Thirteen months - and an evil time. Leo the Wise, on his deathbed1
The only good thing that can be said of the reign of the Emperor Alexander is that it was mercifully short. Already at the age of forty-one worn out by dissipation and debauchery, he was to occupy the throne of Byzantium for a little under thirteen months. Even in that short time, however, he managed to do a remarkable amount of damage. His normal behaviour could be compared only to that of Michael the Drunkard at his worst: the people of Constantinople were forced to witness the same senseless cruelties, the same drunken roisterings in public places, the same acts of wanton sacrilege. Sometimes it looked as though he intended to follow the example of Vladimir in Bulgaria and attempt the reintroduction of the ancient gods throughout the Empire; on one occasion at least, his pagan superstition brought him close to insanity - when he somehow persuaded himself that the bronze boar in the Hippodrome was his other self,2 and had it provided with new teeth and genitals in an attempt to remedy the extraordinary wear and tear that he had inflicted on his own.
He had long hated his brother, and in 903 had almost certainly been involved in an unsuccessful plot to assassinate him during a service in
1 Scholars are undecided about these last words of Leo. His use of the preposition meta suggests that he meant that the evil time would come in thirteen months; on the other hand, if we. could interpret his utterance to mean 'for thirteen months' it would be a remarkable prophecy about the reign of Alexander. The above admittedly free translation keeps the ambiguity of the original, if nothing else.
2 In fairness to Alexander it should be pointed out that this curious belief that every human being possessed an inanimate stoicbeion, a second repository of his physical and spiritual essence, was widely held in tenth-century Byzantium. It may well have been shared by Romanus Lecapenus himself: see p. 46n.
the Church of St Mocius. (It was probably as a result of this that in the following year he was deprived of his rank as co-Emperor - although his strong position as sole heir to the throne ensured that the demotion was only temporary.) Once he had achieved the power that he had so long awaited, he lost no time in giving that hatred open expression, reversing all Leo's policies, countermanding all his orders - striving, in short, to undo all that his brother had ever done, regardless of the consequences. The Empress Zoe was unceremoniously turned out of the Palace, together with all her friends and advisers; her uncle Himerius, who had given such sterling service to the Empire, was disgraced and thrown into prison, where he died six months later.
Meanwhile a Bulgarian embassy had arrived in Constantinople, sent by Symeon to congratulate him on his accession and to suggest a renewal of the peace treaty of 901. To Alexander, who had been with difficulty torn away from one of his orgiastic carousals to receive them, the treaty had been the work of his brother, and for that reason alone must be abrogated. In a sudden access of drunken braggadocio he shouted at the ambassador that he wanted no more treaties and, moreover, that Byzantium would be paying no further tribute. Then he dismissed them. They in their turn, probably more distressed by what they had seen than by what they had heard, returned with much sad shaking of heads to their master. To Symeon, we may be sure, their report was not entirely unwelcome. Confident in the strength of his army and concluding that he had nothing to fear from any Empire ruled by so pathetic a figure, he began preparations for war.
By this time, too, Alexander had taken another step which was to prove, in its own way, almost as disastrous as his reception of the Bulgars. Once again for no other apparent reason than to go against his brother, he had declared the abdication of Patriarch Nicholas invalid, recalled him from banishment and restored him to his former throne. (Nicholas himself was to claim that his restitution had been ordered by Leo, in a moving scene of deathbed repentance.) Adversity had not improved the Patriarch's character. He had spent his five-year exile brooding over the injustice he had suffered and, in particular, over his betrayal by Euthymius and the Ignatians - who, having originally stood firm with him against Leo's fourth marriage, had then joined with the Emperor to plot his overthrow, seized power for themselves and finally, in giving the required dispensation, had done the one thing that they had always forbidden to him. He now returned with but a single thought in his mind: revenge.
Admittedly, he had a case. His mistake was to allow his resentment to blind him to all other considerations. Had he been content with his victory, directing his still considerable energies towards reconciliation with the Ignatians and permitting Euthymius to return quietly to the monastery that he should never have left, he might with time and patience have healed the controversy and reunited the Church. Instead he brought it, in a way that no Patriarch had ever brought it before, to the point of open mutiny. Euthymius was arraigned before a tribunal in the Palace of The Magnaura, whose proceedings are reported in detail by his contemporary biographer, who was quite possibly an eye-witness. Nicholas opened the cross-examination:
'Tell me, thou most witless of men, interpreter of the libidinous dreams of the deceased sovereign Leo, why, while yet I was among the living, didst thou take to wife the Church that was wedded to me, defiling her while driving me out?'
