Post-classical history

Leo the Wise


Most animals, when their mate is dead, retire into perpetual widowhood. Human beings, on the contrary, unconscious of the shameful nature of their weakness, are not satisfied with one marriage, but proceed immodestly to contract a second and, not content with that, go from the second to a third.

The Emperor Leo VI

In view of the relations existing between Basil and his successor, who now ascended the throne under the title of Leo VI, it is hardly surprising that the old Emperor's obsequies should have been kept to a minimum. Returned to Constantinople and clothed in full imperial regalia, his body was exposed according to tradition in the Triclinium of the Nineteen Beds.1 Here the requiem was chanted, at the close of which the Master of Ceremonies repeated thrice the time-honoured formula: 'Come forth, Basileus, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords summons thee. Take thy crown from off thy head.' The praepositus then removed the diadem and replaced it with a simple purple cap. And that, so far as the records go, is all. The coffin was presumably transferred to the Church of the Holy Apostles for burial, but even this is far from certain; what we do know for a fact is that one of Leo's first actions as basileus was to bring back the remains of Michael III from his burial-place at Chrysopolis, and to reinter them in that same church, in a sarcophagus that had formerly held those of Justin I or II. Now to do such honour to the murdered Emperor while deliberately flouting the dispensations ordered by his murderer seems — even if we make allowance for Leo's never-concealed hatred of Basil — an unnecessarily blatant insult to the latter's memory; if, on the other hand, Leo knew himself to be the son not of Basil but of Michael, such a gesture was no more than might have been expected.

1 So called because of the nineteen couches on which guests reclined in the antique manner during certain ceremonial banquets, particularly between Christmas and Epiphany.

At the time of his consecration, the new Emperor was just twenty years old. His life up to that time had not been a happy one. He had been only thirteen when the death of his brother Constantine had changed his father's feelings towards him from mild dislike to bitter loathing; less than three years later, there had been the enforced marriage, the banishment of his beloved mistress and his own incarceration - made a good deal more irksome by the presence of his wife Theophano, who had insisted on sharing it together with their infant daughter. So much adversity during his formative years might well have had a catastrophic effect on Leo's character. It is greatly to his credit that it did nothing of the kind. There is, admittedly, the possibility that he may have been privy to the plot - if such existed - to murder Basil; but this can never be proved. For the rest, he seems to have been kind, generous, highly intelligent and possessed of considerable charm. He was also - unlike Basil - a scholar.

The one point upon which all the chroniclers agree is Leo's intellectual calibre. The first Emperor to have been able to benefit from the cultural renaissance inaugurated by Theoctistus and Bardas and exemplified by Photius, Constantine, Cyril and Leo the Philosopher, he had shown himself from his earliest years to possess a first-rate academic mind, with the strong inclinations typical of his time towards philosophy and theology. He was never, it need hardly be said, the astrologer-soothsayer of his later reputation, nor could he conceivably have been the author of the immensely popular but utterly spurious collection of prophecies about the Empire and its destiny with which he was to be universally credited in later centuries. He was, on the other hand, a man of very considerable learning - more, almost certainly, than could have been claimed by any of his predecessors on the Byzantine throne: one who had read widely on many subjects and who spent his leisure hours composing not only liturgical poems and hymns but also a vast collection of sermons and homilies which he was wont to deliver personally, on the great feasts of the Church, from the pulpit of St Sophia. These effusions occasionally reveal a somewhat disconcerting lack of self-consciousness: diatribes against those who 'instead of bathing in the pure waters of matrimony prefer to wallow in the mud of fornication' come strangely from the lips of a man who kept a regular and recognized mistress from the age of fifteen; while the words at the head of this chapter must surely have caused him considerable embarrassment towards the end of his life. The general tenor of his writings, however, leaves us in no doubt of the breadth of his scholarship, which was enough to earn him, while still in his twenties, the sobriquet of sophotatos, 'the most wise'; and although outside the Greek world we tend to drop the superlative form of the adjective, it is as Leo the Wise that - rightly or wrongly - he is still known today.

In the circumstances it was only to be expected that when Leo succeeded to the throne - in theory he shared it with his brother Alexander, but Alexander was a pleasure-loving nonentity who took no interest in government and asked nothing better than to be relieved of all responsibilities - he should have made radical changes in the administration; nor does it come as a surprise to learn that the chief beneficiary of these changes was Stylian Zautses — he who had played so questionable a part in the mystery surrounding Basil's death - who now became Master of the Offices and Logothete of the Course, effectively the director of imperial policy at home and abroad. The chief casualty, equally predictably, was Photius. After all that he had suffered, directly and indirectly, at the Patriarch's hands, Leo would have had sufficient cause to dismiss him for personal reasons alone; but there was more to it than that. The long years of the quarrel with Ignatius had revealed all too clearly the danger of allowing the Church too much independence or freedom of action; and Photius's views on the relationship between the political and spiritual thrones as set out in theEpanagoge seemed to the new Emperor to savour more than a little of treason. For the second time the Patriarch found himself obliged to sign an act of abdication; on this occasion, however, he did not escape so easily. Early in 887 he and Theodore Santabarenus were brought before a specially-convened tribunal and accused of having been involved, four years previously, in a conspiracy against the State. Santabarenus, found guilty, was blinded and exiled; Photius, devious to the last, was permitted to retire to a remote monastery in the Armeniakon Theme, where he was able to continue his theological and literary work undisturbed, and where he died in obscurity a few years later.

