Irene

[775-802]

An image, when the original is not present, sheds a glory like the original; but when the reality is there the image itself is outshone, the likeness remaining acceptable because it reveals the truth.

Clement of Alexandria, quoted by Nicephorus

Despite his unorthodox sexual proclivities, Constantine Copronymus was three times married and succeeded in fathering, on two of his wives, six sons and a daughter; and it was the eldest of those sons, born of another Khazar princess, who on his death assumed the throne as Leo IV. Although far more balanced a character than his father, Leo proved to be nowhere near so capable a ruler; allowance, however, must be made for two cruel handicaps with which he had to contend throughout his short reign. One was the disease - probably tuberculosis - which was to kill him while he was still some months short of his thirty-second birthday. The other was his wife, Irene.

The second Athenian to become Empress of Byzantium, Irene could hardly have been more different in character from the brilliant young Athenais who had married Theodosius II three and a half centuries before. Scheming and duplicitous, consumed by a devouring ambition and an insatiable lust for power, she was to bring dissension and disaster to the Empire for nearly a quarter of a century, and to leave a still darker stain on her reputation by one of the foulest murders that even Byzantine history has to record. During her husband's lifetime she could operate only through him; but as he was both morally and physically weak while she was preternaturally strong, her influence is discernible from the moment that he assumed the supreme authority.

Why Leo - or, more probably, his father - chose her is a mystery. She was, it is true, startlingly beautiful; but the Empire was full of beautiful women and she possessed no other obvious advantage. Her family and antecedents were obscure; although she seems to have adopted the name of Irene only on her marriage, we know of no other. Her native city, too, had long since lost its old distinction. The former intellectual capital of the world was now a pious little provincial town: even the Parthenon had been converted into a church. Worse still from the imperial point of view, the people of Athens were known to be fervent supporters of images; and Irene was no exception. Her husband, left to himself, would have been an iconoclast like his father - in one of his rare moments of self-assertion he was to have a group of senior officials publicly scourged and imprisoned for icon-worship - but his wife made no secret of her own sympathy for such practices and constantly strove to bring about, once and for all, the defeat of iconoclasm and everything that it stood for.

Now there is no reason to think that Irene was not perfectly sincere in her beliefs, and for as long as her activities were limited to the exercise of a moderating influence on her husband they were plainly beneficial: thanks in large measure to her, the exiled monks were allowed back into their monasteries, the Virgin Mary was once again accepted as an object of veneration rather than the butt of ribald jokes, and the Emperor was actually hailed as 'Friend to the Mother of God' - a title that would have thrown his father into paroxysms. But during the high summer of 780 Leo's health took a sudden turn for the worse. Boils broke out all over his head and face, he was stricken with a violent fever and on 8 September he died, leaving a son just ten years old. This was Irene's opportunity. She immediately declared herself Regent on behalf of the boy, and for the next eleven years was the effective ruler of the Roman Empire.

Her position was not, however, undisputed. The army in Anatolia, still overwhelmingly iconoclast, mutinied within a matter of weeks, ostensibly in favour of one or the other of the late Emperor's five brothers, all hopelessly incompetent but providing a useful focus for discontents. The insurrection was quickly put down, and its ringleaders appropriately punished, the five brothers — who were quite probably innocent - being tonsured, forcibly ordained and then, lest anyone should have any further doubts about their religious status, obliged jointly to administer the sacrament at St Sophia on the Christmas Day following. For Irene, the lesson was not lost. Now more than ever she understood the strength of the opposition: every high office of Church and State and most of the army was in iconoclast hands. If she were to succeed in her purpose, she would have to pick her way with care.

The attempted insurrection provided her with an excuse to carry out a purge of the army; but the price she paid was a high one. In face of the dismissal of many of the best and most popular officers, those who had escaped the purge grew discontented and demoralized to the point where they could no longer feel any loyalty to the imperial throne. In Sicily, the Byzantine Governor declared himself independent and shortly afterwards threw in his lot with the Saracens of North Africa. In the East, when the Caliph's son Harun al-Rashid crossed the border in 782 at the head of an army estimated at 100,000, the Armenian general Tatzates immediately defected in similar fashion, his men following him without hesitation: Harun was eventually bought off by a humiliating and expensive truce, by the terms of which Irene agreed to pay him an annual tribute of 70,000 gold dinars for the next three years. Significantly, the Empress's only military success throughout the years of her regency was won in her native Greece, where the army was composed largely of westerners and iconoclasts were few. Thither in 783 she dispatched her chief minister and favourite, the eunuch Stauracius who, having first put down the rebellious Slavs in Macedonia and Thessaly, advanced deep into the still unsubdued Peloponnese, whence he returned loaded with plunder.

