THIRD MILLENNIUM LIBRARY
 

THE BYZANTINE EMPIRE-BOOK I-

CHAPTER III

Section III

A

THE REGENCY OF THEODORA

 

Michael the son of Theophilus was between three and four years old when his father died. His mother Theodora, having been crowned empress, was regent in her own right. The will of her husband had joined with her, as a council of administration, Theoktistos, the ablest statesman in the empire; Manuel, the uncle of the empress; and Bardas, her brother. Thekla, an elder sister of Michael, had also received the title of Empress before her father's death.

The great struggle between the Iconoclasts and the image worshippers was terminated during the regency of Theodora, and she is consequently regarded by the orthodox as a pattern of excellence, though she countenanced the vices of her son, by being present at his most disgraceful scenes of debauchery. The most remarkable circumstance, at the termination of this long religious contest, is the immorality which invaded all ranks of society. The moral and religious sincerity and strictness which, during the government of the early Iconoclasts, had raised the empire from the verge of social dissolution to dignity and strength, had subsequently been supplanted by a degree of cant and hypocrisy that became at last intolerable. The sincerity of both the ecclesiastical parties, in their early contests, obtained for them the respect of the people; but when the political question concerning the subjection of the ecclesiastical to the civil power became the principal object of dispute, official tyranny and priestly ambition only used a hypocritical veil of religious phrases for the purpose of concealing their interested ends from popular scrutiny. As usual, the people saw much farther than their rulers supposed, and the consequence was that, both parties being suspected of hypocrisy, the influence of true religion was weakened, and the most sacred ties of society rent asunder. The Byzantine clergy showed themselves ready on all occasions to flatter the vices of the civil government: the monks were eager for popular distinction, and acted the part of demagogues; while servile prelates and seditious monks were both equally indifferent to alleviating the people's burdens.

Every rank of society at last proclaimed that it was weary of religious discussion and domestic strife. Indifference to the ecclesiastical questions so long predominant, produced indifference to religion itself, and the power of conscience became dormant; enjoyment was soon considered the object of life; and vice, under the name of pleasure, became the fashion of the day. In this state of society, of which the germs were visible in the reign of Theophilus, superstition was sure to be more powerful than religion. It was easier to pay adoration to a picture, to reverence a relic, or to observe a ceremony, than to regulate one's conduct in life by the principles of morality and the doctrines of religion. Pictures, images, relics, and ceremonies became consequently the great objects of veneration. The Greek population of the empire had identified its national feelings with traditional usages rather than with Christian doctrines, and its opposition to the Asiatic puritanism of the Isaurian, Armenian, and Amorian emperors, engrafted the reverence for relics, the adoration of pictures and the worship of saints, into the religious fabric of the Eastern Church, as essentials of Christian worship. Whatever the church has gained in this way, in the amount of popular devotion, seems to have been lost to popular morality.

The senate at this time possessed considerable influence in administrative business. It was called upon to ratify the will of Theophilus, and a majority of its members were gained over to the party of the empress, who was known to favor image-worship. The people of Constantinople had always been of this party; and the Iconoclasts of the higher ranks, tired of the persecutions which had been the result of the ecclesiastical quarrel, desired peace and toleration more than victory. The Patriarch, John the Grammarian, and some of the highest dignitaries in the church, were, nevertheless, conscientiously opposed to a species of devotion which they thought too closely resembled idolatry, and from them no public compliance could be expected. Manuel, however, the only member of the regency who had been a fervent Iconoclast, suddenly abandoned the defense of his opinions; and his change was so unexpected that it was reported he had been converted by a miracle. A sudden illness brought him to the point of death, when the prayers and the images of the monks of Studion as suddenly restored him to health. Such was the belief of the people of Constantinople, and it must have been a belief extremely profitable to the monks. It was necessary to hold a general council in order to effect the restoration of image-worship; but to do this as long as John the Grammarian remained Patriarch was evidently impossible.

The regency, however, ordered him to convoke a synod, and invite to it all the bishops and abbots sequestered as image-worshippers, or else to resign the patriarchate. John refused both commands, and a disturbance occurred, in which he was wounded by the imperial guards. The court party spread a report that he had wounded himself in an attempt to commit suicide, the greatest crime a Christian could commit. The great mechanical knowledge of John, and his studies in natural philosophy, were already considered by the ignorant as criminal in an ecclesiastic; so that the calumnious accusation, like that already circulated of his magical powers, found ready credence among the orthodox Greeks. The court seized the opportunity of deposing him. He was first exiled to a monastery, and subsequently, on an accusation that he had picked out the eyes in a picture of a saint, he was scourged, and his own eyes were put out. His mental superiority was perhaps as much the cause of his persecution as his religious opinions.

