Post-classical history

John Tzimisces


If you reject my proposals you will have no choice, you and your subjects, but to leave Europe for ever, where you have scarcely any territory left to call your own and where you have no right to dwell. Retire then to Asia, and leave Constantinople to us. Only then can you hope to achieve a genuine peace between the Russian nation and yourselves.

Prince Svyatoslav of Kiev, to the Emperor John Tzimisces, 970

For the second time in ten years the throne of Byzantium had been snatched by a member of the Anatolian aristocracy. On both occasions the usurping Emperor had been a dramatically successful general; on both occasions he had succeeded through the machinations of the Empress Theophano, of whose two young sons he had proclaimed himself protector. Between Nicephorus Phocas and John Tzimisces there were, however, two crucial differences: one related to their respective positions, the other to the two men themselves.

Though neither had any legitimate claim to the imperial diadem, Nicephorus could at least argue that he had accepted it by invitation of the Empress, and had further regularized the situation by his subsequent marriage. John, on the other hand, had acquired it by violence and bloodshed; and it was his further misfortune that the Patriarchate was still in the hands of Polyeuctus, now old and beginning to fail in strength but as stern and inexorable as ever. Even he could not reject the new claimant out of hand, but he could - and did - impose conditions which John was compelled, however reluctantly, to accept; and the first of these concerned Theophano. The lovers had clearly hoped that by the murder of Nicephorus they were removing an obstacle not only to the throne but also to their own union; this, the Patriarch firmly declared, could on no account be contemplated. On the contrary, there could be no question of John Tzimisces being crowned Emperor until the Empress were put away, never again to show her face in Constantinople.

Perhaps, as has already been suggested, John had never really loved Theophano, and had seen her merely as the most direct instrument of his own ambitions; in any event he did not hesitate in making his choice. The Empress, humiliated and heartbroken, was unceremoniously packed off to that favourite repository of imperial waste, the island of Proti in the Marmara.1 But Polyeuctus was not yet satisfied. He next demanded that John should do public penance and denounce all those who had been his accomplices in the crime. Finally he must undertake to abrogate all his predecessor's decrees against the Church. These conditions were accepted without hesitation; and on Christmas Day 969, just two weeks after the murder, the new Emperor proceeded to his coronation. It remained only for him to deal with his victim's family, notably Leo Phocas - the former curopalates - who, having failed to stage a counter-coup of his own, had lost his nerve and fled with his eldest son - called, like his uncle, Nicephorus - to St Sophia. Both were deprived of their dignities, offices and possessions and sent into exile on Lesbos. Leo's second son Bardas was consigned to the infinitely less congenial Amaseia in Pontus, a rainswept region near the shores of the Black Sea; only his youngest, a Patrician and yet another brilliant general, was left at liberty - perhaps because of bis magnificent military record against the Saracens, but more probably because he was a eunuch and consequently less of a long-term danger.

Up to this point the story of John Tzimisces can hardly be described as edifying. When we come, however, to compare his character with that of Nicephorus, we find him emerging from the writings of his contemporaries with very much more credit than might have been imagined: indeed, it seems almost impossible to reconcile the brutal and cynical murderer of the last few pages with the chevalier sans peur et sans reproche depicted by the chroniclers. They dwell at length not only on his

1 She was, even then, to make one last appearance in the capital. Some months later she escaped from her confinement and sought asylum in St Sophia - whence, however, she was forcibly removed by order of the parakoimomenos Basil, who condemned her to a more distant exile in far-off Armenia. The only concession that he was prepared to grant her was that she should be permitted to see the Emperor for the last time. John, perhaps surprisingly, agreed to the interview, at which he was subjected to a torrent of invective. Theophano then turned her attention to Basil, who had insisted on being present - a decision he must have regretted when she attacked him physically, landing several telling blows before being finally pulled off by his attendants.

valour in the field but on his kindness and generosity, his integrity and intelligence, his dash and his magnificent panache. They speak of his devastating good looks - darkish-blond hair, red beard, a clear and direct gaze from a pair of brilliant blue eyes — and, despite his small size, of his extraordinary agility and strength. None of his men, it was said, could match his seat on a horse, his accuracy with an arrow, his range with a spear or javelin. He possessed, too, an easy-going charm that won all hearts. Like Nicephorus before him, he was a widower; unlike Nicephorus, however, he had taken no vow of chastity, and his way with women was irresistible. Even his vices were attractive: Leo the Deacon,' who knew him well, mentions his love of wine, pleasure and all the good things of life. He presented, in short, an astonishing contrast to his ugly, uncouth and puritanical predecessor, against whose sombre asceticism his own qualities - and above all his sheer, uncomplicated joie de vivre - stood out in even greater relief. One chronicler, Constantine Manasses, goes so far as to liken him to 'a new paradise, from which flowed the four rivers of justice, wisdom, prudence and courage ... Had he not stained his hands with the murder of Nicephorus, he would have shone in the firmament like some incomparable star.'

