By the time of Constantine V’s death on September 14, 775, the Byzantine Empire seemed thoroughly exhausted. The constant disruptions, both within and without, had taken their toll on every level of society. Under pressure from all sides, things were beginning to break down. Records weren’t kept as faithfully, family genealogies proudly guarded since the days of the Roman Republic died out, and the old traditions of senatorial rank all but disappeared.* Most cities dwindled to the size of towns, with the shrunken populations huddling amid the ruins of their former grandeur. Civic planning all but vanished, and the wide avenues and lavish public buildings of classical cities were replaced with twisting narrow streets and hastily constructed homes. Buildings were allowed to fall into ruin, and when walls were repaired at all, it was not by a trip to the long-abandoned quarries but by using the masonry of earlier structures. Even the more-important cities showed unmistakable signs of decay. Athens, once the foremost city in Greece, shrank to a provincial town with a few thousand citizens struggling beneath the shadow of the Acropolis, and Constantinople—though it still had its Hippodrome, theaters, and baths—allowed its aqueduct to remain in disrepair for more than a century.
Sea trade remained strong, and the spices of India could still be found along with the silks of China in the markets of the capital, but merchants could no longer afford to cross the dangerous land routes in these insecure times, and much of the interior reverted to the barter system. As the urban populations declined in numbers and attacks came from every side, society became increasingly militarized. State land was turned over to the army in an attempt to reduce the costs of paying it, and political positions were turned over to military officials for greater efficiency. The result was an increasingly powerful political force that interfered in the government with unsettling frequency. In the century after Heraclius’s death, no fewer than eight emperors were put on the throne by the army, hopelessly blurring the line between civil and military authority.
Education, like so much else, was a casualty of the troubled times. The capital still had private tutors and primary and secondary schools, and positions in administration and the army were still open to merit, but for most there was no time for extensive study in a century of war and disruption. Literacy dwindled, and with it the quality of civil servants. Faced with the unrelenting pressures of military disasters and social chaos, fields such as philosophy and literature were largely ignored as the luxuries of a more peaceful time. As the value of education declined, Byzantine culture began to wither and die. Each generation was less educated than the one before and less able to appreciate the intrinsic value of learning, and before long the decline had gained its own momentum. At the start of the eighth century, a law had to be passed making it illegal to cut up old texts, throw them away, or boil them into a perfume; by the middle of the century, emperors were complaining that they couldn’t find competent officials who could understand the law. With Constantine V adding the ravages of iconoclasm to the decay by declaring war on the monasteries and doing his level best to destroy the works of those who disagreed with him, education was in a deplorable state.
Popular sentiment was turning against the iconoclastic emperor by the time of his death. The aura of military success that surrounded him ensured that he remained popular in the army long after his death, but in the eyes of most Byzantines he was a despicable tyrant, a monster who deserved only to be forgotten. They called him Copronymos—name of dung—and a century after his death his reputation was so blackened that a mob broke into his sarcophagus, burned his bones, and threw the ashes into the sea. His son Leo IV, by contrast, was a more mildly tempered man who supported iconoclasm but tried to smooth over his father’s worst excesses. Perhaps, had he lived longer, he would have been able to ease the tensions, but, unfortunately for the empire, he died after a reign of only five years. Effective power passed to his formidable spouse, a woman who had dominated him in life, and completely overshadowed him in death.
Constantine V had chosen his son’s wife by holding an empire-wide beauty contest and had settled on Irene, a devastatingly attractive orphan from Athens. For the arch iconoclast, it was a remarkably bad choice. Having grown up in the West, Irene was a fervent supporter of icons who had no use for her father-in-law and secretly made it her life’s goal to restore icons to veneration. Her husband tried to rein her in, but a month after consigning her to a wing of the palace, he was dead, and Irene was spreading the suspicious rumor that his death was the result of divine retribution. Whether the citizens of Constantinople believed her or not, they grudgingly accepted Irene as regent for her ten-year-old son, Constantine VI, and in doing so gave the throne to one of the most grasping rulers in Byzantium’s long history. For those who stood in her way, the young empress had no mercy, and she was determined to cling to power no matter what the cost.
