Even were we birds, we could not hope to escape.
The Emperor Nicephorus I, just before his death
When, on Christmas Day, AD 800, Pope Leo III lowered the imperial crown on to the head of Charles, son of Pepin the Frank, and prostrated himself before him as Emperor of Rome, the Empire of Byzantium had been in existence for 470 years. Founded in 330 by Constantine the Great, in the city to which he had officially given the name of New Rome but which we know as Constantinople, it had had to fight hard for its survival: in the West against the barbarian tribes — Goths and Huns, Vandals and Avars; in the East against the Persians and, all too soon after the destruction of the Sassanid Empire, the still more formidable menace of Islam. Over the centuries it had lost much. The Saracens had snatched away Palestine and Syria, North Africa and Egypt; much of Italy, reconquered by Justinian, had been forfeited to the Lombards, who in their turn had voluntarily surrendered it to the Pope. To past losses were added present anxieties: the- Caliph Harun al-Rashid was exerting ever greater pressure on the Anatolian frontier; nearer home, in the Balkans, the Bulgars posed a continual threat; while the Empire itself was still torn asunder by the violent controversy which, after three-quarters of a century, still showed no signs of solution: was it, or was it not, a sin to venerate icons and holy images of Jesus Christ, the Holy Virgin and the Saints?
This question had come to the fore as early as 726, when the Emperor Leo III,1 'the Isaurian', had ordered the destruction of the great golden icon of Christ which stood above the bronze doors of the Chalke, the
1 Not, of course, to be confused with the Pope of the same name, who was to succeed to the throne of St Peter some seventy years later.
main entrance to the Imperial Palace in Constantinople. Four years later he had issued a more general edict, directed against all images throughout the Empire; and the iconoclasm that he had set in train was pursued with still greater fanaticism by his son, Constantine V. Only after Constantine's death in 775 did the pendulum swing back in favour of the iconodules - the worshippers, or at least the venerators, of images -thanks to the machinations of his deeply unpleasant daughter-in-law, the Empress Irene.
Though Irene's husband, the weak and feckless Leo IV, was temperamentally an iconoclast like his father, he was completely dominated by his wife; in any case he died at thirty-one, leaving her as Regent for their ten-year-old son Constantine VI. And when that son, having grown to manhood, attempted to take over the authority that was rightfully his, his mother unhesitatingly had him blinded, in a particularly barbarous manner which caused his death soon afterwards -as she had known perfectly well that it would. She thus became the first woman to reign, not just as a regent but in her own right, over the Byzantine Empire. Always a passionate iconodule, she had no difficulty in restoring the cult of images and even succeeded in getting it formally defined and approved at the second Council of Nicaea in 787; but in all other respects she proved a disaster. By the end of the century she had reduced the Empire to penury and brought it to the brink of revolution.
It was at this moment of universal dissatisfaction and plunging morale that a new threat presented itself: a threat that was neither economic nor even military and was indeed unlike any that Byzantium had ever faced before, directed as it was against the very cornerstone on which the Empire had been founded - the union of the Roman Empire with the Christian faith. This union was, in Byzantine eyes, symbolized and personified by the Emperor himself, at once the successor of Augustus and God's Vice-Gerent, the Elect of Christ, Equal of the Apostles. It followed that, just as there was but a single Ruler in heaven, so -although he might choose to share his throne for purely administrative reasons - there could be but a single Emperor on earth, any challenge to whose divinely ordained authority was not only treason but blasphemy. The fact that there had been many such challenges over the centuries is immaterial: consciousness of sin seldom serves to prevent it. The important point to remember is that this concept - of an Emperor occupying a higher spiritual plane than his subjects and standing, as it were, half-way to heaven - was no abstruse doctrine; on the contrary, it was a firm conviction, consciously held by virtually every Byzantine from the Basileus himself to the meanest peasant: an article of faith at least as universal as, let us say, Christianity in Victorian England. No wonder that the reaction to the news of the coronation in Rome, when it reached Constantinople at the beginning of 801, was one of incredulity and horror.
How much of the Byzantine theory of Empire was understood by Charlemagne, as he rose from his knees before the high altar of St Peter's that Christmas morning, we shall never know. To him, however, the question would have been largely academic; for in his eyes the imperial throne of Byzantium was not tottering but vacant. According to the old Salic tradition in which he had been raised, no woman might wear a crown except as consort of her husband; and Pope Leo, we may assume, fully shared his views. Thus - despite the fateful ceremony just completed - the Roman Empire remained, so far as either of them was concerned, one and indivisible, with Charles as its Emperor. All that had happened was that the Pope had arrogated to himself the right to appoint and invest the Emperor of the Romans - a right which for nearly five centuries had been exercised by Byzantium.
At the same time there was no denying that Irene claimed for herself every inch of imperial territory, and little doubt that the coronation, with all that it implied, would be furiously contested in Constantinople; and it was with this thought uppermost in his mind that in 802 Charlemagne sent ambassadors to the Empress to seek her hand in marriage. For him, the advantages were self-evident: with all the imperial domains of East and West united under a single crown the Empire would once again be a single entity, just as Constantine had conceived it. Nor, even, would there be any members of Irene's family to contest the succession after her death; she herself had most efficiently seen to that.