Replied Euthymius: 'Thou it was who broughtest her into defilement, and drovest thyself out, not once but thrice tendering thy resignation. And if thou askest me, I will tell thee the nature of thy defilement, and the cause of thine expulsion. For I am able, if God gives me the strength, to convict thee arid set thine injustices before thy face.'
Struck dumb by these words and boiling with anger at the liberty with which the other spoke, the Patriarch ordered him to be publicly and shamefully stripped of his robes, and declared him fallen from his holy office.
Then was there a sight to be seen more pitiful than any before. Dragging off his bishop's scarf, they trampled upon it, not sparing even the figure of the Cross; similarly, they tore off all his sacred vestments and trampled upon them too, even his monk's cowl. And when the servants saw their master rejoicing and delighting in these things, they laid hands on his beard and pulled it, and pushed him with such violence that he fell on his back to the ground, and there they kicked him where he lay, spitting upon him, beating him with their fists and striking him in the face. Then the Patriarch ordered him to be set on his feet again, that the interrogation might be continued. But one of his henchmen, a giant of huge physical strength, stood looking on until, at a nod from his master, he struck him two blows, knocking out two of his teeth, and continued to pummel him at the back of the neck until he had no breath left, nor speech, and was on the point of falling down the staircase. Had not a nobleman named Petronas caught hold of him with three others, he would quickly have died a martyr's death.1
1 The above is an edited and slightly shortened version of the translation by P. Karlin-Hayter, Byzantium, Vols, xxv-xxvii (19)5-7). According to the Continuator of Theophanes, the man who pulled Euthymius's beard returned home to find his house burnt down and his daughter struck dumb and paralysed, in which state she lived on until the reign of Nicephorus.
Having banished Euthymius to the monastery of Agathon, and having persuaded the Emperor to remove his name and that of the Pope from the diptychs1 (thereby breaking off all communion with Rome) the Patriarch now initiated a major purge of the entire hierarchy, aimed at nothing less than the elimination of all bishops and clergy with Ignatian — or, more properly, Euthymian - sympathies. How he expected the Church to function after such drastic surgery - where the episcopal bench alone was concerned, the Euthymians represented some two-thirds of the total - was never explained, but the problem was ultimately solved in another way: those dismissed flatly refused to go. The opposition, predictably, was led by Nicholas's arch-enemy Arethas of Caesarea, who made a public statement to the effect that he would leave his see only when the Emperor sent armed troops to remove him by force. Till then, he proposed to remain where he was and to carry out his duties as usual. Many others followed his example; meanwhile several Photian bishops who had tried to get rid of their Euthymian clergy found themselves besieged in their palaces by their mutinous flocks, and in one or two cities the disturbances led to serious rioting. Too late, the Patriarch realized that he had stirred up a hornets' nest. Back-pedalling desperately, he countermanded all his former orders; his voluminous correspondence from this time forth advocates a degree of tolerance and understanding far removed indeed from the spirit of his earlier fulminations. When the dust eventually settled, although several bishops had been transferred to other, equivalent, sees, only four had been dismissed absolutely. Arethas, we may not be surprised to learn, was not among them.
By this time, however, the Emperor Alexander was dead. The Continuator claims that he died as a result of a stroke, brought on by an ill-advised game of polo played in the heat of the day after a heavy lunch. More reliable sources, however, claim that his collapse followed immediately after various pagan sacrifices that he was making to the statues in the Hippodrome - including, presumably, the boar - in the hope of curing his impotence. It hardly matters: the important thing was his death, which occurred two days later, on Sunday, 6 June 913. His mosaic portrait in the north gallery of St Sophia must unquestionably
1 The tablets on which were inscribed the names of those, living and dead, who were to be specifically remembered during the service of the Eucharist date from his reign. After his death, his subjects wished only to forget him.
The moment that she heard that the Emperor was dying, his sister-in-law Zoe had forced her way back into the Palace, desperately worried for the future of her son. Some months before, she knew, Alexander had proposed to castrate him, thus rendering him permanently ineligible for the throne; he had been persuaded to reconsider only by the argument that such a step would provoke a potentially dangerous outcry, and that the boy was so weak and sickly that he could not be expected to live very long in any case. Now that it appeared that the Patriarch was to be the most powerful figure in the State, her anxieties were multiplied. Nicholas had never accepted the dispensation given by his enemy Euthymius that had recognized her marriage and her son's legitimacy; she had no doubt that he would do everything in his power to keep young Constantine from the throne, and she was determined to frustrate his efforts.
