Getting Medieval

The stream of Time, irresistible, ever moving, carries off and bears away all things that come to birth and plunges them into utter darkness, both deeds of no account and deeds which are mighty and worthy of commemoration; as the playwright says, it brings to light that which was unseen and shrouds from us that which was manifest. Nevertheless the science of History is a great bulwark against this stream of Time; in a way it checks this irresistible flood, it holds in a tight grasp whatever it can seize floating on the surface and will not allow it to slip away into the depths of oblivion.

Anna Comnena - Alexiad

 I couldn't have put it better myself, Dear Reader. For those who read and enjoyed The Battles are the Best Bits and cried out for more, yes there were a few of you, this humble corner of the internet is where the sequel is being forged. As it may take some years to complete, I have decided to share it as I write it. Each instalment will appear as a blog post on Slings and Arrows and will then be added to the continuing narrative on these pages.

 As the title suggests, this work in progress is intended to cover the centuries generally described as ‘The Middle Ages’ which is  a vague expression if ever there was one. For most, the term probably conjures up an image of days of old when knights were bold and lavatories weren’t invented. Damsels were frequently in distress and peasants were revolting. Kings sat upon their thrones dispensing rough justice whilst courtiers preened and plotted and jesters capered

From my own Western European point of view, I suppose I define the Middle Ages as the period that began with Charlemagne building a new Christian Roman Empire of sorts upon the ruins of the old and leading us out of the so-called Dark Ages and to end with Columbus bolding going where no man had gone before to discover a whole new world and usher in a new, global age.

In between these two seminal events, seven centuries apart, is a whole lot of history. Yet when I think back to my school days, my history lessons covered almost none of it. Indeed, were it not for the success of a certain Norman adventurer who crossed the channel in 1066 and put the good Anglo-Saxon folk of Old England to the sword, the entire period I have just considered as comprising the Middle Ages would have been passed over in complete silence.

In the introduction to my first book I lamented that ancient history had been completely disregarded in my education and that had it not been for Gladiator firing my imagination and curiosity, I might have gone through life without troubling myself with antiquity at all. And been all the poorer for it. Only now however, as I sit down to write this introduction, has it occurred to me that in fact my school history teachers also deprived me, the events of 1066 not-withstanding, of the entire Middle Ages. Having made the nodding acquaintance of William the Conqueror, we moved on without further ado or so much as a backward glance to meet Henry Tudor, by the Grace of God, King of England. No mention was ever made of the events of the intervening centuries: Not the Crusades, nor the Black Death nor the Peasants’ Revolt nor the Hundred Years War. Not even Magna Carta, whoever she was. As for anything happening in any other part of the world during this period, the rest of the world might as well not ever have existed.


Does this sound familiar to you Dear Reader? If,  like me, you find yourself feeling cheated of a proper historical education by those miserly keepers of the National Curriculum with their endless Normans, Tudors and Nazis, then welcome aboard.


My story of the Middle Ages will have a distinctly eastern slant, occupying a broad canvas stretching from Constantinople to China. Prepare to meet Emperors, Caliphs, Sultans and Khans. Our adventure will begin where The Battles are the Best Bits left off  in the mid Eighth Century AD at the high tide mark of the Arab conquests and a time of crisis for the Byzantine Empire. It will trace the fortunes of its people and those of the lands to the east through the heyday of the Abbasid Caliphate, the coming of the Seljuks, the upheaval of the crusades, the terror of the Mongol hordes and the ultimate triumph of the Ottoman Turks when the great city of Constantinople fell at last.


This story begins and ends with the empire of Byzantium. There are other great cities whose people’s experiences of the medieval era could provide us with an equally compelling central narrative but there are none which brought such a rich cultural and historical inheritance from the ancient world and none whose fall was so epoch-ending as that of Constantinople. Sometimes in this story Byzantium will be at the centre of events, at other times events elsewhere will take precedence. Developments in the lands to the west will frequently have a bearing on our story, but from the rich tapestry of western European history I will pluck only those threads that are essential. Otherwise this story will never be finished.


Hopefully that sounds to you like entertaining reading. This is the history they denied me. This is my personal history lesson. My own curriculum. I will be sharing the journey as I take it myself and so this blog is I suppose, my homework. I have done my best to leave out the boring bits, although sometimes you need the boring bits to understand the exciting bits, of which, I hope, there will be plenty. In order to set the scene, the first couple of chapters are something of a recap rehashed from the closing chapters of The Battles are the Best Bits, but after that it is all new stuff - enjoy.




