Chapter 3 - The Bloody Throne

Iconoclasm revived


Since setting aside his ledger and taking up his sword the emperor Nicephorus I had not met with much success. Having been humiliated by Harun al Rashid, Nicephorus could heave a sigh of relief at the caliph’s demise. When his sons soon fell to fighting each other Byzantium could enjoy a respite from trouble on the eastern frontier. In the west however there was trouble aplenty. The rise of the Bulgars under their charismatic and warlike leader Krum would prove to be the greatest challenge for the house of Nicephorus and would ultimately bring about its downfall.


Krum had succeeded in uniting his people as never before, bending petty warlords to his will in order to assemble an unprecedented level of military might. Nicephorus had faced the challenge head on, but his pre-emptive strike against the Bulgars in 809 had ended in the slaughter of his army and the sack of the imperial city of Serdica. Dusting himself down, Nicephorus soon struck back, leading his armies in person against the Bulgar capital Pliska and razing it to the ground. Two years later in 811 he returned with a greater army still and repeated the exercise, pursuing Krum’s forces into the mountains.

Krum is brought the skull of Nicephorus

Satisfied with the lesson, Nicephorus turned for home, not imagining that his enemies were far from vanquished. Krum however was a wily adversary and he had laid his trap well. As the emperor’s forces encamped in the pass of Verbitza, Krum’s forces moved into place. Occupying the heights all about the imperial camp and constructing barricades to bar the escape of any fleeing troops, the Bulgars prepared to take their revenge. As dawn broke on the fateful morning the Bulgars fell upon the camp of Nicephorus, howling out of the hills from all directions. The result was slaughter as  the emperor found his army unprepared and encircled by the Bulgars, with his soldiers fighting desperately for survival. Most of the Byzantines were slaughtered. Nicephorus himself was killed in the fighting and Krum later had the emperor’s skull fashioned into a drinking cup in celebration of his victory.


Some bloody and shaken survivors fought clear, carrying with them the emperor’s mortally wounded son and successor Stauracius. Incapacitated and in constant agony, Stauracius lingered on for six months, paralysed by his wounds until he mercifully succumbed.


Such an ignominious defeat, leading to the deaths of two Emperors of the Romans could not be allowed to go un-avenged, but the rule of the empire had now passed to Nicephorus’ son-in-law Michael, incidentally the first Byzantine ruler to bear a Jewish Christian name. Michael however was no soldier. Plagued by doubts and uncertainties, he was man deeply uncomfortable with the greatness that had been thrust upon him and his soldiers knew it. Nevertheless Michael determined to do his duty but having failed to inspire his mutinous troops to follow him in a campaign against Krum, he returned to Constantinople. Krum, seeing that the fight had altogether gone out of his enemy, sent envoys to the emperor to discuss peace terms but Michael could not bring himself to agree to peace with the Bulgar Khan. Un-phased, Krum returned to the offensive and promptly laid siege to and then captured the city of Messembria on the Black Sea.


It seemed that the military fortunes of the empire were at an all-time low. The depredations of Harun al Rashid had been ended only by the caliph’s death and the ensuing civil war and now a barbarian chieftain was rampaging across imperial  territory with impunity, swigging his wine from a dead emperor’s skull. It was to their sins that the people of the empire must look for the reason for their misfortune and many concluded that it was the resumption of the veneration of icons that had so displeased the almighty and caused him to turn his face from the Romans. During a service in the Church of the Holy Apostles a mob of veterans surrounded the tomb of Constantine V; loudly imploring the iconoclast emperor to rise from his tomb and lead them in battle against the Bulgars.

The message was clear and in the absence of the risen Constantine, the task fell to Michael.  Summoning his courage, the emperor duly led his armies out once more to meet the Bulgars on the plain of Versinicia in the summer of 813. Krum, it seemed however, was not his most dangerous enemy. One man who could read the writing on the wall very clearly and knew that the time was ripe for the pendulum of the iconoclastic struggle to swing back in favour of the destruction of the icons, sweeping a new man to power with it, was Leo, who commanded the emperor’s right wing. As battle was joined the Byzantine left wing pressed forward with gusto and soon they were driving the Bulgars opposite them back. On the right wing however, Leo held back from engaging the enemy and then, at some pre-arranged signal, his men turned tail and fled the field. The Byzantine right had consisted entirely of iconoclastically minded Anatolian troops, who were loyal above all to their commander Leo who was one of their own. In the centre, Michael was aghast at the desertion of his troops, although their commander Leo was conspicuously the last to leave the field, remaining long enough to evade the taint of cowardice. With the day lost, the emperor was left with little choice but to follow them. This left the Byzantine left wing isolated and swiftly surrounded and slaughtered by the jubilant Bulgars who then halted in their pursuit of the Byzantine army and contented themselves with plunder.

Battle of Versinicia - Manasses Chronicle

In the aftermath the hapless Michael could take no more. Convinced by events that he had lost the backing of both God and his people, the emperor was soon persuaded to abdicate and retired gratefully to a monastery. It will doubtless come as no surprise, Dear Reader, that the throne was now seized by none other than Leo, the commander of the treacherous right wing.


Following up his victory at Versinicia, Krum advanced to the walls of Constantinople but one look at the massive fortifications persuaded him as it had many before him that any assault upon them was doomed to failure. He therefore sought to parley with Leo but should have been well aware that the new ruler of Byzantium, with whom he had probably colluded before the battle, was as crooked as a barrel of snakes. No sooner had negotiations been opened between the two rulers then from the nearby undergrowth an arrow flew; slaying Krum’s standard bearer. The Khan, furious at this betrayal, dug in his heels and fled the trap. Having escaped the assassination attempt, Krum returned to his forces and embarked on a campaign of devastation, burning every last hovel right up to the walls of Constantinople but with no hope of assaulting the city itself he was forced to return impotently home and within a year he was dead.

