17

THE BRILLIANT PRETENDER

Ironically enough, considering the tremendous effort that his father had spent legitimizing him, there was little chance that Constantine VII would ever really rule. Only six at the time of Leo’s death, Constantine was so sickly that most privately doubted he would live to reach maturity. As Leo had feared, effective power was held by the royal uncle, Alexander III, a man already famous for his lecherous behavior. Sullen from years spent under his more able brother’s shadow, the new emperor took every opportunity to undo Leo’s work. The deposed Nicholas, who had vehemently protested Leo’s fourth marriage, was restored as patriarch, and Zoë Carbonopsina was unceremoniously expelled from the palace. The young prince, Constantine, was left to wander pathetically from room to room of the Great Palace, weeping for his mother, and rumor had it that the spiteful Alexander intended to castrate him to prevent his accession.

Mercifully, after a reign of only thirteen months, Alexander expired from exhaustion as he was returning from a polo game on the palace grounds. He had not gotten around to harming his nephew—if such had ever been his intention—but he did leave him with a hostile patriarch as regent as well as a disastrous war. When Bulgarian ambassadors had appeared at his court expecting the usual tribute, Alexander had chased them out of the room, shouting that they wouldn’t see a single piece of gold from him. The insulted Bulgar khan immediately mobilized his army and headed for Constantinople, meeting virtually no resistance as he crossed the frontier.

The patriarch Nicholas, acting as regent after Alexander’s death, managed to bribe the Bulgars to go away by promising to marry off Constantine VII to Simeon’s daughter. Unfortunately, the patriarch neglected to inform anyone of his plan, and he was nearly lynched when the outraged population found out. The humiliated patriarch was obviously no longer capable of acting as regent, and someone else had to be found who would have the young emperor’s best interests at heart. Fortunately for the empire, the perfect candidate was near at hand. Zoë was triumphantly brought back from exile and immediately took a tougher stance. She categorically refused to allow her son to marry the progeny of a man whose great-grandfather had used an emperor’s skull as his drinking cup—and since that meant war, she was determined to fight.

Zoë bribed the Pechenegs to invade Bulgaria and dispatched a fleet to ferry them across the Danube, while a patrician named Leo Phocas led the Byzantine army down the Black Sea coast. Everything went smoothly enough until the Pechenegs arrived to be transported across. The Byzantine admiral, Romanus Lecapenus, got into a furious shouting match with the Pecheneg commander and refused to have anything more to do with them, sailing back to Constantinople without ferrying a single soldier across the river. This petulant display left the Byzantine army dangerously exposed, and Simeon easily wiped it out.

The disaster ruined Zoë’s credibility, but since Constantine was still only thirteen, she had to find some way to remain in power to protect him. Deciding that a marriage was the only possible solution, she settled on the dashing Leo Phocas, whose recent defeat had only slightly dented his military reputation. It was not by any means a universally popular choice. The Phocas family was well known for its ambition, and the young prince would be easy prey for the unscrupulous Leo. For the worried friends of Constantine VII, there was only one alternative. Gathering together in secret before the marriage could take place, they wrote a hasty letter to the only man with enough prestige to save the young prince.

Admiral Romanus Lecapenus was enjoying the popularity of being the highest-ranking military official without the stain of a Bulgarian defeat (although that wasn’t saying much since the Bulgarians lacked a navy), and when he got the letter he immediately agreed to become young Constantine’s protector. Upon entering the city, he appointed himself head of the imperial bodyguard; a month later, he had the emperor marry his daughter. The outmaneuvered Leo Phocas furiously started a civil war, but Romanus—now calling himself hasileopater (father of the emperor)—had control of Constantine VII and easily won the propaganda war.* Leo’s men deserted him en masse and the hapless rebel was captured and blinded.