Of all his undoubted virtues, that which most endeared him to his subjects was his quick and instinctive generosity. The Patriarch had, it is true, insisted that he should make a distribution of his own personal wealth before taking possession of the imperial treasury; but what we know of John Tzimisces suggests that he might easily have done so anyway. The larger part of his fortune he distributed among those sections of the population who had suffered the most from the recent succession of disastrous harvests — above all the farming communities of Thrace, where the resulting famine had been particularly severe. (Here again the contrast with the attitude of Nicephorus could hardly have passed unnoticed.) Another major beneficiary was his favourite charitable institution, theNosocomium or leper hospital across the Bosphorus at Chrysopolis. Throughout his life, writes Leo the Deacon, he was to visit it regularly, giving sympathy and encouragement to the patients and occasionally even bathing their sores with his own hands. No wonder that, within a matter of months, the perpetrator of one of the foulest murders that even the Byzantine Empire had ever seen became one of its best-loved rulers.

It was fortunate that he did, for Prince Svyatoslav of Kiev was already on the march. Bulgaria was his, but he had no intention of stopping at Bulgaria; for him, the only really worthwhile prize was Byzantium. True, the two previous Russian attacks on the city had failed; but the first, in 861, had been no more than a raid, while the second - launched by his own father, Igor, less than thirty years before - had also been an exclusively naval operation: Constantinople, Svyatoslav was quite ready to believe, was impregnable from the sea. From the landward side, however, it would be a different story. His army was immense; morale, after the Bulgarian victories and the subsequent pillage, had never been higher. What was to prevent him from advancing across the flat, featureless plain that extended almost as far as the Bosphorus, appropriating for himself the fabled wealth of the Emperors and finally seizing their throne - casting out the murderous usurper (who had no more right to it than he did himself) to the distant Anatolian wastes from which he had come?

John did his best to negotiate, promising to send Svyatoslav the unpaid balance of the sum offered him by Nicephorus to attack Bulgaria if he would then agree to leave imperial territory; but the Prince's reply made it clear that nothing was to be achieved by diplomacy. War, it now seemed, was inevitable. In Constantinople frantic steps were taken to repair the walls where necessary; and tension, inevitably, began to rise. The citizens had of course faced similar dangers in the past; but most of the recent threats had been from the Bulgars, whom they understood and whose numbers, though large, were at least finite. They were now confronted by a vast nation whose frontiers extended from the Balkans to the Baltic, a nation that comprised whole races of whose names they had scarcely heard - all capable, it was said, of hideous savagery.

The Byzantine army, however, was ready for them. Thanks in large measure to Nicephorus Phocas, it had been developed into a first-class war machine, boasting at least half a dozen generals of a quality unparalleled, perhaps, since the days of Belisarius, the Emperor himself among them. On this occasion - and, we can be sure, to his genuine regret - John knew that he must stay in the capital: his position there was not yet sufficiently secure to allow him the luxury of a military campaign. But he had every confidence in his commanders; and events were to show that that confidence was not misplaced. Of the two whom he selected to lead the advance guard, the first was the magister Bardas Sclerus, brother of John's wife Maria - 'loveliest and purest of them all', writes Leo the Deacon - who had died, childless, some years before. He had fought at the Emperor's side in Syria and was probably his brother-in-law's closest friend. The second was the eunuch Peter Phocas, Patrician and stratopedarch a hero like Scleras of the Saracen wars and also of a recent skirmish with the Magyars in Thrace, in the course of which he had confronted a tribal leader - a giant wearing a thick coat of mail - in single combat, and had run him through with such force that the point of his lance had appeared between the Hungarian's shoulder-blades. Nephew of the murdered Nicephorus, he was as we have seen the only one of his uncle's immediate family to have escaped sentence of exile; if he bore Tzimisces any resentment, he took pains not to show it.

Both generals had strict orders from their master not to engage in batde if it could be avoided. The Emperor seems to have thought that the sight of the imperial army en masse in the field might itself be enough to persuade Svyatoslav to retreat; his purpose in sending it out at this time - it was still early spring - was simply to impress the undisciplined Russians with its organization and strength, and to protect the Thracian countryside from their unwelcome attentions. But he had underestimated the Prince of Kiev: Svyatoslav intended to fight. To help him he had allied himself with both the Magyars and the Pechenegs, and had even won considerable support among the boyars of Bulgaria, whom he had wooed with promises of a restoration of all their former privileges and even a return to the old paganism — for which many of them still secretly yearned. Numbers are impossible to estimate with any accuracy. Early historians always try to exaggerate the strength of the enemy and the numerical weakness of their own side: thus Zonaras and John Scylitzes put the Russians at 300,000 and 308,000 respectively, while Nestor's chronicle suggests only about one-tenth of these obviously ludicrous figures. Perhaps 50,000 might not be too wide of the mark. Against this, we are told - probably truthfully - that the Byzantines numbered just 12,000; however, all were elite troops - superbly equipped, meticulously trained and hardened in many a batde under the Syrian sun.

