It is an oft repeated lesson of history that those who usurp the royal power often show the way to those who would usurp them in turn. With the overthrow of a dynasty somehow a spell is broken and the crime of regicide loses its awful gravity. So it was with Leo V, who through skulduggery at the Battle of Versinicia in 813, had engineered the downfall of emperor Michael I and thereafter ushered in the second era of iconoclasm.
Michael I and Leo V - Madrid Skylitzes
A story is told by the anonymous continuator of the chronicle of Theophanes the Confessor of how, many years earlier, back in the reign of Nicephorus I, three men accompanied the would-be rebel Bardanes Turkos to seek the advice of just such a hermit as he plotted his revolt. The hermit is said to have advised Bardanes against his rebellion but prophesised that his three companions; Leo, Michael and Thomas would all attain the purple, although Thomas, he warned, would never sit upon the throne. Bardanes’ revolt against Nicephorus failed and he was blinded and stripped of his property just as the old hermit had predicted.
If Leo gave any credence to this prophesy, if indeed such a prophesy there was, then it did not prevent him from elevating the two men who had accompanied him that day to high office under his rule. Michael, known as the Stammerer, was appointed Count of the Excubitors; commander of the imperial bodyguard and one of the most senior military positions within the empire. More than one former incumbent of this position had risen to claim the throne in the past. Thomas, known as the Slav, was appointed to Leo’s former command of the elite regiment of the Foederati.
Michael, not content with his station, soon began plotting to seize the throne for himself but proved to be loose tongued and incautious in company and drunkenly declared his intentions in the hearing of those who would report his words back to the emperor. On Christmas Eve 820, Michael was arrested and charged with plotting against his friend the emperor. He confessed all. Placed under guard in chains, Michael was left to await a truly terrible fate. He was to be executed by being thrown into the furnace beneath the baths of Zeuxippos the next day. It was the empress Theodosia, we are told, who fatefully interceded for Michael, imploring Leo not to taint his rule with such a savage act on the sacred feast of Christmas day. Leo too was troubled by the judgement he had passed upon his former friend and spent a sleepless night. He agreed to put off the execution until after the Christmas festivities. It would prove a fatal delay. During the night, Michael’s supporters put a conspiracy into action. Under the pretext of the prisoner wishing to confess his sins, a priest was sent for from the city. The servant sent to bring the priest summoned a number of conspirators who, disguised as monks, made their way into the Daphne palace complex and entered the chapel of St Stephen, where the emperor would celebrate a dawn mass.
As the emperor arrived for morning prayers the conspirators drew swords from under their habits and set upon him. In the confusion the priest was struck down instead of the emperor, who grabbed a large cross from the alter and wielded it desperately against his attackers. It was to no avail however and a mighty blow severed Leo’s arm, with his hand still gripping the cross. Falling to the floor, the emperor was beheaded.
Michael II receiving a delegation from the Bulgars - Madrid Skylitzes
Michael was carried from his prison cell and then sat upon the throne to receive oaths of loyalty with the fetters still upon his legs. Not until mid day was he released from his chains in order to make his way to St Sophia where a scandalised but compliant Patriarch placed the crown of empire upon his head.
When news of Michael’s usurpation reached the ears of Thomas the Slav, he gave no heed to any doom-mongering predictions of his ultimate failure that he may have received in the past and immediately raised the standard of revolt in the eastern provinces of the empire. It is difficult to separate the truth of Thomas’ motives from the propaganda put about by himself and his enemies. It seems probable however that Thomas sought to be all things to all people in order to gain for himself the widest possible base of support.
At times Thomas is said to have claimed to be the murdered emperor Constantine VI back from the dead, although surely he would have been too well known a figure in his own right to pull this subterfuge off with any but the most credulous of peasants and it is likely to be a later fabrication. In the east he presented himself as the avenger of the murdered Leo and the champion of the poor and oppressed. In the west, where anti-iconoclast opinion prevailed, his supporters hinted that he would be sympathetic to the cause of the restoration of the icons. Despite the fact that Thomas’ base of Amorion in the Anatolian heartland of the empire was the home town of Michael, supporters flocked to his side. Thomas was by all accounts a charismatic leader and soon almost every Anatolian theme, as Byzantine military provinces were known, had thrown their lot in with the rebel.
