Byzantine Empire - C. W. C. Oman

The First Anarchy

Justinian II., the last of the house of Heraclius, was a sovereign of a different type from any emperor that we have yet encountered in the annals of the Eastern Empire. He was a bold, reckless, callous, and selfish young man, with a firm determination to assert his own individuality and have his own way,—he was, in short, of the stuff of which tyrants are made. Justinian was but seventeen when he came to the throne, but he soon showed that he intended to rule the empire after his own good pleasure long before he had begun to learn the lessons of statecraft.

Ere he had reached his twenty-first year Justinian had plunged into war with the Bulgarians. He attacked them suddenly, inflicted several defeats on their king, and took no less than thirty thousand prisoners, whom he sent over to Asia, and forced to enlist in the army of Armenia. He next picked a quarrel with the Saracen Caliph on the most frivolous grounds. The annual tribute due by the treaty of 679 had hitherto been paid in Roman solidi, but in 692) ?> Abdalmalik tendered it in new gold coins of his own mintage, bearing verses of the Koran. Justinian refused to receive them, and declared war.

His second venture in the field was disastrous: his unwilling recruits from Bulgaria deserted to the enemy, when he met the Saracens at Sebastopolis in Cilicia, and the Roman army was routed with great slaughter. The two subsequent campaigns were equally unsuccessful, and the troops of the Caliph harried Cappadocia far and wide.

Justinian's wars depleted his treasury; yet he persisted in plunging into expensive schemes of building at the same time, and was driven to collect money by the most reckless extortion. He employed two unscrupulous ministers, Theodotus, the accountant general—an ex-abbot who had deserted his monastery

and the eunuch Stephanus, the keeper of the privy purse. These men were to Justinian what Ralph Flambard was to William Rufus, or Empson and Dudley to Henry VII: they raised him funds by flagrant extortion and illegal stretching of the law. Both were violent and cruel: Theodotus is said to have hung recalcitrant tax-payers up by ropes above smoky fires till they were nearly stifled. Stephanus thrashed and stoned everyone who fell into his hands; he is reported to have actually administered a whipping to the empress-dowager during the absence of her son, and Justinian did not punish him when he returned.

While the emperor's financial expedients were making him hated by the moneyed classes, he was rendering himself no less unpopular in the army. After his ill-success in the Saracen war, he began to execute or imprison his officers, and to decimate his beaten troops: to be employed by him in high command was almost as dangerous as it was to be appointed a general-in-chief during the dictatorship of Robespierre.

In 695 the cup of Justinian's iniquities was full. An officer named Leontius being appointed, to his great dismay, general of the "theme" of Hellas, was about to set out to assume his command. As he parted from his friends he exclaimed that his days were numbered, and that he should be expecting the order for his execution to arrive at any moment. Then a certain monk named Paul stood forth, and bade him save himself by a bold stroke; if he would aim a blow at Justinian he would find the people and the army ready to follow him.

Leontius took the monk's counsel, and rushing to the state prison, at the head of a few friends, broke it open and liberated some hundreds of political prisoners. A mob joined him, he seized the Cathedral of St. Sophia, and then marched on the palace. No one would fight for Justinian, who was caught and brought before the rebel leader in company with his two odious ministers. Leontius bade his nose be slit, and banished him to Cherson. Theodotus and Stephanus he handed over to the mob, who dragged them round the city and burnt them alive.

Twenty years of anarchy followed the usurpation of Leontius. The new emperor was not a man of capacity, and had been driven into rebellion by his fears rather than his ambition. He held the throne barely three years, amid constant revolts at home and defeats abroad. The Asiatic frontier was ravaged by the armies of Abdalmalik, and at the same time a great disaster befell the western half of the empire. A Saracen army from Egypt forced its way into Africa, where the Romans had still maintained themselves by hard fighting while the emperors of the house of Heraclius reigned. They reduced all its fortresses one after the other, and finally took Carthage in 697—a hundred and sixty-five years after it had been restored to the empire by Belisarius.