Bardas Scleras, who was in overall command, first advanced as far as Adrianople; then, as the enemy approached, he slowly retreated, deliberately suggesting that he was afraid to give batde, lulling them into a sense of security that soon led to overconfidence. Meanwhile, well behind his own line, he made his dispositions. On the appointed day he sent out as a decoy a detachment of cavalry under the Patrician John Alakas, with orders to employ a similar technique: first lightly engaging the enemy and then quickly retiring - daring, as it were, the Russians to pursue them. Once sure of this pursuit they should quicken their pace, occasionally turning to confront their pursuers before once more taking flight, always keeping a little way in front but never too far, until they had led their unwilling victims into the trap that had been prepared for them.

The trick worked perfectly. Svyatoslav's army marched in three main divisions: the first was made up of Russians and Bulgars, the second of Hungarians and other Magyar tribes, the third of Pechenegs. It was these last whom Alakas engaged and they pursued him eagerly, confident of being able quickly to catch up with him and his men, looking forward to killing them and robbing them of horses, armour, weapons and all that they possessed. Suddenly, as they entered a shallow valley, the Byzantine cavalry scattered; their pursuers did likewise; and Scleras struck. Surrounded and hopelessly outnumbered, the Pechenegs perished almost to a man.

And this was only a preliminary; it was followed a few days later by a decisive engagement near the city of Arcadiopolis, about a third of the way from Adrianople to the capital. This was a pitched battle - the first ever fought on open ground between Byzantines and Russians - and an extremely bloody one. We can decide for ourselves whether or not to believe the incidents described by Leo the Deacon and Scylitzes: that of young Constantine Scleras who, seeing his elder brother and chief locked in combat with a gigantic Russian, hurried to his aid and struck a tremendous blow at his assailant, only to have it deflected on to the latter's horse, which was instantly decapitated and deposited its rider on the ground for Constantine to strangle at leisure; or of Bardas himself, splitting a huge Viking chieftain down the middle with his sword in such a way that the two halves fell separately, one on each side of the horse. What we cannot doubt is that it was all a far cry from the warfare of former centuries - a dismal saga, all too often, of indiscipline, cowardice and betrayal. Here, once again, is a heroic - almost Homeric - age: of fearless captains in shining armour, always at the head of their men or where the fighting is thickest, never hesitating to engage an enemy champion in single combat, ever resolved to win victory for their Emperor or die in the attempt. For them, Arcadiopolis was a triumph; for the Russians, a massacre. It was a shamed and shattered army that Svyatoslav led back to Bulgaria - and a full year before he showed his face again.

While his brother-in-law had been righting in Thrace, John Tzimisces had been consolidating his position in the capital, simultaneously bringing back the bulk of the army from the East, giving it new arms and equipment, swelling it with new recruits. The war, he knew, was not yet over. The Prince of Kiev had been taught a sharp lesson; but he remained very much alive and there was no reason to think that he had renounced his ambitions. Besides, he would want his revenge.

By the early spring of 971 John was ready for him. The army was in first-class condition, and this time he would lead it himself. If Svyatoslav made no move, he would invade Bulgaria and flush him out. Then, just before he was due to leave, there arrived news from the East. Bardas Phocas, nephew of Nicephorus, had escaped from his place of exile in Pontus and had returned to Caesarea (now Kayseri), his family's Cappado-cian power base, where a large gathering of citizens and fellow-nobles had proclaimed himbasileus. This was quite bad enough; but soon afterwards came another report, informing him that Leo Phocas and his son, away in exile on Lesbos, had somehow contrived through a local bishop to spread the news of the rebellion through Thrace, announcing their own imminent arrival and calling upon the people to rise up against the new usurper.

The Emperor acted with his usual speed. The bishop, arrested and interrogated, soon revealed all he knew; on the basis of his evidence Leo and his son were given a summary trial and condemned to death. Almost at once, however, John had second thoughts - in a way that the chroniclers suggest was typical of him and that makes his earlier brutality towards his predecessor still harder to understand. He commuted the death sentence to one of blinding, with perpetual exile; and then, stretching his compassion further still, sent secret instructions to Lesbos that the red-hot iron should at the last moment be withdrawn, leaving the two men their sight. It was, after all, not they but the pretender himself who presented the real danger. To him John sent envoys with the promise that his life and property would be spared if he would only renounce his claim; but Bardas Phocas replied much as Svyatoslav had done the year before and began slowly to advance, at the head of several thousand men, towards the capital.

By now the Emperor must have bitterly regretted his withdrawal of the army from Anatolia. As a result, he had no effective force capable of dealing with the situation on the spot - and of those soldiers who remained a considerable number had joined the rebels. There was only one course open to him: to send his best general, with his best men, from Thrace. A few days later Bardas Sclerus too was on the march. It was undeniably a risk, leaving as it did the way clear for Svyatoslav should he choose to invade before Scleras could return; but the eastern threat was more immediate than the western and the chance had to be taken.