All Constantinople breathed a sigh of relief at the death of this fearsome enemy. What further proof could be needed of the support of the Almighty for the regime of Leo than this change in imperial fortunes? Iconoclasm was firmly back on the agenda and Leo, finding that the Patriarch refused to cooperate with his plans, had him arrested. Leo then summoned a synod dominated by iconoclastically minded bishops who deposed the Patriarch and condemned the findings of Irene’s Second Council of Nicaea. Those churchmen who sought to oppose the motion were beaten up and spat upon. The emperor then let it be known that any holy image could be destroyed with impunity, sparking another orgy of destruction as more precious artwork was reduced to firewood. Irene was no doubt turning in her grave.



Brothers up in arms



If Al Amin the son of the Commander of the Faithful should attempt to remove Al Mamun the son of the Commander of the Faithful from his right of succession after himself or if he should attempt to remove Al Mamun from the governorship of Khurasan, or if he should attempt to dismiss any of his military commanders whom the commander of the faithful attached to al Mamun’s side, or if he should attempt to deprive him of either a small or a great part of what the Commander of the Faithful has granted to him, in any manner whatsoever or by any stratagem whatsoever, be it insignificant or momentous, then the Caliphate shall pass directly to Al Mamun and he shall come before Al Amin and be the one invested with power after the Commander of the Faithful.


Harun al Rashid could not have made it clearer. His dispensations regarding the succession were inviolable. If  his heir Al Amin interfered in any way with the rights of his brother either in regard to the succession or to the governance and control of the eastern provinces then his right to the caliphate was forfeit. All military commanders and indeed all Muslims in general would be released from their oaths of loyalty to Al Amin and would be expected to support the claim of Al Mamun. His sons had both written out declarations, swearing to uphold their obligations to each other and to the their younger brother Qasim, who was third in line. These were displayed on the walls of the Kabaa in Mecca. The caliph had written to every governor in the caliphate with a proclamation to be read out to all the people so that they understood what had been agreed and solemnly sworn to in Islam’s most sacred space. The oaths were awesome, binding and permanent. Those who broke even the smallest part of them would suffer the righteous anger of the Almighty himself. They were also unfortunately, as it turned out, not worth the paper they were written on. Incidentally, the oaths probably were written out on paper as the knowledge of paper production had by this time made its way from China to the Arab world, brought westwards from Khurasan with the Abbasids.

The Kabaa - scene of the oath taking

Harun, who died in March 809, was not long in his grave before the two brothers began moving inexorably towards conflict. Responsibility for the war must be laid at the door of Al Amin, the ruling caliph, who soon demanded the handing over of territory and revenues from his brother in direct contravention of the terms of the succession. As was his right, Mamun refused his brother’s demands. From their respective courts in Baghdad and Merv the increasingly strained diplomatic correspondence flew back and  forth by the efficient state postal service known as the Barid, whose riders could carry messages along the Khurasan highway at a rate of 400km a day. If there is a true villain of the piece it is Fadl ibn Rabi, likely architect of the downfall of the Barmakids, who had found himself in Baghdad as Amin’s chamberlain. With a eye to his own and his family’s fortunes, Fadl had no stake in a future with Mamun as the next caliph. From the first he worked to remove Mamun from the succession and encouraged Amin to this end. Having successfully provoked disagreement between the brothers, Fadl continued to raise the stakes until war was inevitable.


Mamun meanwhile, taking advice from the hawks in his own court, decided to test the extent of his brother’s hostility. He wrote to request that his sons and their mother be sent to him in Khurasan along with a large sum of his own money. Both were refused and the worst fears of Mamun and his supporters were confirmed further when news arrived that his brother had excluded his name from the Friday prayers in Baghdad. Towards the end of 810 Amin took the final fateful steps. The proclamations were torn down from the sacred walls of the Kabaa and brought to Baghdad, where the caliph publically ripped them up, before declaring that his own son Musa would succeed him as caliph.


Soon moves were afoot to depose Mamun from the governorship of Khurasan by force and a large army of some fifty thousand men was assembled. The commander of this force was none other than the formally disgraced governor of Khurasan, Ali ibn Isa, whose misconduct had prompted Harun al Rashid to take his last fatal journey east. Ali was a key member of Amin’s inner circle but his appointment was a double edged sword. In Khurasan he was a hated figure from his years of corrupt administration and the prospect of his return at the head of a conquering army encouraged the people of the region to throw their support firmly behind Mamun against his brother the caliph.


On paper, of which as mentioned there were plentiful supplies, Mamun did not have much of a chance. A small force of just five thousand men was all that could be mustered for the defence of the east and was dispatched to the city of Rayy which stood in the path of Ali’s advance. Rayy, situated close to modern Tehran, presented a formidable bastion guarding the only route to Khurasan between the Elburz mountains and the Iranian desert. In command of the defenders was one Tahir ibn Husayn, a young aristocrat from the Afghan city of Herat. Mistrusting the citizens of Rayy to remain loyal if he garrisoned the city and allowed himself to be besieged, Tahir instead elected to face Ali in the field. If the numbers given for the respective forces are correct then Tahir faced odds of ten to one. On a sandy plain a day’s march from Rayy, which offered no advantages of terrain to the defending force, the two armies met. Tahir must have either had a yearning to enter paradise or supreme confidence in the quality of his small force but if it was the latter then his faith was not misplaced. An initial cavalry assault by Ali’s army was seen off by the defenders before they made an attempt to negotiate by citing the late Harun al Rashid’s now defunct proclamations. Ali’s response was to put a price on the negotiator’s head. Battle was rejoined and in the furious fight that ensued, the hated Ali was a marked man. He was cut down and beheaded and with the death of their commander his army’s morale and discipline collapsed despite their superior numbers and they were routed.

