in and made himself emperor to protect Constantine VII rather than overthrow him but Romanos I acted as the real senior emperor while Constantine VII was brought all the way down to uselessness as Romanos appointed his 3 sons as co-emperors until he was overthrown in 944 by his two sons who were overthrown as well as Constantine VII returned to power in 945. Constantine VII as emperor (945-959) was too busy writing books and entertaining foreign guests including the old Princess Olga of Kiev- in which it was said he fell in love with her- with all the advanced technology Byzantium had including a mechanical throne, though it was his energetic wife Helena, daughter of Romanos I who had acted as the one managing his court affairs. Constantine VII and Helena’s son Romanos II (r. 959-963) was the kind of ruler who enjoyed the good life while his generals grew the empire but his wife Theophano, said to be a daughter of a Laconian Greek innkeeper was a young, beautiful, and ambitious woman and was said to have poisoned him in 963 and probably even his father Constantine VII in 959, though afterwards she married the much older general Nikephoros II Phokas who became emperor (963-969) but the marriage was only done to protect her children the imperial heirs Basil and Constantine so she never really stayed close to him as he was much older and ugly compared to her, instead she had an affair with his nephew John Tzimiskes with whom she plotted with to kill Nikephoros II in 969 and with John I as the new emperor instead of becoming his empress, John I agreeing to the terms with the patriarch Polyeuctus banished Theophano while he reigned until his death in 976. Theophano however would be best remembered for being the wife of two emperors Romanos II and Nikephoros II, mother of two emperors Basil II (r. 976-1025) and Constantine VIII (r. 1025-1028), and mother-in-law of Vladimir I the Great prince of Kiev (r. 980-1015) who married her daughter Anna brining Christianity to the lands of the Rus (Russia, Ukraine, Belarus). Basil II in his reign was never married as he chose to focus on leading the armies wherein he needed no children as he treated his soldiers like his children and his soldiers whose fathers died in battle saw him as their father, though his brother co-emperor Constantine VIII who stayed in Constantinople enjoying the pleasures of the palace was married and had 3 daughters. Constantine VIII only ruled for 3 years succeeding his childless brother Basil II in 1025 and while Basil II was a strong soldier emperor, Constantine VIII never had much military experience but was a skilled politician and administrator and when he died in 1028, he named the senator Romanos III Argyros as his successor by making him marry his eldest daughter Zoe. For more than 20 years, the empress Zoe was a powerful figure ruling as co-ruler through her 3 husbands Romanos III Argyros (1028-1034), Michael IV (1034-1041), and Constantine IX Monomachos (1042-1050), she however died when her 3rd husband was emperor, although her first and third husbands were weak rulers, her second one Michael IV the Paphlagonian who was a man 32 years younger than her but was as strong one despite being an epileptic. The marriage between the slightly old Empress Zoe and the old and delusional Romanos III didn’t work so Zoe had an affair with the younger court secretary Michael and in 1034 they hatched a plot to assassinate Romanos III in his bath while both married. With his epilepsy, Michael IV died in 1041 and Zoe adopted his nephew Michael V (r. 1041-1042) but the young emperor wanted to rule alone so he planned to remove Zoe from power so the people rose up against him favoring the empress, in return the people seized Michael V and exiled him to a monastery for life. Zoe in 1042 returned to power with her younger sister Theodora as co-rulers for a few months until the Byzantine Senate decided she needed to marry to have a man in power, she then married her old-time lover the senator Constantine Monomachos who became emperor though despite being married he was allowed to keep his other old-time lover in the court, Zoe then died in 1050 and Constantine IX in 1055, and the last remaining family member was Zoe’s sister Theodora who had kept her position as co-empress ever since 1042, and like Irene Theodora ruled as the sole empress though only for one year from 1055 to 1056  but without any heirs but her secretary Michael VI Bringas (r. 1056-1057), the Macedonian Dynasty ended with her death.

Family tree of the Macedonian Dynasty (867-1025)

Watch this to learn more about the Macedonian Dynasty (from Porphyra Foundation).


