Byzantine Empire - C. W. C. Oman

The End of the Iconoclasts

(A.D. 802-886.)

The Iconoclastic controversy was far from being extinguished with the fall of the house of Leo the Isaurian. It was destined to continue in a milder form for more than half a century after the dethronement of Constantine VI. The lines on which it was fought out were still the same the official hierarchy and the Asiatic provinces favoured Iconoclasm, the clergy and the European provinces were "Iconodules." Hence it is interesting to note that through the greater part of the ninth century, while emperors of Eastern birth sat on the throne, the views of Leo the Isaurian were still in vogue, and that the eventual triumph of the image-worshippers only came about when a royal house sprung from one of the European themes the family of Basil the Macedonian gained possession of the crown.

The treasurer, Nicephorus, who overthrew Irene, and so easily obtained possession of the empire, was of Oriental extraction. His ancestor had been a Christian Arab prince, expelled from his country at the time of the rise of Mahomet, and his family had always dwelt in Asia Minor. Hence we are not surprised to find that Nicephorus was an Iconoclast, and refused to follow in the steps of Irene in the direction of restoring image-worship. He did not persecute the "Iconodules," as the Isaurians had done, but he gave them no personal encouragement. This being so, it is natural that we should find his character described in the blackest terms by the monkish chroniclers of the succeeding century. He was, we are told, a hypocrite, an oppressor, and a miser; but we cannot find any very distinct traces of the operation of such vices in his conduct during the nine years of his reign. He was not, however, a very fortunate ruler; though he put down with ease several insurrections of discontented generals, he was unlucky with his foreign wars. The Caliph Haroun-al-Raschid did much harm to the Asiatic provinces, ravaging the whole country as far as Ancyra, nor could Nicephorus get rid of him without signing a rather ignominious peace, and paying a large war-indemnity. A yet greater disaster concluded another war. Nicephorus invaded Bulgaria in 811, to punish King Crumn for ravaging Thrace. The Byzantine army won a battle and sacked the palace and capital of the Bulgarian king; but a few days later Nicephorus allowed himself to be surprised by a night attack on his camp. In the panic and confusion the emperor fell, and his son and heir, Stauracius, was desperately wounded. The routed army did not stay its flight till Adrianople, and left the body of the Emperor in the hands of the Bulgarians, who cut off his head, and made the skull into a drinking-cup, just as the Lombards had dealt with the skull of King Cunimund three hundred years before.

Stauracius, the only son of Nicephorus, was proclaimed emperor, but it soon became evident that his wound was mortal, and Michael Rhangabe, his brother-in-law, who had married the eldest daughter of Nicephorus, took his place on the throne before the breath was out of the dying emperor's body.

Michael I. was a weak, good-natured man, who owed his elevation to the mere chance of his marriage. He was a devoted servant and admirer of monks, and began to undo the work of his father-in-law, and remove all Iconoclasts from office. This provoked the wrath of that powerful party, and led to conspiracies against Michael, but he might have held his own if it had not been for the disgracefully incompetent way in which he conducted the Bulgarian war: He allowed an enemy whom the East-Romans had hitherto despised, not only to ravage the open country in Thrace, but to storm the fortresses of Mesembria and Anchialus, and to push their invasions up to the gates of Constantinople. The discontent of the army found vent in a mutiny, and Leo the Armenian, an officer of merit and capacity, was proclaimed emperor in the camp. Michael I. made no resistance, and retired into a monastery after only two years of reign. [811-813]

Leo the Armenian proved himself worthy of the confidence of the army. When the Bulgarians appeared in front of the walls of Constantinople they were repulsed, but Leo tarnished the glory of his success by a treacherous attempt to assassinate King Crumn at a conference—a crime as unnecessary as it was unsuccessful, for the Emperor might, as the event proved, have trusted to the sword instead of the dagger. In the next spring he took the offensive himself, marched out to Mesembria, and inflicted on the enemy such a sanguinary defeat that hardly a man escaped his sword, and Bulgaria was so weakened that it gave no further trouble for more than fifty years.

Almost the moment that he was freed from the Bulgarian war, Leo became involved in the fatal Iconoclastic controversy. Being a native of an Oriental theme, he was naturally imbued with the views of his great namesake, the Isaurian, and inclined to reverse the policy of the monk-loving Michael I. But being moderate and wary he tried to introduce, without the use of force, a middle policy between image-breaking and image-worship—a fruitless attempt, which only brought him the nickname of "the Chameleon." Leo's idea was the quaint device of permitting the use of images, but of hanging them so high from the ground that the public should not be able to touch or kiss them! This pleased nobody; on the one side, the patriarch and his monks inveighed against the moving of the images, while, on the other, tumultuous companies of Asiatic soldiery broke into churches and mutilated all the pictures and figures they could find. The seven years of Leo's reign were full of ecclesiastical bickerings, but it should be remembered to his credit that no single person suffered death for his conscience' sake in the whole period. The most violent of the opponents of the Emperor were merely interned in remote monasteries when they ventured to set their will against his. Long ere the end of his reign, Leo had been compelled to leave his half measures and prohibit all use of images. Like Constantine Copronymus, he called a council to endorse his action, and a majority of the Eastern bishops resolved that Iconolatry was a dangerous heresy, and anathematized the patriarch Nicephorus and all other defenders of the images.