The choice of his successor showed clearly enough the way Leo's mind was working: on Christmas Day 886 he audaciously raised to the patriarchal throne his own youngest brother Stephen, not yet sixteen years old. Never in the history of the Eastern Church had the supreme ecclesiastical authority been entrusted to one so young; surprisingly, however, Stephen's appointment seems to have aroused little opposition.1 It may be that the bishops and abbots had simply had enough of the endless squabbling of the past forty years and genuinely welcomed the prospect of a period of peace and understanding between Church and State, even at some cost to their effective independence. There was after all no other obvious candidate for the post, and Stephen - who was a weak and sickly youth, unlikely to last very long - may well have struck them as a harmless stopgap who would ensure his brother a few years' respite while he settled on to his throne. If so, they were right: the new Patriarch was to prove every bit as cooperative as expected. Alas, only six and a half years later he was dead; his successors, as we shall see, were to prove distinctly less amenable.

With Stylian Zautses as his political adviser and Stephen as his willing instrument in Church affairs, Leo was now admirably equipped to govern bis Empire. On the domestic front there were no major upheavals for the rest of the century, which was to end on a particularly happy note when an important synod — it may even have been a General Council - was summoned in 899 and did much to restore relations between the Eastern and Western Churches. (At the time it seemed also to have settled the still-smouldering dispute that divided the Photian and Ignatian factions; but this, as we shall shortly see, was soon to be rekindled by the affair of the Emperor's fourth marriage.) Leo was con-sequendy able to give his full attention to the tremendous work initiated by his father - the revision and recodification of the Roman law.

His reputation as a lawgiver - and indeed as the most, important in Byzantine history since Justinian himself - was, it must be said, partly due to Basil and his commission of distinguished legists, under the chairmanship of the protospatharius2 Symbatius, to whom he had entrusted the task of 'purification' mentioned in the preceding chapter. Not a little of the credit must also go to Stylian, who inspired him and drove him forward, and after whose death the whole project seems to have lost a certain impetus. But Leo too applied himself to the work, at least in those early years, with energy and enthusiasm; and there can be no doubt that it gained much from both his erudition and his literary skills.

1 Forty-seven years later, Romanus I was to elevate his own youngest son Theophylact, who was only a month or two older.

2 One of the eighteen honorary ranks of the Byzantine imperial service. The three highest -Caesar, nobilissimus and curopalates — were normally reserved for members of the Emperor's family; they were followed by magister, antihypatus, patricius, protospatharius and eleven others.

The results were published in series over the years: known as the Basilica and consisting of six mighty volumes, each containing ten books, they were largely based on Justinian's Codex and Digest; they did, however, incorporate a good deal of later work - including parts of the Procheiron - and in addition possessed two inestimable advantages. First, the laws were systematically arranged: a given subject was treated in extenso in a given book, and nowhere else. Second, they were written in Greek rather than Latin, which for well over two centuries had been a dead language in Constantinople, comprehensible only to scholars. Thus, from the reign of Leo VI onwards, the work of Justinian was effectively superseded; it is henceforth the Basilica, rather than the Codex, Digest or Institutes,on which the medieval legal structure of Byzantium is founded.

For all their importance, however, the Basilica deal mainly with first principles of right and wrong; they tell us disappointingly little about their time. A good deal more illuminating in this respect are Leo's so-called Novels, the 113 separate decrees by which he revises or revokes older laws according to developments in political or religious ideas. Once again we must be chary of ascribing too much responsibility for them to the Emperor personally: the seventeen which deal with exclusively ecclesiastical matters may well be from his own hand; the remainder, however, though ostensibly addressed to Stylian, are more probably the work of the Logothete himself. Of the latter, the most significant are those revoking the ancient rights of the Curia and the Senate. For a hundred years and more these two institutions - whose functions had formerly been to provide checks on imperial power - had been declining in importance; at last, in Novels 46, 47 and 78, they received their quietus. This is not to say that they were dissolved. The Senate in particular remained active and was not afraid to express its opinions; and it is worth noting that when Leo was at the point of death he specifically committed his son to its care. But it no longer existed as a political force in the State, nor did it enjoy any constitutional power.

Only in ecclesiastical matters was the Emperor still something less than omnipotent. God's Vice-Gerent on Earth he may have been; yet he remained after all a layman, while the Church had its own leader in the Patriarch of Constantinople. Admittedly it was he who appointed the Patriarch; but the appointment, like that to all high ecclesiastical offices, required the consent of the clergy. He was also bound by the decisions of the Councils, his duty where matters of dogma were concerned being merely to safeguard the Orthodox creed as defined by those authorized to do so. In all other fields, however, his power was absolute: chosen by God, Equal of the Apostles, he was master of the government of the Empire, commander-in-chief of its forces, sole lawgiver and supreme judge, whose decisions were subject to no appeal and irrevocable by all but himself.

