Post-classical history

The Return of Iconoclasm


Leave the Church to its pastors and masters; attend to your own province, the State and the army. If you refuse to do this, and are bent on destroying our faith, know that though an angel came from heaven itself to pervert us we would not obey him. Far less would we obey you.

Abbot Theodore of the Studium to the Emperor Leo V,

Of the personal appearance of the Emperor Leo V we know little; the sole description that has come down to us reports only that he was short and bearded, with thick curly hair and an unusually loud voice. Of his character, on the other hand, we can deduce a good deal more. First of all there was his consuming ambition: unlike his predecessor Michael, who came of noble stock and had the additional advantage of being an Emperor's son-in-law, Leo had made his way from humble beginnings, rising to the supreme power entirely through his own efforts, assisted by boundless physical energy. If we accept the explanation of his conduct at Versinicia given in the previous chapter, we have no cause to question his powers of leadership, still less his courage; all accounts of his punitive expedition into Bulgar territory in the autumn of 813, however, point to a streak of bestial cruelty which was quick to burst forth when his anger was aroused. Nor must it ever be forgotten that he was an Armenian; as such, he possessed in full measure - indeed it was perhaps the salient feature of his unusually complex personality - that quality for which his countrymen have always been noted: a keen and subtle intelligence, shot through with resourcefulness and guile.

It was this intelligence that had probably first endeared him to his rebellious compatriot Bardanes Turcus. He had shown it a few years later at Versinicia, and again when he had carried out his nocturnal surprise attack on the Bulgar force in 813; and it was once more in evidence when, in the year following, he set about the reimposition of iconoclasm on the Empire. His reasons for taking so tremendous a step were very different from those which had impelled his namesake to do the same eighty-eight years before. Leo III had been a devout theologian, who had thought long and earnestly about the issues involved and had genuinely believed that he was obeying the will of God. As for Leo V, this was not a question to which he gave much thought: his approach to the question was a purely practical one. Already in the days of Irene the imperial government had had to contend with the problem posed by vast numbers of destitute peasant small-holders, dispossessed and driven from their homes by Saracen incursions into the eastern provinces. Enrolled by Nicephorus as regular soldiers, they had proved useful enough during the Bulgarian war as an emergency militia for the capital; with the coming of peace, however, they had been disbanded and were once again reduced to penury, begging at street corners for their daily bread. Being easterners, these men were nearly all iconoclasts by tradition and upbringing; moreover, since their misery had had its origins during the reign of Irene, they not unnaturally tended to associate it with her, and through her with the reaction against iconoclasm which she had brought about.

Thus, by the summer of 814, there was in Constantinople an ominous ground-swell of iconoclast opinion which, while not yet presenting any serious threat to the security of the State, might well have turned dangerous if ignored for too long. Nor was this opinion confined to the dissatisfied ex-soldiers; it was also widespread - as it had always been -among the upper classes of the capital, as well as in the senior ranks of the army. We have seen how a demonstration at the tomb of Constantine V two years before had recalled the military triumphs of the iconoclast Emperors, in marked contrast to the failures of their iconodule successors: there must have been many men and women in the Empire not normally given to theological speculation who felt nevertheless that the Almighty had made His own point of view on the matter clear enough, and that the time had come for a change.

It was thus as a means of preserving domestic peace rather than as an expression of any deep religious conviction that Leo went ahead with his plan. His first step was to appoint, in June 814, a special commission with orders to examine the scriptures and all the writings of the early Fathers of the Church for evidence in favour of the iconoclastic persuasion. As its chairman he nominated another of his countrymen: the brilliant young Armenian abbot of the monastery of SS. Sergius and Bacchus — he was still in his early thirties - whose real name was John Morocharzamius but who is more conveniently known to posterity as John the Grammarian. As his deputy the Emperor rather surprisingly selected Antony, Bishop of Syllaeum in Pamphylia, an agreeable old reprobate who - according to the violently anti-iconoclast Scriptor Incertus - spent most of his time telling dubious stories to the two monks and two laymen who made up the rest of the commission. Throughout their six-month labour they were bound to the strictest secrecy, being lodged and fed — superbly, it appears — inside the Great Palace and encouraged to remain as far as possible within its walls.

The results of their endeavours were completed in early December and submitted to the Emperor, who immediately summoned Patriarch Nicephorus to the Palace. Still treading warily, he first proposed - as a compromise 'to please the soldiers' - the removal only of those holy pictures which were hanging low on the walls; the Patriarch, however, who knew the thin end of a wedge when he saw one, would have none of it. 'But why,' pursued Leo, 'do you venerate images, when there is no scriptural injunction to do so?' Nicephorus replied that the Church endorsed many beliefs and practices for which there was no written authority; further than that he refused to go. In such circumstances the Emperor had no option but to set the example himself - acting, however, with typical disingenuousness. The icon on which he had set his sights was the huge representation of Christ which stood above the main gate of the Palace known as the Chalke - the very same that had been pulled down by Leo III in 726, only to be subsequently replaced by Irene; but whereas the Isaurian had simply ordered the military to get on with the job, the Armenian laid his plans with care. He too sent for a detachment of soldiers, but his orders' to them were somewhat different. Their task would be to create a disturbance, apparently spontaneous, in the course of which they would hurl imprecations and abuse at the holy image, pelting it with mud and stones; this would be the cue for the arrival of the Emperor himself, who would order its removal to save it from any further desecration.