The larger part of the army of Africa escaped by sea from Carthage when the city fell. The officers in command sailed for Constantinople, and during their voyage plotted to dethrone Leontius. They enlisted in their scheme Tiberius Apsimarus, who commanded the imperial fleet in the Aegean, and proclaimed him emperor when he joined them with his galleys. The troops of Leontius betrayed the gates of the capital to the followers of the rebel+ admiral, and Apsimarus seized Constantinople. He proclaimed himself emperor by the title of Tiberius, third of that name, and condemned his captive rival to the same fate that he himself had inflicted on Justinian II. Accordingly the nose of Leontius was slit, and he was placed in confinement in a monastery.

Tiberius III. was more fortunate in his reign than his predecessor: his troops gained several victories over the Saracens, recovered the frontier districts which Justinian II. and Leontius had lost, and even invaded Northern Syria. But these successes did not save Tiberius from suffering the same doom which had fallen on Justinian and Leontius. The people and army were out of hand, the ephemeral emperor could count on no loyalty, and any shock was sufficient to upset his precarious throne.

[Illustration] from The Byzantine Empire by C. W. C. Oman


We must now turn to the banished Justinian, who had been sent into exile with his nose mutilated. He had been transported to Cherson, the Greek town in the Crimea, close to the modern Sebastopol, which formed the northernmost outpost of civilization, and enjoyed municipal liberty under the suzerainty of the empire. Justinian displayed in his day of adversity a degree of capacity which astonished his contemporaries. He fled from Cherson and took refuge with the Khan of the Khazars, the Tartar tribe who dwelt east of the Sea of Azof. With this prince the exile so ingratiated himself that he received in marriage his sister, who was baptized and christened Theodora. But Tiberius III. sent great sums of money to the Khazar to induce him to surrender Justinian, and the treacherous Larbarian determined to accept the bribe, and sent secret orders to two of his officers to seize his brother-in-law. The emperor learnt of the plot through his wife, and saved himself by the bold expedient of going at once to one of the two Khazar chiefs and asking for a secret interview. When they were alone he fell on him and strangled him, and then calling on the second Khazar served him in the same fashion, before the Khan's orders had been divulged to anyone.

This gave him time to escape, and he fled in a fishing boat out into the Euxine with a few friends and servants who had followed him into exile. While they were out at sea a storm arose, and the boat began to fill. One of his companions cried to Justinian to make his peace with God, and pardon his enemies ere he died. But the Emperor's stern soul was not bent by the tempest. "May God drown me here," he answered, "if I spare a single one of my enemies if ever I get to land!" The boat weathered the storm, and Justinian survived to carry out his cruel oath. He came ashore in the land of the Bulgarians, and soon won favour with their king Terbel, who wanted a good excuse for invading the empire, and found it in the pretence of supporting the exiled monarch. With a Bulgarian army at his back Justinian appeared before Constantinople, and obtained an entrance at night near the gate of Blachernae. There was no fighting, for the adherents of Tiberius were as unready to strike a blow for their master as the followers of Leontius had been [705].

So Justinian recovered his throne without fighting, for the people had by this time half forgotten his tyranny, and regretted the rule of the house of Heraclius. But they were soon to find out that they had erred in submitting to the exile, and should have resisted him at all hazards. Justinian came back in a relentless mood, bent on nothing but revenging his mutilated nose and his ten years of exile. His first act was to send for the two usurpers who had sat on his throne: Leontius was brought out from his monastery, and Tiberius caught as he tried to flee into Asia. Justinian had them led round the city in chains, and then bound them side by side before his throne in the Cathisma, the imperial box at the Hippodrome. There he sat in state, using their prostrate bodies as a footstool, while his adherents chanted the verse from the ninety-first Psalm, "Thou shalt tread on the lion and asp: the young lion and dragon shalt thou trample under thy feet." The allusion was to the names of the usurpers, the Lion and Asp being Leontius and Apsimarus!

