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Sir Charles William Chadwick Oman KBE (1860-1946) was a British military historian.His reconstructions of medieval battles from the fragmentary and distorted accounts left by chroniclers were pioneering. Occasionally his interpretations have been challenged, especially his widely copied thesis that British troops defeated their Napoleonic opponents by firepower alone. Paddy Griffith, among modern historians, claims that the British infantry's discipline and willingness to attack were equally important.
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THE DARK AGES
Book III of III
Copyright © Charles Oman
The Dark Ages
Arcadia Press 2017
Book III of III
In March 717 Leo the Isaurian became master of Constantinople, his predecessor, Theodosius III, having abdicated and refused to continue the civil war which had begun in the previous year. It is probable that his resignation was due as much to fear of the oncoming of the Saracens as to the dread of Leo, for the armies of the Caliph Soliman were already ravaging Phrygia and Cappadocia, and slowly making their way towards the Bosphorus. Nothing save the consciousness of his own capacity to stem the rising flood of Muslim invasion could have justified Leo in taking arms against Theodosius in such a time of danger; but fortunately for the empire he had not overvalued his own power, and was destined to show that he was fully competent to face the situation. Though a young man, but his life had already been full of incident and adventure; he was the son of parents of some wealth, who had migrated from the Isaurian regions in the Taurus to Thrace. He had entered the army during the second reign of Justinian Rhinotmetus, and after serving him well had incurred the tyrant's suspicion, and been sent on a dangerous expedition into the Caucasus, from which he was not intended to return. But he extricated himself from many perils among the Alans and Abasgi of those distant regions, and came back in safety, to be made by Anastasius II governor of the Anatolic theme. He was an active, enterprising, persevering man, with a talent for organization, a great power of making himself loved by his soldiery, and an iron hand. His later career shows that he was more than a good soldier, being also one who looked deep into the causes of things, and had formed his own views on politics and religion.
Leo was only granted five months in which to prepare for the long-dreaded advent of the Saracens. He spent this time in accumulating vast stores of provisions, recruiting the garrision of Constantinople, and strengthening its fortifications. On the 15th of August Maslamah ibn Abd al-Malik with an army of 80,000 Saracens appeared on the Bithynian coast; a few days later a Syrian fleet of over 1000 sail appeared in the Sea of Marmara, took the army of Maslamah on board, and transported it into Thrace. The Saracen's land-troops at once commenced the blockade of the capital by land, while part of the fleet moved into the Bosphorus, to post itself so as to block the mouth of the Golden Horn, in which the Imperial navy had taken refuge. Leo delivered his first blow while the Saracen vessels were passing up the Bosphorus; issuing out of the Golden Horn with many galleys and fireships he attacked the enemy as they were trying to pass up the straits, and burnt Maslamah’s twenty ships of war. The Saracen admiral then dropped down to the southern exit of the Bosphorus, and left the northern exit free to the Romans, so that Leo was able to continue to draw supplies from the Black Sea.
The blockade of Constantinople was, therefore, imperfect, and we learn without surprise, that while the Saracens in their camp on the Thracian side of the straits suffered severely from the cold of an unusually severe autumn and winter, the garrison within the walls was well fed and also well housed, and continued to grow in self-confidence. Maslamah ibn Abd al-Malik sent in haste for reinforcements, and the Caliph supported him with zeal; a second land-army marched up from Tarsus to Chalcedon in the spring of 718, and occupied the Bithynian shore of the Bosphorus, while a great fleet from Africa and Egypt joined the blockading squadron, and moored at Kalosagros on the eastern side of the Bosphorus, in order to watch the mouth of the Golden Horn, and stop the communication of the city with the Black Sea.
