Post-classical history

The Gentle Usurper


You are a mortal; you await death, resurrection and judgement. Today you live and tomorrow you are dust; one fever will quench all your pride. What will you say, when you come before God, of your unrighteous slaughter? How will you face the terrible, just Judge? If it is for love of riches that you do this, I will grant all your desires and more: only hold out your hand. Welcome peace, love concord, that you yourself may live a peaceful, bloodless and untroubled life, and that Christians may see an end to their woes and may cease destroying their fellow-Christians.

Romanus Lecapenus to Symeon of Bulgaria, 9 September 924

Of the early history of Romanus Lecapenus - or, as we must now call him, the Emperor Romanus I - all too little has come down to us. His father, known universally to contemporaries as Theophylact the Unbearable, was an Armenian peasant whose good fortune it was to have rescued Basil I from the Saracens at the battle of Tephrike in 872. This earned him a place in the imperial guard, but probably little more: there is no indication that he was in any way ambitious either for himself or his son, and he certainly took no trouble over Romanus's education, as Constantine VII was scornfully to point out when circumstances allowed him to do so. It was left for the boy to make his own way in the world. Born around 870 - even the exact date is unknown - he had entered the imperial service in the navy, and whether or not we choose to accept the suggestion by Liudprand of Cremona that his early promotion was the direct result of a heroic encounter with a lion, he was probably still in his thirties when he was appointed strategos of the Samian Theme, which included most of the western coast of Asia Minor and the neighbouring islands - a position of considerable authority since it gave him, although a serving officer, full responsibility for the civil as well as the military administration. He seems to have performed his duties with distinction, and after the disgrace of Himerius in 912 was the obvious choice for drungarius, or High Admiral.

At the time of Romanus's seizure of power his wife Theodora -whom he was to proclaim Augusta at Epiphany, 921 - had borne him at least six children, and before her death in 923 was to present him with two more. Of their four sons, no less than three were to be crowned co-Emperor by the end of 924; the youngest, Theophylact, was a eunuch intended for the Patriarchate. It is clear that, like his fellow-Armenian Basil I, the new Emperor intended to found a dynasty. Where he differed from his predecessor was in the comparative gentleness of his character. Basil's road to power had been marked by at least two proved assassinations; Romanus Lecapenus had employed trickery and deceit in plenty, but he was not by nature either violent or brutal. When his archrival Leo Phocas was blinded by his captors - a common enough fate in tenth-century Byzantium - he had been quick to express his horror and disgust; for the vast majority of his enemies, he would always consider exile to be punishment enough. The persistency with which his young son-in-law clung to life must have infuriated him - while the Porphyrogenitus lived, there could be little long-term future for the house of Lecapenus - and given the boy's permanently fragile state of health it would have been an easy matter to poison him without arousing suspicions: Basil, in similar circumstances, would not have hesitated for an instant. But Romanus was cast in a different mould. He might - indeed he did - do everything in his power to displace the young Emperor, promoting both himself and his son to superior positions; but never did he lay a finger upon his son-in-law - who, as it turned out, was comfortably to outlive the two of them.

For Constantine it must, nevertheless, have been a miserably unhappy childhood, shot through with uncertainty and fear: a father dead, a mother branded as a concubine and twice exiled, he himself facing constant accusations of bastardy and forced to accept in silence the gradual removal of everyone in whom he could put his trust. All this would have been bad enough for a sickly, sensitive boy, without finding himself alone, unwanted and unloved amid a huge and fundamentally hostile family; and a marriage of convenience at the age of thirteen to a member of that family (a girl whom he hardly knew) can hardly have improved matters. Later, it is only fair to point out, that marriage was to prove a surprisingly happy one, with two of the couple's children eventually succeeding their father on the throne; be that as it may, there can be little doubt that the young Emperor passed his adolescence in desperate loneliness and very largely ignored. Fortunately for him, his physical weakness was offset by an unusually lively mind, and a wide range of artistic and intellectual interests: he seems to have been a talented painter, he was fascinated by everything he could discover about the great world that lay beyond the immediate confines of the capital and even the Empire, and he would spend hours and days at a time studying the intricacies of Byzantine court ceremonial, the one subject which his position, intolerable as it was, gave him limitless opportunity to observe and on which his exhaustive survey, De Ceremoniis Aulae Byzantinae, remains our most valuable authority.

He was fortunate too in possessing* at least in those early years, neither political ambition nor - so far as can be seen - very much in the way of moral courage. Wisely, he made no attempt to assert himself. When his father-in-law elbowed him aside as senior Emperor; when in May 921 Romanus elevated his eldest son Christopher to be yet another occupant of the throne; when, on the death of the Augusta Theodora in February 923, he crowned Christopher's wife Sophia in her place; when, two years later still, he elevated two more sons, thus producing a somewhat ridiculous total of five simultaneous Emperors; even when in 927 he proclaimed Christopher second only to himself, relegating the Porphyrogenitus to third position in the State — on none of these occasions did Constantine utter a word of protest. Silence, however, did not mean' indifference: as his later writings show, each successive insult wounded him to the quick - though none, one suspects, more than the Tomus Unionis, whose insinuations were made still harder to bear by the stipulation that it was to be read every year, on the second Sunday in July, from the ambo of every church in the Empire, and was to be annually commemorated in the capital by a procession between the churches of St Irene and St Sophia in which all the co-Emperors, together with the Patriarch, were obliged to participate. Yet on these occasions too, obediently and uncomplainingly, Constantine did what was required of him. He knew that he had one duty that took precedence over all the others: to survive.

