Theophano of Byzantium (c. 955–991)

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Theophano of Byzantium (c. 955–991)

Holy Roman empress and regent of Germany. Name variations: Theophanu. Born around 955 or 956 in Constantinople; died on June 15, 991; daughter of Romanus II, Byzantine emperor (r. 959–963), and Theophano (c. 940–?); sister of Constantine VIII (r. 1025–1028) and Basil II (r. 976–1025), both Byzantine emperors, and Anna of Byzantium (963–1011); married Otto II (955–983), Holy Roman emperor (r. 973–983), king of Germany (r. 973–983), on April 14, 972; children: Sophia of Gandersheim (c. 975–1039), abbess of Gandersheim; Otto III (980–1002), Holy Roman emperor (r. 983–1002); Adelaide of Quedlinburg (977–1045); Matilda of Saxony (978–1025); one who died young.

Theophano of Byzantium, the daughter of the Romanus II and Theophano , was probably born before Romanus inherited the Byzantine throne from his father. Theophano's historical role unfolded somewhat to the west of Byzantium. In 962, after a series of military victories in Germany, Hungary and Italy, Otto I the Great (a German) was crowned the emperor of the resurgent Holy Roman Empire by Pope John XII in Rome (whom Otto deposed not long after). Otto's assumption of the title "Augustus" put him on a collision course with his Byzantine counterpart, for the eastern emperors had long held that their imperial authority had no earthly peer. Southern Italy arose as another bone of contention between East and West, for Otto was determined to add that region to his growing realm. The Italian south had long known turmoil, because although the Byzantine Empire claimed it as its own (and indeed, controlled a number of its cities), its countryside was steadily hounded by Arab (Islamic) raids launched primarily from Sicily. In 972, after some not very conclusive campaigning in the region, Otto managed to negotiate a peace with his Byzantine counterpart, John Tzimiskes (John was Theophano's uncle; her father was then dead). To cement this pact, the two emperors agreed to the marriage of Otto's son and heir, Otto II, to Theophano: southern Italy constituted a large part of her dowry.

There was some German opposition to the marriage, a fact which suggests that Theophano was not born "to the purple," that is, that she was born before her father became an emperor. If so, this significantly lessened her status in the eyes of her contemporaries. In fact, Theophano might have been sent to the West by John precisely because her status in Constantinople was not as high as other potential brides for Otto II. Clearly, the Germans sought a marriage tie with the Byzantine imperial family so as to reinforce the notion of the equality of the two imperial houses. Since the Germans were barbarians in John's eyes, however, he was loath to concede such an acknowledgment, even if he were at the time in no military or political position to reject a German alliance. Hence, the probable reason for the selection of Theophano: she was not so humble as to be insulting, but not so lofty as to cede symbolically Byzantium's claim of superiority over its western rival.

With whatever blessing from the east, Theophano met and married Otto II in Rome in 973, not long after the death of Otto I. Pope John XIII presided over the ceremony in St. Peter's. Although Otto II now technically ruled most of Italy, his more immediate political concerns lay in Germany where he managed to reduce a serious challenge to his authority (centered in Bavaria, strategically located across the trunk lines which linked the German and Italian portions of his realm) only in 978.

The Byzantine Empire which Theophano left behind when she took up residence in Germany was a highly sophisticated and cultured place: the German court to which she came was vastly less so in both cases. It is likely that Theophano found the cultural atmosphere of her adopted land galling, and that she encouraged her husband to patronize the kinds of theologians, scholars and artists who were fixtures at the court in Constantinople. Although there is no direct evidence that Theophano was behind the cultural quickening of Otto's court which occurred after her arrival, clearly emperors in the eastern sense were expected to surround themselves with the best minds and talents they could support. As the Holy Roman Empire strove to catch up to Byzantium in all things majestic, Theophano's personal knowledge of the cultural functioning of an imperial court doubtless influenced the cultural blossoming in Germany. Otto and Theophano had five children: three daughters, one son, and a child of unknown gender who died young. Two of the daughters, Adelaide of Quedlinburg and Sophia of Gandersheim , became abbesses. The third, Matilda of Saxony, married and had ten children. Theophano's son, Otto III, was only three years old when his father died. Reared entirely under Theophano's influence, he became more Byzantine than German, a fact which was of significance to his reign.

In 980, buoyed by the successful repression of German rebels, Otto II and Theophano traveled to Italy where they received imperial coronations. When a renewed Arab assault threatened Theophano's territorial dowry two years later, Otto II, once again committed to Italian affairs, returned to Italy at the head of an army. Otto II, however, proved not to possess his father's outstanding military talent: before the end of 982 he was decisively defeated at the battle of Cotrone. Down but not completely out, Otto II began preparation for a second campaign, but before he could muster the necessary force, he died (983) in Rome, and was buried there. Although considerably less successful than he had hoped it would be, Otto's military intervention in Italy had the effect of benefiting Theophano's younger brother Basil II (who had overthrown John Tzimiskes and assumed the Byzantine throne) by preoccupying the Arabs who previously had been striking Byzantium. Basil made good use of his respite, enhancing the security of his empire. Otto II's positive (if incidental) benefit was somewhat ironic: Basil seems never to have cared overmuch for Theophano and surely had even less concern for the Holy Roman Empire which had with Theophano's dowry wrested away Byzantine-claimed land.

When Otto II died, Theophano became the regent for Otto III, a status which she maintained until she died eight years later, despite the ambitions of many, including especially that of a Bavarian noble, Henry the Quarrelsome. There were several reasons for this unrest beyond mere lust for power. The first was the already noted Byzantine upbringing of Otto III. The Holy Roman Empire was not the Byzantine Empire either in its culture or its political infrastructure. Thus, Otto's education was not preparing him to rule the empire he actually would inherit. Second, the Holy Roman Empire was feudally organized and not as secure from internal unrest as was the Byzantine Empire, making it difficult but not impossible for a woman to manage. And third, Theophano so inflamed Otto with visions of imperial grandeur that he eventually made it known that he intended to move his chief residence to Rome, far away from the militarily effective German aristocracy which constituted his real power base.

In 984, the disgruntled Bavarian, Henry, made an attempt on the throne, and actually kidnaped Otto III for a time. Henry's gambit failed to win the necessary support, however, and at an imperial diet held at Rohr, in Thuringia, he returned Otto III to Theophano and Adelaide of Burgundy (Otto II's mother) and abandoned his ambitions for imperial power. Theophano was an effective regent and did everything necessary to demonstrate who was in control. In fact, she even adopted the masculine form of the title regent in legal documents to symbolize the strength of her rule. The business she oversaw, routine and otherwise, included guarding against foreign aggression (e.g., she foiled a French attempt to annex land at her expense); making political and religious appointments throughout her son's realm; overseeing Otto's education; and taking personal responsibility for ruling over Italy (after 988). During Theophano's regency, her relationship with her mother-in-law Adelaide of Burgundy deteriorated, but after Theophano's death in 991, Adelaide assumed the regency until Otto III came of age in 994.

Theophano died at Nimwegen, but not before her dreams had filled the head of her son with a burning desire to reconstitute the greatest empire Europe had seen since the end of antiquity. In this he bit off more than he could chew: by the time he died at age 21 (1002), Otto III had pushed his realm beyond what its resources could sustain.

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