Chapter 1: The Queen of Cities
Through the Golden Gate
It was the greatest city in the world and its people knew it.
From its founding by Constantine the Great in 330 AD as a new Rome in the East, through the monumental military efforts in the reign of the emperor Justinian in the Sixth Century to recover the Western Empire, to the desperate struggle of the fighting emperor Heraclius to hold back the tide of the Arab conquests, the rulers of Constantinople had unfailingly seen themselves as the inheritors and continuators of the Roman Empire. They had striven continually to assert their God-given right to rule as the pre-eminent sovereigns on earth even as their once great empire shrank and crumbled.
Constantinople nevertheless remained a city of marvels, a bastion of Christianity and a time capsule of a lost Roman civilisation which inspired wonder and envy in all those visitors who beheld it. Defiantly it had stood firm against the burgeoning Steppe nations pressing southwards from beyond the Danube frontier. Huns, Avars and Slavs had been turned back in despair by the mighty Theodosian Walls that protected the city on its landward side. The forces of the Umayyad Caliphs had been vanquished by the terror weapon of Greek fire and their great invasion fleets had burned in the waters of the Bosporus as they had sought to assail the city from the sea.
 The Theodosian Walls
 It was to its superb location and defences that Constantinople arguably owed its survival and continuing existence in the Mid-Eighth Century where our story begins. Constructed on the site of the ancient Greek city of Byzantium, Constantine’s new Rome occupied a horn-shaped promontory jutting out from the western shore of the Bosporus. Protected on one side by the waters of the Propontis and on the other by the great natural harbour of the Golden Horn, the city presented an insurmountable challenge to any would-be besieger.
Approaching from the west, the visitor to Eighth Century Constantinople would be immediately struck by the scale of the walls. Originally constructed in the Fifth Century under the auspices of the somewhat feeble Eastern Roman Emperor Theodosius II, the land walls of Constantinople would stand un-breached for a millennium. Not until the advent of gunpowder would they fail the city. Even the terrible Attila had turned away in despair at the sight of the walls that protected the capital of the Roman East.
The walls stretched for four miles across the neck of the peninsula from shore to shore, anchored by the massive defences of the Blachernae Palace beside the Golden Horn and meeting the sea walls at the formidable Marble Tower on the Propontis. From these two points the Sea Walls surrounded the rest of the city. The land walls comprised three lines of defence. A moat sixty feet wide divided by a series of dams to maintain the water level across the undulating landscape was the first obstacle facing any would-be attacker. Beyond this the outer wall rose thirty feet high and featured no less than 96 towers. Sixty feet behind the outer wall rose a second higher wall, forty feet in height and bristling with another 96 larger towers, which were positioned in between the outer towers so as to provide a clear field of fire for the artillery stationed atop them. They were the last word in defensive engineering.
Five principle gates led through the walls. On great occasions of state the southernmost of these was the gate of choice for making a grand entrance. The Golden Gate was constructed from white marble. Like the other gates of the city it was flanked by massive square defensive towers which were topped off by figures of winged Victory. Its ornate doors were covered with golden bosses and atop the gate was an ostentatious monumental quadriga drawn by elephants.
Passing through the Golden Gate the visitor would proceed along the main thoroughfare of Constantinople known as the Mese. This long colonnaded street led eastwards through the heart of the city towards the eastern tip of the peninsula. Occasionally it opened out into increasingly grand public spaces with triumphal columns rising up out of their centres and plundered sculpture from throughout the ancient world gracing the plinths around which the populace would mooch and mingle. Running parallel to the Mese, the Aqueduct of Valens brought fresh water into the city on bounding arches, remaining in use well into Ottoman times. At the end of the Mese stood the Milion. This was a golden milestone displaying distances to all the great cities of the empire. It stood within an elegant tetrapylon; a square structure consisting of four arches topped by a vaulted roof. Beyond the Milion was the public square of the Augustaion, where a seventy metre high column sheathed in bronze rose above the city. It was surmounted by a great equestrian statue of the emperor Justinian, holding a globe in his hand and wearing a crown of peacock feathers.

View of the Augustaion and Hagia Sofia

North of the Augustaion stood Justinian’s greatest architectural legacy, the church of Hagia Sofia. Built upon the smoking ruins of its predecessor, burned down in the destructive riots unleashed by the Constantinopolitan mob in 532, the new Hagia Sofia was intended as a signature project of unparalleled magnificence. Justinian sourced his building materials from throughout the empire. Marbles of different hues were brought from Egypt, Syria and Greece and the most talented architects, craftsmen and mosaicists of the day were employed to create the most sumptuous interior possible, calculated to inspire awe in all who beheld it. The Emperor himself upon seeing the finished interior, with typical modesty, uttered the words ‘Solomon I have surpassed thee!’
The Hagia Sofia pushed the envelope not only aesthetically but also architecturally by being the first structure to employ pendentives; inverted triangular sections of masonry which solved the problem of placing a circular dome on top of a square building, allowing the weight of the dome to be translated downward to the supporting piers at each corner and providing a far more elegant solution which would spawn many imitators but few equals. It remains one of the world’s great buildings.