For the next eleven years, the empress ruled with an iron hand, carefully removing iconoclasts from important posts and replacing them with her supporters. Unfortunately for the empire, most of its best officers and soldiers were iconoclasts, and their removal crippled the imperial army. Faced with a massive Muslim invasion two years into her regency, the demoralized and weakened Byzantine army simply defected and joined the Arabs. The humiliating and expensive peace Irene was forced to buy severely damaged her popularity, and insistent voices began calling for her to relinquish the regency.
Military reversals and declining public support, however, meant little to Irene. She was focused on restoring icons to veneration and continued smoothly with her religious program. However powerful the iconoclast emperors had been, they had lacked the full authority of the church, and Constantine V’s hollow attempt at an ecumenical council had fooled no one. Irene would put the question of iconoclasm to the whole body of the church, sure that the weight of their one voice would bury the iconoclasts forever. Ambassadors were sent scurrying to the patriarchs of Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem, and Rome, inviting them to what would be the eighth and final great ecumenical council of the church.
It convened in the capacious Church of the Holy Wisdom in Nicaea, the scene of the first council 462 years before, and its findings were hardly surprising. Iconoclasm was condemned, but the faithful were admonished to take care that veneration didn’t stray into worship. The empire greeted the news with relief, believing that perhaps the long nightmare was over. Iconoclasm had been waning for decades, and had been driven largely by zealous emperors. When it was condemned, not a single voice was raised to defend it.
The religious victory should have provided a high note for Irene to end the regency and turn over effective power to her son. Traditionally, regencies ended when their charges were sixteen, and Constantine VI was now in his twenties. Irene, however, had always been more interested in power than anything else, and she was not about to relinquish it in favor of her pathetic son. Constantine VI was a weak-enough man to be easily manipulated, and all would have been well if Irene could have controlled her ambition, but such restraint wasn’t in her nature. Banishing her son’s face from the imperial currency, she issued coins that featured only images of herself on both sides.* Not content with this unnecessary insult, she then produced an imperial decree announcing that she was the senior emperor and as such would always take precedence over Constan tine VI. When several generals protested, demanding that the rightful emperor be given the throne, Irene angrily executed them and had her bewildered son savagely beaten and thrown into a dungeon.
The empress could hardly have handled the situation more poorly. Even a successful emperor would have thought twice before antagonizing the army, and militarily Irene had been nothing short of a disaster. Thanks to her endless purges, the army had been performing poorly throughout her reign, and its loyalty to her was correspondingly weak. The last two years had seen major imperial defeats against the Arabs, the Bulgars, and the Franks, and there was a lingering suspicion that perhaps the iconoclasts had been right after all. Revolt swept through the ranks of the army. Soon angry mobs were swarming the streets of Constantinople, calling for Irene to step down in favor of her son. Transformed overnight from a prisoner to a folk hero, Constantine VI was swept from his jail cell to the throne, and Irene was placed under house arrest in one of her many palaces.
But Constantine VI had taken no active role in events before he had been thrown into prison, and he would take none on the throne. Lacking a single shred of ambition, the young prince was content to let life happen and would soon prove to be hopelessly incompetent. When an Arab army invaded imperial territory, he was immediately frightened into negotiating a peace that managed to be both humiliating and prohibitively expensive. The resulting accusations of cowardice provoked him to take the field himself, but his first sight of the enemy caused him to lose his nerve and panic, further tarnishing his reputation. The disaster convinced him to restore his mother to power; then, having made this awful decision, he marched off to yet another disastrous defeat at the hands of the Bulgars. The disgusted imperial guards in Constantinople hatched a plot to get rid of both Irene and her incompetent son, but news of it somehow leaked out. The badly frightened emperor acted with all the vigor of a bully, ordering the tongues cut out of the offending men.
Such mindless cruelty cost Constantine VI any remaining support in the army, and Irene decided to get rid of her pathetic son once and for all. Constantine was already blaming his Bulgar debacle on his soldiers, and it was easy for her to convince him to punish the frustrated troops by tattooing the word “traitor” on the faces of a thousand of them. As Irene had forseen, this act made him the most reviled man in the city. Stripped of any friends or allies, Constantine VI was now helpless before his most formidable enemy.
In May 797, Constantine’s infant son died, and while the emperor was distracted in mourning, Irene struck. As he was riding home from the Hippodrome, some of her palace guard burst out of the underbrush and tried to seize him. He managed to escape to the docks but was soon caught and dragged to the Great Palace. There, in the very room where he had been born twenty-six years before, Irene had him blinded so brutally that he died.