The operation went according to plan, whereupon the Patriarch on his own initiative summoned a meeting of all the local bishops and abbots, warning them of the approaching storm and calling upon them to stand firm on the principles laid down by the Seventh Ecumenical Council in 787.1 Then, early on Christmas morning, he had another

1 This was the Council called by Irene to condemn tconoclasm. See Byzantium: The Early Centuriess, pp. 69-72.

audience with Leo. He implored the Emperor to dismiss him if he so wished, but to make no radical change in Church doctrine; Leo smoothly assured him that he had no intention of doing either — in confirmation of which, at the Christmas Mass in St Sophia, he ostentatiously bowed down as usual before a representation of the Nativity. Less than two weeks later, on the other hand, during the service of Epiphany on 6 January 815, it was noted by all present that he made no such obeisance. Nicephorus could only stand by and await developments.

They were not long in coming. The Emperor now summoned a number of iconoclast churchmen to the capital - carefully giving them no opportunity to pay their customary respects to the Patriarch on their arrival - and handed them the collection of scriptural and patristic citations that the commission had prepared. Then, once again, he called Nicephorus to the Palace. The Patriarch obeyed the summons - but he did not come alone. With him there appeared a large body of the faithful, including Abbot Theodore of the Studium, formerly one of his bitterest enemies but now steadfast at his side. The ensuing meeting was a stormy one, in the course of which Theodore openly defied the Emperor in the words quoted at the head of this chapter; the assembled ecclesiastics were shortly afterwards dismissed. A few days later there was promulgated an edict forbidding the Patriarch and all members of the iconodule faction to hold meetings in public places or even private residences. Nicephorus himself was put under something closely resembling house arrest and thus effectively prevented from performing his official duties.

That Easter, what was called a General Synod - to which, however, a considerable number of iconodule bishops failed to receive their invitations - was held in St Sophia. By this time the Patriarch had fallen seriously ill: summoned to attend the assembly, he was not well enough to do so, and was accordingly deposed in absentia. When sufficiently recovered he was exiled to the monastery of St Theodore the Martyr, some distance up the Bosphorus on the Asiatic side. There he lived on for some years, but never returned to Constantinople. In his place the Emperor appointed - significantly - a relative of Constantine V named Theodotus Cassiteras. Iconoclast the new Patriarch undoubtedly was; like Constantine, however, he seems to have been far from puritanical in other respects. One of his first acts on his succession was to give a sumptuous luncheon party in the Patriarchal Palace, at which distinguished ecclesiastics and austere monks, many of whom had not touched meat for years, were obliged by their host to make free of the succulent dishes and superb wines that were set before them and, in the words of Professor Bury, 'the dull solemnity of an archiepiscopal table was now enlivened by frivolous conversation, amusing stories, and ribald wit'.

But the Patriarch's life was not all pleasure. It was also his duty to preside at the Synod - an unenviable task and one which, as soon became clear, lay well beyond his capabilities. Nicephorus, one feels - or Tarasius before him - would somehow have managed to impose his authority; but when certain Orthodox bishops were called in for examination and tempers became heated, Theodotus lost control. The unfortunate prelates were physically attacked, thrown to the ground, punched, kicked and spat upon. The prestige of the Synod - already weakened by the obvious one-sidedness of its composition - was still further diminished by this unedifying display; at last, however, the delegates dusted themselves down, resumed their places - and did what they were told. Their findings were consequently a foregone conclusion; and their final decree, in an only slightly abridged form, ran as follows:

The Emperors Constantine [V] and Leo [III], considering the safety of the Empire to depend on Orthodoxy, formerly gathered a numerous synod of spiritual fathers and bishops and condemned the unprofitable practice, unwarranted by tradition, of making and adoring icons, preferring worship in spirit and in truth.

On this account, the Church of God remained tranquil for a number of years, and the people enjoyed peace, until the government passed from men to a woman, and the Church became the victim of feminine simplicity. This woman followed the counsel of ignorant bishops; she convoked an injudicious assembly; she laid down the doctrine of painting in a material medium the Son and Word of God, and of representing the Mother of God and the Saints by dead images; and she enacted that these representations should be adored, thus heedlessly defying the proper doctrine of the Church. In such a way did she sully our adoration which is due to God alone, declaring that what should be given only to Him should be offered to lifeless icons. Furthermore she foolishly maintained that they were full of divine grace, encouraging the lighting of candles and the burning of incense before them. Thus did she cause the simple to err.

We do therefore now forbid throughout the Orthodox Church the unauthorized manufacture of pseudonymous icons; we reject the adoration denned by Tarasius;1 we annul the decrees of his synod, on the ground that they granted to images undue honour; and we condemn the lighting of candles and the offering of incense.

1 Patriarch at the time of the Seventh Ecumenical Council of 787.

Gladly recognizing, however, the Holy Synod which met at Blachernae in the temple of the unspotted Virgin in the reigns of Constantine and Leo as firmly based on the doctrine of the Fathers, we decree that the manufacture of icons -we abstain from calling themidols, for there are degrees of evil - is neither worshipful nor of service.