'We have glad tidings for you, O my son, which will delight your heart as much as it delights our own to impart them: the Church of God is once again united.' So wrote Patriarch Nicholas to Symeon of Bulgaria, informing him of the Tonus Unionis and the end of the quarrel between his own party and that of the Euthymians. Symeon was not delighted in the least. The Byzantine Church was of no interest to him: he cared only for the throne - that throne which seven years before had been almost within his grasp but which, since its appropriation by Romanus Lecapenus, now seemed as far away as ever. The Emperor, from the moment of his accession, had done everything in his power to restore good relations with his turbulent neighbour, whom he was perfecdy prepared to buy off with an annual tribute or even, if necessary, with a cession of imperial territory; but Symeon would accept no terms that did not begin with Romanus's abdication, and so hostilities continued. The Byzantines reverted once again to their old trick of stirring up trouble elsewhere around the enemy's border — this time in Serbia, where the local princes, struggling to shake off the Bulgar yoke, were only too happy to accept imperial subsidies; but the pressure was never relaxed for long. In 919 Symeon pushed south as far as the Hellespont; in 921 he was back at Casasyrtae, within sight of the land walls; in 922 he advanced to the European shore of the Bosphorus, inflicted a humiliating defeat on a Byzantine army, sacked the whole area around Stenum (the modern Istinye) and burnt one of Romanus's favourite palaces at Pegae;1 while 923 saw his recapture of Adrianople - whose Governor, Moroleon, he punished for his heroic resistance by torturing him to death.

But none of these small triumphs brought him any nearer to his ultimate goal; however much damage he might do in Thrace, however many towns and cities he might capture or destroy, Constantinople remained impregnable from the landward side. In 924 he therefore resolved on a final onslaught, this time from the sea. He himself had no fleet; but it seemed possible that the Fatimid Caliph in North Africa2

1 Pegae poses something of a problem. The Greek word means a stream, or source. According to R. Janin, our leading authority on the topography of Constantinople (Constantinople Byzantine, Paris 1950), there was a Palace 'of the Stream' just outside the gate of the same name - now Silivri Kapi - in the land walls, and another 'of the Streams' on the further side of the Golden Horn, in the quarter known today as Kasimpasa. Neither of these locations, however, can be reconciled with the account of the Continuator of Theophanes, who twice associates it with the district of Stenum on the Bosphorus. Surely there could not have been a third palace of the same, or similar, name? Or is M. Janin mistaken?

2 The Fatimids began as a Shi'ite Arab clan which claimed descent from the Prophet's daughter Fatima and her husband Ali. In 909 one of their members, Abu Abdullah, had driven out the Arab prince of Kairouan and installed the Fatimid Obaidullah, who took the title of Mahdi and openly challenged the authority of the Abbasid Caliph in Baghdad. After their conquest of Egypt in 969 the Fatimids were to rule in Egypt till 1171, when Saladin put an end to them.

might be prepared to put his own magnificent navy at his disposal for a joint expedition, and he accordingly dispatched an embassy to the court at Mahdiya to discuss the idea. These initial overtures were distinctly encouraging, and it was agreed that the discussions should be continued with Symcon in person; but when the ambassadors sailed for home accompanied by an Arab delegation, they were intercepted on the high seas by a Byzantine squadron of Calabrian Greeks and escorted under heavy guard to Constantinople. There the Bulgars were interned; but Romanus, subtle diplomat that he was, loaded the Arabs with presents and sent them back to their Caliph with a promise of peace and an annual tribute far more certain than anything that could have been hoped for from Symeon.

We do not know when, or how, the news of this misfortune reached the Bulgar court. It may well be that when in the high summer of 924 Symeon led his army - for at least the tenth time - into Thrace he expected to find the Fatimid navy already mobilized in the Marmara. If so, he was disappointed. At any rate, he changed his tactics. According to well-established precedent, he could now have been expected to launch another campaign of devastation in the surrounding country; but he did not do so. Instead, he sent to the city with a request for a meeting with his old friend the Patriarch.

Once again the aged Nicholas — he was now seventy-two and beginning to fail - made his laborious way through the city to the walls, where one of the gates was cautiously unbarred to allow him to slip out to the Bulgar camp. This time, however, he did not do so by stealth, but in the company of a number of distinguished court officials; nor did he find the Bulgar King in as amenable a mood as he had eleven years before. Symeon had by now decided that he would no longer negotiate with inferiors. If the Patriarch was prepared to come hurrying out at his bidding, why should not the Emperor do likewise? Curtly, he informed Nicholas that since summoning him he had changed his mind. If the Empire wanted peace, he would discuss it only with Romanus himself.

The Emperor had no objection. He always preferred talking to fighting, and he was determined to put a stop to these constant Bulgar incursions. There remained, however, the question of security. He did not trust Symeon any more than Symeon trusted him, and neither had forgotten what had happened at the meeting between Khan Krum and Leo V a century before. And so a great pier was constructed at

Cosmidium at the northern end of the Golden Horn,1 projecting into the water with a fence extending transversely across the middle. It was agreed that Symeon would approach from the landward side, while Romanus sailed up the Horn on his imperial barge; the barrier would remain between them throughout their conversation.

The meeting took place on Thursday, 9 September.2 Symeon rode up with much swagger and in considerable state, with a numerous escort which he ostentatiously ordered to make a thorough examination of the security arrangements before he approached the fence. Romanus, who was accompanied by the Patriarch, appeared by contrast thoughtful and subdued; with him he carried the city's holiest relic, the mantle of the Blessed Virgin, which he had borrowed from her church at Blachernae as a token of the importance he attached to the occasion. And so, after another brief delay during which hostages were exchanged, the two monarchs finally found themselves face to face.

Our sources for the discussion that followed are all Greek, and inevitably biased; there seems little doubt, however, that it was dominated by Romanus who, in typical Byzantine fashion, treated his adversary to a sermon: instead of begging for peace as Symeon had expected, he appealed to his better nature as a Christian and pressed him earnestly to mend his ways while there was still time. True, he also suggested increasing his own annual tribute; but the proposal was so deftly incorporated into the homily that many of his hearers may well have missed it altogether. Even to those who noticed, it must have sounded less like a concession than a price that was being willingly offered by a benevolent patron for the salvation of a sinner's soul.

It was, by all accounts, a masterly performance; and it succeeded better than either Emperor or Patriarch could have hoped. Romanus spoke, as everyone knew, from a position of weakness: it was he, not the Bulgar, who was suing for peace. As the son, moreover, of an Armenian peasant, his origins were considerably humbler than those of Symeon, who could boast a proud ancestry of Khans going back at least four generations to the great Krum, and possibly a good deal further. But, when he spoke, he did so with the majesty and authority of the

1 The modern Eyup. The Byzantine village took its name from the great monastery of SS. Cos mas and Damian - of which, alas, not a brick now remains.