After this strange exhibition the two ex-emperors were beheaded. Their execution began a reign of terror, for Justinian had his oath to keep, and was set on wreaking vengeance on every one who had been concerned in his deposition. He hanged all the chief officers and courtiers of Leontius, and put out the eyes of the patriarch who had crowned him. Then he set to work to hunt out meaner victims: many prominent citizens of Constantinople were sown up in sacks and drowned in the Bosphorus. Soldiers were picked out by the dozen and beheaded. A special expedition was sent by sea to sack Cherson, the city of the Emperor's exile, because he had a grudge against its citizens. The chief men were caught and sent to the capital, where Justinian had them bound to spits and roasted.

These atrocities were mere samples of the general conduct of Justinian. In a few years he had made himself so much detested that it might be said that he had been comparatively popular in the days of his first reign.

The end came into 711, when a general named Philippicus took arms, and seized Constantinople while Justinian was absent at Sinope. The army of the tyrant laid down their arms when Philippicus approached, and he was led forth and beheaded without further delay—an end too good for such a monster. The conqueror also sought out and slew his little son Tiberius, whom the sister of the Khan of the Khazars had borne to him during his exile. So ended the house of Heraclius, after it had sat for five generations and one hundred and one years on the throne of Constantinople.

The six years which followed were purely anarchical. Justinian's wild and wicked freaks had completed the demoralization which had already set in before his restoration. Everything in the army and the state was completely disorganized and out of gear. It required a hero to restore the machinery of government and evolve order out of chaos. But the hero was not at once forthcoming, and the confusion went on increasing.

To replace Justinian by Philippicus was only to substitute King Log for King Stork. The new emperor was a mere man of pleasure, and spent his time in personal enjoyment, letting affairs of state slide on as best they might. In less than two years he was upset by a conspiracy which placed on the throne Artemius Anastasius, his own chief secretary. Philippicus was blinded, and compelled to exchange the pleasures of the palace for the rigours of a monastery. But the Court intrigue which dethroned Philippicus did not please the army, and within two years Anastasius was overthrown by the soldiers of the Obsequian theme, who gave the imperial crown to Theodosius of Adrammytium, a respectable but obscure commissioner of taxes. More merciful than any of his ephemeral predecessors, Theodosius III. dismissed Anastasius unharmed, after compelling him to take holy orders:

Meanwhile the organization of the empire was visibly breaking up. "The affairs both of the realm and the city were neglected and decaying, civil education was disappearing, and military discipline dissolved." The Bulgarian and Saracen commenced once more to ravage the frontier provinces, and every year their ravages penetrated further inland. The Caliph Welid was so impressed with the opportunity offered to him, that he commenced to equip a great armament in the ports of Syria with the express purpose of laying siege to Constantinople. No one hindered him, for the army raised to serve against him turned aside to engage in the civil war between Anastasius and Theodosius. The landmarks of the Saracens' conquests by land are found in the falls of the great cities of Tyana [710], Amasia [712], and Antioch-in-Pisidia [713]. They had penetrated into Phrygia by 716, and were besieging the fortress of Amorium with every expectation of success, when at last there appeared the man who was destined to save the East-Roman Empire from a premature dismemberment.

This was Leo the Isaurian, one of the few military officers who had made a great reputation amid the fearful disasters of the last ten years. He was now general of the "Anatolic" theme, the province which included the old Cappadocia and Lycaonia. After inducing the Saracens, more by craft than force, to raise the siege of Amorium, Leo disowned his allegiance to the incapable Theodosius and marched toward the Bosphorus.

The unfortunate emperor, who had not coveted the throne he occupied, nor much desired to retain it, allowed his army to risk one engagement with the troops of Leo. When it was beaten he summoned the Patriarch, the Senate, and the chief officers of the court, pointed out to them that a great Saracen invasion was impending, that civil war had begun, and that he himself did not wish to remain responsible for the conduct of affairs. With his consent the assembly resolved to offer the crown to Leo, who formally accepted it early in the spring of 717.

Theodosius retired unharmed to Ephesus, where he lived for many years. When he died the single word TGIEIA, "Health," was inscribed on his tomb according to his last directions.