Retracing their steps from the Augustaion back onto the street the visitor could continue eastwards, with plumes of steam rising from the Baths of Zeuxippos to their right, towards the great gate of the Chalke which led through into the grounds of the imperial palace. Looking to their north-east they would see the top of the great red brick basilica topped by a rotunda known as the Magnaura, which served as the imperial audience hall when receiving visiting dignitaries. Passing through the Chalke, if they were sufficiently privileged, the visitor would perhaps glance up to see a great painted icon of Christ which looked down from above the archway. As the iconoclastic controversy raged in the Eighth and Ninth Centuries the icon would be taken down, replaced, destroyed and finally recreated and restored.

Beyond the Chalke were the barracks of the elite regiments of Imperial guards, the Scholae and the Excubitors, literally ‘those who do not sleep’. They were charged with the emperor’s protection; their commissions purchased at great expense by their families. Heading southwards through the Great Palace complex, a series of halls and courtyards provided spaces in which the great and the good could gather to await the emperor’s pleasure. Most noteworthy was the Triklinos of the Nineteen Couches. This was an oblong hall with nine apses along each side which was used for ceremonial banquets. It featured, as the name suggests, nineteen ornate dining couches.

Passing through the hall the visitor then reached the palace of Daphne. This was the original imperial residence constructed in the time of Constantine. Here the imperial apartments were arranged around a central courtyard. They were reached by passing through the octagon, a domed chamber in which the emperor would be clothed in his  imperial vestments before embarking on any official business. In the grounds of the palace stood the chapel of St Stephen, which was built to house the relic of that first Christian martyr’s right arm.
The imperial palace complex grew over the centuries as successive dynasties added to the site, constructing newer and grander buildings on a series of terraces that led down to the sea. Justinian’s successor, his nephew Justin II, created a new throne room known as the Chrysotriklinos. This domed, octagonal structure leant itself to the pageantry of the Byzantine court. Its shape allowed for a series of chambers to be curtained off from public view, allowing members of the imperial family and other notaries to make an entrance from all points of the compass. In the eastern apse a throne was positioned beneath a mosaic of Christ.


Detail of mosaic from imperial palace

From the Daphne Palace a tunnel led to the imperial lodge of the Kathisma which overlooked the great sporting caldron of the Hippodrome. With the demise of gladiatorial combat as the Roman Empire under Constantine embraced Christianity, the sport of chariot racing was left as the principle source of public entertainment for the Roman masses. In Constantine’s new capital the construction of the new hippodrome was a signature project. Constructed on the site of an earlier structure created in the reign of Septimius Severus, Constantine’s hippodrome was 450 metres long and had seating for some 30,000 spectators. It was a structure intended to impress and provided the setting for imperial pageantry as well as popular entertainment.
Artistic treasures from around the Roman Empire had been plundered for the beautification of Constantinople and no monument of the pagan past had been considered sacred by the new Christian Emperor. The Hippodrome’s central spina; a raised structure around which the chariots would race, featured at its centre the serpent column; a victory monument looted from the ancient sanctuary of Delphi. The column depicted three serpents intertwined who balanced upon their heads a votive tripod dedicated to Apollo in celebration of the Greek victory at Plataea in 479 BC. More ancient still was the obelisk of pink Aswan granite brought from Karnak on the orders of Constantine’s successor Constantius II and eventually erected on the spina in 390 AD under the emperor Theodosius I. This monument was already eighteen centuries old when it was brought to Constantinople and its inscriptions told of the Syrian victories of Tuthmosis III.
 Under Justinian the hippodrome had seen of its most dramatic events. None more so than the Nika Riots which broke out in 532. Chariot races were contested by four  teams of which by this time only two were of any real importance; the Blues and the Greens. Their supporters formed rival factions whose detestation of each other knew no bounds and whose political and religious affiliations were often also at odds. Blues and Greens often took to breaking each other’s heads but when Justinian executed leading trouble makers from both factions he succeeded in uniting them against him. Whipped up into a frenzy, the mob stormed from the hippodrome and embarked on an orgy of looting, burning and destruction which left much of the city a blackened ruin. Justinian, having contemplated fleeing the city, ultimately decided to send in the army and some thirty thousand rioters who had gathered in the hippodrome to call for the emperor’s overthrow were put to the slaughter.
In less troubled times the crowds would simply enjoy the racing. Four charioteers would contest each race, one for each faction; Blues, Greens, Whites and Reds. The chariots were drawn by four horses. Before the start competitors would draw lots for starting positions. The horses would be released from the starting pens or carceres at the northern end of the hippodrome and would race anticlockwise around the stadium. Races generally lasted for seven laps and a single day’s racing could comprise up to fifty races, divided into morning and afternoon sessions. Sometimes rival charioteers would swap teams from morning to afternoon in an arrangement known as diversium in order to settle for once and all who was the better man or for a particularly dominant charioteer to demonstrate that it was not to his horses alone that he owed his victories. One charioteer named Constantine is recorded as winning all twenty five races of the morning session and then going on to claim victory in twenty one races in the afternoon with a rival’s team of horses.
Medieval depiction of surviving monuments in the hippodrome

