Theophano (born Anastaso)


Theophano (Greek: Θεοφανώ, romanizedTheophanō; 941 – after 978) was a Greek woman from the region of Laconia,[1] who became Byzantine empress by marriage to emperors Romanos II and Nikephoros II. In 963, between the deaths of Romanos and her marriage to Nikephoros, she was regent for her sons, Basil II and Constantine VIII. Contemporary sources have depicted Theophano as scheming and adulterous, although modern scholars have called this into question.

Marriage to Romanos IIEdit

Theophano had to deal with bad rumors against her. Picture from the Skyllitzes Matritensis depicting Theophano poisoning her father-in-law, Emperor Constantine VII

Theophano was born of Laconian Greek origin[1][2][3][4][5] in the Peloponnesian region of Lakonia,[6] possibly in the city of Sparta, in 941.[7] Theophano was originally named Anastasia, or more familiarly Anastaso[8] and was the daughter of a poor tavern-keeper called Craterus.[9][10] Theophano was renowned for her great beauty and heir apparent Romanos fell in love with her around the year 956 and married her against the wishes of his father, Emperor Constantine VII.[11]

Theophano's humble origins made her unpopular among Byzantine elites and when her father-in-law Constantine VII died, rumors were spread alleging that she had poisoned him.[12] Constantine died in 959 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.

Marriage to Nikephoros II PhokasEdit

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.[13] Their sons, Basil II and Constantine VIII, five and three years old respectively, were the heirs and Theophano was named regent.

However, hereditary ascension was a matter of tradition, not law. Theophano realized that, to secure her position and the future of her children, she would need a protector. Passing over a bevy of would-be suitors among Constantinople's courtiers, she made an alliance with Nikephoros Phokas, a celebrated military commander who had been proclaimed emperor by his army after the death of Romanos. In return for her hand, the childless Nikephoros gave his sacred pledge to protect her children and their interests. On August 14, supporters of Nikephoros took control of Constantinople over the resistance of Joseph Bringas, a eunuch palace official and former counselor of Romanos. Nikephoros was crowned on 16 August in the Hagia Sophia, and soon after married Empress Theophano, bolstering his legitimacy.[14]

The marriage provoked some clerical opposition, aggravated by the tremendous enmity the arch-conservative Patriarch Polyeuctus felt towards the young upstart empress. Both Theophano and Nikephoros had previously been bereaved of a spouse, and the Orthodox Church only begrudgingly accepted remarriage. Polyeuctus banned Nikephoros from kissing the holy altar until the emperor performed a penance for having remarried. Further complications arose when Nikephoros was alleged to have been godfather to one or more of Theophano's children, which placed the couple within a prohibited spiritual relationship. Nikephoros organised a council which nullified the relevant rules, on the grounds that they had been pronounced by the discredited iconoclast emperor Constantine V Copronymus. Polyeuctus did not accept the council as legitimate, and declared Nikephoros excommunicated until the emperor sent Theophano away. In response, Bardas Phokas and another person testified that Nikephoros was not in fact godfather to any of Theophano's children, at which Polyeuctus relented and allowed Nikephoros to return to full communion and keep Theophano as his wife.[15]

Histamenon of Basil II and Constantine VIII holding a cross

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 allowed into the imperial chambers where he woke and killed his uncle.

John was good-looking and irrepressibly charming and the contemporary writers record that he and Theophano were lovers. They had come to an understanding on the conspiracy against the emperor. On the night of the assassination Theophano suspiciously left the imperial bedchamber, leaving the doors unbolted.


John now proposed to marry Theophano. However, the empress had by now been too damaged by gossip and rumors. Patriarch Polyeuctus 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.[16][17] John calculated that his legitimacy would be better enhanced by church approval than marriage to the unpopular empress and acceded to the patriarch's demands.[18][19] Theophano was sent into exile to the island of Prinkipo (sometimes known as Prote).

Return to courtEdit

Following the death of Tzimiskes in January 976, Theophano's teenage sons Basil and Constantine took sole power. One of the emperors' first acts was to recall their mother from exile.[20]

She is last attested in the year 978, appealing to the retired Georgian general T'or'nik of Tao to broker an alliance with his former overlord Davit III of Tao to support her sons against the first revolt of the general Bardas Skleros. This seems to be the last reference to Theophano in any source, and it may be that she died relatively early in the reign of her sons.

In literatureEdit

  • English author Frederic Harrison wrote Theophano: The Crusade of the Tenth Century (1904)
  • The Greek historical fiction writer Kostas Kyriazis (b. 1920) wrote a biography called Theophano (1963), followed by the 1964 Basil Bulgaroktonus on her son.