That blessed period of domestic quiet which accounts in large measure for the remarkable speed with which the new legislation was published , in the last decade of the ninth century was not, unfortunately for Leo, reflected by a similar degree of tranquillity abroad. In the Eastern Mediterranean and the Aegean, the Arabs kept up the pressure: some years were worse than others, but there had been few indeed since the fall of Sicily and Crete to Saracen arms when an imperial city had not been raided or imperial shipping attacked. A more immediate threat, however - and a very much more unexpected one - came in 894 from Bulgaria. After the conversion of King Boris twenty-nine years before, the Byzantines had hoped that the two Christian peoples might henceforth live together in peace; but Boris had abdicated in 889 and had retired to the monastery of St Panteleimon near Preslav, leaving the throne to his elder son, Vladimir; and Vladimir had proved a disaster. In a violent reaction against his father and all that he had stood for, he had identified himself with the once-powerful boyar aristocracy which Boris had done his utmost to crush. The boyars were old-fashioned reactionaries who detested Christianity and asked nothing better than to return to the bad old days of privilege and paganism; Vladimir agreed with them entirely, and with their support was rapidly undoing all his father's work and encouraging a return to the ancient tribal gods.

Had he waited another few years, he might even have succeeded. The Bulgarian Church had got off to a fairly shaky start and had had little time to take root; many of its members may well have felt a similar nostalgia. But he had reckoned without Boris, whose espousal of the contemplative life had not prevented him from closely following developments in the outside world. In an explosion of rage which can almost be heard down the centuries the old king burst out of his monastery, took over the government without a struggle, deposed and blinded Vladimir and, summoning a great conference from every corner of his kingdom, bade the assembled delegates acclaim his younger son, Symeon, as their ruler. Unhesitatingly, they did so; whereupon he returned to his cloister, never to leave it again.

Symeon was now twenty-nine. As a boy he had been sent to be educated in Constantinople, where he may have studied, along with Leo, at the feet of Photius himself. Returning to his homeland, he too had become a monk; but monastic disciplines had done nothing to curb a warlike and ambitious spirit, and when the call came to assume the throne of his father he was not slow to respond, In Byzantium, the news of his accession was received with considerable relief, and for a year all went well. Then in 894 Stylian Zautses, for reasons at which we can only guess, awarded the monopoly of trade with Bulgaria to two of his own proteges. Immediately they imposed a dramatic increase on the customs dues payable by Bulgar merchants on all goods imported into the Empire, simultaneously transferring the entrepot from Constantinople to Thessalonica, where sharp practices were a good deal less likely to be detected. The Bulgars were appalled. At a single stroke, the substantial freight trade from the Black Sea down the Bosphorus to the Golden Horn had been destroyed; to make matters worse, the Thessalonica road was rough and frequently impassable in winter, and meant far greater distances to cover. Symeon at once sent an embassy to Constantinople in protest, but Leo as always supported his Logothete and nothing was done.

He had underestimated Symeon; but he did not do so for long. Within weeks, a Bulgar army had invaded Thrace. The imperial forces were already fully occupied in south Italy and on the eastern frontier. The Empire's one outstanding general, Nicephorus Phocas, was urgently recalled; and although the troops that he was given to command were raw and only semi-trained, he and the drungarius1 Eustathius - who blockaded the mouth of the Danube - were able to hold the situation while the Emperor, by now seriously alarmed, turned for assistance to the Magyars. These savage warrior people, after several centuries of slow westward migration from Siberia, were now occupying the Moldavian and Transylvanian lands beyond the Danube and were consequently the northern neighbours of the Bulgars, for whom they had no very great liking. They needed little enough encouragement to swarm across the river - the Byzantines providing the boats - into

1 The drungerius was the commander-in-chief of the imperial navy - though not of the local levies raised from the cities along the coast, which were under the authority of the strategoi of their respective Themes. At this period the drungarius, despite his importance, ranked below these strategoi; within another half-century, however, he would occupy a place in the military hierarchy second only to that of the commander-in-chief of the land forces, the Domestic of the Schools.

Bulgar territory, leaving the usual trail of devastation and destruction in their wake. But if Leo could summon a barbarian tribe to his aid, so too could Symeon. Beyond the lands of the Magyars, in the plains of southern Russia, dwelt another nomadic tribe, the Pechenegs. Bribed with Bulgar gold, they fell on the Magyar rear, with results even more catastrophic than their victims had inflicted on Symeon's kingdom. The Magyars, as soon as they heard the news, returned with all speed to save their wives and children from this new terror, only to find their way blocked by a huge Pecheneg host. Unable to remain in Bulgaria, where Symeon was now advancing against them, they had no choice but to continue their old westward migration through the Carpathian passes into the great Pannonian plain - the land which we now call Hungary, and which is still their home.

With the Magyars finally off his back, Symeon was able once again to devote his full attention to the Byzantines, on whom in 896 he inflicted a crushing defeat at Bulgarophygon, near the modern Babaeski, in European Turkey. Unfortunately for the Empire, Nicephorus Phocas had been recalled by Stylian to Constantinople; his successor Catacalon possessed little of his energy and strategic imagination. Somehow this lacklustre commander managed to escape with his life; few of those who fought with him were equally fortunate.1 Leo had no choice but to sue for peace; but it was only after five years of long and patient diplomacy, and a reluctant agreement to pay a large annual tribute, that he obtained it. The staple at Thessalonica was closed, and Constantinople once again became the centre for Bulgarian trade. The war, which had been caused by what should have remained a minor commercial dispute, had proved an unmitigated disaster for the Empire. It had also permanently and decisively changed the map of Central Europe. Bulgar susceptibilities could no longer be ignored: Symeon had shown that he was a force to be reckoned with.