The Empress too - unlike any of her subjects - was inclined to look favourably on the idea. Marriage to Charles would mean an opportunity to refill her empty treasury and, more important still, might even avert the insurrection that she was aware could not long be delayed. It would also offer a chance of escape from the suffocating and intrigue-ridden atmosphere of Constantinople. Her advisers, on the other hand, when they had recovered from their astonishment - for, as an imaginative German historian once pointed out, the effect on them of such a proposal must have been roughly equivalent to the effect on an eighteenth-century Viennese of a suggested match between the Empress Maria Theresa and the Negus of Abyssinia - would have none of it: how could they possibly sanction the surrender of the Roman Empire to an uncouth and illiterate barbarian? Before the year was out a group of senior officials, led by Irene's long-suffering Logothete of the Treasury (effectively her Minister of Finance) declared her deposed and sent her off - to her own scarcely disguised relief - into exile on the not entirely appropriate island of Lesbos, where she died soon afterwards.
The story of Charlemagne's coronation and of his marriage manque has been told in rather more detail, and its significance more thoroughly discussed, in the first volume of this history; it has seemed worthwhile to summarize it here merely to remind the reader of the point at which that volume ended and to set the scene for the events to follow. And the first of those events is the accession to the throne of Byzantium of the leader of the palace revolt which deposed Irene: the former Logothete of the Treasury, who now assumed the name and tide of Nicephorus I.
The new Emperor is said to have been of Arab extraction, a descendant of King Jaballah of Ghassan.1 A man of vigour and determination, he was firmly resolved to set the Empire to rights after the damage done by his predecessor, and not perhaps unduly concerned about the methods by which this object was to be achieved. No one, certainly, better understood the gravity of the imperial condition. Irene's determination to purge the army of all traces of iconoclasm had resulted in a disastrous weakening of its strength, of which the enemies of the Empire were swift to take advantage. Unable to restrain them by force of arms, she had been obliged to offer vast annual tributes to both the Bulgar Khan and the Caliph Harun al-Rashid; and, to make matters worse, the constant irruptions of the Caliph's armies into Asia Minor had wrought havoc among the immense numbers of peasant small-holders with military obligations on whom, since the days of Justinian II in the late seventh century, the defence of the Empire had been based. Many of these, driven from their homes, had drifted to the capital; thus, instead of swelling the exchequer with their regular taxes, they were now a further drain on it with their unceasing demands for food and maintenance. Their farms meanwhile fell prey to the rapacity of the big landowners - and, in particular, to the monasteries, which Irene had most irresponsibly exempted from all taxation. Having also seen fit to remit the residence tax payable by all free citizens of Constantinople, the tax
1 A Christian-Arab enclave in Syria.
on receipts1 and half the customs duties levied on imports at Abydos and in the straits, she had succeeded in the space of a very few years in bringing the Empire perilously close to financial and fiscal suicide. The coup which led to her downfall had been launched not a moment too soon.
It was Nicephorus's misfortune to have aroused the fury and intense hatred of the monkish chronicler Theophanes, our only full - and generally reliable — contemporary source for the period, for whom the Emperor ranks only a little above Antichrist. For many centuries, in consequence, he suffered an extremely bad press. There were in fact few men more experienced, or better qualified, to set Byzantium back on its financial feet. Irene's tax exemptions were countermanded; other levies were massively increased. Destitute small-holders were drafted into the regular army, the cost of their equipment - valued at 18J gold pieces -being compulsorily met by their more prosperous neighbours. Private loans to merchants were forbidden; shipowners were permitted to raise money only from the State, which charged exorbitant interest at the rate of almost 17 per cent. Nor did the Emperor hesitate, as had so many of his predecessors, to move against the Church; he instructed his provincial officials to treat bishops and clergy 'like slaves', giving them full authority to sequestrate gold and silver plate as necessary. The monasteries he treated with even more contempt (a fact which does much to explain the wrath of Theophanes), quartering troops upon them, authorizing the imperial land commission to confiscate certain of their properties without according them corresponding fiscal relief and levying poll-tax on the families of their tenants and employees. None of this, obviously, was a recipe for popularity; but under his direction the economy was soon on a sounder footing than it had been for years.
It needed to be; for one of Nicephorus's first actions on his accession had been to write to the Caliph, informing him that he intended to pay no further tribute and even demanding the restitution of the immense sums disbursed by his predecessor. Harun's only reply was to launch an immediate attack, which proved the more damaging when in 803 the Byzantine commander, an Armenian named Bardanes Turcus, suddenly
1 It must be said in Irene's favour that the tax on receipts was, by its very nature, particularly liable to abuse. Theodore of the Studium - one of the Empress's few admirers - describes (Epistolae, i, 6) the sufferings of tradesmen of every kind, and the positive infestation of fiscal officers on every road and along every coast. 'When a traveller came to some narrow defile, he would be startled by the sudden appearance of a tax-gatherer, sitting aloft like a thing uncanny' (A History of the Later Roman Empire, Bury, p. )).
rebelled and proclaimed himself Emperor.1 The revolt was almost immediately crushed, but not before the Saracens had made considerable territorial gains - which they were to increase substantially in the years that followed. In 806 a Muslim army of 135,000, led by the Caliph in person, drove deep into Cappadocia, capturing Tyana - now an insignificant village called Kalesihisar but then an important city and a bishopric - and withdrawing only after a payment of 10,000 gold pieces as a ransom.
