Theodota (c. 775–early 800s)

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Theodota (c. 775–early 800s)

Byzantine empress whose marriage prompted the coup that ended her husband's reign. Name variations: Theodote. Born around 775; died in early 800s; became second wife of Constantine VI Porphyrogenitus, Byzantine emperor (r. 780–797), in August 795. Constantine VI's first wife was Maria of Amnia.

Born around 775, Theodota was the second wife of the Byzantine emperor Constantine VI. Constantine was only ten when his father Leo IV died. As a result, his mother Irene of Athens was named his regent and co-emperor. Irene was a strong-willed woman at the time when the use of icons was a major religious and political issue within the Byzantine Empire. For a little over 50 years before the death of Leo, imperial policy towards icons was that they should never be used in the process of religious education and that those which existed should (in the best of all possible worlds) be destroyed. There was a strong pro-icon faction, however, which was led by monks and supported by Irene. After the death of her husband, Irene of Athens pursued a policy of restoring icons to a place of respect throughout the empire. Her sweeping aboutface, however, was opposed by the numerous iconoclasts who continued to hold positions in the government and army.

The politics of icons was one major issue at the court of Irene; another developed when Constantine reached his majority, for he wanted Irene to surrender to himself all imperial power. This Irene would not do, and Constantine rebelled, soliciting iconoclastic support against his mother. Irene successfully suppressed this revolt (790), but her attempts to have the army swear an oath acknowledging her as its sole overlord generated another uprising in Anatolia. This time Irene was driven from Constantinople, and she remained in exile until her considerable support, especially among the general population, convinced Constantine to sanction her recall (792). Even with many placated by the return of Irene, Constantine was not a popular ruler among the masses and with some at court. For instance, an opposition faction also developed around his uncle, Nicephorus. Constantine crushed this threat, but he did so with such brutality that more unrest was spawned. Initially, this also was repressed, but it was done with such viciousness that Constantine's popularity among the general public—never high to begin with—plummeted.

After her recall, Irene awaited an opportunity to reassert her authority. This arose when Constantine became obsessed with Theodota, a beauty who served in Irene's courtly entourage. Irene cynically encouraged her son's passion (which should have made him wary), although he was already married to Maria of Amnia . Constantine eventually decided to make Theodota his wife, but he had a problem: the divorce of Maria would create a scandal among the devout and most of the ecclesiastical infrastructure—and he needed no more enemies. Again, Irene encouraged her son to exploit his imperial position, knowing full well what would happen when he attempted to do so. Trying in advance to forestall opposition to his intentions, in 795 Constantine accused Maria of attempting to poison him. Many doubted this accusation (including Tarasius, the patriarch of Constantinople) and refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of what Constantine intended to do. Nevertheless, he divorced Maria and sent her off to a convent. Then, Constantine found a priest named Joseph who agreed to preside over his marriage to Theodota. The unpopularity of this union caused Constantine to overreact, both with the extravagance of the marriage festival and with the speed by which Theodota was hailed empress.

An explosion of public outrage followed, led by an especially strong monastic reaction. This latter was extremely embarrassing to Constantine and Theodota because the most vocal in their opposition were members of Theodota's own family: the monks Plato and Theodore and the nun Theoctista . These labeled Constantine a new "Herod" and an adulterer. His and Theodota's initial attempts to placate their outrage failed, and soon the emperor's patience wore thin. Plato and Theodore were banished after being physically beaten, but this only incensed public opinion all the more. Throughout the whole affair, Irene encouraged those who opposed the marriage. In 797, she engineered a successful coup, and toppled her son's regime. He was arrested, imprisoned in the Porphyry Chamber in which he had been born, and at Irene's order was blinded. Thereafter Constantine and Theodota lived out the rest of their days in obscurity.

The story did not quite end there, however. For reasons of factional politics, the later emperor, Nicephorus I, both reinstated (806) Joseph (who had been defrocked for his role in Theodota's marriage) and called a synod (809) to have the marriage of Constantine and Theodota officially recognized. These actions created a new controversy and fueled another round of court factionalism. They did not, however, bring either Constantine or Theodota out of their enforced retirement.

William Greenwalt , Associate Professor of Classical History, Santa Clara University, Santa Clara, California

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Theodota (c. 775–early 800s)

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