chapter  11
19 Pages

The empresses of Alexios I Komnenos (1081-1118)

Any discussion of Komnenian empresses has to commence with a consideration of Maria of Georgia, or Maria 'the Alan' as she was generally known by contemporaries,l for it was Maria who was one of the two women responsible for bringing Alexios Komnenos to the throne. Originally called Martha, Maria was a daughter of the Georgian king Bagrat IV (1027-72), and married Michael VII Doukas probably before the death of his father Constantine Doukas. While the reasons behind the break with tradition can only be conjectured, Maria was only the second empress in the eleventh century to be chosen from outside the empire's borders: in fact, every wife selected for a Byzantine senior emperor or heir to the throne after Constantine V's first wife Irene came from a Byzantine family, though Byzantine princesses had been sent abroad; the other exception was Bertha, daughter of Hugh of Provence, who married Romanos 11.2 Maria would, however, have had at least some knowledge of what to expect at the Byzantine court for her father's previous wife was connected with the imperial family: Helena Argyropoulina was married to Bagrat by her uncle Romanos III Argyros in 1032. Helena, however, lived for only a year or so after her marriage, and it was Bagrat's second wife, Borena, who was to be the mother of George II, Maria and Martha. Martha may well have resided in Constantinople as a young girl, perhaps as a hostage at the court of Theodora, as her father had been, under Basil 11.3 Martha, now Maria, and Michael had one son, Constantine, who was born early in 1074, and who received the co-emperorship at an early age.4 In August 1074 he was betrothed to Olympias, who was a daughter of the Norman Robert Guiscard, and who was brought to Constantinople to be educated by her new mother-in-law under the new name of Helena; the betrothal was ended when Michael VII abdicated.s

Psellos in his Chronographia eulogises Maria's beauty and modesty, and, according to Anna Komnene, Maria was so beautiful that like the Gorgon's head she was capable of rendering a bystander speechless or rooted to the spot; Plate 22 (Coisl. 79, f. 1), which shows her alongside Michael VII,

Plate 22 Maria of Alania and Michael VII Doukas, labelled as Nikephoros Botaneiates (eois!. 79, f. 1). (Taken from]. Spatharakis (1976) The Portrait in Byzantine Illustrated Manuscripts. Published by Brill, Leiden, The Netherlands)

depicts her in official guise, but still manages to convey something of her attractions.6 Like her mother-in-law Eudokia Makrembolitissa, Maria appears on the coinage alongside her husband, which perhaps belies Psellos's description of her as retiring (Plate 23). Psellos's account need not be taken at face value, for he is concerned to flatter his pupil Michael VII and his family, and Maria's readiness to marry the elderly general Nikephoros III

Botaneiates after her husband's abdication and Nikephoros's accession to the throne is a sign rather of her willingness to risk alienating the patriarch and clergy in her concern to protect the imperial inheritance of her young son than of her bashful nature.