After this small triumph Irene felt strong enough to press on with her ecclesiastical policy. In 784 the iconoclast Patriarch resigned - the reason given was ill health, but some degree of persuasion does not seem unlikely - his place being taken by the Empress's former secretary Tarasius. In the circumstances, she could have made no better choice. The new Patriarch had never been a churchman; though he was well versed in theology - as were all educated Byzantines - his training had been that of a civil servant and diplomat. His approach to the iconoclast issue was consequently that of a practical statesman rather than a cleric. Even he, as we shall see, was to make mistakes; it remains true that much of the short-term success of the iconodule reaction was due to his wisdom and sound judgement.

The first priority, he decided, must be the restoration of relations with Rome. On 29 August 785 Irene and her son therefore addressed a letter to Pope Hadrian I, inviting him to send delegates to a new Council at Constantinople which would repudiate the findings of its heretical predecessor. The Pope replied with guarded enthusiasm. It was, he suggested, a pity that the Emperor and Empress had seen fit to appoint a layman to the Patriarchate, and had once again described him as 'Ecumenical'; on the other hand he greatly looked forward to therestoration of the South Italian, Sicilian and Illyrian bishoprics to his authority, and expressed his confidence that, if they dutifully followed his guidance as their spiritual father, young Constantine would grow up to be another Constantine the Great while Irene herself would prove a second Helena.

Thus, when the Council convened for its opening session on 17 August 786 in the Church of the Holy Apostles - the qualifying adjective, forbidden in the days of Constantine V, now happily reinstated - complete with delegates from Rome and all three Eastern Patriarchates, the cause of the icons seemed assured. But Tarasius, carefully as he had laid his plans, had underestimated the determination of the iconoclast diehards; they were not yet beaten, and they demonstrated the fact in the most forceful manner possible. Soon after the delegates had taken their seats, a detachment of soldiers from the imperial guard and the city garrison suddenly burst into the church and threatened dire penalties on all who did not leave at once. The meeting broke up in disorder verging on panic, and the papal legates, deeply shaken, at once took ship back to Rome.

Irene and Tarasius acted with decision. A few weeks later they announced a new expedition against the Saracens. The mutinous troops were mobilized for action and carried across into Asia; once there they were quietly but firmly disbanded, their place in the capital being taken by trustworthy units from Bithynia. Meanwhile the departed delegates were laboriously reassembled, and in September 787 the reconvened Seventh Ecumenical Council began its work at last, amid the strictest security precautions, in the Church of the Holy Wisdom at Nicaea -where the First Council had been held by Constantine the Great more than four and a half centuries before. As an earnest of its good intentions towards Rome, the two papal delegates - who had got as far as Sicily before their reluctant return - were given precedence over all the rest, including Patriarch Tarasius, in the attendance lists; the Patriarch served, however, as acting chairman - the true presidency being vested in Christ himself, represented (as was usual in Church assemblies) by the Book of the Gospels, laid open upon the presidential throne.

This time there were no interruptions. The business of the Council, it appeared, was not to discuss the pros and cons of iconoclasm; it was simply to ratify the return to the veneration of images. In the year that had passed since the abortive meeting in Constantinople, the entire opposition seems to have withered away. This is not, however, to say that matters proceeded entirely smoothly. Indeed, the very first issue to be discussed - the treatment of those formerly iconoclast bishops who were now prepared to admit their past errors - generated considerable heat, certain of the delegates almost coming to blows. The Council wisely decided that these bishops, once they had made full and public recantation, should be taken back into the bosom of the Church; but the motion was carried only in the teeth of violent opposition on the part of the representatives of diehard monasticism, who insisted that the offending prelates should be cast for ever into the outer darkness. There was much angry muttering as the former iconoclasts stood up one after the other, to acknowledge, as one of them put it, that they had been 'born, bred and trained in heresy', stigmatizing the Council of 754 as 'a synod gathered together out of stubbornness and madness . .. contrary to all truth and piety, audaciously and temerariously subversive of the traditional law of the Church by the insults that it hurled and the contempt that it showed towards the holy and venerable images'.

