Archive for October, 2011

Constantine IX Monomachos, Zoe Porphyrogennete and Maria Skleraina: An Imperial Ménage à Trois.

October 31st, 2011

The Byzantines frowned on second marriages. They were permissible only when the first marriage had been childless. Third marriages were contrary to both ecclesiastical and Roman law, and to marry a fourth time was, according to the Patriarch Nicholas I Mystikos, ‘a bestial act only worthy of lower animals’ (Judith Herrin, Byzantium (London, 2007), p.187).

In the imperial family itself, notable transgressors were the Emperor Leo VI (four times married) and his great-great-granddaughter, the Empress Zoe Porphyrogennete (three times married). Although Zoe and her younger sister, Theodora, were the sole heiresses to the Macedonian dynasty, they were considered, as women, to be unfit to rule alone. It was therefore incumbent on Zoe to marry – and marry again. She otherwise risked being deposed.

Zoe’s third husband was the Emperor Constantine IX Monomachos, himself the survivor of two previous marriages. When her second husband, Michael IV, died in 1041, Zoe considered, and rejected, two other possible candidates. Although she had not set eyes on Constantine for seven years, he had been her great favourite in the past, so much so that a jealous Michael had had him banished (on fabricated charges of treason) to the island of Mytilene (Lesbos), where he had languished ever since.

Constantine was handsome, effortlessly charming and genuinely likeable. In his youth he had been a champion pentathlete. He was the last heir to a prominent ‘civilian’ family (most of whose known members had pursued judicial careers) and both his previous marriages had been illustrious. On the first occasion, he had become ‘son-in-law to the outstanding member of court society’ (regrettably unnamed by the chronicler, Psellos). Then, as a childless widower, he had been permitted to re-marry (in or before 1025), to the only child of the magistros Basil Skleros. The bride’s mother, Pulcheria Argyropoulaina, was sister to Romanos Argyropoulos, who had subsequently become Zoe’s first husband and emperor as Romanos III. It had been Romanos’s particular wish that Constantine should be ‘grafted to the rich fertile olive’ of his family, though he had a low opinion of his nephew-in-law’s abilities, and had never trusted him to do any serious work (Psellos, Chronographia, VI, 15-21, trans. Sewter, pp.162-5; J.-C. Cheynet, Pouvoir et contestations à Byzance (Paris, 1996), pp.192-3, 269).

At the time of his banishment in 1035, Constantine had recently been widowed for the second time. There was no hope of his remarrying. He had, however, fallen madly in love with his late wife’s niece, Maria Skleraina, a young widow herself, who had been taken into their household. The normally discreet Maria had been inveigled into a ‘highly improper association’ and had elected to share Constantine’s exile on Mytilene (which was considered a cruel fate indeed for a Constantinopolitan). On their way out, some monks of the neighbouring island of Chios had prophesied Constantine’s eventual return to the capital, not in disgrace but as emperor (Cheynet, pp.46, 56-70). It had given Maria hope that they would one day be able to marry. For an emperor, surely anything was possible.


Constantine was recalled in the spring of 1042 and returned to Constantinople in triumph. His wedding to Zoe took place on 11 June. The Patriarch, Alexios, made what are tactfully called ‘concessions to expediency – or shall we say that he bowed to the will of God in the whole affair?’ Constantine was about 42 years old. Zoe, at 69, was old enough to be his mother. There seems, at first, to have been a physical element to the marriage, but she soon tired of that, preferring to pursue the real passion of her later years, which was the running of her own private perfume factory in the Palace.

Maria, waiting anxiously on Mytilene, was sent word that an indulgent Zoe had consented to her return (Psellos, VI, 54, p.182). Constantine set her up in a small house near the Palace. If multiple marriages were frowned upon, it was yet more shocking to keep a mistress. Romanos III is said, by doing so, to have shown ‘little respect for the accepted standards of morality’ (Psellos, III, 17, p.75). Affronts to the dignity of the purple-born Zoe and Theodora were also liable to enrage the populace, who referred to them as ‘our mums’.

Deeply ashamed of himself and terrified of a scandal, Constantine took pains to conceal his affair. He commissioned extensions to Maria’s house and, on the pretext of overseeing the work, was able to pay her regular visits. Whilst the members of his entourage were distracted by banquets in the garden, he would disappear inside. They knew exactly what was going on, but became used to their regular feasts and seemed happy for them to continue. The Emperor, encouraged and emboldened, ceased after a while to make any secret of the affair.

