The Eastern Roman Empire (also called the Byzantine Empire) had a slightly unusual constitutional arrangement. As well as considering the Emperor to be Equal of the Apostles and God’s vicegerent on Earth, the Empress had her own particular power base. She had her own palace, staff, income, and whilst clearly (well, usually) subordinate to the Emperor, she was a power in her own right (a bit like a cross between Elizabeth I and the First Lady of the US).
Amongst the most significant empresses was Theodora, wife of Justinian the Great. She had an unorthodox upbringing, born to circus performers and going on to work in a brothel (as well as engaging in swan-related theatrical performances the details of which I wouldn’t want to sully my readers’ eyes). Her attention and wit caught Justinian’s eye and he married her.
It was a shrewd move, despite Theodora’s less than spotless past. In the 6th century, arguably the worst sports rioting in history occurred. The Nika riots saw the Greens and Blues factions [teams in chariot racing] unite to try and topple the Emperor. Justinian was set to flee. Theodora refused to leave, and inspired her husband with the backbone to fight back. He ordered his generals to attack the mob, which left thirty thousand of them dead.
The Hagia Sophia, amongst the greatest churches ever built, was one of various religious buildings that was constructed during Justinian and Theodora’s reign (sadly, it is a church no longer). It is worth noting that Procopius, in his Secret History, had scarcely a good word to say about Theodora [or, indeed, anyone else]. Regardless of her vices, some of which are undoubted, she did have the virtue of saving her husband’s throne when he was ready to leave it for the mob.
Empress Irene was first the wife of an emperor (Leo IV) and then regent (the latter for nearly twenty years). When Leo died, her son, Constantine VI, was only nine, and she became empress regent.
One of two very notable acts of Irene (if we ignore the suggestion she may have had Leo murdered…) was that she ended iconoclasm, which had wracked the city of Byzantium for decades. The iconoclasts were people who went about smashing up icons. That sounds extreme, and is a great shame from a historical and artistic perspective, but it’s worth pointing out that the Romans had gone a bit batty over icons at this stage. For example, icons might be the ‘godfather’ of a child. The backlash to this (partly influenced by new-fangled Islam, which, of course, is not nearly as fond as Latin Christianity when it comes to depictions of people) was smashing them up. The counter-reaction (those who were pro-icon) were called iconodules.
Irene proved reluctant to give up power to her son, and relations disintegrated. In the Eastern Empire, only physically perfect people (using the technical definition of ‘perfect’ to mean ‘intact’) could rule. So, you could cut off someone’s nose, or ears, or testicles, and they’d be removed as a threat to the throne.
Irene, who was not overflowing with maternal instinct, had Constantine blinded in so vicious a manner he died of his wounds shortly thereafter. She ruled for the next five years, before being deposed and exiled.
Empress Zoë was the daughter of feeble Constantine VIII and niece of the formidable Basil II. Basil prevented her marrying any Byzantine nobles to avoid rivals to the Macedonian dynasty (she had earlier been betrothed to the Holy Roman Emperor Otto III, who ungallantly died before they could meet). She spent much of her life in confined quarters with her sister Theodora (the two had a rocky relationship). When Zoë married Romanus III, she had her sister exiled to a monastery.
No child was forthcoming despite her most vigorous efforts. Romanus grew distant and she took Michael on as a lover. Romanus then turned up dead, and Zoë wed Michael. Having learnt the lesson well, Michael IV kept Zoë confined thereafter.
Another Michael was made emperor (nephew of the other), who, ironically (given her sister’s fate) had Zoë banished to a monastery. At this, the people of Byzantium revolted, and both Zoë and Theodora returned to the city, whilst Michael V lost his throne.
Zoë wished to forgive Michael VI, but Theodora was made of sterner stuff. The former emperor was blinded and confined to a monastery. The sisters still did not get along (Zoë was incapable of ruling but happy to interfere with what Theodora wanted) and, rather predictably, factions formed. Despite this, the joint rule of two empresses was a notable period in Roman history.
Zoë married Constantine Monomachos, and he handled all affairs of state. However, he is considered the last Macedonian dynasty emperor, and was followed by a period of largely weak rule and short-lived emperors (before the likes of Alexius Comnenus and his successors improved matters).
But that is a story for another day.