With relief, the Council now turned to a less divisive topic. Though all those present were agreed on the general desirability of the images, it was deemed essential to assemble a body of supporting evidence from the Scriptures and the early Fathers of the Church, thereby establishing the truth once and for all - and, it was hoped, ensuring that the same doctrinal mistake could not be repeated by generations to come. Some of the testimony adduced was of such footling triviality that it might have been better suppressed: the recanting Bishop Basil of Ancyra, for example, assured the assembly that he had frequendy read the story of the sacrifice of Isaac and had remained unmoved, but that the moment he saw it illustrated he burst into tears. Another former iconoclast, Theodore of Myra, capped this neatly with a story of one of his archdeacons, who had had a vision of St Nicholas and was fortunately able to recognize him at once from his icon. But at last the task was completed to the general satisfaction, and by the seventh session the Council was ready to approve a new definition of doctrine. This condemned hostility to holy images as heresy; decreed that all iconoclast literature must be immediately surrendered to the Patriarchal office in Constantinople under pain of degradation from holy orders or, in the case of laymen, of excommunication; and formally approved the veneration of icons. It concluded thus:

Wherefore we define with all strictness and care that the venerable and holy icons be set up, just as is the image of the venerable and life-giving Cross,

inasmuch as matter consisting of paints and pebbles and other materials is suitable to the holy Church of God, on sacred vessels and vestments, on walls and panels, in houses and streets: both the images of our Lord and God and Saviour Jesus Christ, and of our undefiled Lady the Holy Mother of God, and of the honourable angels, and of all the Saints.

For the more continuously these are seen by means of pictorial representation, the more their beholders are led to remember and to love the originals, and to give them respect and honourable obeisance: not that we should worship them with the true worship which is appropriate only to the Divine; yet still with offering of candles and incense, in the same way as we do to the form of the life-giving and venerable Cross and to the holy Gospel-Book, and to other sacred objects, even as was the pious custom in ancient days also.

That last sentence sounded a gentle note of warning: icons were to be objects of veneration (proskynesis) rather than adoration (latreia). The point may seem self-evident: anything else would be flagrant idolatry. But the delegates were well aware that it was the blurring of the distinction between the two that had been at least partially responsible for the rise of the iconoclast movement in the first place. It was as well to keep the faithful on their guard.

For its eighth and last session the entire Council moved to Constantinople where, on 23 October, it met in the palace of Magnaura under the joint presidency of Irene and her son. The definition of doctrine was read again, and was unanimously approved. It was then solemnly signed by the Empress and the Emperor, after which the delegates dispersed to their homes. Irene and Tarasius, having finally achieved their objective, had good cause to congratulate themselves.

Gibbon describes this second Council of Nicaea as 'a curious monument of superstition and ignorance, of falsehood and folly'. So in a way it was - particularly since, for all its outward unanimity, it heralded only a brief interruption in the iconoclast period: a quarter of a century later, its findings were to be repudiated in their turn and the holy images subjected once again to execration. The author of one of the most comprehensive works on iconoclasm, however, takes a radically different view.1 For him, the Council ranks as 'one of those events, trivial in themselves, which are great crises in the history of Christianity', because 'it completed the process of identifying Christianity with the Graeco-Latin civilization'. The iconoclasts, he argues, like the monophysites before them, reflected the oriental, mystical side of the Christian religion towards which, thanks to the influence of the Eastern

1 E. J. Martin, The History of the Iconodastic Controversy.

provinces - and, indeed, of Islam itself - the Byzantine Empire was constantly being drawn. But it never ceased to resist; and its resistance kept it rooted, theologically, in the Mediterranean world. If we accept this theory - and it seems difficult not to do so - the second Council of Nicaea can be seen as the sequel to that of Chalcedon, the Empire's Mast gesture of refusal to the claims of the Asiatic ideal'. Its tragedy was that, as the years went by, it increasingly lost political touch with the West, and consequently became 'a tragic monument of obstinate isolation' - a fact which will grow ever more apparent as our story continues.

