June 14, 2012

How Fourth Marriages Became Prohibited

By Milton V. Anastos

Emperor Leo VI's Fourth Marriage

Α short period of tranquillity ended in 912, when Nicholas Mystikos ("confidential adviser"), who was Patriarch of Constantinople from 901 to 907 and from 912 to 925, removed the name of the Pope of Rome from the Constantinopolitan diptychs because the Roman see had sanctioned the fourth marriage of the Emperor Leo VI "the Wise" (886-912). The problem arose because of the singular misfortune of the Emperor Leo, whose first three wives died without providing him with a male heir. About 894, apparently sometime before his second marriage, not realizing what fate had in store for him, Leo had himself sternly forbidden third marriages (Novel 9). Nevertheless, since he still lacked a son after the death of Zoe, his second wife, he felt compelled for dynastic reasons to press on to a third union, and subsequently even to a fourth, when Eudocia, his third wife, died in giving birth to a son who did not survive.

Then, at first, he comforted himself with a mistress named Zoe Carbonopsina ("of the coal-black eyes"). But in 905, when this fourth lady bore him a son (the future Emperor Constantine VII, one of the greatest scholars and historians Byzantium ever produced), Leo resolved that she and their son should be fully legitimated. The Patriarch Nicholas agreed to baptize the young prince (January 6, 906), but only on the condition that Leo separate himself from the child's mother. Three days later, however, Leo got a priest by the name of Thomas to perform the marriage ceremony.

In the midst of the ensuing uproar among the clergy and people of Constantinople, while Nicholas was seeking a formula by which the Byzantine Church could overcome its prohibition of fourth marriages and lend its approval to what Leo had done, Leo decided that appeal should be made to the other four patriarchates for their judgment in the matter. Actually, as it turned out, Leo was unwilling to receive any special dispensation from Nicholas who had once joined in a plot against the throne; and as soon as word arrived from the four foreign patriarchates that they saw no reason to nullify Leo's fourth marriage, Nicholas was forced to abdicate and give place to Euthymius (907-12). Hence, the procedure followed in this case cannot be regarded as an example of an appeal to Rome, as some have supposed, but rather as another instance of Byzantine concern for oecumenical sanction as manifested by the approval of the five patriarchates.

On the death of Leo in 912, his brother, the wastrel Alexander, became emperor (912-13), and recalled Nicholas. Euthymius was immediately deposed and handed over to ecclesiastical ruffians, who beat him unmercifully and tore out his beard. Shortly thereafter, he was excommunicated, along with all who had been in communion with him, including, thus, the successors of Pope Sergius III (904-11) of Rome, until 923, when communion was re-established. But Sergius himself was specifically exempted from anathematisation despite his support of Leo in 907.

Nicholas never succeeded in persuading Rome to condemn fourth marriages, as he attempted to do, and he himself was forced to issue a special posthumous ruling which validated Leo's marriage to Zoe Carbonopsina. He was also compelled to crown Zoe empress, although Euthymius had steadfastly refused to do so. But, within the Byzantine Church, the privilege accorded Leo VI was deemed to have been altogether exceptional, and was so described by the Constantinopolitan Council of 920, which settled this question and reconciled Nicholas and his followers with their opponents, Euthymius and Archbishop Arethas of Caesarea, the latter's staunchest supporter. In the future, this Council ruled, fourth marriages were to be prohibited, and anyone, except a childless widower over 30 and under 40, who contracted a third marriage was, under varying conditions, to be deprived of communion.