2There has been a good deal of argument about the date, and even the year. I follow Sir Steven Runciman (The Emperor Romanus Lecapenus, pp. 146-8), who devotes a complete appendix to the question and makes what seems to me an unanswerable case.

thousand-year-old Roman Empire, compared with which Bulgaria was still nothing more than a parvenu principality of semi-civilized barbarians. And Symeon knew it.

At that moment two eagles were seen in the sky above, first wheeling together and then suddenly separating, one to continue its sweeping circles over the towers of Constantinople while the other headed off westward towards Thrace. None of those who saw it could doubt that it was a sign; and its meaning was unmistakable. Strive as he might, Symeon would never be lord of Byzantium: there were to be two rulers in the Balkan peninsula, not one.

After that, there was little more to be said. Details of the subsidy that Romanus himself had proposed were soon settled. It was to include an annual gift of 100 scaramangia - those richly embroidered silken robes that counted among the greatest luxuries that even Constantinople had to offer - in return for which Symeon agreed to withdraw from imperial territory and from the fortresses that he had captured on the Black Sea coast. Then he turned in silence from the fence, remounted his horse and rode back to his homeland. He never invaded the Empire again.

This is not to say that he became a reformed character. He was now over sixty, and had occupied the throne for more than thirty years: the old leopard could not be expected altogether to change his spots. No longer, however, did he dream of reigning in Constantinople; and his almost pathetic assumption in 925 of the title of basileus - adding the words 'of the Romans and the Bulgars' for good measure - was, in its way, an admission of defeat: the action not of a statesman but of a spoilt, petulant child. As Romanus very sensibly remarked, Symeon could call himself the Caliph of Baghdad if he wanted to. In the following year, showing the same spirit of impotent defiance, Symeon at last declared the independence of the Bulgarian Church, elevating its archbishop to the rank of Patriarch. Nicholas would have been horrified to see his old nightmare come true at last; but Nicholas had died in May 925, and nobody else seemed to care very much. From Constantinople there came, not a single word of protest — a fact which, we may imagine, caused Symeon no little irritation in itself.

But he was trying not to think about Constantinople. Instead, he had turned his attention towards his enemies in the West: to the Serbs and, beyond them, to the maritime, militarist Kingdom of Croatia. The former he easily crushed; but the latter fought back and in 926 destroyed the Bulgar army almost to a man. Symeon never recovered. Obliged to accept a humiliating peace, he stumbled on into the spring of the following year; but the spirit had gone out of him and on 27 May 927, disillusioned and disappointed, he died at sixty-nine.1

Symeon left behind him clear orders as to the succession: the Bulgarian crown should go to the eldest of the three sons of his second marriage, a boy named Peter,2 during whose minority his maternal uncle, one George Sursubul, was to act as Regent. Regencies, however, are dangerous things - particularly when they follow a ruler as strong as Symeon -and George soon realized that if he were to survive he must consolidate the recent understanding with Byzantium by means of a more formal treaty of peace, cemented if possible by a marriage alliance. He sent ambassadors to Romanus, who responded with alacrity; and at a conference held soon afterwards in the frontier city of Mesembria agreement was quickly reached. The Emperor and his suite then returned to Constantinople, whither the Bulgarian delegation followed them and where George was presented to - and enchanted by - the young Maria Lecapena, daughter of Romanus's eldest son Christopher. When his tentative inquiries met with encouraging replies he immediately sent for his nephew to join him.

The imperial wedding - the first time in over five hundred years that a Byzantine princess had married outside the Empire - was held in the Palace at Pegae on 8 October, only four and a half months after Symeon's death. The pair were duly blessed by Patriarch Stephen II -who had succeeded Nicholas in 925, the Emperor's son Theophylact being considered, at the age of eight, still a little too young for office -and the bride, now rechristened Irene in honour of the peace, returned briefly to Constantinople (for reasons probably gynaecological) while Peter waited at Pegae. Only three days later did she rejoin him for the sumptuous wedding feast. Then, tearfully - because she, like her husband, was still little more than a child, had never before left home and can have had no idea of the life that awaited her in the barbarian

1.       The Byzantines always believed that it was they rather than the Croats who were responsible for his death. According to the Continuator, Romanus was informed by an astrologer that one of the statues in the Forum was Symeon's stoicheion. (See p. 122.) He at once had it decapitated, and Symeon expired on the instant.

2.       Symeon's son by his first marriage, Michael, was packed off to a monastery for reasons unexplained. Of Peter's two full brothers the younger, Benjamin, was to become one of the earliest - and certainly the most aristocratic — of that long and notorious line of Balkan werewolves, 'so adept in the art of magic that he could suddenly transform himself before men's eyes into a wolf or any other beast you pleased'. (Liudprand of Cremona, Anopodoris, iii, 29.)

land to which she was going — she kissed her family goodbye and set off with a vast baggage train on the long road to the north-west.

So dazzled are the chroniclers by the splendour of the wedding celebrations that they tell us next to nothing about the peace treaty that was signed at the same time. There seem to have been one or two minor territorial adjustments, together with provisions for the payment to Peter of an annual tribute - which may have been merely a confirmation of what had already been agreed upon by Symeon and Romanus on the Golden Horn but which now apparently carried an additional proviso that it should be payable only during Maria-Irene's lifetime, in which case it may have been nothing more than a subsidy to ensure that she would be able to maintain a degree of state appropriate to a Byzantine princess.1 Finally - and here the contemporary sources leave no room for doubt - Romanus agreed formally to recognize the independence of the Bulgarian Patriarchate and Peter's imperial title of Tsar - or, in Greek, basileus. The first of these obligations did not worry him unduly: the independence of the Patriarchate was after all a fait accompli and, though mildly galling to Constantinople, effectively deprived the Bulgars of one of their favourite blackmailing threats, that of secession to Rome. The second must have been a little harder to stomach; in practice, however, it was simply ignored. Not until Constantine Porphyrogenitus assumed effective power in 94$ was Peter to be addressed as anything more elevated than archon — 'ruler' - in missives from the Bosphorus.

