Post-classical history

Theophilus

[829-42]

Miracle, bird or golden handiwork,

More miracle than bird or handiwork,

Planted on the star-lit golden bough,

Can like the cocks of Hades crow

Or, by the moon embittered, scorn aloud

In glory of changeless metal

Common bird or petal

And all complexities of mire or blood.

W. B. Yeats, Byzantium

At the time of his father's death, Theophilus had already been co-Emperor for eight years,' during which time the chroniclers barely mention him. There is one brief and tantalizing moment in 821, at the very beginning of the joint reign, when we are given a glimpse of the seventeen-year-old prince, bearing the Empire's most precious relics -the fragments1 of the True Cross and the robe of the Virgin Mary - in solemn procession along the land walls while the army of Thomas the Slav was encamped below; but in general he seems to have been content to remain in his father's shadow, performing various ceremonial functions as necessary but otherwise avoiding the limelight. Now, with his assumption of the effective power at the age of twenty-five, he comes into his own - and at last reveals himself as being magnificently qualified to take on the responsibilities of Empire.

In marked contrast to the barely literate Michael, Theophilus was an intellectual, with all the characteristically Byzantine passion for theology; but he had also acquired a thorough military training, so that even if he

1 Fragments only: the main body of the Cross, after two periods in Constantinople and fourteen years in Persian hands, having been personally returned to Jerusalem by the Emperor Heraclius in 619. The Virgin's robe had been discovered in 629 in a coffin at Blacbernae.

could never be described as an inspired leader in the field he was at least a highly competent one. Finally, he was an aesthete and a patron of the arts, with a particular love and understanding - despite almost continual warfare with the Caliphate throughout his reign - for the culture of the Islamic world. Far more than any Christian Emperor, he took as his exemplar an Abbasid Caliph: the great Harun al-Rashid, who had died in 809 when Theophilus was five years old. Like Harun, he early adopted the habit of dressing as a poor man and wandering incognito through the streets and markets of Constantinople, listening to the grievances and grumbles of the people and endlessly investigating prices - especially of food. Once a week, too, he would ride from the Great Palace to the Church of the Virgin (Theotokos) at Blachernae - a journey that would take him on a long diagonal from one end of the city to the other, in the course of which he encouraged any of his subjects with complaints of unfair treatment to lay their case before him. On one occasion, we read, he was approached by an elderly widow who claimed that the Emperor's own brother-in-law, his wife's brother Petronas, was enlarging his palace in such a way as to block out all the light from her own house nearby. Theophilus ordered an immediate inquiry, and on learning that the old lady was justified in her accusation, had the offending buildings torn down and his brother-in-law publicly flogged.

The story, it must be admitted, lacks the ring of absolute truth; yet there is no quality in a ruler more certain than a passion for justice to earn him the love and respect of his subjects, and the fact that this and many other similar tales enjoyed such wide currency during his reign is a clear indication that Theophilus became something of a legend in his own lifetime - in a way, perhaps, that none of his predecessors had done since the days of Heraclius, two centuries before. It suggests, too, that he made a genuine effort to communicate directly with his people: a rare phenomenon indeed in an Empire whose sovereign, Equal of the Apostles and standing half-way to heaven, was set on so lofty a pedestal and imprisoned in so tight a cocoon of protocol and ceremonial as to be normally inaccessible to all but his family and a few close advisers.

And yet, for all his love of justice and his comparative approachability, Theophilus had his own firmly-held ideas of Empire. However often he might attempt to descend from his pedestal, he never doubted that that pedestal must be of the finest gold. Here again he modelled himself on Harun: in a love of opulence and splendour for which we have to go back still further into the past to find an equal — as far, indeed, as Justinian himself. Already in 830, after only a few months on the throne, he sent a diplomatic mission to Baghdad, led by John the Grammarian. Its ostensible object was to give the Caliph Mamun formal intimation of his succession, but the Emperor seems to have been above all determined to impress his Arab neighbours by bis wealth and generosity. John took with him, as presents to Mamun, works of art as sumptuous as any ever wrought by the jewellers and craftsmen of Constantinople. In his own baggage he carried two huge salvers of solid gold, encrusted with precious stones; one of these, in the course of a banquet, he deliberately arranged to have 'stolen'. His Arab guests, horrified at this apparent breach of the laws of hospitality, were all the more astonished when John showed no concern but simply called for an identical replacement, which was immediately brought in. Apart from such treasures, he had also been given 36,000 gold pieces to distribute as he liked, which he is said to have scattered 'like the sand of the sea'.