Fortunately for the Empire, Harun died three years later; but by that time Nicephorus was occupied on two other fronts. The first was the area which we now know as Greece, in particular the Theme of Hellas -roughly comprising Attica, Boeotia and Phocis - and the Peloponnese. In the sixth century, Slav settlers had overrun this whole region, thus seriously weakening Byzantine influence: in the Peloponnese there had not been a single imperial garrison since 747, and the Emperor's writ had long ceased to run. Fortunately the immigrants had shown themselves a mild and peace-loving people, who asked nothing more than to be left to cultivate their land unmolested; but after the rise of the Bulgars and their large-scale incursions into Macedonia there had been a grave danger that the situation might change, swiftly and for the worse. One huge Slavonic bloc, united and belligerent, extending from the Danube to Cape Matapan, was not a possibility that the Byzantines cared to contemplate.
The Emperor's fears were confirmed when in 805 a considerable force of Slavs attacked the city of Patras on the Gulf of Corinth. They were repulsed, but not without some difficulty; and the incident encouraged Nicephorus to embark on a wholesale resettlement of the Peloponnese, to which he brought vast numbers of his Greek-speaking subjects from all over the Empire - including substantial colonies from Calabria and Sicily. With them of course came the Christian religion, to which the Slavs had not yet been converted and which since their arrival had been very largely forgotten. As with most resettlement programmes, the majority of those who were obliged to abandon their homelands for a
1 The story goes that soon after his revolt Bardanes, accompanied by three of his closest associates, decided to consult a hermit of Philomelion, near Antioch, who was widely believed to possess the gift of prophecy. The hermit fixed the general with a piercing eye and shook his head: there was no hope for him. Then, turning his gaze towards the others, he foretold that two of them would wear the imperial crown and that the third would come near to doing so. The first two proved to be the future Leo V and Michael II; the third was Thomas the Slav. (Sec p. 32.)
terra incognita peopled, so far as they knew, by hostile barbarians did so only through fear of the consequences of refusal; but without Nicephorus's wise and far-sighted policy the later history of the Balkan peninsula might have been different indeed.
This argument acquires additional force when we remember that the first decade of the ninth century saw the rise of the most formidable leader that the Bulgar nation had ever produced. His name was Krum. Of his origins we know nothing. All that can be said for certain is that in the first years of the century he utterly annihilated the Avars, who now disappear from history never to return; and that in 807 he somehow rose to supremacy, uniting the Bulgars of the Danube basin with those who lived across the Carpathians in Pannonia and Transylvania and welding them together to form a military force unprecedented in Bulgar history. In that same year the Emperor, taking advantage of the dearly-bought truce on his eastern frontier, decided to lead an expedition against them; but he had got no further than Adrianople when he uncovered a conspiracy among his officers and abruptly abandoned the campaign. Now it was Krum's turn to take the initiative. In the late autumn of 808 he surprised a large Byzantine army encamped near the mouth of the river Strymon and totally destroyed it, and in the spring of 809 he tricked his way into Serdica - the modern Sofia - razing the fortress and slaughtering the entire garrison, 6,000 strong.
Unpopular as he was, Nicephorus had never been so openly reviled by his subjects in the streets of his capital as when the news of the massacre reached Constantinople on the Thursday before Easter. He had proved, they grumbled, not only rapacious and grasping but a woefully incompetent leader in the field. Of the two campaigns that he had launched against Krum one had been still-born, abandoned before a single arrow had been loosed, while the other had ended in an annihilating defeat. This time, however, their Emperor gave them no cause for complaint. His blood, too, was up. Leaving the capital at once with the army, by dint of forced marches he had reached the Bulgar capital, Pliska, by Easter Sunday - finding it, to his delight, virtually undefended. His men fell on it like locusts - burning, pillaging, reducing the Khan's wooden palace to ashes: Passing on to Serdica, he paused to rebuild the fortress; then, well pleased with his achievement, he returned in triumph to Constantinople.
But Krum was not defeated, and Nicephorus knew it. All the next year was spent in preparing what he was determined would be his last great offensive against the Bulgar Khan - an offensive that would eliminate him and his loathsome tribe as effectively as Krum himself had eliminated the Avars less than a decade before. Since the death of Harun the eastern frontier had been quiet, the Caliph's sons being too busy quarrelling among themselves to pay any attention to Byzantium. The armies of the Asian Themes were accordingly summoned to join their European colleagues; and in May 811 an immense host marched out through the Golden Gate, the Emperor himself and his son Stauracius at its head.
To begin with, all went well. Before so massive a force the Bulgars could only retreat. Once again Pliska was devastated, Nicephorus — who, if we are to believe Theophanes, seems to have suffered some sort of breakdown — sparing neither women nor children: there is a terrible story of babies being hurled into threshing machines. The palace of the Khan, so recently rebuilt, was razed a second time to the ground. Desperate now, Krum sued for peace; but the Emperor was determined to finish the work that he had begun and marched on in search of the Bulgar army, which had fled into the mountains.
