Theophano (c. 866–c. 897)

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Theophano (c. 866–c. 897)

Byzantine empress and saint. Name variations: Saint Theophano. Born in Constantinople around 866 (some sources cite 865); died around 897 (some sources cite 893, 895 or 896); daughter of the patrician Constantine Martinacius; mother's name unknown; first of four wives of Leo VI the Wise, Byzantine emperor (co-ruled 870–886, r. 886–912); children: one daughter. Leo VI was also married to Zoë Zautzina, Eudocia Baiane , and Zoë Carbopsina .

Born in Constantinople around 866, Theophano was the daughter of the patrician Constantine Martinacius. She was chosen as the first of four wives of Byzantine Emperor Leo VI by Eudocia Ingerina (Leo's mother) at the imperial Bride Show, a kind of beauty contest, of 881–882. Leo co-ruled the Byzantine Empire from 870, and after his father Basil I's death, alone from 886 until 912. Leo was hailed as the "Wise" because of his legal and cultural interests (he took a philosophical interest in the law, wrote legal decrees, poems, sermons, orations, and even military treatises), but his talents were more scholarly than political, diplomatic or military. His foreign policy was a disaster, with critical losses to the Arabs in the west and to the Bulgarians in the north, and both enemies raided deeply into the Byzantine Empire. Leo's lackluster record and preference for negotiation over fighting, led to aristocratic unrest, and once, even to his incarceration. The court in Constantinople, however, tended to support Leo amid his tribulations.

Through all these troubles, Theophano supported Leo, but her extreme piety doomed the marriage. Preferring to spend her time in prayer and religious contemplation, she neglected the political side of her position, and seemed to prefer a chaste life to one which embraced the responsibility of providing for an imperial heir, though she did give birth to a daughter. As a result, although still married to Theophano, Leo came openly to live with his mistress, Zoë Zautzina (the daughter of Stylianus Zaoutzes, one of Leo's most important political advisors), a situation which unsettled many of the pious. Theophano died young, still the legal wife of Leo. In death, she presented at least as much of a problem for Leo as she had in life, for her piety made her a popular symbol among the devout masses. Theophano was recognized as a saint soon after her demise, a fact which forced Leo to construct a sanctuary for her relics and to honor her holy memory lest her renown be appropriated entirely as a symbol by his political opposition. These relics were the objects of devotion for centuries.

William Greenwalt , Associate Professor, Santa Clara University, Santa Clara, California