With iconoclasm once again introduced throughout the Empire, the dangers of civil disruption removed - at least for the immediate future -and continued peace established on all his frontiers, Leo V could congratulate himself on an excellent start to his reign. Lacking any deep religious convictions of his own, he took no stringent measures against the general run of icon-worshippers who refused to submit to the new edict. A few of its most vociferous opponents - those who continued publicly to demonstrate against it and openly to defy the ban on images - were punished for form's sake: Abbot Theodore, for example, now the acknowledged leader of the iconodule camp, was thrown into three different prisons. His biographer recalls with relish his repeated floggings and the hideous extremes of heat and cold - to say nothing of the enthusiastic visitations of rats, fleas and lice - that he was called upon to endure. But then, as the Emperor would have been quick to point out, Theodore had asked for it: he had never minced words during his imperial audiences, and on the Palm Sunday before the Synod he had staged a procession in which the monks of the Studium had flagrantly paraded round the monastery, carrying all their most precious icons shoulder-high before them. More serious still, in 817, he was found to be in regular correspondence with the newly elected Pope Paschal I, not only informing him of the plight of the Orthodox faithful but on one occasion actually proposing an appeal for help to the Western Emperor. Such a proposal was obviously treasonable, and in the circumstances it was hardly surprising that Leo should have taken firm action against him. Most of those churchmen who shared his opinions found, on the other hand, that provided they kept a suitably low profile they were permitted to carry on as they always had, without molestation or interference. Leo's primary interests were State security and public order. So far as he was concerned, the doctrinal considerations so dear to Theodore and his followers were at most of secondary importance.

Inevitably, however, the edict of 815 unleashed a new wave of wholesale destruction. Any holy image, we are told, could be smashed or desecrated by any person at any time, without fear of punishment. Any vestment or piece of embroidery bearing representations of Jesus Christ, the Virgin or the Saints was liable to be torn to shreds and trampled underfoot; painted wooden panels were smeared with ordure, attacked with axes or burnt in the public squares. The extent of the artistic loss, then and over the next twenty-eight years, may not have been as great as that sustained in the sixty-one years of iconoclasm during the previous century: the time-span of this second period was less than half that of the first, and in any case Leo and his successors possessed little of the blazing conviction that had driven Leo III and Constantine Copronymus. The fact remains that that loss must have been by any standards immense; and when we consider the breathtaking quality and pathetically small quantity of Byzantine art that has survived from before the middle of the ninth century, it is a loss that we can still feel today.

From an early stage in his career - perhaps even before the two of them had been involved in the ill-fated revolt of Bardanes Turcus in 801 -Leo had enjoyed the close friendship of a brother-officer named Michael, who came from the Phrygian city of Amorium.1The bond that existed between them is not immediately easy to understand — Michael was a bluff, unlettered provincial of humble origins with some sort of impediment in his speech2 - but it was strong enough for Leo to have stood as godfather to his son, and there is evidence to suggest that Michael gave his friend invaluable support and encouragement at the time of the battle of Versinicia and the subsequent march on the capital. When Leo rode in triumph to the Imperial Palace, the Amorian had followed immediately behind; and although, when the two dismounted to enter the building, Michael had committed an unfortunate faux pas by treading on the Emperor's cloak and almost dragging it off, Leo nevertheless appointed him Commander of the Excubitors - one of the crack Palace regiments — and the incident was soon forgotten.

Some time in the summer or early autumn of the year 820, however, word came to the Emperor that Michael was speaking slanderously of him and spreading sedition. Unwilling to take precipitate action against his old friend, he first instructed another of his court officials, the

1 Once the capital of the province of Anatolia and an important bishopric, Amorium is now only a few sad-looking ruins near the village of Asarkdy, some thirty-five miles south-west of Sivrihisar.

2 Most modern historians speak of it as a lisp, but it is more likely to have been a stammer -hence his nickname Psellus, 'the Stammerer'. (He is not of course to be confused with the later chronicler.)

Logothete of the Drome John Hexabulios - the same who had been involved in the perfidious meeting with Krum seven years before - to have a private word with him, pointing out the imprudence of his behaviour and its potential consequences; but Michael took no notice - As time went on he continued to speak more and more openly against his sovereign until, on Christmas Eve, Hexabulios uncovered a conspiracy in which several high-ranking military officers were believed to be implicated, and of which Michael was unquestionably the ringleader. He informed Leo, who at once had the Amorian brought before him. Confronted by unassailable evidence, Michael had no choice but to confess his guilt; and the Emperor, beside himself with rage at the treachery of so trusted a friend and colleague, ordered him forthwith to be hurled into the huge furnace that heated the baths of the Palace.

Although night had long since fallen, this terrible sentence would have been immediately carried out had it not been for his wife, the Empress Theodosia. Hearing the news from one of her ladies, she jumped from her bed and rushed barefoot to her husband. It was now, she pleaded, only an hour or two before Christmas; how could he possibly accept the Sacrament on the day of Christ's Nativity with an act of such unspeakable cruelty on his conscience? Moved by her words -and also, perhaps, by her reminder that longer and more careful examination of Michael might yield further information about his fellow-conspirators - Leo agreed to defer the execution. He had the condemned man put in irons and locked in a small room in a distant corner of the Palace, where he was to be kept under constant guard. He himself took charge of the keys, both to the room and to the fetters. Then, deeply troubled in mind and spirit, he retired to bed.