Having dispatched his rivals, Romanus now moved to secure his own power. Within days of Constantine VII’s fifteenth birthday, he was appointed Caesar, and just three months later he was crowned coemperor. Those watching could reflect that it had been a remarkably gentle rise—Romanus I Lecapenus had reached the throne without a single murder—but they couldn’t help but wonder how long Constantine VII would survive the new emperor’s “protection.”

They were right to be worried. Romanus had at least eight children and was determined to start a dynasty. After all, the current imperial family had gained the throne by usurpation, so Romanus was only following the example of Basil the Macedonian. Within a year, he elbowed Constantine aside, declaring himself the senior emperor, and crowned his eldest son, Christopher, as heir—relegating Constantine VII to a distant third place. There were limits to the usurper’s ambition, however. Romanus wasn’t a violent man by nature, and he lacked Basil’s ruthlessness. Constantine VII could be ignored and pushed around, but Romanus would never raise a hand against him.

In Bulgaria, Simeon was still fuming at his change in fortunes. As long as Constantine VII had remained unmarried there was a chance he could get close to the throne, but with the prolific Lecapeni brood firmly installed in the great palace, any hope of that had been rudely snatched away. Vowing to pull down the walls of Constantinople if necessary, he gathered a massive army and swept down onto the European side of the Bosporus. Finding the delightful little church of the Pege—a particular favorite of Romanus—he burned it to the ground, fouling its healing waters with the blood of those monks not spry enough to get away. He rampaged his way through the houses clustered outside Constantinople’s land walls, hoping to lure the emperor out of the city, but Romanus looked out impassively. He was well aware that he was perfectly safe behind the walls—and after a few weeks, Simeon realized it too.

The emperor was willing to negotiate—he had always preferred diplomacy to fighting—and a meeting was soon arranged between the two monarchs. Simeon arrived dressed in his finest armor, attended by soldiers bearing golden and silver shields, proclaiming him emperor loudly enough to be heard by the senators watching from the walls. Romanus, by contrast, came on foot, dressed simply and clutching a relic, every inch seeming to say that the glory of the Roman Empire was splendid enough attire to put his opponent’s garish display to shame. Addressing Simeon, he spoke with a subtle dignity: “I have heard you are a pious man and a true Christian, but I see deeds which do not match those words. For it is the nature of the pious man and a Christian to embrace peace and love since God is love…. Mankind is awaiting death and resurrection and judgment….Today you are alive, but tomorrow you will be dissolved into dust…. What reason will you give to God for the unjust slaughters? If you do these things for love of wealth I will sate you excessively in your desire…. Embrace peace, so that you may live an untroubled life …”*

Simeon didn’t miss the emperor’s offer of tribute—cleverly disguised as it was as an appeal to his better nature—and after a show of acceptance and a small gift exchange, he turned around and headed for Bulgaria. The next year, in a fit of pique, he took the impressively empty title of Emperor of the Romans and Bulgarians (at which Romanus merely laughed), but he never crossed the imperial frontier again. A year later, his armies suffered a bloody defeat trying to annex Croatia, and Simeon died a broken man, leaving his crippled empire to his uninspired son Peter. A marriage alliance was hastily arranged with one of Romanus’s granddaughters, and a welcome peace descended between the formerly bitter opponents. The Bulgarian menace had been the most frightening danger to the empire since the Arabs had besieged Constantinople, but under Romanus’s deft guidance, the threat had dissolved with barely a whimper.

At last freed from the specter of a barbarian horde sweeping down on his back, Romanus could turn to administration. His central concern was the alarming growth of aristocratic power, and he feared with good reason what would happen if the rich kept expanding at the expense of the poor. Imperial defense depended on the peasant farmer who made up the backbone of the militia, but large areas of the frontier were now being converted to wealthy estates as nobles gobbled up land at a frightening rate. Determined to put an end to such sharp practices, Romanus passed various land laws designed to protect the impoverished farmers. These measures inevitably earned the emperor the undying hatred of the nobility, who continued to try to undercut him, but for the rest of his reign he refused to back down. The damage to the militia system could hardly be undone, but he was determined to at least put a halt to its spread.

