He was devoid of that energy of character which could emerge into a life of action and glory; and the studies which had amused and dignified his leisure were incompatible with the serious dudes of a sovereign. The emperor neglected the practice, to instruct his son Romanus in the theory, of government: while he indulged the habits of intemperance and sloth, he dropped the reins of the administration into the hands of Helena his wife; and, in the shifting scene of her favour and caprice, each minister was regretted in the promotion of a more worthless successor. Yet the birth and misfortunes of Constantine had endeared him to the Greeks; they excused his failings; they respected his learning, his innocence and charity, his love of justice; and the ceremony of his funeral was mourned with the unfeigned tears of his subjects.
Edward Gibbon The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Chapter XLVIII
By the time Constantine Porphyrogenitus assumed sole power in the Byzantine State after the effective elimination of his brothers-in-law at the beginning of 945, he had long outgrown the sickliness of his youth. Tall and broad-shouldered, standing 'erect as a cypress tree',1 his ruddy complexion half-hidden by a thick black beard above which shone eyes of a brilliant pale blue, he now looked as if he had never known a day's illness in his life. True, he was - by modern standards - distinctly overweight, the result of a largely sedentary life and an almost insatiable appetite; but a generous degree of embonpoint was considered no bad thing in the tenth century, when a man of thirty-nine was considered to be already well advanced in middle age.
For well over thirty-six of those thirty-nine years, Constantine had been a titular Emperor; and during practically the whole of that period,
1 Theophanes Continuatus, Cbronographia, Book VI.
for reasons which the last two chapters should have made clear, he had played no part in the imperial government, confining his public appearances to the minimum required of him by his office. He had not, however, wasted his time. From his father Leo the Wise he had inherited a passion for books and scholarship which, unlike Leo, he had had plenty of time to indulge. He failed, it is true, to fulfil his great ambition, declared in the opening chapter of his life of Basil I,1 of writing a complete history of Byzantium until his own day, nor even his more modest aspiration to give an account of the Macedonian house; none the less, the body of work which he left behind him is impressive by any standards. Few other writers - and certainly no other Emperors - have contributed so much to our knowledge of their time.
Apart from the biography of his grandfather, Constantine is known above all for two major works. The first, De Ceremoniis Aulae Byzantinae, is an encyclopedia of Byzantine ritual in which the Emperor sets out in detail the protocol to be followed on every feast of the Church and state occasions: coronations and birthdays, baptisms and funerals of Emperors and Augustae, promotions to the high offices of government and court, even games in the Hippodrome. Clothes and vestments to be worn, responses to be sung, acclamations required of the army and the people, the Blues and the Greens - nothing is omitted or ignored, nothing left to chance. To read even a few pages at random is to be almost suffocated by the sheer weight of the ceremonial described: how, one wonders, could any Emperor - whether he were active and energetic like Basil I or Romanus, or idle and pleasure-loving like Michael III or Alexander - have endured it for a moment? And yet, for all the oppression, here is a rare and precious glimpse of the court life of Byzantium: the mosaics and the marbles, the damasks and the brocades, the basileus in dalmatic and diadem, pavilioned in all the majesty of the New Rome.
But the Emperor was more than a great golden symbol: he was also the head of a vast administrative machine, the ruler of a state which still extended from the toe of Italy to the foothills of the Caucasus, an immense area which Constantine was well aware that his son Romanus would one day be called upon to govern. In 952, therefore -the year in which the young prince celebrated his fourteenth birthday — he set about the composition of what is, in essence, a practical textbook
1 Theophanes Continuatus, Cbronographia, Book V, is believed to be entirely his work
on the art of government which he quite simply entitled Constantine to his son Romanus but which we now know as De Administrando Imperio. The nucleus of this work seems to have been another, earlier, essay by the Emperor on the various barbarian races which occupied the lands surrounding the imperial frontiers; to this he now added a detailed assessment of the world situation as he saw it, together with a quantity of excellent advice for the boy's future guidance. It is significant that the Bulgars, to whom thirty years before he would almost certainly have devoted more attention than to any other people, are scarcely mentioned. Pride of place is now given to the Pechenegs, whose apparently limitless numbers and bestial cruelty made them by far the most feared of all the Empire's potential foes. Like his father-in-law, Constantine was instinctively opposed to war if it were not absolutely necessary; there is no suggestion in De Administrando Imperio that any military action should be taken against the tribe. On the contrary:
In my judgement it is always greatly to our advantage to keep the peace with the Pecheneg nation; to conclude conventions and treaties of friendship with them; to send to them every year an envoy with gifts of appropriate value and kind; and to welcome from their side sureties - that is, hostages - and a diplomatic representative who will confer, in this our God-protected city, with a competent minister and will enjoy all imperial attentions and honours which it is suitable for the Emperor to bestow.1
It is, he continues, an expensive business:
These Pechenegs are insatiable, fiercely covetous of those commodities that are rare among them, and shameless in their demands for generous presents . .. When the imperial envoy enters their country, their first reaction is to ask for the Emperor's gifts; and when the men have finally been satisfied they demand the same for their wives and their parents.2
They should, however, be given whatever they ask for, unhesitatingly and with a good grace; it will always be cheaper in the end.