On the northern end of the spina were clustered a series of victory monuments dedicated to Porphyrius, the most celebrated charioteer of them all, who was active during the late Fifth Century AD and into the Sixth, continuing to race into his sixties. Porphyrius is described on the bases of two surviving monuments erected in his honour on the spina as having won hundreds of races and was unique in being the only charioteer to be permitted such a monument whilst he was still racing. Even more incredibly, Porphyrius boasts monuments which were erected by both the Green and the Blue factions, having changed his allegiance in mid-career.

Greek Fire
At the time of the death of the Emperor Justinian in 575 AD his empire had comprised all of the eastern Roman provinces from Egypt through Palestine, Syria and Anatolia as well as the Balkans south of the Danube. He had overseen the recovery of North Africa from the Vandals, Italy from the Ostrogoths and even some territory in the south of Spain from the Visigoths. The cost to his subjects in blood and treasure had been a heavy burden. His biographer Procopius in his Secret History published safely after Justinian’s death lambasted the emperor as a blood thirsty demon, who had delighted in visiting nothing but war and pestilence upon his people. Justinian himself, a highly devout man and one with an unshakable sense of divinely sanctioned mission, would have seen his legacy in very different terms. For Justinian there could have been no question that the emperor of the Romans was God’s vicegerent on earth and that the Roman Empire should be one and indivisible. The emperor saw himself as the great restorer, reclaiming the lost lands in the west, engaging in massive rebuilding programmes and tirelessly dedicating himself to the reconciliation of religious disputes and the recodification of the laws. One Christian Empire under God’s laws and his own as God’s anointed ruler was Justinian’s dream. It was his great fortune to die with all of his life’s ambitions achieved. From atop his pillar in the Augustaion, Justinian  looked down balefully as his successors squandered all that he had built.
The reign of Justinian’s nephew and successor Justin II saw much of Italy lost once more to the predations of the Germanic Lombards. These one time allies of the empire had marched over the Alps and seized for themselves the pleasant lands that their warriors had so admired during the recent campaign to recover it from the Goths. The threat of Persia, antagonised by Justin’s abandonment of his uncle’s foreign policies onto a war footing once more, prevented the empire from mounting any offensive against the Lombards. The Lombards themselves had been fleeing from the Avars who were the latest wave of terrifying nomadic horsemen from the Eastern Steppe. The Avars swept across the barely defended Danube frontier accompanied by waves of Slavic immigrants who overran the Greek and Balkan provinces of the empire to the point that imperial control over these territories was effectively lost.
Under the emperor Maurice, who had scored a diplomatic coup to regain peace with Persia on very favourable terms, a measure of control over Greece and the Balkans was restored but his murder in 604 AD by a mutinous usurper named Phocas brought fresh calamity upon the empire. The war sparked by Maurice’s murder saw Persian forces overrun the eastern provinces of the empire and advance to within sight of the capital itself.
The rot was temporarily stopped by the emperor Heraclius who fought a brilliant campaign to recover the eastern provinces, culminating in a crushing victory over forces of the Persian king Khusrow II on the plain of Nineveh in 627 AD. The long war between these two surviving empires of antiquity had left both fatally weakened however and they proved vulnerable to the explosion of the forces of Islam from out of the Arabian Peninsula.