He had also succeeded in dangerously reducing Byzantine military power at a time when the Empire needed to mobilize all its available resources against the Arabs. With the departure of Nicephorus Phocas, the Saracen advance in south Italy could no longer be held in check: 1 August 902 saw the fall of Taormina, the last imperial stronghold in

1 One of the other survivors was so revolted by the carnage that he retired to Mount Joannitsa near Corinth, where he spent the rest of his life on top of a pillar - earning later canonization as St Luke the Stylite.

Sicily; while in the East, Armenia was left practically defenceless and the Muslim forces began a new advance into Cilicia. The situation in the Aegean was no better; that same year also saw the destruction of the wealthy and well-defended port of Demetrias - now Volos - in Thessaly. The worst catastrophe of all, however, occurred two years later when a Greek renegade, Leo of Tripoli, led a Saracen fleet up the Hellespont and into the Marmara. Eustathius sailed out against him, but lost his nerve at the last moment and retired without risking an engagement. The command was hastily transferred to a certain Himerius, who succeeded in forcing the Saracens to retire; instead of returning to their home waters, however, they made straight for Thessalonica. The city resisted for three days, but its walls were in disrepair and its two commanders at loggerheads; the sudden death of one of them after a fall from his horse might in other circumstances have proved a blessing in disguise, but it came too late. On 29 July 904 the defences crumbled and the Saracens poured through the breach. The bloodshed and butchery continued for a full week; only then did the raiders re-embark with their priceless plunder and - we are told - more than 30,000 prisoners, leaving the second city and port of the Empire a smoking ruin behind them.

It was more than a disaster; it was a disgrace. Leo determined on revenge. The shattered fortifications of Thessalonica were rebuilt and strengthened; an intensive programme of ship-building considerably enlarged the fleet; and a plan was prepared for the autumn of 905 according to which Himerius, who had by now succeeded Stylian as Logothete of the Course, would sail round the coast to Attaleia — the modern Antalya - embark a land army under the command of the local military governor, Andronicus Ducas, and then continue to Tarsus, a port which was roughly commensurate with Thessalonica in size and importance and which would now, it was intended, suffer a similar fate. Himerius duly arrived at Attaleia with his fleet - only to find that Ducas had no intention of joining him and had effectively come out in open revolt against the Empire. At this point a lesser man, suddenly denied the forces he had been promised, might well have given up the whole operation; but Himerius, ill-equipped and inexperienced as he was, had no intention of doing any such thing. He pressed on regardless; and a few days later, having utterly destroyed the Saracen fleet that had sailed out to intercept him, he reduced Tarsus in its turn to ashes. Byzantine honour had been saved.

Andronicus Ducas had meanwhile retired, with as many of his army as he had been able to persuade to follow him, some 150 miles northeast to a fortress near Iconium (the modern Konya). There he remained throughout the winter until March 906 when, learning of the approach of an imperial army, he withdrew with his son Constantine across the Saracen frontier and, after a brief pause in what was left of Tarsus, sought refuge in Baghdad. His story is neither edifying nor, in itself, particularly important; but it serves admirably to illustrate a grave new danger that was beginning to threaten the Empire: the rise of an increasingly powerful social class which had grown up in the course of the ninth century and was to cause serious problems during the tenth and eleventh. It consisted of a number of immensely rich families - in view of their size and ramifications, perhaps 'clans' would be a better word — possessed of extensive estates all over Asia Minor and sharing a long militaristic tradition, intermarrying among each other and showing little loyalty to the crown - if only because many of them had designs on it for themselves. Of these clans, that of the Ducas was probably the largest and certainly the most formidable; and Andronicus stood at its head. In the past he had given good service to the Empire, notably in 904 when he had led an expedition into Syria with extremely satisfactory results; but his sudden betrayal - prompted so far as we know by nothing more than resentment at finding himself subordinated to a commander whom he considered his inferior — demonstrates clearly enough the tenuousness of the ties that attached him, and many others like him, to the throne.

As things turned out it was the Emperor himself who was to be responsible, all unwittingly, for the ultimate downfall of Andronicus Ducas. He had arranged for an embassy to be dispatched to Baghdad, there to negotiate with the eleven-year-old Sultan al-Muqtadir an exchange of prisoners; and to it he now entrusted a secret letter to his former strategos, offering him pardon and reinstatement if he would only return to his old allegiance. Unfortunately, the letter was discovered; and its discovery proved Andronicus's undoing. Until then, the Sultan had believed him worthy of his trust; now, he was not so sure. Summoning the renegade into his presence, he gave him the choice between death and immediate conversion to Islam. Not altogether surprisingly, Andronicus chose the latter, but even this did not secure his freedom. He was placed, if not in confinement, at least under close surveillance; and shortly afterwards he died.

Leo's struggle against the Saracens was not quite over: it was to continue, indeed, for the rest of his life. The time has now come, however, to return to Constantinople, there to trace the vicissitudes of his emotional life during the second half of his reign.