With less powerful peoples, on the other hand, Constantine favours a distinctly tougher line. Foreign ambassadors should, as a general rule, be granted as little as possible. On no account should they be allowed to carry away state robes or vestments — items which seem to have been much coveted abroad, and for which the Byzantine government received innumerable requests — nor of course could there ever be any question
2 De Administrando Imperii), Chapter I. i 2 Ibid., Chapter VII.
of revealing the secret of Greek fire. Romanus should also refuse all suggestions for marriage alliances, on the grounds that Constantine the Great himself had decreed that the imperial family should never marry outside the Empire except on occasion to the Franks.1At this point all his pent-up resentment of his father-in-law suddenly comes boiling up to the surface:
If they point out that the Lord Emperor Romanus himself made such an alliance when he gave the hand of his own granddaughter to the Bulgarian Tsar Peter, you should reply that the Lord Romanus was a vulgar illiterate who had been neither educated in the Palace nor initiated in the Roman traditions. His family was not imperial or even noble, and tended accordingly to be arrogant and headstrong. In this instance he heeded neither the prohibition of the Church nor the commandment of the great Constantine, but went his own arrogant and headstrong way... It was for this reason that he was in his lifetime much abused, and was hated and vilified by the Senate, the people and the Church itself, as was shown by the end to which he came; and that hatred and vilification continued after his death, even to the present day.2
All this - together with a historical and geographical description of the imperial provinces usually known as De Thematibus - was written, at least for the most part, by the Emperor's own hand, in the elegant and polished style of the scholar that he was. With the help of a regiment of scribes and copyists, however, he also compiled digests of all the available manuals and treatises on any number of other subjects: military strategy, history, diplomacy, jurisprudence, hagiography, medicine, agriculture, natural science, even veterinary surgery. The result was a veritable encyclopedia - a reference work which must have been of immense value to the imperial civil service and to all those private individuals fortunate enough to have access to it for many years to come, and which testifies both to the size and range of the Emperor's personal library and to the catholicity of his interests. He was, we are told, a passionate collector — not only of books and manuscripts but of works of art of every kind; more remarkable still for a man of his class
1 It is doubtful whether the Emperor would have inserted this proviso had he not been on fairly shaky ground himself. His half-sister Anna - Leo VTs daughter by his second wife Zoe - had married Lewis III (the Blind) of Provence, while his own son Romanus (to whom he was addressing these words) had at the age of five been married off to Bertha, the illegitimate daughter of Hugh of Aries, King of Italy, and was at the time the book was written betrothed to Hedwig of Bavaria, niece of Otto the Great.
2 De Administrando Imperio, Chapter XIII. The translation has been slightly abridged in the interests of concision, but accurately reflects the spirit of the original.
and background, he seems to have been a painter in his own right - and, if we are to believe Liudprand of Cremona, a very good one too. Finally, he was the most generous of patrons: to mosaicists and enamellers, to writers and scholars, to goldsmiths, silversmiths and jewellers.
Thus it is less as an Emperor than as a writer, scholar, compiler, collector, bibliophile, painter and patron that Constantine Porphyrogenitus deserves his place as the central figure of the tenth-century literary and artistic revival known as the 'Macedonian Renaissance'. But - the question can no longer be postponed - how effective was he as an Emperor? If we are to believe Gibbon, we shall have to rank him as a near-disaster; but Gibbon is obviously basing himself on two not entirely trustworthy sources, Cedrenus and Zonaras - both of whom derive from the same earlier authority, John Scylitzes - and seems to ignore the anonymous author of the second part of Theophanes Continuatus, Book VI, who paints a very different picture. Here Constantine emerges as a competent, conscientious and- hard-working administrator and an excellent picker of men, who made appointments to military, naval, ecclesiastical, civil and academic posts that were both imaginative and successful. He also did much to develop the imperial system of higher education and took a special interest in the administration of justice, immediately investigating all reports of social abuses -particularly against the poor — and himself reviewing the sentences of long-term prisoners. That he ate and drank more than was good for him all our authorities seem to agree - though he was certainly not a drunkard in any sense of the word; and there is unanimity, too, on his constant good humour: he was unfailingly courteous to all classes of society and was never known to lose his temper.
Feeling as he did about his father-in-law, it is perhaps understandable that Constantine should have looked with instinctive favour on the family of Phocas. The Phocas had been arch-enemies of the Lecapeni ever since Romanus's original coup, and found his treatment of their relative Leo - whom, it will be remembered, he had held up to public ridicule, parading him round the Forum on a mule - impossible to forgive. From that time on they had made no secret of their sympathy for Constantine, and the Emperor was happy to repay their loyalty. As successor to John Curcuas in supreme command of the armies of the East he now named Leo's brother Bardas Phocas, giving his sons Nicephorus and Leo the military governorships of the Anatolikon and Cappadocian Themes respectively. Of the Lecapeni, on the other hand, only one (apart from the Empress Helena herself) enjoyed his complete trust - though not, even then, until after he had been castrated. This was Romanus's natural son Basil, whom he appointed his parakoimomenosand who was later to lead a highly successful expedition against the dreaded Sai'f ed-Daula.
