Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Iconoclasm - A Byzantine Tragedy - Part Two

The image below depicts the Second Council of Nicaea in 787; an event celebrated in the Greek church to this day as the triumph of orthodoxy. It was nominally presided over by the young Byzantine emperor Constantine VI but was the crowning glory in the career of his mother the Empress Irene. An inveterate schemer, Irene the widow of Leo IV had overseen the restoration of icon worship following the death of her husband in 780.

7th Ecumenical Council Nicaea 787
Leo had taken a moderate stance in comparison to his arch-iconoclast father Constantine V; ending the persecution of the monasteries. Nevertheless as he reached the end of his days he took a harder iconoclastic line as he pondered the fate of his soul and distanced himself from his icon-loving Athenian wife.

With Leo dead, Irene assumed the regency of the empire for her ten year old son Constantine and immediately embarked upon the course of reform; systematically sidelining all of those who would oppose her agenda both for the restoration of the icons and to establish herself as the de-facto ruler of the empire.

Sympathy for the iconoclastic cause remained strong, particularly in the empire’s eastern provinces where the majority of Irene’s armies were stationed. Following the old emperor’s death some of these troops had attempted a revolt with the intention of placing his brother on the throne. This had been swiftly put down and Irene thereafter had set out to purge the army. Her willingness to dismember the empire’s forces; removing capable commanders and disbanding troops whose loyalty was suspect, sparked widespread mutiny and rendered the imperial frontiers vulnerable to invasion. The highly capable Abbasid prince Harun al Rashid led an invasion in 782 which swept into Byzantine territory meeting with little opposition and indeed many of the imperial forces defected to the enemy. Irene was forced to buy peace from the future Caliph.

For those who were dismayed by the Empress’ actions, her son Constantine was an obvious focal point. The armies in the east remained staunchly iconoclast and those in the capital who longed to overturn Irene’s reforms therefore had a ready source of manpower to call upon and a suitable figurehead in the form of Constantine. Matters came to a head in 790 when Irene attempted to seize supreme power for herself; flinging her son into prison when a plot by leading iconoclasts for her overthrow and exile came to light. With Constantine behind bars, Irene demanded an oath of loyalty from all of her armies. This galvanised the eastern opposition who marched on the capital and restored Constantine to his throne. Irene, deposed, was left to stew in the confinement of her palace and plot her revenge.

She did not have long to wait. Within two years her son had shown himself to be hopelessly incapable of government and had her recalled. For the next five years mother and son resumed their uneasy partnership but Constantine through military blunders and an ill-advised divorce steadily lost support until finally Irene felt safe enough to make her move. For a second time Constantine was seized and imprisoned but this time his mother was taking no chances and ordered her son blinded. The punishment was carried out, in the very room in which he had been born, with such brutality as to cause his death. It was a crime which sent a shockwave through the empire and it left Irene as empress and sole ruler. (shown left depicted as such)

Her actions had an unintended and far reaching consequence. Three years later as Pope Leo III was contemplating how best to honour and reward his champion and saviour; Charles King of the Franks, the son
of Pepin the Short, he could observe that the title of Emperor of the Romans was conveniently vacant, for the Pope did not recognise the right of a woman to hold that title.

On Christmas Day 800 therefore, since Irene remained the sole ruler in Constantinople, Leo was able to confer the imperial title upon Charles; whose efforts in the cause of Christianity had gone a considerable way towards the restoration of a western empire.

In Constantinople such presumption seemed ludicrous. Who was this semi-literate barbarian who laid claim to the legacy of Augustus and Constantine? Nevertheless Irene had continued to alienate her subjects. Her continuing appeasement of the now-Caliph al-Rashid with ever greater payments of protection money and her increasingly desperate attempts to buy her subjects’ affections through unaffordable tax breaks, convinced many that her deposition would be vital for the future wellbeing of the empire. When two years after his coronation Irene began seriously to entertain proposals of marriage from Charlemagne; an act which would unite the rival eastern and western claimants to the Empire of the Romans and place the Frankish ruler on the throne of Byzantium, she had at last gone too far. Her own officials convened an assembly in the hippodrome and declared her deposed. She was exiled to an island in the Marmara and died a year later.

Irene has gone down in history as a wicked schemer, driven by ambition to commit the worst crime any mother could commit; the cold-blooded murder of her own child. In the iconoclastic struggle however, she struck the decisive, if not the final blow. Although the findings of the council she had convened in Nicaea in 787, anathemitizing the writings of the iconoclasts, would be challenged anew within a decade of her death and ultimately overturned, it would in the end stand as the final word on the veneration of icons.

