Post-classical history

The Images Restored


All worship whatsoever must proceed by symbols, by idols: we may say, all idolatry is comparative, and the worst idolatry is only more idolatrous.

Thomas Carlyle, Heroes and Hero-Worship, IV

The story is told of how, one day during Theophilus's reign, his wife Theodora was suddenly surprised by Denderis, the court jester, in the act of kissing certain sacred images that she had concealed in her bedchamber. Hiding her confusion as best she could, she told him that she had merely been playing with a few dolls that she had preserved from her childhood. It seems unlikely that Denderis believed her; at all events he reported the conversation to the Emperor, who flew into a towering rage and furiously accused her of idolatry. This time Theodora had another explanation: there were no dolls - Denderis had been deceived by the reflections in a mirror of herself and some of her ladies. Theophilus seems to have accepted the story - mirrors were rarities in the ninth century, and it might then have sounded a litde less far-fetched than it does today - but doubts clearly lingered in his mind, for some time later he asked the jester whether he had noticed any repetition of his wife's strange behaviour. 'Hush,' replied Denderis, putting one hand to his lips and using the other to give himself a resounding slap on the behind, 'hush, Emperor - not a word about the dolls!'

It is a silly little story, and probably apocryphal to boot; but it illustrates clearly enough why Theodora, finding herself on her husband's death Regent on behalf of her two-year-old son, should have made her first concern the eradication of iconoclasm throughout the Empire. She moved, perforce, with caution: John the Grammarian, a fervent iconoclast, had for the past five years been firmly ensconced upon the patriarchal throne, and there must have been plenty of old men still living in Constantinople who could remember the fiasco of 786, when the last woman to wield the supreme power had had the same purpose in mind and, by acting prematurely, had nearly started a riot. But Theodora was a good deal more intelligent than Irene had been; moreover she was lucky to have as her chief advisers three men of quite exceptional ability - her uncle Sergius Nicetiates, her brother Bardas and Theoctistus, Logothete of the Course. The first two shared her views: Theoctistus had formerly been a professed iconoclast, but he was above all a statesman and he realized that times had changed: if the new regime did not act decisively over the iconoclast issue, the image-worshippers might well take the law into their own hands. The four laid their plans with care, and then gave notice that a Council would be summoned early in March 843 - fourteen months after the Emperor's death. Meanwhile a commission was set up under the chairmanship of old Methodius — who, having suffered persecution under both Michael II and his son, had finally become reconciled with Theophilus and had been living for some years in quiet retirement in the Imperial Palace - to prepare the agenda and the necessary documentation.

On the whole, the Council passed off smoothly enough, the only major problem being presented by John the Grammarian, who refused to resign and whom it consequently proved necessary to depose. Even then, according to several normally reliable sources, he could not be induced to leave the Patriarchal Palace and, when Bardas went to reason with him, pulled up his robes and exhibited several unpleasant abdominal wounds which he claimed to be the work of a platoon of soldiers sent to evict him but which were subsequently revealed to have been self-inflicted. Finally however he agreed to go quietly, and retired to his villa on the Bosphorus - where, his enemies whispered, he abandoned himself to necromancy and the black arts. Methodius was elected in his place, and the decrees of the Seventh Ecumenical Council - that which had put an end to the first period of iconoclasm in 787 - were confirmed. At the Empress's insistence, however, her dead husband's name was omitted from the lists of those prominent iconoclasts who were now anathematized as heretics. The story, assiduously circulated, that he had repented on his deathbed and that Theodora had held an icon to his lips as he expired can safely be discounted, and probably gained little enough credence at the time; but it got everybody out of a potentially embarrassing position and no serious objections were raised.

The victory was won: a victory not of iconodule over iconoclast but of clarity over mysticism, of Greek thought over Oriental metaphysics, ultimately of West over East - a victory every bit as crucial for the cultural life of the Empire as were, for its political development, the triumph over the Persians and the continuing struggle against the Arabs. And, as with so many victories, it almost certainly owed its long-term success to the moderation and magnanimity shown by the victors. On 11 March — which chanced to be the first Sunday in Lent, a day still celebrated by the Eastern Church as the Feast of Orthodoxy - a service of thanksgiving was held in St Sophia, attended by the entire imperial family and by vast crowds of monks from all the neighbouring monasteries.1 Icons by the hundred were carried shoulder-high, and thenceforth gradually reappeared on the walls of the churches; but there was no sudden or uncontrolled proliferation such as might have provoked indignant reaction from the diehards. Even the ever-controversial image of Christ from above the Chalke had to wait some years before its eventual restoration, and it was almost a quarter of a century before the first figurative mosaic was unveiled in the Great Church itself2 - that huge, haunting image of the Virgin and Child enthroned which, after more than eleven centuries, still gazes impassively down on us today.