While the domestic war against aristocratic growth rumbled in Constantinople, Romanus launched his armies in the East. There was no hope of a similar diplomatic triumph on the Arab frontier. The coming of Islam had brought three centuries of unending war, retreat, and disaster, and only force was understood. The Macedonian dynasty had stopped the bleeding and begun to turn the tide, but it had been too distracted by the Bulgarians to make any real gains. Now, however, the empire could afford to throw its entire weight against the Arabs. John Curcuas, the empire’s most gifted general, was given command of the eastern field armies and ordered to march toward Armenia—the ancestral homeland of the Lecapeni family.

Squeezed between the great powers of the caliphate and Byzantium, the Kingdom of Armenia had passed back and forth between them more times than any Armenian cared to remember. With Christian power in the area seemingly broken, the kingdom had once again fallen under the sway of the Abbasid caliphate, but Curcuas swept in and expelled the Muslims, frightening the local emir so badly that he agreed to provide troops for the imperial army. The next year, the general plunged south, spreading a ripple of fear along the entire length of the Arab frontier. Marching to the foot of the Anti-Taurus Mountains—the craggy range that separated Asia Minor from Asia proper, that had long been the border between Christianity and Islam—Curcuas captured the pleasant city of Melitene, the first major city to be recovered from the Muslims. Leaving its pleasant apricot orchards, the general led a quick raid into northern Mesopotamia, but was recalled to the capital in 941 to chase away a huge Russian fleet that suddenly appeared in the Black Sea.*Thanks to a copious amount of Greek fire that seemed to light the very waves on fire, the Russians were soon in full retreat, but when they fled to the shore, Curcuas appeared out of nowhere, forcing the panicked Russians to leap back into the burning waters.

The triumphant general didn’t stay long in Constantinople to celebrate his victory. That autumn, as a Byzantine fleet annihilated an Arab navy off the coast of Provence, he stormed through northern Mesopotamia, sacking the ancient Assyrian city of Nisibis, which had slipped from the imperial grasp under the reign of Jovian almost six hundred years before. Returning home along the Mediterranean coast, his army stopped at the city of Edessa, sparing its largely Christian population the horrors of a siege in exchange for its most priceless relic.*

When Curcuas returned to Constantinople, he found the emperor a pale shadow of his former self. After more than a decade on the throne, Romanus was now in his seventies and seemingly a spent force. Most of his energy had been expended fighting domestic and foreign wars, and each new struggle further taxed his diminishing resources. The nobility was as grasping as ever, always clawing around the limits he tried to impose on them, and his land laws were proving nearly impossible to enforce. Perhaps some final reserve of strength might still have been found, but in the spring of 944 his favorite son died, and Romanus was plunged into despair.

The emperor had never really been comfortable with the humiliations he had inflicted on the legitimate Constantine VII, and now he was crippled with guilt. There were other sons, of course, but Romanus was painfully aware of how worthless they were. Brought up in the splendor of the imperial palaces among power and privilege, they were spoiled, entitled, and already famously corrupt. When the gifted John Curcuas arrived in Constantinople, they badgered their weary father into replacing him with a relative named Pantherius—a man whose name was unfortunately more impressive than his abilities. As a younger man, Romanus would never have allowed such a thing to happen, and after several military reversals, he realized that his spoiled sons couldn’t be allowed to follow him on the throne. Finding some last reserve of energy, the aging emperor composed a new will, officially naming the half-forgotten Constantine VII as his heir.

The decision to disinherit his own family shocked his contemporaries, but Romanus was tormented by his sins and could find no peace in his last years. With his body failing and death approaching, the fleeting glories of temporal power now seemed a poor exchange for the stains on his conscience. He had brushed aside the legitimate dynasty and forced his own grasping brood on the empire. Perhaps now, by setting things right, he could find some salve for a troubled conscience.