He was soon to regret his inflexibility. On Thursday, 24 July, still in pursuit of his prey, he led the bulk of his army through a rocky defile -probably the Pass of Verbitza, some thirty miles south of the modern Turgovishte in Bulgaria1 - without first having ordered an adequate reconnaissance. The Bulgars, who had been secretly watching the invaders' every move, saw their chance: under cover of night they blockaded the gorge at each end with heavy wooden palisades. As dawn broke, Nicephorus realized that he had been drawn into a trap. Escape was impossible; he and his men were doomed. All that day they awaited the attack; but the Bulgars, still working on their fortifications, were in no hurry. Only in the early morning of Saturday the 26th did they strike.
The ensuing massacre continued all night and for much of the next day. The majority of the army was cut to pieces; of the remainder, many were burnt to death when the Bulgars fired the palisades, while others were crushed by artificially-induced landslides. A few managed to escape, , chiefly cavalry; but these, hotly pursued by the Bulgar horsemen, plunged in their panic headlong into a nearby river in which many were
1 The exact site of the battle is still disputed; but the Pass of Verbitza - which was locally known as the 'Greek Hollow' until well into the present century - seems the most likely candidate. The question is more fully discussed by Sir Steven Runciman, A History of the First Bulgarian Empire p. J7n.
drowned. Among the handful of survivors was the Emperor's son-in-law, Michael Rhangabe. His son Stauracius was less fortunate: paralysed by an appalling wound in the neck which had severed his spinal cord, he was carried back to Constantinople where he was to die, still in unspeakable agony, six months later.
As for Nicephorus himself, his body was retrieved where it fell and carried triumphantly back to the Bulgar camp. There the head was cut off, impaled on a stake and exposed for several days to public mockery. And even then the indignity was not complete: Krum had the skull mounted in silver, and for the rest of his life used it as his drinking cup.
On the Bosphorus, the news of the Emperor's death was received with horror. The Byzantines had to cast their minds back over more than four centuries to recall a comparable disaster: the last of their Emperors to have been killed in battle was Valens, at Adrianople in 378. Though they had never liked Nicephorus, they were acutely conscious of the humiliation that he - and they - had suffered at the hands of the Bulgar Khan. They knew, too, that although he had left the Empire financially sound, from the military point of view its situation could hardly have been worse. What was now needed above all was another strong leader, capable of rebuilding the army and of negotiating, from a position of at least some strength, with Charlemagne - whose demands for the recognition of his imperial claims were growing ever more insistent. Nothing of the kind, clearly, could be hoped for from the pitiable figure of Stauracius, whom his father had made co-Emperor as early as 805 but who now lay bedridden, paralysed and in constant pain, and for whom a merciful death could not be long delayed. Since he was childless, the obvious course was for him to abdicate in favour of the only other male member of the family of Nicephorus — the husband of his daughter Procopia, Michael Rhangabe, whose almost miraculous escape from the fatal battle suggested to many that he must enjoy some special divine favour. For reasons which are unclear Stauracius detested him, and made a feeble attempt to name as his successor his wife Theophano;1 but he was in no condition to enforce a plan which, in the circumstances then
1 Theophano was an Athenian, whose apparent (though probably only distant) kinship with Irene had not debarred her from being placed on a short list, drawn up by command of Nicephorus, of dazzlingly beautiful virgins who might be possible brides for his son. She herself, we are given to understand, did not prove entirely satisfactory on either count; she was eventually selected only because Nicephorus decided to keep both her rivals for himself.
prevailing, might well have been catastrophic. Accordingly on 2 October 811, without the dying Emperor's consent or even his knowledge, Michael was crowned and acclaimed as basileus - the first in Byzantine history to bear a name that was neither Greek nor Roman, but Hebrew. Stauracius, meanwhile, was tonsured and hastily dispatched to a monastery, where three months later the death he had so longed for came to him at last.
The Emperor Michael I was now in the prime of his manhood. His round face, we are told, was framed by curls of thick black hair and a full beard. It soon became clear, however, that such gifts as heaven had been pleased to bestow upon him included neither intelligence nor firmness of character. He proved weak-willed and easily led, a natural puppet who would allow himself to be manipulated by anyone who managed to seize the strings; and since he was also profoundly religious, it was hardly surprising that the principal manipulators during his brief reign should have been the two leading churchmen of the day: Nicephorus, Patriarch of Constantinople and Theodore, Abbot of the Studium. Nicephorus had been appointed by his imperial namesake to succeed Patriarch Tarasius on the latter's death in 806. Like Tarasius, he had been up to that time a civil servant and a layman: his enthronement in the patriarchal chair had occurred exactly a week after his first receiving the tonsure.1 A man of considerable ability and utter integrity, he was also the author of one of the few trustworthy sources for the period of history extending from the reign of Heraclius to that of Constantine V; we can only regret that he did not continue it into his own day. But although he proved a devout churchman and a staunch supporter of the holy images, he was from the moment of his appointment looked on by the extremist monastic party - led by Theodore of the Studium - with hatred and mistrust.