The present Canon decrees that all the false writings which the iconomachists composed against the holy icons and which are flimsy as children’s toys, and as crazy as the raving and insane bacchantes — those women who used to dance drunken at the festival of the tutelar of intoxication Dionysus — all those writings, I say, must be surrendered to the Patriarchate of Constantinople, to be put together with the other books by heretics — in such a place, that is to say, that no one will ever be able to take them therefrom with a view to reading them. As for anyone who should hide them, with a view to reading them himself or providing them for others to read, if he be a bishop, a presbyter, or a deacon, let him be deposed from office; but if he be a layman or a monk, let him be excommunicated.

Leo III crowns Charlemagne
The Seventh Ecumenical Council in full


Some good sites featuring iconographic art


To continue the story of iconoclasm click the link below


Saturday, 12 January 2013

Iconoclasm – a Byzantine Tragedy – Part One

Byzantium today is renowned for two things; its brutal politics and its artistic legacy, in particular its religious art. It was an empire plagued by intrigues and obsessed with icons. During two turbulent periods in the Eighth and Ninth Centuries however, the Byzantines turned against and wilfully destroyed these precious and venerated objects. The repercussions from these destructive movements went beyond the spiritual life of the Empire to have a profound impact on both its politics and its relations with the west.

The Arab conquests of the Seventh Century had seen vast tracts of formerly Christian territory come under Islamic rule. Of the four Patriarchates of Eastern Christendom, three; Antioch, Jerusalem and Alexandria lay within the territories of the Umayyad Caliphate. As ‘people of the book’, Christians living under Arab rule were generally tolerated but under the reign of the austere and pious Caliph Umar II interference with Christian practices which were offensive to Islam had increased. In 723 AD Umar's successor Yazid had issued a decree that all holy images in Christian churches within his territories should be destroyed and his brother Hisham who succeeded Yazid upon his death in 724 took an equally hard line. This reaction of the Muslim rulers against what they saw as flagrant idolatry also struck a chord with many Christians, fuelling a growing movement in the east which would sweep across the Byzantine Empire with profound consequences.

Iconoclasm as it is known to posterity; literally the smashing of icons, was a policy first adopted by Emperor Leo III in response to the growing cult of icon worship amongst his subjects. The emperor was of Syrian descent and as such was likely to have Monophysite leanings, seeing Christ as wholly divine with no mortal aspect. He may also have been influenced by being exposed to Islamic and Jewish thought. He therefore took a dim view of the widespread practice among his fellow Christians of openly worshipping icons of Christ, the Virgin and the saints; treating these inanimate representations of the divine as divine objects in their own right. For Leo and those who shared his views this was a clear violation of the commandment which forbade bowing down before graven images. In 726 he made his feelings clear by ordering the violent and shocking destruction of Constantinople’s largest and most beloved icon of Christ which was displayed above the main gate of the imperial palace.

 Byzantine icon of Christ 9th Century - from St Catherines Sinai
This deed polarised opinion in the capital and beyond. Those of an iconoclast persuasion could rejoice that the first great blow against idolatry had been struck whilst a great many were appalled by what they saw as an act of wanton vandalism and sacrilege. Everywhere emotions ran high. In Ravenna anger at the emperor’s actions turned into a full scale revolt which claimed the life of the governor and an uprising in the islands of the Aegean had to be put down with Greek fire. There was violence too on the streets of the capital but Leo was unperturbed. In 730 he issued an edict calling for all icons to be destroyed and those who persisted in protecting and venerating them faced the threat of torture and death. In Rome Pope Gregory II condemned Leo’s edict as blasphemy and promptly excommunicated him. The emperor paid little heed and pressed ahead with his mission to cleanse the capital of idols. Churches, private homes and monasteries were raided and their treasured and precious icons were confiscated and destroyed. Many more were hidden away to keep them safe from the iconoclasts.

Following Leo’s death in 741 the iconoclast movement gained new momentum with the accession of his son Constantine V. The new emperor was an even more fervent iconoclast than his father and continued the persecution of those who persisted in the veneration of icons. He particularly despised the monasteries, both as purveyors of idolatry and more generally as a waste of space. Too many young men were wasting their lives in prayer in the emperor’s opinion, when they should be usefully employed in the service of the Empire. Many monasteries were forcibly closed down; their wealth appropriated by the treasury and their inhabitants forced back into the outside world on pain of death. The Byzantine chronicler Theophanes the Confessor, who himself lived through a later resurgence of iconoclasm and was exiled as a result of his opposition to it, understandably takes an especially dim view of Constantine, calling him Copronymus; literally ‘baptised in shit’. This is a reference to the fact that Constantine defecated in the font during his baptism; a clear sign of things to come. He does not hold back in further lambasting the iconoclast emperor, describing him as a ‘Totally destructive bloodsucking wild beast.’