Icon depicting Heraclius' defeat of Khusrow

Galvanised and united by their dynamic new religion, the warriors of Arabia had refocused their native ferocity, which had been unprofitably spent in generations of  blood feuds, upon a new enemy and swept through the lands of Byzantium and Persia. In 636 at the River Yarmuk in the Golan Heights the army of Heraclius had suffered a devastating defeat at the hands of the Arabs and been annihilated. Following this disaster the eastern provinces had fallen like dominoes. Syria, Palestine and Egypt were all lost once more. By 650 AD the Persian Empire had been entirely overrun and was no more. Meanwhile the Arabs were threatening Carthage. Just a century after Justinian’s death, Constantinople itself came under threat from the forces of the first Umayyad Caliph Muawiya.
Muawiya had long harboured ambitions to achieve the overthrow of Constantinople and from his rise to prominence as the governor of Syria he had set out to challenge the empire at sea. The conquest of Syria had brought the priceless advantage of access to the Mediterranean along with the vital infrastructure of ports, ships and sailors with which to exploit it. Arabs were not natural seafarers but Muawiya understood that Byzantine command of the sea made his territory vulnerable and he was determined to challenge the Empire’s naval superiority. In 655 AD Muawiya’s fleet scored a shock victory over the imperial fleet in an engagement known as the Battle of the Masts. In becalmed conditions superior Byzantine seamanship had counted for nothing as the Arabs had rowed right up to them and put them to the sword. The Byzantine chronicler Theophanes the Confessor relates that the emperor Constans, grandson of Heraclius, only escaped by switching clothes with a common seaman and fleeing for his life.
Following the death in 661 AD of Ali, the fourth caliph and son-in-law of the Prophet, with whom he had fought a bitter civil war,  Muawiya found himself as ruler of the Muslim world. His successors would reign for the next 89 years as the Umayyad Caliphs. With his empire secure he focussed his attention once more upon the final defeat of Byzantium. In 672 his fleet seized and fortified the peninsula of Cyzicus on the eastern shore of the Propontis, from where Constantinople itself could be directly threatened. His son and heir Yazid was sent to command the attack on the city. Victory seemed assured. The fleets and armies of the Byzantines had been decisively beaten by the Muslims and all the great cities of Persia had fallen to their arms. What Muawiya did not know however, was that the Byzantines had developed a new secret weapon.
This witch’s brew of all the flammable and sticky substances known to the Byzantines included sulphur, pine resin and crude oil sourced from the Caspian Sea region. The concoction was perfected in time to prove crucial to the defence of Constantinople from the attack of Muawiya’s fleet. Its precise make up has remained a matter of much speculation since this was the Byzantine Empire’s most closely guarded state secret which would guarantee centuries of naval supremacy. The man credited with its invention was one Kallinikos of Heliopolis, a Syrian Greek inventor who had rather fortuitously made his way to Constantinople in time to deliver the means for the city’s salvation. Greek fire had several properties which made it particularly effective in naval combat. Once alight, the burning liquid was impossible to extinguish with water and stuck to any surfaces it came into contact with such as ships’ hulls, rigging and the clothing of the unfortunate sailors. Being oil based it also floated upon the surface of the water, surrounding the enemy ship in a lake of fire. The liquid was stored on board ship in canisters which could be catapulted onto the decks of enemy vessels or dropped from cranes which swung out over the side if the ships were in close proximity, smashing on impact and requiring only a hurled ignition source to engulf the enemy in flames. Greek fire was at its most lethal when deployed using a siphon and Theophanes the Confessor tells us that the Byzantine fleet was well equipped with this apparatus. The most convincing modern reconstructions of what this might have comprised feature a pre-heating chamber in which the liquid was heated and pressurised by means of an air pump and a brazier before being forced out through a nozzle mounted in the bow of the ship and ignited by a flame positioned in front of the nozzle. The result was a terrifying eruption of flame against which there was no defence and from which there was no escape as the sea itself turned to fire around the doomed enemy vessel. Greek fire would remain the most valuable weapon in the Byzantine armoury for centuries to come and would repeatedly safeguard the capital from attack.

A Byzantine Dromon
The Arab plan to take Constantinople was entirely dependent on a naval assault, which would overcome the Byzantine navy and then move in against the sea walls. Siege artillery had been mounted on the ships to allow them to batter their way into the city. In the event the Arabs simply had no answer to the destructive power of Greek fire and four successive expeditions mounted against Constantinople from 674 to 678 met with utter defeat and eventually the battered remains of the Arab fleet turned for home, only to be wrecked in a storm on the return journey. This was an event which further convinced the Byzantines that their city enjoyed divine protection. In the following year Muawiya renewed the peace treaty with Constantine IV, who had succeeded his father Constans II. The Caliph gave up recently conquered territory in the Aegean and agreed to the payment of tribute, accepting for the time being that there was no way to overcome the great bastion city of Christendom, protected by its fire breathing ships.
Byzantine fortunes appeared to have taken an upturn but the cruelty and rapacity of Constantine’s vicious lunatic son Justinian II alienated his subjects to such an intolerable extent that he was overthrown and exiled. In order to disfigure him and render him physically unfit to rule, Justinian suffered the fate of rhinokopia, the cutting off of the nose. Following his bloody return to power, complete with golden false nose, Justinian embarked on a reign of terror which finally drove his long-suffering subjects to the edge once more and saw him overthrown for a second time and beheaded in 711 AD. Upheaval oft breeds further upheaval and following Justinian’s removal emperors were made and unmade in brisk succession as rival military power blocks put their own men on the throne. When the dust finally settled the man wearing the distinctive purple buskins sported only by the Emperor of the Romans was Leo III.
Leo knew that a storm was coming. The caliph Suleiman, whose nominal territories now stretched from the Pyrenees to the banks of the Indus had set his sights upon the conquest of Constantinople once more. Intelligence had reached the capital that the forests of Lebanon were ringing to the sounds of axes as a new invasion fleet was constructed. A Byzantine fleet had assembled in Rhodes on the orders of the then emperor Anastasius II, with the objective of attacking and burning the dockyards in Lebanon but their purpose had been subverted and the fleet had instead been used to place the unwilling usurper Theodosius III upon the throne.
In 717 the second great siege of Constantinople by the Arabs began. A fleet of over a thousand ships sailed up the Marmara whilst the caliph’s brother Maslama marched through Anatolia and then ferried his army across the Hellespont to invest the city from the landward side. Leo immediately launched an attack against the Arab fleet in which the power of Greek fire once more took a terrible toll on the Arab shipping and most of the supplies for the army were sunk to the bottom. The Arabs had no better answers to the problems of besieging Constantinople this time around than they had the last. The Theodosian Walls remained impregnable and they had nothing with which to counter the wonder weapon of Greek fire. Short of food, clothing and shelter, the besiegers endured a miserable winter outside the walls. When a second Arab fleet arrived from Egypt bringing much needed new supplies this too was rapidly engaged and destroyed. After a second winter the surviving besiegers had  been weakened by disease and were fit for nothing. The death of Suleiman mercifully brought the expedition to an end as his cousin Umar who had succeeded him recalled the battered remains of the fleet and army. The city had survived the gravest threat to its existence in a century.

