Monday, 3 November 2014

Born in the Purple - Constantine VII Part One

Let's get back to Byzantium. It's been a while.

This post follows on from my Enemies at the Gate series which ended with the troubled reign of Leo VI, known as 'the Wise'. That 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 was known to posterity as Porphyrogenitus ‘born in the purple’ to underline the legitimacy of his father’s marriage and his own birth. For the first three decades of his reign, Constantine would be a marginalised spectator on the side lines and a bit part player in his own story. He was only four years old at the time of his father Leo’s death and so the throne was taken by his dissolute uncle Alexander.
The brief reign of Alexander, depicted right in a mosaic from the Hagia Sofia, would prove an unmitigated disaster. Such had been his resentment of his late brother that the new emperor would overturn every one of Leo VI’s policies with little thought for the consequences. His most damaging action was to insultingly dismiss an embassy from the Bulgars, breaking off peaceful relations. He also restored his late brother’s implacable opponent Patriarch Nicholas, who began plotting once more to overthrow the ruling dynasty. Alexander died from a stroke after just thirteen months, most of which he spent in debauchery and idle pursuits.
 All of this left the young emperor Constantine Porphyrogenitus in a precarious position. On his death bed his uncle had appointed the Patriarch as regent in a final effort to spite his brother’s memory. Nicholas had lost the patriarchate over his opposition to Leo VI’s fourth marriage. Finding himself now as regent for the royal offspring of that union, his first action was to try to supplant Constantine, who he regarded as illegitimate.

Soon Nicholas was conspiring with Constantine Ducas, the son of that Andronicus with whom he had been accused of colluding against Leo. Just a few days after the young emperor’s coronation in the summer of 913, Ducas entered the city with a small force with the intention of seizing control of the palace. His plot had been discovered however and his party was set upon by a mob in the streets outside the hippodrome. The rebels managed to advance as far as the palace gate where a loyal force raised from the fleet engaged them in battle. Ducas lost his head in the fighting. With this first gambit having failed, the Patriarch attempted to distance himself from the plot by unleashing a bloody purge of Ducas’ supporters in the army.

Patriarch Nicholas as depicted by Nikolai Pavlovic 1917
The Patriarch’s assumption of the regency was marked by bitterness and spite. He had humiliated his predecessor Euphemius, having him publically stripped of his robes and beaten. He had flung the admiral Himerius into prison as punishment for his defeat by the Muslim convert turned privateer admiral Leo of Tripoli and had completely excluded the empress Zoe from the council of regency.

Meanwhile, the second of Alexander’s blunders had come home to roost for Symeon of Bulgaria had marched upon the capital. The Bulgars laid siege to Constantinople and as tradition dictated they laid waste to the lands outside the Theodosian Walls but could make little impression upon them. The Patriarch went out to meet with Symeon and with his desire to retain his Episcopal jurisdiction over the Bulgarian church overriding all other considerations, he found himself putty in the Bulgar ruler’s hands. Nicholas agreed to the resumption of tribute and also promised that Constantine would marry Symeon’s daughter. Well pleased with the bargain that would make him the emperor’s father in law, Symeon marched away.
The Patriarch however had gone too far in taking such action and found himself outmanoeuvred. The empress Zoe, who he had banished to a convent, swept back into power and Nicholas found his activities restricted to the ecclesiastical sphere. Zoe, known as Carbonopsina  ‘the black-eyed’  was a legendary beauty and was used to asserting her will. Throwing aside her habit, Zoe took a firm grip on affairs of state. Nicholas’ agreement with Symeon was repudiated. The empress would have no barbarian princess marrying Constantine. Un-phased, the Bulgar Tsar prepared for war. 

The forces of the caliphate had taken advantage of the empire’s preoccupation to overrun the buffer zone of Armenia, intervening in an Armenian civil war and subjugating the entire country to Abbasid rule. Zoe threw her weight behind Ashot II, depicted right, the exiled claimant to the Armenian crown and provided him with a large army with which to take back his land. Ashot was successful in his campaign, driving out the Arab troops and their allies and establishing himself as king of Armenia, earning himself the nom de guerre of Yerkat ‘the iron’ in the process. A retaliatory raid by the forces of the caliph into Anatolia launched from Tarsus was also defeated and following this a treaty of peace was concluded with the caliph on reasonable terms. Zoe could congratulate herself on the success of her foreign policy.