Where all this wealth came from remains a mystery. The reign of Michael II had seen a serious depletion of the imperial coffers: Thomas's insurrection and the constant — if largely ineffectual - campaigns against the Saracens of Crete and Sicily had all taken their toll. True, Michael hated spending money and always practised a rigid economy; but he could never have saved a quarter of the amount that his son dispensed with such largesse. What makes the enigma more baffling still is the fact that Theophilus did not spend beyond his means, still less run into debt; on the contrary, he was to leave his treasury a good deal fuller than he found it. It follows, therefore, that some time towards the end of Michael's reign the Empire must suddenly have had access to a new and seemingly inexhaustible source of wealth. One recent historian1 attributes this to the opening or reopening of certain gold mines, probably in Armenia - adducing in support of this theory some evidence which suggests that the economy at this time suffered an acute bout of inflation. In the absence of any explanation by our contemporary chroniclers and of any other more likely hypothesis, we may assume him to be right; but we shall never know.

In any case, the new basileus was fortunate: he enjoyed both expensive tastes and the means by which to indulge them. At once he initiated a huge construction programme in the capital, understandably concentrating on the Great Palace. This was not so much one large

1 Romilly Jenkins, Byzantium: The Imperial Centuries, p. 147.

building as a collection of small ones - much as is the Ottoman Palace of Topkapi today - standing together in a vast enclosure to the south-east of the Hippodrome and extending all the way down to the Marmara shore. Originally established by Constantine the Great at the time of his foundation of the city, it had been largely rebuilt by Justinian; but that was nearly three hundred years before, and Theophilus was probably well justified in deciding that alterations and improvements were long overdue. Few other Emperors, however, would have tackled the programme with such panache.

His principal creation was the Triconchos, or Triple Shell, whose three apses, supported on pillars of porphyry and revetted with immense slabs of polychrome marble, gave the building a distinctively Oriental appearance. To the west, silver doors opened into a semi-circular hall, known as the Sigma and also lined with marble, while to the north rose the Hall of the Pearl - its white marble floor richly ornamented with mosaic, its roof resting on eight rose-pink marble columns. Off the main space was a smaller bedchamber, where the Emperor slept during the hot summer months. Opposite this lay the Karianos, designed for his daughters and so called for the broad staircase of milk-white Carian marble that led up to it; while a short distance to the south stood the Kamiles, in which six columns of green Thessalian marble led the eye up to a field of mosaics depicting a fruit harvest and on to a roof glittering with gold.

To the north-east of the Great Palace, next to the Church of St Sophia, was the Palace of The Magnaura, another of Constantine's foundations; it was here that Theophilus installed his most celebrated mechanical toy. An ambassador received here in audience would be astonished to find the imperial throne overshadowed by a golden plane tree, its branches full of jewelled birds - some of which appeared to have hopped off the tree and on to the throne itself. Around the trunk were lions and gryphons couchant, also of gold. Still greater would be the visitor's wonderment when, at a given signal, the animals would rise up, the lions would roar and all the birds would burst simultaneously into song. After a while the chorus would be interrupted by a peal of music from a golden organ, after which there would be silence to permit the Emperor and his guest to talk. Then, the moment the ambassador rose to leave, the whole chorus would start up again and continue till he had left the chamber.

This barely credible contrivance seems to have been inspired by a similar marvel in the possession of the Caliph - as was the splendid palace that Theophilus built for himself in the Oriental style at Bryas, on the Bithynian coast across the Marmara. It is only fair to add, however, that he also spent much time and money on the strengthening of the defences of Constantinople. The land walls needed little attention; but those along the shore of the Golden Horn had given rise to some anxiety during Thomas's siege, when it was realized that they might well prove insufficiently high to hold back a determined enemy. An ambitious plan to heighten them along their entire length, though initiated by Michael II, was almost wholly carried out by Theophilus, whose name appears more frequently on inscriptions along the walls and towers than does that of any other Emperor. Extravagant and self-indulgent he may have been; but he was well aware of his responsibilities too, and he never shirked them.

It was a sad stroke of irony - felt, we may be sure, by no one more than Theophilus himself - that decreed that this most instinctively pro-Arab of all the Emperors of Byzantium should have had to pass almost the whole of his reign in warfare against the forces of Islam. For the past sixteen years the eastern frontier had been quiet. There had been no formal treaty of peace; but the Caliphate, struggling for its life against a widespread insurrection on the part of a sect known as the Hurramites, had been obliged to call a halt to the annual invasions that had previously been the norm. Then, in 829, hostilities flared up again. To some extent this seems to have been the fault of Theophilus. He would infinitely have preferred to maintain friendly relations with his Arab neighbours, with plenty of cultural and intellectual exchange; but when, soon after his accession, an army of Hurramites crossed into the territory of the Empire and demanded to enlist under the imperial standards he decided that the opportunity was too good to miss and settled them on his north-eastern border, in a newly-established Theme which he called Chaldia. This was seen by the Caliph Mamun as a hostile act, and within a matter of months a Saracen army was again on the march.

