As if to underscore the empire’s peril, a new and deadly threat arrived at the dawn of the ninth century. A great warlord crossed the Carpathians and hammered together the Bulgars from Transylvania to the Danube, forging the first great Bulgarian empire. Known only as Krum, the terrible khan swatted aside the Byzantine armies sent against him, killing one emperor and managing to cause the overthrow of another.* Meeting scarcely any resistance, his soldiers fell on the rich cities of the Black Sea, carrying off entire populations into captivity and threatening to completely overrun the Balkans. Even Constantinople seemed poised to fall to the all-conquering khan, but its walls proved to be too stout, and the disappointed Bulgarian had to satisfy himself with leveling the suburbs and killing every living thing that wasn’t quick enough to get out of the way.
Fortunately for the empire, the menace of Krum, like that of Attila before and Genghis Khan after, was based more on personal charisma than underlying strength, and after the khan’s death it evaporated as quickly as it had appeared. The humiliations suffered from such an unexpected direction, however, impressed themselves deeply on the frightened citizens of the empire and led to a second flirtation with iconoclasm. Whatever else could be said about the iconoclastic emperors, they had been remarkably effective militarily, and that prowess now seemed sorely needed. Less than a decade after Irene’s death, a mob interrupted a service in the Church of the Holy Apostles by breaking into the ornate marble tomb of Constantine V and begging the great iconoclast to rise from the dead and lead the Byzantine armies to victory again.
Unfortunately for the empire, however, consigning its works of art to the flames did little to strengthen its military. After several decades of relative quiet, the caliphate resumed the offensive, and the imperial army proved just as incapable of stopping them. In 826, a Muslim force landed on Crete, imposing Islam on the reluctant population and turning the capital of Candia into the busiest slave market in the world. By 838, the Muslims had burst into Asia Minor, sacking the city of Amorium and burning most of its citizens alive in the city’s church, where they were trapped.* The next year, most of western Sicily fell and the Arabs crossed into Italy, conquering Taranto and using the heel of the Italian boot as a base from which to launch attacks against what is now the Croatian coast. The imperial government was so alarmed that it sent envoys begging the western emperor Louis the Pious for help, but the crusading spirit was still more than two hundred years in the future, and the talks came to nothing.
Ignoring the mounting evidence to the contrary, emperors continued to stubbornly insist that iconoclasm was the only way to restore divine favor to the imperial armies. One emperor even personally administered beatings to two Palestinian monks who refused to destroy their icons, and when a week of such treatment failed to induce them to change their minds, he had insulting verses tattooed on their faces and exiled them to Anatolia. Such ham-fisted measures have never been particularly successful where religion is concerned, and without the argument of victory to bolster it, iconoclasm was a spent force. Most Byzantines realized that they had destroyed their icons and starved their artistic senses in vain. In 843, after less than three decades, iconoclasm disappeared again with barely a whimper. On the first Sunday of Lent that year, the beautiful and brilliant empress Theodora officially ended Byzantium’s last major religious controversy by holding a general church council and a service of thanksgiving in the Hagia Sophia.*Artists once again picked up their brushes, hammers, and chisels and resumed their attempt to portray the divine in paint, wood, and stone. Several years passed before the first icon appeared in the great church of the Hagia Sophia, but its unveiling clearly demonstrated that the years in exile had done nothing to diminish the power of Byzantine art.†
Military reverses aside, there were encouraging signs in the ninth century that the empire was slowly regaining its strength. Shrunken by the losses of war, it had been reduced to a core in Asia Minor, Thrace, and Greece, but these territories were strong and united. Religious dissent had largely disappeared with the turbulent territories of Syria and Egypt, and the smaller imperial government was reasonably efficient regardless of who sat on the throne. New gold mines were uncovered, overflowing the impoverished treasury, and a rich merchant class sprang up in the wake of such unexpected wealth.