The Bulgars remained the greatest threat however and soon Symeon was on the move once more, harassing the empire’s Thracian territories and seizing the city of Adrianople, which he abandoned upon payment of a large ransom. With peace secured in the east, troops were available for a campaign against the Bulgars. A grand strategy was devised to defeat Symeon through encirclement. The governor of Cherson was instructed to gather a force from amongst the fearsome Pechenegs who had settled down beside the Dnieper in the lands from which they had driven the Magyars. With these mercenary recruits, doubtless eager at the prospect of loot, he was to march to the Danube where he would rendezvous with the imperial fleet. Meanwhile another force under the command of Leo Phocas, the latest scion of that house to rise to the supreme command of the Byzantine armies, having replaced the late Constantine Ducas as Domestic of the Scholai, would march northward from the capital. The  Bulgars would be caught between the two forces and crushed. Like many an overcomplicated plan, it all went wrong. The Pechenegs turned up on the Danube as planned but the fleet commander Romanus Lecapenus, for reasons which are unclear, failed to transport them across the river and they returned home. Meanwhile, unaware of the unravelling of the Byzantine strategy, Phocas marched on to confront the Bulgar army alone. Battle was joined in the late summer of 917 at Achelous on the Black Sea coast. The Byzantine sources claim that all was going well until Phocas lost control of his horse which galloped riderless through the army and started a panic as men feared their commander was dead. This is a story which crops up too often in tales of Byzantine defeat to be true every time but whatever the reason, the pursuit of the retreating Bulgars became disorderly. Symeon rallied his army and they counterattacked, putting the Byzantine forces to rout and slaughter. Phocas lived to fight another day, so must have found another horse from somewhere.

Rout at Achelous - Madrid Skylitzes
Symeon advanced in pursuit of the retreating Byzantine army and gave them another mauling although by all accounts Leo’s men fought bravely. The son of Constantine Ducas is said to have died a hero’s death in this engagement, restoring his family honour.

Despite his somewhat patchy military record, it seems that Phocas had caught the empress’ eye and was being sized up as potential husband material. For those who mistrusted the Anatolian landed aristocracy, amongst which the Phocas clan was at present pre-eminent, this was not a desirable situation. Theodore, the tutor of young Constantine Porphyrogenitus, feared for his pupil’s life if Phocas were to ascend the throne and so sent an appeal to Romanus Lecapenus who, despite his recent disgrace, still commanded the Byzantine fleet.

Romanus was now presented with a remarkable opportunity to turn around his fortunes. From having only narrowly escaped a sentence of blinding for his part in the Achelous fiasco he was now in a position to present himself as the protector of Constantine. Zoe’s response was to order the fleet disbanded but the her instruction was disobeyed and those she sent to enforce it were arrested. With her authority in tatters she once more found herself completely sidelined by Nicholas who reassumed the regency. The Patriarch however was no longer in control of the situation which had descended into a power struggle between Leo Phocas and Romanus Lecapenus.

By the spring of 919 Romanus felt secure enough in his support to enter the palace of the Bucoleon and seize control of the reins of empire. He married his daughter Helen to the thirteen year old Constantine and assumed the title of Basileopater ‘father of the emperor’. Phocas rose in revolt but his army refused to follow him and instead he was handed over to his enemies and blinded. As for empress Zoe, she soon found herself accused of attempting to poison Romanus and was forced back into her hated habit and dispatched once more into the seclusion of a convent; out of sight and out of mind.

To undermine the empress’ position as far as possible her marriage to Leo VI was condemned in the strongest terms by the church and fourth marriages were henceforth outlawed. The legitimacy of Constantine was however upheld, for after all, the authority of Romanus as Basileopater was dependent upon it and so Nicholas was denied a complete victory.