For Romanus was above all a realist. The peace treaty to which he had set his seal left no question in anyone's mind that, although there had been no outright victor of the Bulgarian War, the Bulgars had had the better of it. Arguably, with patient and persistent diplomacy, he might have achieved more favourable terms, but the game was scarcely worth the candle: in the interests of a quick and uncontentious agreement, with a marriage alliance as a further guarantee of lasting Bulgar friendship, he was quite prepared to accept a few minor humiliations. In the first four years of his reign, with two open revolts to contend with (one in Apulia, the other in the Chaldian Theme in the far north-east) and new conspiracies being uncovered every few months, he could never have afforded such a luxury; but now he had consolidated his position. All those government and court officials who had opposed him had been sent

1 Such at least is the hypothesis of Sir Steven Runciman (The Emperor Romanus Lecapenus, p. 99), who suggests - perhaps a trifle unkindly - that the money would really have been used 'to pay for the tided ambassadress or spy that the Emperor kept at the Bulgarian court'.

off into exile or confined in monasteries; every key post was now in the hands of one of his own supporters. The navy was behind him to a man, together with the immense majority of the army. The Church, under a new and subservient Patriarch, gave no further trouble. Romanus himself was not only the crowned and anointed Emperor but head of a numerous imperial family, whose only possible rival was completely under his control and, incidentally, his son-in-law. At last he was secure.

Moreover, within a year or two of Symeon's death it became clear that Bulgaria was a spent force. She could never have become truly great until she had conquered Byzantium, and Byzantium had once again proved unconquerable. Symeon had had no choice but to turn back, time and time again, from those tremendous walls, and to exhaust himself instead against the tribes of the Balkans and the steppes; and this was a war that could never be won. Young Peter, in any case - quite apart from being the son-in-law of the Byzantine Emperor - possessed none of his father's natural aggression. Though infinitely superior in his moral life — many of his subjects looked upon him as a saint — he was to prove a weak and feckless ruler, who in a reign of forty-two years never learned to control his boyars, still less to hold his kingdom together. Thus, for half a century, Bulgaria was to give the Empire no further cause for concern; and when at last a new ruler, representing a new dynasty, was once again to challenge the authority of Constantinople, he was to find himself faced with an adversary worthy of his steel.

The Bulgarian peace finally allowed Romanus Lecapenus to concentrate his energies in the East - a region infinitely more vital to the health and security of Byzantium than the Balkans could ever be. Here were the richest and most fertile fields and farms, here the seemingly bottomless human reservoir that had for centuries provided the Empire with the steadiest and the sturdiest of its fighting men. Here - most important of all - was the front line of Christendom, on whose integrity and inviolability all Europe depended.

Some time around 900, Leo VI had managed to annex the lands of a minor Armenian princeling, Manuel of Teces, which - with the addition of one or two neighbouring cities - he had incorporated into a new Theme which he called Mesopotamia.1 With this not very

1 Not quite the area, however, to which the name - 'between the rivers' — is normally applied today. The two rivers here referred to are not the Euphrates and the Tigris but the two main branches of the Euphrates.

important exception, the Empire's eastern frontier had remained, at the time of his death, substantially as it had been for the past two centuries. Raiding, on the part of both sides, had long been an institution; seldom did a summer pass without the launching of at least one naval or military expedition from one side against the territory of the other. But these expeditions, though often involving forces of considerable size, were prompted more by the desire for plunder and pillage than for territorial expansion, and for the most part had little long-term effect.

Then, in 923, there was appointed as commander-in-chief of the army one of the most brilliant generals that Byzantium was ever to produce. John Curcuas - sometimes known by his baptismal name of Gourgen -was, like the Emperor himself, an Armenian from the extreme north: the region we now know as Georgia. The two were, so far as we can gather, old friends; it was Curcuas who had been primarily responsible for the rounding-up of all potentially subversive elements in the capital at the time of Romanus's assumption of power, and for the next quarter-century no man in the Empire was to give his master more loyal or devoted service. In the first year of his command, the one outstanding victory was in fact naval rather than military: the final defeat of the renegade pirate Leo of Tripoli, the destroyer of Thessalonica nineteen years previously; and in 924, the better to deal with Symeon, Romanus concluded a two-year peace with the Caliph. But from 926, with the Bulgar threat behind him, he was ready to take on the Arabs; and over the next eighteen years the whole complexion of the age-long and hitherto indecisive struggle in the East was to be changed. Since the earliest days of Saracen conquest, the initiative had remained firmly with the forces of Islam. After their first onslaught they had made no further major advance; but though the Byzantines had scored several notable victories under Michael III in the previous century there had never been a question of a large-scale invasion of traditionally Saracen territory. The first six years of Curcuas's campaigns were aimed at the further consolidation of imperial authority in Armenia, and ended in 932 with the capture of Manzikert: a city later to acquire terrible significance in Byzantine history, but which at this time — together with Percri, Khelat (the modern Ahlat) and other towns on or around the northern shore of Lake Van - simply enabled him to control the roads into central Armenia and the more southerly district of Vaspurakan. Only two years later, on 19 May 934, there came an even greater triumph: the capture of Melitene, the first important Arab Emirate to be incorporated into the Empire.

The years immediately following were less eventful, largely owing to a counter-offensive on the part of the powerful Hamdanid Emir of Mosul, Sai'f ed-Daula, 'Sword of the Empire'. By 940 Saif was causing Curcuas serious anxiety; and matters might have taken a dramatically different turn had not a new crisis in Baghdad — where the Abbasid Caliphate was by now fast disintegrating - recalled him in haste to the capital. For the Byzantines, their good fortune proved even greater than they knew: had the Emir kept up the pressure, they would have been hard put to it indeed to meet the utterly unexpected thunderbolt that descended on them, out of an apparently clear blue sky, during the following summer.