Her suspicions were well founded: the Patriarch did indeed have an alternative candidate. It was Constantine Ducas, Domestic of the Schools,1 son of that Andronicus with whom Nicholas had been accused of maintaining treasonable contacts six years before: a man who felt no greater loyalty to the Macedonian house than his father had before him. He could probably rely on the support of much of the army, and had connections of one kind or another with most of the leading aristocratic families of the Empire; if he were to attempt a coup his chances of success would be high, and once on the throne his natural gratitude to Nicholas would ensure the final victory of the Patriarchate over its enemies. For some time already he and the Patriarch had been in secret correspondence; when the moment came, their plans would be already laid.
Zoe was still battling to regain her old position when the dying Emperor recovered sufficient consciousness to nominate his successor — which, to her relief, was indeed her son Constantine. She must, however, have been a good deal less pleased when he went on to appoint the necessary Council of Regency. Its president was to be Patriarch Nicholas; she herself was not included. She protested vigorously: never in the history of Byzantium had the mother of an Emperor and a crowned
1 I.e. Commander-in-chief of the land forces of the Empire.
Augusta1 been denied a place on such a council. But Nicholas knew that he could take no chances. Zoe was the virtual embodiment of the Euthymian party — more so even than the old abbot himself — beholden to it for both her own crown and that of her son, and thus the Patriarch's most implacable enemy. One of his first actions as Regent was to have her arrested, shorn of her hair and dispatched to the distant convent of St Euphemia in Petrium. Even her name was no longer her own: henceforth she would be known as Sister Anna, and nothing more.
For the moment at least, her seven-year-old son was sole Emperor; but, with a Regent who denied him any legal right to the throne, how long could he be expected to survive? The first threat to his position -and probably to his life - came within days of his accession, with the attempted coup of Constantine Ducas. Marching eastward from his Thracian camp, Ducas entered the city by night with only a handful of men - few enough to suggest that he expected the Palace gates to be opened to him from within. If so, it was he who was taken by surprise. The magister John Eladas, one of the Regency Council, had been forewarned and was waiting for him with a hastily assembled company of militia. Several of Ducas's men, including his son Gregory, were killed in the fighting; and just as he was trying to escape his own horse slipped on the wet pavement. He fell heavily to the ground, where one of the defenders severed his head from his body with a single stroke.
The Patriarch, it need hardly be said, disclaimed any association with the plot and, as if to emphasize his innocence, instituted a reign of terror against all those whose complicity was known or even suspected. Whole companies were massacred, their bodies impaled along the Asiatic shore of the Bosphorus; others were flogged or blinded. Those who had sought sanctuary in St Sophia were dragged out, tonsured and driven into monasteries. Ducas's widow was exiled to the family's distant estates in Paphlagonia; his younger son, who had played no part in the affair, was castrated. Only when the Regency Council itself began to protest at the relendess bloodshed did Nicholas reluctantly call a halt.
He did so just in time; for less than two months after the Ducas fiasco, Symeon of Bulgaria appeared before Constantinople at the head
1 It should be remembered that an Augusta was not simply an Emperor's wife; she was the holder of a recognized rank, which carried considerable power and for which a special coronation was necessary. Once crowned, she had a court of her own and absolute control over her own immense revenues; and she played an indispensable part in many of the chief ceremonies of the Empire. Sec Diehl,Figures Byzantines, I, i.
of an army so immense that its camp occupied the entire four-mile stretch of the land walls between the Marmara and the upper reaches of the Golden Horn. Once there, however, he discovered what so many would-be conquerors of the Empire - including his own great-great-grandfather Krum - had discovered before him: that the fortifications of the city were impregnable. But he made no move to retire. By the threat of a land blockade, combined with the systematic devastation of the surrounding countryside, he could still make a considerable nuisance of himself and, with any luck, obtain favourable terms without the loss of any of his men. From the Palace of the Hebdomon he sent messengers to the Regency Council, announcing that he was ready to negodate a settlement.