VIII. Crisis of the 11th Century and Komnenos Dynasty (1057-1204)


In the next half of the 11th century, Byzantium under the Doukas Dynasty (1059-1081) was left to the rule of men and only once did a woman act powerful, this was Empress Eudokia Makrembolitissa the wife of Constantine X Doukas (r. 1059-1067) and when he died she stepped in as regent empress for the empire for a year as their son Michael VII was not qualified to rule but since Byzantium was on the verge of extinction, the empire needed a strong soldier emperor even if Eudokia swore to not remarry, however in 1068 she married the Cappadocian general Romanos Diogenes who became emperor (1068-1071), although he met in battle with the Seljuk Turk army at Manzikert in 1071, had lost, and was captured by the Seljuk Sultan Alp Arslan but was allowed to go free until finding out a civil war broke out against him with Constantinople now proclaiming Michael VII emperor so Romanos lost the throne when Michael VII took over with the support of his relatives forcing Eudokia to retire to a convent where she would die in 1096. Within only 7 years in power, Michael VII was forced to abdicate when a military rebellion in 1078 rose up against him forcing him to become a monk while his Georgian wife Maria of Alania was forced to marry the old general turned emperor Nikephoros III (r. 1078-1081) who was in turn overthrown and exiled to a monastery by the young general Alexios Komnenos in 1081. The emperor Alexios I (r. 1081-1118) had a powerful woman behind him, his mother Anna Dalassene who ran the court affairs for him as he spent is reign more in battle which he enjoyed more than palace life, though after his mother’s death in 1102 his wife Irene Doukaina was a powerful influence behind him that when Alexios I grew old and sick, she plotted to have their daughter Anna Komnene the historian become empress but Alexios I did not approve of it as seeing the case of Empress Zoe decades earlier meant a woman ruler would only weaken the empire so instead he wanted his son John II to succeed him, at the end John II (r. 1118-1143) became emperor and Anna’s plan to be empress failed and as her plot was discovered, she was exiled by her brother to live in isolation in a monastery where she wrote her books including The Alexiad which tells the story of her father as emperor, she then died in around 1153. John II’s wife Irene of Hungary meanwhile was not influential in politics but rather in funding public works in Constantinople while their son Manuel I’s (r. 1143-1180) second wife the Norman French princess Maria of Antioch was a powerful one ruling as regent for their young son Alexios II (1180-1183) until the usurper Andronikos I, Manuel’s cousin had her imprisoned and executed in 1182 before he took over as emperor and being already in his 60s he married 14-year-old Alexios II’s 12-year-old widow Agnes of France, the daughter of King Louis VII of France (r. 1137-1180), though this marriage was more to seal the alliance and both had no feelings for each other, but despite their large age gap, Agnes tried to protect Andronikos as the people under Isaac Angelos were set to dethrone him in 1185. During the years of the Angelos Dynasty (1185-1204) following the overthrow and execution of Andronikos I in 1185, women did not have much of a role in politics except in being married off to make alliances as Alexios III (r. 1195-1203), older brother of Isaac II (r. 1185-1195) married 3 of his daughters to influential Byzantine families, one of them married the first emperor of Nicaea Theodore I Laskaris (r. 1205-1222) before Constantinople itself fell to the 4th Crusade in 1204 and the Latin Empire established there.