Methodios, who had been released from imprisonment by Theophilus at the intercession of Theodora, was named Patriarch, and a council of the church was held at Constantinople in 842, to which all the exiled bishops, abbots, and monks who had distinguished themselves as confessors in the cause of image-worship were admitted. Those bishops who remained firm to their Iconoclastic opinions were expelled from their Sees, and replaced by the most eminent confessors. The practices and doctrines of the Iconoclasts were formally anathematized, and banished forever from the Orthodox Church. A crowd of monks descended from the secluded monasteries of Olympus, Ida, and Athos, to revive the enthusiasm of the people in favor of images, pictures, and relics; and the last remains of traditional idolatry were carefully interwoven with the established religion in the form of the legendary history of the saints.

A singular scene was enacted in this synod by the Empress Theodora. She presented herself to the assembled clergy, and asked for an act declaring that the church pardoned all the sins of her deceased husband, with a certificate that divine grace had effaced the record of his persecutions. When she saw dissatisfaction visible in the looks of a majority of the members, she threatened, with frank simplicity, that if they would not do her that favor, she would not employ her influence as empress and regent to give them the victory over the Iconoclasts, but would leave the affairs of the church in their actual situation. The Patriarch Methodios answered, that the church was bound to employ its influence in relieving the souls of orthodox princes from the pains of hell, but, unfortunately, the prayers of the church had no power to obtain forgiveness from God for those who died without the pale of orthodoxy.

The church was only entrusted with the keys of heaven to open and shut the gates of salvation to the living, the dead were beyond its help. Theodora, however, determined to secure the services of the church for her deceased husband. She declared that in his last agony Theophilus had received and kissed an image she laid on his breast. Although it was more than probable that the agony had really passed before the occurrence happened, her statement satisfied Methodios and the synod, who consented to absolve its dead emperor from excommunication as an Iconoclast, and admit him into the bosom of the orthodox church, declaring that, things having happened as the Empress Theodora certified in a written attestation, Theophilus had found pardon from God.

The victory of the image-worshippers was celebrated by the installation of the long-banished pictures in the church of St. Sophia, on the 19th February, 842, just thirty days after the death of Theophilus. This festival continues to be observed in the Greek church as the feast of orthodoxy on the first Sunday in Lent.

The first military expedition of the regency was to repress a rebellion of the Slavonians in the Peloponnesus, which had commenced during the reign of Theophilus. On this occasion the mass of the Slavonian colonists was reduced to complete submission, and subjected to the regular system of taxation; but two tribes settled on Mount Taygetus, the Ezerits and Melings, succeeded in retaining a certain degree of independence, governing themselves according to their own usages, and paying only a fixed annual tribute. For the Ezerits this tribute amounted to three hundred pieces of gold, and for the Melings to the trifling sum of sixty. The general who commanded the Byzantine troops on this occasion was Theoktistos Briennios, who held the office of protospatharios.

In the meantime Theoktistos the regent, anxious to obtain that degree of power and influence which, in the Byzantine as in the Roman Empire, was inseparable from military renown, took the command of a great expedition into Cholcis, to conquer the Abasges. His fleet was destroyed by a tempest, and his troops were defeated by the enemy. In order to regain the reputation he had lost, he made an attempt in the following year to reconquer the island of Crete from the Saracens. But while he was engaged in the siege of Chandax, (Candia,) the report of a revolution at Constantinople induced him to quit his army, in order to look after his personal interests and political intrigues. The troops suffered severely after they were abandoned by their general, whom they were compelled at last to follow.

 

Saracen War

 

The war with the caliph of Bagdad still continued, and the destruction of a Saracen fleet, consisting of four hundred galleys, by a tempest off Cape Chelidonia, in the Kibyrraiot theme, consoled the Byzantine government for its other losses. The caliph had expected, by means of this great naval force, to secure the command of the Archipelago, and assist the operations of his armies in Asia Minor. The hostilities on the Cilician frontier were prosecuted without any decided advantage to either party, until the unlucky Theoktistos placed himself at the head of the Byzantine troops. His incapacity brought on a general engagement, in which the imperial army was completely defeated, at a place called Mauropotamos, near the range of Mount Taurus. After this battle, an officer of reputation, (Theophanes, from Ferganah,) disgusted with the severity and blunders of Theoktistos, deserted to the Saracens, and embraced Islamism. At a subsequent period, however, he again returned to the Byzantine service and the Christian religion.

In the year 845, an exchange of prisoners was effected on the banks of the river Lamus, a day’s journey to the west of Tarsus. This was the first that had taken place since the taking of Amorium. The frequent exchange of prisoners between the Christians and the Mussulmans always tended to soften the miseries of war; and the cruelty which inflicted martyrdom on the forty-two prisoners of rank taken at Amorium in the beginning of this year, seems to have been connected with the interruption of the negotiations which had previously so often facilitated these exchanges.