Nicholas was only too pleased to agree. To preserve peace with Symeon he was prepared to make almost any sacrifice, for war would be virtually certain to lead to the breaking away of the Bulgarian Church -which was at present still part of his Patriarchate - and, even worse, might even drive it back into the arms of Rome. He invited Symeon's two sons into the city and entertained them at a lavish banquet, in the presence of the boy Emperor, at Blachernae; and a day or two later himself secretly visited Symeon at the Hebdomon, where he was much gratified by the respect with which he was received. In the surprisingly friendly discussions that followed, the Bufgar King predictably insisted on being paid the arrears of tribute, and seems also to have demanded that Constantine should take one of his daughters to wife. Then, loaded with gifts, he returned to his homeland.
At first reading, we may be astonished at Symeon's moderation. Why, having brought this vast army to the very gates of the city, did he not drive a harder bargain? Simply because his policy had changed. His ambitions where Byzantium was concerned were greater than ever, being by now focused on nothing less than the crown itself1 - which, once he had made himself the Emperor's father-in-law, would be within his grasp.2 But his examination of the walls had convinced him that this was a prize that could be won only by diplomacy, while his discussions with Nicholas had revealed to him a hitherto unsuspected ally. Not only
1. There is reason to believe that Symeon received some sort of coronation at the hands of the Patriarch during the latter's visit; but this could only have been as ruler of Bulgaria. Romilly Jenkins's suggestion (Byzantium: The Imperial Centuries, p. 232) - that Nicholas actually crowned him Emperor of Byzantium, with a makeshift diadem 'improvised from his own patriarchal veil' - is surely absurd.
2. Just how right he was in this assumption was to be proved only six years later by Romanus Lecapenus, though not in quite the way that Symeon would have wished.
did the Patriarch obviously feel little or no loyalty to the Macedonian house; his obvious terror at the thought of losing control of the Bulgarian Church gave Symeon immense bargaining strength -particularly since he himself cared not a straw for the independence of his Church, one way or another: since he himself intended to be Emperor, what difference could it make? For both these reasons, to have adopted an aggressive or threatening attitude at this juncture would have been folly. His interests (and his daughter's) would best be served by showing himself in as favourable a light as possible: as a man whose decisions were governed by reason and good sense - he had after all been educated in Constantinople - and whose family was in every respect worthy of an imperial alliance. Only one indication did he give that an iron hand still lurked within the velvet glove - a hint so slight as to be almost imperceptible, and negative at that: he avoided any further mention of a treaty of peace. With the Empire in its present enfeebled state, there was no point in needlessly limiting his freedom of action.
But if Symeon had played his hand beautifully, Patriarch Nicholas had badly overplayed his. His fellow-members of the Council were increasingly irritated by his arrogance and like everyone else had been revolted by his cruelty, first to Euthymius and then to the whole Ducas clan. They were also appalled by his treatment of Zoe, whose claims to a share in the Regency were undeniable, and they could not but be moved at the sight of the pale, delicate little Emperor, wandering miserably around the Palace crying for his mother. The news that the Patriarch, who was by now strongly suspected of collusion in at least the early stages of the Ducas affair, had been in secret negotiations with the Bulgar King - for as usual he had not bothered to inform them in advance - was the last straw. From that moment on, the Council began to fall apart. In February 914 Sister Anna was recalled from her nunnery and, once again an Empress, took over the Regency, reappointing all her old friends and advisers.
The new government was to be contemptuously described by Symeon as a 'council of eunuchs' — which in a very large measure it was. But eunuchs in the Byzantine Empire were neither the mincing male sopranos of later Western Europe nor the overweight and epicene harem-keepers of the Oriental tradition. For at least the four centuries since the age of Justinian - one of whose generals, Narses, must despite his castration be numbered among the greatest soldiers in imperial history — they had been highly respected members of society and holders of many of the most distinguished offices of Church and State, among which they were denied only those of Prefect of the City, Quaestor, Domestic of the four imperial regiments and the throne itself. By the tenth century to be a eunuch was, for a promising youth about to enter the imperial service, a virtual guarantee of advancement; many an ambitious parent would have a younger son castrated as a matter of course. The practice may seem strange, even barbarous; but the reasons are in fact not far to seek. Eunuchs, with no wives or family to support, tended to be far more industrious and dedicated than their more completely-endowed colleagues. Since they left no sons, there was no tendency for certain offices to become hereditary, as happened so often in the West: posts could be awarded on merit alone. By the same token they constituted an invaluable bulwark against that feudalism which was to cause the Empire more and more trouble, particularly in Asia Minor, as the century progressed. Finally and most important of all, they were safe. A eunuch might — and frequently did - engage in a litde mild intrigue on behalf of a brother or a nephew; but never, however powerful he might be, could he make a bid for the throne.
