Tuesday, 19 November 2013

When Theophilus met Theophobos

Whilst currently enjoying the chronicle of John Skylitzes I came across the interesting story of Theophobos. This one-time Persian renegade enjoyed a turbulent career of highs and lows which brought him briefly and reluctantly to claim the imperial title and ultimately to his ruin.

The Khurramite leader Babak

Our story begins in the year 816 when a revolt by the Khurramite sect centred on present day Azerbaijan broke out against the incumbent regime of the Abbasid Caliphs. The Khurramites followed a belief system which fused ideas from the Zoroastrian cult of Mazdakism, which had been suppressed under the Sassanid Persian rulers, with Shi’a Islam. Both had a certain egalitarian appeal for the downtrodden and the dis-enfranchised. The Khurramites revered the memory of Abu Muslim, who had led the revolt which had swept the Abbasid Caliphs to power only to be slain in a fit of jealousy and paranoia by the second Abbasid Caliph al-Mansur. Ultimately the revolt could be seen as a Persian backlash against their Arab rulers in Baghdad. The leader of the revolt was Babak, who claimed descent from Abu Muslim and also claimed rather interestingly to have inherited the soul of the previous Khurramite leader, which had fused with his own.

In true guerilla style Babak took to the mountains when the Caliph al-Ma’mun sent a succession of governors of Azerbaijan against him and by using the terrain to his advantage he was able to win many victories over them; falling upon and slaughtering his enemies in bad country and then melting away once more. His successes brought more support for the revolt and pockets of Khurramite resistance sprang up all over the Persian territories.

In 830 another army of Khurramite rebels holding out in the Zagros Mountains of Western Iran led by a Persian nobleman by the name of Nasr was heavily defeated by the Caliph’s forces. Seeing the writing on the wall for the Khurramite cause, Nasr chose to lead his surviving troops through Armenia out of harm’s way and sought refuge within the Byzantine Empire.

The arrival of Nasr with some fourteen thousand armed followers who professed themselves willing to fight for the Empire against the Caliphate was greeted rapturously by the emperor Theophilus. The new arrivals were given land and incorporated into the Byzantine military under the command of Nasr himself, upon whom the emperor bestowed Patrician rank. Nasr and his followers agreed in principle at least to embrace Christianity and were baptised. Nasr now took a new Christian name and became Theophobos. As Christians, the former Khurramites were now permitted to marry and Theophobos was given the emperor’s own sister-in-law as a bride. The fugitive rebel had landed on his feet.

The fortress of Badd - Babak's last stronghold

Al Ma’mun died in 833 to be succeeded by his half-brother  al-Mu’tasim. The new Caliph was determined to crush the Khurramite rebellion and soon appointed a man equal to the task of rooting Babak out of his mountain stronghold. The new governor, a Persian noble named al-Afsin, adopted a methodical approach and moved forward steadily into the mountains, taking control of one rebel stronghold at a time. Babak attempted to counter the invasion by targeting al-Afsin’s supply lines but al-Afsin succeeded in inflicting a series of significant defeats upon Babak who retreated back to his seemingly impregnable mountaintop fortress of Badd.

Babak’s revolt came to its bloody end in 837. Despite the difficulties of reaching the fortress of Badd which could only be approached in single file through a narrow defile, al-Afsin’s soldiers succeeded in storming the stronghold and overcoming its defenders. Barbak and his few remaining followers slipped away into the forests but he was ultimately betrayed and run to ground. Paraded through the streets of Samarra on an elephant, Barbak had his hands and feet cut off before being beheaded. His body was then publically displayed on a gibbet.

Al Afsin and Babak - Tarikhnama of Balami

Any relief felt by the Caliph at this victory was soon tempered by the arrival in his territory of the emperor Theophilus at the head of an invading army. Theophobos and his Persian brigade marched with the emperor. Theophilus was eager to avenge a series of humiliating defeats at the hands of al-Ma’mun in 830-31 and may also have been responding to a call for aid from Barbak, although his intervention came too late to save the doomed rebel leader. The emperor’s forces reached the upper Euphrates and put the cities of Arsamosata and Zosopetra to the sack.