The preservation of the free waterway to the north was all-important to the defense. Accordingly, Leo determined to make a great effort to destroy the Egyptian fleet. His galleys, many of them fitted with apparatus for discharging the famous Greek fire, sailed out suddenly, and fell on the Saracen ships as they lay moored against the Asiatic shore. Many of the crews of the Egyptian ships were Christians, forced on board against their will; these men either deserted to the Imperialists or fled ashore and dispersed. The Muslim sailors on board made some resistance, but being caught at anchor, and unable to maneuver or escape, they were soon overcome. The whole blockading squadron was burnt or towed back in triumph to Constantinople. The rest of Maslamah ibn Abd al-Malik's fleet made no further attempt to bar the Bosphorus, and allowed the Roman galleys to dominate its waters. Leo then threw a force on to the Bithynian shore, and dispersed the Saracen troops who were encamped there. Thus the army of Maslamah was cut off from Asia, and could draw no further supplies from thence. It had already exhausted those of the nearer districts of Thrace, and by the summer of 718 was reduced to the verge of starvation, living from hand to mouth on what its foragers could procure. Many had already perished of privation, when Maslamah heard that a great Bulgarian army had crossed the Balkans, and was advancing against him. Leo had apparently convinced King Terbel that a Saracen invasion of Europe was as dangerous to him as to the empire. Maslamah ibn Abd al-Malik detached a portion of his army to hold back the Bulgarians, but near Hadrianople it was completely cut to pieces by the barbarians. The Arab historians confess that 22,000 men fell in the rout.
This decided Maslamah ibn Abd al-Malik to raise the siege. His fleet took the remains of the land army on board, and put it ashore near Cyzicus. From thence he forced his way back to Tarsus, but of more than 100,000 men comprised in his original army and its reinforcements, Maslamah brought back only 30,000. The fleet fared yet worse; it was caught in a storm off the Lycian coast, and almost entirely destroyed. The Romans captured many of the surviving ships, and it is said that only five vessels out of a thousand got back to Syria.
Thus perished the last Saracen armament which ever seriously threatened the existence of the Eastern Roman Empire. It was perhaps the most formidable expedition that the Caliphs ever sent forth, far larger and better equipped than the predatory bands which had overrun Africa and Spain with such ease a few years before, or the army which Charles Martel faced at Poitiers a few years later. It was no mean achievement of Leo the Isaurian, that, ere yet firmly seated on his throne, and with all his Asiatic provinces already overrun by the enemy, he should beat off with ease such a mighty armament. His success must be ascribed primarily to his own courage, energy, and skill, next to the impregnable strength of the walls of Constantinople, and lastly, to the inexperience of the Arabs on the sea, which compelled them to use unwilling Christian seamen for their galleys, and prevented them from making any adequate use of their momentary naval predominance. The fleet of Maslamah ibn Abd al-Malik seems to have been as useless and unwieldy as the fleet of Xerxes. But, however much he may have been helped by the faults of his enemy, Leo the Isaurian deserves the thanks of all future ages for staying the progress of the Saracen invader at a moment when there was no other power in eastern Europe which could have for a moment held back the advancing Muslim. If Constantinople had fallen, it is absolutely certain that the barbarous pagan tribes who occupied all eastern and central Europe would have become the subjects of the Caliph, and the votaries of Islam. There was no capacity for prolonged resistance in the Bulgarian, Avar, or Slav; and if the Eastern Roman Empire had fallen, the wave of Saracen invasion would have swept all before it up to the borders of Austrasia. Whether the Franks could have stood firm if attacked on the east as well as on the south is very doubtful. It is, therefore, fair to ascribe to Leo the Isaurian an even greater share in the salvation of Europe from the Muslim peril than is given to Charles Martel.
After the failure of Maslamah ibn Abd al-Malik the victorious Leo had a breathing time granted him, in which to reorganize the shattered realm that had been left him by his predecessor. Although the Saracen war still went on, and border raids never ceased till the very end of his reign, yet there was no very serious danger in these latter bickerings, and Leo was able to turn his attention to the internal affairs of the empire, without the fear of having at any moment a dangerous invasion launched against him from beyond the Taurus.
Leo was a reformer and an innovator in every branch of administration. His dealings with the Church are those which caused most stir and are best remembered, but his activity was as great in secular as in ecclesiastical matters. It is unfortunate that most of the records of his reforms have perished, nothing having been preserved except his Ecloga or new handbook of law. But enough survives to show the character of his administration, and its effects in the succeeding century are very marked.
