Leo VI, known as the Wise, ascended to the Byzantine throne in 886 following the suspicious death in a hunting accident of the man who officially at least was recognised as his father, Basil I. Leo himself however, whose relations with Basil had been fraught to say the least, seems to have been in little doubt as to the identity of his true father as he presided over the reburial in Constantinople with much pomp and ceremony of Basil’s murdered predecessor Michael III.
A penitent Leo VI
Leo endured a troubled family life, despised by his ‘father’ Basil before the latter’s death and saddled with a pious bore of a wife whom he detested. He found brief happiness when he married his mistress Zoe following his first wife’s death but lost her in childbirth only two years later. Leo then embarked upon a long and bitter dispute with his own church that would have brought a nod of sympathy from Henry VIII as he undertook a third and then a fourth marriage in pursuit of an heir, defying and eventually overthrowing an outraged Patriarch who had railed against the Emperor’s fornication.
International matters were scarcely more edifying. In 894 Leo’s trusted chief minister Stylian Zautses gave mortal offence to the new Bulgar ruler Symeon when he banished Bulgar merchants from Constantinople and forced them into conducting all trade with the empire through the city of Thessalonica. No longer able to move their goods by sea but obliged instead to undertake an arduous overland journey to Thessalonica instead, where they were greeted by increased duties, the Bulgar merchants understandably protested to their king. Receiving no satisfaction from the emperor, Symeon, who was eager for an excuse to do so, embarked on an invasion of Thrace.
The Bulgar victory at Adrianople
Imperial forces were ill prepared. The finest general of the time Nicephorus Phocas was at the time in the east to counter the Arab threat and only inexperienced and poorly led troops were available to face the Bulgars. Outside Adrianople Symeon’s forces inflicted defeat upon the Byzantines, killing both commanders and cutting off the noses of those taken captive and sending them back towards Constantinople as a grizzly message to the emperor.
Leo summoned Phocas and his army from the east to the defence of the capital but also sought to employ cunning diplomacy against Symeon by courting the enemies arrayed on his northern border. An embassy was sent to the Magyars, inviting them to fall upon the undefended Bulgar lands and even promising to provide imperial ships to ferry the rampaging horsemen across the Danube. Leo even warned Symeon of the impending Magyar invasion in the hope of precipitating his withdrawal from Byzantine territory but the Bulgar king did not believe the threat until the Magyars had swarmed across the river .
Returning north, Symeon faced the Magyars at Dobruja where he was defeated and forced to flee, holing up in a fortress whilst the Magyars and Byzantines advanced upon his capital Preslav from north and south. The Magyars sold thousands of Bulgar captives to Phocas.
Symeon sued for peace and was able to secure a Byzantine withdrawal from his territories but then was able spring a surprise attack of his own upon the Magyars by appealing to their own northern neighbours, the fearsome Pechenegs to fall upon them from the rear. Symeon now attacked the Magyars and in a savage fight that saw the loss of some twenty thousand of his own troops he nonetheless inflicted such an annihilating defeat upon them that they were driven westwards to seek a new homeland in what is now Hungary.
In 896, with Phocas now dead, Symeon once more launched his forces into Thrace. They met with the Byzantine forces at Bulgarophygon and utterly routed them in a shameful defeat for the Empire. Leo had no choice but return the Bulgar prisoners and restore the trading rights as well as agreeing a payment of tribute to the Bulgars. Under Basil the Bulgars had been turned into a peaceful satellite state of the empire; Christianised and pacified. Now they had humbled their more illustrious neighbours.
Defeat at Bulgarophygon
Leo’s troubles were not at an end. In 904 an Arab fleet under the renegade commander Leo of Tripoli sailed up the Marmara. The imperial fleet set out to meet the threat and succeeded in driving them back. On his return voyage however Leo of Tripoli decided not to go quietly but instead fell upon the city of Thessalonica. A convert to Islam following capture in an Arab raid, Leo pressed home the attack with determination. Having reconnoitred the defences from the sea, the Arabs pressed their attack where a combination of deep water and low walls allowed them to avoid underwater obstacles and land troops who attempted to scale the city walls. They were nevertheless repulsed by the defenders who held the walls with ferocious courage.
