The west-European Empress from Eastern Europe

Who was Empress Theophano?

Women played a more important role in Byzantine society and enjoyed more rights than for many centuries in Western Europe. They sometimes acted as rulers or co-rulers of the Empire, on average were better educated than in medieval Western Europe, often promoted education and the arts, were active in business, as writers or doctors.

One of them, Princess Theophano, a niece of the Emperor Johannes I Tzimiskes, would have a great influence on the early beginnings of gender equality in Western Europe, on education, on trade with the Empire and beyond, and on its sanitary (she insisted on regular bathing and dressed in exquisite silks) and culinary habits (she introduced the use of the fork). She thus contributed to laying the foundation of its flourishing culture in the Middle Ages.

In the intermediate years of 867-1056, under the Macedonian dynasty, the Byzantine Empire reached its political and cultural height. its population and cities expanded, economy and trade flourished. Ancient Greek and other texts were preserved and re-copied and Byzantine art was at its apogee. The rest of Europe was by far not as developed.

The relationship between the Byzantine Emperor, who saw himself as the successor to the Eastern Roman Empire, and the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople, and Western Europe, had been disturbed by the Pope who in 800 also made the King of the Franks, Charlemagne, an Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, seen as successor to the Western Roman Empire.

“Princess Theophano, a niece of the Emperor Johannes I Tzimiskes, would have a great influence on the early beginnings of gender equality in Western Europe, on education, on trade with the Empire and beyond”

In order to once again improve relations between the two post-Roman empires, the Princess Theophano, born in 955, was to be married to the future Emperor Otto II, at the request of his father, the Emperor Otto I, in order to seal a treaty with the Eastern Roman Empire and the Holy Roman Empire.

Throughout the whole Carolingian and Ottonian period, the Byzantine Empire was regarded in Western Europe as the ultimate symbol of economic development and cultural sophistication. For a woman of the Eastern Imperial House to marry the heir apparent of the ruler of the Holy Roman Empire conferred immense prestige on the West. She was to have a significant and lasting influence.

After the death of Otto I, Theophano became co-ruler with her husband Emperor Otto II and received the title of Imperatrix. She thus inaugurated the practice of wives becoming queen or empress, a hitherto unknown practice among Western European rulers, and the beginning of women’s rise in politics and society. In 983, Otto II suddenly died and Theophano became the first ever empress-regent in Western European history for her infant son, Otto III.

“Theophano provided her son with a scholarly education in addition to the traditional military training of future Germanic rulers, and sought advice from many of the best scholars of her time.”

Equally important, Theophano provided her son with a scholarly education in addition to the traditional military training of future Germanic rulers, and sought advice from many of the best scholars of her time, thus strengthening the role of civic advisors to the court. This would be another innovation with significant consequences in later European political history, basing the prestige of its rulers not only on their arms, but also on the arts and culture.

As imperatrix, she had enough influence to encourage trade between the two empires, thus helping to improve early medieval economy in the West. And she took part with her husband in spreading Christianity to north-eastern Europe, becoming the grandmother of the Piast dynasty, the first united kingdom in Polish history.

She is buried in the Pantaleon church in Cologne (Germany).

(Sources : Laura Diaz-Arnesto, Byzantine Women, Byzantine Blog, 2010; Mark Cartwright, Women in the Byzantine Empire, Ancient History Encyclopedia, 2018; Jonathan Harris, Byzantium and the Rights of Women, Yale University Press blog, 2015)

“As imperatrix, she had enough influence to encourage trade between the two empires, thus helping to improve early medieval economy in the West.”