Small wonder, then, that the Empress and her eunuchs soon showed themselves far more capable administrators of the Empire than Nicholas and his Regency Council had ever been. The old Patriarch himself, on the other hand, presented them with something of a problem. Zoe's first intention had been to replace him for the second time with Euthymius, but Euthymius had demurred; not surprisingly, he had had enough. With some reluctance, therefore, she allowed Nicholas to continue in office - though with dire warnings as to what he could expect if he meddled any further in affairs which did not concern him. Back he went to his pastoral duties - setting foot in St Sophia, according to one (admittedly hostile) source, for the first time since his assumption of the Regency some eight months before — and accepting his fate with as much grace as he could muster; though it doubtless galled him not a little when Zoe almost immediately raised her already considerable popularity still higher with a trio of military and political triumphs of very considerable importance to the security of her Empire.
The first of these was the enthronement of Ashot, King of Armenia.1
i The title of 'King', or more properly 'King of Kings', was periodically bestowed upon whichever leader of the principal Armenian clans was for the time being the most powerful. Though it might on occasion pass from father to son it was never in any real sense hereditary, and frequently fell into abeyance altogether.
That bleak, inhospitable region around Mount Ararat, long the most sensitive point of confrontation between the Byzantines and the Saracens, occupied a delicate and ambiguous political position. To the Emperor at Constantinople, the Armenian princes - the land was never truly united - were his vassals; unfortunately the Caliph in Baghdad took a similar view, and for well over a century had regularly appointed an Arab ostigan, or Governor. As for the Armenians, they prided themselves on their intelligence and their ancient culture, and claimed to have been the first people to have adopted Christianity as their national faith. They were however — like most of their Christian neighbours in the East — convinced monophysites, and felt little loyalty or affection for Byzantium: many of them indeed, following that well-known tendency of the dogmatist to prefer infidels to heretics, frankly welcomed the Muslim influence.
Given the natural disputatiousness of the Armenians and the basic instability of their situation, it was little wonder that they seemed to pass from one political crisis to the next. In 909, however, they found themselves faced with a threat which was, even by their standards, unusually grave when the Caliph's ostigan, the Persian Emir Yusuf, determined to eliminate Byzantine influence altogether and to reduce them to a state of total subjection to Baghdad; First sparking off a civil war - never difficult in Armenia - Yusuf swept across the strife-torn country, massacring all who resisted him and committing unspeakable atrocities in the towns and villages through which he passed. For four years the terror continued, until in 913 the Armenian King Smbat, in the vain hope of saving his subjects' lives, finally surrendered to Yusuf and was rewarded by a particularly hideous martyrdom.
To Byzantium, Armenia constituted a vital bulwark; and one of Zoe's first actions on her return to power in 914 had been to invite Smbat's son and heir, the young Prince Ashot, to Constantinople to decide on a plan of campaign. Thus it came about that in the spring of the following year Ashot returned to his native land at the head of a large Greek army. Yusuf put up a stiff resistance, but was hopelessly outnumbered; and by the first snowfall - winter comes early in those regions - all western and much of eastern Armenia was back in Ashot's firmly pro-Byzantine hands. It was to be another four years before the land was properly at peace - the inevitable internal squabbling saw to that - but its integrity had been saved, and both Zoe and Ashot had good reason to congratulate themselves.
The Empress's second success was the decisive defeat of a large Muslim army that had launched a major raid on imperial territory from its base at Tarsus. There was much jubilation when the news reached Constantinople; but this triumph was as nothing compared with the third, achieved just as Ashot was re-establishing himself in Armenia, in the very opposite corner of the Empire - the south Italian Theme of Langobardia. Here, just outside the city of Capua, the imperial strategos totally destroyed the Saracen army, thereby restoring Byzantine prestige in the peninsula to its highest level since the departure of Nicephorus Phocas in 886. By the end of 915, in the minds of the large majority of her subjects, the Empress Zoe could do no wrong.
Even Symeon of Bulgaria suffered a reverse, if only a temporary one. To him Patriarch Nicholas's fall from power and the return of Zoe had been a devastating blow: the Empress, he knew, would never for a moment countenance that all-important marriage on which he had set his heart. His careful diplomacy had gone for nothing; it would have to be war after all. In September he appeared with his army before Adrianople (Edirne), which was immediately surrendered by the local governor without even a show of resistance. He seems to have been genuinely astonished when the Empress sent a massive force to recover the city, and in his turn hastily withdrew.