Even more encouraging was a great revival of learning sparked, ironically enough, by the dying embers of iconoclasm. Attempts to justify one side of the argument or the other by quoting obscure references to earlier church fathers led to further study to rebut them. Private schools began to appear throughout the empire as interest in education spread, and literacy began to pick up a momentum of its own. Under the emperor Theophilus in the mid-ninth century, teachers were endowed at the public expense, scriptoria were opened, and the University of Constantinople was endowed with new faculties of law and philosophy.*
This was in marked contrast with the West, where the church was slowly spreading the fragments of learning that it had preserved. Western medieval thought, though quite vital, had been cut off from its rich classical heritage and would have to wait for the Renaissance to build on the learning of antiquity. Eastern schools, however, could draw on their undiminished philosophical and literary traditions. Within a few years, Byzantium’s renewed intellectual fame was so great that a caliph even asked for a specialist to be sent to Baghdad. Perhaps wisely, the emperor refused to let him go, choosing instead to set the scholar up in the capital to continue the ferment. Encouraged by the new air of curiosity, court historians once again took up their pens, young nobles returned to their study of the classics, and Byzantine scholarship, which had been nearly dormant since the reign of Irene, sprang once again into bloom. His armies may have been scattered in Asia Minor, but Theophilus presided over a cultural renaissance, winning the hearts of his subjects with his concern for justice.†
In an age in which the emperor was seen as an unapproachable figure—the human representation of God on earth—Theophilus was remarkably visible to his subjects. A devoted fan of chariot races, he once entered the competition under the banner of the Blues and delighted the crowd with his skill.‡ Most astonishing of all to the citizens of Constantinople, however, was the emperor’s habit of wandering in disguise through the streets of the capital, questioning those he met about their concerns and ensuring that merchants were charging fair prices for their wares. Once a week, accompanied by the blare of trumpets, he would ride from one end of the city to the other, encouraging any who had complaints to seek him out. Those who stopped him could be certain of a sympathetic ear no matter how powerful their opponent. One story tells of a widow who approached the emperor and made the startling claim that the very horse he was riding had been stolen from her by a senior magistrate of the city. Theophilus dutifully looked into the matter, and when he discovered that the widow was correct, he had the magistrate flogged and told his watching subjects that justice was the greatest virtue of a ruler.*
To be accessible, however, didn’t mean that the emperor intended to be an inch less regal, and he poured gold into a building program unlike anything seen since the days of Justinian.† All emperors have expensive tastes, but Theophilus put most of his predecessors to shame. With a flurry of activity, the walls along the Golden Horn were strengthened, a magnificent new summer palace was built, and the Great Palace was completely renovated for the first time in nearly three hundred years.‡ This last accomplishment caught the imagination of contemporary historians, who left breathless accounts of the work. Before their watching eyes, Theophilus transformed the sprawling, somewhat stuffy collection of buildings that made up the Great Palace into a residence fit for a ninth-century emperor* Such a renovation was long overdue. Originally built by Septimus Severus in the second century, the palace had been haphazardly added to by successive emperors, who had built reception halls, living quarters, churches, baths, and administrative buildings, until the rambling structures threatened to cover the entire southeastern tip of the city.
Theophilus imposed a welcome order on the Great Palace, clearing out cluttered walls and unused rooms and linking its buildings with clean corridors. The polo grounds that had been built by Theodosius II four centuries earlier, when that emperor had imported the royal sport from Persia, were enlarged, and fountains fed by underground cisterns soon adorned graceful walkways and terraced gardens. Creamy white marble steps led up to breezy chambers, forests of rose and porphyry columns supported delicate apses, and silver doors led to rooms filled with glittering mosaics. The true luxury, however, was saved for Theophilus’s unparalleled throne room. No other place in the empire—or perhaps the world—dripped so extravagantly in gold or boasted so magnificent a display of wealth. Behind the massive golden throne were trees made of hammered gold and silver, complete with jewel-encrusted mechanical birds that would burst into song at the touch of a lever. Wound around the base of the tree were golden lions and griffins staring menacingly from beside each armrest, looking as if they could spring up at any moment. In what must have been a terrifying experience for unsuspecting ambassadors, the emperor would give a signal and a golden organ would play a deafening tune, the birds would sing, and the lions would twitch their tails and roar. Rare indeed was a visitor who wasn’t awed by such a display.