The seventeen-year-old Emperor Constantine VI who signed the definitions reached by the second Council of Nicaea was still a figurehead; and despite his marriage to the beautiful Paphlagonian Mary of Amnia in the following year, a figurehead he was for the moment content to remain. How long he would have accepted this almost total exclusion from public affairs if his mother had been able to control her ambitions we cannot tell; but in 790 Irene overreached herself. Just when she should have been arranging to associate her son more closely with the imperial government, she resolved instead to inflict upon him a new and quite unnecessary humiliation - decreeing that henceforth she should take precedence over him as senior ruler, and that her name should always be mentioned before his. From that moment on Constantine found himself, whether he liked it or not, to be the rallying-point of all those who were opposed to his mother - and thus, inevitably, of many of the iconoclast old guard. Before long a group of them had formed a conspiracy with the object of seizing the Empress and banishing her to Sicily; but the ever-watchful Irene got wind of it in time, dealt firmly with those responsible, flung her son into prison and, to strengthen her position still further, demanded that the entire army swear an oath of allegiance to her personally.

Once again she had gone too far. In Constantinople and the European provinces, the soldiers swore their oath willingly enough; but in Asia Minor - where the iconoclast element remained strong - there was point-blank refusal. The mutiny, led by the troops of the Armeniakon Theme, spread rapidly: within a matter of days, Constantine was being acclaimed on all sides as the Empire's sole legitimate ruler. Hastily liberated from his prison, the young Emperor joined his adherents in Anatolia and returned with them in strength to the capital. Stauracius, Irene's Logothete and her chief lieutenant, was flogged, tonsured and banished to the Armeniakon; several lesser members of the Empress's court suffered similar fates. As for Irene herself, she was confined to her palace of Eleutherius, work on which had recently been completed. We should probably be mistaken in supposing that Constantine was personally responsible for such decisive measures; it is far likelier that the decisions were taken by his military supporters and that he remained his usual passive self. But his popularity was greater than it had ever been, his supremacy undisputed. The future was his.

And he threw it away. Weak, vacillating and easily led, he soon acquired the reputation of always believing the last thing he was told, and of following the most recent advice he was given. When in the autumn of 791 Harun al-Rashid's Saracens invaded his eastern provinces, he immediately concluded another shameful peace, involving the payment of a tribute which the Empire could ill afford; when at about the same time hostilities broke out along the Bulgarian frontier and he was obliged to go on campaign himself, he proved incapable of command and, at Marcellae in 792, ignominiously fled the field. That same year he actually allowed himself to be persuaded to recall his mother to the capital and restore her to her former power. For the secret iconoclasts in Constantinople, whose hopes he had thus betrayed, this was the last straw. A new plot was hatched, with the object of dethroning both mother and son in favour of the Caesar Nicephorus - one of the five brothers of Leo IV — despite the holy orders that had been forced on him a dozen years before; but it too was discovered, and for the first time in his life Constantine acted with decision. He had Nicephorus blinded; and, in the unlikely event that any of his other uncles should harbour similar ambitions, ordered that all four should have their tongues cut out.

The Emperor, it now appeared, was not only indecisive, disloyal and a coward; he was also capable of the most brutal cruelty. Few of his subjects could have retained any respect for so contemptible a ruler. Outside the iconoclast faction in the army of Asia Minor, one group only was prepared to accord him even a moderate degree of support: the representatives of the old monastic party, who had been gratified to find him apparently well disposed towards them - instead of openly favouring the iconoclasts as they had feared - and who had rejoiced still further when he had reinstated his mother on her former throne. But now they in their turn were to be alienated. In January 795 they learned to their horror that the Emperor had divorced his wife and was contemplating a second marriage. Mary of Amnia, for all her beauty, had not been a success. She had, admittedly, borne her husband a daughter, Euphrosyne, who thirty years later was to attain imperial rank as the wife of the

Emperor Michael II; but there had been no son to assure the succession, and Constantine was in any case bored with her, having long ago given his heart to Theodote, one of the court ladies. Mary was packed off to a nunnery; Patriarch Tarasius reluctantly condoned the divorce; and the following August, in the palace of St Mamas outside Constantinople, the Emperor and Theodote were married. Fourteen months later she presented him with a son.

The monks were scandalized. For an Emperor to remarry after his wife's death was one thing; but for him to put away his lawful Empress in favour of another woman - this was a sin against the Holy Ghost. Constantine's association with Theodote, they thundered, could in no circumstances be tolerated; nor could the bastard child be considered as a possible successor. The leaders of the protest, Abbot Plato of the monastery of Saccudion in Bithynia and his nephew Theodore - later to achieve celebrity as Abbot of the Studium in Constantinople - were exiled to Thessalonica, but their followers refused to be silenced. Nor was the adulterous Emperor the only object of these monkish fulminations; almost as much of their fury was directed against Tarasius, for having allowed the marriage to take place - even though he had been careful not to officiate himself.