When the will was made public five days before Christmas of 944, the sons of Romanus were horrified. They had been mistreating Constantine VII for years, and the thought of him actually having power was too terrible to contemplate. This bitter betrayal convinced them that they had to act quickly to avoid their impending irrelevancy. Romanus was quickly seized and (somewhat willingly, one suspects) sent off to a monastery on the Princes Islands in the Marmara. The people of Constantinople, however, had no intention of being ruled any longer by the Lecapeni. Romanus had been acceptable enough—his combination of quiet diplomacy and military power had arrived just in time to guide the empire past the threat of Bulgaria—but no matter how able, he was still a usurper, and his squabbling sons had no right to follow him.

During Romanus’s reign, Constantine VII—driven by a survival instinct—had never made the slightest effort to assert himself, quietly allowing Romanus to push him ever further into the background. Whenever his name was needed to give something additional weight, he was willingly trotted out to wave to the crowds or add his signature to a document, and he hadn’t shown even the slightest whiff of ambition. During those long years in the shadows, however, something unexpected had happened. No one remembered—or cared any longer—that he had been born an illegitimate son to a father whose own paternity was in doubt. There was a certain sympathetic charm about the serious little boy who had been orphaned in the palace, surrounded and humiliated by a large and hostile family for so many years without complaint. Constantine VII had been “born in the purple”—a distinction that none of the arrogant Lecapeni could claim—and in his veins ran the true blood of the house of Macedon. The despised sons of Romanus had abused the rightful heir for long enough, and the people of the capital were no longer willing to tolerate that. When the elderly Romanus fell from power, Constantine VII suddenly found that he was wildly popular. Within days, a rumor started flying that his life was in danger, and an angry mob forced the unwilling Lecapeni brothers to recognize him as the senior emperor.

The thirty-nine-year-old Constantine VII, though he had given no indication of it before, proved capable of decisive action. When the desperate Lecapeni brothers plotted to overthrow him just days after hailing him as senior emperor, he struck first, surprising them at a dinner party and sending them off to join their father in exile. Some of the remaining relatives were rounded up and castrated, but the emperor didn’t indulge himself in any bloodbaths or vicious recriminations against the family that had held him down for so long. Romanus had ruled well, and Constantine VII was intelligent enough not to let his bitterness blind him from following his example. The agrarian policies were continued, the aristocracy was checked, and Romanus’s laws were kept in place. Where Constantine VII differed with his predecessor at all it was to favor the Phocas family—longtime enemies of the Lecapeni.

To replace the long departed John Curcuas as commander of the empire’s eastern armies, Constantine VII chose the even more brilliant Nicephorus Phocas—the young nephew of the man from whom Romanus Lecapenus had snatched the throne years before. Nicephorus was a boorish man who lacked even the rudiments of tact or taste, but the empire hadn’t seen a general of such ability since Belisarius was hurled against the barbarians more than four hundred years before. In four years of campaigning, Nicephorus and his gifted nephew John Tzimisces broke the mighty Syrian emir Sayf al-Dawlah, capturing cities on the Euphrates and even reaching Antioch.* To the terrified Muslim armies on the Syrian frontier, he was soon known as the “Pale Death of the Saracens,” and Arab forces would flee the field at the rumor that he was on the march.

Propelled by its newfound power, the empire was reinvigorated and optimistic. When the Magyars raided Thrace, hoping that By zantium would be too distracted with the collapsing Syrian frontier, an imperial army inflicted a crushing defeat, completely annihilating the hapless raiders. Dignitaries and ambassadors from the caliph of Córdoba to the crowned heads of Europe came flocking to Constantinople, where they were dazzled with the breadth of the emperor’s knowledge and the splendor of his court. Entertained in the sumptuous palace known as the Hall of the Nineteen Couches, visiting guests would recline to eat in the ancient Roman fashion, clapping in wonder as golden plates laden with fruit would be unexpectedly lowered from the ceiling. Cleverly concealed cisterns would make wine splash from fountains or cascade down carved statues and columns, and an automatic clock in the city’s main forum would complete the imperial tour de force. Most impressive of all, however, was the emperor himself. An accomplished artist and writer, Constantine VII so overwhelmed the Russian regent princess Olga that she converted to Christianity, planting the seeds of Orthodoxy in the land that would one day call itself the third Rome.