Even now John hoped to spare the Empire a civil war. He enjoined his brother-in-law to make every effort to avoid bloodshed, and to offer all those prepared to abandon Phocas not only a guarantee that they would go unpunished but even honours and financial rewards. Scleras, for his part, was only too happy to obey. He was an old friend and companion-in-arms of Phocas - his younger brother Constantine, hero of Arcadiopolis, had married the pretender's sister -and the whole affair can have been little to his taste. Thus, when he reached what was then known as the Lake of the Forty Martyrs1 and his scouts reported a sighting of Phocas's camp just ahead, he made no attempt to attack; instead, he sent a number of secret agents, disguised as wandering beggars, to suborn the rebels. Perhaps the speed and size of the imperial army had weakened their morale, perhaps the promises of generous rewards for desertion proved irresistible; in any event the agents were quite extraordinarily successful. Every night more and more of Phocas's adherents dropped away, slipping out of his camp and across to that of Scleras, where they were welcomed with open arms. The pretender soon found his army reduced to a few hundred men - and not an arrow had yet been loosed in anger. Desperate and humiliated, and accompanied only by a small company of cavalry that had remained loyal, he himself fled under cover of darkness and took refuge with his family in the fortress of Tyropoion, just outside the modern town of Ilgin. But it was no use: Scleras had followed him, and immediately put the little castle under siege. He held out as long as he could, then - after receiving confirmation that all their lives would be spared — marched out with his wife and children and surrendered.

John Tzimisces was as good as his word. He ordered Bardas Phocas to be tonsured, and then to be shipped off with his family to exile on Chios, one of the most delightful of all the Aegean islands. Few rulers anywhere would have dealt so leniently with a rebel pretender to their

1 Now Aksehir Golu, some ten miles north of the present town of Akjehir.

throne; few such claimants could have congratulated themselves on so moderate a punishment.1

After the revolt of Bardas Phocas, John Tzimisces was to encounter no further threats to his throne; the fact remained, however, that he could claim no legitimate right to it unless he could make himself at least in some degree part of the imperial family. Marriage with his exquisite mistress Theophano would, leaving aside its obvious advantages to himself, have strengthened his position immeasurably; but that he now knew to be out of the question. Fortunately there were other possibilities, in the shape of the five sisters of Romanus II whom Theophano had packed off to convents; and it was to one of these, Theodora, that the Emperor announced his betrothal in the autumn of 971. Twelve years of monastic seclusion had done little to improve her appearance: 'she was,' writes Leo the Deacon - for whom all princesses (let alone Empresses) normally represent the summit of physical perfection — 'neither beautiful nor elegant.' But John was not marrying Theodora for her looks; he had, after all, the choice of the loveliest women in the Empire for his bed. He was marrying her because she was the great-granddaughter, granddaughter, daughter and sister of Emperors, and because by doing so he became, through her, a member of the most glorious dynasty of the Macedonians.

The wedding took place some time in November. Old Polyeuctus had died at last, only five weeks after the coronation - if John had delayed his coup another couple of months, his future life (and Theophano's) might have been very different - and the ceremony was performed by his successor, an unworldly ascetic of the Emperor's own choosing named Basil the Scamandrian.2 The celebrations continued until well after Christmas - by which time, however, there was another imperial marriage in the air: a marriage of far greater long-term significance than the first, intended as it was to put an end to the five-year quarrel with Otto the Saxon and to forge an indissoluble link between the Eastern and the Western Empires. The idea of such a union had, as we know, been first considered in the reign of Constantine Porphyrogenitus; it had been resurrected by Otto in 967, and had been the chief reason for the

1.       Hieronimo Giustiniani, in his Storia di Scio of 15 86, records that in his time there were still descendants of the Phocas family living as peasants in the village of Volissos.

2.       Doubtless after his birthplace, or the monastery that he had founded, on the river Scamander -now the Kucuk Menderes - that flows through the plain of Troy.

ill-fated mission of Liudprand of Cremona in the following year. To the narrow and suspicious mind of Nicephorus Phocas it had been predictably repugnant; John Tzimisces on the other hand supported it for all he was worth, and it was at his invitation that an embassy under the Archbishop of Cologne arrived in Constantinople towards the end of December to collect the bride-to-be and to carry her back to her imperial bridegroom.1

This bridegroom was to be the seventeen-year-old Otto, son and heir of the Emperor of the West. As to the identity of the bride, historians are somewhat less clear. Her name was Theophano, and until quite recently it was generally supposed that she was the daughter of Romanus II and thus the sister of the two boy Emperors. Modern authorities, however, are now generally agreed that she was a blood relation of John Tzimisces — probably his niece - and thus not of the Macedonian dynasty at all. There seems to have been some consternation when the poor girl arrived in Rome and it was discovered that she was not the porpbyrogenita that had been expected; Otto the Great at first considered sending her straight back to Constantinople. Fortunately, wiser counsels prevailed. It was pointed out that John was, since his marriage, a member of the imperial family and that so, therefore, was his niece;2 she was finally accepted by the Ottoman court, and she and young Otto were married by Pope John XIII in St Peter's on 14 April 972.

Thus it came about that Theophano, whoever she may have been, was removed from her home and family by a party of elderly ecclesiastics to be carried off to an unknown land and a husband she had never seen, of whose character she knew nothing and of whose language she understood not a single word. In the long run, admittedly, she was lucky: the marriage proved a surprisingly happy one, she was treated with kindness and consideration and. allowed to maintain all her Byzantine customs and ways of life - to the point where her son, the future Otto III, was to grow up far more of a Greek than a Saxon. And she could later congratulate herself on the transformation of relations between the two Empires, brought about not just by her marriage but also by her own intelligence and hard work. None the less, for a girl of just sixteen, those

1 There is some tenuous evidence to suggest that this embassy may have included old Liudprand, on his third diplomatic mission to the Byzantine court.