Nowhere was the growing confidence of the empire more apparent, however, than in the religious realm. There were few things more galling to the Byzantine religious mind-set than the increasingly insistent papal claim that the Bishop of Rome’s voice was the only one that really mattered in deciding church policy. The four other patriarchs of the Christian world had traditionally deferred to the successor of Saint Peter, but great questions of faith had always been decided by consensus, in contrast with the growing authoritarianism of the western capital. In the past, the East and the West had managed to mask their increasing divisions beneath polite, distant relations, but a new combative spirit was in the air. When the pope sent Frankish missionaries to convert the Slavs, the patriarch Photius responded by sending his own contingent, the brilliant brother monks Cyril and Methodius.
The pope’s men had a head start, but they alienated the Slavs by insisting that all services be conducted in Latin, even though their new converts didn’t understand a word of it. Cyril and Methodius, by contrast, set to work immediately learning Slavic, and when they found it had no written alphabet, Cyril provided one.* Western bishops angrily complained that Hebrew, Greek, and Latin were the only tongues worthy of a sacred liturgy, but Cyril countered by saying that since God’s rain fell on all equally, then all tongues were fit to praise him.† The Bulgarian khan, impressed by the new freedoms promised by Photius (and in any case unwilling to subordinate himself to Rome), traveled to Constantinople to be baptized in the Hagia Sophia, and Bulgaria entered the Byzantine cultural orbit, in which it remains to this day. By allowing Byzantine culture to be separated from the Greek language, Photius had spread the empire’s influence far beyond its borders and immeasurably strengthened the bonds that held the diverse Byzantine world together. It would be more than six centuries before Latin was similarly dethroned in the West.
Adding the Slavs to the imperial cultural orbit had increased imperial prestige, but it had also sounded an ominous note. By openly contesting with Rome for the Balkans, Constantinople had brought tensions between the East and the West to the surface, and relations with the pope were always easier to rupture than repair. Memories were long on both sides of the cultural divide, and when the mutual suspicions and hatreds eventually bore fruit, it would be a bitter harvest indeed.
That, however, lay centuries in the future. The empire was newly confident and seemingly poised for a spectacular recovery. The only thing missing was an effective emperor. The men who sat on the throne in the ninth century, though they led colorful lives, were largely militarily incompetent.* Despite their cultural and religious accomplishments, they could never quite lift the empire out of its military slump. As unlikely as it seemed, the first stumbling steps toward recovery were taken under the auspices of an emperor named Michael the Drunkard.
As his name implies, Michael was hardly an inspiring figure, but he had the great advantage of having a visionary uncle. While the emperor absorbed himself in earning his nickname in the taverns of the capital, his uncle Bardas led the empire to its first significant victories against the armies of Islam. Under his leadership, a Byzantine army crossed the Euphrates for the first time since the seventh century, and the navy conducted a daring raid on Egypt. When the emirs of Mesopotamia and Armenia responded by invading imperial territory, Bardas ambushed them, killing the emirs and most of their men.
The victories gave a welcome boost to Bardas’s reputation, and since there was no telling how long the royal liver would hold out, most assumed that when Michael eventually expired, his capable uncle would succeed him. There was still, of course, the outside chance that the emperor would nominate another man as his successor, but though Michael had many favorites, most of them were chosen for their conviviality, not their governing abilities. Bardas, meanwhile, was perfectly happy to let his pathetic nephew have his fun, content to rule the empire in fact if not in name.