Leo now landed his siege equipment and battered away at the walls of Thessalonica which were in a poor state of repair. The defenders returned fire with their own siege engines and again an assault on the walls was repulsed. The Arabs next succeeded in burning down one of the outer gates of the city by pushing carts filled with flammable material up against them and setting them ablaze. The inner defences nevertheless held firm. Finally Leo returned to amphibious assault, lashing ships together to create floating siege towers and assaulting the walls from platforms lashed to the mast tops. This last furious assault ultimately succeeded in capturing a section of wall when the defenders lost heart and fled for their lives and the attackers swarmed into the city.
Leo of Tripoli took some thirty thousand prisoners and captured sixty Byzantine ships which were gleefully towed away. The captives were sold into slavery on Crete. One of their number John Kaminiates, who was later ransomed, wrote an extensive account of the siege which survives to this day.
Leo of Tripoli attacks Thessalonica
Emperor Leo determined to avenge the fate of Thessalonica and in 906 he dispatched a fleet under the command of one Himerius to attack the city of Tarsus. The Domesticus of the Scholae Andronicus Ducas, commander-in-chief of the Byzantine land forces and head of one of the most powerful aristocratic clans in the empire, was ordered to rendezvous and join forces with Himerius but refused to do so; perhaps believing a plot against his life to be in motion or perhaps slighted by the summons to serve under Himerius. Faced with Ducas’ refusal Himerius sailed on to Tarsus and succeeded in subjecting the city to a brutal sack, thus avenging Thessalonica. Ducas was now alarmed by the prospect of the dim view the emperor would likely take of his failure to join in the enterprise. He fled with those forces loyal to him, seizing control of the fortress of Kaballa near Iconium. The emperor was obliged now to send forces to besiege Ducas. The situation did at least provide a useful pretext for the deposition of Ducas’ ally the Patriarch Nicholas in Constantinople, whose opposition to the emperor’s fourth marriage was now circumvented by allegations of collusion with the rebel. When he received news of the Patriarch’s removal Ducas turned to the Caliph in Baghdad for his protection and an Arab force marched to break the siege and escorted Ducas to Baghdad. Leo, fearing that Ducas could become a second Leo of Tripoli, attempted to persuade the rebel to return home but he ended his days in exile at the Caliphal court. He would not be the last of the increasingly powerful Ducas family to turn against an incumbent emperor and his rebellious tendencies foreshadowed the rise of the Anatolian magnates who would increasingly dominate imperial affairs in the following centuries.
If Ducas had died in disgrace then Himerius was the man of the hour. He continued to plunder and terrorise the Arabs like a 10th Century Drake, in 908 sacking the Syrian port of Laodicea. Finally in 911 Leo sent him against Crete in yet another attempt to wrest that troubled island back from the Arabs who had made it into a nest of pirates. After six months of fruitless siege of the capital Heraklion, Himerius was ordered to return to Constantinople as the emperor’s health was failing. On the return voyage however his fleet was attacked off Chios by Leo of Tripoli who inflicted an annihilating defeat upon it. Himerius himself survived but his fleet was sent to the bottom of the Aegean. This last news no doubt hastened the demise of Leo who died in May 912.
The emperor who bore the sobriquet of the Wise, largely as a result of his legal reforms which saw the tomes of Byzantine law laid down by Justinian overhauled and set down anew in Greek rather than Latin, also left to posterity a military treatise known as the Tactica, which updated Byzantine military thinking from the famed Strategikon of Maurice, to reflect the current state of Byzantine arms and the new enemies ranged against them. In his writings he could count himself informed by bitter experience.
Leo and Constantine depicted as co-rulers
The emperor’s controversial fourth marriage had at last secured the succession with the birth of his longed-for son, at the cost to his dignity of exclusion from the sacrament. The boy Constantine, known to posterity as Porphyrogenitus ‘born in the purple’ to underline the legitimacy of his father’s marriage and his own birth, was only four years old however at the time of Leo’s death and so the emperor was succeeded by his dissolute brother Alexander.
The war with Samuel
Excellent piece on sack of Thessalonica from Byzantine Military
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