We have already pointed out in an earlier chapter that the Eastern Roman Empire had been in a state of rapid decay since the middle of the sixth century. The downward movement that had begun with the wars and taxes of Justinian had been accelerated under his successors, and had threatened the actual destruction of the empire during the reign of Heraclius. That the State struggled through all its troubles, and emerged bleeding at every pore, shorn of many of its members, but still alive, was due to the personal abilities of Heraclius and his descendants Constantinus-Constans and Constantine V. But though the life still lingered in the body of the State, it was yet in the most deplorable condition. Its purely Oriental provinces – Egypt, Syria, and Africa – were gone forever. Asia Minor was dreadfully wasted by the repeated invasions of the Saracens. The Balkan peninsula was, as regards more than half its extent, in the hands of the Bulgarians and Slavs. In the seventh century Slavonic tribes had made their way even into Hellas and Peloponnesus, there to occupy all the more remote and mountainous corners of the land. The disasters of the seventh century were accompanied by wholesale displacements of population. In Europe the old Latin-speaking population of Illyricum, Moesia, and Thrace had almost disappeared. Only a few scattered fragments, the ancestors of the modern Romanians and Dalmatians, still survived, scattered among the Slavs of the Balkans. In Asia the old provincial population had been grievously thinned by Saracen wars, but, on the other hand, it had been recruited by great bands of refugees from all the lands that the Saracen had overrun. Many thousands of Armenians and Persians had chosen to become subjects of the Emperor rather than the Caliph, and in particular the Mardaites or Christians of the Syrian mountains had emigrated wholesale into changes in Asia Minor, after maintaining for many years a population, struggle in the Lebanon against the power of the Saracens. The European themes were now Greco-Slav, not Greco-Roman, in their population: the Asiatic ones were far more Oriental and far less Greek than in the sixth century. By the time of Leo this change was complete: the empire was now Roman in nothing but name and administrative organization.
On the other hand, it had not yet become Greek, as it was to do in a later age. Its most important element in this and the next two centuries was the Asiatic. Isauria and Armenia and the other mountain lands of Asia Minor supplied most of the rulers of the empire. They were not Orientals of the more effeminate and feeble type – like the Syrians or Egyptians, whose only show of energy for many years had been in the hatching of new heresies and the practice of irrational asceticism – but were a bold vigorous race, hardened by many generations of Persian and Saracen wars, the men who, ever since the fifth century, had been supplying the core of the Eastern Roman armies. The change in the population of the empire had been accompanied by equally great changes in its social condition. Of these the most important was the disappearance of the old Roman system of predial serfdom, of great estates tilled by coloni or peasants bound to the soil and unable to leave their farms. This tenure, which lasted on in the West till it became the basis of the feudal system, had in the East entirely disappeared between Justinian and Leo the Isaurian. In the time of Leo we find the soil cultivated either by free tenants, who worked the estates of great land-owners at a fixed rent, or by villages of peasants occupying their own communal lands. The very healthy outcome of this change was a great growth in the proportion of freemen to slaves all over the empire: of this the most important and beneficial result was that the government could reckon on a much larger and better recruiting ground for the army than in those earlier times, when the peasant was fixed to the soil and absolutely prohibited from serving as a soldier. The cause of the vanishing of the old tenure was, without doubt, the fact that the ravages of Slav, Persian, and Saracen between 600 and 700 had broken up the old landmarks, and either swept away or displaced the former servile population. When many provinces had been, for many years at a time, in the hands of foreign enemies, as happened to the whole of Asia Minor during the first years of Heraclius and to great part of it in the anarchy between 710 and 718, it was not wonderful that old social arrangements which bore hardly on the bulk of the population tended to vanish.
The disappearance of predial serfdom was a change for the better within the empire. But in most other things the changes had been for the worse. The civilization of the whole realm had sunk to a very low level compared with that which prevailed in the fifth century. Arts and letters had reached the lowest depth which they ever knew in the East. All literature save the compiling of arts and polemical religious tracts had disappeared: between 620 and 720 we have not a single contemporary historian: the story of the times has to be learned entirely from later sources. Poetical, scientific, and philosophical com- position had also died off; except the Heracliad – the wars of Heraclius told as an epic – of George of Pisidia, the seventh century produced no single poem. The study of Latin had so far died out that the great legal works of Justinian had become useless to the inhabitants of the empire. They were a sealed book to all save the exceptionally learned, so that systematic law had almost disappeared. In the various themes we find justice being administered according to local customs and usages, instead of by old Roman precept. Leo had to abridge and translate Justinian's Code, in order to render it either useful or intelligible. When doing this he omitted great sections of it, in order to bring the book into accordance with the needs and customs of the day, for both manners and social conditions had been transformed since the reign of Justinian. The decay of art had been as rapid as that of letters: very few remains of the unhappy seventh century have come down to us, but in those which are most numerous, the coins of the Emperors, we find the most barbarous incapacity to express the simplest forms. The faces of Heraclius or Constantine V are barely human: the legends surrounding them are so ill spelt as to be almost unintelligible: the letters are ill formed and ill cut.