Thomas the Slav in Syria - Madrid Skylitzes
In 821 Thomas marched into Syria at the head of his considerable forces in a show of strength calculated to impress. Here too, the chameleon-like Thomas presented himself to best effect to gain the friendship of the Caliph Al-Mamun. His emissary to the Caliph was sent with extravagant promises to make. Allowing for propaganda intended to blacken his name as a traitor to the empire, Thomas is variously credited with signing away frontier provinces or perhaps even undertaking to en-fief the entire empire to the Caliphate in exchange for an alliance which would safeguard his rear whilst he turned his forces against Constantinople. The Caliph accepted with alacrity and provided Thomas with a substantial contribution to his war chest. The rebel was even permitted to celebrate his coronation as Emperor of the Romans in the city of Antioch. Al Ma’mun would have been advised to remain sceptical of the bargain. Thomas, after all, was not the first Byzantine rebel commander to promise much and deliver nothing. Leo III had struck a similar bargain a century before. At any rate Thomas’ friendly overtures were well timed for the Caliph had his hands full already with the rebellion of Barbak.
With peace secured and having defeated a loyalist army from the Armeniakon Theme, Thomas turned his vast polyglot army which may have been as large as 80,000 men, against Constantinople. The fleets stationed along the eastern shore of the Marmara also declared for Thomas and so he was able to ferry his troops across the straits and lay siege to the land walls at Blacharnae. The defences here proved too strong for the attackers however and the massive catapults stationed on the towers wrecked destruction on every engine of war that Thomas was able to send against them. Just as it had seemed that the resolve of the defenders was weakening and the emperor Michael had appeared upon the walls in person to deliver a heartfelt plea for peace to the besiegers, lulling them into a false sense of security, a sortie launched from the gates fell upon the disorganised rebels and inflicted much slaughter upon them. At sea too Thomas’ forces were bested by the loyalist fleet and many of his ships were destroyed by Greek Fire. The siege dragged on through 822 and the besiegers endured a second miserable winter outside the walls before in the following spring came the fatal blow. From out of the west, falling like a hammer blow upon the rebel’s rear, came the army of Ormortag, son of Krum, who had been unable to resist the lure of easy plunder and come to Michael’s assistance. The Bulgar attack shattered Thomas’ army which withdrew westwards with the emperor’s forces hot on their trail; Michael himself at their head.
Thomas besieges Constantinople - Madrid Skylitzes
Two years later worse was to follow when a disgraced admiral in Sicily by the name of Euphemius provoked the wrath of the governor by eloping with a nun. The penalty for his offence was rhinocopia and rather than be deprived of his nose, Euphemius launched a revolt against imperial power. When his plans began to unravel, Euphemius escaped to North Africa and plotted with the Emir of Kairouan to conquer the island between them. Euphemius would then rule Sicily as the Emir’s vassal. The rebellious admiral then returned to Sicily backed by an Arab invasion force of ten thousand men. Euphemius, dressing himself in imperial regalia and styling himself emperor, came to a sticky end as his forces advanced on Syracuse. Arriving to accept the surrender of the town of Castrogiovanni, Euphemius was approached by a welcoming committee of two young men of the town, who prostrated themselves before him. As he bent his head to bestow a sovereign’s kiss upon the brow of one of the men, Euphemius was summarily beheaded by the other, reflecting perhaps in his last moments on the irony of his fate. The course that he had taken to avoid the loss of his nose had led in the end to the loss of his head. Another usurper had been dispatched but the damage was done. The Arab invaders were not so easily removed and with a firm foothold established in Sicily they would continue to gain ground on the island over the ensuing half century until they made it their own.
Michael died from dysentery in 829. He was succeeded by his son Theophilus who had ruled alongside him as his co-emperor from the age of seventeen. At twenty six, Theophilus promised to be a vigorous young ruler. He is remembered for many things, not least for being the last of the iconoclast emperors. He is remembered both for his love of justice and his love of pomp and ostentation. Like many an absolute ruler he could be capricious or merciful as the mood took him.
Theophilus condemns the assassins - Madrid Skylitzes
Upon his accession Theophilus gave a stark and unmistakable demonstration of his commitment to the rule of law. Summoning the great and the good to appear before him in the great vaulted audience hall of the Magnaura, Theophilus declared that he wished to reward those who had loyally supported his father. He called forth those who had participated in the murder of Leo nine years before and proudly the men stepped forward, eagerly expecting the new emperor to bestow gifts and honours upon them. Instead Theophilus called upon the Eparch of the city, responsible for maintaining law and order, to have the men seized and declaring:
‘Go to it Eparch! You have authority from God and from our own serenity to pass judgement on these persons and to reward them according to their deeds: not only for having stained their hands with human blood, but also because they slew the lord’s anointed within the sanctuary.’
It was a remarkable act. From the unlikeliest of quarters; the hands of the son of the man who had usurped him, Leo V had received his justice. For Theophilus perhaps, it was an act without which he could not feel that his accession to the throne was legitimate, tainted as it was by the heinous crime of Leo’s murder. Having seen justice done, he could set about ruling his empire with his hands washed clean.