His troubles had begun with his wife Theophano. During his father's lifetime the pair had been obliged to keep up appearances as best they could; after his own accession, however, relations between them had deteriorated fast. He had never liked her at the best of times, but now -perhaps to compensate for the love he could never give her - she had turned all her thoughts to religion, growing more and more devout until she became, even by Byzantine standards, mildly ridiculous. 'With morbid zeal,' writes her own biographer,the Augusta applied herself to the salvation of her soul, treating all the pleasures of worldly life as dirt beneath her feet. Day and night her soul ascended to God in the chanting of psalms and in constant prayer; and unceasingly she drew near to Him through her works of charity. In public she wore the flowers of the purple and was clad in all the splendour of majesty. In private, secretly, she dressed in rags. Preferring the ascetic life to all others, she despised sumptuous food, and when delicate dishes were set before her she took bread and vegetables instead. All the money that she received, all the things so highly esteemed by people of this world, she distributed to the poor; her magnificent robes she gave to the needy; she ministered to the needs of widows and orphans; she enriched the monasteries, and loved the monks as if they were her own brothers.

At night, he continues, the Empress forsook her husband's bed, preferring a rough mat in a corner, from which every hour she rose to pray. A more unsatisfactory consort for a lusty young prince could hardly be imagined; moreover, Leo desperately wanted a son - and, as the anonymous biographer admits, 'he could not hope to have another child by her since her body, weakened and consumed by spiritual contemplation, was no longer capable of giving itself up to the delights of the flesh'.

In the winter of 892 their only child, Eudocia, died; Theophano withdrew into deeper and deeper seclusion and a year or two later, to her husband's unconcealed relief, retired to the convent attached to the Church of St Mary Theotokos at Blachernae where on 10November 897, not yet thirty years old, she followed her daughter to the grave. Leo gave her a magnificent funeral - considering the way he had treated her in her lifetime, it was the least he could do — and immediately summoned his beloved Zoe to Constantinople. There remained the problem of her husband; but fortunately - some people thought a little too fortunately, but in the circumstances no inquiries were made and nothing was ever proved - Theodore Gutzuniates chose this peculiarly opportune moment to die in his turn. With unseemly dispatch his widow was installed in the Palace, and early in 898 the two lovers were married at last.

For a short time all was well. Zoe soon found herself pregnant, and the Emperor eagerly awaited the son that the astrologers had promised him. Alas, the child proved to be another girl, who was given the name of Anna; but this was only the first - and least - of the misfortunes that he was called upon to suffer as the century drew to its close. The second was the death, in the spring of 899, of Stylian Zautses. As Leo's chief minister he had served the Emperor faithfully - if not always selflessly -for thirteen years, and being also his father-in-law had been granted the unprecedented title ofbasileopator. Leo had given him his total trust, and implicitly relied on his judgement and experience; his loss came as a bitter blow. But worse yet was in store: at the end of that same year Zoe herself succumbed to some mysterious disease. Their long-awaited idyll had lasted just two years.

Leo's grief was, there is every reason to believe, deep and genuine; but there was no doubt in his mind that he must take a third wife. He had never been strong, and his health was causing him increasing concern; meanwhile his brother Alexander, with whom he theoretically shared the throne, was rapidly destroying himself with drink and debauchery and showed every sign of predeceasing him. In such an event, and in the absence of any son to succeed, the Empire would once again be imperilled, the prize of any adventurer who might attempt to seize it. And there was another consideration too: that only if an ordered and regular succession were guaranteed could there be any hope of a consistent long-term policy. The century that was just closing had proved both these points beyond any reasonable doubt: again and again the throne had been acquired by guile, or violence, or both. On the iconoclast question alone, the pendulum had swung so wildly to and fro that the majority of the Emperor's subjects could have been forgiven for feeling heartily sick of the whole business. What was required was a single, numerous, imperial family: a family whose members would all share similar opinions on the major issues of the day and in which the diadem would pass smoothly, ineluctably, from father to son or uncle to nephew, each pursuing the policies of his predecessor and giving the

Empire the consistency and continuity that it had so notably lacked in the recent past. But such a desirable a state of affairs could never be achieved in the absence of a generally accepted heir. Inevitably, this led to a disputed succession, which was in turn the fundamental evil from which all the others sprang: the plots and intrigues, the palace revolutions and the coups d'etat, the poindess and bewildering changes of policy. The conclusion was obvious: the Emperor must marry a third time, and have a son.

But was such a thing permitted? The early Fathers of the Church -including SS. Jerome, Ambrose and Augustine - had adopted a fairly lenient view. Premature deaths from disease or childbirth were frequent in those days, and for a man to take a second wife after the loss of his first, or even a third after that of his second, seemed to them pardonable enough — particularly since it was, in the majority of cases, bound to happen anyway. In the East, on the other hand, the accepted code of conduct was more stringent. St Basil — always the most authoritative voice - had reluctantly permitted second marriages, so long as those concerned did suitable penance; third marriages, however, he firmly disallowed. They were at best what he called 'moderated fornication', and carried the penalty for both parties of four years' denial of the Sacrament. As for anyone ill-advised enough to attempt matrimony for the fourth time, they were guilty of something far worse than fornication, moderated or not. Their crime was polygamy, 'a practice bestial and wholly alien to humankind', for which a canonical penalty of no less than eight years was enjoined.