Byzantium today is renowned above all for two things; its brutal politics and its artistic legacy, in particular its religious art. It was an empire plagued by intrigues and obsessed with icons. During two turbulent periods in the Eighth and Ninth Centuries however, the Byzantines turned against and wilfully destroyed these precious and venerated objects. The repercussions from these destructive movements went beyond the spiritual life of the Empire to have a profound impact on both its politics and its relations with the west.
The Arab conquests of the Seventh Century had seen vast tracts of formerly Christian territory come under Islamic rule. Three out of the four Patriarchates of Eastern Christendom; Antioch, Jerusalem and Alexandria, lay within the territories of the Umayyad Caliphate. As ‘people of the book’ Christians living under Arab rule were generally tolerated but under the reign of the austere and pious Caliph Umar II interference with Christian practices which were offensive to Islam had increased. In 723 AD Umar's successor Yazid had issued a decree that all holy images in Christian churches within his territories should be destroyed and his brother Hisham who succeeded Yazid upon his death in 724 took an equally hard line. This reaction of the Muslim rulers against what they saw as flagrant idolatry also struck a chord with many Christians, fuelling a growing movement in the east which would sweep across the Byzantine Empire with profound consequences.
Iconoclasm as it is known to posterity; literally the smashing of icons, was a policy first adopted by Leo III in response to the growing cult of icon worship amongst his subjects. The emperor was of Syrian descent and as such was likely to have Monophysite leanings; seeing Christ as wholly divine with no mortal aspect. He may also have been influenced by being exposed to Islamic and Jewish thought. He therefore took a dim view of the widespread practice among his fellow Christians of openly worshipping icons of Christ, the Virgin and the saints; treating these inanimate representations of the divine as divine objects in their own right. For Leo and those who shared his views this was a clear violation of the commandment which forbade bowing down before graven images. In 726 he made his feelings clear by ordering the violent and shocking destruction of Constantinople’s largest and most beloved icon of Christ which was displayed above the main gate of the imperial palace.  