Hamadan - scene of Tahir's second victory

Most commanders would have remained on the defensive following such a fortunate victory but once he had dispatched the news of his victory to Merv, Tahir immediately once again showed his exceptional boldness and initiative by marching westwards along the Khurasan highway with his small force. The army of Ali had broken up in disarray and offered no further resistance and a new force had been hastily assembled and sent out from Baghdad when news of the defeat had arrived. Tahir was able to defeat this force outside Hamadan and marched on to seize the town of Hulwan, which lay on the far side of the Paytak pass through the Zagros mountains. Having cleared the mountains, Tahir was now just a hundred miles from Baghdad and now he waited. The odds were still stacked against him but following the two shock defeats, things were falling apart for Amin. Having lost both the moral high-ground and the strategic initiative the caliph’s stock was falling and only large payments and promises of rewards in Khurasan when the war was won served to keep the army of Baghdad (Abna) and the tribal chiefs of Iraq onside. Tahir was showing himself to be a strategist of genius, dispatching agents to sow dissension amongst his enemies and circulating derogatory rumours of a homosexual relationship between Amin and Fadl on the streets of Baghdad. A new force of some forty thousand made up of the soldiers of the Abna and Arab tribesmen was dispatched towards Hulwan but such were the divisions and jealousies between the two groups, encouraged by Tahir’s agents,  that they fell to fighting each other before they were able to bring Tahir to battle.


Just as Caesar had crossed the Rubicon and swept down upon a panic stricken Rome with only a single legion and plenty of audacity, so Tahir now capitalised on the chaos and marched at the head of his tiny army into Iraq. His position in Hulwan was taken over by Harthama; Harun al Rashid’s most trusted general who had pledged his loyalty to Mamun. Harthama had arrived from Khurasan with reinforcements, releasing Tahir to go back on the offensive. Avoiding Baghdad for the time being, Tahir marched into the south and met with minimal resistance. Basra surrendered without a fight. In the holy cities of Mecca and Medina where there had been shock and dismay at Amin’s disregard for the sacred oaths that had been sworn, the people declared their allegiance to Mamun, as the wronged party, keeping to the letter of Harun al Rashid’s instructions.


In the summer of 812 Tahir and Harthama laid siege to Baghdad, where Amin remained holed up, now deserted by the majority of his troops and dependent upon the ordinary citizens for the defence of his capital. Despite having only rudimentary weapons and makeshift armour, the civilian militia raised from the poorest inhabitants, known as the ‘naked ones’ due to their lack of proper military equipment, put up a fierce resistance and the siege dragged on for a whole year whilst conditions in the city became increasingly worse. Vicious fighting ensued as the war for control of the city was fought street by street. Siege artillery was brought up and whole districts of the city of peace were battered into rubble. Law and order broke down as supplies ran low in the city and criminal gangs roamed the shattered streets. Many innocents were caught in the cross fire of arrows, stones and flaming missiles that rained down upon the stubborn defenders. The middle classes meanwhile tried to keep their heads down and protect their property as best they could.


Finally the attackers fought their way to the Eternity Palace where Amin was hiding, deserted by all but a few loyal supporters. Even Fadl ibn Rabi had abandoned his caliph and gone into hiding. As the palace crumbled and burned from the bombardment of Tahir’s siege artillery, Amin fled first to the old round city and then took to the river in a desperate attempt to avoid capture or at the very least surrender to Harthama, who he believed would spare his life. His escape failed when the boat sank in the Tigris and the bedraggled caliph was taken prisoner by Tahir’s men as he made his way to the bank. Locked in a store room in a nearby house, Amin was attacked by a mob of soldiers on Tahir’s orders later that same night. Wrestled to the floor, his throat was cut and his head was then struck off and taken to Tahir. His body was unceremoniously dumped. The caliphate belonged to Mamun, but its capital was in ruins and untold misery had been brought upon its people.


For the next six years, Mamun attempted to run the caliphate from his base in Merv. In 816, in what may have been a cynical gesture to garner a new base of support in Iraq or a genuine attempt to heal the breach in the Muslim community, Mamun declared that his successor as caliph would be not his younger brother Qasim nor any member of his family but the Alid imam Ali al-Ridha. Directly descended from the Prophet in the eighth generation, Ali’s pedigree was unquestionable. He was also the focus of pro-Alid rebellion. A revolt against Abbasid rule led by al-Ridha’s brother had broken out in Kufa, that perennial nest of troublemakers, in the previous year and been put down only with difficulty by the ever-loyal Harthama. Appeasement of the Alids made political sense therefore and Ali had joined the caliph in Merv and  had even publically chastised his brother for the blood that had been shed on his account. In the erstwhile corridors of power in Baghdad however, there was deep consternation at the thought of the Abbasid dynasty being replaced by an Alid one and all of the privileges of the incumbent ruling elite being stripped away. Mamun’s absentee rule had caused disquiet but this latest move provoked outright rebellion and Ibrahim, the hedonistic poet brother of Harun al Rashid was thrust somewhat unwillingly into power in Baghdad as a rival caliph.

Shrine of Ali al-Ridha - Tus, Iran

Enough was enough and Mamun now moved decisively and ruthlessly to regain control. It was time to move to Baghdad with his entire entourage. In his policies he had been guided from the beginning by his vizier Fadl ibn Sahl. Ibn Sahl accompanied the caliph as he finally made his way westwards to Baghdad but along the way he was murdered in his bath. When he reached Tus, Mamun paused to visit the grave of his father Harun al Rashid. Whilst here, perhaps with thoughts turning towards matters of succession, he also rid himself of Ali al Ridha, abandoning his policy of appeasement of the Alids. Almost certainly poisoned on Mamun’s orders, Ali was buried in the same garden beside Harun al Rashid  Today a magnificent shrine complex marks the burial place of this Shia martyr, whilst the grave of the famous caliph is entirely forgotten.


