The Roman Empire was split into two independent states: Western and Eastern Roman Empires, the latter of which was governed from Constantinople. The Western Roman state succumbed to Germanic and other groups in 476 CE that, through a series of violent and peaceful migrations, established their independent states in the lands of the empire. The Eastern Roman Empire survived for another thousand years, continuing the legacy of Classical Roman institutions that legitimized the imperial office through the maintenance of public consensus, especially in the capital city of Constantinople and in the armies. However, with the rise of the Islamic empires of the Umayyads and the Abbasids, the Romans lost much of their territory in West Asia and North Africa; the core of the empire became Asia Minor, as well as the European regions of Thrace and Greece, while the northern part of the Balkan Peninsula was lost over the course of the 6th and 7th centuries to the Slavs and Bulgarians who established their own state formations there.
The loss of territories, as well as the need to wage wars on two fronts so close to Constantinople, came as a shock to the Romans, who had to restructure their administration by merging civilian and military rule in single offices held by public servants. The period from the early 8th to the late 9th centuries also saw some soul-searching done by the prominent generals of the eastern armies, some of whom became the emperors of the Romans with the support of their troops and the people of Constantinople. These emperors continued to practice their imperial prerogatives and interfere with the affairs of the church. Their ideas about the ways in which worship should be done, however, found opposition with many church officials and the conflict within the church dominated the empire’s religious landscape for about two centuries. This period of theological dispute over whether icons should be worshiped or considered idolatry brought about the rise of the first woman who held the position of emperor of the Romans. The excerpt from Theophanes’ Chronicle addresses the rise and fall of empresses Irene, who blinded her own son in order to continue to rule the empire, which she had already ruled as a regent during her son’s minority.
After the crisis caused by the banishment of icons (iconoclasm), the empire entered a period of economic and territorial expansion in the 10th and 11th centuries, which also brought about the rise of urban communities throughout the empire, as well as a noticeable population growth in Constantinople. The changes caused by these expansions led to the growth of bureaucracy in the capital, as well as in the provinces, and service in the imperial government became the best way for one’s family to ennoble themselves. Thus, unlike in Western Europe where hereditary nobility was well-entrenched by this point, the Byzantine elites were comprised of the people who could afford to obtain high education and then procure careers in civil and military service of the emperors. Granted, a lot of these families tended to pass their education and positions to their own offspring. In this century of growth, a judge by the name of Michael Attaleiates, a major official, wrote the historical account of the 11th century, focusing on the role of the emperors and the people of Constantinople in their reigns. In the excerpt provided here, we see how Attaleiates explained the rise and fall of emperor Michael IV, who was an adoptive son of empress Zoe, who herself was an offspring of the beloved family that ruled the empire since the times of Basil I, who started his career as a mere stableboy to the emperor.
Irene of Athens: The First Woman to Rule Byzantium
From Theophanes, The Chronicle
ANNUS MUNDI 6282 (SEPTEMBER 1, 789— AUGUST 31, 790)
In this year, out of envy of the rulers’ piety, the devil incited wicked men to engage the mother against her son and the son against his mother. As if from foreknowledge, they persuaded her, “It is not ordained that your son should rule the state if you do not, as God gave it to you,” and were fully believed. Since Irene was a woman (and was also power-hungry) she was deceived, and felt assured this was so. She did not reckon that they had used it as a pretext because they wanted to manage affairs themselves.
The Emperor was twenty years old, strong and competent, but saw he had no power. He was dismayed when he saw the patrician and logothete Staurakios occupied with everything. Everyone went to Staurakios, and no-one dared visit the Emperor. Constantine plotted with his own few intimates and with the magistros Peter and the patricians Theodore Kamoulianos and Damianos; they decided to seize Staurakios and exile him to Sicily. Constantine himself would hold power with his mother.
On February 9 of the thirteenth indiction there was a terrifying earthquake, so that some people did not dare sleep indoors, but passed their time in orchards and open-air tents.
ANNUS MUNDI 6290 (SEPTEMBER I, 797— AUGUST 31, 798)
In this year, as soon as she had taken power, Irene immediately sent Dorotheos the abbot of Chrysopolis and Constantine the chartophylax of the great church to Abu Malik, who was devastating Kappadokia and Galatia. She sent them out to negotiate for peace, but it did not come to pass.
