Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Enemies at the Gate Part One – The reign of Michael III

Greetings Dear Reader. Let us resume the story of the Byzantine Empire’s efforts to resist all of those who sought to assail it throughout its long and illustrious history. I shall begin this post at the point at which the iconoclasm series left off. We find ourselves therefore in the reign of Emperor Michael III who ascended to the Byzantine throne in 842 as a two year old child. Power naturally rested with his widowed mother the Empress Theodora who, together with her ally and chief councillor the Logothete Theoctistus now held sway over the empire and presided over the triumphant restoration of the icons.

Theoctistus, like many a powerful Byzantine courtier was a eunuch, but this in no way debarred him from taking the lead of a military expedition. Since its capture by the Arabs the island of Crete had become a nest of pirates, whose activities included attacking Imperial shipping and raiding the Aegean islands and coastal settlements. In 843 Theoctistus set out at the head of an expeditionary force with the aim of retaking the island.

Arab fleet invades Crete

The expedition was initially successful and Theoctistus’ troops were able to virtually overrun the island. With victory in his grasp however, the Logothete lost his nerve when a rumour reached him of a plot to supplant him in the capital. Returning at once to Constantinople, Theoctistus left the expedition leaderless and in his absence the Arabs were able to fight back. Supported and reinforced by their co-religionists in Egypt the Arab defenders ultimately succeeded in annihilating the Byzantine expeditionary force. In the following year Theoctistus presided over another calamitous defeat at Mauropotamus in Cappadocia when his attempt to thwart an Abbasid invasion was crippled by mass desertions to the enemy. Following this defeat a period of truce was agreed between the Byzantine and Abbasid courts which allowed Theodora and Theoctistus to concentrate on the elimination of domestic enemies. The dualist sect of the Paulicians, whose numbers were on the increase in Cilicia, were subjected to a campaign of systematic persecution, causing many to flee to the lands of the Caliphate for protection. Those who remained faced a stark choice between conversion and death with most choosing the latter. The campaign against them was a short-sighted display of religious intolerance which drove the relatively harmless but numerous sect into the arms of the Arabs, depriving the empire of useful manpower.

In 853 came Theoctistus’ most notable triumph when he decided to strike against the port city of Damietta in the Nile Delta. It was a prime target; packed with ships and timber and the materials of war. Its destruction would severely hamstring Arab efforts to wage war against the empire at sea. Striking at the time of a major festival being held in Fustat, the Byzantine fleet commanded by another eunuch named Damianus fell upon the poorly defended port, disgorging five thousand troops to sack and burn the town in a two day orgy of destruction.

Theoctistus had redeemed his reputation but his continuing stranglehold on the affairs of the empire alongside Theodora was beginning to vex the young emperor Michael. By the time he had reached the age of fifteen Michael was giving vent to his frustration and found a sympathetic ear in the person of his uncle Bardas who was happy to arrange the arrest and cold-blooded murder of the Logothete and the confinement of Theodora to a nunnery. Michael was a weak-willed individual however and soon found that he had exchanged the dominance of his mother and her eunuch councillor for that of his uncle ,who would ultimately come to hold the rank of Caesar. The Patriarch Ignatius who opposed both Bardas’ increasing grip on affairs and his incestuous marriage to his own niece also soon found himself accused of conspiring with the emperor’s mother and was swiftly deposed and packed off to a monastery.
Michael III depicted as sole ruler on coin from British Museum collection (P Clayton)
Under Bardas the empire remained on an aggressive footing. Bardas’ brother Petronas led a raid deep into Arab territory in 856, ostensibly against the Paulicians, reaching Amida on the Tigris and returning heavy with captives and plunder. Three years later another raid was launched across the Euphrates which the emperor himself accompanied and in the same year another amphibious attack was made on Damietta which once again devastated the port.

In the summer of 860 whilst the emperor remained away from his capital in the east with Bardas, Petronas and most of his armed forces, a new threat to Constantinople itself appeared from an entirely unexpected direction. On the northern horizon there appeared a great swarm of sails and soon the terrorised citizens beheld the awful spectacle of a two hundred strong fleet of longships descending upon them. These were the Rus; adventurers of Scandinavian extraction who had set out to make a new home for themselves in the uncharted vastness of Russia. Here the hardy Vikings had both subjugated and been at least partially culturally assimilated by the indigenous Slavic population over the course of a generation or two. They had found plenty to trade in the form of furs, amber and slaves and had made use of the network of great rivers to explore southwards, reaching the Black Sea and establishing friendly commercial contacts with the peoples through whose lands they travelled. These particular raiders had been dispatched southwards by Rurik; the ruler of the settlement of Novgarod, to seize control of the commercially useful staging post of Kiev on the Dneiper. Having achieved this objective without difficulty, Rurik’s expeditionary force and their Slavic followers proceeded down the Dnieper into the Black Sea and thence to Constantinople. Swarming into the Bosphorus ‘like wasps’ as the Patriarch Photius described them, these invaders fell upon the vulnerable monasteries along the shore and on the islands in the Marmara. The imperial fleet was also absent and so the Rus burned and pillaged as they saw fit; destroying everything outside of the protective walls of the capital quite unopposed. The city itself remained invulnerable however and so once all  of the easy pickings had been taken the Rus turned for home.