Mamun finally reached Baghdad in 819 and was rapturously received by the populace. Tahir rode at his side and would be richly rewarded with a palace in Baghdad and the governorship of Khurasan which he and his descendants would rule over as a virtual fiefdom for the next half century. It was no less than this brilliant general deserved. His son was raised to high command and given charge of bringing Syria and Egypt, which had descended into rebellious chaos, back into the fold.


 In ditching his pro-Alid policy, coming west and taking his proper place in his capital the caliph was quickly able to silence the dissenters. He had adopted green as his official colour in accordance with his new Alid alliance but dropped this within days of his return to the capital in the face of widespread disapproval and resumed the traditional Abbasid black. Reconciliation was the order of the day and even Fadl ibn Rabi, the principle architect of the civil war, was forgiven and reinstated. Zubayda, mother of the murdered Amin, was reconciled with the caliph and was treated with honour for her remaining years. Fearing the worst, Mamun’s uncle Ibrahim had gone into hiding when his supporters had cast him aside and pledged their loyalty to the approaching Mamun. He was arrested in Baghdad whilst trying to escape disguised as a woman and brought before Mamun. In a scene remembered in the Arabian nights, the poet did his best to excuse himself in florid verse and Mamun spared him, accepting that Ibrahim had in truth had no desire to usurp him, although he was kept under house arrest.


With all set to rights, Mamun set about the process of rebuilding his city and he would see it become the cultural and intellectual powerhouse of the age. In the remainder of his reign Baghdad would reach its apogee. In a grand gesture symbolising the return of the good times Mamun married Buran, the niece of his murdered vizier Fadl ibn Sahl, in the most expensive wedding perhaps of all time. The celebrations were truly magnificent and the occasion is said to have cost 50 million dirhams with members of the ruling family spending millions more on additional ostentation. Zubayda, taking centre stage as the grand dowager of the dynasty, spent 35 million and poured a thousand pearls over the bride by way of expensive confetti. The wedding favours were balls of musk, each of which contained a slip of paper with the details of a magnificent gift written thereon, including estates and palaces. If Carlsberg did weddings, they would be just like this one. It was a particularly good day for Mamun’s uncle Ibrahim who won his freedom at the bride’s request and was restored to a place of honour. For the ruling elite happy days were here again, but for how long would they last?


Of Prophecy and Treachery


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 awesome gravity. So it was with Leo.


The Byzantine chroniclers would have us believe that the events to come were all mapped out long before. Christian though they may have been, the Byzantine writers still liked to look to the touchstone of the pagan past for inspiration. The pages of Plutarch and Livy are filled with purported prophecies foretelling the rise and fall of great men, all of them doubtless safely composed with the benefit of hindsight. In the Byzantine sources, who sought to emulate the style of these ancient writers, in the place of the Pythia or Sibyl we find the holy man. The utterings of these ascetic hermits, we are given to believe, often foretold events to come. It is a contrivance easily enough reconciled with Christianity, for after all, were there not prophets in the Old Testament?


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, 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 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.

Leo V & Michael II - Skylitzes chronicle

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 when drinking 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. 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 almost struck down instead of the emperor, who grabbed a large golden 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 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.

Thomas the Slav in Syria - Skylitzes chronicle

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.


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 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. Mamun 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 continuing unrest in Syria and Egypt and a rebellion by the Khurramite sect, centred on present day Azerbaijan, which had sprung up during the civil war. The Khurramites followed a belief system which fused ideas from the Zoroastrian cult of Mazdakism with Shia Islam and like earlier movements they revered the memory of Abu Muslim. 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 had taken to the mountains and a succession of governors of Azerbaijan had failed to deal with him. By using the terrain to his advantage he had been able to win many victories over the Abbasid forces sent against him, falling upon and slaughtering his enemies in bad country and then melting away once more. His successes had brought more support for the revolt and pockets of Khurramite resistance were springing up all over the Persian territories of the caliphate. More trouble on the north-western frontier therefore, was the last thing the caliph wanted.

Thomas the Slav besieges Constantinople - Madrid Skylitzes

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 rebels’ rear, came the army of Ormortag, son of Krum, who had been unable to resist the lure of easy plunder and had 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 was at their head.


Thomas placed his final hopes of victory in the favourite Byzantine tactic of offering battle and then feigning flight, calculated to draw the imperial forces on in disorganised pursuit before turning upon them. In the event however the morale of Thomas’ army was in tatters. Pretended rout swiftly turned to the real thing as the rebels lost all heart and as Thomas fled for his life, his remaining forces surrendered in their droves. Run to ground in the Thracian city of Arcadiopolis, Thomas and his remaining followers held out through the summer as provisions ran short and at last, in October, all loyalty was exhausted. Handed over to the emperor by his treacherous companions in exchange for clemency, Thomas was flung at Michael’s feet whilst the emperor placed a purple booted foot upon his neck and pronounced a terrible sentence of death. Thomas’ hands and feet were cut off and he was then impaled outside the city. If only he had heeded the words of the hermit.


Michael had survived the great challenge to his reign but his remaining years brought little glory as freebooting Arab raiders fell upon imperial territory in the Mediterranean. In 825 Crete was overrun by invaders who had originally fled Andalusia following an unsuccessful rebellion. Having been ousted from Alexandria, these rebels-turned-pirates seized control of the island, founding the settlement of Candia, today known as Heraklion. Thereafter they would use it as base to harass Byzantine shipping and launch raids against the coastal settlements of the empire. An expedition sent to the relieve the island ended in dismal failure and the pirates would long remain a thorn in the side of the empire.