IX. The Last Years of Byzantium (1204-1453)


For the emperors in Nicaea as the Byzantine Empire in exile was based there (1205-1261), the role of the empresses were barely documented except for being the wives of the emperor and giving them heirs, these included Emperor John III Doukas Vatatzes’ (r. 1222-1254) wife Irene Laskarina, daughter of Theodore I Laskaris and their son Theodore II’s (r. 1254-1258) wife Elena Asenina, for the first one records only say she was married to John III to connect him to the Laskaris family as Theodore I had no sons but she died in 1239 from wounds caused by a riding accident and with John III had only one child which was Theodore II and with his wife Elena there isn’t even any record of what she did or the date of her death, instead only that she is the daughter of the king of the new Bulgarian Empire Ivan Asen II (r. 1218-1241) and had married Theodore II as a child and had children together, while this marriage was done to seal an alliance between John III’s Nicaea and the Bulgarians as they were about take back Constantinople but with mistrust between the rulers, the siege failed. At this time also, historians only mention the deeds of the emperors and barely have information of their families, possibly the emperors had them censor information on their families and personal lives. However in the case of Elena, it is probably sure she died before her husband Theodore II did as in Theodore II’s death in 1258 he appointed his commoner advisor George Mouzalon as regent for his young son and successor John IV (r. 1258-1261) suggesting that Elena had already died cause if not she would have been her son’s regent. After 1261 when the Byzantine Empire returned to Constantinople, there were some cases of an empress of imperial woman having an influential role. For instance, behind the restorer of Byzantium Emperor Michael VIII Palaiologos (r. 1261-1282) and the founder of the Palaiologan Dynasty (1261-1453), it was his older sister Irene, being very much like Pulcheria to Theodosius II that pulled the strings behind him as it was she who brought him up as a child when their parents were not there for them and it was said that she sang him to sleep with the words that he would be the one to one day recapture Constantinople for the Byzantines and eventually in 1261 he did and it was Irene who woke him up in his camp giving him the news that his general Alexios in one night recaptured Constantinople from the Latins making Michael think it was a joke until a messenger delivered him the deposed Latin emperor Baldwin II’s sword; it was also probably Irene who persuaded her brother to sideline and blind the young emperor John IV Laskaris in order to secure Michael’s son Andronikos’ succession and establish his dynasty, indeed she very much lived up to her name being as scheming as the empress Irene centuries ago. However, with Michael VIII as emperor, he did not live up to what he promised in restoring a true Byzantine state as much of the empire’s wealth was paid to their allies including Genoa, the Jews, and Armenians for helping him but what turned the people against Michael was his plan to unite the Byzantine Orthodox and Latin Catholic Churches in order for the now weak Byzantium to survive especially against enemies on all sides including Charles of Anjou’s Sicily, Serbia, Bulgaria, the Turks, and the Mongols, though the Byzantine people not forgetting the atrocities committed on them by the Catholic Crusaders turned on Michael for agreeing to convert the empire to Catholicism, the most angry at him though was Irene and after all she did to bring up, he just thought it would be better to give up Byzantium’s traditions, therefore Irene was no longer in good terms with her brother that it was said that she even plotted with the Bulgarians to attack Byzantium as revenge against him. Now to see the whole family drama of Michael VIII with his sister, wife, and son, watch the new Lego Byzantine epic I made War of the Sicilian Vespers set in 1282. Now in 1282, one of the most important events in that time was in a way started by a woman in Sicily named Giulia who after being grabbed by a French soldier sparked a massive rebellion known as the “Sicilian Vespers” against French rule, though this is just a side story to the Palaiologos dynasty. Michael though died at the end of  1282 away from Constantinople and as the patriarch saw him as a traitor to Orthodoxy, the Church refused him a proper burial so his son and now emperor Andronikos II quietly buried his father outside the city in an unmarked grave while Michael’s wife Empress Theodora spoke out a public apology to the people for her husband’s unpopular decision in agreeing to a Church union with the west, and Irene who opposed her brother’s Church union convinced her nephew the new emperor Andronikos II to cnacel the union which he did as he was truly Orthodox. The Palaiologos family sure brought in a renaissance of art to the new but weakened Byzantine empire though its founding emperor Michael VIII wasn’t an artistic one but a soldier-emperor, rather it was his wife Theodora being a patron of the arts that spent on decorating the empire with art, their son Andronikos II as emperor (1282-1328) did the same focusing heavily on the arts being an intellectual ruler inheriting all his intellectualism and love for the arts from his mother and inheriting none of his father’s political and military abilities. The next time a woman in the empire played a major role was in 1341 after the emperor Andronikos III Palaiologos (r. 1328-1341) the grandson of Andronikos II who overthrew his grandfather to take the throne died without naming an heir and his wife Empress Anna of Savoy, daughter of the Italian count of Savoy wanting to rule through her young son John V declared her late husband’s closest friend and general the Megas Domestikos John Kantakouzenos a public enemy starting a 7-year civil war ending with John Kantakouzenos victorious in 1347 making himself Emperor John VI until 1354, at this time Anna left Constantinople to rule her own court at Thessaloniki the second city of the empire, she died there in around 1365. As for John V, his wife Helena the daughter of John VI did not play much of an important role though John VI’s other daughter Theodora played the important role of being married to the 2nd Ottoman sultan Orhan (r. 1324-1362) becoming the first Byzantine to marry an Ottoman sultan which sealed John VI’s alliance with the Ottomans that would eventually lead to Byzantium’s real end. Now the next and last woman to have a major part in Byzantine history would be the last Byzantine empress, Helena Dragas the Serbian princess from the House of Dejanović well known for her beauty, piety, wisdom, and justice who became the wife of John V’s son and successor Manuel II marrying him in 1392, a year after Manuel II came into power after his father’s sudden death due to humiliation by his Ottoman overlords. However during her husband’s reign (1391-1425) she did not have much of a role and so did she during her first son John VIII’s reign (1425-1448). John VIII though died in 1448 childless and there was a succession dispute on which brother to succeed him, either Constantine or Demetrios so for 3 months between 1448 to 1449, Helena acted as regent empress in charge of Constantinople backing her son Constantine who was Despot of the Byzantine state of the Morea in Southern Greece until the Ottoman sultan Murad II approved Constantine as emperor, therefore Constantine XI became emperor and chose to use his mother’s name Dragases in his imperial name as he was close to his mother. Ironically the last Byzantine emperor was named Constantine and his mother named Helena same as the first one Constantine the Great whose mother was also Helena. Since the last emperor Constantine XI’s wife died long before he became emperor, his mother died the last Byzantine and if not the last Roman empress in 1450 3 years before Constantine’s death in the Fall of Constantinople in 1453, although Helena would be an ancestor of 2 Russian rulers, Vasily III (r. 1505-1533) and Ivan IV the Terrible (r. 1533-1584) as her and Manuel II’s granddaughter Zoe, their son the Despot of Morea Thomas’ daughter married the Prince of Moscow Ivan III (r. 1462-1505), continuing the Palaiologos line in Russia for some time until the line ended with the death of Ivan IV’s son Feodor I in 1598.

