The Empress Drama Of Emperor Leo VI


Leo VI was the emperor of Constantinople from 886 to 912. He was a prolific writer who published codes of law, poems, treatises, and other miscellaneous works on ecclesiastical and secular subjects. These scholarly endeavors earned Leo the epithet of “the Wise” or “the Philosopher,” yet, outside of the realm of academia, Leo’s reign was incredibly chaotic. Militarily, his time in power was disastrous. The Empire of Constantinople was defeated in Lombardia by Prince Aigion of Benevento (c. 887), and Symeon of Bulgaria was so successful against the emperor’s armies between 894 and 897 that Leo VI began pay annual tribute to the Bulgars. Leo’s forces were also pushed out of Sicily (c. 902), and the Muslim naval forces began to dominate the seas. In the Aegean, the Greek-Muslim admiral, Leo of Tripoli, was a nightmare for Constantinople—he captured Thessalonica in 904 and also inflicted a major defeat against the imperial navy in 912 at Samos. In addition to the poor military record of Leo VI, he also had an incredibly tumultuous love life, as well as a long-running feud with the church of Constantinople. Interestingly, the poor relationship between the emperor and his church was often directly related to his private life, especially toward the end of his reign.

The troubled love life of Leo VI began in 882, when the sixteen-year-old future emperor was forced by his father (Emperor Basil I) to marry Theophano Martinakiou. As arranged marriages go, Theophano was the dream of most imperial princes. Not only did she have powerful connections to the Amorian Dynasty, an influential family allied with Leo’s own Macedonian Dynasty, but she was also one of the most beautiful women in the empire—in fact, she was chosen as Leo’s wife after winning a beauty contest in 882. Nevertheless, love cannot be forced, and, despite the two having a daughter together, Leo VI and Theophano never had a particularly warm marital relationship.

Leo’s marriage to Theophano was one of politics, not love, and the young prince was open to a more passionate relationship outside of marriage.  He found this more emotional connection in Zoe Zautsina, a noblewoman of Armenian descent who was reportedly a widow. It is unclear when the clandestine relationship between the married Leo and the widowed Zoe began, but some think it was a contributing factor to Leo’s long period of house arrest from 883 to 886, in the years prior to his father’s death.

Leo VI became emperor after his father, Basil I, died in 886. Once in power, Zoe Zautsina was apparently raised from the shadows to the position of a concubine. Empress Theophano was still alive at the time, and she reportedly was kept well informed about her husband’s affair. Yet, she seemingly sympathized with her husband, or at least kept a dignified demeanor despite Leo’s wandering attentions. Of Theophano’s attitude, the historian, John Skylitzes (c. 11th century), wrote, “For her part, she saw and heard everything that was going on but did not in the least allow herself to give way to the passion of jealousy” (Synopsis historion, chapter 7, section 3). Unfortunately, Empress Theophano fell ill and died around 896 or 897. Interestingly, Leo VI may have been gaining a new appreciation of his wife at the time of her death—the emperor successfully pressured the clergy of Constantinople into naming his late empress a saint.

After the death of Theophano, Leo VI was finally able to marry his mistress, Zoe Zautsina. The marriage occurred around 898, yet their long-delayed union was tragically short. Empress Zoe Zautsina reportedly lived only a year and eight months after the marriage, placing her death around 899 or 900. They had one daughter together, Anna, who was reportedly born well before Leo and Zoe were officially married. Although Emperor Leo VI doted over Zoe Zautsina, many of his courtiers and clergymen thought she was distasteful. As her burial was being prepared, someone allegedly vandalized Zoe’s sarcophagus with a distasteful reference to Psalm 137:8; John Skylitzes wrote, “When the sarcophagus in which her body was to be laid was being prepared, they found an incised inscription which read: ‘Daughter of Babylon, wasted with misery’” (Synopsis historion, chapter 7, section 16).

With the death of Zoe Zautsina, Emperor Leo VI faced an ecclesiastical and political problem. The church of Constantinople only condoned a man to marry twice—this was a problem for Leo because the children he had with Theophano and Zoe Zautsina were all daughters. If the church had its way, Leo VI would die without an heir since the emperor’s daughters could not inherit the empire. There were also ceremonies that required someone to play the role of the empress, so Leo VI named the young Anna, daughter of Zoe Zautsina, as his symbolic empress while he planned his next move.

It did not take long for Emperor Leo VI to make his decision. To the protest of the clergy, Leo married a woman named Eudokia Biane around the year 900. Yet tragedy struck again, and Empress Eudokia died of childbirth complications in 901. The newborn baby, a boy named Basil, survived the birth, but he unfortunately died a few days later. After the tragic deaths of Eudokia and Basil, the public duties of empress were once more carried out by Anna.

Although young Anna would continue to play out the role of empress in public for years to come, Emperor Leo soon found a new mistress. Her name was Zoe Karbonopsina, or Zoe ‘of the coal-black eyes,’ a woman from a distinguished family. She quickly became something more than just a mistress, but the emperor withheld from her the title of empress. The church of Constantinople was apparently ok with this marital gray-area as long as Zoe Karbonopsina was not made Leo’s official wife and empress. Yet, the precarious balance between the emperor and the religious Patriarch of Constantinople broke in 905, when Zoe Karbonopsina gave birth to a son named Constantine VII. With a male heir finally born, Emperor Leo VI scrambled to strengthen the boy’s status. First, Leo had his brother, Alexander, become the boy’s godfather. Next, Leo put plans in motion to elevate Zoe Karbonopsina to the rank of a full-fledged empress, which would further legitimize young Constantine’s claim to the throne.

When Emperor Leo VI married Zoe Karbonopsina in April, 906, and declared her to be his empress (finally relieving Anna of her ceremonial duty), it ignited an odd showdown in Constantinople, known as the Tetragamy affair. Leo’s third marriage to Eudokia had been scorned, but begrudgingly accepted. His fourth marriage to Zoe Karbonopsina, however, was considered pure scandal. In fact, after the fourth marriage, Patriarch Nicholas of Constantinople and other clergymen banned Leo VI from entering church on at least two occasions—at the Christmas service of 906 and the Epiphany service of 907. Later in 907, however, Leo VI was able to have a much more friendly churchman, named Euthymios, placed at the head of the church in Constantinople.

Zoe Karbonopsina would remain Leo’s empress until the emperor’s death in 912.  After Leo VI, power momentarily passed to his brother, Alexander. During Alexander’s reign, the late Leo’s allied patriarch, Euthymios, was kicked out of Constantinople (and was given a physical beating by his fellow clergymen) and was sent into exile—Nicholas was then restored as Patriarch of Constantinople. Alexander also systematically began stripping power from other allies of the late Leo VI (including Empress Zoe), but Alexander died in 913 and power returned to Constantine VII, the son of Leo VI and Zoe Karbonopsina.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Depiction of Leo VI from the Hagia Sophia, photographed by José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro and licensed Creative Commons 3.0).


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