Arab invasion of Crete - Skylitzes chronicle

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. The province of Ifriqiya had by this point become a virtually independent territory, which paid no taxes to Baghdad and whose governorship was the hereditary possession of the Aghlabid family, who had succeeded in finally pacifying the region for Harun al Rashid. Having gained their independence, the Aghlabids had developed imperialist pretentions and Euphemius undertook to rule Sicily as the Emir’s vassal. The rebellious admiral returned to Sicily backed by an Aghlabid invasion force of ten thousand Arab and Berber fighters.


Euphemius, with pretentions aplenty of his own, dressed himself in imperial regalia on his return to Byzantine soil and styled himself emperor. He came to a swift and sticky end however, as his forces advanced on Syracuse, undone by his own hubris. 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 despatched 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.


A New Golden Age?


Emperor Michael II 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. This was a rare return to stability in the Byzantine succession, for if we exclude the unfortunate Stauracius, the last time that the imperial crown had passed from father to son without the need for a regency had been over half a century before when Leo IV had succeeded his father Constantine V. At just sixteen years of age, 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. He is also, as it happens, the only Byzantine emperor to have a crater on the moon named after him.


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 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 have them rewarded according their deeds, ‘Not only for having stained their hands with human blood, but also because they slew the lord’s anointed within the sanctuary.’

Theophilus condemns Leo V's murderers - Madrid Skylitzes

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.


Theophilus cultivated the image of the righteous ruler and probably apocryphal tales have come down to us of his legendary approachability as he rode through the city, giving ear to the complaints of little old ladies, upholding the rights of the small folk and seeing justice done to the mighty if they had overstepped the bounds of the law. These tales no doubt contain a grain of truth but clearly the young emperor’s PR machine worked well for him in the same way that the common touch and popularity of the younger British royals today, in contrast to the rather stuffy image of their elders, has done wonders for the image of the royal family.


Image was very important to Theophilus and it was his good fortune to come to the throne at a time when the imperial finances were in rude health. The recent opening of gold mines in Armenia had brought a flood of precious metal into the imperial coffers whilst a ten percent tax on all trade goods passing through imperial ports also bolstered his income. The emperor therefore had money to spend and spend it he did. By the Ninth Century the older parts of the Great Palace were becoming run down and had fallen out of regular use. In the open space between the old palace and the sea walls Theophilus created a new palace complex called the Bucoleon. It featured a series of magnificent new halls built in marble and was served by its own private harbour.

Embassy from Theophilus to Mamun

Theophilus was particularly concerned with outdoing his opposite number the Abbasid Caliph in Baghdad. The emperor had dispatched a delegation to the Abbasid court upon his accession, bearing precious gifts and scattering gold coins in the streets. Upon their return they described the incredible opulence of the caliph’s riverside palace, menagerie of wild beasts and sumptuous throne room, including his remarkable collection of automata. Not to be outdone, Theophilus commissioned his own. They included a golden organ which played to itself and was set up in the Chrysotriklinos and a golden plane tree filled with gilded bronze and silver birds which moved and ‘sang’. The golden tree was set up beside the so called ‘Throne of Solomon’ in the Magnaura upon which more birds were arrayed. Here foreign delegations were received. A concealed mechanism allowed the throne to be lifted into the air, so that the emperor looked down from on high upon any suppliants who came before him. It was guarded by a pair of gilded lions who moved and ‘roared’ at the emperor’s command, presumably similar to the famous Tiger of the Tippoo Sultan now in the V&A.


The emperor did not spend all of his money on palaces and baubles for his own amusement but also looked to the empire’s defences. In addition to strengthening the Sea Walls of the capital and adding new defensive towers, Theophilus also looked further afield. Early in his reign Theophilus took considerable steps to protect the empire’s trading interests on the northern shore of the Black Sea. Ongoing hostilities between the Byzantines and the Abbasids would ensure that the route by which luxury goods reached Constantinople from the east would shift increasingly to the Caspian Sea and thence via the great rivers of the Volga and the Don to the Black Sea. Trade with the peoples to the north would therefore grow in importance. The major power in the region between the lower reaches of the Dnieper and the Volga were the Khazars; a Turkic people who had been on good terms with the Byzantines for two centuries whilst staving off attempts at conquest from the Arabs. The Khazar Khagan had astutely adopted Judaism as his religion in order to resist efforts from both empires to convert his people and thereby place him in a position of being seen as antagonistic to one or the other. The Khazar capital of Itil at the mouth of the Volga was a trading enclave from which ships set out across the Caspian Sea to trade furs, slaves, honey and wax with Abbasid merchants and return with silks and spices from as far afield as India and China as well as pocketfuls of jingling silver dirhams. Heading northwards from Itil, boats could make their way up the Volga and then turn westwards, making use of smaller waterways and where necessary portage to enter the Don and then turn south for the Black Sea and the ports of the Byzantine Empire.

Rus traders imagined by Oleus Magnus

It was to protect this trade that Theophilus took action in 833, establishing a new province in the Crimea known as the Klimata which incorporated the previously independent city of Cherson at the mouth of the Dnieper under direct Byzantine control. A permanent force of 2000 troops was dispatched to the new province under the command of a military governor. At the same time Theophilus sent a task force of engineers and soldiers under the governor of Paphlagonia to build a new fortification close to the mouth of the Don. Known as Sarkel, the ‘white house’. This construction served to protect the Khazar controlled town of Tamatarkha which was dominated by a Jewish merchant community. It is believed that Sarkel anchored a line of earthworks and fortifications stretching between the Volga and the Don. The scale of this undertaking clearly demonstrates the level of threat faced by the region from potentially aggressive newcomers to the north. The most potent threat was believed to be posed by the Rus.


Itil was home to communities of merchants including a sizable contingent of Rus, who represented the southern terminus of a commercial network stretching all the way back to Scandinavia. Approximately 200,000 silver coins have been found throughout Scandinavia dating from the Viking period. Of these around half were turned up on the island of Gotland and 40,000 of these were Abbasid dirhams. It is an eloquent illustration of the extent and importance of the trade links established by the intrepid Rus.


