In 1044, the Byzantines protested against Constantine IX’s mistress, Maria Skleraina, and demanded to see the real empresses. ‘We don’t want the Skleraina as empress. We don’t want her to cause the death of our mothers, the porphyrogennetoi Zoe and Theodora.’
John Skylitzes, Chronicle, eleventh century
The adjective ‘born in the purple’ (Greek, porphyrogennetos) derives from the porphyra, a special room lined with porphyry, purple stone, or hung with purple silk, which was constructed within the Great Palace before 750. In that year Irene, the Khazar princess who became Constantine V’s first wife, gave birth to a male child, named Leo after his grandfather. He was later identified both as ‘the Khazar’ and porphyrogennetos; he was the first imperial child born in the Purple Chamber. This special complex was an initiative of the iconoclast emperor, who also built the church of the Virgin of the Pharos (Lighthouse) within the palace complex. It became the room in which empresses delivered their children, who all bore the epithet ‘born in the purple’. This was a creative device, which introduced a new title as a way of ensuring dynastic imperial authority.
In Roman times, birth ‘in purple’ was a term commonly used of imperial children, who might even be wrapped in purple-edged swaddling clothes. The expensive dye, derived from tiny murex shellfish, was employed to enhance imperial dignity. As we have seen, Byzantine emperors and their families monopolized the wearing of purple silks and they sent diplomatic gifts of purple cloth, which were particularly appreciated abroad. A sarcophagus made of porphyry, the purple stone mined only from a source in Egypt, was also reserved for rulers.
Whether or not the porphyra was intended to guarantee the legitimacy of the porphyrogennetoi, Constantine V understood the important role it could play in consolidating dynastic rule in Byzantium. His wife Irene, a child bride brought to Constantinople to strengthen a political alliance, does not appear to have had any children until the birth of Leo. The happy event was celebrated and Leo was crowned co-emperor one year later. In these two measures, the construction of the porphyra and the coronation of his first-born son, we can sense Constantine’s determination to secure the continuity of his dynasty. Although he later had many other sons by his third wife and raised them to high-ranking positions, he always regarded Leo as his heir.
By emphasizing a truly imperial birth marked by a new qualification ‘born in the purple’, Constantine wished to make the office of emperor hereditary. In a departure from the Roman principle of election, in which the Senate and army both played a major part, he tried to impose the principle of dynastic inheritance from father to son. The Purple Chamber, which contributed to this new medieval method of designating the heir apparent, also sidelined the senatorial aristocracy and the generals. Other rulers such as Herakleios had already insisted on maintaining their own families in power, and for those with no sons, ways of adopting a successor were well known. In the long transition from Antiquity to the Middle Ages, however, this is a critical moment. The special birthing chamber within the palace complex helped Constantine V find a solution to those who challenged his family’s rule. From now on, he intended that only a porphyrogennetos would be qualified to rule over Byzantium.
Naturally, this development did not deter rivals and usurpers, who continued to try to seize power. The porphyra was also used for other purposes, for instance when Empress Irene ordered the blinding of her son Constantine VI in the chamber in which he had been born. Later, empresses used it for the distribution of gifts to aristocratic women at the pagan feast of the Brumalia. In an acutely difficult situation that arose in the early tenth century, we can observe the ruling emperor using it quite consciously to further his dynastic intentions.
The emperor is Leo VI, nicknamed the Philosopher and the Wise (886–912), who married three times and had the misfortune to lose all three of his wives. The first, Theophano, was a saintly recluse rather than an active empress. After her death, the emperor celebrated her life in frescoes painted in the Great Palace and then married his mistress, Zoe Zaoutze, who died without producing any legitimate heirs. To marry a third time, the emperor had to do a severe penance, because the Church had clear rules about the institution of Christian marriage. Even a second was only possible if no children had resulted from the first; and a third was considered inappropriate. After the penance, however, Leo duly enshrined Eudokia Baiane as his third empress. Then she and her baby died in childbirth in 901. This put the emperor in a very difficult situation as he desperately needed a son and heir to follow him on the throne. But Patriarch Nicholas I Mystikos reminded him of the ecclesiastical regulations: ‘to enter a fourth marriage is a bestial act only worthy of lower animals’.