In October some rebels went to the imprisoned sons of God’s enemy Constantine at the monastery of Therapeia. These men persuaded them to flee to the great church and ask for a firm promise that they would not be harmed. Using this as a pretext, the rebels would then acclaim one of them Emperor. When many people had assembled in the church, the eunuch patrician Aetios came in to lead them out for their pledge (which no-one furnished them), but then exiled them to Athens. The two patricians Staurakios and Aetios, who were intimates of the Empress, became enemies and openly revealed their hatred. Each of them had plans to procure the Empire for his own relatives after Irene’s death.
ANNUS MUNDI 6291 (SEPTEMBER 1, 798— AUGUST 31, 799)
In this year Abu Malik attacked Romania; he sent out a raiding party of light-armed troops, who advanced as far as Malagina. When he reached Staurakios’ stables, he took the patrician’s horses and the imperial equipage, then withdrew unharmed. The rest of his men advanced all the way to Lydia, taking many prisoners. Another one of their raiding-parties on a sally descended on the patrician Paul the count of the Opsikion, his entire thematic army, and the optimatoi; it caused them many casualties, and even took their baggage-train before withdrawing.
In March of the seventh indiction Akameros (the ruler of the 474 Sklavinoi of Belzetia), spurred on by the troops of the theme of Hellas, wanted to bring forth the sons of Constantine and choose one of them Emperor. When the Empress Irene learned this, she sent to the patri cian Constantine Serantopekhos his son the spatharios Theophylaktos, who was also her nephew. She blinded all her opponents and broke up the plot against her.
On the second day of holy Easter the Empress left the church of the Holy Apostles borne on a golden chariot drawn by four white horses and controlled by four patricians: I mean, Bardanes the general of the Thrakesian theme, Sisinnios general of Thrace, Niketas the domesticus of the scholae, and Constantine Bo’ilas. She distributed abundant consular largess.
In May the Empress believed she was near death. The eunuchs’ strife increased. Aetios took as a partner the patrician Niketas the domesticus of the scholae; the two of them attacked Staurakios, persuading the Empress that he was aiming at the rule. Incensed at him, she attacked him in the palace of Hiereion, saying he was planning riots and insurrections, and that he was the means of his own swiftest destruction. He defended himself to her and gained his safety, but waxed furious at the patricians Aetios and Niketas.
ANNUS MUNDI 6292 (SEPTEMBER 1, 799— AUGUST 31, 800)
In this year — the eighth indiction — in February Staurakios devised a revolt and insurrection in the imperial city. He had pledged money and gifts for the scholarii and excubitores there, as well as for their officers. The pious Irene convened a silentium in the triklinos of Justinian and kept all the military units from approaching Staurakios. His heart failed; he brought up through his mouth foaming blood from his 475 chest and lungs. Observing this, his doctors declared it a mortal sign. But until the very day of his death, which was June 3 of the eighth indiction, the rest of his hangers-on and fools convinced him with oaths that he would yet live and rule. With them he devised and drove home a rising in Kappadokia against Aetios, but was not deemed worthy to hear about it while living, for the news of it arrived two days after his death. The rebels were quelled and subjected to exile and punishment.
ANNUS MUNDI 6293 (SEPTEMBER 1, 800— AUGUST 31, 801)
In this year — the ninth indiction — on December 25 Charles the king of the Franks was crowned by pope Leo. He wished to marshal an expedition against Sicily, but desisted, wanting instead to marry Irene. In the following year — the tenth indiction — he dispatched ambassadors to gain that end.
In March of the ninth indiction the pious Irene forgave the Byzantines the city taxes, and lightened the “commercia” at Abydos and Hieron. These and many other benefactions earned her great thanks.
ANNUS MUNDI 6294 (SEPTMBER 1, 801— AUGUST 31, 802)
In this year the patrician Aetios, free of Staurakios, planned to gain power, eager to transfer it to his brother, whom he appointed chief general in both Thrace and Macedonia. He himself controlled the thematic armies of the other shore: the troops from the Anatolic theme and that of the Opsikion. Full of excitement, he paid little attention to the important officers, taking none of them into account. But they were extremely disturbed about him, and planned and carried out a revolt against the Empress.
ANNUS MUNDI 6295 (SEPTEMBER 1, 802— AUGUST 31, 803)
In this year — the eleventh indiction — on October 31 at the fourth hour of the night, while Monday was drawing toward dawn, Nikephoros the patrician and minister of public finances rebelled against the pious Irene. By His ineffable judgment, God acquiesced in this because of the multitude of our sins. The treacherous, oathbreaking Triphyllioi — the patrician and domesticus of the scholae Niketas and his brother the patrician Sisinnios — worked with Nikephoros. Also with them were the patrician Leo Serantopekhos, the patrician Greg ory son of Mousoulakios, Theoktistos the patrician and quaestor, and the patrician Peter; they also beguiled some of the officers of the imperial guards.