A female regency was supposed by the barbarians to be of necessity a period of weakness. The Bulgarians, under this impression, threatened to commence hostilities unless the Byzantine government consented to pay them an annual subsidy. A firm answer on the part of Theodora, accompanied by the display of a considerable military force on the frontier, however, restrained the predatory disposition of King Bogoris and his subjects. Peace was re-established after some trifling hostilities, an exchange of prisoners took place, the commercial relations between the two states became closer; and many Bulgarians, who had lived so long in the Byzantine empire as to have acquired the arts of civilized life and a knowledge of Christianity, returning to their homes, prepared their countrymen for receiving a higher degree of social culture, and with it the Christian religion.

The disturbed state of the Saracen Empire, under the Caliphs Vathek and Motawukel, would have enabled the regency to enjoy tranquility, had religious zeal not impelled the orthodox to persecute the inhabitants of the empire in the south-eastern provinces of Asia Minor. The regency unfortunately followed the counsels of the bigoted party, which regarded the extinction of heresy as the most important duty of the rulers of the state. A numerous body of Christians were persecuted with so much cruelty that they were driven to rebellion, and compelled to solicit protection for their lives and property from the Saracens, who seized the opportunity of transporting hostilities within the Byzantine frontiers.

 

Persecution of the Paulicians

 

The Paulicians were the heretics who at this time irritated the orthodoxy of Constantinople. They were enemies of image-worship, and showed little respect to the authority of a church establishment, for their priests devoted themselves to the service of their fellow-creatures without forming themselves into a separate order of society, or attempting to establish a hierarchical organization. Their social and political opinions were viewed with as much hatred and alarm by the ecclesiastical counselors of Theodora, as the philanthropic principles of the early Christians had been by the pagan emperors of Rome. The same calumnies were circulated among the orthodox against the Paulicians, which had been propagated amongst the heathen against the Christians. The populace of Constantinople was taught to exult in the tortures of those accused of Manichaeism, as the populace of Rome had been persuaded to delight in the cruelties committed on the early Christians as enemies of the human race.

From the time of Constantine V the Paulicians had generally enjoyed some degree of toleration; but the regency of Theodora resolved to consummate the triumph of orthodoxy, by a cruel persecution of all who refused to conform to the ceremonies of the established church. Imperial commissioners were sent into the Paulician districts to enforce ecclesiastical union, and every individual who resisted the invitations of the clergy was either condemned to death or his property was confiscated. It is the boast of orthodox historians that ten thousand Paulicians perished in this manner. Far greater numbers, however, escaped into the province of Melitene, where the Saracen emir granted them protection, and assisted them to plan schemes of revenge.

The cruelty of the Byzantine administration at last goaded the oppressed to resistance within the empire and the injustice displayed by the officers of the government induced many, who were themselves indifferent on the religious question, to take up arms against oppression. Karbeas, one of the principal officers on the staff of Theodotos Melissenos, the general of the Anatolic theme, hearing that his father had been crucified for his adherence to the doctrines of the Paulicians, fled to the emir of Melitene, and collected a body of five thousand men, with which he invaded the empire.

The Paulician refugees were established, by the caliph’s order, in two cities called Argaous, and Amara; but their number soon increased so much, by the arrival of fresh emigrants, that they formed a third establishment at a place called Tephrike, (Divreky,) in the district of Sebaste, (Sivas,) in a secluded country of difficult access, where they constructed a strong fortress, and dwelt in a state of independence.

Omar, the emir of Melitene, at the head of a Saracen army, and Karbeas with a strong body of Paulicians, ravaged the frontiers of the empire. They were opposed by Petronas, the brother of Theodora, then general of the Thrakesian theme. The Byzantine army confined its operations to defense; while Alim, the governor of Tarsus, having been defeated, and civil war breaking out in the Saracen dominions in consequence of the cruelties of the Caliph Motawukel, the incursions of the Paulicians were confined to mere plundering forays. In the meantime a considerable body of Paulicians continued to dwell in several provinces of the empire, escaping persecution by outward conformity to the Greek Church, and by paying exactly all the dues levied on them by the Byzantine clergy. The whole force of the empire was not directed against the Paulicians until some years later, during the reign of Basil I.

