John the Orphanotrophus was a Paphlagonian eunuch who had risen from obscure and humble origins to become director of the city's principal orphanage, whence he took his name. Of his four younger brothers, the two eldest were eunuchs like himself; the youngest, Michael, a handsome - though unfortunately epileptic - youth still in his teens, was one day in 1033 brought by John to the palace and presented to Romanus III and his Empress, Zoe. Zoe immediately fell in love with him.
The Emperor, warned by his sister Pulcheria of what was going on, was only too pleased when Michael assured him that the rumours were unfounded. At this point, however, he fell seriously ill, finally dying on the Thursday before Good Friday 1034, in the palace baths; foul play was suspected but not proven.
At dawn on Good Friday, 12th April, Patriarch Alexis was summoned urgently to the palace, where he was horrified to see the near-naked body of Romanus. Before he had recovered from the shock, Zoe had insisted that he marry her to the young Michael, who thus became the new Emperor.
If the Empress had hoped for a willing accomplice, she was disappointed. Michael spent hours a day in church; he established monasteries and convents and set up a vast refuge for reformed prostitutes; and he sought out holy men from every corner of the Empire. He was also surprisingly good at governing, paying particular attention to local administration, foreign affairs and the army, whose shattered morale he managed in large measure to restore.
Three of Michael's four elder brothers were parasites, while the eldest, the Orphanotrophus, was a formidable figure, if unprincipled. He thought only of the advancement of his family, most notably arranging for his brother-in-law, Stephen, to be given command of the transport fleet for an expedition to Sicily.
The continual raids on Byzantine south Italy by the Sicilian-based Saracens were rapidly becoming a threat to imperial security. The Mediterranean was alive with pirates, prices of imports were rising and the level of foreign trade was beginning to decline. To every Byzantine, Sicily remained part of the imperial birthright; it also continued to boast a considerable Greek population. That it should still be occupied by the heathen after more than two centuries was an affront not only to security but also to national pride. Furthermore civil war had broken out among the Arab Emirs of the island. Revolt was now spreading throughout Sicily; and the Saracens, more and more hopelessly divided, seemed unlikely to be able to offer much resistance to a concerted Byzantine attack. Michael now planned for such an attack, originally planned by Basil II for 1026 but postponed as a result of his death.
The expedition sailed in the early summer of 1038. It had been put under the command of George Maniakes, who after a long and distinguished career in the East was by now the foremost general of the Empire. The strongest element in his army was an impressive Varangian contingent which included the celebrated Norse hero Harald Hardrada, returning from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem; the weakest a body of grumbling Lombards from Apulia who made no secret of their disgust at having been forced into service. Landing in the late summer, the army at first carried all before it; the Saracens could do little to stem the tide. Messina fell almost at once, and there seems to have been a slow but steady advance on Syracuse, which fell to Maniakes in 1040. But the collapse of the Byzantine forces after the victory at Syracuse was sudden and complete. The fault seems to have lain partly with Maniakes and partly with Stephen, for whom the general had never bothered to hide his contempt.
Meanwhile in Apulia the Lombard separatists were in revolt. The Byzantine governor was assassinated, and all the local militias along the coast rose up in mutiny. The army was hastily summoned from Sicily; and within a few months the entire island apart from Messina was once again in Saracen hands.
In the summer of 1040 a revolt broke out in Bulgaria. The leaders were one Peter Deljan, the bastard grandson of Tsar Samuel, and his cousin Alusian. They drove out the Byzantines, invaded northern Greece, and by the end of the year had stormed Dyrrachium - thus giving them an outlet on the Adriatic - penetrating as far south as the Gulf of Lepanto. Michael, although by now semi-paralysed and legs swollen by gangrene, announced his intention of leading his army in person against the enemy.
Luckily a serious quarrel broke out between Deijan and his cousin, whom he accused of treachery. Alusian responded by removing Deijan's eyes and nose and soon afterwards surrendered. And so, early in 1041, Michael returned to his capital in triumph. On 10th December he had himself carried to his own monastery of St Cosmas and St Damian, where he donned a monk's robe and died the same evening.