Leo's reign was prosperous in all save the matter of his religious troubles. But he was not destined to die in peace in his bed. Michael the Amorian, the best general in the empire, was detected in a conspiracy against his master. Leo cast him into prison, but delayed his punishment, and left his accomplices at large. Michael had many friends in the palace who determined to strike a blow ere the Emperor should have discovered their guilt. They resolved to slay Leo in his private chapel, as he attended matins on Christmas Day, for he was accustomed to come unarmed and unguarded to the early communion. Accordingly, the conspirators attended the service, and attacked the Emperor in the midst of the Eucharistic hymn. Leo snatched the heavy metal cross off the altar and struck down some of his assailants, but numbers were too many for him, and he was cut down and slain at the very foot of the holy table [Christmas Day, 820].

Michael the Amorian was dragged out of his dungeon, saluted as emperor, and crowned, even before the fetters were off his feet. It was not till the ceremony had been performed that time was found to send for a smith to strike away the rings.

Michael was by birth a mere peasant, but had raised himself to high rank in the army by his courage and ability. He is sometimes styled "the Amorian," from his birth-place, Amorium in Phrygia, but more often mentioned by his nickname of "the Stammerer." He had been the friend and adviser of Leo the Armenian at the time of the latter's elevation to the throne, and his conspiracy must be reckoned a gross piece of ingratitude, even though we acknowledge that he was not personally responsible for his master's murder.

Though rough and uncultured, Michael was a man of very considerable ability. He strengthened his title to the crown by a marriage with the last scion of the Isaurian house, the princess Euphrosyne, daughter of the blind Constantine VI. The religious difficulties of the day he endeavoured to treat in an absolutely impartial way, so as to offend neither Iconoclasts nor Iconodules. He recalled from exile the image-worshipping monks whom Leo the Armenian had sent to distant monasteries, and proclaimed that for the future every subject of the empire should enjoy complete liberty of conscience on the disputed question. This was far from satisfying the image-worshippers, who wished Michael to restore their idols to their ancient places: but the Amorian would not consent to this, and obtained but a very qualified measure of approval from the monastic party.

It was not to be expected that the reign of a military usurper, with no title to the throne whatever, would be untroubled by revolts. Michael had his share of such afflictions, and though he finally slew. Thomas and Euphemius, the two pretenders who laid claim to his crown, yet by their means he lost two not inconsiderable provinces of his empire. While the rebellion of Thomas was in progress; an army of Saracens from Alexandria threw themselves on the island of Crete, and conquered it from end to end. When Michael's hands were free he sent two great armaments to expel the intruders, but both failed, and Crete was destined to remain for a whole century in Moslem hands. Its hundred harbours became the haunts of innumerable Corsairs, who grew to be the bane of commerce in the Levant, and were a serious danger to the empire whenever its fleet fell into bad hands and failed to keep the police of the seas.

A similar rising in Sicily under a rebel named Euphemius led to the invasion of that island by an army of Moors from Africa, who landed in 827, and maintained a foothold in spite of all efforts to expel them. At first their gains were not rapid, but in the time of Michael's successors they gradually won for themselves the whole of the island.

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


After nine years of reign the Amorian died a natural death, still wearing the crown he had won. It was just fifty years since any ruler of the empire had met such a peaceful end. He was succeeded by his son Theophilus, a vehement Iconoclast, whose persecuting tendencies had been with difficulty restrained in his father's lifetime. His accession was the signal for a new campaign against image-worship; he induced the patriarch John the Grammarian, a strong Iconoclast like himself, to excommunicate as idolaters all who differed from him, and began to flog, banish, and imprison their leading men. His persecution would have been almost as vehement as that of Constantine Copronymus, but for the fact that he did not ever inflict the punishment of death; branding and mutilation however he did not disdain.

The Iconodules saw the vengeance of heaven for the misdeeds of Theophilus in the disasters which he suffered in war from the Saracens. He fell out with the Caliph Motassem, and in the first campaign took and burnt the town of Zapetra, for which the Commander of the Faithful had great regard. This roused Motassem to furious wrath; he swore that he would destroy in revenge the town which Theophilus held most dear; he collected the largest Saracen army that had been seen since Moslemah beleaguered Constantinople in 717, and marched out of Tarsus with 130,000 men, each of whom (if legend speaks true) had the word Amorium painted on his shield. For it was Amorium, the birth-place of the Emperor, and the home of his ancestors that Motassem had sworn to sack. While one division of the Caliph's army defeated Theophilus, who had taken the field in person, another headed by Motassem himself marched straight on Amorium, and took it after a brave defence of fifty-five days. Thirty thousand of its inhabitants were massacred, and the town, was burnt, but the Caliph then turned home satisfied with his revenge, and the empire suffered nothing more from this most dangerous invasion. The Saracen war dragged on in an indecisive way, but no further disaster was encountered.