 

Bardas

 

In the year 852, the regency revenged the losses inflicted by the Saracen pirates on the maritime districts of the empire, by invading Egypt. A Byzantine fleet landed a body of troops at Damietta, which was plundered and burned: the country round was ravaged, and six hundred female slaves were carried away. Theodora, like her female predecessor Irene, displayed considerable talents for government. She preserved the tranquility of the empire, and increased its prosperity in spite of her persecuting policy; but, like Irene, she neglected her duty to her son in the most shameful manner. In the series of Byzantine sovereigns from Leo III (the Isaurian) to Michael III, only two proved utterly unfit for the duties of their station, and both appear to have been corrupted by the education they received from their mothers. The unfeeling ambition of Irene, and the heartless vanity of Theodora, were the original causes of the folly of Constantine VI and the vices of Michael III. The system of education generally adopted at the time seems to have been singularly well adapted to form men of ability, as we see in the instances of Constantine V, Leo IV, and Theophilus, who were all educated as princes and heirs to the empire. Even if we take the most extended view of Byzantine society, we shall find that the constant supply of great talents displayed in the public service must have been the result of careful cultivation and judicious systematic study. No monarchical government can produce such a long succession of able ministers and statesmen as conducted the Byzantine administration during the eighth, ninth, and tenth centuries. The remarkable deficiency of original genius during this period only adds an additional proof that the mind was disciplined by a rigid system of education.

Theodora abandoned the care of her child’s education to her brother Bardas, of whose taste and talents she may have been a very incompetent judge, but of whose debauched manners she must have seen and heard too much. With the assistance of Theoktistos she arrogated to herself the sole direction of the public administration; and viewed with indifference the course of idleness and profligacy by which Bardas corrupted the principles of her son in his endeavor to secure a mastery over his mind. Both mother and uncle appear to have expected to profit by the young emperor’s vices. Bardas soon became a prime favorite, as he not only afforded the young emperor every facility for gratifying his passions, but supported him in the disputes with the regency that originated on account of his lavish expenditure. Michael at last came to an open quarrel with his mother. He had fallen in love with Eudocia, the daughter of Inger, of the great family of the Martinakes, a connection which both Theodora and Theoktistos viewed with alarm, as likely to create a powerful opposition to their political influence. To prevent a marriage, Theodora succeeded in compelling Michael, who was then in his sixteenth year, to marry another lady named Eudocia, the daughter of Dekapolitas. The young debauchee, however, made Eudocia Ingerina his mistress, and, towards the end of his reign, bestowed her in marriage on Basil the Macedonian as a mark of his favor. She became the mother of the Emperor Leo VI, the Wise.

This forced marriage enabled Bardas to excite the animosity of Michael against the regency to such a degree that he was persuaded to sanction the murder of Theoktistos, whose able financial administration was so generally acknowledged that Bardas feared to contend openly with so honest a minister. Theoktistos was arrested by order of the young emperor, and murdered in prison. The majority of Michael III was not immediately proclaimed, but Bardas was advanced to the office of Master of the Horse, and assumed the direction of the administration. He was consequently regarded as the real author of the murder of Theoktistos.

 

Wealth in the treasury

 

Theodora, though her real power had ceased, continued to occupy her place as empress-regent; but in order to prepare for her approaching resignation, and at the same time prove the wisdom of her financial administration, and the value of the services of Theoktistos, by whose counsels she had been guided, she presented to the senate a statement of the condition of the imperial treasury. By this account it appeared that there was then an immense accumulation of specie in the coffers of the state. The sum is stated to have consisted of 109,000 Ib. of gold and 300,000 Ib. of silver, besides immense stores of merchandise, jewels, and plate. The Empress Theodora was evidently anxious to guard against all responsibility, and prevent those calumnious accusations which she knew to be common at the Byzantine court. The immense treasure thus accumulated would probably have given immortal strength to Byzantine society, had it been left in the possession of the people, by a wise reduction in the amount of taxation, accompanied by a judicious expenditure for the defense of the frontiers, and for facilitating the conveyance of agricultural produce to distant markets.

The Empress Theodora continued to live in the imperial palace, after the murder of Theoktistos, until her regency expired, on her son attaining the age of eighteen. Her residence there was, however, rendered a torture to her mind by the unseemly exhibitions of the debauched associates of her son. The eagerness of Michael to be delivered from her presence at length caused him to send both his mother and his sisters to reside in the Carian Palace, and even to attempt persuading the Patriarch Ignatius to give them the veil. After her banishment from the imperial palace, Theodora still hoped to recover her influence with her son, if she could separate him from Bardas; and she engaged in intrigues with her brother’s enemies, whose secret object was his assassination. This conspiracy was discovered, and only tended to increase the power of Bardas. He was now raised to the dignity of curopalat. Theodora and the sisters of Michael were removed to the monastery of Gastria, the usual residence of the ladies of the imperial family who were secluded from the world. After the death of Bardas, however, Theodora recovered some influence over her son; she was allowed to occupy apartments in the palace of St. Mamas, and it was at a party in her rural residence at the Anthemian Palace that Michael was assassinated. Theodora died in the first year of the reign of Basil I; and Thekla, the sister of Michael, who had received the imperial title, and was as debauched in her manners as her brother, continued her scandalous life during great part of Basil’s reign; yet Theodora is eulogized as a saint by the ecclesiastical writers of the Western as well as the Eastern church, and is honored with a place in the Greek calendar.