But Emperors were not necessarily bound by the same laws as their subjects, least of all when state interests were involved. Leo's brother, the Patriarch Stephen, had unfortunately died in 893; but his successor, the moderate and easy-going Antony Cauleas, was quite ready to grant the necessary dispensation and during the summer of 900, in the last of those curious beauty competitions or 'bride shows' ever held at the court of Constantinople, Leo selected a ravishing girl from Phrygia named Eudocia Baiana as his new consort. She tried hard, and on Easter Sunday, 12 April 901 presented her husband with a son. Alas, she died while doing so, and the baby prince survived her by only a few days.1

Leo, however, refused to give up. He was still only thirty-five, and

1 An indication of the disapproval felt by many of the more strait-laced clerics of Constantinople was afforded by the abbot of the monastery of St Lazarus, who refused point-blank to allow her to be buried within the monastic precincts.

his determination to propagate his dynasty was as firm as ever. A fourth marriage, on the other hand, would be a good deal harder to arrange than the third had been, and even if he succeeded would unquestionably be his last chance. Before embarking on it, he had to be sure of his ground. His first step was, therefore, to take as his mistress the strikingly beautiful niece of the admiral Himerius, Zoe Carbonopsina - 'with eyes as black as coal'. (One feels throughout this story that however pressing may have been the reasons of state that impelled Leo to continue on his quest for a son, the process was not altogether uncongenial to him.) Illicit as it was, he made no secret of this union, which the Church — while not in any way condoning it - infinitely preferred to the idea of yet another marriage; nor was there any great wave of indignation or censure when, a year or two later, Zoe gave birth to a girl. Finally, however, in September 905, she produced a son. Small and sickly though he was, the Emperor's immediate ambition was achieved. The Patriarch, on the other hand, found himself in a quandary. He could not contemplate the possibility of the Emperor's marrying again; neither, however, could there be any question of Leo and his mistress living indefinitely in open sin. Finally agreement was reached: the Emperor would remove Zoe from the Palace, after which the Patriarch would consent to baptize his son in St Sophia. And so it came about: on the Epiphany following, 6 January 906, the baptism took place, the baby prince being given the name of Constantine.

That hurdle having been successfully crossed, however, Leo had no intention of maintaining a celibate life. Only three days later he brought Zoe back to the Palace, where he was already contemplating his next step. His son had been received into the Church, but he was still a bastard and, as such, debarred from the throne. Somehow he must be legitimized, and that could be achieved in one way only - by presenting the Patriarch with a fait accompli. And so Leo did the only sensible thing. He asked no permissions, gave no warnings. Quietly, almost secretly, in the private chapel of the Palace and before a simple parish priest, he and Zoe went through a form of marriage. Only when the ceremony was over did he make public what he had done and proclaim his new wife Empress.

For eight years the storm had been gathering; now it broke. The Church exploded in fury. St Basil was quoted ad nauseam; the Patriarch publicly reminded the Emperor that he had consented to perform the baptism of his son only on the understanding that his unseemly liaison was to be broken off forthwith. There could be no question of the fourth marriage being recognized: Leo himself had been joint signatory, with his father and his brother Constantine, of the article in the civil code which read:

Let it now be absolutely clear to all, that if any shall dare to proceed to a fourth marriage, which is no marriage, not merely shall such a pretended marriage be of no validity and the offspring of it be illegitimate, but it shall be subject to the punishment prescribed for those who are soiled with the filth of fornication, it being understood that the persons who have indulged in it shall be separated from each other.

In fact, where the civil code was concerned, Leo could have claimed immunity. He could even have issued a new decree annulling the former one and declaring fourth marriages lawful. Against canon law, on the other hand, he was powerless. Somehow, therefore, he must obtain a special dispensation; but how was this to be done? Had his brother still been alive and in occupation of the patriarchal chair, things might have been arranged without too much difficulty - though Stephen might have had a hard time carrying his colleagues with him. But he and his successor Antony Cauleas were both dead, the latter having been succeeded in 901 by a certain Nicholas, a nephew of Photius who had formerly served as the Emperor's private secretary. Left to himself, Nicholas too would probably have agreed to the dispensation; it was his misfortune to find himself confronted with Arethas, Bishop of Caesarea, the foremost scholar of the day and now to prove his most implacable enemy.

Although Leo liked to congratulate himself that he had brought peace to the Church through the Synod of 899, and although the two protagonists of the recent schism had long been in their graves, the Photian and Ignatian factions were still very much alive and continuing to threaten the unity of Orthodoxy. Both by training and inclination, Arethas had been for the first half-century of his life a dedicated Photian. Intellectually he was probably the only man in the Empire who could hold a candle to his master; he had published scholarly editions of several classical writers and was himself the author of one of the earliest Greek commentaries on the Apocalypse. Unfortunately, however, his writings had given mortal offence to the Ignatians, who at Easter 900 had had him arraigned on a charge of atheism. The proceedings had in fact ended in his acquittal, but he was a bitter and vindictive man who never forgot an injury; and when Nicholas, his friend and fellow-Photian, had been appointed Patriarch in the following year the bishop had pressed him to take immediate action against those who had done him wrong. Nicholas however had refused, pointing out that he had promised the Emperor as a condition of his appointment that he would do everything in his power to heal the breach between the two sides; the incident was closed, and to resurrect it would serve only to stir up the old animosities again to no purpose. Arethas, furious, had sworn revenge.