She had never really been a mother to him, busy as she was with the affairs of state, and like all imperial heirs he had been raised by a swarm of nursemaids and tutors with little time to grow close to either of his parents. Even so, the vile murder deeply shocked the empire. Irene had violated the maternal bonds that every member of society, from the highest patrician to the lowest stable hand, held sacred. She had lost a part of her humanity, and though her subjects tolerated her continued rule, they could never respect her. She was the first woman to rule the Roman Empire, not as a regent or an empress but as an emperor, but she wasn’t to enjoy it for long. Guilt robbed her of her energy, and when the Arabs sensed weakness and invaded, she immediately offered an immense tribute the empire couldn’t afford. Trying to bolster her flagging popularity, she took to riding around on a golden chariot pulled by the finest white horses and sprinkling gold coins to the crowd. The assembled populace took the money, but their love couldn’t be so easily bought. They were well aware that thanks to her promises of tribute to the Saracens, the treasury was quite empty, and flinging what was left into the crowds brought her only increased scorn. The only surprise was that the revolt, when it came, was sparked not by a disaffected Byzantine but by a barbarian in the far west.
The trouble started in Rome, where Pope Leo III was growing more unpopular with each passing day. He had risen from peasant stock and as such was hated by the powerful Roman senatorial families who believed that the papacy should be reserved for members of the nobility. Their hatred was so intense that in 799 they sent a gang to ambush the pope as he was walking in the streets, ordering their henchmen to gouge out his eyes and rip out his tongue. Thankfully for the pontiff, in the excitement of the attack, the mob merely left him unconscious with his vision and speech intact. Smuggled out of the city before his assailants could correct their mistake, Leo fled to the court of the Frankish king and waited for tempers to cool. The moment he was gone, his enemies tried to depose him, charging him with everything from public drunkenness to adultery. Leo angrily denied the charges from the safety of his shelter, but it was clear that the two sides had reached an impasse. Some sort of trial would have to be held, but that involved damaging complications. Who was qualified to sit in judgment of the Vicar of Christ?
The answer, of course, was the emperor of Constantinople, the temporal head of Christendom, but not only had she disgraced herself by killing her own son, she was also a woman and therefore in western eyes disbarred from ruling. Leo needed a champion, and he turned not to the East but to the far more immediate power of the Franks.
Though it was not yet a century old, the Frankish kingdom already had an illustrious history. Its founder, Charles “the Hammer” Martel, had stopped the Muslims at the battle of Tours, permanently turning the tide of the formerly irresistible Islamic advance into western Europe. His son Pépin the Short had come to the rescue of the pope while the Byzantines had been busy fighting over iconoclasm and was personally crowned and rewarded with the rank of patrician by the grateful pontiff. It was with Pépin’s illustrious son, however, that the kingdom of the Franks really came into its own.
For someone who was known to history by the nickname “the Short,” Pépin had a remarkably tall son. Named Charles like his grandfather, he stood nearly six-foot-four, and he had a personality as large and dominating as his frame. By the year 800, he had transformed the relatively minor kingdom he inherited into the most powerful state of western Europe, an empire unparalleled in the West since the days of ancient Rome. After crossing the Alps at the pope’s request, Charles the Great—or Charlemagne, as he was soon to be known—descended on Italy in December of the year 800 and testified on Leo’s behalf. The pope swore on the Gospels that he was innocent, and with the looming figure of the Frankish king behind him, the assembled clergy accepted his word. Two days later, while Charlemagne was kneeling at the Christmas Mass, Leo lifted a jeweled crown from the altar and placed it on his head, declaring to the startled assembly that Charlemagne was now a “Holy Roman Emperor”—adding for good measure that he was descended from the biblical kings of Israel. Shock waves rippled through the electrified crowd. After four hundred years in abeyance, an emperor had returned to the West.
Life in Dark Ages Europe was all too often brutish and short, but the inheritors of the wreckage of the Western Roman Empire were fully conscious that it hadn’t always been so. The white marble ruins of ancient Rome were sprinkled from Britain to Sicily, constant reminders of a time before the light of learning had given way to darkness. They longed for the day that the empire would rise again, phoenixlike, from its own ashes and restore the proper order to the world. Now, on Christmas day at the dawn of the ninth century, Pope Leo had declared that that day had come.