The emperor therefore lived with his mistress, Zoe Karbounopsina (black-eyed Zoe), until she was ready to give birth, when Leo had her moved into the porphyra. There, the much longed-for son was born in May 905. Although tradition demanded that the child should be named Basil after his paternal grandfather (Basil I), Leo decided to name the porphyrogennetos Constantine after all previous rulers of that name going back to Constantine I, the founder of the Christian empire and its capital city. But since Patriarch Nicholas remained completely opposed to Zoe Karbounopsina, the child was only baptized after Leo agreed to abandon his mistress and send her into a nunnery. Constantine was thus recognized as Leo’s son. The emperor then installed Zoe in the palace and bribed a priest to marry them. Patriarch Nicholas was furious and punished this flagrant violation of Church law by excluding Leo from the church for nearly a year.
Eventually a compromise was reached and in the Tomus of Union Nicholas stipulated that no further fourth marriages would ever be permitted. Constantine was recognized as his father’s heir and became the most famous of the purple-born children, always identified by his soubriquet porphyrogennetos to emphasize his legitimacy. Even this did not ensure a peaceful transition of power after Leo’s death in 912. Following his brother Alexander’s brief reign of only thirteen months, the eight-year-old Constantine was left as ruler. In 913, the Council of Regency included his mother and the patriarch, Nicholas, who remained, not surprisingly, unsympathetic. Six years later, under the pretext of protecting Constantine’s inheritance, Romanos Lekapenos, the grand admiral of the fleet, usurped imperial authority and ruled from 920 to 944, promoting his own sons to the highest posts. Although nominally emperor from 913, Constantine only succeeded in ousting the Lekapenos family in 945. His purple aura sustained him through twenty-six years. He then reigned until 959. He became a scholar and painter, who patronized goldsmiths, manuscript illuminators and other craftsmen, and encouraged the rebirth of art often displaying themes from ancient mythology.
By this time, the term porphyrogennetos was recognized in the West as a special designation, which provoked regular pressure for marriage alliances involving an authentically imperial bride. As we have seen, Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos forcefully forbade these requests, treating Byzantine princesses as comparable to imperial insignia or Greek fire. During his own struggle to assert his right to the imperial inheritance, Constantine developed an exalted notion of what it meant to be born in the purple. He condemned Leo III for choosing a Khazar princess for his son, which brought ‘great shame to the empire of the Romans’, and Romanos I for permitting his granddaughter Maria Lekapene to marry Peter of Bulgaria. In connection with this inappropriate marriage, Constantine characterized Romanos as follows: he was
a common, illiterate fellow… nor was he of imperial and noble stock, and for this reason in most of his actions he was too arrogant and despotic… and because he did this thing [the marriage] contrary to the canon and to ecclesiastical tradition and the ordinance and commandment of the great and holy emperor Constantine [I], [he] was much abused and was slandered and hated by the senatorial council and all the common people and the church herself.
Despite this contemptuous dismissal of Romanos I, Constantine’s eldest son was duly named Romanos after his grandfather and then married to a western princess, Bertha. In his book of advice, On Governing the Empire, Constantine takes pains to stress Bertha’s distinguished heritage: her father, King Hugh,
was by descent of the family of the great Charles, a man much celebrated in song and story and author of heroic deeds in war. This Charles was sole ruler over all the kingdoms and reigned as emperor in great Francia… Bertha, who came up to Constantinople and was joined in marriage to Romanos, the son born in the purple of Constantine the Christ-loving sovereign, was named after her grandmother, I mean the great Bertha, and she the young Bertha changed her name to Eudokia after that of the grandmother and sister of Constantine, the Christ-loving sovereign.
Eudokia, however, died soon after, and Romanos II (959–63) then chose a wife who was said to be the daughter of an innkeeper.
In spite of the title, many porphyrogennetoi were fated to suffer in the same way as Constantine VII. His grandson, Basil II, also inherited power as a young boy in 963 and gained imperial authority in 976. During the first decades of his reign, the Phokas and Skleros families challenged it, while Basil Lekapenos, the parakoimomenos – his chief eunuch and chamberlain – exercised a manipulative influence. In 987, when Basil was struggling to defeat a revolt, he secured military aid from Vladimir of Kiev, but it came at a price. The young emperor was forced to pledge that his own sister Anna would marry Vladimir. In return, the Russian ruler promised to accept baptism and make his subjects Christian. The sequence of events is much disputed but the result is clear: Anna theporphyrogennetos became the wife of Vladimir and presided with him over his court in Kiev, which imported Byzantine habits. The numerous Byzantine clerics who accompanied her from Constantinople also imposed orthodox practices, encouraged monasticism and promoted Byzantine culture. Despite Constantine VII’s warnings against allowing porphyrogennetoi princesses to be married to foreigners, they could be, and were, used in diplomatic alliances, while numerous princes were married to western brides.
