Post-classical history

Double Murder

[866-7]

I have got rid of the fox; but in his place I have put a lion who will end by devouring us all.

Bardas, after the dismissal of the High Chamberlain Damianus

It has seemed worth telling in some detail the story of what was to become known as the Photian schism, not only for its own inherent interest but for its importance in the history of East-West relations within the Christian Church. Nor is that story altogether finished. The time has come, however, to look briefly at the secular scene during the reign of Michael III and at the men who loomed largest in it -beginning with the Emperor himself.

If Michael has so far appeared a somewhat shadowy figure in this account, it is because he himself was an unusually weak personality who allowed himself to be dominated first by his mother, then by his uncle Bardas and finally by his intimate friend, murderer and successor Basil the Macedonian. Although it was plain from the start that he would never make the sort of ruler the Empire needed, he was not entirely without qualities: by his early twenties he was already a seasoned campaigner, and his physical courage in the field was never in question. What he lacked above all was strength of will. Content to sit back and enjoy himself while others took on the responsibilities of government, he seemed unable and even unwilling to check his own moral decline: a decline which, in the last five years of his life until his violent death at the age of twenty-seven, finally reduced him to a level of drunkenness and debauchery that fully earned him his later sobriquet of 'the Sot'.

It was fortunate for the Empire that there were others - statesmen, moreover, of quite exceptional ability - ready to take up the reins of power and to govern in his name: first, in the days of his mother's Regency, the eunuch Theoctistus; later, after her downfall, her brother Bardas. Some time around the year 859 Bardas received the dignity of curopalates, a rare distinction normally reserved for members of the imperial family and giving its holder some claim to the succession should the Emperor die without issue; but as his power and influence increased even this was not enough and in April 862, on the Sunday after Easter, he was created Caesar. By this time Michael had long since put away his wife Eudocia Decapolitana, and his chances of legitimate progeny were negligible. Bardas was universally accepted as the next Emperor of Byzantium, and with the present one already far advanced in alcoholism nobody believed that his succession could be long delayed.

Meanwhile he continued to act as basileus in all but name, and did so supremely well. The ten years of his government saw the string of victories over the Saracens in the East and the conversion of the Bulgars, to say nothing of major advances in the long-drawn-out struggle of the Byzantine Church for independence from Rome; he himself followed the example of his brother-in-law Theophilus in the personal and active interest he took in the administration of justice, and that of Theoctistus in his encouragement of learning. The old University of Constantinople, founded early in the fifth century in the reign of Theodosius II, had been allowed to decline until, during the days of the first iconoclasts, it had collapsed completely. Bardas it was who revived it, establishing it this time in the Imperial Palace of The Magnaura under the direction of Leo the Philosopher - or, as he is sometimes called, Leo the Mathematician.

With Photius the Patriarch and Constantine-Cyril the missionary, Leo was one of the three greatest scholars of his time. A cousin of John the Grammarian, he had earned his living as a young man by teaching philosophy and mathematics in Constantinople; but he had become famous only after one of his pupils, captured by the Saracens and taken off to Baghdad, had so impressed the Caliph Mamun by his knowledge that the latter had inquired who his master had been. The Caliph — himself an intellectual and a dedicated patron of the arts and sciences — had then actually written to the Emperor Theophilus, offering 2,000 pounds of gold and a treaty of eternal peace in return for the loan of Leo for a few months; but Theophilus had wisely preferred to set him up as a public teacher in the capital, where he gave regular lectures in the Church of the Forty Martyrs. Later he was appointed Archbishop of Thessalonica, but on the Emperor's death Leo — a fervent iconoclast — was deposed from his see and returned to academic life. Under his direction at Magnaura, Constantine-Cyril had briefly occupied the chair of philosophy, while others of his pupils held those of geometry, astronomy and philology. It is interesting to note that there was no chair of religious studies; the university concerned itself solely with secular learning — which accounted for the implacable hostility with which it was viewed by Ignatius and his followers.