But he could not sleep. Again and again, his thoughts returned to that day in 813 when Michael had trodden on his cloak and had come near to tearing the imperial insignia from his shoulders. Could the incident have been an omen? And what about the illuminated book of divination that he had recently been reading, in which he had found a representation of a lion, its throat transfixed by a sword, between the Greek letters Chi and Pbi? If Chi stood for Christmas and Phi for Epiphany was that not an unmistakable prediction of the death of Leo some time between those two feasts? How much better if he had refused to listen to his wife's entreaties and had had the sentence carried out there and then — and besides, was his prisoner really safe? On a sudden impulse he got up, seized a candle and set off down the labyrinthine corridors of the Palace to the room in which Michael was confined, smashing down or bursting open - for despite his small stature he was a man of colossal physical strength - any door along his path which chanced to be locked. He then let himself silently into the cell - to find, to his fury, the gaoler sound asleep on the floor while the prisoner lay on a pallet bed, apparently in the same state. Unable to believe that anyone in such a situation could slumber so soundly, he laid his hand on Michael's chest to satisfy himself by the beating of his heart that his sleep was indeed genuine. Finding that it was, he quietly withdrew, pausing only to shake his fist at the two unconscious men.

What the Emperor did not know was that there was a third person in the room, very much awake. Somehow Michael had contrived to bring with him one of his personal servants, a young eunuch who on hearing footsteps had hastily concealed himself under the bed. From this hiding-place he could not see the face of the intruder; but the purple boots, which only the basileus could wear, were more than sufficient identification. The moment Leo had gone, he woke up his master and the gaoler and told them what he had seen; and the latter, realizing that his life too was now under threat, readily agreed to make common cause with his prisoner. On the pretext that Michael was anxious to confess his sins before sentence was carried out, he sent another of the Amorian's trusted servants into the city, ostensibly to find a priest but in fact to gather his fellow-conspirators for a last-minute rescue.

The servant moved fast, and the plan was soon made. It was the custom, on great feasts of the Church, for the choir of monks who sang the Matins in the Palace to assemble in the early hours by the Ivory Gate before making their way to the Chapel of St Stephen. And so, long before first light on that freezing Christmas morning, the conspirators shrouded themselves in monks' robes - the perfect concealment for the swords and poignards that they carried beneath them - and joined the choristers with whom, their faces hidden deep in their cowls, they proceeded into the Palace. Once inside the chapel, they lost themselves among the shadows and settled down to wait.

The beginning of the opening hymn was the accepted signal for the arrival of the Emperor, who took his seat as usual and at once joined in the anthem. There were varying opinions - of which his own was by far the most favourable — as to the quality of his voice, but all sources are agreed on its volume. The conspirators waited until the music reached a climax; then they struck. Strangely enough, both Leo and the officiating priest were wearing peaked fur caps to protect their heads from the bitter cold; and the first blows were directed against the priest, who managed only just in time to whip off his cap, revealing an egg-bald head and so convincing his assailants of their mistake. This momentary delay allowed the Emperor to seize from the altar a heavy cross with which to defend himself; but a moment later a tremendous sword stroke severed his right arm at the shoulder sending it, with the hand still clutching the cross, spinning across the floor. He fell to the ground, where another blow struck off his head. And so, soon after four o'clock in the morning of Christmas Day 820, the reign of the Emperor Leo V came to an end.

Once again, the murderers lost no time. Hurrying to the room in which Michael was still captive, they found to their dismay that they had no means of unlocking his fetters: the new Emperor of Byzantium was carried bodily to his throne and seated upon it with the heavy iron shackles still on his legs, while the hastily assembled officers of the imperial household prostrated themselves before him. Only around midday did a blacksmith arrive with a sledgehammer and chisel to set him free1 - just in time for him to limp into St Sophia for his coronation by the Patriarch. The thoughts of Theodotus as he laid the crown on the usurper's shaggy head are not recorded; but he was an inveterate time-server and not the sort of man to raise objections.

Soon afterwards, what remained of Leo V was retrieved from the common privy into which it had been thrown and dragged naked to the Hippodrome, where it was exposed to the public gaze. Thence it was carried on muleback to the harbour where the Empress Theodosia and her four sons were waiting, and loaded with them on to the ship that was to take them to exile on the Princes' Islands in the Marmara. On their arrival, further grim news awaited them: to ensure that they should plan no retaliation, it was the wish of the new Emperor that the boys should all be immediately castrated.2 Three of them survived the ordeal - one, Gregory, living on to become Archbishop of Syracuse in Sicily; the youngest, Theodosius, died under the knife and was buried with his father.

1.       So at least we are assured by our principal source, the Continuator of Theophanes (see below). Other chroniclers claim that John Hexabulios suddenly remembered that Leo had put the key in his pocket, and had it recovered from the corpse.

2.       So that they could not supplant him. The Emperor, in the Byzantine view, must be free from all physical imperfections.