It remained for him to come to some sort of arrangement with Zoe, who proved remarkably compliant. The Empress not only agreed to have Maria move into the Palace itself, but was also willing to sign a ‘treaty of friendship’ between the three of them. The entire Senate was summoned to witness the contract. They were astonished that Zoe, far from being humiliated and distressed, actually seemed to be quite pleased with the arrangement, by which Maria was even to be addressed officially by a specially created imperial title, that of sebaste. (On Maria’s title, see Nicolas Oikonomides, ‘St George of Mangana, Maria Skleraina, and the “Malyj Sion” of Novgorod’, Dumbarton Oaks Papers, 34/4 (1980-1), pp.239-46.)

According to Psellos, young Maria was not a remarkable beauty, but had a wonderfully charming and unaffected manner. It was a delight to hear her speak. She was also a good listener, and acutely sensitive to the feelings of those around her. Psellos, then an imperial secretary of similar age, found it impossible not to like her (Psellos, VI, 58-65, pp.183-7).

A large crowd gathered to watch Maria on her first public outing, when she processed with the other members of the imperial family to the Theatre. As she was passing, Maria saw a bystander turn to his companion and, in a stage whisper, mutter two well known words from Homer – ‘ου ηεμεσις …’ A cultured Byzantine quoted Homer as readily as a cultured Englishman quotes Shakespeare. He would also have been educated, and – at least in formal circumstances – would probably have conversed in classical Greek (the equivalent of a modern Englishman speaking the language of Chaucer). Anyone with an education would thus have recognised the quotation and understood its significance. It is the passage where Priam’s counsellors, rationalising the sufferings of the Greeks and Trojans for the sake of Helen, say that men have understandably been driven to it by her unearthly beauty.

When the formal ceremony was over, Maria approached the man and, imitating his tone exactly, recited the quotation in full:

ου νεμεσις Τρωας και ευκνημιδας Αχαιους

τοιήδ’ αμφι γυναικι πολυν χρονον αλγεα πασχειν.

αινως αθανατησι θεης εις ωπα εοικεν.

‘Small blame that Trojans and well-greaved Achaeans should for such a woman long time suffer woes; wondrously like is she to the immortal goddesses to look upon’ (Iliad, III, ll.156-8, trans. A. Murray, Loeb edition, I, p.129. I have, perforce, omitted the iota subscripts, breathing marks and other diacritics, too great a challenge for my computer).

It was a graceful compliment indeed, for which the flatterer was richly rewarded.

Maria Skleraina died before the age of thirty, suddenly, of a bronchial disease – for she was severely asthmatic – in 1044 or 5. Constantine was heart-broken. He had her buried in a sumptuous tomb at the monastery of St George-in-Mangana, under what is now the Topkapi Palace, which he had founded and granted to her – a further impropriety – so that its revenues would assure her of financial independence. Psellos was commissioned to deliver the oration (in iambic verse), in which he referred again to the charms of her conversation: he says that she was ‘truly an Orpheus and a Siren in words, sending unto all her beautiful song’ (Panagiotis A. Agapilos, ‘Public and Private Death in Psellos: Maria Skleraina and Styliana Psellaina’, Byzantinische Zeitschrift, 101ii (2008), pp.555-607). Apparently he was sincere.

The reign of Constantine IX Monomachos was an unmitigated disaster for the Empire. He neglected the affairs of state, concentrating instead on worldly pleasures. It amused him to construct a beautiful park and to place in the middle of it a deep pond, the sides of which were level with the surrounding lawn. He would watch as unsuspecting visitors, strolling through the park, suddenly found themselves up to their necks in water. At least the water was warm, and Constantine himself liked to bathe in it several times a day, even, apparently, in winter. It is most unusual to hear of a recreational swimmer in the Middle Ages. One day he caught a chill while emerging from the pool and it was the death of him. He was buried in January 1055, not with Zoe, who had pre-deceased him, but beside his beloved Maria at St George-in-Mangana. Perhaps they had enjoyed swimming together, all those years ago, off the Lesbian shore.

It is stated in the Russian Primary Chronicle that Vsevelod I, Grand Prince of Kiev, was married by 1053 to ‘a Greek princess’. Their eldest child, born in that year, was the future Vladimir I, surnamed ‘Monomakh’, who is assumed, therefore, to have been a relative, if not the grandson, of Constantine IX. A further suggestion is that the mother of the unfortunate ‘princess’ was Maria Skleraina. The evidence in the matter is inconclusive, but the bride sent to Russia appears also to have been called Maria (for the seal has been discovered there of the ‘all-high-born Maria Monomacha’), and Byzantine children were never named after their parents. In any case, Psellos would surely have mentioned it if there had been a child. Moreover, although he describes Constantine as the last of his line, the Emperor certainly had a first cousin, Theodosios Monomachos, who survived him and indeed aspired to the throne after his death (Cheynet, p.67); Vsevelod’s bride could have been the sister, daughter or niece of this Theodosios. (For an assessment of all the evidence, see Rupert Willoughby, ‘The Golden Line’, Genealogists’ Magazine, XXIII (March and June 1991), pp.321-7, 369-72.)