The first permanent Viking presence in what is now Russia was established in the form of fortified settlements along the shores of Lake Ladoga during the mid Eighth Century. Setting out from their Swedish homeland, the first colonists came both as warriors and as traders, as the presence of both a sword and a set of scales as grave goods for the same individual testifies. They had the capacity to fight for land or plunder and to defend and keep it and to take slaves in large numbers from the native population to be sold down the river. They could however also offer protection to the native population and they set out to put down roots and establish peaceful and profitable trade. Indeed, so welcome did the Viking presence become that in the end a legend was born that the natives, tired by ceaseless infighting, had actually invited them to come and rule over them. Such is the tale of Rurik, eldest of three Viking brothers who is credited with establishing his rule in the town of Gorodisce, known as Holmgard in the Icelandic sagas, on Lake Ilmen, near the headwaters of the Volga.


Rus traders imagined by Oleus Magnus

Tenuous evidence for the earliest known contact between Rus and Byzantines comes from the Hagiography of St George of Amastris. Its author gave these Vikings who had made their way down the Dnieper into the Black Sea to raid the communities on its shores, about as good a write up as they received from the monkish chroniclers who had recorded the 793 raid on Lindesfarne  in very similar language. Amastris, a prosperous town on Paphlagonian coast, was saved by a miracle, for when the raiders tried to break into the saint’s tomb, they were struck down by the power of God and became weak and helpless. Whilst there is considerable debate about the date of this raid it is clear that by the early Ninth Century, the Rus were viewed as a significant threat.

The major threat however remained the caliphate. Mamun had regained a firm grip on his territories with Syria and Egypt having been entirely pacified by the son of Tahir and returned to obedience by 826. The rebellion of the Khurramites was still ongoing but the tide seemed to be turning. In 830 an 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 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 provocation was too much for Mamun who decided that the time had come for the caliph himself to lead an expedition against the infidel as his father had done. In the summer of 830 he launched a limited invasion of Anatolia, with his son Abbas also leading a column. Little was achieved aside from symbolism but in the following year Theophilus retaliated against the raid by invading Muslim held Cilicia and sacking Tarsus. Elated by his success, Theophilus returned to Constantinople and celebrated with an elaborate triumphal procession followed by races in the hippodrome in which he himself participated. Mamun meanwhile had retired to Damascus. The first Abbasid caliph to visit the city, he was making a point of showing his face in recently re-pacified Syria. Retaliating in turn to Theophilus’ campaign, Mamun once more led his forces across the border and captured the town of Heraclea, which his father had also successfully taken.


 In 832 a tenuous peace was negotiated between the two empires whilst Mamun, who must have been the most well travelled of all the caliphs, decided to visit Egypt and show his face there too. Whilst in the land of the pharaohs, the ever curious caliph decided to investigate the pyramids and had an exploratory tunnel dug into the side of the Great Pyramid. This tunnel intersected the interior passages within the pyramid and the caliph was able to venture inside and make his way up to the burial chamber of Khufu, only to find the sarcophagus empty and the tomb looted in distant antiquity.

Peace is agreed between Theophilus and Mamun - Skylitzes chronicle

 With his Egyptian efforts frustrated, the caliph set out once again in the summer of 833 in what promised to be a more sizable campaign against the Byzantines. As he relaxed beside a stream during his advance from Tarsus however, the caliph suddenly took ill and his fever soon proved fatal. He had named no successor, realising perhaps the futility of such actions. His younger brother Qasim moved swiftly to seize the reins of power as caliph Al-Mutasim. Mamun was laid to rest in Tarsus and his tomb survives to this day.


In overall assessment Mamun, for me at least, emerges as a more impressive figure than his more famous father Harun al Rashid. He had shown himself a good judge of character in the men he had chosen to trust and had displayed a willingness to accommodate, reconcile and compromise in his policies and his exercise of mercy where possible. He was nevertheless prepared to be utterly ruthless when a change of policy demanded it. He was, above all, a pragmatist.


Mamun’s greatest legacy is as a patron of scientific enquiry. Whereas every anecdote about Harun seems to involve dancing girls and drunken poets, Mamun appears to have taken a serious interest in the scholarship being pursued in Baghdad under the auspices of the caliphs. The institution that would come to be known as the Bayt al-hikma or House of Wisdom was first established in Baghdad under the auspices of Mansur as a safe repository for his growing collection of scientific and philosophical manuscripts. This is imagined as a centrally organised and officially controlled research facility but in truth no such control or organisation existed and individual scholars carried out their work independently with funding from wealthy patrons. The term House of Wisdom in this period is better thought of as an idea or a movement rather than a place. The effort to translate works from Greek, Indian and Persian into Arabic was given particular impetus by the Barmakids. Yahya the Barmakid is said to have commissioned the first Arabic translation of Euclid and he and his sons numbered many pet scholars amongst their clients.


Mamun of course was raised as the protégé of Jaffar the Barmakid and perhaps gained his eager curiosity and love of scientific enquiry from the scholars patronised by Jaffar. Under Mamun’s caliphate the pursuit of scientific knowledge received a massive boost from the personal interest that the caliph took in such matters. Mamun made enquiries as to his scholars’ needs and progress, sourced new manuscripts, scholars and scientific instruments during his visits to Damascus and Egypt and oversaw the construction of a new observatory in Baghdad. Stepping into the shoes of the Barmakids came three brothers known as the Banu Musa who had accompanied Mamun westwards on his return from Khurasan. Like the Barmakids they were an old Persian family, wealthy, cultured and well connected. Working for the Banu Musa, a good translator could earn five hundred dinars a month.