The reason for this attitude is not far to seek: Theodore and his followers understandably considered Nicephorus an impostor: a tool of the Emperor who was an ecclesiastic only in name and whose very ordination had made a mockery of one of the most solemn sacraments of the Church. They had taken precisely the same view of his predecessor Tarasius - a view for which they had found ample confirmation when in 795 Tarasius had permitted the young Constantine VI to pack off his wife, Mary of Amnia, to a nunnery and go through a form of marriage
1 In the Orthodox Church, bishops were - and still are - always chosen from the monasteries rather than from the parish priesthood.
with one of the ladies of his court, Theodote. Their anger at such conduct - despite the mildly embarrassing fact that the lady in question was a cousin of Abbot Theodore's — had been to some extent appeased when the celebrant at the marriage ceremony, an unfortunate cleric by the name of Joseph, was subsequently excommunicated; but a decade later, in 806, the Emperor had called a synod which rehabilitated him. The decision was endorsed by the new Patriarch and the whole affair blew up again, Theodore being sent away - for the second time - into exile.
For as long as the Emperor Nicephorus lived, there could be no hope of reconciliation between the moderates and the extremists. Constantine VI was long since in his grave, and insofar as the question of his marriage was not by this time entirely academic it is probably safe to say that thebasileus disapproved of it almost as much as Theodore himself; but that was not the point. The vital necessity, so far as the Emperor was concerned, was to establish the principle that - if he desired it and a synod of the Church decreed it - dispensation could be granted, even on a matter of canon law. And to attain that object, what became known as the Moechian dispute (moecheia being the Greek word for adultery) provided a test case as valid as any other.
But now Nicephorus was dead too, and his gutless son-in-law was as unable as he was unwilling to prolong the quarrel. The Patriarch himself felt much the same way, and in any case realized that in the new circumstances prevailing the two factions must be reconciled. Having made it a condition of Michael's coronation that he should sign an undertaking to uphold the Orthodox faith and to grant to monks and clergy alike immunity from corporal punishment or physical constraint, he encouraged the Emperor to recall Abbot Theodore and his fellow-exiles, and even to reimpose the sentence of excommunication on poor Joseph. In doing so, he may have obtained rather more than he bargained for: Theodore, who was for all his bigotry a man of formidable energy and personal magnetism, quickly acquired immense influence over the Emperor - who consulted him on everything, whether or not Church affairs were involved, and invariably followed his advice.
There has been something of a fashion among more recent historians to credit Michael I - and through him Theodore of the Studium - with the dramatic reversal in the Byzantine attitude towards the West that took place about this time. Nicephorus I had for most of his reign simply ignored Charlemagne's imperial claims - a policy which had not been rewarded with any striking success, having resulted in a somewhat desultory naval war with the Franks and having led, indirectly, to the defection of the young Republic of Venice.1 What easier explanation could there be for the sudden change of heart in Constantinople than the fact that, after the disaster of 811, the Empire was no longer capable of pursuing the war, and that the death of the ever-inflexible Nicephorus enabled his easy-going successor to open peace negotiations?
None: but for the fact that imperial ambassadors are known to have passed through Venice on their way to Charlemagne's court at Aachen in the late autumn of 8io, and that agreement was almost certainly reached on all major issues some time in the spring of 811 - several weeks, at the very least, before the annihilation of the Byzantine army. True, it was another year before new envoys — now representing Michael - went to acclaim Charlemagne as Emperor, and another three before the treaty was finally ratified; but there can be no doubt that the initial olive branch, such as it was, was extended by Nicephorus; and to him, more than to his successor or to Theodore, must be given the credit for the ensuing peace. It was not to be known as the Pax Nicephori for nothing.
Perhaps, on reflection, he had found himself wondering whether an Emperor of the West was, after all, such a very bad idea. Constantinople might be the New Rome, the heir to Roman civilization, law and traditions; but Constantinople was by now Greek through and through. It had nothing - not even language, not even religion - in common with the new Europe that was beginning to emerge beyond the Adriatic; nor did it any longer wield any effective power in those regions. It was Aachen, not Byzantium, that had re-established the Pax Romaaa in the West. The Roman Empire must remain indivisible, of that there could be no question; but would two Emperors necessarily divide it? So long as they remained on good terms with each other might they not, on the contrary, give it new strength?
Charlemagne, for his part, was prepared to offer excellent terms. He would relinquish all claims to Venice and to the entire province of Venetia, together with the cities of Istria and the Dalmatian coast; all he
1 Although Venice had been effectively autonomous since 727, she had heretofore remained politically as well as culturally within the Byzantine sphere of influence; it had certainly caused a frisson of dismay in Greek hearts when, on Christmas Day 805, Doge Obelerio degli Antenori did homage to Charlemagne as Emperor of the West, returning to the lagoons with a Frankish bride -the first dogaressa known to history.
asked in return was the recognition of his imperial status and, in particular, the right to style himself basileus in official documents. In theory this meant that he would henceforth be the equal of the Byzantine Emperor, and that he and his heirs would enjoy the acknowledged right of succession to the throne of Constantinople; though whether such an interpretation was ever wholly accepted by the Byzantines even intellectually - they certainly never accepted it emotionally - is open to doubt.1
In the event, it hardly mattered. Charlemagne's Empire was to disintegrate within a few years of his death; not for a century and more - until the appearance of Otto the Great - would it regain its former stature, and neither then nor at any later time would there be any serious question of the succession of the Western Emperor as of right to the Byzantine throne. But the Pax Nicephori is no less important for that. It marked the acceptance, for the first time, of two simultaneous Roman Emperors: Emperors who were not sharing - even theoretically - a single throne for reasons of administrative convenience, according to the system attempted (with almost invariably disastrous results) by Diocletian and his successors, but who were genuinely independent of each other, each pursuing his own policies but at the same time fully recognizing and respecting the claims and titles of his counterpart. And, in doing so, it created the mould in which later medieval Europe was to be formed.