Whether or not the worldly Patriarch ever revealed to his accusers that Constantine had threatened to ally himself openly with the iconoclasts if the necessary permission were refused, we do not know; it certainly did not prevent charges of heresy being prepared against him. As the months went by, moreover, the so-called Moechian controversy1 was seen to have a significance which went far beyond the narrow issue of the Emperor's second marriage. Its long-term effect was further to deepen the split, not between iconoclasts and iconodules but between the two branches of the latter: the more or less fanatical monks on the one hand and, on the other, the moderates who understood that the Empire was something more than an outsize monastery, and that if the elements of Church and State were to work effectively in tandem there must be a degree of give and take on both sides. This split had already become apparent at the recent Council in Nicaea, during the discussion on the status of the recanting bishops; it was to continue for another century and more, dividing and weakening the Church on several occasions when unity was desperately needed and poisoning relations between churchmen who, working together, might have conferred lasting benefits on the Empire.

i From the Greek moicheia, adultery.

Meanwhile, Constantine had forfeited his last remaining potential supporters in Constantinople and was now defenceless against his most formidable enemy - his mother, Irene. She had never forgiven him for her deposition, temporary as it had been; and she knew just how easily it could happen again. She was fully aware that her son's real sympathies lay with the iconoclasts, and vice versa; and she had no delusions about their strength among the army in Asia. While Constantine lived, another coup was always a possibility - and one which might well not only destroy her but undo all her work and reimpose iconoclastic doctrines throughout the Empire. For that reason, since her return to power, she had lost no opportunity of undermining his position in every way she could. It is more than probable that she had deliberately encouraged him in his plans for divorce and remarriage, the better to discredit him in the eyes of her own most fervent supporters, the monks. Almost certainly, when in an endeavour to redeem his military reputation he marched in the spring of 797 against the Saracens, it was her own agents who fed him false intelligence to the effect that the enemy had withdrawn across the frontier; only when he returned to Constantinople did he discover that Harun al-Rashid had done nothing of the kind and was still in occupation of large tracts of Byzantine territory. The murmurs of cowardice, never altogether silenced, grew louder again - just as Irene had intended that they should.

In June, she was ready to strike. One day, when Constantine was riding in procession from the Hippodrome to the Church of St Mamas in Blachernae, a party of soldiers leaped out from a side street and fell upon him. His own guards fought back, and during the ensuing melee he managed to escape and have himself rowed across the Bosphorus, where he hoped to find support. But Irene moved more quickly than her son. He was captured almost at once and brought back to the imperial palace; and there, on Tuesday 15August at three o'clock in the afternoon, in the Porphyry Pavilion where he had been born twenty-seven years earlier, his eyes were put out. The act, we are told, was performed in a particularly brutal manner in order to ensure that he would not survive; and although some doubt remains as to how long he actually did so, there can be none that Irene was guilty of his murder. Theophanes tells us that, as a sign of divine disapprobation, the very sky was darkened; and that it remained so for the next seventeen days.

Since Constantine's young son by Theodote had died - probably of natural causes, though with our knowledge of his grandmother we can never be entirely sure - only a few months after his birth, Irene now found herself not only the sole occupant of the throne of Byzantium but the first woman ever to preside, not as a regent but in her own right, over the Empire. It was a position for which she had long striven but one which, in the event, she had little opportunity to enjoy. Over the past years her two chief advisers, the eunuchs Stauracius and Aetius, had developed an almost pathological jealousy of each other, to the point where their incessant intrigues made effective government impossible. Irene's popularity among her subjects - never great at the best of times - declined sharply after the murder of her son, and she now attempted to redeem it by granting enormous remissions of taxes, which the Empire could not begin to afford. Among the most favoured beneficiaries were the monastic institutions that had always been her chief source of support; in addition, the immensely profitable customs and excise duties levied at Abydos and in the Straits were cut by half, while the hated tax on receipts was abolished altogether, as was the municipal levy payable by all the free citizens of Constantinople.

But measures of this kind could only delay the inevitable. The Empress's more thoughtful subjects were disgusted at the sheer irresponsibility of her actions, and despised her for her assumption that their affections could be so easily bought. The largely iconoclast army of Asia, who had always detested her and had come near to mutiny after Constantine's murder, were horrified and humiliated by the new and increased tribute that she had promised to Harun al-Rashid, and must also have been asking themselves where their future pay was coming from. The civil service watched powerless while the imperial treasury grew emptier every day, and began to despair of ever setting the economy to rights. Meanwhile the reactionaries of every age and station throughout the Empire, who had always shaken their heads at the thought of a female Basileus, now saw their direst suspicions confirmed. It was clearly only a matter of time before one or another of these groups rose up - in the interests not of themselves but of Byzantium itself - and overthrew her.