Muslim scholars discuss the use of the astrolabe

Foremost of all the scholars of Baghdad during Mamun’s reign was Muhammad ibn Musa Al-Khwarizmi. This great polymath was another who had made his way westwards from Khurasan to the City of Peace. His contribution to modern mathematics, astronomy and geography is formidable. Even the Western corruption of his name is preserved in the term algorithm. Al Khwarizmi was responsible for the production of three great works of translation and further scholarship, whose transmission to the west have cemented his reputation as the greatest of oriental sages. The first was a distillation of all Indian mathematical and astronomical knowledge which had been transmitted to the Arab world within a corpus of work called the siddhanta. To this Al Khwarizmi added star tables known as the zij al sindhind whose accuracy would be unsurpassed for centuries and the earliest known description of the use of the astrolabe. Al Khwarizmi also needed to include an explanatory treatise on the Indian system of calculation using the numbers 1-9 along with the concept of zero.


If like me you hated maths at school then you have reason to curse Al Khwarizmi for his next work, the book of restoring and balancing, Kitab al jabr wa’l-muqabala, from which we take the term algebra. The book detailed the use of equations in solving the problems of the day; calculating tax or inheritance, partitioning land and regulating trade. His third great work the al-majisti was a translation and commentary on the works of Ptolemy, known as the Almagest in the West.


Upon perusing the Almagest, Mamun demanded a practical demonstration of the theory within. In a study commissioned by the caliph to determine the accuracy of Ptolemy’s estimate of the circumference of the Earth, a party of astronomers set out into a flat area of desert and measured the altitude of the pole star. Driving a pole into the ground they fixed a piece of cord of known length to it and then walked north in a straight line, taking measurements of the altitude of the pole star as they went, driving in more posts and running out the cord behind them. Once they had reached a point at which the altitude of the pole star had risen by one degree, they retraced their steps along the posts they had driven into the ground and measured their distance travelled from the length of cord they had paid out. I can only assume that someone was following on behind on the way out to recycle the cord already used, unless they were carrying 66 miles of cord with them, for that was the measured distance travelled; 66.6 miles to be precise. Proceeding south from their original start point they then continued until they had covered the same distance at which point they observed that the altitude of the pole star was one degree lower than at their start point. The entire experiment was then repeated in a second area of desert and the measurements found to be the same, at which point the caliph declared himself satisfied with their observations. The distance corresponding to a degree of latitude was found to be 32.2 farsakhs or 66.6 miles. From this it was concluded that the circumference of the Earth was eight thousand farsakhs, or 24,000 miles, impressively close to the modern figure.


Such was the standard of intellectual enquiry taking place on Mamun’s watch. It would be three centuries before anyone in the West even started to catch up. None of his successors would match his passion but the touch paper had been well and truly lit and would continue to burn brightly.



Rise of the Ghulams



The new caliph Mutasim was an entirely different prospect to his cultured brother. He had little time for scientists and would rather go out for a vigorous horse ride than peruse a treatise on astronomy. He liked the military life and his primary diversion before coming to power had been the creation of his own private army. In the long term Mutasim’s actions in creating a new military class of powerful men would prove the undoing of the institution of the caliphate but in the short term it had made him a man to be reckoned with. Mutasim’s collection of imported Turkish slaves, known as ghulam, young men all, obtained from the markets of Khurasan grew from a bodyguard into a formidable force of several thousand mounted archers, who owed loyalty only to their master Mutasim. Their leaders, men of humble beginnings, were at a stroke amongst the most powerful in the caliphate with the ear of the caliph himself. The possession of this private army had strengthened Mutasim’s hand in claiming the caliphate and dissuading Mamun’s son Abbas and his supporters from mounting a challenge.


As might be expected, the caliph’s swaggering new Turkish entourage did not make many friends in Baghdad, where they were sneered at by the bureaucrats as illiterate barbarians, hated by the existing military as new-comers and foreigners and feared by the populace as brutal enforcers of the caliph’s rule. There were many violent clashes and complaints to the caliph increased but in the end Mutasim preferred his loyal Turks and decided that if they were not welcome in the capital, then he would build a new one.


In 835 the caliph decided to withdraw to a new purpose-built capital at Samarra. Large quantities of land were cheaply bought up on this virgin site on the east bank of the Tigris close to the Nahrawan canal

eighty miles north of Baghdad. Much of this land was later sold on at a great profit as men of means looked to move north and obtain property close to the new seat of power. A new city of broad streets and open spaces took shape at Samarra, where the caliph settled down the following year, accompanied by his court and protected by his ghulam.


Once ensconced in Samarra, Mutasim turned his mind to military matters. First on the agenda was the crushing of the Khurramite revolt. The caliph entrusted the destruction of Babak to another outsider who had gained his trust. Far from being a nobody he was the former ruler of a small Soghdian principality named al-Afsin. Appointed as governor of Azerbaijan, al-Afsin would prove equal to the task of rooting the rebel out of his mountain stronghold. He 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.

Al-Afsin confronts Babak

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. Babak 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, Babak had his hands and feet cut off before being beheaded. His body was then publically displayed on a gibbet.


Whilst he had been consolidating his power, moving to his new capital and dealing with Babak, Mutasim had been intially receptive to Theophilus’ overtures for peace that had fallen on the deaf ears of his brother. Theophilus had made use of the truce to renew hostilities with the Bulgars, launching a successful raid to repatriate Byzantine captives who had been forcibly abducted and resettled in the days of Krum. Having achieved this however, the emperor had decided once more to go on the offensive. Theophilus had crossed the frontier in the summer of 837 at the head of an invading army. The former Khurramite rebel Theophobos and his Persian brigade marched with the emperor. Theophilus was eager to avenge his humiliation at the hands of Mamun 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.


Mutasim 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 ancestral home town of Amorion. Whilst the caliph led his forces towards his target of Amorion, a second army under al-Afsin, fresh from his victory over Babak 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.


