Theophano of Athens (fl. 800s)

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Theophano of Athens (fl. 800s)

Byzantine empress. Born around 790; died probably much after 812; married Stavrakios or Stauracius, Byzantine emperor (r. 811); cousin of Irene of Athens (c. 752–803).

Theophano of Athens was a cousin of Irene of Athens , the empress of the Byzantine Empire and a canonized saint who helped to restore the religious use of icons after they had been banned from the Byzantine Empire in 726. At issue was to what purpose were icons being used: those who approved of religious art, especially of anthropomorphic representations of God and the saints, argued that they were an expedient tool to educate the illiterate about—sometimes esoteric—points of orthodox doctrine; on the other hand, iconoclasts believed that icons did not serve this purpose, but rather, that the physical pieces of art were, themselves, actually being worshiped by the uneducated. Other issues were at hand in this controversy, but this was the central question of the debate.

In 807, Theophano of Athens was engaged and actually living with her betrothed, although not formally married, when the emperor Nicephorus I (r. 802–811) forced her to participate in a Bride Show (a contest through which a suitable wife was procured for a Byzantine emperor or his heir). Nicephorus had organized the show in order to find a wife for his son, Stauracius. Although Theophano was apparently not the most beautiful of the potential brides, she was chosen for Stauracius because of her kinship to Irene, with whose political and religious policies Nicephorus wished to be associated. Theophano's betrothal to Stauracius caused a scandal because of her earlier attachment, as did Stauracius' behavior during the several days of their wedding celebration, during which he openly consorted with two women he preferred physically to his new bride. Nevertheless, Theophano assumed the status of an Augusta.

As Stauracius' wife, Theophano was politically active, if not always in her husband's interests. (At least, it is reported that Theophano once acted as the political ally of Prokopia , Stauracius' sister, in opposition to Stauracius. What was at issue is not recorded.) The marriage of Theophano and Stauracius produced no children before disaster struck. In 811, Nicephorus and Stauracius led an army against an invasion of their empire by the Bulgarian khan, Krum. In mountainous terrain to the northwest of Constantinople, however, Nicephorus was killed, Stauracius fatally wounded, and the Byzantine army virtually annihilated. Despite his wound, Stauracius reached the relative safety of Adrianople, where (after bitterly denigrating his father) Stauracius had his imperial status reconfirmed. Even so, since Stauracius was mortally wounded, since he had no children, and since the empire had an obvious need for a vigorous leader, voices were raised to the effect that a new emperor should be immediately selected. The leading candidate to succeed Stauracius was his brother-in-law, Michael Rhangabe, the husband of Prokopia, but Stauracius supported the ambitions of Theophano, who wanted to rule by herself, just as had her cousin, Irene of Athens, between 797 and 803. Making his way to Constantinople, Stauracius attempted to have Michael blinded and to relinquish the imperium to Theophano. Theophano's ambitions, however, caused several political rivals (including the patriarch of Constantinople—another Nicephorus—and a former supporter of Stauracius named Stephen) to overcome their differences and unite behind Michael. As a result, Stauracius was compelled to abdicate and Michael was acclaimed. Stauracius then retired to a monastery where he soon died. Also dethroned was Theophano, albeit to a kinder fate. Not wishing to exacerbate domestic rivalries amidst a crisis, Michael essentially bought Theophano off by providing her with a fine house at Hebraika and an endowment so as to enable her to become a nun with her own convent. Stauracius was buried in Theophano's new establishment, and she eventually died there.

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