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Posted by Nada on 17th November 2020
EU’s Erasmus Programme wins inaugural Empress Theophano Prize

Nada Kakabadse, Professor of Policy, Governance and Ethics at Henley Business School, and a member of the Theophano Foundation’s Governing Council, reports on the organisation’s inaugural ‘Empress Theophano Prize’ 2020 award ceremony.

The Empress Theophano Prize recognises personalities who promote modern European principles, values and identity, and also recognises those who improve understanding of the diverse historic interdependencies within Europe.

Presented by the Theophano Foundation at the Rotunda Monument in Thessaloniki, Greece - a site symbolizing the Roman, Byzantine, Christian Orthodox, Ottoman and Greek influences which have shaped Europe – this year’s Award ceremony took place on 7th October, 2020.

Among his welcome remarks, Stavros Andreadis, Theophano Foundation President of the Governing Council, said:

“I welcome you to the ceremony to award the inaugural Empress Theophano Prize to the European Union’s Erasmus Programme.

“We are inside a unique historical landmark in a city with centuries of history, in order to highlight our common cultural roots – which shaped contemporary Europe – are interlinked and have continuity.

“The choice of naming the award after Theophano, a Byzantine princess of the 10th century who went on to become Empress of the West Roman Empire, building bridges in culture and contact, as well as Thessaloniki, the principal Byzantine city, as the seat of the award, sends out a very strong message. We are truly elated.”

Herman Count van Rompuy, President of the Advisory Council, added: 

“When I stand here I think of Empress Theophano who could never have imagined that people would commemorate her a thousand years later. In politics today, people forget more quickly. 

“The Theophano Prize is awarded to the Erasmus programme enjoyed by millions of young Europeans. They live in peace and, compared to many others in the world, in prosperity. These walls of history welcome those young people.”

President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, gave the Prize Winner’s speech, adding:

“It is an honour to receive this prize as President of the European Commission, and for the ten million Europeans who have taken part in the Erasmus programme since its inception. It is a prize to the students, the teachers, the dreamers who have made this European miracle come true. 

“It is a prize to the ‘mother of Erasmus,’ Sofia Corradi, who first had the idea of a European student exchange back in the 1960s. It is a prize to the 39 young Greeks who took part in the first exchange, 31 years ago. It is a prize to Maryia, a 24-year-old from Belarus who went on Erasmus to Spain just a few years ago.

“When Maryia was asked what the Erasmus taught her, she answered: ‘Being European is not about the country you live in. It is about the values. It is about your beliefs and your actions.’ Tonight we pay tribute to millions of young Europeans like Maryia. The Empress Theophano Prize that you are awarding is precisely about that. It is about the values that make us European. It is about the beliefs and the actions that have brought our continent together, after thousands of years of conflict. It is about a shared culture that does not stop at borders.”

This is truly an organisation I am proud to be a part of. The Theophano Foundation’ includes former European ambassadors, ombudsmen, ministers, a past president of the European Court of Justice, a film director, and leading academics from univertities in Glasgow, Exeter, Paris, Turin, the Netherlands and Thessaloniki.

The Empress Theophano prize aspires to be an initiative of European-wide significance and will be awarded to a personality or organisation for their contributions towards promoting the principles, values and bonds that shape modern Europe.

At a time when the UK, after 45 years of EU membership, stands on the precipice of exiting the Union, this is a timely reminder of the benefits of togetherness versus isolation.

Who was Empress Theophano?

Women played a more important role in Byzantine society and enjoyed more rights than for many centuries in Western Europe. They sometimes acted as rulers or co-rulers of the Empire, on average were better educated than in medieval Western Europe, often promoted education and the arts, were active in business, as writers or doctors.

Princess Theophano, born in 955, a niece of the Emperor Johannes I Tzimiskes, would have a great influence on the early beginnings of gender equality in Western Europe, on education, on trade with the Empire and beyond, and on its sanitary - she insisted on regular bathing and dressed in exquisite silks - and culinary habits - she introduced the use of the fork. 

In the intermediate years of 867-1056, under the Macedonian dynasty, the Byzantine Empire reached its political and cultural height. Its population and cities expanded, economy and trade flourished. Ancient Greek and other texts were preserved and re-copied and Byzantine art was at its apogee. The rest of Europe was by far not as developed. 

In order to once again improve relations between the two post-Roman empires, the Princess Theophano, was to be married to the future Emperor Otto II, at the request of his father, the Emperor Otto I, in order to seal a treaty with the Eastern Roman Empire and the Holy Roman Empire.

Throughout the whole Carolingian and Ottonian period, the Byzantine Empire was regarded in Western Europe as the ultimate symbol of economic development and cultural sophistication. For a woman of the Eastern Imperial House to marry the heir apparent of the ruler of the Holy Roman Empire conferred immense prestige on the West. She was to have a significant and lasting influence.

After the death of Otto I, Theophano became co-ruler with her husband Emperor Otto II and received the title of Imperatrix. She therefore inaugurated the practice of wives becoming queen or empress, a hitherto unknown practice among Western European rulers, and the beginning of women’s rise in politics and society. 

In 983, Otto II suddenly died and Theophano became the first ever empress-regent in Western European history for her infant son, Otto III.

Theophano provided her son with a scholarly education in addition to the traditional military training of future Germanic rulers, and sought advice from many of the best scholars of her time.

Of equal importance, Theophano provided her son with a scholarly education in addition to the traditional military training of future Germanic rulers, and sought advice from many of the best scholars of her time, strengthening the role of civic advisors to the court. 

This would be another innovation with significant consequences in later European political history, basing the prestige of its rulers not only on their arms, but also on the arts and culture.

As imperatrix, she had enough influence to encourage trade between the two empires and helped improve the early medieval economy in the West. She also took part, with her husband, in spreading Christianity to north-eastern Europe, becoming the grandmother of the Piast dynasty - the first United Kingdom in Polish history.

She is buried in the Pantaleon church in Cologne, Germany.

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