Constantine has at least left us his mosaic portrait (above), in the last bay of the south gallery of Hagia Sophia, the great cathedral church of Constantinople. Zoe was already depicted there, she and her previous husband, Michael, presenting gifts to the figure of Christ. On marrying Constantine she had all three heads renewed, ensuring that her own showed her in the most youthful, flattering light. Constantine’s interpolated head seems more realistic, with his handsome features and the fresh, ruddy complexion to which Psellos refers.

Constantine in gratitude to the Chian monks also founded the Nea Mone (‘New Monastery’) on the island (pictured left). It is now deserted, but I remember on a visit in October 1991 seeing a small psalter or prayer-book that is supposed to have belonged to him. Moreover, there are through Vladimir Monomakh – whose many descendants include Edward II’s queen Isabella of France – countless people in the West who can, with some confidence, claim Constantine IX Monomachos as a kinsman – if not as a direct ancestor.

Simon Raven’s Younger Brother: Myles Raven, the Terror of Tormore School

October 14th, 2011

The famous ‘Desert Boot’ was invented by Nathan Clark, who died on 23 June 2011. According to the obituaries, he was inspired by the rough suede boots, knocked up in the Cairo bazaar, that had been sported by officers of the Eighth Army during the war.

His design was not immediately appreciated by the stuffy directors of his family firm, James Clark and Sons. They ‘felt that there was something louche about suede as footwear. It was for bohemian and essentially unreliable characters.’

What, then, was one to make of Myles Raven, the legendary Latin and Maths master at Tormore School (my alma mater in Kent), and terror of generations of small boys? Raven, known as ‘Bird’, was reputed to possess forty pairs of suede boots. They lined the skirting board of his bed-sitting-room at the Old House, like soldiers on parade.

It was the horror of having Raven permanently on hand, as much as the lack of plumbing, that made the Old House the most unpopular boarding house at Tormore. As Bird lurched from his room of a morning, to shave from a bowl of boiling water on the landing, one saw far more of his flabby, six-foot-three-inch frame than was palatable. He was quite naked, apart from a white towel that hung precariously from his waist.

If I stole a glance past Raven in the direction of his fetid room, where the curtains seemed to be permanently drawn, it was only to verify the tales I had heard of his suede shoes – he certainly never wore anything else. Raven was dangerously unpredictable. He was prone to terrible, uncontrollable rages, in which his florid face would metamorphose into a livid purple. These were frequently triggered by the failure of individual pupils or an entire form to understand a particular lesson (such as ‘ut’ plus the subjunctive).

As they lined up at his desk to have him mark their work, boy after boy would offer proof of his incomprehension. Bird was like a simmering volcano. Suddenly, he would erupt, scoring his red Bic biro deep into the exercise book of the nearest boy. Others would have their books cast unceremoniously through the open French doors into the garden of the Court House, where they would invariably land in a muddy flower bed or a puddle.

Mercifully, the bell would eventually sound to mark the end of the lesson (potentially a long wait, if it was a ‘double’). Ashen faced, the released boys would alert the incoming form as to what was in store. ‘Birdie’s in a bait,’ they would mutter as they scurried away, leaving the trembling new arrivals to their doom.

A further ordeal was to be placed on Bird’s table at mealtimes. There were about a dozen tables in the school dining room and a further three in the adjacent library, where Bird presided. Each dining set, made up of boys of all ages, would progress weekly between tables, in an anti-clockwise direction. All of us dreaded the three weeks when we would be in the same room as Bird, and particularly the whole week that we would have to spend on his table.

It was particularly distressing to see him devour a substantial cooked breakfast on a daily basis, while we were permanently on short rations. (We were told, unconvincingly, that it was something to do with his diabetes.) He was also prone to revolting coughing fits and, when in one of his moods, was far from pleasant company.

It struck no one as odd that Bird should habitually chain-smoke during his lessons. He was a workmanlike teacher, who believed in learning by rote. Latin tenses and declensions were drummed into us (‘dominus, domine, dominum, domini, domino, domino’; ‘bellum, bellum, bellum, belli, bello, bello’ etc.). I doubt that he found his work rewarding. The hour devoted to ‘prep’ on winter evenings was an unpleasant enough experience, as the form-rooms were unheated. Under Bird’s supervision, it could be considerably worse. Heedless of our discomfort, he would sit outside the 4th Form in his green Sunbeam Rapier, turn the engine on and warm himself by the car’s heater, whilst leaving the door of the form-room wide open so that he could keep an eye on us.

