Thecla (c. 823–c. 870)

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Thecla (c. 823–c. 870)

Possible co-regent of the Byzantine Empire. Name variations: Saint Thecla. Born around 823; died around 870; daughter of Theophilus I, Byzantine emperor (r. 829–842), and Empress Theodora the Blessed (c. 810–c. 860); sister of Michael III the Drunkard (c. 836–867), Byzantine emperor (r. 842–867), and Mary (or Maria), Anna, Anastasia, and Pulcheria; mistress of Basil I, Byzantine emperor (r. 867–886).

Thecla was the daughter of Byzantine Emperor Theophilus I and Empress Theodora the Blessed . Theophilus and Theodora were married on the day of Theophilus' accession (May 12, 821). Since Maria (one of Thecla's sisters) married an imperial colleague of Theophilus in 836, and since Maria's birth could not have come before 822 given the date of her parents' marriage, Thecla was probably her parents' second daughter. Maria died in 837: Thecla's other siblings included three more sisters (Anna, Anastasia , and Pulcheria ) and two brothers (Constantine and Michael), the former of whom also predeceased Theophilus. Shortly before he died, Theophilus probably affianced Thecla to Louis II (the son of Lothair I, the grandson of Louis I, and the greatgrandson of Charlemagne) of the newly created Holy Roman Empire. (The would-be bride is not named, but given her age at that time, and her subsequent status in Constantinople, it is likely that Thecla was the subject of these negotiations.) This marriage was arranged in the context of Arab advances which threatened Christians both East and West, and of a civil war which pitted Lothair against his brothers, after the death of their father in 840. This union, however, never materialized, because Lothair was defeated by his brothers at the Battle of Fontenoy in 841, Theophilus died in 842, and the Treaty of Verdun in 843 settled political conditions in the West for some time. In addition, since the Byzantine emperor Michael I had only begrudgingly acknowledged Charlemagne's assumption of the imperial title in 812 (12 years after Charlemagne was elevated to the rank by Pope Leo III) in an attempt to consolidate his power against foreign and domestic rivals, the Eastern Empire was in no hurry to concede the status of equality to that great man's less-thanequally domineering great-grandson, which a marriage to Thecla would imply.

When Theophilus died, his heir Michael III was only three years old. As a result, Theodora the Blessed became the young emperor's regent, while Thecla was officially associated with the regime as an Augusta (a status apparently not conferred on Michael's other sisters). For political advice, Theodora relied most heavily on a Theoctistus, who had served Theophilus well. Conspicuously absent from Theodora's inner circle was her own brother, Bardas. This oversight apparently embittered Bardas to the point where in 856 he conspired with Michael, who, at 17, was now beginning to grow restless under the parsimony of his mother and her political allies. Bardas organized a plot which encouraged Michael to break free of the shackles which restrained him from fully enjoying the perquisites of imperial status. There followed the assassination of Theoctistus and the political eclipse of Theodora, whose influence over the young Augustus was replaced by that of Bardas.

Probably hoping to win over the embittered Theodora to new political realities, Michael and Bardas kept her at court for a while before consigning her to a convent at Gastria. Thecla, Anna, Anastasia, and Pulcheria preceded her there. How long the women of Michael's family remained cloistered we do not know, but at some time they were freed from their enforced religious incarceration.

Otherwise, for about a decade Bardas ran the empire well while Michael frolicked with a hand-chosen band of reprobates. Foremost among these was Eudocia Ingerina , but eventually Basil (I) the Macedonian would rise to the top. Michael met the former while Theodora was still in power, and began an affair with her while he was still in his mid-teens. Theodora thought Eudocia Ingerina unsuitable as an imperial consort (perhaps because of her independent-mindedness), and in a Bride Show held shortly before her downfall, chose Eudocia Decapolita (a daughter of one Decapolites) for Michael's bride. As much as anything else, the forced marriage to a woman whom Michael did not want precipitated Theodora's fall.

Basil was a problem of another sort altogether. Of humble birth and a one-time captive of the Bulgarians (who incarcerated him in their trans-Danubian territory [Macedonia]), Basil (an Armenian by birth) escaped to return to Byzantium and a remarkable career. Born about 810, Basil was a man of prodigious physical proportions who caught the attentions of an aristocratic patron who lived near Patras, and who used her infatuation with his physique to pave his way to Constantinople. There, after exploiting contacts, Basil had the good fortune to tame a horse deemed unbreakable by the emperor, who thereafter took Basil into his service and rapidly advanced his career. For a time content with playing the fool, Basil wheedled his way into an intimacy with Michael. Having won the emperor's confidence, Basil engineered the removal of Bardas (866) and his own designation as high chamberlain. Following these successes, he exploited his influence with Michael to the point that he was adopted by the childless emperor as the latter's son (even though Basil was around 29 years Michael's senior) and named co-emperor.

In 867, Basil completed his coup by assassinating Michael and ascending to the throne of the Byzantine Empire. But before these events transpired, others involving Thecla came into play. After Basil had been named high chamberlain, but before the murder of Michael, an interesting arrangement was mandated by Michael. Seeking a scintillating relationship with his favorite, Michael forced Basil to divorce his wife, so as to permit Basil's marriage to Eudocia Ingerina, Michael's longtime love. Michael remained married to Eudocia Decapolita who had been foisted upon him by his mother, and she retained the official dignity of her station. Nevertheless, Michael apparently used Basil's marriage to Eudocia Ingerina to mask his own continuing sexual relationship with Basil's "wife." (If Eudocia Ingerina truly maintained her fidelity to Michael during her marriage to Basil, then her son Leo VI, officially Basil's son and eventually his imperial heir, was not biologically his, but Michael's. This would mean that the Macedonian dynasty which Basil founded upon the murder of Michael was biologically, if not officially, an extension of the Amorion dynasty it replaced.) As a sop to this "liberated" arrangement, Michael offered Thecla to Basil as a mistress. For whatever reason, Thecla apparently consented to the offer, and served, beginning when she was about 43 years of age, as Basil's mistress. Long denied a marriage of her own (politics not having provided for an appropriate match since the missed opportunity offered in the person of Louis II), perhaps having something of Michael's lechery, and probably somewhat impressed by Basil's physical stature, Thecla thus indulged in the pleasures of collaborating with the powers-that-were.

Even so, things did not turn out well for Thecla. After the murderous accession of Basil, an apparently neglected Thecla became the mistress of one John Neatocometes. When Basil learned of this association, the enraged "cuckold" ordered the beating of John and his assignment to a monastery. Thecla, too, suffered beatings and the confiscation of her considerable property. She soon thereafter died bedridden and foresworn.

William S. Greenwalt , Professor of Classical History, Santa Clara University, Santa Clara, California

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