Map of the division of the Byzantine Empire after 1204
Map of the restored Byzantine Empire (yellow), 1261


Well this article now comes to an end and overall, this is a very interesting topic and one I always looked forward to writing. Among all the things of the Roman Empire’s history including Byzantium such as their army, emperors, and sophisticated culture, what also fascinates me is the fact of women coming close and if not actually holding power over the empire. Unlike medieval kingdoms in which it was mostly men in charge, Byzantium every now and then got the chance to have a powerful woman behind her emperor husband, son, or brother and sometimes even a full time woman ruler herself like Irene. Of course having powerful women is not something new to the Byzantines as even before them, ancient Rome had many but none ever officially being an emperor, in fact having powerful women was one thing the Romans had shared with other empires of their time especially Egypt both in the ancient kingdom and in the Greek Ptolemaic Empire, and this idea of powerful imperial women was one of the many cultural elements that lived on with Rome’s successor in the Middle Ages, the Byzantine Empire. After all, the Roman Empire did not begin because of a tradition of male rulers of divine right, rather Rome was once a republic and just so happened that it had to evolve to an empire with a single ruler, but this did not mean that this ruler had divine rights even if emperors were made into gods, and by this not only could usurping generals plot to take over but women could be behind them too. Now to some people including medieval Western Europe, some historians, and even the Byzantine emperor Alexios I Komnenos women were not fit to rule and could only bring disaster which was true in the case of Claudius I’s wife Messalina in Imperial Rome or Empress Zoe in Byzantium as they were only in it not to improve the empire but for their own personal power. However, on the other side of this there were many imperial women that I could admire for their courage to actually make decisions that could affect the empire as whole like Zenobia of the Palmyrene Empire and in Byzantium Theodora the wife of Justinian and Theodora the restorer of the icons as well as Empress Anna of Savoy and Irene of Athens. Out of all the Byzantine empresses, I could say Theodora the wife of Justinian I stands out as the most influential despite all the negative portrayals of her cause not only did she have the looks and perfect figure but despite coming from the bottom of society she was intelligent and daring and would do anything to protect herself and the empire, though with Irene on the other hand I could admire it that she actually made it that far to make herself empress but on the down side, her lack of ruling experience and poor decision making brought ruin to the empire. In Imperial Rome before Byzantium, out of all the women here the one I can admire most is Germanicus’ wife Agrippina the Elder because out of all Roman women, she was one of kind as when most Roman women were nothing but pleasure loving and decadent, she was tough, disciplined, and not afraid to speak out especially because of her military upbringing and life with the soldiers that made her brave enough to defend a bridge and Roman fort from Germanic raids. In the Byzantine Empire, the other women I admire if not the powerful rulers like Irene or Theodora are those like Anna Komnene who did not just live life doing nothing, rather she wrote something that would be one of the best remembered works in Byzantine history or Empress Ariadne for showing the true Roman virtue of Pietas being loyal to both husbands and as her first husband Zeno was hated by her family, she remained loyal to him even escaping with him to his mountain homeland of Isauria. In all other times, female members of the imperial families were usually just used for marriages to create alliances, while some other imperial women’s names barely make it to history as it was common in Roman and Byzantine history for women even in the imperial family to die ahead of their husbands, but often times imperial women had changed history in many ways like when Basil II’s sister Anna married Prince Vladimir of Kiev thus bringing the lands of the Rus into the Byzantine cultural world same thing with Zoe Palaiologina’s marriage to Prince Ivan III of Moscow which in fact led to the fact of Russia being Byzantium’s imperial successor, and this marriage too connected the Palaiologos bloodline to the Russian tsars. For me, I would see having strong female figures ruling the empire as a way to balance things out as sometimes there are some things men could not decide on, so therefore someone with different ideas could solve some problems. Anyway, this is all for now on this article on Roman/ Byzantine imperial women, up next would be the one on Imperial Roman and Byzantine food and cuisine which was also part of my plan on writing… now goodbye again and thanks for viewing!

Published by The Byzantium Blogger

Powee Celdran, currently majors in Entrepreneurial Management, a Byzantine scholar and enthusiast, historical military sketch and bathroom mural artist, aspiring historical art restorer, Lego filmmaker creating Byzantine era films and videos, and a possible Renaissance man living in modern times but Byzantine at heart. Currently manages the Instagram account byzantine_time_traveller posting Byzantine history related content.

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