Among the Emperor's many unattractive habits in these latter years was that of surrounding himself with favourites and cronies, who would don obscene fancy dress and accompany him in wild roisterings through the streets of the capital. One of these men, who makes his first appearance in 857 or thereabouts, was a rough and totally uneducated Armenian peasant by the name of Basil. His family, like so many of their countrymen, had been settled in Thrace; but they had subsequently been taken prisoner by Krum and had been transported beyond the Danube to an area known as 'Macedonia' — probably because of the number of Macedonians who had suffered a similar fate. Here Basil had spent much of his childhood, and it is as 'the Macedonian' that he and his dynasty are most misleadingly known, despite the fact that he possessed not one drop of true Macedonian blood, spoke Armenian as his first language and Greek only with a heavy Armenian accent. Devoid of any intellectual accomplishments - he was entirely illiterate, and remained so all his life - he could boast only two obvious assets: Herculean physical strength and a remarkable way with horses. Either of these may have been responsible for his first attracting the Emperor's notice. Genesius tells of how he distinguished himself at a wrestling contest, in which he was pitted against a gigantic Bulgar who had defeated several previous champions. When Basil's turn came, he is said to have picked the fellow up bodily and hurled him across the room. The Continuator of Theophanes gives a similar account, but also tells another story, according to which Michael was presented with a magnificent but totally unmanageable horse. Neither he nor any of his friends could control it, but one of them suggested that his groom might succeed where all the others had failed. Basil - for it was he — approached the horse, took its bridle with one hand and stroked its ear with the other, whispering gently as he did so. Immediately the animal became quiet. So delighted was the Emperor by this performance that he there and then took the young Armenian into his service.

We can accept these trivial anecdotes or reject them; it hardly matters. There is, however, another story of Basil's youth which, although obviously belonging to legend, was sedulously fostered in his later years and proves rather more significant as an indication of his need to justify his later accession to the throne. In Book V of the Continuator - a most flattering biography of Basil now known to be the work of his putative grandson, the Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus - we read of how he first arrived in Constantinople one Sunday evening at dusk, and lay down to sleep in the porch of the Church of St Diomed near the Golden Gate. During the night, the abbot of the monastery to which the church belonged was awoken by a mysterious voice, commanding him to go and open the door to the Emperor. He rose, but seeing only a poor traveller in rags huddled on the floor, returned to his bed. A second time the summons came, with the same result; then a third, more insistent still and accompanied, we are told, by a hefty punch in the ribs. 'Rise,' ordered the voice, 'and bring in the man who lies before the door. He is the Emperor.' The abbot obeyed, took the youth into the monastery, fed him, washed him and gave him new clothes, asking only to be considered thenceforth his friend and brother.

We do not know whether this improbable tale came to the ears of the Emperor Michael or, if it did, what effect it had on him; but from the moment of Basil's admission to the imperial court his promotion was swift. He soon became more of a friend than a servant; and when the office of High Chamberlain1 suddenly fell vacant - the eunuch Damianus having been discharged after losing his temper with Bardas - Michael immediately appointed him to the post. Thenceforth Emperor and Chamberlain lived together on terms of close intimacy - so close indeed that some historians have spoken darkly of a homosexual relationship. What makes such a theory improbable, however, is the somewhat unusual arrangement that Michael now made for their future domestic felicity. Basil was obliged to divorce his wife Maria, and to marry instead the Emperor's own first love and long-time mistress Eudocia Ingerina. It was a surprising step to say the least, and one for which there can be only one plausible explanation: it enabled Michael to

1 The Greek word parakoimomemos literally means 'one who sleeps nearby' - i.e. the court dignitary required to sleep in the Emperor's bedchamber. As time went on, the office gradually increased in importance (cf. the Lord Chamberlain in England) while the duty itself was delegated to junior officials. Traditionally, it was always held by a eunuch - which made Basil's appointment more surprising still.'

introduce the lady into the Palace without provoking the scandal that would have been inevitable had he done so by any other method. This, however, leads us to another still more remarkable conclusion: that he intended her to remain imperial property - in which case the baby boy, Leo, to whom she gave birth on 19 September 866 was in all probability not Basil's child but Michael's, and what we know today as the Macedonian dynasty was in fact simply a continuation of the Amorian.1

Now all this is clearly hypothetical, and several recent historians have been inclined to reject it. There is on the other hand a body of circumstantial evidence which seems difficult to dismiss. First of all, at least one of our sources - Simeon - states categorically that Leo was Michael's son, suggesting indeed that the fact was common knowledge in Constantinople. Second, Basil always hated Leo. The only one of his children, real or pretended, to whom he showed any real affection was Constantine, the son of his first wife Maria - a boy whom he idolized, and whose early death was to plunge him into a depression from which he never recovered. Third and in many ways strangest of all - is the fact that if Eudocia had been living with Basil as his wife it is hardly likely that the Emperor would have gone to the trouble of providing his favourite with another bedfellow, in the unexpected and distinctly matronly shape of his sister Thecla, now in her middle forties, who had recently been freed from the monastic seclusion to which she was clearly unsuited and was now brought in to complete this improbable menage a quatre. Basil's liaison with her, however, was to prove little more than a stop-gap: whether or not he shared Eudocia's bed while Michael was alive, he certainly did after the latter's death - for she was to bear two further sons, Alexander and Stephen, in 870 and 871 respectively.2 As for Thecla, she soon formed an attachment with one of the noblemen at court, John Neatocomites; but this too was ill-fated. When Basil found out, the two were severely chastised; in addition John was tonsured and sent to a monastery while Thecla had all her property confiscated except her house at Blachernae - where she died, bedridden and in poverty, a few years later.

