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Imperial Partners: Constantine VII and Romanus Lecapenus

Constance Head describes how, in the tenth century, a scholarly young man and an ambitious admiral presided over the large Byzantine empire.

In the medieval Byzantine Empire there were many customs that differed sharply from those of most Western European monarchies. Among the most perplexing from the western point of view was the Byzantine idea that two men might share the imperial throne and reign together as partners. At times, this arrangement resulted in a most unlikely combination of rulers, though on the whole the practice of co-Emperorship worked surprisingly well.

In the long series of Byzantine monarchs, there is no pair of coEmperors so ill-assorted as Constantine VII and his father-in-law, Romanus Lecapenus - the scholar and the sailor. Yet in spite of the many differences between them, both Constantine VII and Romanus I rank high among the most significant rulers Byzantium ever produced.

By hereditary right, the throne belonged to Constantine, and in 913, the seven-year-old prince was duly crowned and proclaimed sole Basileus (Emperor). He was a frail little boy. From the moment he was born, people had uttered predictions that he could not possibly live.

Sometimes those remarks carried overtones that he had no right to live: he was illegitimate, born of the Emperor Leo Vi’s unholy passion for a beautiful courtesan, Zoé ‘Black-Eyes’. True, his parents had married later on, but it was not clear whether the Orthodox Church recognized their marriage.

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