A 20th Century reimagining of Tsar Symeon

Under Romanus, who was granted the title of Caesar by a compliant Constantine a year after his usurpation and crowned co-emperor just a few months later, the empire would enjoy a resurgence in its fortunes. His tenure as emperor began auspiciously and appropriately with a naval victory that saw the final demise of Leo of Tripoli, removing a persistent thorn from the side of the empire. Romanus followed this up by securing peace with Symeon, who in 924 had once more advanced to the walls of the capital. A summit was held between the two rulers on a jetty constructed on the shore at Blachernae for the purpose, with Romanus arriving by ship. The emperor gave the Bulgar Tsar a tongue lashing. Magnificent in the imperial regalia, Romanus castigated Symeon for making war on his fellow Christians and warned him to look to the salvation of his soul. The emperor told the Tsar that if it was treasure that he wanted then he could have all that he desired but implored him in God’s name to keep the peace. Feeling very small, Symeon consented and departed forthwith and never raised his hand against the empire again. Such at any rate is how the Byzantines would have us see this encounter. A more cynical observer could point out that, under the guise of his tirade, Romanus had offered tribute in exchange for peace and Symeon had consented. Nevertheless the peace held as Symeon became embroiled in conflict with the Slavic states on his western border, whose restlessness had doubtless been encouraged through Byzantine intrigue.

The capture of Melitene - Madrid Skylitzes
This freed up the forces of the empire to turn against the caliphate once more. Romanus had appointed his Armenian countryman John Curcuas as Domestic of the Scholai and employed him in rooting out his opponents. In 926 Curcuas was sent at the head of a large force between fifty and eighty thousand strong to menace the petty kingdoms and cities of the frontier territories into switching their allegiance from the caliph to the emperor, demanding tribute and then following this up with armed invasion. The cities of Melitene and Samosata on the upper Euphrates were put to the sack before Curcuas turned his armies towards the kingdoms to the south and east of Ashot’s Armenia, sacking the Arab stronghold of Dvin.

Romanus meanwhile continued to strengthen his grip on power by establishing his family as a ruling dynasty. He had appointed his eldest son Christopher as co-emperor alongside himself and the increasingly marginalised Constantine and would elevate his two younger sons to the purple in due course. His youngest son, who had been gelded with a view to a career in the church; a not uncommon practice, would be installed as Patriarch. All the while the bookish Constantine, isolated and withdrawn, seemed all but forgotten. When a terrible famine accompanied by biblical swarms of locusts swept down upon the empire it was Romanus who arranged relief and shelter for the poor. When the worst was past it was Romanus who forced the aristocracy who had snapped up lands from the destitute peasantry at knock down prices to hand it back with compensation, earning the gratitude of his people. When Curcuas once more successfully besieged and annexed Melitene in 934 it was Romanus who basked in the glory of victory.
Igor sets out to attack Constantinople - Ratziwill chronicle

War on the frontier settled into tit for tat raiding with the highly capable Abbasid governor of Amida, Sayf ad Daula, proving a worthy rival to Curcuas. The spring of 941 found both fleet and army engaged in campaigns against the Arabs when once more over the horizon there appeared a Rus fleet descending upon the capital.

Following the death of Oleg, Igor the son of Rurik had come into his inheritance as Prince of Kiev. Keen to demonstrate to his followers that he was made of the same uncompromising Viking stuff as his father, he embarked upon a new expedition to Constantinople. The Russian Primary Chronicle relates that Igor sailed into the Black Sea with an improbable armada of ten thousand ships. Only fifteen serviceable ships were available to the emperor but these proved sufficient to deter the Rus armada from an assault on Constantinople itself. An attack by the Protovestiarios Theodore with Greek fire destroyed many of the Rus ships with large numbers of their crews drowning as they leapt overboard to escape the flames. Turning away from the capital which remained inviolate behind its walls, Igor landed on the Bithynian coast of Asia Minor and set about doing what Vikings did best. According to their own chronicle, which was no doubt based on Byzantine sources, the Rus; waged war along the Pontus as far as Heraclea and Paphlagonia, and laid waste the entire region of Nicomedia, burning everything along the gulf. Of the people they captured, some they butchered, others they set up as targets and shot at, some they seized upon, and after binding their hands behind their backs, they drove iron nails through their heads. Many sacred churches they gave to the flames, while they burned many monasteries and villages, and took no little booty on both sides of the sea.