In the first campaigns fortune favoured Theophilus. He led a successful expedition into enemy territory in 830, sacking the city of Zapetra, and in the following year took the initiative by invading Muslim-held Cilicia - with such gratifying results that, on returning with his victorious army to Constantinople, he awarded himself a triumph. The celebrations were impressive enough for the chroniclers to have left us detailed descriptions.

We read how the Empress Theodora, accompanied by the chief ministers and members of the Senate, sailed across the Bosphorus to welcome her husband at the Palace of Hieria, and how the party remained in Asia another ten days until the arrival of a sufficient quantity of prisoners to swell the procession to a proper size. Only when all were present and the necessary preparations had been made did the Emperor cross the straits and continue up the Golden Horn to Blachernae. Thence, after a short pause, he rode through the open country outside the walls to a point some few hundred yards west of the Golden Gate, where a brilliantly-coloured pavilion had been set up for his reception.

From this pavilion the triumphal procession started off towards the city. It was led by the seemingly endless train of prisoners, together with the principal trophies and spoils of war. These were followed by the Emperor himself, mounted on a white charger with jewelled harness. The diadem was on his head, in his hand the imperial sceptre. Over his breastplate he wore a loose gold tunic, embroidered with a design of roses and clusters of grapes. Beside him - also riding a white horse and wearing golden armour — was his adopted son-in-law the Caesar Alexius, whom he had recently married to his daughter Maria.1 When the two reached the gate, they dismounted and bowed three times towards the east; the three senior civic officers - praepositus, magister and prefect — then advanced to meet the Emperor and presented him with a crown of gold. Having thus ceremonially resumed authority in the capital he continued his procession down the broad central thoroughfare, the Mese, to St Sophia.

Constantinople, we are told, had been 'decked like a bridal chamber'. Carpets hung from the windows, the streets were adorned with festoons of purple and silver, the Mese strewn with flowers. On reaching the Great Church, the Emperor attended a brief service of thanksgiving; then he walked across the Augusteum to the Bronze Gate of the Imperial Palace, the Chalke, where a golden throne had been set up. On one side of it was a cross, also of gold, and on the other the great golden organ - one of several that he had ordered for the city, since he could never resist ingenious machinery — which was known as the protothauma,

1 After a run of five daughters Theodora had finally borne her husband a son, Constantine, who had however died in infancy. The Emperor had consequently chosen Alexius as his successor. The Caesar was to remain as heir apparent until the unexpected birth in 840, after twenty years of marriage, of the future Michael III.

the Prime Miracle. Seated on his throne, Theophilus next acknowledged the plaudits of the Greens and the Blues and received a further present from the citizenry in the shape of a pair of golden armlets; he then rode on past the Baths of Zeuxippus to the Hippodrome, whence he finally entered the Palace and was lost to view. On the day following he held an investiture — at which honours were, conferred on all those who had distinguished themselves in battle - before taking his seat in the imperial box and giving the signal for the start of the games.

Alas, the festivities were premature. In the autumn of the same year the imperial army sustained a crushing defeat, and Theophilus was obliged to write Mamun two letters - the first having been rejected on the grounds that he had begun it with his own name rather than with that of its addressee — offering 100,000 gold dinars and 7,000 prisoners in return for the restitution of a number of captured fortresses and an agreement to a five-year peace. Even after the required redrafting, however, the offer was rejected; and a third overture early the next year, following the fall to the Saracens of the key stronghold of Lulon -which commanded the northern approach to the Cilician Gates - met with no greater success, the Caliph making clear that he would never agree to peace until Emperor and Empire alike forswore Christianity for Islam. Mamun's death on campaign in August 833 afforded a few years' respite, while his brother and successor Mutasim overcame the usual difficulties in confirming and consolidating his authority; but in 837 hostilities flared up again. Once more Theophilus, who had done much in the interim to strengthen his army, started off" well; expeditions into Mesopotamia and western Armenia were successful enough - at least in his eyes - to justify another triumph, and in the games that followed he even went so far as to enter the lists himself, driving a white chariot in the uniform of the Blues and winning - to nobody's surprise -by a comfortable margin, while the crowd hailed his victory with cries of 'Welcome, Champion Incomparable!'