But the most painful feature of the time was that the decay of arts and letters had been accompanied by the growth of a dense superstition and ignorance which would have seemed incredible to the ancient Roman of the fourth, or even the fifth century. Although Constantinople still preserved all the great literary works of antiquity, the minds of its rulers were no more influenced by them than were the eyes and hands of its craftsmen inspired by the great works of Greek sculpture that still adorned the streets. It was a time of the growth of countless silly superstitions, of witchcraft and necromancy, of the framing of wild legends of apocryphal saints, and of strange misconceptions of natural phenomena.
Among the most prominent tokens of this growth of irrational superstitions was the great tendency of the seventh century towards image-worship – Iconoduly as its opponents called the practice. In direct opposition to early Christian custom, it became common to ascribe the most strange and magical powers to representations, whether sculptured or painted, of Our Lord and the Saints. They were not merely regarded as useful memorials to guide the piety of believers, but were thought to have a holiness inherent in themselves, to be capable of performing the most astonishing miracles. Heraclius possessed, and carried about with him as a fetish, a picture which he believed to have been painted in heaven by angelic hands, and thought it brought him all manner of luck. The crucifix over the door of the imperial palace was believed to have used human speech. Even Patriarchs and Bishops affirmed that the hand of a celebrated picture of the Virgin in the capital distilled fragrant balsam. Every church and monastery had its wonder-working image, and drew no small revenue from pious offerings to it. The freaks to which image-worship led were often most grotesque: it was, for example, a well-known practice to make a favorite picture the god-father of a child in baptism, by scraping off a little of its paint and mixing it with the baptismal water.
The act for which the name of Leo the Isaurian is best remembered is the issue of his edict against these puerile superstitions, and his attempt to put down image-worship all through his realm. Leo was not only a man of strong common sense, but he was sprung from those lands on the Muslim border where Christians had the best opportunity of comparing the gross and material adoration of their co-religionists for stones and paint, with the severe spiritual worship of the followers of Islam. The Muslim was always taunting the Christian with serving idols, and the taunt found too much justification in many practices of the vulgar. Thinking men like Leo were moved by the Muslim's sneer into a horror of the superstitious follies of their contemporaries. They fortified themselves by the view that to make graven or painted representations of Our Lord savored of heresy, because it laid too much stress on His humanity as opposed to His divinity. Such an idea was no new thing: it had often been mooted among the Eastern Christians, though more often by schismatics than by Catholics. Of Leo's own orthodoxy, however, there was no doubt: even his enemies could not convict him of swerving in the least from the faith: it was only on this matter of image-worship that he differed from them. Wherever he plucked down the crucifix he set up the plain cross – on the standards of his army, on the gates of his palace, on his money, on his imperial robes. It was purely to the anthropomorphic representation of Our Lord and to the over-reverence for images of saints that he objected.
Leo was no mere rough soldier: his parents were people of some wealth, and he had entered the army as an imperial aide-de-camp not as one of the rank and file. It is probable therefore that he was sufficiently educated to object to image-worship on rational and philosophic grounds.^ not from the mere unthinking prejudice picked up from Saracens or heretics. This much is certain, that from the moment that he declared his policy he found the greatest support among the higher officers of the civil service and the army. Educated laymen were as a rule favorable to his views: the mass of the soldiery followed him, and the eastern provinces as a whole acquiesced in his reformation. On the other hand, he found his chief opponents among the monks, whose interests were largely bound up with image-worship, and among the lower classes, who were blindly addicted to it. The European themes were as a whole opposed to him: the further west the province the more Iconodulic were its tendencies. Of the whole empire Italy was the part where Leo's views found the least footing.