For the next two years he contented himself with harassing the cities and towns of Thessaly and Epirus; but in 917 his armies were back again in Thrace, and Zoe decided on a pre-emptive strike. Her strategos at Cherson in the Crimea, a certain John Bogas, had succeeded in bribing Symeon's erstwhile allies, the notoriously venal Pechenegs, to invade Bulgaria from the north; and the Byzantine fleet had been enlisted to carry them across the Danube, just as it had carried the Magyars a quarter of a century before. Meanwhile the army was to march up from Constantinople to the southern frontier. Trapped between the two arms of a gigantic pincer movement, Symeon would have no alternative but to accept the terms he was offered; it would be a long time before he were once more in a position to make trouble for the Empire.
As a plan it seemed almost foolproof; and so it might have proved, but for a sudden, unexpected twist of fate: a twist so surprising, indeed, that we may be forgiven for suspecting that Symeon had again exercised his remarkable talent for bribery. John Bogas arrived with his Pechenegs on the banks of the Danube to keep his rendezvous with the fleet, which was commanded by its drungarius - an Armenian named Romanus Lecapenus; the moment they met, however, the two men became involved in a furious argument, each denying the authority of the other. The upshot was that Romanus categorically refused to transport the invaders across the river; and the Pechenegs, soon tired of waiting, drifted away to their homes.
The army meanwhile, under the command of the Domesticus Leo Phocas - son of the great general Nicephorus - had advanced from the capital along the Black Sea coast and had entered Bulgar territory at the southern end of the Gulf of Burgas, where dawn on 20 August found it encamped outside the little port of Anchialus. It was then that Symeon, who had been carefully monitoring its progress, saw his chance. Sweeping down on it from the hills to the west, he took it entirely by surprise and showed it no mercy. What exactly happened is uncertain: George Cedrenus claims that Leo's horse suddenly took fright while its master was bathing and galloped riderless through the ranks, causing a panic among the soldiers who immediately concluded that their general must be dead. This story may or may not be true; what is beyond doubt is that virtually the entire Byzantine army was massacred. The navy, which should have been standing by to pick up survivors, had already returned to the Bosphorus; those who managed to flee from the butchery found themselves with no means of escape and were cut down by their pursuers. Leo the Deacon, writing the better part of a century later, reports that even in his day the battlefield was still covered with the bones of the fallen, lying bleached in the sun. One of the few to get away with his life was Leo Phocas himself, who somehow managed to make his way northward along the coast to Mesembria whence, some time later, he took ship for Constantinople.
The anger of the Empress on hearing the news of the disaster can easily be imagined. She at once ordered an official inquiry into the conduct of Romanus Lecapenus, who was sentenced to be blinded; it was fortunate for him - and, as it turned out, for the Empire — that some of his influential friends were able to intercede on his behalf and win him a last-minute reprieve. Strangely enough, her confidence in Leo Phocas remained apparently unshaken; that same winter she entrusted him with another army, with which to drive back the Bulgars who had once again overrun eastern Thrace up to the very walls of the capital. But Leo had inherited none of his father's military genius. He had got no further than Casasyrtae in the western suburbs before his second army was destroyed almost as completely as his first had been.
For Symeon it was another victory - of a "kind; but there soon came additional confirmation of what he already knew all too well: that whatever damage he might do to the imperial soldiery, he could still make not the slightest impression on the defences of Constantinople. He had no choice but to return, frustrated and furious, to Bulgaria for what was left of the winter. In the capital, however, the year 918 opened to reveal a situation of growing chaos. After two annihilating defeats, Zoe's reputation was in ruins and her regime in serious danger. There was, she knew, no chance of any accommodation with Symeon; he continued to insist on the marriage between young Constantine and his daughter as a sine qua non of any settlement, and the Empress still could not bring herself to contemplate the idea of a barbarian daughter-in-law. If she were to find the support she needed to shore up her tottering throne, she would have to look for it within the Empire.
But where was it to be found? Not, certainly, with the Patriarch, who was by now sniffing the possibility of his own return to power and could be trusted to do her down at every opportunity. There were in fact but two alternatives. The first was Leo Phocas, discredited as he was, who after the disgrace of Casasyrtae had crossed over to Asia in an attempt to rally the army of Anatolia. Since the downfall of Constantine Ducas, the family of Phocas was the recognized leader of the rich landed aristocracy; Leo was moreover a widower, with whom the Empress may have been contemplating marriage - a step which would have immeasurably strengthened her own position, to say nothing of that of her son.