2 Could it be that John deliberately arranged his marriage with this particular issue in mind? It seems not unlikely. If, on the other hand, the old theory were correct and the princess was indeed Romanus's daughter, she would anyway have become John's niece by virtue of his marriage to her aunt. Of such riddles is history made.

first four months of 972 must have been little short of a nightmare; and it is only right that we should spare a thought for her misery, fear and loneliness before we return to her uncle, John Tzimisces - who was having the time of his life.

In the week before Holy Week, 972, John had left Constantinople for Thrace. He was in buoyant mood. He had, it is true, lost a whole year: the revolt of Bardas Phocas had taken up much of 971, and by the time it had been settled the season had been too far advanced for any major campaign to be practicable; but the remaining months had been spent profitably enough on diplomatic activity (which included an important treaty with Venice), the preparation of his Black Sea fleet and the constant training and exercising of his troops — an occupation of which he never tired. The danger that he had most feared had not materialized: marauding bands of Russians might have taken advantage of the Byzantine withdrawal to roam the countryside, raiding and raping to their hearts' content, but the Prince of Kiev had not been able to launch his major attack and was still skulking in Bulgaria. The time had now come to deal with him once and for all.

John's last act before his departure from the Palace had been to pray in the little chapel by the great gate of the Chalke. It had been begun by Romanus Lecapenus as a private oratory for the Emperor, but John had enlarged it and enriched it and chosen it for his eventual burial-place: an immense tomb, inlaid with gold and enamels, was already in the course of construction. Thence, at the head of a long and solemn procession and carrying in his right hand a tall cross in which was set a gold-framed fragment of the True Cross, he continued first to St Sophia, where the God of Battles was again besought to grant him victory, and then on to Blachernae where, after further prayers in the Church of the Virgin, he reviewed the fleet assembled in the Golden Horn before giving it the signal to sail to its appointed destination - the mouth of the Danube, where it would prevent any attempt by Svyatoslav to escape by sea. As soon as the first ships were under way he wheeled his horse and headed westward, his troops behind him.

At Adrianople he picked up the rump of the army that Bardas Sclerus had left in Thrace the year before. Under the temporary command of the magister John Curcuas — who, with his deep mistrust of any strenuous activity and his fondness for the bottle, made a deplorable contrast to his illustrious namesake — the men had become not a litde demoralized; but the sight of the Emperor in his gilded armour cap-a-pie, and his generals almost as magnificent on their splendidly caparisoned horses, put new life into them as they headed northward into the Bulgarian heartland. To John's relief, the defiles that twisted through the Balkan range - scene of earlier catastrophes to Constantine Copronymus in 757 and Nicephorus I in 811, to mention but two - were found to be unguarded. The first part of his plan had worked perfectly: the Prince of Kiev, expecting him to celebrate Easter as usual in Constantinople and to set off on campaign in mid-April at the earliest, had as yet made no defensive arrangements. On the Wednesday of Holy Week John emerged from the mountains above the old Bulgarian capital of Preslav and found himself looking down on the Russian camp. Surprise was everything: he attacked at once.

The battle, fought by the banks of the river now known as the Goljama Kamciya, was long, furious and for a long time indecisive. It was only after John had loosed his own personal regiment, the 'Immortals' - which he had raised and trained himself and had hitherto kept in reserve - in a murderous charge against their left flank that the Russians suddenly lost their nerve and broke up in disorder, fleeing for their lives towards Preslav with the imperial cavalry in hot pursuit. Few of them reached the city alive. The massacre continued till nightfall, and dawn broke next day on a field strewn thick with the bodies of the dead. By then the Emperor was at the gates of Preslav, calling upon the garrison to surrender. They refused, and immediately the siege began, the Byzantine catapults and ballistas hurling heavy rocks or flaming bolts of Greek fire over the walls. Meanwhile the ladders were hauled into position for the final assault.

The first into the city was a young man, 'still beardless', named Theodosius Mesonyctes. He was quickly followed by a hundred others, and Preslav was soon overrun. At its centre, however, was a fortified enceinte, part palace, part citadel, part treasury; hither the surviving Russians retreated to make their last stand. After more heavy fighting, during which his army failed absolutely to penetrate these inner defences, John ordered the walls to be put to the torch. The houses within were all of timber and went up like matchwood. The Russians were burnt alive, or struck down as they fled. Among those who delivered themselves up to the conquerors was the deposed Tsar Boris - he of the red beard - who for the past two years had been held by Svyatoslav as his prisoner. The Emperor received him with the utmost courtesy; his mission, he told Boris, was not to conquer Bulgaria but to set it free — an assurance which, in view of his later actions, he had better not have made.