The reader of these last two pages may perhaps have been struck by a note of theatricality, even sensationalism, making a sharp contrast with the austerity and restraint which has heretofore characterized our narrative. This is a reflection, not of any change of approach on the author's part, but of a new source who took over the chronicle of the monk Theophanes shortly before the latter's death in 814 on the island of Samothrace, whither he had been exiled for his religious opinions. This Continuator - as he is generally known, though in fact the later chapters of the work attributed to him are obviously by several different successors - has a penchant for drama" and an eye for the telling detail which sets him apart from the vast majority of his fellows. We may suspect him of occasionally elaborating his account with more than a touch of artistic licence, and are probably right to do so - particularly since the later compilation dates from the middle of the tenth century, well over a hundred years after the events here described; but he certainly knows how to tell a story, and natural storytellers are all too rare in medieval history. In all essentials, we have no reason to doubt his reliability; and even for the rest, so long as we hold an occasional pinch of salt at the ready, there is no reason not to enjoy him.

To say that Michael II ascended the Byzantine throne with blood on his hands is an understatement. Many other Emperors, to be sure, had done the same; none, however, with the arguable exception of Phocas in 602,1 had dispatched his predecessor quite so cold-bloodedly - or with less excuse. Leo had had his faults, cruelty and duplicity prominent among them; but he had been a wise and effective ruler who had done much to restore the imperial fortunes and who, given the opportunity, would doubtless have continued to guide the Empire with firmness and confidence. Michael could not attempt to justify his murder on the grounds of his incapacity any more than he could on those of religion, since he fully shared Leo's views on iconoclasm. His sole motivation, in short, was a compound of jealousy and naked ambition - together, perhaps, with just a touch of superstition: for he had never forgotten the words uttered by the hermit of Philomelion, seventeen years before.

The people of Constantinople were perfectly well aware of all this. They laughed at Michael for his boorishness and lack of education - in the time it took him to write the six Greek letters of his name, they used

1 Sec Byzantium: The Early Centuries, p. 277.

to say, another man could read a whole book - and from the moment of his accession they made him a popular target for political lampoons; but they feared him too. He had, after all, shown that in order to get what he wanted there was no conduct of which he was not capable. And yet, surprisingly, he was to prove a better ruler than anyone had expected -and one whose reign, troubled as it was, was to be characterized less by stupidity or cruelty than by moderation and sound common sense.

It was perhaps a manifestation of this latter virtue that led Michael, on Whit Sunday 821, to have his seventeen-year-old son Theophilus crowned co-Emperor. He was deeply conscious of the fact that he was the seventh occupant of the Byzantine throne in a quarter of a century, and that of his immediate predecessors two had been deposed, two killed in battle and two assassinated. Furthermore, the last three had all been unrelated to each other, and to himself. More than anything, it seemed, the Empire needed stability; and the coronation of Theophilus was the first step towards it. But Theophilus too must produce a son and heir: and the second step, which was taken very shortly afterwards - probably on the very same day - was to marry him to a Paphlagonian lady of high birth and startling beauty by the name of Theodora1, of whom we shall be hearing a good deal more in the years to come.

But already by this time Michael had problems on his mind more immediate than that of the imperial succession; for the Empire was once again under threat - not, as so often in the past, from the Saracens or the Bulgars, but from a military adventurer known as Thomas of Gaziura or, more usually, as Thomas the Slav. He was the third of the three officers who had accompanied Bardanes Turcus to the hermit of Philomelion in 803; since his two comrades Leo and Michael had already ascended the throne, it must have been clear to him that, by the terms of the prophecy, his own attempt must be doomed to failure; he seems, however, to have been determined to prove the prophet wrong. Throughout the reigns of Nicephorus and Michael I he had remained in exile in Muslim lands; but he had returned on the accession of Leo who, rather surprisingly - since the Armenians were known to dislike the Slavs even more than the Greeks did - had entrusted him with a high military command. Until about the time of Leo's murder he had caused no trouble; but as soon as the throne passed to Michael – with

1 Like Theophano, the wife of Stauracius (see p. 911.), she was almost certainly selected by means of a 'bride show' - a sort of beauty contest of eligible maidens, from whom the prospective bridegroom would make his choice.

whom he had maintained a long-standing rivalry - he began to stir up rebellion.

His success was remarkable, and for several reasons. In the eastern provinces he claimed to be the Emperor Constantine VI - who had somehow miraculously escaped the blinding ordered by his mother Irene twenty-three years before - and actually went through a ceremony of coronation in Muslim-held Antioch. In the West he took a violently anti-iconoclastic stand which was sure, he knew, to win him a large measure of support. Everywhere he set himself up as a champion of the poor, and of all those who were oppressed by high taxation and the widespread corruption of provincial government officials. Though relatively advanced in age - he was certainly well into his fifties, and may have been older — and afflicted with a pronounced limp, there seems to have been something almost irresistibly attractive about him: those who knew them both would always contrast his courtesy and charm with the incoherent coarseness of the Emperor. And he possessed another advantage too: the revulsion felt by all right-thinking men and women for the cold-blooded brutality of the crime by which the Amorian had seized the throne.. We may wonder, none the less, whether his innumerable supporters would have felt quite the same had they known that Thomas was enjoying considerable financial support from Caliph Mamun - to whom he may well have promised, if successful, to hold the Empire as a fief of the Caliphate.