Fighting the Rus - Madrid Skylitzes


When Curcuas arrived at the head of his troops both sides acknowledge that the fighting was hard but eventually the Rus were driven back to their ships. By now the Byzantine fleet had arrived and the Rus were chased from the shores of the empire with heavy losses. Undeterred, Igor began raising fresh forces but accepted the offer of a renewed treaty from the emperor rather than face another dose of Greek fire. It was probably at this point that the trading concessions ascribed to Oleg in 911 were in fact obtained.

Curcuas meanwhile had returned to the east and had swept all before him in an invasion of Mesopotamia which saw the former imperial frontier strongholds of Amida and Dara sacked and plundered, if not permanently regained. Laying siege to the city of Edessa in 944, Curcuas agreed to spare the city when the largely Christian populace offered to hand over the sacred relic known as the Mandylion. This was a cloth bearing a portrait believed to be an actual likeness of Christ, obtained when the Edessan  ruler Abgar had sent a delegation to Jesus, asking him to come to Edessa and heal the king. Much miraculous legend had subsequently sprung up around the Mandylion, which had been lost for centuries and recovered just in time to save the city from a Persian attack. Now it was borne back to Constantinople in triumph accompanied by scenes of pious exultation.
Abgar with the Mandylion from an icon at St Catherines, Sinai
In this charged atmosphere the aging Romanus began to ponder the fate of his soul. His eldest son Christopher had died ten years earlier and his younger sons Stephen and Constantine now expected to succeed to the empire in turn, pushing the hapless Porphyrogenitus aside. Romanus now declared that Constantine Porphyrogenitus would succeed him as senior emperor. Man of the moment John Curcuas was to marry his daughter to Porphyrogenitus’ son and thereafter serve as protector to the legitimate regime. Alarmed at the prospect of the imperial gravy train grinding to a halt, Romanus’ sons mobilised their supporters in an attempt to thwart their father. Poor Curcuas found himself out-manoeuvred. Not only was the wedding off but he was replaced as Domestic by Stephen’s nominee, the splendidly named Pantherius. Romanus found himself forcibly side-lined by his sons and was shipped off to an island monastery, protesting feebly.

Stephen and Constantine expected the Porphyrogenitus to continue in his passive acceptance of their usurpation, lending legitimacy to the rule of the Lecapeni but playing no active role in affairs of state. They reckoned however without the influence of their sister, the empress Helena, who urged her retiring husband to find his backbone. By now the emperor was in his late thirties and if he was ever going to assert his rights, now was the time. Once he had been stirred into action by his wife, Porphyrogenitus found a willing champion in the form of Bardas Phocas, brother of Romanus’ blinded rival Leo. Within months of their seizure of power, disaster overtook the regime of Stephen and Constantine. Mobs rioted in the streets in protest at their treatment both of their father and of Porphyrogenitus. Meanwhile their man Patherius proved to be a paper tiger. Brought to battle by Sayf ad Daula whilst raiding near Aleppo, his forces suffered a major defeat and he withdrew from Syria. Marching west in support of the Lecapeni he then suffered a further defeat at the hands of Bardas Phocas. The game was up and Stephen and Constantine soon shared the fate of their father, exiled to separate monasteries to contemplate their misdeeds.
The Edessenes surrender the Mandylion - Madrid Skylitzes
A story which no doubt grew up in later years is told in the Byzantine sources of how Stephen had looked blankly at the Mandylion when it arrived in Constantinople, unable to see any image upon it. Constantine Porphyrogenitus however had immediately identified the features of Christ and pointed them out to the embarrassment of the young Lecapenus. It thus seemed that heaven decreed that the Porphyrogenitus had been born to rule, but after a lifetime on the side lines, was he up to the challenge?

You may also enjoy Enemies at the Gate

and Rise of the Rus


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