The dying Stauracius had been right in opposing the succession of Michael Rhangabe. Had it not been for the peace with Charlemagne over which he was fortunate enough to preside, the reign of that hapless monarch would have been one of almost unmitigated catastrophe. Again in marked contrast to his predecessor, he and his wife Procopia - whose coronation had taken place a mere ten days after his own - were almost insanely prodigal with money, lavishing huge sums on churches and monasteries and, it sometimes seemed, on anyone who asked for it. In one department only did Michael refuse to loosen his purse-strings — or indeed to take any interest at all: that which was concerned with the defence of his Empire.
And seldom had the Empire needed it more. In the spring of 812 Krum, encouraged by his triumph of the previous year, had seized Develtus, a fortified Byzantine town on the Black Sea commanding the
1 It is worth noting, too, that they were careful never to call Charlemagne Emperor of the Romans— a style which they reserved for their own ruler and were indeed to use with increasing frequency from this time forward.
coast road to the south, and forcibly carried off all its inhabitants -including the bishop - to his own territory. In June Michael set out to confront him; but the newly-recruited army, untried and virtually untrained, mutinied almost at once and he was obliged to return. Inevitably, the news of his withdrawal spread quickly through Thrace and Macedonia whose populations, realizing that they were now at Krum's mercy, fled in terror. Several of the smaller frontier fortresses were completely abandoned; abandoned too, in a large measure, were the important strong-points of Anchialus and Beroc - now the Bulgarian towns of Pomorie and Stara Zagora — whose defences had been only recently repaired by Irene. The infection spread even as far as Philippopolis (Plovdiv), the chief city of western Thrace.
Such panic proved unfounded, at least for the time being. Krum, who saw no reason to fight for anything that he could get for nothing, proposed peace. In the circumstances, Michael should have leapt at the chance; but it so happened that the conditions offered by the Khan included the perfectly reasonable demand that all Bulgar prisoners and deserters in Byzantine hands should be returned to him. This was more than Abbot Theodore could stomach. Quoting - quite inappropriately - the words of Christ as recorded by St John, 'He that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out',1 he easily persuaded the Emperor to reject the terms; and the war was resumed.
Krum's next target was Mesembria (Nesebur), one of the richest ports in the whole Balkan peninsula. Itself almost an island, it was joined to the mainland only by a narrow and heavily fortified isthmus some quarter of a mile long. Since the Bulgars had no ships, this was their only possible point of attack; in the old days a few vessels of the imperial navy would have been enough to maintain supplies of food and ammunition for an indefinite period. But the navy, after years of neglect, was now in the last stages of disrepair and Michael made no attempt to revictual the city.
As the siege began, Patriarch Nicephorus held a service of intercession in the Church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople. Half-way through the ceremony there was a sudden commotion: a section of the congregation, including a large group of recently demobilized army veterans, surrounded the great marble tomb of Constantine V and besought the dead Emperor to burst his cerements and to lead them again, as so often
1 John 6:17.
in the past, to victory and salvation. Their prayers, it need hardly be said, went unanswered; but the point had been made, and the conclusion was not hard to draw. The victorious Constantine had been an iconoclast; under his three icon-loving successors the Empire had, time and time again, been humiliated and brought low. The pendulum, in short, was once again ready to swing: one more defeat, and it would surely do so.
That defeat was not long in coming. On 5 November 812 Mesembria fell. With it there passed into Krum's hands vast stores of gold and silver and, more precious still, canisters of liquid Greek fire - the Empire's most effective and most secret weapon - together with thirty-six bronze siphons with which to discharge it. To the Emperor in Constantinople, it was now clear that if he wished to retain his throne he would have to march once more against his adversary; and this time he would have to win. All that winter he spent gathering troops, from every corner of the Empire; and in May 813 he marched from his capital, Procopia accompanying him as far as Heraclea on the Marmara and waving him goodbye from the aqueduct.
The Bulgar army was always notoriously difficult to engage in battle until it was ready to fight; and Michael, doubtless remembering his hair's-breadth escape in 811, appears to have been unwilling to enter enemy territory. For over a month he dithered in Thrace, while the Asiatic troops — who were in the overwhelming majority - grew steadily more restive. Only in early June did Krum himself cross the frontier; and at last, on the field of Versinicia some twenty miles north-east of Adrianople, the armies came face to face. The imperial forces easily outnumbered the Bulgars; but Michael still seemed reluctant to take the initiative and for another sweltering fortnight he and Krum stood watching each other. It was not till 21 June that John Aplakes, commander of the Macedonian regiment on the left wing, sought his Emperor's permission to attack. On the next day he did so. The Bulgars fell back in confusion before his onslaught, and for a moment it looked as if the battle were over almost before it had begun. But then an astonishing thing happened: the Anatolian troops on the right, commanded by Leo the Armenian, suddenly turned tail and fled from the field.