When the coup finally occurred, which, of all the reasons suggested above, was the one that actually decided the conspirators to act as and when they did? Very probably, none of them: because by now there was another, which called still more urgently for swift and decisive action. On Christmas Day 800 at St Peter's in Rome, Charles, son of Pepin the Frank, had been crowned by Pope Leo III with the imperial crown and the title of Emperor of the Romans; and some time in the summer of 802 he sent ambassadors to Irene with a proposal of marriage.

Well before his coronation, Charles the Great - or, as he soon came to be called, Charlemagne - was an Emperor in all but name. He had become sole ruler of the Franks in 771, on the sudden death of his brother Carloman; two years later he had captured Pavia and proclaimed himself King of the Lombards. Returning to Germany, he had next subdued the heathen Saxons and converted them en masse to Christianity before going on to annex the already-Christian Bavarians. An invasion of Spain was less successful - though it provided the inspiration for the first great epic ballad of Western Europe, the Chanson de Roland - but Charles's subsequent campaign against the Avars in Hungary and Upper Austria had resulted in the destruction of their Kingdom as an independent state and its incorporation in turn within his own dominions. Thus, in little more than a generation, he had raised the Kingdom of the Franks from being just one of the many semi-tribal European states to a single political unit of vast extent, unparalleled since the days of imperial Rome.

And he had done so, for most of the time at least, with the enthusiastic approval of the Papacy. It was nearly half a century since Pope Stephen had struggled across the Alps to seek help against the Lombards from Charles's father Pepin - an appeal which might more properly have been addressed to the Byzantine Emperor, and indeed would have been if Constantine Copronymus could only have spared a few moments from his iconoclast obsession to turn his attention to the problem of Italy. Pepin and Charles had succeeded where Byzantium had failed; and although the rift between Rome and Constantinople had been theoretically healed at Nicaea, Pope Hadrian had in fact been far from satisfied by the report he had received from his representatives on their return to Rome. They had pointed out, for example, that when the Pope's message to Irene and Constantine had been read aloud to the assembled Council, all the controversial passages - including those in which he had protested against the uncanonical consecration of Patriarch Tarasius and the latter's use of the 'Ecumenical' title - had been suppressed. Neither had any indication been forthcoming that the disputed South Italian, Sicilian and Illyrian bishoprics might be returned to papal jurisdiction. Small wonder, then, that Hadrian and his successor Leo had remained loyal to their infinitely more reliable western champion, even if this did entail certain concessions where the cult of images was concerned — Charles rather inconveniently maintaining his own opinions on the subject which, while less extreme than those upheld by the Council of 754, approximated a good deal more closely to iconoclast doctrines than the Curia liked to admit.

The King of the Franks had been to Rome once before: on a state visit in 774 when, as a young man of thirty-two, he had been welcomed by Hadrian and, deeply impressed by all he saw, had confirmed his father's donation of that central Italian territory which formed the nucleus of the Papal State. In 800 he came on more serious business. Pope Leo, ever since his accession four years before, had been the victim of incessant intrigue on the part of a body of young Roman noblemen who were determined to remove him; and on 25 April he was actually set upon in the street and beaten unconscious. Only by the greatest good fortune was he rescued by friends and removed for safety to Charles's court at Paderborn. Under the protection of Frankish agents he returned to Rome a few months later, only to find himself facing a number of serious charges fabricated by his enemies, including simony, perjury and adultery.

By whom, however, could he be tried? Who, in other words, was qualified to pass judgement on the Vicar of Christ? In normal circumstances the only conceivable answer to that question would have been the Emperor at Constantinople; but the imperial throne was at this moment occupied by Irene. That the Empress was notorious for having blinded and murdered her own son was, in the minds of both Leo and Charles, almost immaterial: it was enough that she was a woman. The female sex was known to be incapable of governing, and by the old Salic tradition was debarred from doing so. As far as Western Europe was concerned, the Throne of the Emperors was vacant: Irene's claim to it was merely an additional proof, if any were needed, of the degradation into which the so-called Roman Empire had fallen.