Meanwhile both foreign and domestic policy continued unchanged. Where the Saracens were concerned, Constantine was determined to keep up the pressure. Bardas, it soon became clear, was no Curcuas; but after being seriously wounded in 953 he was succeeded by his son Nicephorus, who four years later gained one of the two greatest victories of the reign by capturing the city of Adata in Pamphylia and with it the control of one of the principal passes through the Taurus Mountains. The second triumph came in 958 when Samosata (now Samsat) on the Euphrates fell to the arms of another brilliant young general, John Tzimisces. It would have been pleasant to record a similar success against the Saracens of Crete; but an attempt in 949 to reconquer the island, in a campaign in which the Emperor hoped to involve both the German King, Otto the Saxon, and, rather more surprisingly, the Omayyad Caliph of Cordova, proved little short of a fiasco.
Some at least of the responsibility for this disaster must be taken by the expedition's leader, the eunuch Constantine Gongyles; but, as several previous attempts had shown, Crete was a notoriously tough nut to crack. Little of the blame attaches directly to the Porphyrogenitus and still less to King Otto, who had more important things on his mind. He was still building up the Kingdom he had inherited in 936, pushing out its frontiers ever further against the Slav tribes to the East and simultaneously extending his influence into neighbouring states, notably Bohemia and Burgundy. Constantine seems immediately to have sensed the ability - and thus the importance - of this dynamic young prince, since he opened up relations with him as soon as he assumed power; though he could not know that, less than three years after his own death, Otto would be crowned Western Emperor in Rome and would quickly raise his Empire to a level of strength and splendour that it had not enjoyed since the days of Charlemagne.
By then, of course, he would be master of Italy; but in the early years of Constantine's reign the Italian peninsula was still in the state of semi-chaos that had characterized it since the break-up of the Carolingian Empire in 888. Its crown was a prize open to anyone with the strength, ambition and lack of scruple to go after it; and since it had by now become the most obvious stepping-stone to that of the Western Empire itself, the struggle for it was not confined to the Italian feudal nobility but was frequently also joined by the kings and princes of neighbouring lands. To make matters worse, Lombardy and indeed much of north Italy was in the hands of the Magyars, while the coasts were subject to continual raids by the Saracens from Sicily, Africa and not least from their pirate stronghold at Le Frassinet in Provence.1
Worst of all was Rome, where the local aristocracy had established complete control over the Church and had made the Papacy their plaything: Nicholas I, who enters these pages at the time of the Photian schism, was virtually the last Pontiff of any ability or integrity to occupy the chair of St Peter for a century and a half.2 His second successor, John VIII, had been hammered to death by jealous relations, while in 896 the dead body of Pope Formosus had been exhumed, brought to trial before a synod of bishops, stripped, mutilated and thrown into the Tiber.3 As recently as 928, the infamous Marozia, Senatrix of Rome -mistress, mother and grandmother of Popes - had had her mother's lover, Pope John X, strangled in the Castel Sant'Angelo in order to instal - after three years during which a couple of nonentities kept the throne warm for him while he grew to manhood - her son by her own former paramour, Pope Sergius III. In 932 she had taken as her second husband Hugh of Aries (whom the unfortunate Pope John had crowned King of Italy and who had murdered his wife, defamed his mother and blinded his brother in order to marry her) and the two would unquestionably have become Emperor and Empress of the West had not her son by her first marriage — his name was Alberic - engineered a popular revolt against them. Hugh escaped; Marozia was thrown in her turn into a dungeon of the Castel Sant'Angelo, where she was to spend the rest of her life.
1 Now the little village of La Garde Freinet on the crest of the Chaine de Maures in the Var. The Saracen enclave lasted for over a century, creating havoc for hundreds of miles around.
2 Unless we include the sadly apocryphal Pope Joan, the Englishwoman who is said to have concealed her sex throughout a three-year Pontificate until, by some unhappy miscalculation, she gave birth to a baby, half-way through a papal procession, on the steps of the Lateran. (A delightful engraving in which this event is depicted will be found in Spanheim, Histoiri di la Pape at Jean, 1 vols.. The Hague, 17*0.)
3 It is only fair to add, however, that it was later miraculously recovered, rehabilitated and reinterred in its former tomb.
It was from this somewhat lurid background that there sprang one of the most valuable - and certainly the most colourful - of our sources of tenth-century history in both the Eastern and the Western Empires. Liudprand, Bishop of Cremona — whose name has already appeared several times in these pages - had been born in 920 into a well-to-do Lombard family. Both his father and his stepfather had travelled to Constantinople before him, as ambassadors from King Hugh; Liudprand himself had served as a singing pageboy at the royal court at Pavia, for he had a beautiful voice and the King was passionately fond of music. Hugh's other pastimes were, unfortunately, rather less innocent: Liudprand's characteristic combination of prudishness and prurience may well stem from an adolescence spent among the courtesans who came flocking to Pavia from all over Italy and beyond. However that may be, he decided to enter the Church and soon afterwards found himself private secretary and chancellor to Hugh's effective successor, Berengar of Ivrea; and it was on Berengar's behalf, on 1 August 949, that he himself set off down the Po on the first stage of a diplomatic mission to the Bosphorus.
Most irritatingly, Liudprand nowhere explains the reasons for this mission; but it seems more than likely, since an ambassador from Otto -a certain Liutefred of Mainz - was travelling to Constantinople at the same time, that Berengar was anxious to make his presence felt and to ensure that as ruler of Italy he would be party to any understanding reached between his rival and Constantine Porphyrogenitus. At all events the two envoys — who had travelled together on the same ship from Venice - arrived on 17 September and were soon afterwards received by the Emperor in audience.