The trouble with weak emperors, however, is that they’re swayed by every passing breeze, and Michael the Drunkard was soon under the spell of a rough Armenian peasant named Basil the Macedonian.* Basil had originally attracted the emperor’s attention with an especially impressive display of strength in a wrestling match, and since this was as good a reason for advancement as any other in Michael’s eyes, the young Armenian had been taken into the imperial service. For the capricious emperor, it was a terrible mistake. Basil was intelligent and ambitious with a terrifying ruthless streak. Bardas warned his nephew that Basil was a “lion who would devour them all,” but the emperor paid him no heed. Within a year, Basil had personally assassinated Bardas, and Michael, flush with the excitement of being free from his powerful uncle, rewarded his brutal favorite with the title of coemperor. A few months later, Michael was dead as well, viciously murdered after his usual long night of drinking. After throwing a horse blanket over the emperor’s body to conceal the spreading blood, Basil raced to the Great Palace, hoping to capture it before anyone could object. He need hardly have worried. Michael the Drunkard had long ago squandered whatever dignity he possessed, and not a single voice was raised against his murderer. When the sun rose the next morning over the quiet capital, it found a former peasant as the sole ruler of the Roman Empire. As unlikely as it seemed, a golden age had begun.
*The emperor Nicephorus I’s body was identified by its purple boots and dragged to Krum’s tent, where the khan gleefully had the head cut off and impaled as a testament to his victory. After several days of public ridicule, he had the rotting skull lined with silver. In true barbaric fashion, he used it as a drinking cup and would force visiting Byzantine diplomats to drink from it.
*In addition to the honor of being the origin city of the current dynasty, Amorium was famous as the birthplace of the Greek fable writer Aesop.
*An event that is still commemorated each year by the Eastern Church as the “Sunday of Orthodoxy.”
†It can still be seen today—the haunting image of the Virgin Mary with the child Christ, seated on the throne of heaven and gazing sadly down toward where the great altar once stood.
*The rigorous Byzantine curriculum remained virtually unchanged from the fifth century to the fifteenth. It usually included rhetoric, mathematical studies, and philosophy, and it wasn’t uncommon for advanced students to commit the entire Iliad to memory.
†When his troops proved ineffective, Theophilus sent an ambassador to scatter thousands of gold coins among the citizens of Baghdad in an attempt to impress the caliph. Unfortunately, the emperor’s gold was as unsuccessful as his armies.
‡ Of course, the gesture was spoiled somewhat since the factions were carefully instructed to let him win.
*This passion for justice made Theophilus a legend in his own lifetime, and numerous apocryphal stories (possibly including this one) were soon being circulated. Three hundred years later, his reputation was still such that the Byzantine writer of the satirical Timarton portrayed him as one of the judges of the underworld.
†There were few things that Theophilus didn’t do extravagantly. When it came time for him to choose a wife, he held a huge bride show, presenting the winner with a typically elaborate golden apple in a scene meant to be reminiscent of the judgment of Paris.
‡Not surprisingly, the last emperor to significantly enlarge the palace had been Justinian. A glimpse of this original work still remains today in the remnants of a vast floor mosaic that was uncovered early in the twentieth century. Filled with a strange mix of pagan and Christian symbols, violent hunting scenes, and whimsical vignettes, the mosaic remains one of the finest surviving works of art from the ancient world.
*The buildings covered more than four and a half acres.
*The Cyrillic alphabet used by most of the Slavic world today was named so in his honor.
†Pope Adrian II got the point and allowed the brothers to work unmolested, requesting only that the Mass be read in Latin first and the vernacular second.
*On Christmas Eve of 820, the emperor Leo V condemned the pretender Michael II to death by the rather bizarre method of having him tied to an ape and thrown into the furnaces that heated the imperial baths. Before the execution could take place, Michael’s supporters dressed up as monks and crept into the imperial palace to attack the emperor. Leo reportedly defended himself for more than an hour armed with nothing but a heavy metal cross that he swung around wildly before succumbing to the blades of his assailants. In what was surely the most undignified coronation in Byzantine history. Michael II was hastily brought up from the dungeons and crowned with the chains of his captivity still around his legs.
*Despite his name, Basil (or anyone in his family for that matter) never—as far as we know—set so much as a foot inside Macedonia. Captured as a young man by the Bulgarian king, Krum, he had been relocated to an area filled with “Macedonian” prisoners, thus acquiring his nickname. For this and many other reasons, the dynasty he founded had no business calling itself Macedonian.