A later legend grew up around the raid, which is preserved in the Russian Primary Chronicle, in which the Patriarch Photius dipped the sacred relic of the robe of the Virgin Mary into the waters of the Golden Horn. All at once a storm blew up and scattered the ships. The Rus however would be back.

When the Emperor had set forth against the infidels and had arrived at the Black River, the eparch sent him word that the Rus were approaching Tsargrad, and the Emperor turned back. Upon arriving inside the strait, the Rus made a great massacre of the Christians, and attacked Tsargrad in two hundred boats. The Emperor succeeded with difficulty in entering the city. He straightway hastened with the Patriarch Photius to the Church of Our Lady of the Blachernae, where they prayed all night. They also sang hymns and carried the sacred vestment of the Virgin to dip it in the sea. The weather was still, and the sea was calm,but a storm of wind came up, and when great waves straightway rose, confusing the boats of the godless Rus, it threw them upon the shore and broke them up, so that few escaped such destruction and returned to their native land.

Excerpt from Russian Primary Chronicle and detail from Kremlin fresco showing Photius dipping the robe of the Virgin in the sea.

With the capital once more safe and secure the emperor Michael could relax and enjoy himself; something in which he excelled. Leaving affairs of state in the hands of his uncle, the emperor spent his days drinking and attending the races with his closest companion Basil. Bardas meanwhile kept the empire on a war footing. In 863 the Caesar’s repeated stirring of the Muslim hornets’ nest elicited a response from Umar al Aqta; the Emir of Melitene and Islam’s most formidable warrior. Umar invaded the empire through Armenia and penetrated as far as the Black Sea coast, sacking the city of Amisus. Petronas was dispatched once more with a force of fifty thousand men and succeeded in pulling off a brilliant encirclement of Umar’s forces at Poson on the River Lalakaon. Cut down in the fighting, Umar was beheaded and his head was carried back to Constantinople on the tip of a lance to be presented to the emperor.

Defeat of Umar

Further emboldened by this success, Bardas began planning a grand new expedition for the reconquest of Crete. Troops were gathered and the fleet was prepared. By the Spring of 866 all was in readiness and the army marched out of the city accompanied by the Emperor who would see the expedition off at its point of embarkation. Unknown to Bardas however, a plot against his life was already in motion. The emperor’s favoured companion Basil, whom the Caesar had dismissed as a harmless roustabout, harboured great ambitions; ambitions which would only be furthered by removing Bardas. Basil therefore had been whispering in Michael’s ear; whispering that his uncle wished to supplant him and make himself emperor in his stead. To these poisonous whisperings Michael gave credence all too readily and gave his tacit agreement to a conspiracy to assassinate Bardas. On the day of the embarkation a pavilion had been erected from which the emperor and his attendant courtiers would watch the expeditionary troops march past. At an agreed signal Basil and an accomplice drew their swords and set upon the Caesar Bardas; cutting him down at the emperor’s feet.
With Bardas’ murder the grand expedition against Crete was forgotten and Michael III returned to Constantinople; there to raise up his uncle’s murderer, incredibly, as joint ruler alongside him. Michael, predictably enough, once more left affairs of state in the hands of Basil whilst he spent his days indulging in chariot racing and drinking himself insensible. It would prove to be a fatal decision for Basil’s ambition knew no bounds .Within a year Basil had tired of sharing the purple with his friend and benefactor and he struck once more; having Michael hacked to pieces in his own bed-chamber as he lay in a drunken stupor.
Assassination of Bardas
Michael III ‘the Sot’ had been, by and large, a spectator to his own reign; sitting back with cup in hand whilst better men had seen the empire through the challenges that had faced it. Theoctistus and his uncles Bardas and Petronas had waged war against the Saracens whilst the highly capable Patriarch Photius had advanced the cause of Christianity amongst the Bulgars and Slavs to the west through an intense campaign of missionary activity and had perhaps even turned back the Rus with a miracle! The usurper Basil inherited an empire in good  health, for which his predecessor was owed little and whose demise was largely unlamented. To his murdered friend Michael however, who had raised him up from a  humble stable hand to the throne of empire, Basil owed everything.

The Damietta Raid

The Russian Primary Chronicle 
To continue the story go to Enemies at the Gate Part Two

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