Easter was celebrated amid the ruins of Preslav, while John considered the problem of Svyatoslav himself. The Prince, he now learned, was away at Dristra - to the Greeks Dorystolon, the modern Silistra -Bulgaria's chief port on the Danube, struggling, presumably to keep open his lines of communication in spite of the Byzantine fleet. An embassy was dispatched at once, informing him of the fate of Preslav and calling upon him in the Emperor's name to surrender. Then, pausing only to rebuild the shattered defences of the city - which he renamed, after himself, Ioannopolis - John set off once more for the north. It was a long and arduous march, but at last on St George's Day he drew up his army before Dristra. The pattern was very much the same as at Preslav, with a desperate battle outside the walls followed by an attack on the city itself. On this occasion, however, he met tougher opposition. Dristra successfully resisted every attempt to take it by storm and both sides settled down to a siege, with a squadron from the Byzantine fleet completing the blockade from the river.

The siege continued for three months, until supplies within the city were virtually exhausted. At last Svyatoslav resolved to risk everything on a last throw, and on 24 July burst out of the main gate with the remainder of his men. So great was their impetus, so desperate their determination, that they almost succeeded - and would have, according to Leo the Deacon, but for the miraculous intervention of the warrior St Theodore Stratilates, whom the Emperor and many of the soldiers saw, mounted on a snow-white horse, laying valiantly about him in the midst of the melee. In fact, the day was eventually won by means of John's favourite trick, a feigned retreat; and at nightfall the Prince of Kiev sued for peace. He would, he promised, evacuate the whole country and deliver over every prisoner he had taken since his arrival in Bulgaria, adding a further undertaking never to attack or invade the Byzantine city of Cherson in the Crimea. All he asked in return was safe conduct across the Danube, and a little food for his few surviving men. John Tzimisces was only too happy to agree.

Before they left for their respective homes the two rulers met, at Svyatoslav's request, for the first time face to face. John rode down in state to the meeting-place on the river bank, mounted on his charger; the Prince of Kiev arrived by boat, rowing alongside his men and distinguishable from them only by the relative cleanliness of his white robe, his jewelled earring and the two long strands of fair hair - badges of rank - that fell from his otherwise shaven head. (That hair, together with his blue eyes and drooping moustache, testified, despite his name, to his Viking forebears.) In the course of a short but friendly conversation he expressed the hope that the old commercial treaty - governing, inter alia, visits of Russians to Constantinople - might be renewed. Then, with a dignified bow to the Emperor, he climbed back into his boat and rowed away.

He was never to see Russia again. As he passed through the land of the Pechenegs on his return journey he was stopped and interrogated: where was the rich plunder that he had promised them in return for their alliance? Alas, he told them, there was none. The spoils had gone to the victor: he, the vanquished, had been lucky to escape with his life. For the Pechenegs it was not a satisfactory outcome. The following spring, as Svyatoslav was negotiating the cataracts of the Dnieper, they ambushed him and killed him - subsequently making his skull into a drinking cup, just as the Bulgar Krum had done with that of the first Nicephorus, 161 years before.

John Tzimisces enjoyed a happier homecoming. Before leaving Dristra he renamed it Theodoropolis in honour of the saint who, he believed, had fought shoulder to shoulder with him beneath the walls. Then he headed south towards Constantinople, Tsar Boris and family following in his train. He could congratulate himself on two major achievements. Not only had he driven a dangerous enemy out of the Balkan peninsula; he had also regained Bulgaria for the Empire - for, whatever he might have said to Boris at Preslav, he had no intention of reinstating him on his throne. Indeed, anyone witnessing his triumphal entry into his capital that August might have been forgiven for supposing that it was the Bulgars rather than the Russians who had been defeated. Place of honour in the procession — in the gilded chariot, drawn by four white horses, that had been intended for his own use - he had accorded to the most revered of all Bulgarian icons, a portrait of the Virgin which he believed to have been, with St Theodore, partly instrumental in his victory and which he had brought back with him as one of the spoils of war. He himself rode behind it in his shining armour. At the rear of the procession, on foot, walked Tsar Boris, his wife and children. The crowds lining the streets could draw their own conclusions.

If, after this, there were any that still doubted the Empire's intentions towards its ravaged and devastated neighbour, they were soon to be enlightened. When the procession reached St Sophia, John laid upon the high altar not only the holy icon but the crown and other regalia of the Bulgar state. Shortly afterwards, in a civil ceremony at the Palace, he obliged the young Tsar to perform a formal act of abdication. Henceforth Bulgaria would be an imperial province. The Bulgar Patriarchate was declared abolished, and all its dependent bishoprics subjected once again to Constantinople. Characteristically, John tried to soften the blow by giving to Boris the honorary Byzantine rank of magister, the Tsar's younger brother Romanus, less fortunate, was castrated - presumably to prevent his returning to his homeland as pretender to the throne. It was a sad and inglorious end to the house of Krum, which had more than once caused Byzantium itself to tremble.1

Nations, however, are not killed so easily. A glance at the map will show that the Bulgaria of the tenth century was considerably larger than the Bulgarian Republic of today, extending as it did to within a few miles of the Adriatic; and that only the eastern region had been directly affected by the recent war. The western section - perhaps two-thirds of the whole - saw no reason to surrender its sovereignty, and remained a living ember from which there was soon to spring, briefly but gloriously, the final flame of the first Bulgarian Empire. But the story of Samuel the Cometopulus, his meteoric rise and his tragic downfall, must await the next chapter.