The other alternative was Romanus Lecapenus. He differed from Leo in two important respects. First, he was a man of neither birth nor breeding, an Armenian peasant's son who had risen to his present rank entirely on his own merit. Second, although he too had signally failed to distinguish himself during the recent hostilities, he had not been defeated. His great flagship was even now riding proudly at anchor in the Golden Horn, surrounded by the rest of the imperial fleet: a proclamation of naval might that was not lost on the Byzantines, particularly when they remembered the condition of their army - for which, as they well knew, Leo Phocas was principally to blame.
Of the two, the Empress not surprisingly preferred the handsome, aristocratic general to the jumped-up foreign parvenu. She therefore summoned Leo to the Palace where, within a few weeks, he became one of her closest associates and most trusted advisers. She had, however, seriously underestimated the strength of public opinion. The people of Constantinople - a political element which, especially in times of crisis, sovereigns ignored at their peril - had always mistrusted these feudal lords from Anatolia; their traditional loyalties were to the established imperial dynasty, and their opinions were shared by most of the old urban aristocracy and many members of the court itself. Little Constantine was now thirteen years old; although his health remained poor, he was clearly a child of quite unusual intelligence who appeared to have the makings of a first-class Emperor. But what chance would he stand against the ambitions of a Phocas, when not even his own mother seemed aware of the danger?
It was at this moment that a member of the imperial household took matters into his own hands. Theodore, Constantine's personal tutor, now wrote a letter in his pupil's name to Romanus Lecapenus appealing for his protection. Why Romanus was considered any more trustworthy than Leo is not altogether clear: perhaps his modest beginnings told in his favour. But he was certainly no less ambitious, and unhesitatingly proclaimed his readiness to serve the young Emperor as his protector and champion. In doing so, he can have had no delusions as to the effect that such a pronouncement would have on the Empress. Doubtless encouraged by Phocas, she instructed her old friend and counsellor, the parakoimomenos Constantine, to order Romanus in her name to pay off his sailors and disband the fleet forthwith. The admiral replied with the utmost courtesy, inviting Constantine to come on board the flagship to see for himself how conscientiously the imperial commands were being obeyed. All unsuspecting, the Chamberlain did so - only to be immediately seized and put under arrest.
To lay hands on her chief representative was a deliberate affront to the Empress herself; but when Zoe sent envoys to the admiral to demand an explanation they were greeted by a hail of stones. Now seriously alarmed, she called a meeting of her ministers at the Bucoleon1 — only to find that they too had turned against her. She was obliged to listen in silence while the young Constantine Porphyrogenitus read from a prepared script, informing his mother that her Regency was at an end:
1 The area between the southern end of the Hippodrome and the Marmara, which included the private harbour and maritime entrance to the Great Palace.
henceforth the government would be entrusted jointly to Patriarch Nicholas and another member of the former Council, the magister Stephen. The next morning a body of soldiers arrived to escort her back to the convent of St Euphemia; only in response to long and tearful entreaties on the part of her son was she at length permitted to remain, powerless but at least uncloistered, in the gynaeceum of the Palace.
Nicholas had triumphed; but he soon discovered that the condition of the Empire was very different from what it had been five years before. Zoe had been dealt with satisfactorily enough; but Leo Phocas and Romanus Lecapenus were now locked in an open struggle for supremacy. Floundering hopelessly between them, the unhappy Patriarch did his utmost to play one off against the other, but succeeded only in making his own position more and more untenable. Finally, on 25 March 919, Romanus appeared with his fleet at the Bucoleon, entered the Palace by the Marine Gate and announced that he had taken over the government of the Empire; and only a month later, in St Sophia, he gave away his exquisite young daughter Helena to Constantine in marriage, taking for himself that same title of basileopator that Leo the Wise had invented for his own father-in-law, Stylian Zautses.
For the second time in just over half a century, an Armenian upstart stood but one short step from the throne of Byzantium.