The only concern that troubled the emperor’s mind was his son Romanus II. In 949, the young man had most inappropriately fallen in love with an innkeeper’s daughter, a devastatingly beautiful Spartan woman named Theophano. The match wasn’t suitable by any stretch of the imagination, but perhaps a lifetime spent as a pawn in Romanus Lecapenus’s hands convinced Constantine VII not to inflict the same treatment on his own son. Making a solemn vow not to interfere, he sat back stoically as the two were married, gracefully maintaining the fiction that she belonged to a worthy and ancient family. Nine years later, Theophano presented her husband with a son, and the happy couple named him Basil, after the founder of their dynasty. As much as it could be in those uncertain times, the future of the imperial family seemed secured. A year later, Constantine VII was dead of a fever that neither the healing waters of a local spring nor the purifying cold of a mountaintop monastery could cure, and the genuinely mourning empire passed smoothly to his son Romanus II.

Though the dashing new emperor was more interested in hunting than administration—and was besides completely under the thumb of his wife—he was smart enough to stay out of his general’s way, and the empire’s recovery continued unabated. As Romanus II enjoyed himself, domestic policy was run by his closest adviser, a gifted eunuch named Joseph Bringas. Under the chamberlain’s able hand, the arts flourished, the University of Constantinople was chaired with new faculty, and the economy boomed. The land laws of Romanus’s grandfather had given peasants more protection than they had seen in centuries, and merchants carrying the wealth of India and China flooded into Constantinople’s busy markets. The empire was prosperous and peaceful, and Romanus II—or more likely his wife—decided the time had come to flex the imperial muscle.

The surest reminder of the empire’s dark days was the island of Crete. During the empire’s weakest moments a hundred years before, the island had fallen to a group of Arab pirates who had been kicked out of Egypt by an annoyed caliph in 826. The embarrassment of having this important island—one that had been in Roman hands since 69 BC—snatched away by a band of freebooters was more than the imperial dignity could bear. The once-prosperous island was now a nest of pirates that had infested the entire eastern Mediterranean, but every attempt to retake it had only produced spectacular failures. Constantine VII had prepared yet another offensive before he died, and all Romanus II had to do was to pick a general to lead it. His choice couldn’t have been easier, as throughout the city there was only one name on everyone’s lips. Looking down at the imperial harbor where an immense fleet of 307 warships and nearly eighty thousand men waited, the emperor summoned Nicephorus Phocas and entrusted him with upholding the honor of Byzantium.

Crete was heavily fortified, but Nicephorus brushed aside the waiting Arab army by sending in his marines—terrifying Norse warriors whose terrible double-bladed axes could smash through armor and bone alike. After marching up the coast in pursuit of his fleeing enemies, Nicephorus pulled up outside of the island’s main city of Candia and settled down to a nine-month siege. Autumn gave way to the severest winter in living memory, and while it was hard on the citizens of Candia, it was far worse in the flimsy tents of an army camp. Serious food shortages added to the misery of brutal conditions that would have broken most men, but somehow Nicephorus was able to keep up morale by daily making his rounds, infusing his troops with his unflagging charisma. Arab spirits, meanwhile, were depressed by the ambushes they fell into every time they tried to forage outside the walls, and they were weakened further when Nicephorus started lobbing the severed heads of their compatriots into the city.