Following this victory and in the aftermath of Babak’s defeat another sixteen thousand Khurramites fled to the empire and were both converted to Christianity and enrolled in Theophobos’ Persian brigade, bringing its total strength to thirty thousand men.

Zosopetra was the birthplace of al-Mu’tasim who vowed revenge upon Theophilus and in the following year led his armies in a campaign of reprisal, aimed at the destruction of the emperor’s own birthplace of Amorion. Whilst the Caliph led his forces towards his target of Amorion, a second army under al-Afsin, fresh from his victory over Barbak which had seen him showered with honours by the Caliph, marched into Cappadocia.

The armies of Theophilus and al-Afsin met in battle at Anzen. Theophilus was accompanied by Theophobos and his Persian troops and probably outnumbered al-Afsin. Having disregarded advice from Theophobos to mount a night attack, feeling such tactics to be beneath his honour, the emperor led his troops into battle at dawn. At first the battle went the way of the Byzantines as their right wing made progress and forced their enemies back. Theophilus and Theophobos now led a contingent of troops from the right wing behind their army to their left in order to reinforce this wing and complete the victory. A well timed counterattack by Afsin’s Turkoman horse archers however threw the Byzantine right wing into chaos and, thinking themselves abandoned by their emperor, they routed. Theophilus found himself isolated and retreated to a hill top protected by those soldiers of the imperial Tagmata who had not fled along with some of the troops of Theophobos.
Al-Afsin brought up his siege engines to batter at the defenders who were also showered by arrows by the horse archers. The wretched Byzantines were saved by the elements as it began to rain and at last night fell.

Theophilus flees for the high ground at the  Battle of Anzen - Madrid Skylitzes

Skylitzes, himself writing some two centuries later and compiling his account from various surviving sources, tells two stories of the events of the night which show Theophobos in differing lights. In one version we are told that during the night the Domestic of the Scholae Manuel, Theophilus’ senior commander, persuaded the emperor that the troops of Theophobos could not be trusted. They must flee, he told the emperor, before the Persians sold the emperor out to the forces of al-Afsin. The emperor, accompanied by Manuel and his loyal troops succeeded in breaking through the enemy lines in the night and fled westwards. In another version however it is Theophobos who saves the emperor by the stratagem of ordering his troops to shout and sing joyfully as if they were being reinforced by friendly troops, causing the encircling enemy to withdraw and allowing the emperor to escape.

The events that followed suggest that the troops of the Persian brigade indeed had cause to believe that they had lost their emperor’s trust.

After the battle Theophobos and his troops withdrew to Sinope on the Black Sea coast. Fearful now of the consequences of the emperor’s wrath, the Persian brigade proclaimed their commander as emperor of the Romans. Arriviste though Theophobos may have been he was nevertheless a member of the imperial family and may well have been seen as a suitable candidate by those who longed for a restoration of the veneration of icons. The recent reverses suffered by the staunchly iconoclast Theophilus were cause for many to wonder if the displeasure of the Almighty was being manifested in Byzantine defeat at the hands of the infidel.

The court of Theophilus - Madrid Skylitzes

At any rate Theophobos had no wish to be raised to the purple and appealed to the emperor, declaring that his usurpation had been forced upon him by his troops. Whatever reservations Theophilus may have had, he pardoned his friend and recalled him to Constantinople where he was received with honour. As for the Khurramites, although pardoned for their actions, they nonetheless found themselves scattered throughout the forces of the empire in units of two thousand men so that they no longer represented a threat to the stability of the empire.

In 842 the emperor began to sicken and soon it was apparent that he would not be long for this world. Once again the potential of Theophobos as an imperial candidate was feared by those in the emperor’s inner circle. He posed a threat to the succession of Theophilus’ infant son Michael and this time although he had done nothing to warrant it, he was shown no mercy. Arrested and imprisoned, Theophobos was executed on the emperor’s orders. Skylitzes tells us that when the emperor was brought Theophobos' head he wept and held it in his hands, declaring.

‘Now you are no longer Theophobos and I am no longer Theophilus.’

Make of that what you will.
You may also enjoy: Enemies at the Gate Part One - The Reign of Michael III

More on the Khurramite rebellion

Battle of Anzen

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