In the year 941 there may have been old men and women still alive in Constantinople who remembered their parents' stories of the terrible — though fortunately short-lived - Russian raid on the city eighty-one years before.1 In those days the Russians had been a primitive and fairly heterogeneous collection of mainly Slav tribes, held together by a feudal, probably Scandinavian, aristocracy; in the intervening period, however, they had come - both literally and figuratively - a long way. In 882 or thereabouts the Viking Oleg had headed south from Novgorod and sailed down the Dnieper to Kiev, which he had captured and made the capital of a new Russian state; since then trade had steadily expanded and, where Byzantium was concerned, had been regulated by a commercial treaty signed with Leo VI in 911, according to which preferential treatment was to be accorded - though with certain safeguards - to all Russian merchants in Constantinople. The Slavonic chronicler known -wrongly, as it happens - by the name of Nestor maintains that this treaty had been intended to settle matters after Oleg had launched an immense land and sea expedition, with 2,000 ships and an unspecified number of men, against the city four years previously, in 907; it even relates how, at one stage during the fighting, he had carried his ships on rollers over the hill of Pera and down into the Golden Horn, just as Mehmet II was to do in 1453. This raid is not mentioned by any other source and is almost certainly apocryphal; Oleg had anyway died in the following year and had been succeeded by Igor, son of Rurik, as Grand Prince of Kiev.

1 See pp. 66-8.

But the armada that Igor dispatched at the beginning of June 941 was all too real.

This time the Greek chroniclers put the number of vessels in the Russian fleet at ten or, in one case, fifteen thousand; Liudprand of Cremona, on the other hand (whose stepfather, then the Italian ambassador at Constantinople, was able to give him a first-hand account of what had occurred) speaks, rather more moderately, of mille et eo amplius - 'a thousand and more' - and is almost certainly a good deal nearer the mark. Nevertheless, when Romanus first heard from his Bulgar friends of the Russian approach, his heart sank within him: his army was away on the eastern frontier, his navy divided between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. Urgent messages were sent to both, with orders to return at once; meanwhile, the shipwrights worked round the clock trying to put into some kind of shape the only craft that could be mobilized in the capital: a pathetic collection of fifteen ancient hulks, long destined for the scrapyard but fortunately not yet dismantled. These were loaded to the gunwales with Greek fire and dispatched, under theprotovestiarius Theophanes, to block the Bosphorus at its northern end. Theophanes arrived only just in time: on the morning of 11 June the Russian fleet appeared on the horizon. He attacked at once.

It is impossible to exaggerate the importance of Greek fire in Byzantine history. Time and time again, in naval engagements without number, it had wrenched victory from almost certain defeat. To Saracen fleets it was all too familiar - though they had never found an effective weapon against it. To the Russians, on the other hand, it came as a total surprise. As the first of their ships were engulfed in flames, the remainder turned abruptly away from the mouth of the Bosphorus and headed east along the Black Sea coast of Bithynia; there they landed in strength, venting on the maritime towns and villages all their pent-up anger and frustration at being blocked from the capital and perpetrating unspeakable horrors on the local populations - especially, we are told, on the clergy, some of whom were used for target practice while others, still less fortunate, had iron skewers driven through their skulls.

For many weeks the terror continued; but the military governor of the Armeniakon Theme, Bardas Phocas, hurried to the scene with his local levies and kept the marauders occupied as best he could pending the arrival of the main army under Curcuas. The fleet too was on its way, and as each new squadron arrived it went, just as Thebphanes had done, straight into the attack. Before many days had passed it was the Russians who were on the defensive: they had failed in their primary purpose, autumn was approaching and they were increasingly anxious to sail for home. But it was too late. The Byzantine fleet was drawn up in strength between them and the open sea, and slowly closing in. Early in September they made a desperate attempt to slip through the blockade to the north-west, towards Thrace; again, Theophanes was too quick for them. Suddenly the whole sea was aflame with what Nestor's chronicle describes as 'winged fire'; the Russian ships went up like matchwood. The crews leaped overboard in their hundreds, but there was little hope for them: the lucky ones were dragged to the bottom by the weight of their armour, while the rest met their deaths in the oil-covered water, which blazed as fiercely as the vessels from which they had flung themselves. Few — very few - escaped the inferno and returned to break the news of the catastrophe to their master. In Constantinople, however, there was wild rejoicing: Theophanes was given a hero's welcome and promoted on the spot to the rank of parakoimomenos. Where the Russian prisoners were concerned, Romanus seems for once to have shown no mercy - not surprisingly, perhaps, in view of the outrages for which they had been responsible. If Liudprand is to be believed, they were all executed in the presence of his stepfather - though why a peaceable ambassador should have been called upon to witness so unpleasant a proceeding is nowhere explained.1

This was not quite the end of Romanus's difficulties with the Russians. Only three years later Igor tried again - this time with an amphibious operation, for which he had mobilized members of virtually every tribe in his dominions, to say nothing of a large force of Pecheneg mercenaries. As before, the Emperor was given advance warning: the Bulgars reported the approach of the land army, while the people of Cherson in the Crimea sent him a blood-curdling description of a fleet so huge that the vessels covered the whole surface of the sea. Romanus, however, had no intention of fighting if he could avoid it. His recent victory, complete as it was, had been won only after much bloodshed and devastation; besides, his army was once again away in Mesopotamia, even further from the capital than on the last occasion. He was by no means certain that it could be recalled in time, and was in any case reluctant to withdraw it from a campaign that was proving outstandingly successful. Instead, he decided to send ambassadors to Igor, who was leading the

i Although Liudprand is probably right about the size of the Russian armament, he is not, it must be said, invariably to be relied upon.

land force, to negotiate a settlement. They met the Grand Prince on the Danube and, quite simply, bought him off; while a further douceur satisfied the Pechenegs, who were only too pleased to lay waste Bulgaria instead.

The following spring, a delegation arrived from Kiev to conclude a new political and commercial treaty. Drawn up in the names of Igor on the one side and those of Romanus and all his co-Emperors on the other - and transcribed verbatim in Nestor's chronicle - it laid down a detailed set of conditions regulating trade between the two states, the duties and responsibilities to be accepted and the privileges to be enjoyed by the merchants of each in the territories of the other. Article II, for example, stated that Russians wishing to enter Constantinople might do so only in unarmed groups of up to fifty at a time, accompanied by an imperial representative; any merchandise purchased for more than 50 zolotniki would be delivered in bond and excise duty levied.1 Other articles related to the treatment of escaped slaves, extradition arrangements, punishments for crimes committed by Russians in the Empire or Byzantines in Russia and, in the event of threats from any third power, the duty of each of the signatories to send immediate and unlimited assistance to the other. After the Emperor had affixed his seal the Russians returned to Kiev, together with imperial representatives empowered to sign the ratification documents once the Grand Prince had similarly given his approval. Both sides were well pleased with what they had achieved, and so they might be: relations between Russia and Byzantium were to remain unruffled for a quarter of a century.