After the success of his Bulgarian campaign, John Tzimisces paid little further heed to Europe - at least so far as secular affairs were concerned. There was more important work to be done in the East. The Abbasid Caliphate at Baghdad was no longer a threat, with the weak and sickly al-Muti shorn of all effective power, a virtual prisoner within his palace; but danger was looming in the south. Only three years before, in 969, the rival Caliphate of the Fatimids had embarked on a new policy of expansion: advancing eastward from their capital at Mahdiya - on the east coast of what is now Tunisia — Fatimid troops had swept through the Nile Valley and on across Sinai into Palestine and southern Syria. In 971 they had attacked Antioch. It was already clear that they must be halted before serious damage was done; and when in July 973 they

1 Of the rest of Boris's family we know little. There is no further record of his wife, nor of his two children - which suggests either that they were daughters or that they died young.

almost annihilated a Byzantine army before the walls of Amida, John was already preparing to move against them.

By the spring of 974 he was ready; but at that moment there came news of a further crisis. This time the scene was Armenia, where the princes and barons - normally at each other's throats - had suddenly coalesced around their 'King of Kings' Ashot III, with an army estimated at 80,000 men.1 Why they did so we do not know - our principal source, the Armenian Matthew of Edessa, is lamentably vague on the subject. We can only assume that they had heard of John's preparations and had somehow concluded that his coming campaign was to be directed against themselves. The Emperor - who was, after all, an Armenian himself - was able to allay their fears; but he decided none the less, instead of marching into Syria by the normal route through the Taurus passes, to make a detour northward into Armenia, reassure Ashot personally of his peaceable intentions and, he hoped, persuade the King of Kings to put some or all of the Armenian army at his disposal. This decision added some three or four hundred miles to the length of the march, but was fully justified by results: Ashot readily allied himself with the Empire for the coming campaign and immediately made available 10,000 of his best fighting men, fully equipped and ready for battle.

The combined force then headed south to Amida and Martyropolis (Mayyafariqin) - which escaped pillage and sack only by the payment of a heavy ransom - and onward via Nisibin (whence the entire population had fled at its approach) to the plains of Mesopotamia, nowhere meeting any opposition worthy of the name. Why the Emperor did not press on to Baghdad itself is once again unexplained; in its present condition the city could hardly have resisted any major offensive. Instead, laden with plunder, he retraced his steps to Antioch, where he left the army in its winter quarters while he himself returned hurriedly to Constantinople.

What obliged him to take the long and tedious road westward to his capital — conscious as he was that he would have to retrace his steps a month or two later - was, almost certainly, a religious crisis: a crisis precipitated not in Constantinople but in Rome. Otto the Great had died in 973; his son Otto was away in Germany; and in the early summer of 974 the Cardinal Deacon Franco — a noble Roman who hated the Saxon Emperor for having, as he saw it, made a plaything of the Papacy — had

1 See p. 130.

seized the opportunity to stage a coup against Otto's puppet Pope Benedict VI, to imprisoning him in the Castel Sant'Angelo, where he was shortly afterwards strangled. Franco had then mounted the throne himself, under the name of Boniface VII; but a counter-revolution in the Emperor's favour had obliged him almost immediately to flee for his life to Constantinople. Meanwhile the young Emperor had appointed in his stead the Bishop of Sutri, one of whose first actions as Pope Benedict VII was to excommunicate his predecessor.

The arrival of Boniface on the Bosphorus put the Byzantines in something of a quandary. His long opposition to the Western Empire had led him to forge strong links with Constantinople, and he had steadfastly supported Nicephorus Phocas in all the latter's differences with Otto I. How much he chose to tell them of his treatment of Benedict VI we do not know; the Palace, at all events, seems to have decided that he deserved their support and that relations with Rome must be at once broken off; they also probably sent an urgent appeal to the Emperor in Mesopotamia to return as soon as he could and settle the matter once and for all. Patriarch Basil, on the other hand, took the opposite view. He had, it was true, been personally selected by John for the Patriarchate; but he was not prepared to be dictated to. He had never questioned the essential unity of the Church or the supremacy of the legitimate Pontiff, whose edict of excommunication he was determined to uphold.

As may already have been noticed, it was nearly always the urbane and ambitious Patriarchs of Constantinople who tended to challenge the status of the Pope in Rome; the unworldly ascetics had no such doubts. Basil the Scamandrian fell squarely into the second category; in the eyes of his flock, indeed, he was almost too holy, living on a near-starvation diet of berries and water, wearing the same filthy robe until it fell to pieces, sleeping always on the bare earth. 'His only fault,' writes Leo the Deacon, 'was a tendency to scrutinize too closely the behaviour of others, and to involve himself more than was proper in their affairs.' In consequence he had made himself thoroughly unpopular; and when the decision was taken to get rid of him in favour of someone more amenable there was no shortage of bishops and clergy to give evidence against him. He had been guilty, they testified, of maladministration, of contravention of the canon law, even of intrigue regarding the succession. Basil himself made no defence against the charges, insisting however that he could be deposed only by an Ecumenical

Council - one, that is to say, on which the Pope was properly represented. An imperial tribunal, meeting soon after the Emperor had returned to the capital, was only too happy to prove him wrong.