1 Correctly or not, the paternity of Basil will be assumed where necessary as the story continues.

2 Or so it appears. The sources as usual give conflicting dates, and it is possible - though the weight of the evidence is against it - that one at least of the baby princes may have been born during Michael's lifetime or within a few months of his death, thus once again raising the question of paternity.

As Basil's influence over Michael increased, so too did the mutual hostility between himself and Bardas. On the Caesar's side it had begun with contempt rather than suspicion. He believed that his nephew trusted him implicitly with the government of the Empire, and that as long as his .pleasures were not interrupted or interfered with would continue to do so; as for the Armenian, Bardas probably looked upon him as a somewhat unsavoury companion in those pleasures and not very much more. But the alarming speed with which Basil tightened his hold oh the feckless Emperor soon caused him to revise his former opinions. The man was becoming a serious threat to the State, and - if the words quoted at the head of this chapter are not entirely apocryphal - Bardas knew it.

As for Basil, his ambition was still far from satisfied. By now his eyes were fixed on the throne, which seemed almost within his grasp - were it not for the fact that a rival was blocking his path. And so — just as Bardas had poisoned the young Emperor's mind against the eunuch Theoctistus a dozen years before - now Basil, quietly and insidiously, aroused his suspicions of his uncle. It was not, he pointed out, simply that the Caesar despised his nephew; he wanted him out of the way, in order to make himself the sole and undisputed ruler of Byzantium. The only solution was for Michael to act first, while there was still time.

Despite all their recent successes against the Saracens in the East, there remained one theatre of war in which the Byzantines had achieved nothing. Crete, after its brief recovery by Theoctistus, was now once more in the hands of the infidel. This was a situation that Bardas was no longer willing to tolerate and he had set about preparations for a major expedition against the island in the spring of 866. Some time during the previous winter, however, word reached him that the coming campaign was to be the occasion for a plot against his life, in which the Emperor himself and his Chamberlain were both involved. His first reaction was to withdraw from the expedition altogether, and to remain in the capital where he could better protect himself; he seems, too, to have faced his nephew squarely with his suspicions, for on Lady Day, 25 March, at the Church of St Mary Chalcoprateia,1 we find Michael and Basil putting their signatures - in the latter's case, presumably, a simple cross - to a

1 St Mary in the Copper-Market, so called because it had been built in the fifth century on the site of a synagogue formerly used by Jewish coppersmiths. The church was one of the most revered in the city, since it seems to have shared the robe of the Virgin with St Mary at Blachernae. All that remains of it today is a short stretch of crenellated wall, a hundred yards or so to the west of St Sophia.

formal declaration swearing that they had no hostile intentions towards him. So solemn was this oath - it is said to have been signed in the blood of Jesus Christ, a small and diminishing quantity of which was kept among the most precious of the sacred relics in St Sophia - that the Caesar relented; and he was in his accustomed place beside the Emperor when the expedition left Constantinople soon after Easter.

The chosen route took the army across the corner of Asia Minor to a point at the mouth of the river Meander, near the ancient city of Miletus, where the fleet lay at anchor. On the evening before the embarkation Bardas received a further warning. He laughed it aside; but that night he hardly slept, and early on the following day - it was 21 April - he confided his fears to his friend Philotheus, the General Logothete. Philotheus did his best to reassure him. 'Put on your peach-coloured gold cloak,' he advised, 'and face your enemies. They will scatter before you.' The Caesar did as he was bid and rode off, sumptuously arrayed, to the imperial pavilion, where he seated himself next to his nephew and listened with every show of attention while another of the Logothetes read out the morning report. When this was over, he turned to Michael and suggested that if there were no more business to transact the embarkation might now begin; but at that moment, out of the corner of his eye, he saw the Chamberlain make a surreptitious signal. His hand flew to his sword; but it was too late. With one tremendous blow Basil struck him to the ground, while other conspirators rushed forward to finish him off.