Immediately after the destruction of the Russian fleet in 941, John Curcuas had led his army back to the East. To his relief, he had found all his old positions intact: his chief enemy Sai'f ed-Daula was still detained with the crumbling Caliphate in Baghdad, and everything seemed set fair for a continuation of the interrupted offensive. Early in 942 therefore, he swept down into the province of Aleppo where, although he failed to capture the city, he took prisoners in a quantity estimated by the Arabs' own sources at ten or fifteen thousand. By the high summer he was back in imperial territory, resting his troops, rearming and revictualling; and then, as autumn drew on - for the

1 The approximate value of a zolotnik may be judged from Article V, which prescribed the ransoms payable for Russian prisoners. An able-bodied young man or a pretty girl could be redeemed for 10 zolotniki; a person of middle age for 8; old people and children for 5.

Syrian climate, unlike the Armenian, allows campaigning throughout the year - he was off again, in a huge clockwise loop that led him past Lake Van and then westward to the great fortress city of Amida on the banks of the Tigris.1 From here he swung south-east again to Nisibin, and thence west to Edessa.

Edessa, though it had fallen to Islam as early as 641 in the first wave of Muslim conquest, could boast a long and venerable history as a Christian city. In the fifth century it had been a refuge for the Nestorians expelled from the Empire after the Council of Ephesus,2 and it was later to perform a similar service for persecuted monophysites. To the average Eastern Christian of the tenth century, however, Edessa was above all famous for its two priceless possessions: the letter which the ailing King Abgar I had received from Jesus Christ in reply to an invitation to come to Edessa and cure him, and the Saviour's own portrait, miraculously imprinted on a cloth.3 Both these objects were known to be spurious -the portrait is nowhere heard of before the fifth century, while the letter had actually been declared a fake by Pope Gelasius in 494 - but their legends had refused to die; and by the tenth century there seem to have been no less than three rival portraits in the city, held respectively by the Jacobites, the Nestorians and the Melkites, each of them claiming their own to be authentic.4

So far as John Curcuas was concerned, however, there was only one; and he was determined to have it. He therefore sent word to the inhabitants offering peace and the return of all his prisoners in return for the famous image. This put the Edessans in a quandary. The vast majority of them were devout Muslims; but in the eyes of Islam Jesus was one of those 'close to God', and his portrait in consequence a sacred trust. So important a decision, they replied, must be referred to the Caliph in person; would the general therefore be so good as to stay his hand until they received instructions? Curcuas agreed; there was, after

1 Now known as Diyaibakir, the city has retained nearly all its tremendous medieval walls, more than four miles in circumference. The immense Islamic reliefs above the Harput Gate on the northern side almost certainly date from 910 - and had thus, by the time of which we are speaking, already been in place nearly forty years.

2 See Byzantium: The Early Centuries, p. i48n.

3 This tradition appears to have been the origin of the Veronica legend, which does not properly surface again until the fourteenth century - and then in France, whither it was probably brought back by the Crusaders. Compare also the Turin Shroud.

4 The fullest account of the letter and the portrait - together with much else about one of the most fascinating of ancient cities - is given by J. B. Segal (Edessa, 'The Blessed City', Oxford 1970).

all, plenty of other work for him to do. He spent the better part of the next year laying waste large areas of Mesopotamia and capturing several dues, including Dara and Ras al-Ain (where he took another thousand prisoners); then he returned to Edessa to wait.

In the spring of 944 the Edessans received their answer. Since there was clearly no other way of saving the city - and, doubtless, many of their own lives - they had their Caliph's authority to surrender the image. With much ceremony it was carried from the town and reverently placed in the hands of Curcuas, who immediately forwarded it, under heavy escort, to Constantinople. Early in August it arrived on the Asiatic shore of the Bosphorus, where it was met by the parakoimomenos Theophanes and taken personally by him to the Emperor at Blachernae; only a few days later, on the Feast of the Dormition of the Virgin,1 did it make its solemn entry into the capital by the Golden Gate. Here it was formally received by the three young co-Emperors still surviving -Christopher having died in 931 and Romanus being too ill to attend — together with the Patriarch; after which it was borne in triumph through the streets to St Sophia. Two embarrassing moments are, however, reported. The first was when Romanus's two sons failed absolutely to distinguish the lineaments of the Saviour on the cloth, though these were perfectly clear to the Porphyrogenitus; the second when a so-called madman amid the cheering crowd suddenly shouted: 'Constantinople, accept the glory and the blessing; and you, Constantine, accept your throne!'

There was, in point of fact, nothing remotely mad about this exhortation, of which the large majority of those who heard it must warmly have approved; for it was by now clear that the days of the house of Lecapenus were numbered. Romanus was no longer the man he had once been. By now well into his seventies, he was going the way that so many of his predecessors had gone before him, spending more of his time with monks than with ministers, gradually losing his grip on affairs of state as he sank deeper and deeper into morbid religiosity. Death, he felt, was approaching, and his conscience was troubled. True, he had been a hard-working Emperor and on the whole a successful one; but the fact remained that he had had no right to the throne, which he had acquired by perjury and deceit, depriving the legitimate Emperor of all but nominal power for a quarter of a century and promoting his own worthless sons to imperial rank.

1 The Dormition, or Falling Asleep, of the Virgin is the equivalent in the Eastern Church of the Assumption, and is celebrated on the same day, 15 August.

For worthless they were - or at least two of them. The eldest, Christopher, had showed some degree of promise and might have proved worthy of his father had he lived to succeed him; but the two younger brothers, Stephen and Constantine,1 were notorious for their immorality and corruption - characteristics which they combined with a disastrous appetite for intrigue. Already in 943 they had moved against John Curcuas — of whose power and popularity they had become quite unreasonably jealous - successfully dissuading their father from marrying his eldest surviving grandson Romanus (the son of Constantine Porphyrogenitus and Helena) to Curcuas's daughter Euphrosyne, as he had very much hoped to do. Towards the end of the following year they carried their campaign a step further still, obliging Romanus to recall the most successful general of the century in the middle of a triumphant expedition and to replace him with one of their own relatives, Pantherius - who contrived, within a few months, to get his whole army smashed to pieces.