Charles was fully aware, when he travelled to Rome towards the end of 800, that he had no more authority than Irene to sit in judgement at St Peter's; but he also knew that while the accusations remained unrefuted Christendom lacked not only an Emperor but a Pope as well, and he was determined to do all he could to clear Leo's name. As to the precise nature of his testimony, we can only guess; but on 23 December, at the high altar, the Pope swore a solemn oath on the Gospels that he was innocent of all the charges levelled against him - and the assembled synod accepted his word. Two days later, as Charles rose from his knees at the conclusion of the Christmas Mass, Leo laid the imperial crown upon his head, while the entire congregation cheered him to the echo. He had received, as his enemies were quick to point out, only a title: the crown brought with it not a single new subject or soldier, nor an acre of new territory. But that title was of more lasting significance than any number of conquests; for it meant that, after more than 400years, there was once again an Emperor in Western Europe.

There remains the question of why the Pope acted as he did. Not, certainly, to engineer a deliberate split in the Roman Empire, still less to bring about two rival Empires where one had been before. There was, so far as he was concerned, no living Emperor at that time. Very well, he would create one; and because the Byzantines had proved so unsatisfactory from every point of view - political, military and doctrinal -he would select a westerner: the one man who by his wisdom and statesmanship and the vastness of his dominions, as well as by his prodigious physical stature, stood out head and shoulders above his contemporaries. But if Leo conferred a great honour on Charles that Christmas morning, he bestowed a still greater one on himself: the right to appoint, and to invest with crown and sceptre, the Emperor of the Romans. Here was something new, perhaps even revolutionary. No Pontiff had ever before claimed for himself such a privilege - not only establishing the imperial crown as his own personal gift but simultaneously granting himself implicit superiority over the Emperor whom he had created.

If, however, there was no precedent for this extraordinary step, by what authority was it taken? And so we come to what was arguably the most momentous - and the most successful - fraud of the Middle Ages: that known as the Donation of Constantine, according to which Constantine the Great, recognizing the primacy of his contemporary Pope Sylvester, had diplomatically retired to the 'province' of Byzantium, leaving his imperial crown for the Pope to bestow on whomsoever he might select as temporal Emperor of the Romans. This totally spurious document, fabricated around the turn of the century within the Curia, was to prove of inestimable value to papal claims for well over 600 years, its authenticity remaining unquestioned - even by the enemies of Rome - until it was finally exposed, in the middle of the fifteenth century, by the Renaissance humanist Lorenzo Valla.1

1 Dante, that staunch upholder of imperial claims, deplores it in a famous passage:

Abi, Costantin, di quanto mal fu matre,

Non la tna conversion, ma quilla dote

Che da te prese il prima ricco patre!

[Ah Constantine, how great an evil sprang

Not from thine own conversion,

but that gift

That first rich Father did receive from thee!)

Inferno, xix, 115-17

Historians have long debated whether the imperial coronation had been jointly planned by Leo and Charles or whether, as appeared at the time, the King of the Franks was taken completely by surprise. Of the two possibilities, the latter seems a good deal more likely. Charles had never shown the faintest interest in claiming imperial status, and for the rest of his life continued to style himself Rex Francorum et Langobardorum. Nor, above all, did he wish to owe any obligation to the Pope; there is reason to believe that he was in fact extremely angry when he found such an obligation thrust upon him, and at any other time in his career he would almost certainly have refused with indignation. But now, at this one critical moment of history, he recognized an opportunity that might never be repeated. Irene, for all her faults, remained a marriageable widow - and, by all accounts, a remarkably beautiful one. If he could but persuade her to become his wife, all the imperial territories of East and West would be reunited under a single crown: his own.

The reaction in Constantinople to the news of Charles's coronation can easily be imagined. To any right-thinking Greek, it was an act not only of quite breath-taking arrogance, but also of sacrilege. The Byzantine Empire was built on a dual foundation: on the one hand, the Roman power; on the other, the Christian faith. The two had first come together in the person of Constantine the Great, Emperor of Rome and Equal of the Apostles, and this mystical union had continued through all his legitimate successors. It followed inevitably that, just as there was only one God in heaven, so there could be but one supreme ruler here on earth; all other claimants to such a title were impostors, and blasphemers as well.

