Letter from Thessaloniki

Tonight at 9 p.m. sharp, Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis will confront a callous (or «bitchy») character called Zoe (meaning «life» in Greek) Porphyrogeniti («born to the purple,» meaning that she was the legitimate child of a reigning emperor). The meeting will take place at the Vassilikon (meaning «royal») Theater, the main venue of the State Theater of Northern Greece – an organization that has five stages. The occasion is the proper opening night of a «Byzantine» 1930s play by Angelos Terzakis: «Emperor Michail,» a production that began last Friday. Zoe was one of the most notorious empresses of the Byzantine Empire. Sometimes she reigned with co-rulers, and for some months alone. Zoe (978-1050) was a most ambiguous person, with strong views regarding the position of woman (under the man). Sure enough she could not have read Norman Mailer, who maintained that murder offers the promise of relief to both sexes. All the same, she handled her marital affairs by mixing sex with murder. Although there were no eyewitnesses when her first emperor husband, Romanus Argyrus III, was murdered – if murder it was (Chronicler Scylitzes states as a point of fact that she had him strangled, while the imperial court immediately gave rise to rumors of poison) – the most authoritative source of the time, Michael Psellus, concluded that in some way or another Zoe had killed her husband to marry a lover who was 40 years her junior. At the time, the empress, infamous for her insatiable sexual appetite, was 56 years old and well past the age of breeding sons, as the patriarchate is conditioned to think of women. Psellus’s account of the murder scene in the baths of the Great Palace, the kolymbithra, goes as follows: «… the Emperor dived as was his custom, and… (then some men)… held his head for a long time beneath the water, attempting at the same time to strangle him… By this time, the shouts of those who had first discovered him brought many people running to the spot, among them the empress herself, unattended and making an immense show of grief. She gazed long at her husband. Then, satisfied that he was past help, went away.» The exact translation records: «After one look at him, however, she went off, having satisfied herself with her own eyes that he was a dying man.» Anyway, let’s now go some months back to when the sinister John the Orphanotrophus, a eunuch from obscure and humble origins in Paphlagonia, presented his youngest brother Michael – an exceptionally handsome youth still in his teens – to the imperial couple. Zoe fell instantly and madly in love with him – just as his brother the eunuch had intended. Psellus: «Her eyes burning with a fire as dazzling as the young man’s beauty, she at once fell victim to his charm, and from some mystic union between them she conceived a love for him.» As for young Michael: «His face, suffused with blushes, shone with a glorious color… when she proceeded to give her beloved manifest opportunities to make love on his part, he set himself to answer her desire, not with any real confidence at first, but later his advances became more brazen and he acted as lovers will. Suddenly, he threw his arms about her, kissing her and touching her hand and neck, as his brother had taught him he should do. She clung to him all the closer. Her kisses became more passionate, she truly loving him, he in no way desiring her (for she was past the age for love), but thinking in his heart of the glory that power would bring him. For this he was prepared to dare anything, and bear it with patience.» All this we have on good authority, from Psellus, of course. When Romanus Argyrus III died – or, more likely, was murdered – Zoe immediately donned the imperial diadem and took up the scepter. She then threw over her shoulders the emperor’s gold brocade robe, heavy with jewels – all brilliantly reconstructed for tonight’s performance by costumier Yiannis Metsikoff. She also: «… issued an order that all those who were living in the palace were to prostrate themselves before both of them and hail them both as sovereigns in common. Of course, the order was obeyed, but when news of it reached those outside the palace, all the city wanted to share in the rejoicings at her command. To flatter their new monarch, the majority feigned approval of the proceedings.» Zoe remarried even before the body of her first husband was removed from the bath. Of course, Zoe’s second husband was Michael IV, called «the Paphlagonian.» He ruled from 1034 to 1041. In the beginning, Michael treated Zoe with patent consideration, but month after month, orgasm after orgasm, having obvious reasons for suspecting her, he ended up denying her everything, even permission to leave the palace. In short, he discouraged her from state affairs and also from reading books by Germaine Greer and Kate Millet, thus pushing her to get on with the dishes. Another Psellus quote: «She was, quite naturally, embittered by this sort of treatment. Surely it was hardly to be wondered at, when the benefits she had conferred upon the emperor were being repaid with such hatred. Nevertheless, she restrained herself, reflecting that to rebel against Michael’s decisions would be improper, and in any case she had no opportunity, even had she wished, to take any action or oppose his will, for she was deprived of all protection from the Imperial Guard and bereft of all authority.» So, marriage is not, as it seems, the employer’s best means of controlling the employee. Finally, when Emperor Michael died, Zoe shared the government with her sister, Theodora, whom she royally detested all her life, until she could get yet another husband, her third and the last she was permitted according to the rules of the Orthodox Church: Constantine IX Monomachos, who outlived her by four years.