 A depiction of iconoclasm

This deed polarised opinion in the capital and beyond. Those of an iconoclast persuasion could rejoice that the first great blow against idolatry had been struck whilst a great many were appalled by what they saw as an act of wanton vandalism and sacrilege. Everywhere emotions ran high. In Ravenna, one of the few surviving imperial enclaves on Italian soil, anger at the emperor’s actions turned into a full scale revolt which claimed the life of the governor and an uprising in the islands of the Aegean had to be put down with Greek fire. There was violence too on the streets of the capital but Leo was unperturbed. In 730 he issued an edict calling for all icons to be destroyed and those who persisted in protecting and venerating them faced the threat of torture and death. In Rome Pope Gregory II condemned Leo’s edict as blasphemy and promptly excommunicated him. The emperor paid little heed and pressed ahead with his mission to cleanse the capital of idols. Churches, private homes and monasteries were raided and their treasured and precious icons were confiscated and destroyed. Many more were hidden away to keep them safe from the iconoclasts.
Following Leo’s death in 741 the iconoclast movement gained new momentum with the accession of his son Constantine V. The new emperor was an even more fervent iconoclast than his father and continued the persecution of those who persisted in the veneration of icons. He particularly despised the monasteries, both as purveyors of idolatry and more generally as a waste of space. Too many young men were wasting their lives in prayer in the emperor’s opinion, when they should be usefully employed in the service of the Empire. Many monasteries were forcibly closed down, their wealth appropriated by the treasury and their inhabitants forced back into the outside world on pain of death. Constantine faced a rebellion in favour of the restoration of the icons led by his brother in law Artabasdus but the overwhelming support that iconoclasm enjoyed in the east of the empire allowed the emperor to rally support and defeat the uprising.
The rebel and his sons were blinded and exiled whilst the patriarch, who had supported the restoration of the icons, was stripped, scourged and paraded around the hippodrome seated backwards on a donkey before being reinstated as a discredited laughing stock. Following Constantine’s victory, the iconoclast edict was reinforced with hitherto unseen vigour and a council of sympathetic bishops was assembled to pronounce on its validity on behalf of all Christendom in an act which further enraged the Pope and alienated the subjects of Constantine’s remaining Italian territories. From here on in Rome would look increasingly westwards towards the rising power of the Franks rather than the Empire for protection and deliverance from the Lombard invaders who had taken over much of Italy in the late Sixth Century.
In 751 the aggressive new Lombard king Aistulf succeeded in capturing Ravenna. The permanent loss of this key imperial possession was a major blow to the Byzantine Empire but despite an increased threat to the remaining imperial territories including Rome itself, Constantine V did little but send ineffectual embassies asking for the Pope’s intercession. Pope Zacharias had been successful in the past in dissuading Lombard rulers from marching against Rome but Aistulf was of a more belligerent persuasion than his predecessors and it seemed only a matter of time before the eternal city faced a Lombard attack. Despairing of any useful assistance from the emperor who was at any rate an iconoclast heretic in his eyes, Pope Zacharias instead looked to cultivate Pepin the Short; the de-facto ruler of the Franks. An opportunity to gain Pepin’s good will had presented itself when a Frankish delegation arrived with a question for the Pontiff. Was it right, they asked, that the King of the Franks was a powerless puppet whilst true power rested in the hands of the Mayor of the Palace? Zacharias’ answer was of course precisely what Pepin wanted to hear. It was better, he pronounced, that he who wielded the power of a king should be called king. Armed with this Papal endorsement Pepin was able to secure the support of the Frankish aristocracy in order to depose the last Merovingian king Childeric III and to have himself crowned as King of the Franks. In 754 Zacharias’ successor Stephen made his way over the Alps to meet with Pepin and in a ceremony in Paris anointed him as King.

Pepin the Short is crowned
 In return for Papal  approval of his seizure of power, Pepin undertook to come to the defence of Rome against the Lombards and marched against the Lombard King Aistulf. The Frankish forces proved irresistible and the Lombard king soon found himself besieged in Pavia and forced to agree to terms. According to this agreement known as the Donation of Pepin, all of the imperial territories previously incorporated into the Exarchate of Ravenna were henceforth ceded to the Pope. Aistulf failed to adhere to the terms and two years later Pepin was back to enforce them, laying siege to Pavia once more until the Lombard king relented. This time the Donation of Pepin was honoured by the Lombards and the ribbon of formerly Imperial territory stretching across central Italy including Ravenna, Rimini and Perugia became the Papal States, much to the impotent fury of Constantine. Rome at last had turned its face away from the man who claimed the title of Emperor of the Romans. Realpolitik had triumphed over old established loyalties which had been weakened over the years by imperial high-handedness and neglect of military responsibilities and stretched to breaking point by the iconoclast controversy. The relationship between Rome and Constantinople was changed forever.
Constantine died in 775 to be succeeded by his more moderately iconoclastic son Leo IV. During his brief five year reign, Leo took a conciliatory stance, ending the persecution of the monasteries. Any measures he took however, could never be sufficient in the eyes of his wife, an Athenian beauty by the name of Irene, who longed passionately for the restoration of the icons. Leo’s death from a sudden fever in 780 thrust Irene into a position of power as she assumed the regency of the empire on behalf of her ten year old son Constantine VI and immediately embarked upon the course of reform, systematically sidelining all of those who would oppose her agenda both for the restoration of the icons and to establish herself as the de-facto ruler of the empire.
Sympathy for the iconoclastic cause remained strong, particularly in the empire’s eastern provinces where the majority of Irene’s armies were stationed. Following the old emperor’s death some of these troops had attempted a revolt with the intention of placing his brother on the throne. This had been swiftly put down and Irene thereafter had set out to purge the army. Her willingness to dismember the empire’s forces, removing capable commanders and disbanding troops whose loyalty was suspect, sparked widespread mutiny and rendered the imperial frontiers vulnerable. The Abbasid Caliph Mahdi, who had been on the back foot in recent  years, sent a large invasion force in 782 which swept into Byzantine territory. Irene was forced to buy peace from the caliph after one of her commanders defected and her most trusted minister, the eunuch Stauracios, was captured and held for ransom. In the aftermath, her most capable general Michael Lachanodrakon, who had performed well against the Arabs on the frontier up until a defeat in the most recent campaign, but was a fervent iconoclast, was removed.
Meanwhile the empress continued with her agenda to sweep away forever the abomination of iconoclasm. In 787 she summoned an ecumenical council at Nicaea, scene of the first great council of the Christian church under Constantine the Great. This Second Council of Nicaea is an event still celebrated in the Greek church to this day as the triumph of orthodoxy. It was nominally presided over by the young Constantine VI but none were in any doubt as to its true architect. The decree of the council condemned the writings of all those who had endorsed the destruction of the icons.