Byzantine Iconoclasm depicted in the Chludov Psalter, 9th century.

The later hostility of Theophanes was shared by many at the time in Constantinople. The emperor knew the risk of leaving his capital but nevertheless leave it he did. In 742, in response to an Arab invasion of Anatolia, both Constantine and his brother-in-law Artabasdus had set out from the capital in command of separate armies. Mistrusting Artabasdus, Constantine requested that he should send his sons to the emperor as hostages. Artabasdus refused and then having made this implicit admission of guilt, raced back to Constantinople at the head of his forces to stage an anti-iconoclast coup. Cheering crowds welcomed the restoration of the images and Artabasdus was crowned by the turncoat Patriarch Anastasius who quickly forgot his iconoclast sympathies. Constantine meanwhile pressed on and raised further troops who were loyal both to his person and to the iconoclast cause from the frontier garrisons with which he then marched against Artabasdus, leaving the Arab invaders with a free hand whilst civil war raged.

Following a series of military reverses at the hands of Constantine’s veterans, Artabasdus realised that the game was up and attempted to flee by sea but was captured and handed over to the emperor. The rebel and his sons were blinded and exiled whilst the patriarch was stripped, scourged and paraded around the hippodrome seated backwards on a donkey before being reinstated as a discredited laughing stock. Following Constantine’s victory, the iconoclast edict was reinforced with hitherto unseen vigour and a council of sympathetic bishops was assembled to pronounce on its validity on behalf of all Christendom in an act which further enraged the Pope and alienated the subjects of Constantine’s remaining Italian territories. From here on in Rome would look increasingly towards the Franks rather than the Empire for protection and deliverance from the Lombard invaders who had taken over much of Italy in the late Sixth Century.

In 751 the aggressive new Lombard king Aistulf succeeded in capturing Ravenna. The permanent loss of this key imperial enclave was a major blow to the Byzantine Empire but despite an increased threat to the remaining imperial territories including Rome itself, Constantine V did little but send ineffectual embassies asking for the Pope’s intercession. Pope Zacharias had been successful in the past in dissuading Lombard rulers from marching against Rome but Aistulf was of a more belligerent persuasion than his predecessors and it seemed only a matter of time before the eternal city faced a Lombard attack. Despairing of any useful assistance from the emperor who was at any rate an iconoclast heretic in his eyes, Pope Zacharias instead looked to cultivate Pepin the Short; the de-facto ruler of the Franks. An opportunity to gain Pepin’s good will had presented itself when a Frankish delegation arrived with a question for the Pontiff. Was it right, they asked, that the King of the Franks was a powerless puppet whilst true power rested in the hands of the Mayor of the Palace? Zacharias’ answer was of course precisely what Pepin wanted to hear. It was better, he pronounced, that he who wielded the power of a king should be called king. Armed with this Papal endorsement Pepin was able to secure the support of the Frankish aristocracy in order to depose the last Merovingian king Childeric III and to have himself crowned as King of the Franks. In 754 Zacharias’ successor Stephen made his way over the Alps to meet with Pepin and in a ceremony in Paris anointed him as King. In return for Papal  approval of his seizure of power, Pepin undertook to come to the defence of Rome against the Lombards and marched against the Lombard King Aistulf. The Frankish forces proved irresistible and the Lombard king soon found himself besieged in Pavia and forced to agree to terms. According to this agreement known as the Donation of Pepin, all of the imperial territories previously incorporated into the Exarchate of Ravenna were henceforth ceded to the Pope. Aistulf failed to adhere to the terms and two years later Pepin was back to enforce them, laying siege to Pavia once more until the Lombard king relented. This time the Donation of Pepin was honoured by the Lombards and the ribbon of formerly Imperial territory stretching across central Italy including Ravenna, Rimini and Perugia became the Papal States, much to the impotent fury of Constantine. Rome at last had turned its face away from the man who claimed the title of Emperor of the Romans. Realpolitik had triumphed over old established loyalties which had been weakened over the years by imperial high-handedness and neglect of military responsibilities and stretched to breaking point by the iconoclast controversy. The relationship between Rome and Constantinople was changed forever.
Coronation of Pepin the Short
I was lazy for this article and reused material from my own book The Battles are the Best Bits, but if you liked it please check out the book. 