Next to the imperial residence at Constantinople there is a palace of remarkable size and beauty which the Greeks call Magtaura, the name signifying 'fresh breeze'... Before the throne of the Emperor there rose a tree of gilded bronze, its branches full of birds fashioned of the same material, all singing different songs according to their kind. The throne itself was so contrived that at one moment it stood low on the ground and the next moment it would suddenly be raised high in the air. It was of immense size, made of either wood or bronze (for I cannot be sure), and guarded by gilded lions who beat the ground with their tails and emitted dreadful roars, their mouths open and their tongues quivering. Leaning on the shoulders of two eunuchs, I was led into the Emperor's presence. Immediately the lions began to roar and the birds to sing, but I myself displayed no terror or surprise at these marvels, having received prior warning from others who were already well acquainted with them. After I had three times made my obeisance I raised my head and lol he whom I had seen only a moment before on a throne scarcely elevated from the ground was now clad in different robes and sitting on a level with the roof. How this was achieved I cannot tell, unless it was by a device similar to those we employ for lifting the timbers of a wine press. He did not address me on this occasion - in view of the distance between us any conversation would have been most unseemly - but inquired through his Logothete as to the life and health of Berengar. I made an appropriate reply, and then at a signal from the interpreter left the chamber and returned to my lodging.1
After this description, Liudprand goes on to tell of his embarrassment on discovering that whereas Otto's ambassador and those from Cordova had brought the Emperor magnificent presents, his own master had sent nothing but a letter — 'and that was full of lies'. Fortunately he had with him a number of gifts that he had intended to offer to Constantine on his own account; and these, most reluctantly, he now pretended had come from Berengar. They consisted of
nine excellent cuirasses, seven excellent shields with gilded bosses, two silver-gilt cups, some swords, spears and spits, and - more appreciated by the Emperor than anything else - four carzymasia, that being the Greek name for young eunuchs who have been deprived not only of their testicles but of their penises as well - an operation performed by merchants at Verdun, who export them to Spain at huge profit to themselves.
This last item raises more questions than can be discussed here, not least why these luckless youths should have been so sought after -particularly by Constantine, whose sexual tastes were, so far as we know, entirely normal and who already enjoyed a virtually limitless supply of slaves of every kind. Alas, Liudprand is once again silent - though he goes on to make it clear that the Emperor was not always as unapproachable as he had been at that first audience. Three days after the delivery of his presents he received an invitation to a banquet.
There is a palace near the Hippodrome looking northwards, of wondrous height and beauty, known as the Decanneacubita, since... on the day of the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ nineteen places are laid at the table. On this day the Emperor and his guests do not sit at dinner in the usual manner but
1 If the golden tree was the same as that installed by the Emperor Theophilus a century earlier (see p. 44), it says much for Byzantine standards of maintenance. The lifting gear, at all events, seems to have been a tenth-century innovation.
recline on couches; and all the dishes are served in vessels not of silver but of gold. After the meal fruit is brought on in three golden bowls, too heavy for men to lift. .. Through openings in the ceiling there hang three ropes, covered with gilded leather, with golden rings at their ends. To these rings are attached the handles projecting from the bowls and, with the help of four or five men standing below, the huge vessels are swung on to the table and removed again in the same manner.
Whether Liudprand's own invitation was for this Christmas feast is not altogether clear, but the occasion was certainly memorable in other ways.
A man entered, balancing on his head, and without touching it with his hands, a wooden pole more than twenty-four feet long, with a three-foot cross-piece a foot and a half from the top. There then appeared two boys, naked except for loincloths, who climbed up the pole, performed various tricks on it and then descended head first, the pole remaining all the time as steady as if it had been rooted in the earth... While they were both performing, the evenness of their weights gave the pole some equilibrium; but when one returned to the ground and the other, remaining on high, kept his balance so perfectly that he could both do his tricks and come down at last without mishap, I was so bewildered that the Emperor himself noticed my amazement. He therefore summoned an interpreter and asked me which seemed to me the more wonderful, the boy who had moved so carefully that the pole remained stable, or the man who had balanced it on his head so adroitly that neither the weight of the boys nor their performance had disturbed it in the least. I said that I did not know; he then gave a loud laugh and said that he was in the same difficulty: he did not know either.
Liudprand and Liutefred, the ambassadors from the Caliph of Cordova and their respective staffs were not the only foreign envoys to be received by Constantine Porphyrogenitus. In 946, a year after his coming to power, there had been a Saracen embassy from Saif ed-Daula to discuss an exchange of prisoners; in 949, the same year as the other three, the Magyars sent a high-powered delegation which not only concluded a treaty of non-aggression but actually submitted itself to Christian baptism. Most important of all, however, in its long-term effect was the visit in 957 of Princess Olga of Russia, Igor's widow and now Regent of the young Kievan state, on a mission of peace and good will. After a series of magnificent receptions, the climax came with her own christening by the Patriarch in St Sophia — in the course of which she adopted the name of the Empress Helena, who stood proxy.1 If the Byzantines had hoped that this ceremony would be immediately followed by the mass conversion of her people, they were disappointed. But the seed had been sown; and thirty years later, under Olga's grandson Vladimir, it would become clear that it had fallen on fertile ground.