Once again he had celebrated too soon. In April 838 Mutasim rode out of his palace at Samarra at the head of an army estimated by one of our most reliable sources, Michael the Syrian, at 50,000, with an equal number of camels and 20,000 mules. On his banner was inscribed the single wordAMORIUM - home of the Emperor's family and by now the second city of the Empire — which he made no secret of his intention of reducing to rubble. A week or two later, probably as soon as he had heard the news of the Caliph's departure, Theophilus set out from

Constantinople determined to block his path; his army met one wing of the Saracen host at Dazimon, the modern Tokat. At first all went well; then, suddenly, the sky darkened and the rain began to fall in torrents. At this point the Emperor saw that his opposite wing was in difficulties and led 2,000 men round behind his centre to reinforce it; unfortunately he omitted to tell his junior commanders what he was doing, and his unexpected disappearance immediately gave rise to a rumour that he had been killed. Panic broke out, followed — as always - by flight; and when the rain stopped and the light returned Theophilus realized that he and his men were surrounded. Somehow — largely because the bowstrings of the enemy archers had been rendered useless by the rain — they fought their way out, though with frightful casualties; but the battle was lost, the surviving soldiers were dispersed in all directions and the Caliph was already marching on Ancyra (Ankara), which surrendered a few days later without a struggle.

From the moment that Mutasim drew up his triumphant army before Amorium, however, it seemed that the capture of that huge and mightily-walled city was going to be a very different matter; and so, doubtless, it would have been had there not been a weak section of the bastion which, despite the Emperor's express orders that it should be properly strengthened, had been only roughly filled in with rubble and the surface hurriedly made good. This vulnerable spot was revealed to the besiegers by a converted Muslim resident; the Caliph directed all his available siege-engines against it and within a few days a breach was made. Even then the garrison fought on courageously; but at last its commander sent out three of his officers with the local bishop, offering to deliver up the city in return for the promise of safe conduct to all who wished to leave. Mutasim refused, insisting on unconditional surrender; but then one of the officers, Boiditzes by name, took an Arab general aside and promised his cooperation. What he actually did is uncertain: perhaps he stood down his soldiers at that particular point, or ordered them to hold their fire until he gave the order. At all events the Saracens were able to pour unchecked into the breach. Amorium was theirs.

Many of the inhabitants took refuge in a large church, in which they were promptly burnt alive by the conquerors; others, taken captive and led off into slavery, were slaughtered when the army's water supplies threatened to run low, or were left to die of thirst in the desert. Only forty-two survived the journey back to Samarra; these, after seven years' captivity during which they had steadfastly refused to renounce their religion, were finally offered the choice: conversion or death. All of them chose without hesitation to die, and on 6 March 845 were decapitated on the banks of the Tigris - to go down in the history of the Greek Orthodox Church as the Forty-Two Martyrs of Amorium.1

The news of the destruction of the city - for Caliph Mutasim was as good as his word — was received with horror in Constantinople, where the disaster was seen not only as a damaging blow to the very heart of the Empire but also as a personal affront to the Emperor and his line. Theophilus himself, now seriously alarmed by the growing power of Islam, immediately sent an impassioned appeal for aid to the Emperor Lewis, proposing a joint offensive. His original idea was, so far as we can gather, for the Eastern Empire to launch a major attack on Crete while the Western moved simultaneously against Sicily and south Italy; but there may well have been a still more ambitious plan - a combined attack on Saracen North Africa and even Egypt. It was also agreed that the alliance between the two Empires should be sealed by the marriage of one of the daughters of Theophilus to Lewis's grandson, the future Lewis II.

The Byzantine envoys were warmly received at the imperial court at Ingelheim in June 839, and the talks which were then initiated continued spasmodically for another four years, despite the deaths of both Emperors during that time. Had those talks proved fruitful, the age of the Crusades might have been brought forward by some two and a half centuries; but they came to nothing, and a similar appeal to Venice — one of the first occasions on which we find the young republic being addressed respectfully as an independent state - proved equally abortive. In the event, the Caliph made no immediate attempt to follow up his victory until 842, when a huge fleet sailed against Constantinople from the Syrian ports. Victim of a sudden storm, all but seven of the 400 dromonds1were smashed to pieces. But Mutasim never heard of this -1 catastrophe. Already on 5 January he had died in Samarra; and just fifteen days later Theophilus followed him to the grave.

1 There is an old tradition that their headless bodies, when flung into the river, all obstinately refused to sink. Only the corpse of the traitor Boidirzes - who, despite having become a Muslim, had shared their fate - went plummeting to the bottom.