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Bish Bash Bosh – Ancient Artillery

The man who inspired this famous image; a Renaissance tip of the hat to the mathematical and scientific accomplishments of the classical world, was the Roman architect Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, who dedicated his most famous treatise De Architectura to the emperor Augustus. Vitruvius, like all good Romans had done his time in the army and had campaigned under Julius Caesar, serving as an engineer and supervising the artillery with which the conqueror of Gaul had pounded his enemies into submission.

What Vitruvius understood, and what an admiring Da Vinci doubtless appreciated, was that the practice of lobbing missiles ever harder and ever further at one’s enemies was carried on in the classical world with scientific precision. As Vitruvius could have explained far better than I can; there was a precise mathematical relationship between the dimensions of the moving parts of a ballista and the weight of the missile or the length of the bolt that it launched which determined the power of the weapon. Understanding this relationship in order to optimise the performance of siege artillery was the product of centuries of scholarship.

For millennia man had practiced archery for the purposes of the hunt or the slaying of his fellow man. The Ancient Egyptians (and their enemies) understood that the power and draw weight of a bow could be increased by combining the properties of different materials. By adding an outer layer of tension-resisting sinew to the wooden core of the bow and an inner layer of compression-resisting horn, they created composite bows which could outshoot a simple wooden bow of the same length.

To draw and fire a bow the archer relies upon his own strength. This naturally placed a limitation on the size of the weapons which could be produced. The first development in the quest to create a weapon which was not limited by the strength of the man firing it came in the Fourth Century BC on the island of Sicily. Here in the struggle for control of the island between Dionysius I, ruler of the Greek city of Syracuse and the emerging superpower of Carthage, artillery was born.

The gastraphetes or ‘belly-bow’ consisted of a bow attached to a long stock with a ratchet mechanism which assisted the archer in drawing back the bow. A U-shaped brace at the end of the stock allowed the weapon to be braced against the gut when firing. The bow sections of the largest examples of these ratchet drawn weapons could have been as much as fifteen feet across.

By developing this principle; adding a stand to support the weapon and winches to allow the slider mechanism which held the missile to be drawn back, the first true catapult, (the word derives from the Greek kata peltes; literally ‘shield-breaker’) was born.

Under the auspices of another inveterate war-monger; Philip II of Macedon, who like Dionysius kept a gaggle of boffins dedicated to the development of military hardware at his court, catapult technology took its next big step forward.

You can fire a projectile so far by bending a bow and then releasing the pent up energy but to fire a bigger projectile you need a bigger bow. Or do you? What if you could increase the amount of stored energy without recourse to ever more massive weapons? This is where the torsion spring comes in.

Philip’s engineers discovered that by making use of the energy stored in tightly twisted bundles of rope made from hair or sinew the power of a catapult could be dramatically increased. By attaching the bow arms to torsion springs and then drawing back on them the tension in the springs was increased further. This insight allowed catapults to be constructed which could fire larger projectiles further without the need for super-sizing them.

By Vitruvius’ day the mathematical laws which governed the operation of these weapons were well understood and the largest Roman torsion catapult or ballista was a beast which could hurl a stone ball weighing sixty pounds a distance of 150 metres, although Archimedes in his defence of Syracuse during the Second Punic War is credited with devising even greater machines.




For a vivid description of these weapons in action and the affect that they had upon those facing them we can turn to Josephus’ description of the siege of Jotapata in 67 AD.


But still Josephus and those with him, although they fell down dead one upon another by the darts and stones which the engines threw upon them, yet did not they desert the wall, but fell upon those who managed the ram, under the protection of the hurdles, with fire, and iron weapons, and stones; and these could do little or nothing, but fell themselves perpetually, while they were seen by those whom they could not see, for the light of their own flame shone about them, and made them a most visible mark to the enemy, as they were in the day time, while the engines could not be seen at a great distance, and so what was thrown at them was hard to be avoided; for the force with which these engines threw stones and darts made them hurt several at a time, and the violent noise of the stones that were cast by the engines was so great, that they carried away the pinnacles of the wall, and broke off the corners of the towers; for no body of men could be so strong as not to be overthrown to the last rank by the largeness of the stones. And any one may learn the force of the engines by what happened this very night; for as one of those that stood round about Josephus was near the wall, his head was carried away by such a stone, and his skull was flung as far as three furlongs. In the day time also, a woman with child had her belly so violently struck, as she was just come out of her house, that the infant was carried to the distance of half a furlong, so great was the force of that engine. The noise of the instruments themselves was very terrible, the sound of the darts and stones that were thrown by them was so also; of the same sort was that noise the dead bodies made, when they were dashed against the wall; and indeed dreadful was the clamour which these things raised in the women within the city, which was echoed back at the same time by the cries of such as were slain; while the whole space of ground whereon they fought ran with blood, and the wall might have been ascended over by the bodies of the dead carcasses; the mountains also contributed to increase the noise by their echoes; nor was there on that night anything of terror wanting that could either affect the hearing or the sight: yet did a great part of those that fought so hard for Jotapata fall manfully, as were a great part of them wounded. However, the morning watch was come ere the wall yielded to the machines employed against it, though it had been battered without intermission. However, those within covered their bodies with their armour, and raised works over against that part which was thrown down, before those machines were laid by which the Romans were to ascend into the city.