The army with which this twisted, resentful yet somehow charismatic figure invaded the Empire in the spring of 821 was immense: some 80,000, including Arabs and Persians, Georgians and Armenians, Alans and Goths, Huns and Slavs. So heterogeneous a collection was hardly likely, one would have thought, to rally much support inside the Greek-speaking Anatolian heartland; yet within a matter of months only two Themes in all Asia Minor - the Opsikion and the Armeniakon - remained loyal to Michael. And so, in the knowledge that he had virtually the entire Empire behind him from Ararat to the Aegean, Thomas crossed to Thrace in December 821 and laid siege to Constantinople.

It was not, as we know, the first time that the capital had faced a besieging army. True, on the most recent occasion - only eight years previously - Krum had made no serious attempt to breach the 400-year-old walls of Theodosius II, contenting himself with ravaging the outer suburbs and the district of Galata beyond the Golden Horn. But there had been full-blooded sieges too - by the Persians in 626, and by the

Saracens in 674 and again in 717-18 - when the people had had to contend with simultaneous onslaughts from both land and sea, and all the men and women of Constantinople had felt themselves - rightly — to be in the front line of the attack. Thanks in part to their courage and determination, but in still greater part to those magnificent defences which no other city could match, they had always prevailed; and so they did against Thomas the Slav, for the same reasons. Thomas directed his main offensive against the Blachernae quarter, where the northern end of the land walls ran down to the Golden Horn and the fortifications were believed to be somewhat weaker; he seems to have been unaware that this particular area had been greatly strengthened by Leo V in expectation of Krum's last expedition that had never happened. In the event, his siege-engines proved hopelessly ineffective, certainly no match for the huge catapults and mangonels that Michael had ranged along the ramparts. At sea, too, though Thomas had had no difficulty in winning over the provincial fleet in its bases around the Anatolian coast, together with all its armaments and even its stocks of Greek fire, the raging winter winds prevented his ships from advancing far enough inshore to do any appreciable damage.

In the spring of 822 he tried again, with no better success. This time the Emperor managed to address the besieging army from the top of one of the towers, ostensibly appealing to their loyalty but in fact subtly contriving to suggest that the defenders of the city were at their last gasp. His hearers, assuming that they would therefore meet with little serious resistance, advanced to the attack carelessly and in loose order; they were taken totally by surprise when several gates were suddenly thrown open to release an avalanche of imperial troops, who fell on them before they had time to recover themselves and slaughtered them by the score. After that, the assault on Blachernae was abandoned. A naval battle, apparently fought on the same day, ended in another reverse for the rebels; while their second fleet, arriving from Hellas and the Peloponnese in the early summer, had scarcely engaged the Emperor's navy before being totally destroyed by Greek fire.

By the second winter of the rebellion - which, in view of the numbers involved, might perhaps be more properly described as a civil war — Thomas had still not achieved a single major victory; both to him and to his close associates it must have been clear that his bid for the crown had failed. But he did not give up the struggle; and there is no telling how long the stalemate might have continued had it not been for the Bulgar

Khan Omortag, Krum's son, who soon after his accession had concluded a thirty-year treaty with the Empire and who now offered Michael armed assistance. The Emperor is said to have politely declined the offer, being reluctant to permit Christian blood - even that of traitors -to be shed by pagan swords; but he could not prevent the Khan, for whom the prospects of plunder were well-nigh irresistible, from acting on his own account and may even, for all we know, have given him covert encouragement. However that may be, in March 823 the Bulgar horde swept down from Mount Haemus in Thrace and a few weeks later, on the plain of Keduktos1 near Heraclea, smashed the rebel army to pieces. The plunder proved fully up to expectations. Well satisfied with his work, Omortag returned home.

Thomas, now desperate, gathered up what was left of his shattered forces and led them some twenty miles west of Constantinople to another expanse of flat, open country known as the plain of Diabasis. Shortly afterwards - it must have been about the beginning of May -the Emperor rode out of the capital, at the head of his own army, to meet him; and there, where the two little rivers Melas (now the Karasu) and Athyras flowed down from the hill of Kushkaya near the Anastasian walls,2 the issue was finally decided. Thomas adopted the time-honoured tactic of a pretended flight; but when the moment came to spin round and charge the enemy his remaining troops, dispirited and demoralized, could not bring themselves to do so and laid down their arms instead. Their erstwhile commander, escaping with a handful of followers, fled to Arcadiopolis - the modern Liileburgaz - and barricaded himself in.

Now the roles were reversed: Michael was the besieger, Thomas the besieged. The latter, acutely conscious of the shortage of provisions, expelled from the city all the women, the children and the men who were too old or incapacitated to bear arms and so managed to hold out through the summer; but in October, by which time he and his men were reduced to eating the putrescent corpses of their own horses, it became clear that they could resist no longer. Many deserted, lowering themselves by ropes from the walls, and made straight for the imperial camp; the Emperor thereupon sent a message to the soldiers left in the city, promising them all a free pardon if they would deliver their leader

1 A corruption of Aquaeductus. Heraclea (now Eregli) was famous for the great Roman aqueduct just outside the city.

The great outer defence of Constantinople, built in the early sixth century by Anastasius I across the thirty-odd miles from Selymbria (Stlivri) on the Marmara to the Black Sea.

into his hands. They in turn, realizing that the alternative might well be a general massacre, agreed.