The readiness with which the old Emperor submitted to his sons' demands is a clear enough indication of his own decline. Superstitious as sailors are and uneducated to boot, he had succeeded by virtue of an immense capacity for hard work, unwavering self-confidence and any amount of good sound common sense. Now, it seemed, all three had deserted him. Terrified of death, he had but a single preoccupation: the salvation of his soul. Encouraged by a host of spiritual counsellors, he resorted to ever more desperate measures to achieve this end. On one occasion he remitted all government rents in Constantinople and cancelled all debts, at appalling cost to the imperial exchequer; on another he decreed the expulsion of every Jew and Armenian who would not immediately embrace the Orthodox faith. Almost his only sensible action of these last sad years was to make a new will, in which he expressly confirmed the seniority of Constantine Porphyrogenitus over his own sons, thus in effect eliminating them from power after his death.

Sensible, that is, insofar as the actual provisions of the will were concerned. In his decision to publicize those provisions, Romanus made one of the great mistakes of his life: for he left his sons in no doubt that, unless they acted quickly and decisively, they were lost. In

1 Gibbon calls him Constantine VIII, but most subsequent historians have deemed him unworthy to rank as an Emperor in his own right and have kept this tide for the brother and co-Emperor of Basil II - who was, as we shall see, very little better.

view of their past record, if Constantine became senior Emperor, what was there for them to hope for? Banishment? Castration? Enforced seclusion in a monastery? Even worse fates were not impossible. There was but one alternative: a coup d'etat. And so, five days before Christmas in the year 944, during the midday period when the government offices were closed, the two young Lecapeni and their supporters slipped into the Great Palace and made their way quickly to the chamber where the old Emperor lay on his sick-bed. He offered no resistance when they carried him down to the little harbour of Bucoleon, where a small boat was waiting; and a few minutes later, without any alarm having been raised, Romanus was on his way to Proti - now Kmah - the nearest of the Princes' Islands. There he was tonsured and obliged to take monastic vows — which, one suspects, he was only too happy to do.

By the time his sons returned to the mainland, all Constantinople was agog. Nobody minded much about Romanus; he had not been treated unkindly, and though he was not unpopular the means by which he had seized the throne had never been forgotten. The name now on everyone's lips was that of Constantine Porphyrogenitus. Where was he? Before long, angry and suspicious crowds had gathered at the gates of the Palace. Only after Constantine had showed himself at a window, safe and sound if somewhat dishevelled,1did they agree to disperse.

Here was something that the conspirators had never suspected, any more, probably, than he had himself: Constantine was loved by his people. He had never set out to win their affection; on the contrary, he had deliberately kept as far in the background as possible, appearing in public only when absolutely obliged by state protocol to do so. But that was not the point. He possessed another virtue, infinitely more important than any other: legitimacy. Son of Leo the Wise, grandson of the great Basil himself, born in the purple, he and he alone was the rightful Emperor of Byzantium. As for the Lecapeni, they were nothing but upstart usurpers. Their so-called subjects had had enough of them.

The brothers now saw that they had fatally miscalculated. They had intended to deal with Constantine in due course, in just the same way as they had dealt with their father; but in the face of public opinion so forcibly expressed, this was no longer a possibility. They therefore took the only course open to them: reluctantly, and with ill grace, they

1 Crines solutus, writes Liudprand, 'with his hair unloosed'. Why, one wonders: had there been some sort of a struggle?

formally recognized Constantine as senior Emperor. It was, as may be imagined, an uneasy partnership, with the Porphyrogenitus on the one side and the Lecapeni on the other appointing their own men to as many as possible of the key positions. Left to himself, the gentle, retiring Constantine would probably have allowed the situation to drag on — although, had he done so, it is unlikely that he would have lasted very long. But Helena his wife was made of sterner stuff. For twenty-five years she had loyally defended her husband's interests against her own family, and now she urged him with all her strength to take action while there was still time. For a little while longer he wavered, but soon he received a warning that could not be ignored: his brothers-in-law were planning to kill him. He hesitated no more. Spurred on as always by Helena, he gave his orders. On 27 January 945 his two co-Emperors were arrested, tonsured in their turn and sent off to Proti to join their father. According to the Greek chroniclers, the old man greeted his sons with a well-chosen quotation from Isaiah: 'I have nourished and brought up children, and they have rebelled against me.n Liudprand, however - whose stepfather Bishop Sigefred was still in Constantinople as the ambassador from King Hugh of Italy and had, in company with other diplomatic representatives from Rome, Gaeta and Amalfi, strongly supported the cause of Constantine five weeks before - provides us with a rather more spirited version:

When their father Romanus heard of their arrival, he rendered thanks to God and with a glad face came to meet them outside the monastery door. 'O happy hour,' he cried, 'that has compelled Your Majesties to visit my humble estate. That filial affection which drove me from the palace, I suppose, has not allowed you yourselves to remain there any longer. How fortunate that you should have sent me here some time in advance: my brother-monks and fellow soldiers in Christ devote their days to things of the spirit, and would not have known how Emperors should be received had they not had me with them, an expert in imperial protocol. Here is boiled water for you, colder than the Gothic snows; here are soft beans, all manner of greenstuffs, and leeks freshly plucked. You will find none of those delicacies from the fishmongers that cause illness; such maladies as we have here are brought about by our frequent fasts. Our modest abode has no space for a large and extravagant company; but it is just large enough for Your Majesties, who have refused to desert your father in his old age.'2

1 Isaiah 1:2.

2 Anapodosis v,

If the old man persisted in this vein, his wretched sons must have been relieved indeed to learn that Proti was to be only a temporary place of exile, while their brother-in-law pondered their long-term future. Wisely, he resolved that they should be separated. Stephen was first sent to Proconnesus in the Marmara, then to Rhodes and finally to Lesbos; his brother, after a brief period on Tenedos, was transferred to Samothrace. Of the remaining Lecapeni, only the Empress Helena .and the Patriarch Theophylact - and, away in Bulgaria, the Tsaritsa Maria-Irene - still occupied positions of power.1