When spring arrived, the exhausted defenders could take no more, and the Byzantines managed to batter their way inside, capturing a century’s worth of pirate loot. The triumphant general sailed back to Constantinople to receive a much-deserved ovation in the Hippodrome, and the gratitude of an empire.* Byzantium’s honor had been avenged. After 135 years under the Arab yoke, Crete returned to the imperial fold.

The Byzantine armies of the East had also won an important victory. The moment the bulk of imperial soldiers had left for Crete, the Syrian emir Sayf al-Dawlah had tried one last time to restore the balance in his favor by raiding Asia Minor. Leo Phocas—the brother of Nicephorus, who was charged with the eastern defenses—decided to let him plunder unmolested and hid in the Taurus Mountains, hoping to ambush the emir on his return. Early that November, Sayf dutifully appeared at the head of his army trailed by a long train of Christian prisoners. Though Sayf managed to escape the ambush, his army was cut to pieces, and the same chains that had held the Christians only moments before now bound the survivors.*

By the time the fleeing emir reached his sumptuous palace in Aleppo, Nicephorus had returned from Crete and together with his brother Leo and nephew John Tzimisces had started a new offensive. Racing through Syria and northern Mesopotamia, they captured an astonishing fifty-five fortresses before appearing in front of the gates of Aleppo. Sayf desperately tried to defend the city with a makeshift army, but while John Tzimisces chased him away, Nicephorus burned the palace and besieged the city. After a siege of only three days, it fell, and Byzantine troops entered a city they hadn’t seen since the days of Heraclius. The Pale Death of the Saracens, however, hadn’t come to reabsorb lost territory into the empire. His intention was simply to exhaust his opponents. After ransacking Aleppo, he made his slow way back to Cappadocia, bringing with him two thousand camels and fifteen hundred mules burdened with the weight of the tremendous loot. When he arrived, he was greeted with stunning news. The twenty-four-year-old Romanus II was dead, and rumor had it that his wife Theophano had murdered him.

*Romanus had Constantine write an announcement saying that he completely trusted his “father” and smuggled copies of it to Leo’s army by means of both a priest and a prostitute. Perhaps not altogether unsurprisingly for an army camp, the prostitute proved the more successful of the two, and within a short time Leo’s troops became convinced that they were fighting against the legitimate emperor.

*I. Bozhilov, “L’idéologie politique du Tsar Syméon: Pax Symeonica,” Byzanttnobulgarica 8 (1986).

*These were the descendants of Viking warriors who had as yet to be absorbed into their Slavic surroundings. Elsewhere in Europe, they had already ripped apart Charlemagne’s empire, and for centuries Western prayer books would include the plea “O Lord, spare us from the fury of the Northmen.” This encounter with the Byzantines was the first time the Viking “Sea Wolves” had met a state capable of mustering a formidable navy, and the experience deeply impressed them. Forty years later, they would gain entrance to the city by joining the elite imperial guard, and they remained its backbone until the empire itself collapsed.

*The relic in question was the Holy Mandylion, widely believed to have been the first icon ever created. According to legend, the dying king of Edessa had written to Jesus asking to be cured of a crippling illness. Christ had responded by pressing a piece of cloth to his face and sending the miraculous image back. The relic somehow survived the Fourth Crusade intact, eventually ending up in France, where it was destroyed during the French Revolution.

*Interestingly enough, John Tzimisces was also the grandnephew of John Curcuas. “Tzimisces” comes from an Armenian word referring to his short stature (an attribute shared with Nicephorus Phocas). His real family name was Curcuas.

*An ovation was a slightly less prestigious award than a triumph. Nicephorus had accomplished what no Byzantine had managed for centuries and certainly deserved the latter, but like Justinian with Belisarius, Romanus II was somewhat wary of his successful general.

*He did so by scattering gold coins behind him as he galloped away. The pursuing Byzantine troops were too busy picking up coins to continue the chase.

Romanus had in fact been injured while hunting—a scandalous event, since it was the middle of Lent and hunting was strictly forbidden.

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