On the domestic front, too, Constantine gladly continued the policies that Romanus Lecapenus had initiated. Much of Romanus's legislation had been concerned with the protection of the small-holding peasant militia against the rich feudal aristocracy, who had for years been buying up more and more of their land. It had made him deeply - at times even dangerously - unpopular with the latter, whose influence had grown to the point where they were now universally known as 'the powerful'; but he had refused to be deflected from his object, knowing that ever since the days of Heraclius the small-holders, with their regular payments of state taxes and their obligations of armed service, had formed the foundation of the whole economic and military strength of the Empire.
It was inevitable that Constantine Porphyrogenitus should have felt a good deal more sympathetic to the aristocracy, to which he himself belonged, than did his Armenian parvenu father-in-law: as we have seen, he made no secret of his particular friendship for the family of Phocas, who represented everything that Romanus had most mistrusted. Yet from the moment that power was in his hands he had steadfastly continued the agrarian policy of his predecessor - in 947 going so far as to order the immediate restitution, without compensation, of all peasant lands that had been acquired by 'the powerful' since his effective accession. On earlier sales the purchase price was theoretically repayable, but even then only by those small-holders with a capital of more than fifty gold pieces. Other laws decreed that properties to which soldiers owed their livelihood and their means of equipping themselves for military service should be inalienable, and that no sale of a small-holding could be deemed incontrovertible and absolute until forty years after its first conclusion. Romanus's old law providing for the confiscation, again without compensation, of lands illicitly surrendered to 'the powerful' was confirmed, and certain loopholes closed up. Thus, by the end of
1 There has been some controversy over Olga's baptism, certain historian; believing that it had already taken place in Russia some two or three years before. I follow my old tutor. Professor D. Obolensky. (Cambridge Medieval "History, Vol. IV,.)
the reign, the condition of the landed peasantry was better than it had been for a century and more. It says much for the aristocracy that it accepted the new dispensations with so little protest.
The darkest shadow over Constantine's fourteen years of undivided reign came in fact not from the ranks of the nobility but from the eunuch monk Polyeuctus, whom he was rash enough to appoint as Patriarch in 956, after the death of his disreputable brother-in-law Theophylact.1 There are two schools of thought about Polyeuctus. Professor Toynbee considers him 'irreproachable'; for Professor Jenkins, on the other hand - whose view seems to come a good deal closer to the truth - he was a tiresome fanatic who from the moment of his appointment did nothing but make trouble: first by publicly accusing Basil the parakoimomenos of extortion and then, even more contentiously, by resurrecting the whole vexed question of Leo the Wise's fourth marriage and demanding the restitution of the name of Patriarch Euthymius -who, it may be remembered, had given Leo his longed-for dispensation - to the holy diptychs.2
Forty years before, the Emperor might have welcomed such an initiative; by now, the last thing he wanted was to have the whole affair raked up again. On this occasion Polyeuctus was obliged to yield; but he continued his disruptive behaviour until at last Constantine could bear it no longer and in September 959 crossed over to Asia to consult his old friend the Bishop of Cyzicus on possible ways of getting rid of him. From Cyzicus he travelled to Bursa, in the hopes that its celebrated hot springs would cure him of a persistent fever from which he had been suffering, and when this treatment proved ineffective he passed on to the monastery high on the Mysian Mount Olympus (now Ulu Dag), some twenty miles outside the town. By this time, however, it was plain that he was mortally ill: the monks, seeing that there was no hope, warned him that the end was near and bade him prepare for death. He returned hurriedly to the capital where, on 9 November 959, he died in his bed, aged fifty-four, surrounded by his sorrowing family: his wife Helena, his five daughters and his twenty-year-old son Romanus, now Emperor of Byzantium.
No reign ever opened more auspiciously than that of Romanus II. His
1 The immense stables that Theophylact had built next to St Sophia for his 2,000 horses were convened into a home for the aged.
2 See p. 125.
great-grandfather Basil I, his two grandfathers Leo the Wise and Romanus Lecapenus and his father Constantine had built up the Empire to a point where its economic and military strength were greater than they had been for centuries; intellectually and artistically the Macedonian Renaissance was at its height. The indubitably legitimate son of a much-loved Emperor, born like his father in the purple, he had inherited both Constantine's magnificent build and his charm of manner, together with much of his mother's beauty. His detractors complained that he was frivolous, and that he spent too much time hunting, carousing and playing polo; but such faults are surely forgivable in the young, and there is no reason to believe that he would not have outgrown them had he only been given the chance to do so.