Nor, despite his past sufferings, did Patriarch Methodius show any desire for vengeance. Anathematized the iconoclast leaders might be; they were never ill-treated, still less deprived of their liberty. Such expressions of indignation as there were came, on the contrary, from the iconodules - notably the fanatical monks of the Studium, whose vitriolic attacks on the Patriarch when he passed them over for promotion to vacant sees in favour of moderates like himself finally obliged him to excommunicate them en masse. By this time, we are told, they had even tried to force his resignation - by the singularly inept contrivance of bribing a young woman to accuse him of seduction. At the ensuing inquiry Methodius is said to have given visual proof of his innocence by producing for inspection those parts which might have been thought most directly responsible for the alleged offence, explaining the shrivelled remnants of his manhood with a story of how, years before in Rome, a

1.       Genesius maintains that these included representatives from Mount Athos. If he is right, this is the earliest reference we have to the Mountain as a holy place - though its inhabitants at that period would have been individual hermits rather than members of any organized monastic community. (See Chapter 12.)

2.       Had there been any such figurative mosaics in Justinian's church, they could not conceivably have survived the iconoclasts; in point of fact, however, it is virtually certain that none ever existed in his day. Sec Byzantium: The Early Centuries, p. 20 j.

prayer to St Peter for deliverance from lustful thoughts had been answered with distressing efficiency. Not surprisingly, he won his case; the girl confessed that the whole story had been a fabrication. But its instigators suffered no more severe punishment than to join every year, with torches in their hands, the ceremonial procession which passed on the Feast of Orthodoxy from Blachernae to St Sophia, there to hear the sentence of anathema repeated publicly upon them.

Meanwhile, the iconodule martyrs received their posthumous reward. The bodies of Theodore of the Studium and the Patriarch Nicephorus, both of whom had died in exile, were brought back to Constantinople where, in the presence of the Empress and the entire court, they were ceremonially reinterred in the Church of the Holy Aposdes. A less edifying spectacle was the desecration of the tomb of the arch-iconoclast Constantine V, from whose green marble sarcophagus several slabs were cut away and used to adorn a room in the Great Palace.

For the defeated image-haters, one small consolation remained. In pre-iconoclast days, and even in the iconodule interval under Irene, her son and successors, religious painting and sculpture had been alike permitted; the Council of 843 had drawn no distinction between them. After this time, however, as if by some tacit agreement, Byzantine art restricted itself to two dimensions. Sculpture - whether in stone or marble, wood or plaster, gold, silver or bronze - was set aside. This should not, perhaps, occasion us too much Astonishment: the second Commandment is after all quite clear enough on the matter, and we might a good deal more reasonably wonder why it has been so universally ignored in Western Europe - were it not for the fact that very little more respect has been shown for most of the other nine. It is, none the less, a very real cause for regret. If Byzantium had gone on to produce sculptors and woodcarvers as talented as its painters and mosaicists, the world would have been enriched indeed.

Soon after the restoration of the icons, the Logothete Theoctistus succeeded in ousting his two colleagues; and for the next thirteen years he was, with Theodora, the effective ruler of Byzantium. He was that most unusual of combinations, a Patrician and a eunuch; but he was also a man of considerable learning and wide culture, who devoted much time and effort to the improvement of educational standards in the capital — they were already far ahead of anything known in the West — and laid the foundations for the cultural renaissance of the later ninth and tenth centuries of which we shall have more to say later. His financial policy in particular yielded excellent results: gold continued to flow into the imperial coffers, just as it had in Theophilus's day - and for no clearer reason.

In the military sphere, too, Theoctistus was a good deal more successful than was formerly believed. For reasons which will shortly become clear, Michael III and his ministers have been the victims of a campaign of deliberate disparagement on the part both of near-contemporary sources and of later chroniclers - above all the Emperor Constantine Porphyrogenitus himself — who had no hesitation in falsifying the work of their predecessors. Only quite recendy has it been realized how far even modern historians have been deceived. We now know, for example, that the expedition led personally by Theoctistus against the Saracens of Crete, far from collapsing after his own return to Constantinople, in fact resulted in the recovery of the island for a number of years; while a decade later, on 22 May 853 - in what was by far the most daringly aggressive naval or military operation since the beginning of the Muslim invasions - a Byzantine fleet under the command of the High Chamberlain of the Palace, the eunuch Damianus, suddenly appeared off Damietta at the eastern extremity of the Nile Delta, set fire to the city and to all the Saracen vessels lying in the harbour, destroyed a huge store of arms and returned with scores of prisoners. Arab records recently come to light report other operations, by no less than three more fleets numbering 300 vessels in all, around the Aegean and off the Syrian coast.