My brother tells another story which illustrates Bird’s remarkable lack of consideration for his charges. The First XI, with my brother as scorer, were conveyed to a fixture at Milner Court in the masters’ cars. It was a pleasant summer’s day and, on the way back, with numerous sweaty boys crammed into the Sunbeam, Bird spotted a stall selling fresh strawberries in a lay-by (my brother passed the spot recently and recognised it at once – it is between Howe Barracks and Littlebourne). Bird hauled himself out of the car, bought two punnets, and proceeded to consume the entire contents in front of the ravenous boys.

Bird’s antics have made more sense to me since I read Michael Barber’s book The Captain, a frank and entertaining biography of his elder brother, the writer Simon Raven. An extravagant, amoral hedonist, sacked from Charterhouse and the army (he had served in Kenya as a Captain in the King’s Own Shropshire Light Infantry), a distracted Simon had been exiled to Deal by his publisher (‘Leave London, or leave my employ’). In my day, he lived in a tiny clapboard cottage across the road from the ‘Admiral Keppel’, which was conveniently positioned only a few doors down from the Old House.

The Raven brothers were both avowed homosexuals, yet Myles had once been engaged – to one of the under-matrons – and Simon had been briefly married. According to Barber, an anguished telegram from his abandoned wife – ‘WIFE AND BABY STARVING SEND MONEY SOONEST’ – had prompted a characteristic reply – ‘SORRY NO MONEY SUGGEST EAT BABY’. His reputation at Tormore was as the author of ‘dirty books’, which some boys’ fathers had read. Shortly after leaving Tormore I read one myself and it was, indeed, utterly filthy. (A typical line of dialogue, from a colonel addressing his mess: ‘I’ve f*****d women from every continent and most animals, but I’ve never had a woman like that!’) I remember the boys of my house, ‘Tanks’, being taken on a school treat to the cinema at Deal, to see On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Michael Webb briefed us beforehand that all the wittiest lines in the film had been written by Simon, whose name duly flashed up on the screen. Simon also scripted The Pallisers and Edward and Mrs Simpson for television, but it was only after the publication of The Roses of Picardie in 1980 that I became aware of his literary eminence.

The occasional sighting of the caddish Simon caused a certain frisson – usually striding past the school, clad like his brother in a tweed jacket and desert boots, with the same snub nose, prominent eyebrows and florid complexion and the furtive look of a mischievous faun. I have no recollection of ever seeing him on school premises, and wonder if he had been banned (as he was from the Royal St George’s Golf Club). However, my brother assures me that he came into the school regularly to watch our cricket matches, and at one time he wrote witty reviews of them for The School Record.

Simon used to hold court at the ‘Admiral Keppel’, where most of the masters seemed to spend their evenings. Worldy, erudite and amusing, he was, I believe, a strong and, in many ways, beneficial influence on the younger staff, men like Michael Webb and Michael Strevens. I suspect they picked up many of their odder expressions and ideas from him, including – I rather fear – their habit of referring to us boys by rather surprising terms of endearment, including ‘dear heart’ and ‘duckie’.

According to Strevens – the dashing, aloof ‘Strev’ – Myles would consume four or five pints between nine o’clock and closing time and then would stagger home with a further four pints in a jug. He is said to have suffered from appalling flatulence and smelly feet, and also, occasionally, to have wet his bed, but was immune to any form of hangover. He also never wore underpants, a legacy of his own, very peculiar prep school, where they were banned. I have a feeling that we were aware of this surprising detail at the time, but shudder to think how we can have known it. One instinctively shunned him as one would an electric eel. However, I never heard of him touching any boy. Strevens told Barber that Bird had once made a botched attempt at doing so. It had been a humiliating experience and was never repeated.

Myles Raven, described by a school contemporary as ‘the idlest Scholar elected to Charterhouse in living recollection’, must have been frustrated in many ways, but schoolmastering made few demands on him and gave him limitless opportunites to indulge his obsession with cricket, not to mention his illicit fantasies about little boys. I have a vivid memory of his enquiring of us, in a Latin lesson, what part of speech ‘Eheu’ was. No one knew. ‘It’s an ejaculation!’ he said, with relish. He seemed distinctly out of place on his rare trips to London – ‘a big lump who smelt strongly of pubs’, according to one of Simon’s smarter friends. He fell down dead in 1976, at the age of 46.

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