The chronicler John 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.

Theophilus flees at Anzen

Mutasim meanwhile had advanced to his primary objective of Amorion, which he placed under siege. The victorious Al-Afsin joined him later. The city was well defended by a determined garrison and protected by a substantial moat. Mutasim ordered each soldier to kill a sheep and then stuff the skin with earth and rocks before hurling them into the moat. The soldiers enjoyed the roast mutton but were less keen on the barrage of missiles from the walls as they completed their task as swiftly as possible. The resultant filling in of the moat was somewhat haphazard and Mutasim’s siege engines sank into the ground when they attempted to approach the walls, to the delight of the defenders who promptly burned them. The caliph then received intelligence from a treacherous element within the city of a stretch of wall which had been poorly repaired with rubble and was not as solid as it appeared from the outside. Concentrating his artillery fire on this section the caliph soon had his victory as the wall crumbled despite the defenders’ efforts to reinforce it. Amorion was brutally sacked, with some of the terrorised citizens burned alive in the church where they had sought refuge. On the long march home, laden down with booty and with the extra burden of thousands of captives taken as slaves from the populace, the army ran short of supplies, especially water. Six thousand low value captives are said to have been executed, whilst many more fell by the wayside and were abandoned. These poor buggers of little account were largely forgotten by posterity although another group of higher status prisoners who survived the death march but were later beheaded beside the Tigris for refusing to convert to Islam would be celebrated by the Byzantines as the 42 Martyrs of Amorion.


As the army made its way back into Syria details emerged of a plot against the caliph and his Turkish favourites Itakh and Ashinas. The plan had been hatched amongst a number of commanders in the existing military to kill Mutasim and his Turkish commanders and to place Mamun’s son Abbas on the throne in his place. The conspirators took too long to act and their plot was betrayed to the caliph who took delight in having them all rounded up and given slow and unpleasant deaths; burying alive, drowning and starvation all featured. Abbas himself died of thirst in captivity. It was a bad business and the Turks, having had a narrow escape, appear to have resolved to get rid of anyone else who might pose a threat to them. This included Al Afsin; defeater of Babak, victor over the emperor himself. A man of such standing and reputation. A whispering campaign of rumours and accusations was started against him: He planned to murder the caliph, he planned to steal a vast sum of money and return to the east, he planned to overthrow the Tahirids in Khurasan and set himself up in their stead. In all likelihood none of it was true but the Turks finally turned the caliph against his best general. With no real evidence of any wrong-doing against him Al-Afsin was accused in 840 of apostasy; a capital crime. As a foreigner and recent convert to Islam it was an easy slur to make stick and Al-Afsin was found guilty despite demolishing the prosecution case. He died in custody and his body was exhibited on a gibbet outside the main gate of Samarra, another victim of poisonous intrigue at the Abbasid court.


The fate of Theophobos is a parallel illustration from the Byzantine side of the frontier of the dangers faced by outsiders who climbed high within the echelons of power. Like Al-Afsin Theophobos had given excellent service to the emperor he had come to serve. Also like Al-Afsin he had provoked the jealousy of others within the military hierarchy. After the battle of Anzen, Theophobos and his troops had withdrawn to Sinope on the Black Sea coast, where rumours reached them that they had lost the confidence of the emperor. 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. 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 Persian brigade, 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.

Theophilus chooses his bride

In late 841 the emperor began to sicken with dysentery 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. The emperor’s grief was scant consolation to poor Theophobos.

Theophilus and Mutasim died just two weeks apart in January 842. Their legacies differed. Mutasim died aged forty six. He was succeeded by his thirty year old son Harun who would rule isolated from his subjects in the new capital, dependant for his security upon the Turks, who would grow ever more powerful. Theophilus had been just twenty eight at the time of his death and it was the empire’s misfortune that he was taken so young. In war he had suffered mixed fortunes. In peace he had ruled firmly and fairly and with panache. In matters of religion he had tried to steer a middle course. In dying so young he left the empire with a two year old child on the throne.


It is interesting to speculate whether Theophilus would have reversed his iconoclastic stance had he ruled longer. That for the most part the second succession of iconoclast emperors practiced a greater degree of tolerance towards their icon venerating subjects than had Leo III and Constantine V is perhaps an indication that they had little choice. If the first iconoclastic movement was a crusade against idolatry, the second was far more a reaction to prevailing public opinion and as a result the iconoclasts trod more carefully amongst a population which still harboured a great many icon lovers. The cause of the icons was championed by the venerable Abbot Theodore of the Studium who, having endured torture and imprisonment under Leo V, was at liberty to appeal for their restoration under his successors. Theophilus was tolerant of icon worship in private, even within the palace itself where under the emperor’s very nose, his wife and mother made little secret of their practice of venerating icons. Nevertheless he made examples when his authority was challenged. Two subversive monks who defied an order of exile had their sentences tattooed on their faces by imperial command whilst the celebrated icon painter Lazarus, later canonised, had his hands branded by being forced to grasp white-hot horse shoes after refusing to destroy an icon he had painted, again on Theophilus’ orders.

 The punishment of St Lazarus

Despite the emperor’s efforts to hold the line, slowly but surely, the tide began to turn in favour of the veneration of images once more. This may in part have been due to the resurgence of the forces of Islam. Under Michael II, Crete and much of Sicily had fallen to freebooting Arab invaders. Theophilus had been obliged throughout his reign to wage war against the Abbasid caliphs and his recent reverses were cause for many to wonder if the displeasure of the Almighty was being manifested in Byzantine defeat at the hands of the infidel. Given the pressure from without and within the imperial palace and given his own relatively moderate stance Theophilus may at some point have taken the decision to change course but his early death has seen him go down in history as the last of the iconoclasts.





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