There are other things to be recorded of Theophilus beside his persecution of image-worshippers and his war with the Caliph. He was long remembered for his taste for gorgeous display; of all the East-Roman emperors he seems to have delighted the most in gold and silver work, gems and embroidery. His golden plane-tree was the talk of the East, and the golden lions at the foot of his throne, which rose and roared by the means of ingenious machinery within, were remembered for generations.

Nor should the curious tale of his second marriage be left untold. When left a widower he bade the Empress-dowager Euphrosyne assemble at her levee all the most beautiful of the daughters of the East-Roman aristocracy, and came among them to choose a wife, carrying like Paris a golden apple in his hand. His glance was first fixed on the fair Eikasia, but approaching her he found no better topic to commence a conversation than the awkward statement that "most of the evil had come into the world by means of women." The lady retorted that surely most of the good had also come into the world by their means, a reply which apparently discomposed Theophilus, for he walked on and without a further word gave the golden apple to Theodora, a rival beauty. The choice was hasty and unhappy, for Theodora was a devoted Iconodule, and used all her influence against her husband's religious opinions.

Theophilus died in 842, while still a young man, leaving the throne to his only son Michael, a child of three years, and the regency to the young empress. The moment that her husband's grave was closed Theodora set to work to undo his policy. Amid the applause of the monks and the populace of Constantinople she proclaimed the end of the persecution, sent for the banished image-worshippers from their places of exile, and deposed John the Grammarian, the Iconoclastic patriarch who had served Theophilus. Within thirty days of the commencement of the new reign the images had appeared once more on the walls of all the churches of Constantinople. The Iconoclasts seem to have been taken by surprise, and made no resistance to the revolution: however the empress did not take any measures to persecute them; it was only power and not security for life and limb that they lost. The sole permanent result of the long struggle which they had kept up was a curious compromise in the Eastern Church on the subject of representation of the human figure. Statues were never again erected in places of worship, but only paintings and mosaics. It was apparently believed that the actual image savoured too much of the heathen idol, but that no offence could possibly be given by the picture, which served as a pious remembrance of the holy personage it represented, but could be nothing more. Nevertheless the veneration of the Byzantines for their holy "Eikons" became almost as grotesque as idol-worship, and led to many quaint and curious forms of superstition.

Theodora, engrossed in things religious, handed over the education of her young son to her brother Bardas, who became her co-regent and was afterwards made Caesar. He brought up the young Michael in the most reckless and unconscientious manner, teaching him his own vices of drunkenness and debauchery. Michael was an apt pupil, and ere he reached the age of twenty-one had become a confirmed dipsomaniac. History knows him by the dishonourable nickname of "Michael the Drunkard." Some years after his majority he grew discontented with his uncle, and slew him, in order that he might reign alone. His profligacy and intemperance became still more unbearable after Bardas was dead, and had it not been for the splendid organization of the Byzantine civil service the administration of the empire must have gone to pieces. Presently Michael grew tired of spending on state affairs any time that he could spare from his orgies, and appointed as Caesar and colleague his boon companion Basil the Macedonian. Basil had reached the position of grand chamberlain purely by the Emperor's favour; he rose from the lowest ranks and is said to have first entered Michael's service in the humble position of a groom. His practical ability, combined with a head hard enough to withstand the effect of even the longest debauch, won Michael's admiration, and so he came to be first chamberlain and then Caesar. Under the mask of a roisterer Basil concealed the most devouring ambition, and when he knew that his drunken benefactor had won the contempt of all the East-Roman world, had the impudence and ingratitude to plan his murder. Michael was stabbed while sleeping off the effects of one of his orgies, and his low-born colleague seized the palace and proclaimed himself emperor

It might have been expected that the East-Roman world would have refused to receive as its lord a man who owed his elevation to the freak of a drunkard, and had then become the assassin of his benefactor. But strangely enough Basil was destined to found the longest dynasty that ever sat upon the Constantinopolitan throne. He turned out a far better ruler than might have been expected from his disgraceful antecedents, being one of those fortunate men who are able to utilize the work of others when their own powers and knowledge fall short.

Basil is mainly remembered for his codification of the laws of the empire, which superseded the Ecloga  of Leo the Isaurian, even as Leo's compilation had superseded the more solid and thorough work of Justinian. The Basilika  of Basil with the additions made by his son Leo VI. formed the code of the Byzantine Empire down to its last days, no further rearrangement being ever made.

Basil, being of European birth and not an Asiatic like the preceding emperors, was naturally an orthodox image-worshipper. He showed his bigotry by a fierce persecution of the Paulicians, an Asiatic sect of heretics accused of Manicheanism, whom the Iconoclast emperors had been wont to tolerate. Basil's oppression drove many of them over the Saracen frontier, where they took refuge with the Moslems and maintained themselves by plundering the borders of the empire.

Among the other transactions of his nineteen years of reign [867-886], the only one deserving notice is the final loss of Sicily. The Saracens of Africa, who had held a footing in the island ever since the time of Michael II., now finished their work by storming Syracuse in 878.