The issue of the Emperor's fourth marriage gave him just the opportunity he wanted. Inevitably, it had developed on factional lines, with the intellectual, worldly-wise Photians inclined to allow Leo his dispensation for the greater good of the State while the Ignatians, bigoted and doctrinaire to the last, ranged themselves inflexibly against it. Everything that Arethas stood for should have placed him squarely in the Photian camp; his vindictiveness alone drove him to adopt the line taken by the Ignatians, who welcomed him with open arms. Ill-educated as they were, they could never have hoped to hold their own in argument with the sophisticated followers of Photius. Now, suddenly, they had found a voice: a man of deep theological erudition, thoroughly trained in the arts of disputation and dialectic,1 more than a match for any of his former friends who might champion the Emperor's cause.

All through the year the debate continued, while the Ignatians -thanks entirely to Arethas — steadily gained ground and the position of Patriarch Nicholas grew ever more impossible. The Emperor, meanwhile, was losing patience; and some time during the autumn a new and daring idea seems to have formulated itself in his mind. The Photians alone, obviously, would never be strong enough to gain him his dispensation. Very well, he would seek it from the Ignatians. True, they had set their faces firmly against it; but what might they not do in return for the Patriarchate? Discreet inquiries were made - not of Arethas, who had spoken out too strongly against the fourth marriage for any compact to be possible, but of Euthymius, abbot of the monastery of Psamathia, the leader and most widely respected member of the Ignatian party before the Archbishop's adherence.

Euthymius occupies a somewhat questionable place in the history of

i Less so, however, in those of diplomacy - or he would hardly have written in a letter to the Emperor, 'Why can you not now dismiss with thanks the woman who has given you the child you desired, as we dismiss a ship when her cargo is discharged or throw away the husk which has brought the fruit to maturity?' the Orthodox Church. Whether or not he deserved the canonization that he later received, he was certainly a profoundly religious man and a genuine ascetic. Early in his youth Leo had chosen him as his spiritual father and had built and endowed Psamathia specifically for him; but Euthymius had made no secret of his disapproval of the Emperor's treatment of Theophano or of his two subsequent marriages, and -though Leo had never lost his respect for his former mentor — relations between the two had understandably cooled. In view of both his record and his reputation — he was well known for his strict interpretations of canon law and all Church observances - one would have expected so stern a moralist to reject out of hand the proposal that was now made to him; but Leo clearly knew his man. After a decent moment of hesitation Euthymius accepted the offer of the Patriarchate and pronounced himself ready to issue the required dispensation, provided only that some respectable pretext could be found.

The Emperor was ready for this. Knowing full well that the Ignatians had always been staunch upholders of papal authority, and had indeed received invaluable support from Rome during the stormy days of the Photian dispute forty years before, he now revealed that he had recently submitted the whole question of the tetragamy (as it had come to be called) to Pope Sergius III, from whom he confidently expected a favourable reply. If the Supreme Pontiff were now to give his blessing, what better authority could Euthymius require? He could issue the dispensation forthwith - and, Leo might have added, save his face as well.

How, we may ask, could Leo be so sure that the Pope would react as he hoped? First, there was the fact that the early Catholic Fathers had never been unduly exercised over the question of plural marriages; what caused far more concern in Rome was the ever-widening rift between the Eastern and the Western Churches, and no Pope worthy of his throne would let slip so golden an opportunity of seeming to impose his authority on Constantinople. Second, Sergius was in desperate need of military assistance in south Italy where the Saracens were showing every sign of strengthening their hold, and the Emperor had no doubt that the Pope would consider his approval for the fourth marriage a more than acceptable quid pro quo.

Meanwhile, he was prepared to bide his time. Not a word was said publicly about his negotiations with Euthymius or his appeal to the Pope. He refused any suggestion that Zoe should be separated from him while the question remained unresolved, insisting that she should be treated with all the honour and respect due to an Empress; when, on the other hand, at Christmas 906 and on the Feast of Epiphany following, Patriarch Nicholas denied him entry into St Sophia, he turned back without protest to the Palace. Then, in February 907, the night before the papal legates were due to reach the capital, he struck. Nicholas was accused - with what justification we shall never know — of having been in secret communication with the rebel Andronicus Ducas, put under close arrest and forced to sign an act of abdication from the Patriarchate.

Now such an abdication, even if the Patriarch had been guilty of treasonable activities, would not have been valid without the approval of his fellow-Patriarchs and, at least in theory, of the Pope in Rome. Once again, however, Leo had made his preparations in good time. That same embassy that had been sent to Baghdad to negotiate the exchange of prisoners — and that had, incidentally, proved so disastrous for Andronicus Ducas — had also been entrusted with a further task: to bring back to the capital accredited representatives of the three Eastern Patriarchates - Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem. Pope Sergius, too, had been secretly apprised of Leo's intentions. It was gratifying enough to him to have been asked to pronounce on the fourth marriage; an additional appeal by an Emperor against his own Patriarch was an even more valuable testimonial to the respect in which the Papacy was held in the East, and was certainly not to be refused.