Leo began his crusade against image-worship in 726, eight years after his great victory over the Saracens. The empire was by this time quieted down and reorganized; two rebellions had also been crushed, one under a certain Basil in Italy, the other under the ex-Emperor Artemius Anastasius, who had tried to resume the crown by the aid of the Bulgarians. The heads of Basil and Artemius had fallen, and no more trouble from rebellion was expected. Leo's edict forbade all image-worship as irreverent and superstitious, and ordered the removal of all holy statues and the white-washing of all holy pictures on church walls. From the very first the Emperor's Leo's commands met with a lively resistance. When officials began to remove the great crucifix over the palace gate, a mob fell upon them and beat them to death with clubs. Leo sent out troops to clear the streets, and many of the rioters were slain. This evil beginning was followed by an equally disastrous sequel. All over the empire the bulk of the clergy declared against the Emperor: in many provinces they began to preach open sedition. The Pope, as we have already seen when telling the fate of Italy, put himself at the head of the movement, and sent most insulting letters to Constantinople.
In 727 Rome refused obedience to the edict, and what was of more immediate danger, the theme of Hellas rose in open rebellion. The garrison-troops and the populace, incited by the preaching of fanatical monks, joined to proclaim a certain Cosmas Emperor. They fitted out a fleet to attack Constantinople, but it was defeated, and the rebel Emperor was taken prisoner and beheaded. It is acknowledged, however, even by Leo's enemies, that he treated the bulk of the prisoners and the rebel theme with great mildness. Indeed, he seldom punished disobedience to his edict with death: stripes and imprisonment were the more frequent rewards of those whom the Iconodules styled heroes and confessors of the true faith. Leo was determined that his edict should be carried out, but he was not by nature a persecutor: it was as rioters or rebels, not as image-worshippers, that his enemies were punished, just as in the reign of Elizabeth of England the Jesuit suffered, not as a Papist, but as a traitor. Leo deposed the aged Patriarch Germanus for refusing to work with him, but did him no further harm. In general it was by promoting Iconoclasts, not by maltreating Iconodules, that he worked.
The last thirteen years of Leo's reign (727-740) were on the whole a time of success for the Emperor. He succeeded in getting his edict enforced over the greater part of the empire, in spite of some open and more secret resistance; only Italy defied him. From the reconquest of Rome he was kept back by the necessity of providing for the defense of the East, for in 726 the Caliph Hisham – hearing no doubt of Leo's domestic troubles – commenced once more to invade the Asiatic themes. In 727 a Saracen host pushed forward as far as Nicaea, where it was repelled and forced to retire. There were less formidable invasions in 730, 732, and 737-738, but none led to any serious loss, and the imperial boundary stood firmly fixed in the passes of the Taurus. The Saracen war practically ended with a great victory won by Leo in person at Acroinon, in the Anatolic theme, where an army of 20,000 Arab raiders was cut to pieces with the loss of all its chiefs. The house of the Umayyad Caliphs was already verging towards its decline: it never again prepared any expedition approaching the strength of the great armament of Maslamah ibn Abd al-Malik, which Leo had so effectually turned back in 718, and its later sovereigns were not of the type of those fanatical conquerors who had cut the boundaries of the empire short in the preceding century. Leo had effectually staved off any imminent danger to eastern Christendom from Muslim conquest for three full centuries.
Leo was succeeded by his son Constantine, fifth of that name according to the usual reckoning, sixth if the grandson of Heraclius be given his true name, and not the erroneous title of Constans II The second of the Isaurian Emperors, however, is less known by the numeral affixed to his name than by the insulting epithet of Copronymus, which his Iconodulic enemies bestowed on him – showing thereby their own bad taste rather than any unworthiness on the part of their sovereign.
Constantine was a young man of twenty-two at the moment of his accession. He had long acted as his father's colleague, and was thoroughly trained in Leo's methods of administration, indoctrinated with his Iconoclastic views. He seems, while possessing a great measure of his father's energy and ability, to have been inferior to him in two respects. Leo had combined caution with courage, and knew how to exercise moderation. Constantine was bold to excess, did not understand half-measures or toleration, and carried through every scheme with a high hand. Moreover, while Leo's private life had been blameless and even severe, Constantine was a votary of pleasure, fond of pomp and shows, devoted to musical and theatrical entertainments, and sometimes lapsing into debauchery. Hence it is easy to see why he has been dealt with by the chroniclers of the next century in an even harsher spirit than his father, and is represented as a monster of cruelty and vice.