Where Theoctistus must stand condemned is in his undeniable association with the Empress in what Professor Bury describes as 'one of the greatest political disasters of the ninth century' - the persecution of the Paulicians. This widespread but fundamentally harmless Christian sect had arisen some 200 years before in Armenia and had existed in peace with the Empire until the days of Michael I, who had yielded - as he always did - to ecclesiastical pressure and ordered the first measures to be taken against them. The reasons were purely doctrinal. It was not that the Paulicians were iconoclasts — though they were; it was that they rejected not only holy images but also the institutions of baptism, marriage and the Eucharist, the sign of the cross, all the Old Testament and quite a lot of the New, and the entire hierarchy of the Church. Espousing as they did the Manichean belief in the two opposing principles of good and evil, they held the material world to be a creation of the devil; it followed that Christ's single nature - for they were also staunch monophysites1 - owed nothing to that world; as for His Mother, she had served merely as a physical vessel for the divine essence, through which it had flowed 'as water through a pipe'.

With the return of the iconoclasts the Paulicians had had reason to hope that their troubles might be over, but they had been disappointed: both Leo the Armenian and Theophilus had actively pursued the policies of their predecessors. And now that the iconodules were back in power the persecutions continued with redoubled zeal. A new decree was promulgated, calling on all members of the sect to renounce their errors on pain of death; and a vast military expedition set out for the East to put the order into effect. The result - since the victims almost all remained true to their faith — was a massacre: 100,000 are reported to have perished - by hanging, drowning, the sword, even by crucifixion. All their property and lands were confiscated by the State. Fortunately a considerable number managed to escape, and sought refuge in the only place available — across the imperial frontier with Omar ibn Abdullah, the Emir of Melitene (now Malatya) and his fellow Saracens.

Never before had the Byzantine Empire deliberately set out to destroy an entire religious community in such a manner; never would it attempt to do so again. But the treatment of the Paulicians was not only brutal and barbaric, leaving an indelible stain on the memory of the Empress in whose name it was carried out; it was also almost unbelievably shortsighted. Left to themselves, these sober, devout, disciplined men and women would have constituted a formidable bulwark against Saracen attacks, earning the respect and gratitude of every right-thinking Byzantine; instead, they were driven despite themselves into the territory of the Caliphate, of which they soon proved themselves loyal and courageous allies against the Empire. Meanwhile, as always under persecution, their religion spread. We find it - or something very like it - professed by the Bogomils in Bulgaria and Bosnia in the tenth century and by the Cathars of the Languedoc in the eleventh and twelfth. It was not an attractive creed, and untold suffering would have been avoided if it could have been contained among the Armenian fastnesses from which it sprang. That it was not so contained was the fault, above all, of successive rulers of Byzantium.

1 For the belief in the single (and divine) nature of Christ, see Byzantium: The Early Centuries, pp. 155-6.

The Emperor Michael III, meanwhile, was growing up. We hear little of him during his long minority; his mother was a strong-willed, decisive woman who kept him firmly in the background, and he himself always remained, throughout his short life, almost childishly weak and easily led. In other respects, however, he seems to have been rather more mature: in 855 at the age of just fifteen he took as a mistress a certain Eudocia Ingerina, and might well have married her had not his mother — horrified at the prospect of a half-Swedish daughter-in-law who showed her, she considered, insufficient respect - forced him to cast her aside in favour of another Eudocia, surnamed Decapolitana, in whom he took no interest whatever. It was characteristic of Michael that he obeyed unquestioningly; perhaps he was already resolved to maintain the relationship with his first love which, we have reason to believe, was to continue until his death. It may well be, none the less, that his suppressed resentment at Theodora's high-handedness induced him to lend a sympathetic ear to the conspiracy which, only a few months later, was to bring about her downfall.