The present Canon decrees that all the false writings which the iconomachists composed against the holy icons and which are flimsy as children’s toys, and as crazy as the raving and insane bacchantes — those women who used to dance drunken at the festival of the tutelar of intoxication Dionysus — all those writings, I say, must be surrendered to the Patriarchate of Constantinople, to be put together with the other books by heretics — in such a place, that is to say, that no one will ever be able to take them therefrom with a view to reading them. As for anyone who should hide them, with a view to reading them himself or providing them for others to read, if he be a bishop, a presbyter, or a deacon, let him be deposed from office; but if he be a layman or a monk, let him be excommunicated.

The Second Council of Nicaea

For those who were dismayed by the Empress’ actions, her son Constantine was an obvious focal point. The armies in the east remained staunchly iconoclast and those in the capital who longed to overturn Irene’s reforms therefore had a ready source of manpower to call upon and a suitable figurehead in the form of Constantine. Matters came to a head in 790 when Irene attempted to seize supreme power for herself by flinging her son into prison when a plot by leading iconoclasts for her overthrow and exile came to light. With Constantine behind bars, Irene demanded an oath of loyalty from all of her armies. This galvanised the eastern opposition who marched on the capital and restored Constantine to his throne. Irene, deposed, was left to stew in the confinement of her palace and plot her revenge, whilst Stauracios was packed off to a monastery.
She did not have long to wait. Within two years her son had shown himself to be hopelessly incapable of government and had her recalled along with Stauracios. For the next five years mother and son resumed their uneasy partnership but Constantine through military blunders and an ill-advised divorce steadily lost support until finally Irene felt safe enough to make her move. For a second time Constantine was seized and imprisoned but this time his mother was taking no chances and ordered her son blinded. The punishment was carried out, in the very room in which he had been born, with such brutality as to cause his death. It was a crime which sent a shockwave through the empire and it left Irene as empress and sole ruler with her henchman Stauracios, who had plotted every move of her comeback, by her side. Nevertheless Irene continued to alienate her subjects. Her appeasement of the now caliph Harun al-Rashid, who had launched another invasion in 797, with even greater payments of protection money and her increasingly desperate attempts to buy her subjects’ affections through unaffordable tax breaks, convinced many that her deposition would be vital for the future wellbeing of the empire.
Irene’s actions would also have an unintended and far reaching consequence in the west. Relations with Charles, son of Pepin the Short, King of the Franks and conqueror of the Lombards had been up and down. At one point Constantine VI had been betrothed to Charles’ daughter Rotrude. Charles had supported Irene’s council of 787 but the following year when his attitude towards the restoration of the icons had cooled, Irene had called off the engagement. When, following Irene’s assumption of sole rule, Pope Leo III was contemplating how best to honour and reward his champion and saviour Charles, he observed that the title of Emperor of the Romans was conveniently vacant, for the Pope did not recognise the right of a woman to hold that title. On Christmas Day 800 therefore, Leo was able to confer the imperial title upon Charles, whose efforts in the cause of Christianity had gone a considerable way towards the restoration of a western empire.
In Constantinople such presumption seemed ludicrous. Who was this semi-literate barbarian who laid claim to the legacy of Augustus and Constantine? Nevertheless Irene had continued to alienate her subjects. Her continuing appeasement of the now caliph Harun al-Rashid, who had launched another invasion in 797, with ever greater payments of protection money and her increasingly desperate attempts to buy her subjects’ affections through unaffordable tax breaks, convinced many that her deposition would be vital for the future wellbeing of the empire. When two years after his coronation Irene began seriously to entertain proposals of marriage from Charlemagne; an act which would unite the rival eastern and western claimants to the Empire of the Romans and place the Frankish ruler on the throne of Byzantium, she had at last gone too far. Her own officials convened an assembly in the hippodrome and declared her deposed.
Irene has gone down in history as a wicked schemer, driven by ambition to commit the worst crime any mother could commit with the cold-blooded murder of her own child. In the iconoclastic struggle however, she struck the decisive, if not the final blow. Although the findings of the council she had convened in Nicaea in 787, anathematising the writings of the iconoclasts, would be challenged anew within a decade of her death and ultimately overturned, it would in the end stand as the final word on the veneration of icons. It was nevertheless a victory bought with murder and written in blood and subsequent events would cause the Romans to wonder if their rulers had been cursed by an angry God.






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