“Time for my bath.”
Old Romanos III could have lived out his life in the Byzantine Empire in well-deserved obscurity. He had inherited wealth and a successful career as a bureaucrat. Romanos was in his sixties and happily married until he received a tap on the shoulder. You're next, Whipper-snapper!
These words were spoken to Romano's by emperor Constantine VIII in 1028. Constantine had co-ruled the Byzantine Empire with his brother Basil II for close on 50 years. Constantine's dilemma was who should succeed him. Basil had died childless and Constantine had no sons. His three unmarried daughters Eudokia, Theodora and Zoe were in their fifties and unlikely to bear any future monarchs. Since Eudokia was apparently 'badly scarred' from an illness and Theodora was set to take holy orders, this left only Zoe as a suitable candidate for empress at least.
The harder decision was: Whom should she marry? Not a general; the Byzantine civil service hated military types, always racking up huge war debts. Besides, the Byzantine Empire looked more secure at any time since the 7th century, with borders that stretched from the borders of Hungary to Armenia and to the Lebanon in the south.
At first, it seemed the new emperor would be Constantine Dalassenos, a greybeard general of the same vintage as Romanos, and like Basil II, a lifelong bachelor. Zoe was unethusiastic with the proposal; after all, in her youth, she had been engaged to marry the Holy Roman emperor Otto III. Perhaps remembering his 'Uncle Bazza' was poor when it came to any talk outside fighting and soldering, Zoe enquired about Romanos. His marital status was a barrier, but that could be 'de-arranged' as a matter of state. Constantine VIII was persuaded to nominate Romanos as his successor — provided he got rid of Wifey. Romanos obligingly sent his wife to a priory. A few days later, Constantine was dead.
Romanos and Zoe started their reign with a lot of initial goodwill. Though ancient by 10th century standards, they would be free of scandals and peccadillos. Romanos wanted to re-organise the Byzantine budget and perhaps go on a 'minor' military campaign to buff up his martial qualities. He messed up the former and a quickie campaign against the Muslims was a defeat and a hasty retreat. Zoe's sister Theodora called Romanos a failure who 'needed to go'. Zoe agreed, after finding comfort in the arms of a young 'low-born' peasant called Michael, whose brother happened to be one of the chief eunuchs at court. The relationship carried on under Romanos's nose.
Romanos was old and Zoe trusted that Father Time's scythe might free her from the marriage, but Romanos stayed stubbornly healthy. There was another option. Byzantine rulers had died suddenly before and could do so again.
A watery fate
After his only military campaign ended in failure, Romanos returned to his abacus to sort out the empire's finances. Eventually, Zoe informed her lover that she needed her freedom and commissioned Michael to sort out a conclusion to her marriage. Michael devised a clean one: Romanos would die in the imperial bathhouse — presumably at the hands of proxies. There was precedent; Domitian and Commodus had met their washroom maker when their respective personal trainers strangled them. In this case, it is likely the much older Romanos had his head held down long enough to drown. However, contemporaneous portraits also show his mouth stuffed with a rubber duck.
The same day Romanos's corpse was fished out of the bath, Zoe and Michael scampered down the aisle and were married. A day later, Michael was crowned as emperor Michael IV. They raced through Romanos's funeral and buried him somewhere in Constantinople. The last thing through his mind, located far below the bubble bath, may have been, I should have stuck at what I knew and collect my pension. Too late!
Zoe and Michael IV