The most striking examples of porphyrogennetoi overcoming difficulties to make good their claims to imperial authority, however, must be Zoe and Theodora, two nieces of Basil II. As Basil himself never married, these sisters became the last remaining heirs of the Macedonian dynasty founded by Basil I. It seems extraordinary that neither Basil II nor his brother Constantine VIII, their father, managed to ensure the family’s continuity by getting them married. Zoe, who was said to be a great beauty, had been betrothed to the young half-Byzantine prince Otto III, but she arrived in Italy to learn of his death in 1002. In 1028, when her father Constantine VIII realized that he was dying, he arranged for Zoe to marry an elderly general Romanos III Argyros (1028–34), but they had no children. After the death of her first husband, Zoe raised three other men of her choice to the throne: Michael IV (1034–41), Michael V (the nephew of a powerful eunuch courtier, whom she adopted as her son and who ruled briefly, 1041–2), and Constantine IX Monomachos (1042–55) (plate 17). Michael IV retired into a monastery; Michael V tried to usurp imperial power by exiling Zoe to a nunnery, which provoked the people of Constantinople to riot. He was then blinded and the two porphyrogennetoi sisters were reinstated. This incident reflects the understanding within the capital that Zoe and Theodora were the only legitimate heirs of the Macedonian dynasty.
With Zoe’s agreement, Constantine IX installed his mistress Maria Skleraina in the Great Palace, in a room on the other side of the imperial bedroom. He raised her to an honorary position but was prevented by popular opposition from calling her empress. Despite her three marriages, none of Zoe’s husbands gave her the much-desired child and she died in 1050 leaving Constantine IX in power. He promoted another mistress to a position of great honour and privately addressed her as empress. In public, however, Theodora porphyrogennetos remained the only woman permitted to use the title. When she learned that Constantine IX was dying, Theodora returned to the city to claim the throne and won over the imperial guard. The eleventh-century historian Psellos writes that
there were certain factors that made her influence with them all-powerful: the fact that she had been ‘born in the purple’; her gentle character; the sad circumstances of her former life.
Despite her long period of enforced seclusion, she ‘assumed the responsibilities of a man’, and ruled alone as if she had finally realized her imperial vocation.
Although the porphyrogennetoi sisters successfully asserted their right to rule, the Macedonian dynasty came to an end with the death of Theodora in 1056. The Doukas family tried to use the porphyra to establish its dynasty, but was only successful in coalition with the Komnenos clan, which seized power in 1081. Alexios I Komnenos and his wife Irene Doukaina produced nine children, all born in the porphyra, and their eldest, Anna Komnene, derived an elevated conception of her own authority from this fact. Although she thought that being the first-born she had a claim on the imperial inheritance, her younger brother John II became emperor at their father’s death; in turn his son Manuel inherited the position. But the last of the Komnenos dynasty of porphyrogennetoito be acclaimed as ruler, Alexios II (1180–82), was ousted by his uncle Andronikos I (1182–5) and murdered. So although the porphyra had helped to establish the Komnenos family dynasty, it could not ensure the succession of a young prince.
As we have seen, whenever the porphyrogennetos was not old enough to rule alone, others might usurp the power attached to the name. Empress-mothers, such as Theodora in 843 and Zoe Karbounopsina in 913, acted as regents for their sons, following the example of Irene. In contested circumstances, ambitious eunuchs like Basil Lekapenos or John the Orphanotrophos, uncle of Michael V, pronounced themselves protectors of the porphyrogennetos. But the people of Constantinople and probably further afield sustained great loyalty to those who carried the epithet ‘born in the purple’, and intervened on several occasions to support them against rivals. The lasting prestige of the term is shown by the fact that, after 1204, members of the Laskaris family who ruled in Nicaea claimed it, although they could not have been born in the porphyra. Porphyrogennetos thus became yet another title distinguishing the emperor and was used by the Palaiologos dynasty until 1453. The simple innovation of a purple birthing chamber to guarantee legitimate imperial authority persisted for seven hundred years and benefited four distinct ruling dynasties of Byzantium. No other empire devised such a neat and compelling device.