Theophano (Greek: Θεοφανώ, Theophanō) was a Byzantine empress. She was the daughter-in-law of Constantine VII, wife of Romanos II and Nikephoros II Phokas, lover of John I Tzimiskes, the mother of Basil II, Constantine VIII and Anna Porphyrogenita. Theophano played an important role in 10th century Byzantine history. She served as regent during the minority of her sons.
Wife of Romanos II
Theophano was born of Laconian Greek origin in the Peloponnesian region of Lakonia, possibly in the city of Sparta, in 941. Theophano was originally named Anastasia, or more familiarly Anastaso and was the daughter of a poor tavern-keeper called Craterus. Theophano was renowned for her great beauty and heir apparent Romanos fell in love with her around the year 956 and married her over the strenuous objections of his father. After their marriage, she was renamed Theophano, after Theophano, a sainted Empress of the Macedonian dynasty.
Theophano's humble origins made her unpopular among Byzantine elites and when her father-in-law, the emperor Constantine VII died, rumors were spread alleging that she had poisoned him. Constantine died in 959, but he died of a fever which lasted several months, not showing evidence of poisoning. Astute and intelligent, Theophano had influence with her husband, Romanos, an influence resented and likely exaggerated by her rivals in the court.
Wife of Nikephoros Phokas
On March 15, 963, Emperor Romanos II died unexpectedly at the age of twenty-six. Again, Theophano was rumored to have poisoned him, although she had nothing to gain and everything to lose from this action and, indeed, was still in bed only 48 hours after giving birth to Anna Porphyrogenita when the Emperor died. Their sons Basil II and Constantine VIII, only five and three years old, respectively, were the heirs and Theophano was named regent. However, hereditary ascension was a matter of tradition, not law in the Empire and she realized that to protect her sons and secure her position she would need a protector. Passing over a bevy of would be suitors among Constantinople's courtiers, she made an alliance with, Nikephoros Phokas. Nikephoros, a physically repulsive ascetic twice her age, was the greatest military hero of the Empire at the time, having reconquered Crete, Cyprus, Cilicia, and Aleppo. In return for her hand, the childless Nikephoros gave his sacred pledge to protect her children and their interests. As the army had already proclaimed Nikephoros an Emperor in Caesarea, Nikephoros entered Constantinople on August 14, broke the resistance of Joseph Bringas (a eunuch palace official who had become Romanos' chief counsellor) in bloody street fighting. On the 16th of August in the Hagia Sophia, he was crowned Emperor and followed soon after in the marriage of Theophano, bolstering his legitimacy.
The marriage provoked some clerical opposition as Nikephoros had been god-father to one or more of Theophano's children, which placed them within a prohibited spiritual relationship. It should also be noted that the Orthodox Church only begrudgingly recognized second marriages. The situation was aggravated by the tremendous enmity the arch-conservative Patriarch Polyeuctus felt towards the young upstart empress. Thus even before the issue of his having been the god-father of at least one of Theophano's children surfaced banned Nikephoros from kissing the holy altar on the grounds that he must first perform the penance for contracting a second marriage. In the issue of his role as godfather, however, Nikephoros organised a council at which it was declared that since the relevant rules had been pronounced by the iconoclast Constatine V Copronymus, it was of no effect. Polyeuctus did not accept the council as legitimate, and proceeded to excommunicate Nikephoros and insist that he would not relent until Nikephoros put away Theophano. In response, Bardas Phokas and another person testified Nikephoros was not in fact godfather to any of Theophano's children, at which Polyeuctus relented and allowed Nikephoros to return to full-fellowship in the church and keep Theophano as his wife.
Nikephoros' gruff military style proved counterproductive in diplomacy and at court. Soon the Empire was at war on multiple fronts, the heavy taxes needed to support the wars were widely unpopular particularly as they coincided with a few years of poor harvests which brought famine. When the Emperor tried to relieve the suffering by limiting the wealth of the monasteries, he alienated the church. A widespread conspiracy developed to remove the Emperor. On the night of 10 and 11 December 969, his nephew John I Tzimiskes (969–976) crossed the Bosphorus in a storm, was smuggled into the palace and lowed into the Imperial chambers where he woke and killed his uncle.
Tzimiskes was good looking and irrepressibly charming and the legend is that he and Theophano were lovers. Whatever the case, the conspiracy against Nikophoros was widespread and it seems clear that the his wife and nephew had come to an understanding. On the night of the assassination Theophano suspiciously left the Imperial bedchamber, leaving the doors unbolted.
Tzimiskes now proposed to marry Theophano. However, the Empress had by now been too damaged by gossip and rumors. Patriarch Polyeuktos, refused to perform the coronation unless John punished those who had assisted him in the assassination, removed the "scarlet empress" from the court, and repealed all his predecessor's decrees that ran contrary to the interests of the church. John calculated that his legitimacy would be better enhanced by church approval than betrothal to the unpopular empress and acceded to the Patriarch's demands. Theophano was sent into exile to the island of Prinkipo (sometimes known as Prote).
Theophano and Romanos II had three children:
- Basil II
- Constantine VIII
- Anna Porphyrogenita
Theophanu, consort Otto II, Holy Roman Emperor has been suggested as the fourth daughter of the couple. Current research holds that her actual father was Konstantinos Skleros (Κωνσταντίνος Σκληρός), brother of the pretender Bardas Skleros (Βάρδας Σκληρός) and her mother was Sophia Phokaina (Σοφία Φώκαινα), niece of Nikephoros II.
English author Frederic Harrison wrote Theophano: The Crusade of the Tenth Century (1904), which portrays Theophano as the arch-schemer of Constantinople who manipulated the court to secure her own position in the face of inconstant Imperial leadership (the vain and distracted Constantine VII, the drunkard Romanus II, the overly pious Nicephorus Phocas) and thus largely for the good of the state. The Greek historical fiction writer Kostas Kyriazis (b. 1920) wrote a biography called Theophano (1963), followed by the 1964 Basil Bulgaroktonus on her son. As depicted in these books, Theophano was indeed guilty of all the killings attributed to her in her lifetime, and the heritage of a mother who killed both his father and his stepfather caused her son Basil to distrust women and avoid marriage himself.