As for the old Emperor, he lived on in his monastery, passing his days in prayer and penitence. His conscience still allowed him no rest: his fitful sleep was troubled by dreadful nightmares. In one of them he saw himself, accompanied by his son Constantine and the Bishop of Heraclea, being driven down into hell. At the last moment there appeared the Blessed Virgin, who extended her hand and drew him back; for the other two, however, there was no salvation, and a few days later he learned that they had both died on that very night - Constantine in the course of an attempt to escape from his captivity, during which he had first killed his gaoler and had* then been himself cut down by the prison guards. So shattered was Romanus by this vision and its sinister fulfilment that he resolved on a public confession and penance. On Holy Thursday 946 there were assembled no less than 300 monks from all over the Empire - and even, we are told, from Rome itself - who chanted the Kyrie Eleison while the old man listed all his sins one by one, asking absolution for each. Finally, in front of the high altar, he was scourged and humiliated by a young novice before returning alone to his cell. The book of his sins was sent to Dermocaetes, a monk of renowned holiness who lived in the monastery on Mount Olympus in Bithynia, together with a gift of money and a request that the entire community there should fast for a fortnight and pray for his soul. They did so, after which Dermocaetes reported having heard a voice from heaven confirming that their prayer had been granted, and sent the book — its pages now miraculously blank - back to Romanus, who ordered that it should be buried with him.

Almost incredibly in the circumstances, a plot was even then being hatched, by his friend the parakoimomenos Theophanes and his son the

1 Although some years later Christopher's son Michael was to become magister and Rector, and Constantine Lecapenus's son Romanus rose - after castration - to the rank of Patrician.

Patriarch Theophylact,1 to restore him to the throne. Stranger still, Romanus is said to have given it his support. But this was almost certainly due to weakness rather than strength, and in any case the conspiracy was revealed before any harm was done. The Patriarch was saved by virtue of his office; Theophanes, however, was sent into exile -a sad end to a career during which he served his Emperor loyally, but just a little too long. Romanus lived to see his old friend's disgrace; by this time, however, he was failing fast. He died on 15 June 948. His body was carried back to Constantinople and was buried in the monastery of the Myrelaeum, beside that of his wife.

He had been a good Emperor - perhaps even a great one. Having seized power by duplicity and deceit, he had thereafter wielded it with wisdom and moderation and, in the space of a quarter of a century, had given the Empire new direction. His immediate predecessors had had to cope with two principal problems: the Church, which had poisoned the last years of the unfortunate Leo VI; and Bulgaria, whose repeated victories had brought about the downfall of Zoe. Romanus - it seemed almost effortlessly - had solved them both, and both by the same technique: he had allowed his enemies their head, exhausted them and then made sure that they were not replaced. It had worked with Patriarch Nicholas, whom he had flattered and indulged undl the insufferable old man died, after which he had replaced him with two short-lived nonentities and finally with his own son; and it had worked with the Bulgars, to whom he had been prepared to make a temporary sacrifice of Thrace in the sure knowledge that Constantinople was and would remain inviolate. Once Symeon was out of the way, he had showed himself ready to agree to any number of concessions - including that of his daughter - and so eliminated the problem altogether.

It was in the East that Romanus's quiet diplomacy proved useless. There armed force was the only argument understood, and there - since he had lost not a single fighting man to the Bulgars - he was able to throw the whole weight of his army and navy against his Saracen foes. Luck,

1 Theophylact, having been intended for the Patriarchate since his earliest years, had eventually achieved it in 931, at the age of fourteen. A harmless but essentially frivolous youth, he had given his father no trouble, devoting a good deal more time to his 2,000 horses than to his religious duties, which he would always unhesitatingly interrupt for the accouchement of one of his mares. As Sir Steven Runciman reminds us, 'he made one brave attempt to reconcile pleasure with piety by brightening up divine service on the lines of a pantomime; but it met with disapproval, though some of the turns lasted to shock the righteous more than a century later'. He was to enjoy the Patriarchate thoroughly for twenty-five years, dying in 956 as the result of a riding accident.

admittedly, was on his side — first in John Curcuas, in whom he found a general of quite exceptional merit, and secondly in the state of the Abbasid Caliphate, which was no longer capable of exercising any real authority; but it remains a fact that, for the first time since the rise of Islam, it was the Christian forces that were on the offensive.

At home, during a remarkably uneventful reign, Romanus displayed much the same qualities that he had shown in his dealings with the Bulgars. There can be no doubt of his unfeigned abhorrence of bloodshed, a rare virtue in those violent days: again and again, even in cases of conspiracy against his own person, we find him preferring sentences of exile to those of execution. He seems, too, to have been genuinely kind-hearted: in the dreadful winter of 928, the longest and coldest in Constantinople's history, it was he who personally directed the emergency food supply. And he was a devoted family man - rather too devoted, perhaps, where his sons were concerned.

Why, then, was he not better loved? Why, when his own sons rose against him, did none of his subjects utter a word of protest or lift a finger on his behalf? Was it simply that they disliked usurpers? Or was there also something in his character that failed to endear him? Here, perhaps, we can find at least a partial answer to the mystery; for Romanus's virtues and qualities were not such as ever to seize the popular imagination. He was not a great soldier, nor a great legislator: his ambitious attempts at land reform had little long-term effect, and were anyway of minimal interest to the people of Constantinople. He seems to have appeared rarely in public and never made much of a show at the Hippodrome. In short, although he did his utmost to see his subjects properly provided with bread, he was distinctly short on circuses. They consequently tended to ignore him and, when they thought of him at all, to remember the only deeply memorable thing in the life of this able, quiet and surprisingly colourless man: his path to the throne.

And he, as we know, remembered it too: remembered it so vividly, and with such consuming remorse, that his last few years were passed in unremitting mental torment. This, surely, was punishment enough; for if at the start he had laid predatory hands on the Empire, later he had served it well. And it is pleasant to reflect that he died at last with his spirit at peace, and his sins forgiven.

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