Of the obstacles remaining in the path of Romanus Lecapenus, the greatest was Leo Phocas, who had returned to his army across the Bosphorus and there, from his camp at Chrysopolis, had raised the standard of revolt. To ensure the loyalty of his troops, he gave it out that he was acting to free the Emperor from the clutches of the usurping basileopator, Romanus countered this by using two undercover agents, one a priest and the other a prostitute, to disseminate copies of a letter ostensibly signed by the boy Emperor himself, making it clear that his father-in-law enjoyed his complete confidence and trust, while Leo Phocas was nothing more than a contemptible rebel with the temerity to rise up against his legitimate sovereign. The priest was soon arrested, but the prostitute did her work admirably and hundreds of Leo's men laid down their arms. Leo himself saw that he had failed, and that his only chance of survival lay in flight; but he was caught in a Bithynian village, where his eyes were put out before he was brought back in chains to Constantinople.
When he heard of the blinding of his rival, Romanus is said to have flown into a fury - though his anger did not prevent him, on the discovery of another conspiracy a few weeks later, from parading the wretched Leo round the Forum on a mule to the jeers and taunts of the populace. But Leo Phocas was now a spent force; a far more important consideration in the mind of Romanus was to smooth his own path to the throne - an objective which, since he clearly had no right to it, could be achieved only by undermining the claims of Constantine. Thus, with the enthusiastic cooperation of the Patriarch, a formal synod was summoned to Constantinople in the summer of 920, with the express purpose of putting an end to the turmoil in the Church; and on 9 July-this synod published the famousTomus Unionis in which was set out, finally and authoritatively, the revised canon law on the subject of remarriage. According to its meticulously drafted provisions, for a man to marry a second time was perfectly legitimate, while even a third wife might be permitted to a childless widower under the age of forty, provided that their nuptials were followed by an appropriate act of penance; but fourth marriages were out of the question in any circumstances at all, and would be punished by excommunication until such time as the fourth partner were permanently repudiated. Fortunately, the decree was not retrospective. Leo VI’s last two marriages were however condemned in the strongest possible terms, and the legitimacy of his son accepted only reluctantly and on sufferance.
The feelings of the fourteen-year-old Constantine, obliged to put his signature to such a document, may well be imagined; but the Tomus, hateful to him as it must have been, did not mark the end of his tribulations. Barely a month later, his mother Zoe was accused by Romanus of attempting to poison him. Whether there was any truth in the charge we shall never know, although in the circumstances there seems nothing inherently improbable about it. But it was enough to settle the Empress's fate once and for all. Again her hair was shorn; again she was obliged to don the coarse nun's habit that she detested; and again the great doors of St Euphemia slammed shut behind the reluctant Sister Anna.
There remained one last adversary. Constantine's tutor Theodore had played a crucial part in Romanus's rise to power. He had first invited him to act as the young Emperor's protector; and there is reason to believe that it was he, when the admiral had appeared off the Bucoleon the previous March, who had actually unlocked the gate and admitted him into the Palace. In all this, however, Theodore had been acting in what he innocently believed to be the best interests of his pupil; he now saw that his intrigues had placed Constantine in precisely the position that he had most wished to avoid. Imperial champion or not, Romanus had shown himself every bit as self-seeking as Leo Phocas. The moment that he realized this, Theodore's attitude to him abruptly changed, and it did not take Romanus long to understand that the man who had started as his accomplice had become his enemy. It was probably some time in early September that Theodore and his brother Symeon were invited to a banquet given by the Patrician Theophylact, Count of the Stable. Halfway through the meal they were both arrested on a charge of conspiracy, and exiled to their country estate in north-west Anatolia.
With the departure of Theodore, Constantine lost his last true friend. He was now nothing but,a pawn in the hands of his father-in-law, whom on 24 September 920 - just a few days after his fifteenth birthday - he dutifully appointed Caesar. Less than three months later, on 17 December, he marked the culmination of the astonishing career of Romanus Lecapenus by laying on his head the imperial diadem1. Theoretically, of course, he - Constantine - still remained the senior Emperor; but within a year it was Romanus whose portrait - slightly larger and in more resplendent robes - began to appear in the place of honour on the coinage, and to the vast majority of his subjects it must have seemed only a matter of time before that of the young Porphyrogenitus disappeared altogether.
1 Earlier historians, including Sir Steven Runciman (The Emperor Romanus Lecapenus, p. 62) place these last two events in the previous year, 919. But - as has been pointed out by both Grumel and Ostrogorsky (p. 264) - Romanus appeared at the Synod of 920 as basileopator, a title which he would not conceivably have used if he were already Caesar, let alone Emperor.