Josephus – Jewish War – Book 3.


These angry little fellas are making use of a simple tension catapult  in order to propel themselves at their smug green nemesis. As we saw in Part One however, engineers in the classical world had devised a means of harnessing the energy held in tightly coiled bundles of rope made from hair or sinew in order to increase the power of a catapult significantly. These torsion catapults had reached the pinnacle of their development by the end of the First Century AD and the armies of Trajan would have terrorised the defenders of Sarmizegethusa and Ctesiphon with the ultimate in torsion artillery technology. The cheiroballista was built on the same lines as the earlier examples but its frame was constructed from iron and the torsion bundles or skeins were protected from the elements by being housed in metal cannisters. This more robust weapon was also smaller and more mobile than the equivalent wooden examples. We can see here depicted on Trajan’s column a cheiroballista being transported on a cart.


Optimising the design of such machines was dependant on a thorough understanding of the mathematical relationship between the diameter of the torsion spring, the length of the bow arms and the weight or length of the projectile. Men such as Trajan’s chief engineer Apollodorus of Damascus, who famously constructed a magnificent stone bridge across the Danube, were well versed in such reckoning. By the late Roman Empire however, such knowledge was beginning to be lost and masterpieces of the siege engineer’s craft such as the cheiroballista were disappearing from the battlefield.

Instead the torsion artillery of choice for the Roman army was a brute of a siege engine known as the onager; ‘wild ass’, so named for its vicious kick.

The onager was a simpler device possessing just a single arm as opposed to the two arms of the ballistae. The throwing arm was held upright in a skein stretched between two beams, the tension of which could be adjusted with a crank mechanism. A second crank mechanism allowed the throwing arm to be pulled back and a slip-hook mechanism then allowed the missile to be released from a sling suspended from the end of the throwing arm.


Nevertheless there is evidence for the continuing use and continuing deadly accuracy of bolt throwing ballistae in the late Roman and early Byzantine world. Ammianus Marcellinus; writing in the Fourth Century AD describes both one and two armed torsion catapults being used in the defence of Amida on the Tigris and two hundred years later Procopius describes ballistae being used to defend Rome from the Goths.

In the late Sixth Century the Avars; terrifying horsemen from the Eastern Steppe, began raiding across the Danube into the Balkans. These invaders brought with them a new type of siege engine originally developed in China. The trebuchet had arrived. These early examples were traction trebuchets, powered by men heaving in unison on ropes to pull the throwing arm of the machine up and over the top of the frame and release the missile from the sling. At the siege of Thessalonika in 597 AD these machines, which he refers to as petroboles; stone throwers, are described in some detail by the Archbishop John who was an eye witness.

These petroboles were tetragonal and rested  on broader bases, tapering to narrow extremities. Attached to them were thick cylinders well clad in iron at the ends, and there were nailed to them timbers like beams from a large house. These timbers had the slings from the back and from the front strong ropes, by which, pulling down and releasing  the sling, they propel the stones up high and with a loud noise. And on being  fired they sent up many great stones so that neither earth nor human constructions could bear the impacts. They also covered those tetragonal petroboles with boards  on three sides only, so that those inside firing  them might not be wounded with arrows by those on the walls. And since one of these, with its boards, had been burned to a char by a flaming arrow, they returned, carrying away the machines. On the following day they again brought these Petroboles covered with freshly skinned hides and with the boards, and placing them closer to the walls, shooting, they hurled mountains and hills against us. For what else might one term these extremely large stones?

Medieval Weapons: An Illustrated History of their Impact By Kelly De Vries & Robert D. Smith Copyright 2007 by ABC-CLIO, Inc.

Smashing the Bridge between Roman and Medieval Artillery: The Onager by Brian Pangburn
Ammianus Marcellinus on Roman artillery
Ammianus Marcellinus on the siege of Amida

More on catapults