By Laura Diaz-Arnesto
With the arrival of the Macedonian dynasty to the imperial throne (ruled from 867 to 1056), the Byzantine Empire reached its height both on political and cultural grounds. The cities of the Empire expanded, the population rose, and production increased. Culturally, there was considerable growth in education and learning. Ancient texts were preserved and patiently re-copied. Byzantine art flourished, and brilliant mosaics graced the interiors of the many new churches.
The Golden Age from the decades around the turn of the first millennium, left us the legate of intellectuals such as Constantine Porphyrogenitus and Patriarch Photius; renowned rulers and strategist like Nikephoros Phokas, John Tzimiskes, and Basil II; western ambassadors like Liudprand of Cremona; and others. Scholars generally called it the Second Golden Age of Byzantium, or the Middle Byzantine Era. During this period a myriad of icons, ivories, frescoes, mosaics, jewellery, liturgical and secular objects, carvings, enamels, silks and illuminated manuscripts, both as diplomatic gifts or paid commissions, made there way into the West. It was a flourishing time for Western – Eastern relationships.
Women played key roles in Byzantine society as rulers or co-rulers of the Empire, art and architecture commissioners, writers and even doctors for other women. Moreover, they even embodied the arrival of court sophistication to northern Europe.
Theophano Skleraina (955/960 – Jun 991), niece-by-marriage of the newly acceded emperor John Tzimiskes (there have been questions concerning Theophano’s origins and imperial relations; see Romilly Jenkins for the less agreed upon assumption), was promised in marriage to the German king Otto II (Jan 955 – Dec 983). Theophano and Otto were married on April 14th, 972 by Pope John XIII at Saint Peter’s and she was crowned empress the same day in Rome, bringing at last an alliance between the two empires.
Otto I Holy Roman Emperor had requested a Byzantine princess for his son, Otto II, to seal a treaty between the Holy Roman Empire and the Eastern Roman Empire. The unwise reference by the pope to the ruler in Constantinople as “Greek” in a letter while Otto’s ambassador, Liudprand of Cremona, was in the Byzantine court had destroyed the first round of negotiations. With the ascension of a new emperor who had not been personally been referred to other than as Roman Emperor, the treaty negotiations were able to resume. The arrangement of the marriage by Otto the Great was a political triumph: the bride was a princess from Byzantium. Throughout the whole Carolingian and Ottonian period, the Byzantine Empire was regarded as the ultimate symbol of sophistication, and for a daughter of the eastern imperial house to marry the heir apparent of the German ruler conferred immense prestige in the west (how the poor girl felt in northern Europe, would have not been considered). Theophano duly arrived in 972, arriving in grand style with a magnificent escort and bearing great treasure.
She is credited with introducing the fork to Western Europe (though some sources credit another Byzantine princess with this, Maria Argyropoulaina who married the son of the Doge of Venice in 1004). Theophano’s arrival on the Rhine created quite a stir. Dressed in silks, she insisted on bathing daily, was quite literate, and most upsetting of all, she used a fork. Chronographers mention the astonishment she caused when she “used a golden double prong to bring food to her mouth” instead of using her hands as was the norm. Theophano was also criticized for her decadence, which manifested in her bathing once a day and introducing luxurious garments and jewellery into Germany.
The Ottonian period is traditionally considered a first climax of Byzantine artistic influence in Western Europe. After the death of Otto I, Theophano became co-ruler with her husband, taking the title of imperatrix, and when Otto II died suddenly in 983 she became regent for her infant son, Otto III, as was customary in Byzantine tradition. Theophano reigned until her death in 991. She was buried in the church of Saint Pantaleon at Cologne. Otto II was buried at St Peter’s in Rome.
Theophano’s marriage into the Frankish ruling family had a dramatic effect on Medieval Germany and East-West relations. Ciggaar points out that Theophano set in motion the trend towards luxury and imperial style in Germany. She seems to have embodied the elusive link between Byzantium and the West. When succeeding his father to the throne of Germany in 973, Otto II proclaimed himself as Roman Emperor to bolster his claims against Basil II of the East (Byzantium) in 973. However, regarding the receptivity of westerners to Byzantine influence it would be unrealistic to expect that everyone in Western Europe was constantly open to that influence. On the contrary, there were individuals who regarded the importation of eastern customs with dismay, condemning luxuries like the wearing of silk, the taking of baths, and the use of forks to pick up food, as unnecessary in this life and likely to lead to perdition in the next.
1) The Empress Theophano: Byzantium and the West at the Turn of the First Millennium, by Adelbert Davids, 1995.
2) Byzantium: the Imperial centuries, AD 610-1071, by Romilly Jenkins, 1987.
3) Western travellers to Constantinople: the West and Byzantium, 962-1204 by Krijna Nelly Ciggaar, 1996.
4) Eastern Objects and Western Desires: Relics and Reliquaries between Byzantium and the West, Holger A. Klein, Dumbarton Oaks Papers, Vol. 58. (2004), pp. 283-314.
5) Why Eastern Women Matter: The Influence of Byzantine Empresses on Western Queenship during the Middle Ages, by Nolen Andrew Bunker, The Ohio State University, 2006.
6) “The end followed in no long time”: byzantine diplomacy and the decline in relations with the west from 962 to 1204, by Jeffrey D. Brubaker, the University of Arlington, 2009.
7) Wars and rumors of wars: England and the Byzantine world in the eighth and ninth Centuries, by Jonathan Harris.
9) A history of illuminated manuscripts, by Christopher De Hamel, 1997.