More seriously, but even more excusably, he fell in love. As a child he had been married off to Bertha, one of the countless natural progeny of the Italian King, Hugh of Aries; but she had died soon afterwards and in 9; 8 he had firmly rejected his father's next choice for him, King Otto's niece Hedwig of Bavaria, in favour of a Peloponnesian innkeeper's daughter who had taken the name of Theophano. History offers no more striking example of the femme fatale. Her beauty, for a start, was breathtaking: we have no reason to doubt Leo the Deacon when he assures us that she was the loveliest woman of her day. She was also intensely ambitious and, so far as we can judge, utterly devoid of moral scruple: a compulsive intriguer, she would stick at nothing - not even, as we shall see, at murder itself - to gain her ends. And although only just eighteen when her husband succeeded to the throne, she dominated him completely. No rivals were tolerated: almost her first action as Empress was to deal with her mother-in-law and her husband's five sisters. Helena was relegated to a distant corner of the Palace, where she was to die, alone and unheeded, in September 961; all five princesses -one of whom, Agatha, had for years never left her father's side, serving as his confidential secretary and, more recently, his nurse — were obliged to take the veil. They did not do so willingly: for days the Palace echoed with their lamentations. In vain did their mother and their brother plead for them; the young Empress was inexorable. She stood by grimly as Patriarch Polyeuctus himself sheared off their hair and, as a final blow, dispatched them to five different convents.
Thanks in large measure to Theophano, many of the senior officials of government and court also lost their posts; two of the most important, however, remained in power - although with different functions. Basil, the former parakoimomenos, was given the new title of proedrus, which carried with it the presidency of the Senate and effectively made him the Emperor's right-hand man, while his previous post was inherited by the eunuch Joseph Bringas, who had combined the dudes of chief minister and High Admiral(drungarius) during the last years of Constantine's reign. Bringas emerges from the chronicles as an able yet somewhat sinister figure. Highly intelligent and perceptive, with immense energy and a seemingly limitless capacity for hard work, he was also greedy, rapacious, self-seeking and cruel. Gradually he had made himself indispensable to Constantine, whose dying wish had been that he should continue in charge of the government; with the accession of Romanus his power in the Empire became virtually absolute. It was he who initiated the campaign which was to lead to the most signal achievement of the young Emperor's brief reign: the recapture, after nearly a century and a half, of the island of Crete.
A late Arab chronicler claims that, after the collapse of the disastrous expedition of 949, Constantine Porphyrogcnitus tried to make terms with the Cretan Emir, according to which the latter would call a halt to his subjects' constant raiding in return for an annual subsidy amounting to twice the sum normally brought in by piracy. It may well be so, though no surviving Byzantine source confirms the fact. There can be little doubt, on the other hand, that the 949 fiasco rankled; and before the young Romanus had been more than a few weeks on the throne preparations were under way for a new expedition, conceived on a scale infinitely more ambitious than any that had gone before. We are not, unfortunately, given precise figures for the forces involved; but they included elements from all over the Empire, which were further supplemented by important contingents from Armenia — to say nothing of large numbers of Russian mercenaries and Varangian axe-men from Scandinavia. The total must have been well in excess of j 0,000. On the size of the fleet we are rather more precisely informed: 1,000 heavy transports, 308 supply ships and no less than 2,000 carriers of Greek fire. Command of this tremendous armament was entrusted to the ugly, austere and deeply religious man of forty-seven who had by now proved himself to be the Empire's outstanding general — one of the greatest, indeed, in all its history.
His name was Nicephorus Phocas. His grandfather and namesake had been responsible for the reconquest of south Italy during Basil I's reign; his uncle, Leo Phocas, had led the resistance to Romanus Lecapenus in
919 and had been blinded for his pains; his father, Bardas Phocas, had been appointed Domestic of the Schools under Constantine Porphyrogenitus and had commanded the imperial armies against the Saracens of the East until in 953 a hideous wound in the face had put an end to his military career. Nicephorus himself, hitherto military governor of the Anatolikon Theme, had immediately taken over the command and four years later had given spectacular proof of his abilities with the all-important capture of Adata. He was — friends and enemies alike agree -a superb soldier, through and through: cool and fearless in battle, of enormous physical strength, quick as lightning to seize an opportunity and unfailingly considerate of his soldiers, who adored him and would follow him anywhere. Outside the army he had no interests save his religion, leading a life of almost monastic austerity and spending his leisure hours in conversation or correspondence with holy men. (Of these his particular favourite was the future St Athanasius, who had deserted his monastery rather than become its abbot and was at this time living as a hermit on Mount Athos.) He had absolutely no social graces. He was, in short, a cold fish.
The preparations continued all through the first six months of 960; then, in the last days of June, the great fleet sailed out of the Golden Horn into the Marmara. Some two weeks later, on 13 July, it appeared off the north coast of Crete. Exactly where the landing took place is uncertain, but it was watched in horror by a dense crowd of Saracens, on foot and on horseback, who were gathered on the heights above the bank. The enemy had obviously been taken by surprise, and at first there was no organized resistance: those who approached too close were met by hails of arrows and sling-bolts. As the disembarkation continued, however, squadrons of cavalry began to appear in increasing strength, and as soon as enough were assembled, flung themselves on the invaders. They fought, according to Leo the Deacon,1 with almost superhuman courage; but they were hopelessly outnumbered and made little impression on the Byzantine forces. Hundreds were killed, while those who fell wounded were trampled to death by the cataphracts - armoured cavalry whose heavy coats of mail rendered them well-nigh invulnerable to anything other than the fierce Mediterranean sun.