The letter from Sergius, which the legates delivered on their arrival the next day, justified the Emperor's highest hopes: in the circumstances, His Holiness could see no objection to his remarriage. Before the end of the month Euthymius, newly enthroned as Patriarch, duly granted the long-awaited dispensation. He did not, it should be emphasized, even now sanction the marriage: for as long as he continued to associate with Zoe Leo would be admitted to the Great Church only as a penitent, being debarred from the sanctuary and forbidden to sit at any time during the service. For the Emperor, however, this was a minor humiliation — little enough price to pay for a happy married life. Sinful as it might be, his marriage was at least reluctantly recognized. He and Zoe were man and wife, and the baby Constantine, now eighteen months old, was held to be porphyrogenitus,'born in the purple' - a title by which he is still known to this day. Insofar as it ever could be in those uncertain times, the succession was assured.

The autumn of the year 905 was, for the Emperor Leo the Wise, a blessed season. September had seen the birth of his son, October the destruction of a Saracen fleet and the destruction of Tarsus. At last, it seemed, the wind was beginning to blow in his favour; and though the following year had brought a further deterioration in his relations with Nicholas, his triumph over the Patriarch during the first weeks of 907 must have provided further confirmation of his changing fortunes. The baby was crowned co-Emperor on 11May 908, and two years later Himerius sailed against the Syrian port of Laodicea (now Lattakia), sacked the city, plundered and ravaged the hinterland and returned safely to Constantinople without the loss of a single ship.

It would have been better for Leo if he had died there and then. Instead, in the autumn of 911 he sent off his admiral on a final attempt to recapture Crete. For five years he had been working to improve the imperial navy, and the force at Himerius's disposal was stronger and infinitely better equipped than any that had been previously thrown against the island. Alas, the occupying Saracens had been working simultaneously on their defences, and the expedition proved no more successful than its predecessors. For six months - all through the winter and into the spring - Himerius kept up the siege; but the defenders held firm, and the Byzantines could make no appreciable impact on the massive fortifications. Then, in April 912, there arrived an urgent message from the capital: the Emperor's health, which had been giving cause for anxiety since the beginning of the year, had taken a sudden turn for the worse. He was now gravely ill, and unlikely to live. Reluctantly, the admiral gave orders for the raising of the siege and set sail for the. Bosphorus. His ships were just rounding the island of Chios when they found themselves surrounded by a huge Saracen fleet under the command of Leo of Tripoli - he who had practically annihilated Thessalonica eight years before. Now he subjected the Byzantine vessels to much the same fate. Nearly all were sent to the bottom, Himerius himself narrowly escaping to Mitylene whence, slowly and with a heavy heart, he made his way back to Constantinople.

By the time news of the disaster reached the Imperial Palace, Leo's life was ebbing fast. He lived just long enough to hear it, then turned his face to the wall. On the night of 11 May he died. In a reign of just over a quarter of a century he had proved himself, if not perhaps a great Emperor, at any rate an outstandingly good one. He had, it is true, split the Church more deeply than ever; but this was the inevitable result of his fourth marriage, without which there would have been no obvious heir to the throne after the death of the childless Alexander. By his determination to marry Zoe Carbonopsina and to legitimize their son, he ensured both a universally recognized succession and the continuation of the Macedonian house, which was to survive for another 150 years - the greatest dynasty in the history of Byzantium. Compared with those two inestimable benefits, the damage done to the Church was of little long-term account.

For the rest, although he lacked that combination of relentless ambition, superhuman energy and boundless self-confidence that had distinguished his father — and is probably as good a definition of greatness as any other - he had ruled wisely and conscientiously over his subjects; and although his armed forces suffered more than their fair share of defeats at the hands of their Arab and Bulgar enemies, there can be no question but that he left the Empire, at least internally, in far better shape than when he inherited it. As befitted an intellectual and a scholar, he was not an exhibitionist: no great churches or sumptuous additions to the imperial palaces stand to his memory, and his mosaic portrait over the Imperial Door of St Sophia - which shows him, incidentally, in an attitude of prostration before Christ - dates almost certainly from several years after his death.1 His most enduring achievements - the codification of the law, the reorganization of the provincial administration, the restructuring of the armed forces - were by definition unspectacular; but they were no less valuable for that. In his lifetime Leo was genuinely loved and respected by his people; and after his death posterity had good cause to be grateful to him.

1 This mosaic, in the lunette above the central doorway of the nine leading from the narthex into the main body of the church, carries — most exceptionally - no identifying inscription, and has consequently been the subject of much learned argument. By far the most convincing interpretation is that given by N. Oikonomides, who believes it to represent Leo's repentance after his fourth marriage and his salvation after the intercession of the Virgin - pictured in a medallion above him, with the Recording Angel opposite her. According to this theory the mosaic would be connected with the Council of 920, intended to illustrate the subjection of the earthly ruler to the King of Heaven and placed over the very door before which Leo was twice denied entrance to the church. See 'Leo VI and the Narthex Mosaic at St Sophia' in the Dumbarton Oaks Papers, Vol. jo (1976).

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