At first, we are told, Krum stood speechless, refusing to believe the evidence of his own eyes; then, realizing their good fortune, he and his men fell on the luckless Macedonians — abandoned by their comrades and now, in their turn, hopelessly outnumbered — and slaughtered them wholesale. Their way was now clear: nothing more lay between them and Constantinople. On 17 July the Bulgar army pitched its camp beneath the walls of the city.
By this time, however, Michael Rhangabe was no longer Emperor. Escaping from the battle once again unscathed, he had returned at full speed to the capital and had immediately informed the Patriarch of his intention to abdicate. He could no longer struggle, he maintained, against the will of the Almighty, who had now conclusively demonstrated His hatred of the house of Nicephorus. The Patriarch may or may not have agreed with this last hypothesis, but he certainly approved of Michael's decision - in which, he very much feared, lay the only hope of the imperial family's survival. The Empress Procopia, on the other hand, took a very different view. She had no wish to give up the throne, the occupation of which she greatly enjoyed; and she clearly saw herself as another Theodora, encouraging her husband to hold firm. But her arguments were ignored. She, the ex-Emperor and their five children, all disguised in monastic habits, took refuge in the Church of the Virgin of Pharos, where they remained till they had received assurances of their safety. Their lives were spared, though their three sons were castrated to prevent their making any future bids for power;1 Procopia and her daughters were immured in convents. As for Michael himself, he adopted the monastic name of Athanasius and passed the thirty-two years that remained to him in a monastery on one of the Princes' Islands in the Marmara, where he was eventually to die on the anniversary of the death of his predecessor Stauracius, 11 January 845. And Leo the Armenian, commander of those perfidious Anatolians who had betrayed their Emperor and thrown away the decisive victory that lay within their grasp, entered Constantinople by the Golden Gate, to be acclaimed as basileus at the Church of St John the Baptist in the Studium before riding in triumph through the streets to the Imperial Palace.
What, we may ask, had really happened? Leo's Anatolian troops were brave and experienced fighters - the last men in the world to lose their heads on the field of battle, least of all when facing an inferior force on open ground. The only remotely reasonable explanation for their action can be treachery. It follows that their apparent cowardice must have
1 One of them, Nicetas, we shall meet later in this story as Ignatius, Patriarch under Michael III and Basil I.
been deliberately feigned, as a means of instilling a genuine panic among the rest of the army. As for their commander, he played his cards with his usual cunning: by standing firm himself until the last possible moment and leaving the field only after all his men had fled, he was later able to claim that his own conduct had been blameless. Inevitably there were grave suspicions, but nothing could be conclusively proved. By then, in any case, he had achieved his object: the crown of Byzantium. And it is worth noting that, after what seemed on the face of it to be among the most humiliating defeats in the history of the Roman Empire, none of those who took flight was ever punished.
Not for the first time - for he had been deeply implicated in the insurrection of Bardanes Turcus some years before - Leo had betrayed his Emperor; and his troops had abetted him. Were he and they, however, the only parties to the plot? It may be that they were; but it seems probable that there was yet another, who also contributed largely to the success of the whole operation: Krum himself. Ever since the Bulgars had first become a threat to the Empire they had invariably avoided pitched battles on an open plain, preferring in every instance to keep to the mountain passes and defiles which were infinitely better suited to their fighting methods; why then should their wily and experienced Khan suddenly abandon the practice of a lifetime and draw up his men as he did before a vastly superior army? And was it really astonishment that kept him and his troops rooted to the spot as the Anatolians hurried from the field, allowing them to get clean away before he himself settled down to the massacre of the valiant Macedonians? How much more likely that Leo should have further assured the success of his plan by making an accomplice of the Bulgar leader — who would have found the idea irresistible, particularly since he would have been under no further obligations once his fellow-conspirators had made their escape.
As Krum watched his soldiers digging themselves in beneath the walls to each side of the Golden Gate, he could have looked back on six years of unbroken success. He had been responsible for the deaths of two Roman Emperors, and the downfall of a third; and he had overwhelmingly defeated two imperial armies, one of which had been utterly destroyed while the other — for whatever reason it may have been - had fled ignominiously from the field. For the moment, however, he had been brought to a halt: those mighty ramparts towering above him could never, he knew, be taken by storm. According to a curious and unidentified fragment which has come down to us - its author is known only as Scriptor Incertus - he covered his own uncertainty as to how best to proceed by staging a whole series of weird ceremonies and demonstrations of strength. The defenders on the walls gazed down incredulously on the elaborate sacrifices, both animal and human, with which the pagan priests propitiated their gods; they even watched, fascinated, while Krum himself — 'the new Sennacherib', as Theophanes calls him -slowly advanced into the sea for the ritual washing of his feet, emerging to sprinkle the water over his soldiers in benediction. On other occasions he would parade in state through serried rows of his own ululating concubines, while his warriors bellowed their approbation.