The Emperor himself made no move. He seemed not so much surprised as stunned by what had occurred, and opinion is still divided as to the extent to which he had been party to the plot. But there can be no doubt that he was aware, at least in general terms, of Basil's intention, and his own subsequent actions certainly argue some degree of complicity. He wrote at once — obviously on bis Chamberlain's instructions - to Photius in Constantinople, informing him that his uncle had been found guilty of high treason and summarily executed. The Patriarch's reply was a masterpiece of sly innuendo. 'The virtue and clemency of Your Majesty,' he wrote, 'forbid me to suspect that the letter was fabricated or that the circumstances of the Caesar's death were other than it alleges' - a clear enough indication that he did indeed suspect precisely that. He concluded by imploring the Emperor, in the name of the Senate and the people, to return at once to the capital.

He was right to do so, and Michael and Basil both knew it. A few days later they were back in Constantinople. The Cretan expedition was over before it had begun.

On Whit Sunday, 866, early worshippers at the Church of St Sophia were intrigued to notice, not the single throne in its accustomed place, but two similar thrones, set side by side. They were still more surprised when the Emperor arrived in the usual procession from the Palace, but instead of moving directly to his seat climbed to the top level of the ambo, that great three-decker pulpit of polychrome marble normally used for the reading of the Gospel and the committal prayers. Basil, robed as High Chamberlain, then mounted to the middle level, while one of the secretaries took his place on the lowest and began to read in the Emperor's name:

The Caesar Bardas plotted against me to slay me, and for this reason induced me to leave the city. Had I not been informed of the conspiracy by Symbatius1 and Basil, I should not be alive today. The Caesar was guilty, and brought his death upon himself.

It is my will that Basil, the High Chamberlain, who is loyal to me, who has delivered me from my enemy and who holds me in great affection, should be the guardian and manager of my Empire and should be proclaimed by all as basileus.

While Basil was being attired by the eunuchs in the purple buskins and the rest of the imperial regalia, Michael handed his diadem to the Patriarch, who blessed it and returned it to his head; then, removing it again, the Emperor himself performed the coronation of his new colleague. Basil's ambition had been fulfilled. The transition from stable-boy to basileus had taken him just nine years.

The shared monarchy, by contrast, was to last only sixteen months - a period during which the centre of the stage was once again occupied by religious affairs. As the Western missionaries poured into Bulgaria in ever greater numbers, Photius realized that he had lost the initiative: Boris and his subjects had been drawn, it seemed irrevocably, into the Roman camp. To make matters worse these missionaries were spreading dangerous heresies, at least one of which - that Constantinople was not, as the Byzantines maintained, the senior Patriarchate but the most recent and therefore the least venerable of the five2 - was nothing short of an insult. Equally pernicious was the Latin insistence on the celibacy of the

1.   The Logothete of the Course, another Armenian and one of Basil's closest confederates.

2.   Rome, Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem, Constantinople.

clergy; if this were to gain general acceptance it could not fail to bring the Orthodox parish priests - who were actually required to be married — into disrepute.1 Worst of all, however, to serious theologians like Photius, was a doctrine to which Pope Nicholas had now for the first time given official endorsement and which was to become the very cornerstone of the whole controversy between the Eastern and the Western Churches: that of the Double Procession of the Holy Ghost.

In the early days of Christian belief, the Third Person of the Trinity was held to proceed, directly and exclusively, from God the Father. Then, towards the end of the sixth century, the fatal word Filioque - 'and the Son' - began to appear; and soon after 800, when it became the practice in Charlemagne's Empire to recite the Nicene Creed during the course of the Mass, this insertion was generally adopted in the West. To the Eastern Church, on the other hand, it remained the vilest heresy; and to learn that accredited papal representatives were now disseminating this poison among the Bulgars was more than the Patriarch could bear. He resolved therefore to call a General Council, to meet in Constantinople in the late summer of 867, which would anathematize the Double Procession and the various other heresies of which the Roman missionaries were guilty and so snatch back the poor misguided Bulgars from the jaws of hell. Finally and most dramatically, it would depose the Pope.

But would this be more than an empty gesture where Rome was concerned? Photius believed that it would. He knew that Nicholas was now almost as unpopular in the West as he was in Byzantium. By refusing to allow King Lothair II of Lorraine to divorce his wife and marry his mistress, he had antagonized not only Lothair himself but his elder brother, the Western Emperor Lewis II; nothing would give the two brothers greater pleasure than to see him brought low and replaced by another, more amenable Pontiff. Imperial emissaries sped to Lewis's court, and - though there was no formal agreement - an understanding was quickly reached. Not only would the Council declare Pope Nicholas deposed; Lewis would send a military force to Rome to remove him physically. In return, the Byzantine government would grant its ally full imperial recognition and hail him as Emperor of the Franks.