Constantine was no sooner seated on the throne than he showed that he was determined to continue his father's policy. He was at once assailed by the rebellion of the Iconodulic faction: they induced his brother-in-law Artavasdus, general of the Obsequian theme, to seize the capital, and proclaim himself Emperor, while Constantine was absent on an expedition against the Saracens. All the European themes, where the image-breakers were hated, did homage to Artavasdus. But the Anatolic and Thracesian themes, the heart of Asia Minor, remained true to the son of Leo. He showed his energy and ability by beating the sons of Artavasdus in two battles, and besieging the rebel in Constantinople. When the city was well-nigh reduced by famine, Artavasdus fled, but he was caught and brought before Constantine. The Emperor ordered him and his sons to be blinded, and confined them in a monastery. Their chief adherents were beheaded (742).
This sanguinary lesson to the Iconodulic party seems to have cowed them to such an extent that they did not raise another open rebellion in the long reign of Constantine (740-775). But they adhered as fully as ever to their faith: nothing is so difficult to eradicate as a well-rooted superstition, and Constantine's strong hand was better fitted to cow than to persuade. As the years of his reign passed by, and he found image-worship practiced in secret by thousands of conscientious votaries, the Emperor grew more and more determined to uproot it. After a time he resolved to call in the spiritual sanction to aid the secular arm: in 753 he summoned a general council to meet at Constantinople, but it was ecumenical only in name.
The Pope replied by anathemas of contumely to the summons to appear; the Patriarchs of Antioch, Jerusalem, and Alexandria, safe under the protection of the Caliph, denied their presence. But there assembled an imposing body of three hundred and thirty-eight Bishops, presided over by the Constantinopolitan Patriarch, Constantine of Sylaeum, and by Theodosius, metropolitan of Ephesus, son of the Emperor Tiberius II.
This council committed itself fully to Iconoclastic doctrine; it proscribed all representations of Our Lord as blasphemous for endeavoring to express both His human and His divine nature in the mere likeness thereby obscuring His divinity in His humanity. At the same time it condemned the worship of images of saints, because all adoration except that paid to the Godhead savored of heathenism and anthropolatry.
The Emperor had other scruples of his own, on which he did not press the council to deliver a decision; he denied the intercessory powers of the Virgin, and scrupled to prefix the epithet ayios, ‘holy,’ to the names of even the greatest saints. He spoke, for example, of ‘Peter the Apostle,’ not of ‘the holy Peter.’ On these awful depths of free thought the Iconodules of his own and the succeeding generation wasted expressions of horror, worthy to be employed on a Herod or a Judas.
Armed with the decree of the council of Constantinople, the Emperor proceeded, during the remainder of his reign, to indulge in what was a true religious persecution, for he pursued the image-worshippers as heretics, not as rebels or rioters. He inflicted the death-penalty in a few cases, but the majority of his victims were flogged, mutilated, pilloried, or banished. The most obstinate supporters of Iconoduly were found among the monks, who not only resisted themselves, but never ceased to use their vast influence over the mob in order to turn it against the Emperor. After a time Constantine resolved to make an end of the monastic system, as being the strongest bulwark of superstition. To uproot a habit of life founded on the practice of centuries, and highly revered by the multitude was of course an impossibility. Monasteries can only be suppressed, as they were at the Reformation, if the nation sides with the sovereign. Nevertheless, Constantine drove out and harried a vast number of monks. He held that they were over-numerous, that they were men who shirked the ordinary duties of the citizen, and that their profession was a cloak for selfishness and sloth. He aimed not only at breaking up the cloisters, but at secularizing their inmates. On one occasion he had all the monks and nuns of the Thracesian theme assembled, and offered them their choice between marriage or banishment to Cyprus. The majority chose the latter alternative, and became in the eyes of their contemporaries confessors of the true faith. On another occasion he exhibited in the Hippodrome a procession of unfrocked monks, each holding by the hand an unfrocked nun whom he was to marry – the Iconodule writers, as might be expected, call the backsliding nuns ‘harlots.’ The deserted monasteries were either pulled down for building materials or turned into barracks.