What precisely the Khan hoped to achieve by such manifestations remains unclear. A few days later, however, in the absence of any reaction from within the walls, he sent a message to the Emperor with a demand that he be allowed, as a sign of his victory, to fix his lance on the Golden Gate; and when this overture met - as he must have known it would - with a curt refusal, he showed his displeasure by pillaging and plundering the countryside around for several days before taking his next initiative: a peace proposal in which he demanded, as the price of his withdrawal, huge quantities of gold, chests full of sumptuous vestments and, finally, a selection of the most beautiful maidens that the Empire could provide. Leo, it need hardly be said, had no more intention of humouring Krum over the maidens than he had over the lance; but the offer of terms, however unacceptable, suggested to his ever-devious mind a possible way out of the impasse. He now proposed a meeting between Krum and himself, to be held at the point where the northern end of the walls ran down to the Golden Horn. He would arrive by water, Krum by land; they would carry no weapons, and would be accompanied only by a few similarly unarmed followers.
The Khan accepted the suggestion, and the very next morning rode down with his treasurer, his Greek brother-in-law Constantine Patzikos and his young nephew - the latter's son - to the appointed spot. Here he was joined by the Emperor and a Byzantine court official named Hexabulios. After the usual civilities the conversation began, Constantine acting as interpreter. All seemed to be going smoothly enough when Hexabulios suddenly covered his face with his hands. Krum, possibly seeing the gesture as an insult - or, more probably (and correctly) recognizing it as a prearranged signal — leapt on to his horse, which his nephew was holding, saddled and bridled and ready for just such an eventuality, immediately behind him. He was only just in time. At that moment three armed men burst out of a nearby hiding-place. The treasurer was killed outright, Patzikos and his son taken captive. As Krum galloped away to safety, he was slightly wounded by darts fired by the attackers; but they did him no serious harm - merely increasing his fury at so shameless a betrayal of trust and his determination to take his revenge.
That revenge began on the following day, and was dreadful to behold. The Bulgars could not penetrate the city walls; but the suburbs beyond the Golden Horn, with all their churches, their palaces and their rich monasteries and convents, were consumed in one mighty conflagration. Among the buildings destroyed was the Imperial Palace of St Mamas,1 one of the most opulent of the Emperor's several residences in the capital, from which all the elaborately carved marble columns and rows of sculptured animals were carted off to Krum's own palace at Pliska. Every living creature left unburnt was butchered. To the west of the city, the countryside suffered a similar fate. The Palace of the Hebdomon went the same way as St Mamas, and as the still-furious Khan began his journey homeward he left behind him a nightmare trail of slaughter and destruction. The city of Selymbria was reduced to a smouldering heap of ashes, as were innumerable other towns and villages; Heraclea was saved, thanks to the stoutness of its defences -only one degree less impregnable than those of Constantinople itself -but the avenging horde levelled the fortress of Rhaedestum (now Tekirdag) before moving up to the neighbouring hills, whither the country people had fled for refuge. Family by family they were tracked down; the men were put to the sword, the women and children sent off into slavery. Then, after a quick punitive excursion to the Hellespont, Krum turned north to Adrianople. For some weeks already the city had been under attack by his brother, against whom the garrison had put up a courageous resistance; but now food was running out, and the arrival of the terrible Khan himself with the main body of his army finally broke its morale. All 10,000 inhabitants were carried off beyond the Danube, where many - including the archbishop - found martyrdom.
Now it was the turn of the Byzantines to sue for peace. But Krum could not forget Leo's treachery, nor was his anger assuaged when reports reached him in the autumn of a surprise attack on a Bulgar army
1 The building stood on the shore of the Bosphorus in the quarter now known as Besiktas, a little beyond the Dolmabahce Palace.
near Mesembria. It had been planned and carried out by the Emperor in person — who, by one of those devious stratagems for which he was famous, had taken his victims completely by surprise as they slept and massacred the lot of them. He had followed up this success by advancing deep into enemy territory where, while sparing the adult populations, he had seized all the children he could find and dashed their heads against the rocks. The Khan's mind was now made up: however formidable the walls of Constantinople might appear, he would smash them - and, with them, the Byzantine Empire.
By the early spring of 814 the capital was abuzz with rumours of his preparations: of towering siege-engines under construction; of gigantic catapults capable of hurling huge boulders against the walls or flaming firebrands over them; of scaling ladders and battering rams, of 1,000 oxen and 5,000 iron-bound wagons standing ready to haul these massive engines into position. The Emperor for his part worked furiously to strengthen the defences - especially around the quarter of Blachernae, where Krum had been so dishonourably set upon and where he was expected to launch the weight of his attack - simultaneously sending ambassadors to the court of Lewis the Pious, who had succeeded his father Charlemagne on the latter's death a few months before. That mission failed, Lewis understandably pointing out that he had enemies enough of his own; but by the time the envoys returned to the capital the danger was past. On Holy Thursday, 13 April 814, just as his new expeditionary force was ready to march, Krum suffered a sudden seizure. Blood streamed from his nose, mouth and ears, and within a few minutes he was dead.
There now occurred something rare indeed in Byzantine history: peace descended on the Empire. Krum's son Omortag was young and inexperienced, and the first year of his reign was further troubled by a revolt of the Bulgar aristocracy which kept him fully occupied at home. Similar upheavals in Baghdad pre-empted any aggression on the part of Harun al-Rashid's successor, the Caliph Mamun. In the West, the Pax Nicephori still held. Leo was free at last to turn his attention to home affairs - and to take the decisive step for which, more than any other, he is remembered.