Then, a few days later, the imperial army suffered its first reverse. Nicephorus had dispatched a large reconnaissance and foraging party
1 Whose account I follow here. Theophanes Continuants tells a rather different story, laying a good deal less emphasis on Saracen resistance.
into the hinterland, under the command of one Pastilas, strategos of Thrace. Unfortunately it included a detachment of Russians, whom the extraordinary beauty, richness and fertility of the land seems to have sent into a kind of ecstasy, causing them to lose all sense of discipline. What actually happened is uncertain - presumably they got roaring drunk and went to sleep; in any case the Saracens, who had been watching their every move, suddenly saw their opportunity. Down they swept, catching their victims entirely unawares. Pastilas and the rest hastened to the rescue, but too late: nearly all were cut down in the ensuing melee, the strategos himself among them. Only a handful survived to bring news of the catastrophe back to the main body of the army.
Nicephorus was predictably furious, but saw no reason to change his plan, which was to advance directly on the city of Candia — which the Byzantines called Chandax and we today know as Heraklion. It was by far the largest town on the whole island and - insofar as such a thing existed in an essentially pirate community — its capital. If it were taken there was a good chance that there would be no other serious resistance anywhere on the island. A day or two later he drew up the army before its walls, and the siege began. It continued for eight months. Had the Byzantines managed to maintain an effective blockade by sea as well as by land, the whole thing might have been over in half that time; but there were no natural harbours and Nicephorus could not keep his ships indefinitely at sea through what was to prove an abnormally long and harsh winter. The beleaguered citizens could thus bring in all the provisions and supplies they needed; more important still, they could -and did - send urgent appeals for aid to their co-religionists in Sicily, Egypt and Spain.
But their appeals went unanswered and, as the weeks went by, their morale began to flag. Their only consolation was the sight of their half-frozen enemies huddling together round their fires and the knowledge that - as so often in medieval siege warfare - life, especially in winter, was often a good deal more uncomfortable for the besiegers than for the besieged. As the long, cold months dragged by, the imperial army was indeed beginning to suffer the pangs of serious hunger; under many another commander, open mutiny would have been a distinct possibility. But Nicephorus understood his men: somehow, on his daily rounds, he managed to imbue them with strength, hope and the courage to continue. In this task he seems to have been himself inspired by his friend and mentor Athanasius who by now, with several undoubted miracles to his credit, had reluctantly left his hermitage on Mount Athos at the general's urgent summons and joined him in the camp. It was - Nicephorus was convinced - entirely through his intercession that just in time, around the middle of February, the long-awaited relief fleet arrived with supplies from Constantinople; and before the end of the month the Byzantines, their morale considerably restored, had made two determined attempts to smash their way into the town. Both these first assaults failed; but a third succeeded, and on 7 March 961, for the first time in 136 years, the imperial standard flew again over Crete.
On the same day the massacre began. Women, old and young, were raped, murdered and thrown aside; children, even babies at the breast, were strangled or impaled on lances. Not even the immense prestige of Nicephorus was able to halt the carnage; only after three days did he succeed in making his voice heard, and even then there was little hope for the people of Candia. The survivors, both male and female, were sold into slavery; and the victorious fleet headed back to the Bosphorus, laden to the gunwales with the results of more than a century's plunder of the richest cities of the Eastern Mediterranean.
The fall of Candia, and the consequent collapse of Saracen power in Crete, was a victory for the Byzantines unparalleled since the days of Heraclius. When the news reached Constantinople there was celebration throughout the city: an all-night service of thanksgiving was held in St Sophia in the presence of the Emperor and Empress, the nobility and clergy, and as many of the populace as could squeeze themselves into the Great Church. Among the whole vast congregation there was perhaps one man only in whom the overriding emotion was not jubilation but anxiety. The eunuch Joseph Bringas had always hated the house of Phocas, of whom he was bitterly jealous. Heretofore, Nicephorus's popularity had been confined to the army; he had had no appeal for the people of Constantinople, to most of whom he was in any case little more than a name. Now all that would be changed: overnight he had become the Empire's hero. Victorious generals were dangerous at the best of times, and Nicephorus was known to be consumed by ambition. If that ambition was to be contained, both government and court must proceed with the most meticulous care; there would be difficult weeks ahead.
And so it came about that when Nicephorus Phocas sailed proudly back into the Golden Horn, to be greeted by Romanus and Theophano and publicly congratulated on his historic achievement, he was not on this occasion offered the full imperial triumph that he had so abundantly deserved. All that was permitted to him was an ovation in the Hippodrome, at which the people were given the chance to gaze upon their finest general and to salute him with their cheers; he, on the other hand, stood before them not in a four-horse chariot but on foot. There was no great military parade, no flaunting of prisoners and plunder. It was made clear to him, too, that he was not to remain in the capital any longer than was absolutely necessary. Saracen morale had suffered a bitter blow, and the Empire must quickly follow up the advantage it had gained. In short, he was needed in the East.
When Nicephorus had relinquished his eastern command two years before to prepare for the Cretan expedition, he had been succeeded by his younger brother Leo. Within weeks of his assumption of that command, however, Leo had found himself faced with a major challenge from the Empire's old enemy, Saif ed-Daula. Saif had come a long way since his first appearance in these pages in the 930s, as the most redoubtable opponent of John Curcuas. In 944 he had captured Aleppo, which he had made his permanent headquarters and from which he had rapidly extended his domains to embrace the greater part of Syria and northern Mesopotamia, including Damascus, Emesa and Antioch. All these conquests had further enhanced the reputation for valour that he had first acquired in his early youth; thus, well before the age of thirty-five - he had been born in 916 - he had become the beau ideal of the Arab Emir of the early Middle Ages: cruel and pitiless in war but chivalrous and merciful in peace, poet and scholar, patron of literature and the arts, possessor of the largest stable, the most extensive library and the most sumptuously stocked harem in the Muslim world.