But it must not be supposed that Constantine's activity was entirely engrossed in persecuting the worshippers of images. The thirty-five years of his reign were a period of considerable military glory, and the Emperor, who always headed his own armies, took the field for more than a dozen campaigns. In Asia the fall of the Umayyad Caliphs, accompanied by savage civil wars among the Saracens (750), offered an unrivalled opportunity for extending the bounds of the empire. Constantine pushed beyond the Anti-Taurus as far as the Euphrates; in 745 he occupied the district of Commagene, and transported all its Christian inhabitants to Thrace: in 751 he took Melitene on the Euphrates, and the Armenian fortress of Theodosiopolis. Part of these conquests were afterwards recovered by the first Abbasid Caliph, Abdallah Al-Saffah, but the rest remained to the empire as a trophy of Constantine's wars. Several Saracen attempts to invade Cappadocia and Cyprus were driven back with great slaughter, and in general it may be stated that Constantine effectually protected Asia Minor from the Muslim sword, and that the Country began to grow again both in wealth and in population.
Nor was his work less useful in Europe. He completely reduced to order the Slavonic tribes south of the Balkan, both in Thrace and Macedonia: they had got out of hand during the troubles of the years 695-718, and required to be subdued anew. Constantine carefully fortified the defiles of the Balkans, which communicate with the valley of the Danube, garrisoning once more the ruined castles which Justinian had built there. This advance northward brought him into hostile contact with the Bulgarians, who had long been accustomed to harry both the Slavonic and the Roman districts of Thrace and Macedon, and could not brook to be walled in by the new fine of forts. Constantine waged three successful wars with the Bulgarians; the first, lasting from 755 to 762, ended with a great victory at Anchialus, after which King Baian sued for peace, and obtained it on promising to keep his subjects from raiding across the Balkans. The second war occupied the years 764-773. Constantine crossed the Balkans, wasted Bulgaria, slew the new King Toktu near the Danube, and was preparing in the next year to complete the conquest of the Country, when his whole fleet and army were destroyed by a storm in the Black Sea (765). Long and indecisive bickering on the line of the Balkans followed, and peace was made in 773 on the old terms. The last Bulgarian war, provoked by an attempt of King Telerig to invade Macedonia in 774-5, was notable for a great victory at Lithosoria, but Constantine died while leading his army northward, and his successes had no permanent result. The Bulgarians were not subdued by him, but they were kept at bay, and so tamed that they were compelled to leave Thrace alone, and content themselves with defending their own Danubian plains from the attacks of the Eastern Romans.
The Saracen and Bulgarian being driven away from the frontier, we are not surprised to hear that the empire flourished under Constantine. He planted many colonies on the waste lands of the borders, settling the emigrant Christians of Thrace, and many Slavonic and Bulgarian refugees in Bithynia. We are told that agriculture prospered in his time, so much that sixty measures of wheat sold for a gold solidus. He exterminated brigandage, and made the roads safe for merchants. He furnished Constantinople with a new water-supply by restoring the aqueduct of Valens, broken more than a hundred and fifty years before. When the capital had been devastated by a great plague in 746-7, he more than replaced the lost thousands of its population by new settlers from Hellas and the islands, for whom employment was found by the increasing commerce which followed the growth of internal prosperity. When he died in 775, aged fifty-seven, he left a full treasury, a loyal and devoted army, and a well-organized realm.
Constantine was succeeded by his eldest son Leo IV, often called Leo the Khazar, because his mother Irene had been a Khazar princess. Leo had acted as his father's colleague for many years, and carried on Constantine's policy, though with a less harsh hand. In the beginning of his reign he showed toleration to the Iconodules, but when they commenced to raise their heads again he resumed his father's persecuting manner, flogging and banishing many prominent image-worshippers. He did not, however, object to monks, as Constantine had done, but allowed them to rebuild their convents, and even promoted some of them to Bishoprics.
It is probable that his resumption of persecution in 777 was connected with the discovery of a conspiracy against him in which his own brothers Nikephorus and Christophorus had leagued themselves with the discontented party. The treacherous Caesars were pardoned by their brother, and their associates suffered banishment and not death.
Leo continued his father's war with the Saracens. In 778 his armies invaded Commagene, defeated a great Saracen host in the open field, and brought back under their protection a great body of Syrian Christians, who were settled as colonists in Thrace. The Caliph Mehdi replied in the next year by an invasion of the Anatolic theme: his army forced its way as far as Dorylaeum, but retired in disorder, and much harassed by the Romans, after failing to take that place.