Thomas and Michael had been enemies for many years; only for the last two had their enmity flared up into open warfare, but during those two years the damage done to the Empire, morally as well as materially, had been beyond computation. Vast tracts of rich farming land had been laid waste; the resident small-holders, faced with savagely increased taxation and possessing no capital to fall back on, were ruined. Once again they flocked to Constantinople in search of sustenance. The old problem - the same that had plagued both Nicephorus arid Leo V - was back again, in a more acute form than ever. As the sole cause of all the misery and devastation, the Slav knew that he could expect no mercy. Brought in chains into the Emperor^s presence, he was pushed roughly to the ground before him; and Michael made no attempt to conceal his satisfaction. Resting one purple-booted foot on the neck of his victim, he pronounced his fate: the hands and feet to be cut off, the body then to be impaled on a stake. The sentence was carried out on the spot, before the walls of Arcadiopolis.

Mopping-up operations continued for a few more months. Thomas's adopted son, a somewhat feckless former monk named Anastasius, suffered the same punishment as his father; other rebel leaders in the Asiatic provinces were hanged. The overwhelming majority of their followers, however, having given themselves up to the Emperor's representatives, were pardoned and allowed to return to their homes. By the beginning of 824 the rebellion - perhaps the greatest and most widespread in all Byzantine history - was at an end.

The same could not be said, however, for the tribulations of Michael II. His Empire had scarcely begun to recover from the havoc wrought by Thomas the Slav when two further disasters befell: disasters curiously similar in both cause and effect, which were to deprive him of two of his most important strategic bases in the Mediterranean. There has long been a tendency among historians of the period to hold Thomas responsible for these losses also, on the grounds that his rebellion had weakened the Empire to the point where it no longer had the power to resist; in fact, it was itself largely to blame. In former days the Emperors had maintained a strong navy, as a necessary defence against the formidable sea power of the Omayyad Caliphs of Damascus; after 750, however, with the transfer of the Caliphate to the Abbasids of Baghdad, that power had rapidly declined and the Byzantine fleet had been in its turn increasingly neglected. When, therefore, in 825 some 10,000 Arabs from Spain sailed with a fleet of forty ships into imperial waters, Michael could do little to prevent them.

These Arabs had been expelled from Andalusia in 816 after an unsuccessful insurrection of their own against their local Emir, and had set off eastward across the Middle Sea in a determined attempt to restore their shattered forces. Their first target had been Egypt, where in 818 they had captured Alexandria; seven years later, forcibly expelled by the Caliph Mamun, they headed for Crete. According to a venerable tradition - supported by both Byzantine and Arabic sources - their leader Abu Hafs gave them twelve days to plunder the island, after which they were to return to the harbour; on doing so, they found to their horror that he had ordered the destruction of all their ships. In vain did they remind him of the wives and children that they had left behind in Egypt; he told them brusquely that they must content themselves with the women of Crete. This, with what we must assume to be varying degrees of reluctance, they did - simultaneously founding the city of Candia (now Heraklion) which has ever since been the island's capital. From it they marched out to take twenty-nine other towns, forcibly imposing the Islamic faith and reducing the inhabitants to slavery. One community only was spared - unfortunately we are not given its name - in which Christianity might still be openly professed.

Crete henceforth became a nest of pirates, from whom no island in the Eastern Mediterranean or the Aegean, no harbour on the coast of Greece or Asia Minor, could consider itself safe. Over the next century Aegina, Paros and the Cyclades were devastated again and again; the monks of Mount Athos were driven from their monasteries; and similar stories could doubtless be told, had more written records survived, of innumerable other islands, towns and monastic communities pillaged and plundered by the Arab corsairs. Soon, too, Candia became the busiest slave market of its time. The Empire sought repeatedly to bring its inhabitants to heel; Michael II alone launched three separate expeditions between 827 and 829, and there were to be several more attempts by his successors before control was finally reimposed by the Byzantine general - and future Emperor - Nicephorus Phocas in 961.

Within only two years of the capture of Crete another, unrelated, company of Arabs invaded the island of Sicily. This time, however, they came by invitation - to support the cause of a former Byzantine admiral,

Euphemius by name, who had been dismissed from his post after an unseemly elopement with a local nun. Realizing that surrender would almost certainly mean death - or, at the very least, hideous mutilation -he had risen in revolt, killing the Imperial Governor and proclaiming himself Emperor. Even then, however, it was clear that he would never be able to maintain the position unaided. He therefore crossed to North Africa to seek the armed assistance of the Emir of Kairouan, undertaking to pay him an annual tribute once he was firmly established in power.