Every year without fail, Saif had led at least one major raid into Byzantine territory. None, however, had been so ambitious as that of the early summer of 960. The moment was perfectly chosen. The army of the East, seriously depleted by the demands of the Cretan expedition, was weaker than it had been for years. Leo Phocas was still mopping up after a successful campaign in south Syria and was thus several days' march away in the opposite direction. Saif was not the man to miss that kind of opportunity; and at almost exactly the time that Nicephorus sailed for Crete - it may well have been on the very same day - he crossed the imperial border from the south-east at the head of a Saracen army estimated at 30,000 men, passing unhindered through the defiles of the eastern Taurus and advancing to the fortress of Charsian1 near Melitene, where he massacred the garrison and took a large number of prisoners.
Leo Phocas pursued him, but without undue haste. He was heavily outnumbered, he knew, and such men as he had available were still exhausted after a long and arduous campaign; to meet such an enemy on open ground would be to invite disaster. He advanced only as far as the mountains, where he carefully disposed his men to command the principal passes. Then he settled down to wait.
It was early November before Sai'f ed-Daula returned with his army. His expedition had been a huge success. Long trains of captives shuffled behind him, his carts groaned with the weight of his plunder; he himself, according to Leo the Deacon, rode proudly at the head of his men on a magnificent Arab mare, 'playing all the time skilfully with his lance, which he would throw high in the air and catch again as it descended, without once letting it fall or delaying the speed of the march'. Cheerfully and confidently the long procession made its way back through the mountains; then, just as it entered a pass that the Greeks called the Kulindros, or cylinder, there rang out the blast of a hidden trumpet. Within seconds, immense boulders came spinning down the mountainside on top of the defenceless column. As if from nowhere, Leo Phocas and his army appeared both before and behind, and SaJf suddenly found himself surrounded. At first he stood his ground, defending himself heroically, hacking to left and right with his scimitar. His horse was killed under him; seizing that of a servant, he returned to the fray. Only later, when he saw that the day was lost, did he wheel round and set off at a gallop. By scattering behind him handful after handful of gold coins he effectively slowed down his pursuers and so made good his escape, together with some 300 of his cavalry. Of the rest, nearly half lay dead; the survivors were all taken prisoner, being secured with the same ropes and fetters that had formerly held the Christian captives.
This famous victory shows clearly enough that Leo Phocas, even with diminished forces, was perfectly capable of defending the eastern frontier — and causes us yet again to question the real motives for the almost indecent speed with which Nicephorus was posted back to relieve him. As was only to be expected, however, the renewed presence of both
1 The Arab chroniclers call it Karchanah. I have been unable to identify it.
brothers, at the head of an army restored to its former size and with its morale higher than ever before, had a dramatic effect on the future of the fighting. In the space of just three weeks during February and March 962, the Byzantines regained no less than fifty-five walled towns in Cilicia; then, after a brief pause while they celebrated Easter, they advanced through the Syrian Gates near Alexandretta (Iskenderun). From here they moved slowly and methodically southward, burning and plundering as they went. A few months later they were beneath the walls of Aleppo itself, preparing to lay siege to the city.
Aleppo was at this moment enjoying the most brilliant chapter of its long history. Its capture by Saif ed-Daula eighteen years before had made it, for the first time, the capital of an independent state and the chief residence of its ruler; and Saif's magnificent palace, known as al-Hallaba, was one of the most beautiful and renowned buildings of the tenth-century Muslim world. The Emir himself had never ceased to enrich it with all the spoils taken in his countless campaigns, but it had one major drawback: a cruelly exposed position outside the city walls, which he had made little effort to protect. On the very night of their arrival, Nicephorus's men fell on it like locusts, first emptying it of all its treasures and then burning it to the ground. As well as 390,000 silver dinars, they took possession of 2,000 camels, 1,400 mules and so many Arab thoroughbreds that 'they could not be counted'. The building itself was stripped, inside and out: the Arab chroniclers speak sadly of the gold and silver plate, the bales of velvet and silken damask, the swords and breastplates and jewelled belts, even the gilded tiles from the walls and roofs. Only when there was nothing of the palace left to plunder did the imperial army turn its attention to Aleppo itself. Saif, caught outside the walls, was once again obliged to flee for his life; the majority of the local garrison, deprived of his ever-inspiriting presence, lacked stomach for the fight; and two days before Christmas the triumphant Byzantines swarmed into the city. As at Candia, no mercy was shown: the carnage, writes an Arab historian, ceased only when the conquerors were too exhausted to go on.
But Aleppo, though occupied, had not quite fallen. A handful of soldiers in the citadel had dug themselves in and obstinately refused to surrender. Nicephorus simply ignored them. They could not hold out for long, and their provisions could not last for ever. The important thing was that Saif was gone, and Aleppo was no longer a force to be reckoned with. There was no point in wasting any more time. He gave the order to retire, and the victorious army began the long journey home.
It had advanced no further than Cappadocia when a message arrived from Constantinople. The Emperor Romanus LI was dead.