Leo was of a sickly habit of body, and died after a short reign of five years, in 780, before he had attained the age of thirty-two. He left the throne to his son Constantine VI, for whom the empress Irene was to act as regent, as the boy was only nine years of age. Leo's early death was a fatal misfortune alike for the Iconoclastic cause and the Isaurian dynasty. The empress Irene, though she had succeeded in concealing the fact during her husband's life, was a fervent worshipper of images, and the moment that the reins of power fell into her hands, set herself to reverse the imperial policy of the last sixty years. She began by putting an end to the repression of the Iconodules, and then gradually displaced the old ministers of state and governors of the themes by creatures of her own. This led to a plot against her; the conspirators proposed to crown Nikephorus, the eldest of her brothers-in-law, but they were discovered and banished, while all the five brothers of the deceased Emperor were forcibly made priests, to disqualify them from seizing the throne.
When the Patriarch Paul died in 784, Irene replaced him with Tarasius, a fervent image-worshipper, and then ventured to call a general council at Nicaea, to which she invited Pope Hadrian at Rome, and the Patriarchs of the East, to send delegates. Under the influence of the empress the council, by a large majority, declared the lawfulness of making representations of Our Lord and the Saints, and bade men pay not divine worship, but adoration and reverence to them. The recalcitrant Iconoclastic Bishops were excommunicated. The doings of the council caused a controversy with the Imperial guard in Constantinople, for the greater part of the army still adhered to the views of the Isaurian Emperors. But Irene succeeded in steering through the troubled waters, put down the mutiny, and retained her power.
Meanwhile the reign of a child and a woman proved disastrous to the empire. The Slavs of the Balkans burst into revolt, and the Saracens invaded Asia Minor. The want of an Emperor to head the army was grievously felt, and Harun al-Rashid, the son of the Caliph Mehdi, ravaged the whole Anatolic and Obsequian themes as far as the Bosphorus. Irene felt herself unable to cope with the situation, and bought a peace by an annual payment of 70,000 solidi (784). Soon after the Bulgarian King declared war, and ravaged Thrace after slaying the general of the Thracian theme in battle.
Among these disasters Constantine VI grew up to manhood, but his mother, who had acquired a great taste for power, and feared to see her son reverse her religious policy, long refused to give him any share in the government. She even made the army swear never to receive her son as sole Emperor as long as she should live. The young Emperor, after chafing for some time in his state of tutelage, took matters into his own hands. In his twenty-first year he repaired to the camp of the Anatolic troops, and there proclaimed himself of age, and sole ruler of the State. He banished his mother's favorites, and confined her for some months to her own apartments in the palace.
When he had firmly seized the helm of power, Constantine was weak enough to take his mother again as his colleague on the throne, and to associate her name with his in all imperial decrees. The ambitious and unnatural Irene repaid his confidence by scheming against him. She had grown so fond of power that she had resolved to win it back at all costs.
Constantine was, like his ancestors, a warlike and energetic prince. He won several successes over the Saracens, and then engaged in a Bulgarian war. His popularity was first shaken by a fearful defeat at the hands of the Bulgarian King Cardam, by which he lost much of his influence with the army. Shortly afterwards he entered into a fierce struggle with the Patriarch and the clergy, having divorced, in spite of their opposition, a wife whom his mother had forced upon him in early youth, and on whom his own affections were set. Knowing that the Church was wroth with Constantine for this outbreak of self-will, and that the army no longer loved him as before, the wicked Irene determined to strike a blow against her son.
She suborned some of the young Emperor's attendants to seize their master, and, when he fell into her hands, had his eyes put out. He was then immured in a monastery, where he survived for more than twenty years.
It was by a mere palace-conspiracy, not by an open rising, that the unnatural mother had dethroned and blinded her son. It is, therefore, all the more extraordinary to find that she was able to cling to power for more than five years, in spite of the horror which her act had caused. The gratitude of the image-worshippers to her, for having restored to them the power of practicing their superstition, partly explains, but does not at all excuse the impunity which she enjoyed after her cruel deed.
Irene's five years of power (797-802) were disastrous at home and abroad. Her court was swayed by two greedy eunuchs, Aetius and Stauracius, on whom she lavished all the highest offices. Their miserable quarrels with each other are the chief things recorded in the annals of her internal government. Meanwhile the frontiers were overrun by the armies of Harun al-Rashid. The Saracens harried the Anatolic and Thracesian themes, and forced their way as far as Ephesus. Peace was only granted when Irene consented to pay a large annual tribute to the Caliph.
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