The leading spirit in this conspiracy was the Empress's own brother, Bardas. He had never forgiven Theoctistus for out-manoeuvring him in 843; and for twelve years he had waited patiently for his chance. That chance had now come. With the assistance of the High Chamberlain Damianus - hero of the Damietta raid two years before, who may well have felt that his services on that occasion had been insufficiently recognized - he easily persuaded Michael that he would never be allowed to exert his rightful authority for as long as his mother and Theoctistus remained supreme, and that if he were even to attempt to assert himself they would have no compunction in deposing him.

Once assured of the young Emperor's support, Bardas acted quickly. A day or two later, on 20 November 855, the Logothete was walking through the Palace on his way to Theodora's apartments when he suddenly found his path blocked by Michael himself and Damianus. The Emperor angrily pointed out that he was no longer a child, and that if there were any state business to be transacted it should be referred to himself rather than to his mother. An argument ensued, after which Theoctistus turned on his heel and went back the way he had come; but he had not gone far before Bardas, together with a group of disaffected army officers, suddenly leapt forward and struck him to the ground. Somehow he managed to draw his sword, but he was quickly overpowered and hustled, still struggling, to the Skyla - a small semicircular antechamber which gave direct entrance into the Hippodrome. Bardas's original idea, so far as we can tell, was to send him to some distant place of banishment; it was the Emperor himself who gave his guards the order to kill him. At this point Theodora, informed by her ladies of what had happened, appeared at the doors of the Skyla and tried to remonstrate; but she was rudely turned away. The guards dragged Theoctistus out from the chair under which he had crawled, and held him fast while their captain ran him through.

With the death of the great Logothete, Theodora's power was ended - though for the moment she continued to live, bitter and unforgiving, in the Imperial Palace. Meanwhile in March 856, at a special session of the Senate, her son was proclaimed sole Emperor, in which capacity he was to reign for the next eleven years. To reign, however, is not necessarily to rule; and in view of Michael's weak character and general irresponsibility it was a good thing indeed for the Empire that the effective power should have passed into the hands of his uncle. Despite the unprincipled manner in which he had seized that power — and his reported intention of dealing with Theoctistus by exile rather than execution does little to mitigate his guilt, since he could almost certainly have persuaded the Emperor had he wished to do so — Bardas quickly proved more capable even than his predecessor. A brilliant administrator possessed both of farsighted statesmanship and boundless physical energy, he stamped his imprint indelibly on what was soon to become, in the opinion of many, the golden age of Byzantium; while as principal magistrate of the Empire and commander-in-chief of its armed forces he presided over a period of almost uninterrupted success. In the military sphere, for example, we learn - from Arab sources, rather than falsified Byzantine ones - that in 856 an army under the command of his brother Petronas crossed the Euphrates and penetrated deep into Muslim territory as far as Amida (the modern Diyarbakir), taking many prisoners. Another expedition three years later, led on this occasion by the Emperor himself, crossed the same river at a time when it was in flood and later passed into legend, becoming the theme of one of the most popular traditional Greek folk epics. Then in the summer of 859 there was another raid on Damietta, every bit as successful as the first; while in 863 imperial armies scored two crushing defeats over the Saracens within the space of some ten weeks.

The first of these battles was fought against Omar ibn Abdullah, Emir of Melitene. Always a dangerous enemy, he had now further strengthened his forces with detachments of embittered Paulician refugees. In the early summer he led his army, Christians and Muslims together, through the Armeniakon Theme on the southern shore of the Black Sea, sacking the important commercial centre of Amisus (Samsun). The Byzantine army of some 50,000 sent against him was commanded once again by Petronas, who divided his forces into three and, advancing simultaneously from north, south and west, contrived to surround the Emir at Poson, a spot no longer precisely identifiable between the River Halys and its tributary, the Lalakaon. In the desperate fighting that followed Omar himself was killed, as were almost all his men, Saracens and Paulicians alike. The Emperor - who, according to the Arab chroniclers, was present throughout - and Petronas then returned in triumph to Constantinople, bringing with them as their prisoner the Emir's own son, one of the few Arabs to have survived. They had not been long in the capital before news reached them of yet another decisive victory - at Mayyafariqin over the Saracen Governor of Armenia, Ali ibn Yahya, who had also fallen in the fray.

The disgrace of Amorium had been avenged. The tide was beginning to turn. Until this time, from the earliest days of the Arab invasions, the Byzantines had been obliged to fight a defensive war against them; more than once, indeed, they had had to struggle for their very survival. Henceforth, we find them increasingly on the attack. Not only are they stronger and better equipped; there is a new spirit, a new confidence, in the air.

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