So Basil was exiled, Benedict was refused recognition and Boniface remained in Constantinople until April 984 when, with Byzantine help, he managed to depose his rival's successor John XIV (who also came to an unpleasant end in Sant'Angelo) and regain the pontifical throne. This time he held it for fifteen months - until his death, almost certainly by poison, in the following year. His corpse, we are told, was dragged naked through the city and eventually left 'beneath the horse of Constantine' on the Capitol,1 where it lay ignored until a passing group of priests recovered it and arranged for its burial.

In the early spring of 975, with the religious crisis behind him and a new Patriarch, Antony III of the Studium, safely installed at St Sophia, John Tzimisces returned to the East and set off on the last, and the most spectacularly successful, of all his campaigns. From Antioch he first marched against Emesa (Horns), which surrendered without a struggle, passing on to Baalbek, which fell after little more than a token resistance. Damascus followed, after which the way was clear into Palestine. Tiberias, Nazareth, Caesarea - it seemed as though the triumphal progress would continue for ever; but the African garrisons from all these cities were now entrenching themselves in a line of fortresses along the coast, and rather than continue to Jerusalem John turned back to deal with them before they became a serious danger to his rear. Sidon fell, then - despite a heroic resistance - Beirut, then Byblos. Of all the coastal cities, only Tripoli resisted capture. By the end of the summer most of Palestine, Syria and the Lebanon - regions where no Emperor had set foot since the days of Heraclius — were under Byzantine control.

It was an astonishing achievement; but when John returned to Constantinople towards the end of the year he was a dying man. The nature of his illness is uncertain. Our three most authoritative sources -Scylitzes, Zonaras and Leo the Deacon - all point an accusing finger at Basil theparakoimomenos. They tell us that the Emperor, inquiring on his return journey through Anatolia about the ownership of all the most prosperous estates through which he passed, was informed that every

1 Liber Pontificalis. The equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius was believed throughout the Middle Ages to be a representation of Constantine - a fortunate misconception which alone preserved it from destruction as a pagan monument.

one of them belonged to Basil. The discovery - which could only mean peculation on a scale of which he had never dreamed - threw him into a fury, and he made no secret of his intention of confronting his Chamberlain immediately on his return and demanding an explanation. He would have done better to keep silent. One of the daily couriers that shuttled between the army and the Palace reported his words to Basil; and Basil, sensing danger, made his dispositions accordingly. A week or two later, when John was dining with one of his rich vassals in Bithynia, a slow-acting poison was slipped into his cup; he awoke the' next morning scarcely able to move his limbs, his eyes streaming with blood and his neck and shoulders covered with suppurating sores. Henceforth he had one idea only: to get home before he died. Messengers sped to Constantinople with orders to prepare for his imminent arrival and to speed up work on his tomb.

By the time he reached the Bosphorus he was breathing only with great difficulty. Somehow he seems to have risen from his litter for long enough to attend the service at which the two principal prizes he had brought back from the East - a pair of sandals worn by Christ and the hair of John the Baptist - were rededicated and installed in St Sophia; then he took to his bed, never to leave it again. All his own personal wealth he left to the poor and the sick; then he made a long and tearful confession to Bishop Nicholas of Adrianople, calling repeatedly on the Holy Virgin Theotokos to intercede on his behalf. He was still invoking her aid when he died on 10 January 976, after a reign of just six years and a month. He was fifty-one.

What are we to make of this poisoning story? At least seven chroniclers repeat it in one form or another, though not all of them accuse Basil; but as previous chapters have already made clear, foul play was invariably suspected on such occasions. Besides, if Basil had really done the deed, would he have remained in power as he did, acting as effective Regent for the two young Emperors? And what was this mysterious poison, so slow-acting and yet so grimly effective? (The secret of it must have been lost — or, at any rate, they don't seem to make it any more.) In short, is it not far likelier that John died - as many thousands of humbler soldiers must have died during those eastern wars - of typhoid, or malaria, or dysentery, or any of those other deadly infections which, even now, can only with difficulty be held at bay?

Yes — but we can never be sure. John Tzimisces is a mystery in his death, just as he was in his life. In his short reign he proved himself one of the very greatest of Byzantine Emperors. He had conquered the Russians, the Bulgars and the Caliphs of both Baghdad and Cairo; he had regained the greater part of Syria and the Lebanon, of Mesopotamia and Palestine. He had been admired by allies and enemies alike for his courage, his chivalry, his compassion. In peace he had been a ruler both wise and just, a friend to the poor and, above all, to the sick, with whom he always seems to have felt a particular affinity — although he himself never knew a day's illness until the end. His radiant personality, like his golden armour, leaves us dazzled. Yet it can never quite blind us to another, darker vision: that of a pitiful, misshapen heap lying huddled on a palace floor, while another figure - spare, sinewy and immensely strong - gazes contemptuously down, and kicks.

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