To the Emir, such an invitation was irresistible; and on 14 June 827 a fleet of between seventy and a hundred ships sailed northward to Sicily, carrying 700 cavalry and 10,000 foot-soldiers under the command, somewhat surprisingly, of one of the leading judges in the religious court of Kairouan, Asad Ibn al-Furat. Although his force was imposing enough at first sight, Asad soon found that he was not to have things entirely his own way. He himself was to die during an outbreak of plague the following year, and Euphemius was shortly afterwards killed by members of the imperial garrison at Enna; but the contest between Christian and Saracen - still fought, amid much clattering of toy swords on biscuit-tin breastplates and lopping of turbanned heads, in the traditional puppet-shows of Palermo - was to continue for another half-century until the fall of Syracuse in 878 marked the effective triumph of Muslim power in the island.1 Long before then, however, Sicily had proved itself, for a people bent on piracy and conquest, an even better springboard than Crete: the armies of the Prophet had crossed the Straits of Messina, overrun Calabria and much of Apulia, and had even passed thence over the Adriatic to the southern Dalmatian coast. Michael and his successors did all they could to hold them in check, but the Byzantine navy in the middle of the ninth century was simply not large enough to tackle the problems of Crete and Sicily at the same time. It tended to concentrate more on the former, as being a closer and more immediate danger - with the result that the Saracens of Sicily found that they could do very much as they liked. As the centuries passed, the island was to suffer further invasions — by Normans and Germans, Angevins and Aragonese; inevitably, perhaps, the Arabic element became smaller and was gradually Christianized. But it was never entirely driven out, and the descendants of those first Islamic invaders are still there, to this day.

1 Even then, a few heroic communities continued to resist. Taormina, thanks to its superbly defensible position, managed to hold out till 901.

Nothing that we know of Michael the Amorian leads us to suppose that he would have bothered his head unduly with theological speculation. Insofar as he gave any thought to the question at all, he was an iconoclast; as he himself pointed out, he had never in his life worshipped a holy image, and he was furthermore resolved to leave the Church as he found it. But he possessed none of the fanaticism of his iconoclast predecessors, or even of his own son Theophilus. Already at the time of his accession he had freed or recalled all those whom his predecessor had condemned to imprisonment or exile - including of course Theodore of the Studium, who had immediately renewed his campaign for the general restitution of the images; and though Michael was to remain firm on basic principles, he was perfectly prepared - even more than Leo V had been - to allow his subjects to practise whatever form of worship they liked, so long as they did so in private and refrained from preaching or proselytizing one way or the other. Nor did he ever make any sustained effort to enforce iconoclast doctrines outside the capital. Even in Leo's reign, professional icon-painters or fervent image-worshippers had been able to retire to Greece, or to the coast and islands of Asia Minor, with a reasonable chance of being left to pursue their chosen activities undisturbed; under Michael their prospects were better still. What he mistrusted above all about the iconodules was not so much their religious habits as their insistence on the ultimate supremacy of the Pope in matters of dogma; and when one of his own subjects, an Orthodox monk named Methodius, returned from Rome with a letter from Paschal I calling upon him to restore the True Faith, he became almost apoplectic with anger: Methodius was first scourged and then imprisoned in a tomb on the tiny island of St Andreas in the Gulf of Nicomedia, where he was to remain for nearly nine years.

Michael's reaction to Paschal's letter did not however prevent his considering the dispatch of a reply, describing the excesses to which the cult of images had led its more enthusiastic adherents and urging the Pope to withdraw his active support; but before doing so he decided to seek the advice of the Western Emperor Lewis the Pious, to whom he rehearsed the principal arguments:

Lights were set in front of the images and incense burnt, and they were held in the same honour as the life-giving Cross. Prayers were addressed to them, and their intercession was sought. There were even those who would cover them with cloths and appoint them godparents at the baptisms of their children. Some priests would scrape the paint from the pictures and mix it in the bread

and wine which they dispensed at Holy Communion; others would place the body of the Lord in the hands of the images, from whom the communicants would receive it.

His letter was carried to Lewis by a mixed delegation of priests and laymen, who were received with elaborate courtesy at the imperial court in Rouen. Then they passed on to Rome, only to find that Paschal was dead, and that he had been succeeded by Eugenius II in the chair of St Peter. How they fared with the new Pope is not recorded; all we know is that Eugenius gave his permission for Lewis to summon a synod of Frankish bishops, which met in Paris in 825. This body ruled, with admirable common sense, that images should be displayed in churches as ornaments or memorials, but that they should not be worshipped; unfortunately it could claim no ecumenical status, and the Byzantines simply ignored it.

All in all, if we except the hostility of a few extremists, Michael's moderation in matters of doctrine won him general popularity in ecclesiastical circles. His only serious differences with the Church concerned not the worship of icons but his own remarriage, probably in 824, after the death of his beloved first wife Thecla. Among theologians of the strictest Orthodoxy second marriages, especially by Emperors, were to be deplored; what made things still more difficult on this occasion was the fact that the lady concerned - Euphrosyne, daughter of Constantine VI and granddaughter of the unspeakable Irene - had been for many years a nun in an island convent in the Marmara. By precisely what means Michael managed to obtain her release from her vows we shall never know; but he did so at last, and this second marriage proved, so far as we know, as happy as the first had been - Euphrosyne keeping vigil at her husband's bedside throughout his last illness (a disease of the kidneys) and, in October 829, finally closing his eyes in death. He was the first Emperor for half a century to expire, while still a reigning monarch, in his bed; the first, too, to leave a strong and healthy son, still in the prime of life, to succeed him.

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