Moreover, unlike the princes of the West, the Byzantines had no Salic Law. However much they might detest their Empress and even attempt to depose her, they never questioned her fundamental right to occupy the imperial throne. So much the greater, therefore, was their anxiety when they realized that Irene, far from being repelled by the very idea of marriage with an illiterate barbarian - for Charles, though he could read a little, made no secret of his inability to write - and insulted that he should even have presumed to advance such a proposal, appeared on the contrary to be intrigued, gratified and, in principle, disposed to accept.

In view of what we know of her character, her reasons are not hard to understand. Irene was a deeply selfish woman; she was also a pragmatist. By 802, when Charles's ambassadors arrived in Constantinople, she had reduced the Empire to degradation and penury. Her subjects loathed and despised her, her advisers were at each others' throats, her exchequer was exhausted. Sooner or later - more probably sooner - a coup was virtually inevitable, in which event her very life would be in danger. Now, suddenly and unexpectedly, there came a chance of salvation. It mattered little to her that her suitor was a rival Emperor, nor that he was in her eyes an adventurer and a heretic; if he were as uneducated as the reports suggested, she would probably be able to manipulate him as easily as she had manipulated her late husband and her son. Meanwhile by marrying him she would preserve the unity of the Empire and - far more important - save her own skin.

There were other attractions too. The proposal offered an opportunity to escape, at least for a while, from the stifling atmosphere of the imperial court. Irene, though twenty-two years a widow - during which time she had lived largely surrounded by women and eunuchs - was still, probably, only in her early fifties, and perhaps even younger: what could be more natural than that she should look favourably on the prospect of a new husband at last - particularly one rumoured to be tall and outstandingly handsome, a superb hunter with a fine singing voice and flashing blue eyes?

But it was not to be. Her subjects had no intention of allowing the throne to be taken over by this boorish Frank, in his outlandish linen tunic and his ridiculously cross-gartered scarlet leggings, speaking an incomprehensible language and unable even to sign his name except by stencilling it through a gold plate - as Theodoric the Ostrogoth had done three centuries before. On the last day of October 802, while Irene was recovering from some minor indisposition at Eleutherius, a group of high-ranking officials took over the Great Palace, summoned an assembly in the Hippodrome and declared her deposed. Arrested and brought to the capital, she made no protest, accepting the situation with quiet dignity and, we may suspect, something very like relief. She was sent into exile, first to the Princes' Islands in the Marmara and afterwards to Lesbos; and a year later she was dead.

With the overthrow of the Empress Irene, the first phase of Byzantine history is complete. Four hundred and seventy-two years had elapsed since that spring morning when Constantine the Great had inaugurated his New Rome at the mouth of the Bosphorus - a period of time approximately equal to that which separates us from the Reformation - during which both the Roman Empire and the city which lay at its heart had changed beyond recognition. The Empire itself was much diminished: Syria and Palestine, Egypt and North Africa and Spain had ail been engulfed by the Muslim tide, while Central Italy had fallen first to the Lombards and then to the Franks, who had passed it on in their turn to the Pope. Constantinople itself, on the other hand, had grown dramatically, and was by now incontestably the largest city, as well as the richest and most sumptuous, in the world. Periodic visitations of the plague had taken their toll, but by the dawn of the ninth century the population can have numbered not less than a quarter of a million souls - and in all likelihood considerably more.

It remained, however, the beleaguered city that it had always been. To the East the Saracens, superbly trained and organized, were now a greater long-term danger than the Persians at their most menacing; to the West, though the Goths, Huns and Avars had all in turn been satisfactorily dealt with, the pressure now exerted by the Bulgars and the Slavs was as remorseless as ever. Had Constantine selected any less strategic site for his capital, had Theodosius and his successors expended a jot less time and energy on the Land and Sea Walls, one or the other of those enemies would surely have smashed their way through - and this book would have been a good deal shorter than it is.

But even at the worst of times - with the Persians encamped across the Bosphorus, the Avars at the gates, or the Saracen galleys thronging the Marmara - every Byzantine, from the Basileus down to the meanest of his subjects, had drawn strength and comfort from a single, unshakeable article of faith: that the Roman Empire was one and indivisible, its ruler chosen by God as His Vice-Gerent on earth. Other, lesser Princes of Christendom might not invariably show him the respect he deserved, might even on occasion take up arms against him; but never once had they laid claim to a similar title for themselves. Now, without warning, the unthinkable had occurred. A jumped-up barbarian chieftain was calling himself Emperor, and had been crowned as such by the Pope in Rome. Henceforth there would be two Empires, not one. The old order was gone. The Christian world would never be the same again.

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