2 The dromond was the smallest type of Byzantine warship, designed for lightness and speed. It carried a crew of some twenty rowers at a single bank of oars, and was roofed over to protect them from enemy missiles.

With his known admiration for Arabic art and learning, it is hardly-surprising that Theophilus should have shared the iconoclast convictions of his immediate predecessors; some writers, indeed, have accused him of fanaticism. In fact, his reputation in this regard rests on only a few known instances of ill-treatment, all of them in one way or another special cases. Thus Lazarus, the leading icon-painter of the day, was eventually - after repeated warnings - scourged and branded on the palms of his hands with red-hot nails; but after his release (at the intercession of the Empress) he is known to have completed at least two more important commissions, including a new gigantic figure of Christ to replace the one removed by Leo V from the Chalke, so his injuries cannot have been too severe.

Lazarus was probably singled out for such punishment because of his prominence in the icon-loving community and his open defiance of the imperial decree; in the circumstances, the Emperor had little choice but to make an example of him. Similar considerations explain his actions in another case, still more fully documented: that of two brothers from Palestine, the writer Theodore and the hymnographer Theophanes, who had together assumed the mantle of Theodore of the Studium, after the latter's death in 826, as principal champions of the iconodules. According to their own account, they were summoned to Constantinople, kept for a week in prison and then brought before the Emperor. When he asked them why they had entered the Empire in the first place, they refused to answer, whereupon they were beaten severely about the head. On the next day they were flogged, but still refused to renounce their views. Four days later still, Theophilus offered them their last chance: if they would consent to take communion just once with the iconoclasts, they would hear no more of the matter. But they only shook their heads. And so, by the imperial command, they were laid across a bench while an abusive lampoon was tattooed across their faces. It was not, Theophilus admitted, a very good lampoon; but it was good enough for them. A free translation, thoughtfully provided by Professor Bury1 — complete with its majestic mixed metaphor in the second line — confirms the Emperor's opinion:

In that fair town whose sacred streets were trod Once by the pure feet of the Word of God —

1 'Some admiration,' observes the Professor, 'is due to the dexterity and delicacy of touch of the tormentor who succeeded in branding twelve iambic lines on a human face.'

The city all men's hearts desire to see -These evil vessels of perversity Were driven forth to this our Qty where, Persisting in their wicked, lawless ways, They are condemned and, branded in the face, As scoundrels, hunted to their native place.

The tenor of the Emperor's questions - as well as that of this deplorable doggerel - suggests that not the least of the two brothers' offences was the fact that they were foreign immigrants who had, in Theophilus's eyes, entered the Empire deliberately to stir up trouble. They were not, however, returned to Palestine as the last line claims, but were imprisoned in the small Bithynian town of Apamea. Here Theodore died; his brother survived to become, in happier times, Bishop of Nicaea.

This unedifying story demonstrates clearly enough the cruelty and brutality of which Theophilus was capable when his authority was openly defied; there can be little doubt, on the other hand, that his motives on such occasions were more political than religious. Where he drew the line was at the public profession of the cult of icons in Constantinople. Elsewhere in the Empire, or within the privacy of their own homes in the capital, his subjects might do as they pleased. Even in the Imperial Palace, although he must have been perfectly well aware -for all their transparent subterfuges - that both his pious Paphlagonian wife Theodora and her mother Theoktiste were enthusiastic iconodules, he made no serious attempt to stop them.

Perhaps he himself subconsciously understood that the forces of iconoclasm were almost spent. The second period of its enforcement had after all been but a pale reflection of the first. Leo the Isaurian and Constantine Copronymus had changed the face of the Empire, subordinating all other issues to the single, simple belief that dictated and dominated their lives; Leo the Armenian, Michael and Theophilus shared their views, but possessed little of their inward fire. The times, too, were changing. The mystical, metaphysical attitude to religion that had originally given birth to iconoclasm was becoming less fashionable every day. Of the eastern lands in which it had first taken root, some had already been lost to the Saracens; and the populations of those that remained, beleaguered and nervous, had developed an instinctive mistrust of a doctrine that bore such obvious affinities with those of Islam. There was a new humanism in the air, a revived awareness of the old classical spirit that stood for reason and clarity, and had no truck with the tortuous, introspective spiritualizings of the Oriental mind. At the same time a naturally artistic people, so long starved of visual beauty, were beginning to crave the old, familiar images that spoke to them of safer and more confident days. And when, on 20 January 842, the Emperor Theophilus died of dysentery at thirty-eight, the age of iconoclasm died with him.

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