This, it must be emphasized, was no small concession. Admittedly such recognition had been accorded to Lewis's great-grandfather in 812;

1 Though not of course the bishops and hierarchy, who were drawn exclusively from the monasteries and continued to be bound by the vow of chastity.

but circumstances then had been very different, and Charles had paid dearly for the privilege. Even so, many Byzantines had bitterly opposed the decision, and the act had never been repeated. Lewis, moreover, was no Charlemagne. Although he might call himself Emperor, he was in fact only a relatively insignificant princeling in Italy; was he really -by the decision of the Byzantines themselves - to be raised to the same level as God's Vice-Gerent on Earth, the Elect of Heaven, Equal of the Apostles? Michael himself, whose personal supremacy was at stake, might have been expected to protest; or, if he were too sodden with drink and debauch, his co-Emperor Basil. But Photius did his work well; and neither of them, so far as is known, breathed a word in opposition.

They did, however, preside jointly at the Council, which performed just as the Patriarch had intended that it should. Heresies were condemned, the Pope was deposed and, for good measure, anathematized. Lewis and his wife Engelbertha were acclaimed in their most sonorous imperial titles. Photius for his part was jubilant: this was his finest moment, the summit of his career. How could he tell that, in barely a single month, all his efforts would be set at naught and that he himself, so soon after his supreme triumph, would be humbled before his two oldest and most implacable enemies?

When Michael III and Basil I took their places side by side to inaugurate the Council of 867, few of those present could have guessed the true state of relations between them. Michael had raised his friend to the throne because he had no delusions about his own incapacity to rule and understood more than anyone the need of a strong hand at the helm; but as he grew more and more demoralized and sank ever lower into dissipation, his drunkenness, his desecrations and depredations of churches and his senseless acts of cruelty made him less an embarrassment than a dangerous liability.. In his sober moments, he now seemed to think only of chariot racing. He had built himself a magnificent new stable whose marble walls made it look more like a palace, and a private race track at St Mamas where he would practise for the games in the Hippodrome, spending whole days together with the professional charioteers — always considered the dregs of Byzantine society - showering them with gold and gifts and regularly standing godfather to their children. On one infamous occasion while he was personally competing, it was whispered that he had even set up an image of the Virgin in the imperial box, to preside over the games in his stead and to applaud his safely predictable victory. Bardas had been able in some measure to control him; but for Basil, not unnaturally, Michael never had the same respect, and he bitterly resented any attempt on the part of his co-Emperor to remonstrate with him. The partnership had in short become unworkable. Once again, Basil the Macedonian made up his mind to act.

On 24 September 867, the two Emperors and Eudocia Ingerina were dining together in the Palace of St Mamas. Towards the end of the meal Basil made an excuse to leave the room and hurried to Michael's chamber, where he bent back the bolts of the door in such a way that it could not be locked. He then returned to the table until such time as his colleague, now as usual blind drunk, staggered off to bed and immediately fell into a deep alcoholic slumber. His fellow-conspirators had meanwhile gathered in a distant corner of the Palace. Basil joined them, and together they settled down to wait.

Byzantine Emperors never slept alone; on this particular night, however, the official who normally shared the imperial bedchamber was away on a mission, and his place had been taken by the Patrician Basiliscianus, one of Michael's old drinking companions.1 He had noticed the condition of the bolt and was still lying anxiously awake some hours later when he heard footsteps: there on the threshold stood Basil, with eight of his friends. Basiliscianus tried to block his entrance, but was hurled aside; he was seriously wounded by a sword-thrust as he fell to the floor. Meanwhile one of the conspirators, John Chaldos, approached the sleeping Emperor, but apparently had not the courage to kill him outright; he hacked off both his hands, then fled from the room. It was left to Basil's cousin Asylaion to administer the coup de grace.

Leaving Michael dead or dying in a pool of his own blood, the assassins hurried down to the Golden Horn - where a boat awaited them - and rowed across to the Great Palace. One of the guards was expecting them, and the doors were immediately opened. On the following morning Basil's first act was to instal Eudocia Ingerina — his own wife and his victim's mistress - in the imperial apartments. The news of the murder seems to have been received with little surprise, and still less regret, outside Michael's immediate family; but one of the court officials, sent the following morning to St Mamas to arrange for the funeral, found the horribly mutilated body wrapped in a horse-cloth and the

1 Some months previously, Michael had tried to raise Basiliscianus too to the purple; Basil had had the greatest difficulty in restraining him.

Empress Theodora xwith her daughters - all now released from their monastery - weeping uncontrollably over her son. He was buried with the minimum of ceremony at Chrysopolis, on the Asiatic shore.

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