The coronation was breathtaking in its presumption. By placing the crown on Charlemagne’s head, Leo was implying that the true crown of the Roman Empire was his alone to give—and what he could make, he could unmake as well.* The church, Pope Leo was firmly declaring, was a higher authority than the state. Such statements struck at the very heart of Byzantine authority, for if Charlemagne was the true Roman emperor, than obviously Irene—or anyone else on the Byzantine throne—was not. At a stroke, Leo had created a rival empire that not only dared to claim equality with the ancient line of the Caesars, but also declared Constantinople’s throne to be full of impostors, mere pretenders to the throne of Augustus.
Leo, of course, didn’t have the slightest authority to create a new emperor, but to bolster his position he trotted out what was surely the most shameful forgery of the Middle Ages—the “Donation of Constantine.”† According to this document, Pope Sylvester had miraculously cured the emperor Constantine of leprosy, and the grateful emperor had “retired” to Byzantium and given the pope authority over the Western Empire and the ability to bestow the crown on whomever he chose. The Latin it was composed in was anachronistic and referred to events that had taken place after it was supposedly written, but education in the West had sunk so low that it was used to bolster papal claims for the next six hundred years.
The news of the coronation was greeted with horror in Constantinople. Just as there was one God in heaven, there was only one Roman Empire and only one emperor here on earth. Irene may not have been a satisfactory ruler, but that didn’t mean an illiterate barbarian could claim equality with her throne. The blasphemous coronation was an affront to the correct world order, and that the pope had performed the ceremony made the betrayal that much worse.
Tempers were not improved when early the next year the ambassadors of this boorish Frank arrived in Constantinople with a startling marriage proposal, offering their monarch’s hand to Irene. The empire would again be united under a single hand, they said, and Irene could rule like a new Theodora over both the East and the West. To the shocked Byzantine courtiers, the only thing more insulting than the arrogance of the barbarian envoys was the fact that Irene actually appeared to be seriously considering their proposal. Now almost universally hated in her own domains, she felt the walls closing in, and this seemed like the perfect escape.
Her subjects, however, had no intention of letting Irene turn over their empire to this barbarian pretender, and they moved quickly to get rid of their discredited monarch. Irene hardly bothered to resist. After a lifetime spent tenaciously gripping power, she was a spent force and was overthrown by a group of patricians with barely an effort. Imprisoned tamely in the palace that she had so recently commanded, she waited quietly while the assembled populace in the Hippodrome acclaimed one of her ministers of finance as emperor, and then obligingly headed into exile on the Aegean island of Lesbos.
Irene’s fall brought an end to more than just a tired regime. Her reign marked the last time Christendom had a single, undisputed temporal head and saw the final collapse of the old Roman world. Her empire bore little resemblance to the proud state of Augustus, and the differences were more profound than the empty treasury and ruined economy that her shortsighted attempts to buy popularity had brought. The old order had lingered in the East long after its light had gone out in the West, but raids and plagues had taken a heavy toll even as the unrelenting attacks of Islamic armies had robbed the empire of Spain, Syria, Palestine, Egypt, and North Africa.
What had begun with the shattering advance of Islam had been completed with the coronation of Charlemagne. Byzantium had been subjected to tremendous pressures, both spiritual and physical, and every level of society had been transformed. No longer was it the confident master of the Mediterranean, straddling the warm shores that had given it birth. The last traces of that classical empire of Constantine and Justinian had disappeared in the wreckage of Irene’s rule, and the enemies pressing in on every side threatened its very existence. It was too late to try to undo the damage. Byzantium would either adapt or be extinguished.
*The old Senate house was gradually absorbed by the Great Palace and used as an audience chamber. The Senate itself, however, did continue to exist and was occasionally used to sit in judgment of high-ranking individuals. Though its prestige and responsibilities were reduced to insignificance by the ninth century, there were still senators present on May 29, 1453, to defend the empire on its last day of existence.
*Just before the iconoclastic controversy broke out, imperial tradition had been to put images of Christ on the coins. Since Irene had just restored icons to favor, she was expected to celebrate it with her coins, but ambition appears to have trumped piety.
*This lesson wasn’t lost on the shrewd Charlemagne, but the deed was done and there was nothing for the irate monarch to do. A thousand years later, when it came time for his own coronation, Napoléon made sure he crowned himself.
†It was probably written a few decades before Leo used it, and it remained a standard weapon in the papal arsenal until the humanist Lorenzo Valla conclusively proved it a fake in 1440.