  1. ^ a b McCabe, Joseph (1913). The empresses of Constantinople. R.G. Badger. p. 140. OCLC 188408. (Theophano) came from Laconia, and we may regard her as a common type of Greek.
  2. ^ Diacre, Léon le – Talbot, Alice-Mary – Sullivan, Denis F. (2005). The History of Leo the Deacon: Byzantine Military Expansion in the Tenth Century. Dumbarton Oaks. pp. 99–100. ISBN 0-88402-324-9. Nikephoros himself claimed that he wished to maintain his customary moderate lifestyle unaltered, avoiding cohabitation with a wife..And he took in marriage the wife of Romanos, who was distinguished in beauty, and was indeed a Laconian woman.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  3. ^ Bury, John Bagnell – Gwatkin, Henry Melvill – Whitney, James Pounder – Tanner, Joseph Robson - Previté-Orton, Charles William - Brooke, Zachary Nugent (1923). The Cambridge medieval history. Camb. Univ. Press. pp. 67–68. OCLC 271025434. The new ruler, Romanus II… took possession of the government, or rather handed it over to his wife Theophano. We have already seen who this wife was. The daughter of Craterus, a poor tavern-keeper of Laconian origin, she owed the unhoped-for honour of ascending the throne solely to her beauty and her vices.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  4. ^ Durant, Will – Durant, Ariel (1950). The Story of Civilization: The age of Faith; a history of medieval civilization - Christian, Islamic, and Judaic - from Constantine to Dante: A.D. 325-1300. Simon and Schuster. p. 429. OCLC 245829181. Perhaps Romanus II (958-63) was like other children, and did not read his father's books. He married a Greek girl, Theophano; she was suspected of poisoning her father-in-law and hastening Romanus' death{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  5. ^ Hyslop, R. (2008). Varangian. Cuthan Books. p. 545. ISBN 0-9558718-2-4. Theophana, a Greek inn-keeper's daughter, married the emperor Romanus II in 958. She was alleged to have murdered this husband to marry the general Nicephorus
  6. ^ Goodacre, Hugh George (1957). A handbook of the coinage of the Byzantine Empire. Spink. p. 203. OCLC 2705898. Theophano, in spite of her accomplishments, was but of the humblest birth…she came from Laconia, no doubt bringing with her thence the peerless beauty of the Greek type. Romanus II and Theophano were married about the year 956
  7. ^ Miller, William (1964). Essays on the Latin Orient. A. M. Hakkert. p. 47. OCLC 174255384. The Emperor Constantine Porphyrogenitus, who wrote about the middle of the tenth century, has left us a favourable sketch of the Peloponnese as it was in his day.. His biography represents that city (Sparta) – of which the contemporary Empress Theophano, wife of Romanos II and Nikephoros Phokas, was perhaps a native.
  8. ^ Davids, Adelbert (2002). The Empress Theophano: Byzantium and the West at the Turn of the First Millennium. Cambridge University Press. p. 325. ISBN 0-521-52467-9. The emperor Romanos II was married to the daughter of a merchant, called Anastaso, who took the name of Theophano at marriage
  9. ^ Bréhier, Louis (1977). The life and death of Byzantium. North-Holland Pub. Co. p. 127. ISBN 0-7204-9008-1. Anastasia, daughter of Craterus, of illustrious parentage according to the panegyrist, but a former barmaid nicknamed Anastaso according to the other chronicles. Not only did Constantine approve this marriage, but he had it celebrated with great splendour in the church of Hagia Sophia and gave his daughter-in-law
  10. ^ Diehl, Charles (1927). Byzantine portraits. A.A. Knopf. OCLC 1377097. Her father, Craterus, of Laconian origin, was an obscure plebeian who kept a public-house in one of the slums of the capital. She herself, before her marriage, was called Anastasia, or more familiarly, Anastaso
  11. ^ Ash, John (1995). A Byzantine Journey. I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd. p. 243. ISBN 1 84511 307 1. Theophano was a wine-merchant’s daughter, and for this reason alone the more snobbish Byzantine commentators have hated her, but even her worst detractors do not attempt to deny that she was beautiful, so beautiful and so beguiling that Romanos II, while still heir to the throne, insisted on marrying her over the strong objections of his father, Constantine VII.
  12. ^ Gibbon, Edward (1904). The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire. Vol. V. According to Gibbon, "after a reign of four years, she mingled for her husband the same deadly draught which she had composed for his father.". London: Ballantyne, Hanson & CO. p. 247.
  13. ^ Reuter, Timothy; McKitterick, Rosamond (1995). The New Cambridge Medieval History: c. 900-c. 1024. Cambridge University Press. p. 597. ISBN 9780521364478.
  14. ^ Ostrogorsky, George (1969). History of The Byzantine State. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press. pp. 284. ISBN 0-8135-0599-2.
  15. ^ Norwich, John Julius. Byzantium: The Apogee. New York: Alfred A. Knopf: 1992, p. 192-194
  16. ^ Ash. John (1995). A Byzantine Journey, 1995. I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd., London. p. 248. Scandal and rumor had done their work and Patriarch Polyeuctus (an elderly bigot more than willing to believe the worst of a beautiful and ambitious woman) flatly refused to perform the coronation while the “scarlet empress” still resided in the palace.
  17. ^ Norwich, John Julius (1993). Byzantium: The Apogee. Penguin Books. p. 240. ...this, the Patriarch firmly declared, could on no account be contemplated. On the contrary, there could be no question of John Tzimisces being crowned Emperor until the Empress were put away, never again to show her face in Constantinople. ... He next demanded that John should do public penance and denounce all those who had been his accomplices in the crime. Finally, he must undertake to abrogate all his predecessor's decrees against the church.
  18. ^ Ash. John (1995). A Byzantine Journey, 1995. I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd., London. p. 248. Tzimiskes made no attempt to defend his benefactress. Enraged and humiliated, she was immediately bundled off to a convent on the island of Prote..
  19. ^ Norwich, John Julius (1993). Byzantium: The Apogee. Penguin Books. p. 240. Perhaps, as has already been suggested, John had never really loved Theophano, and had seen her merely as the most direct instrument of his own ambition; in any case, he did not hesitate in making his choice.
  20. ^ Kaldellis, Anthony (2017) Streams of Gold, Rivers of Blood: The Rise and Fall of Byzantium, 955 A.D. to the First Crusade. OUP USA


Royal titles
Preceded by Byzantine Empress consort
with Helena Lekapene (956–959)
Succeeded by