When they came to the Bronze Gate, all at once they tricked the guards, whom they falsely convinced that Irene had sent them to proclaim Nikephoros Emperor because Aetios was going to force her to name his brother Leo Emperor. The guards swallowed this huge lie, and acclaimed the tyrant as Emperor. This is how these patricians went to the great palace and got inside. From there they sent obscure men and slaves all through the city to make the acclamation. They also surrounded with guards the monastery of Eleutherios, where Irene happened to be.
At dawn they summoned Irene and imprisoned her in the great palace. Then they went on to the great church to crown the sinner. All the city masses went with them but, because of what had been done, everyone was upset and unable to stand the crowner, the man who was crowned, or those who rejoiced with them. Those who had spent their lives in piety and reason marveled at the divine judgment: that He had allowed her (who had struggled for the true faith in martyr’s fashion) to be ousted by a swineherd because her friends joined him out of love of money (I mean the eunuch patrician Leo the sakellarios of Sinope, the God-detested Triphyllioi, and the patricians mentioned above). She had enriched them with huge gifts and often had eaten with them. By flattery and oaths they had persuaded her to believe their good will towards her was more compelling than all the world’s terrible affairs.
As if beside themselves, others could not grasp the reality of what had happened, and thought they were dreaming. Still others, knowing full well what was toward, blessed the good days which had passed and mourned the misfortune which, because of the tyrant, would come in the future. This was especially true of members of his wicked party, who had formerly favored everything he did. A common, unsummoned gloom and depression settled on everyone, so that I would be tedious were I to prolong the story, and will not write bit by bit the graceless account of this pitiful day. The weather was quite unnaturally sullen, dark, and persistently chilly during autumn, which clearly fore shadowed Nikephoros’ future intractability and impatience, especially to those who had chosen him.
On the next day he went with some patricians to the imprisoned Empress. As he usually did, he falsely played the role of an honest man, by which means he had tricked the masses. His justification of himself to her was that he had been elevated to the rule against his will and had no appetite for it, but had been raised by men who had advanced him and betrayed her, just as the betrayer Judas had treated the Lord after the Last Supper. He bore witness that they imitated Judas in every respect.
He secretly showed her that, contrary to imperial custom, he was wearing black sandals, and maintained that he was pleased to do so. With oaths he treacherously encouraged her to enjoy the total tranquility an Empress, as opposed to a slave, needed, and to believe there would be no disaster because she had been ousted.
He advised her not to hide the imperial treasures from him, and condemned the disease of avarice although he could not bear to control it. For this terribly afflicted the devourer of everything, who placed all his hopes in gold. The wise and God-loving Irene, although liable to be affected by her sudden change of status (as she was a woman), spoke with noble and intelligent purpose to the man who was yesterday an oathbreaking slave, but today a villainous revolutionary and reck- less tyrant: “I, sirrah, believe in God, Who, though formerly I was an orphan, raised and elevated me to the throne, although I am unworthy. I blame my destruction on my sins. I have always urged in every way the acclamation of the name of the Lord, the only Emperor of Emperors and Lord of Lords. Since I believe nothing comes to pass without Him, I yield to the Lord the means of your advancement. You are not ignorant of the reports against you which were brought to me. They concerned the office you now possess, and were true, as the outcome of this affair reveals. If I had gone along with them, these reports would have had you executed without hindrance. But I was convinced by your oaths; I had mercy on you, and misled many men who meant me well, of God, through Whom Emperors reign and dynasts rule the world, I give back what was once mine. Now I give you reverence as Emperor, as you are pious and have been chosen by Him. I implore you to have mercy on my weakness and suffer me to keep the monastery of Eleutherios (which I built) to guide my soul from its incomparable misfortune.”
He said, If this is what you want for yourself, swear to me on the divine power that you will not hide any of the Empire’s treasures, and I will fulfill your request and furnish you with all aid and tranquility.”
On the precious and lifegiving wood she swore to him, “I will not hide anything from you, not even an obol.” This she carried out. But once he had gained what he longed for, he immediately exiled her to the nunnery she had built on the Prince’s Island.
Once he had seized power, this devourer of everything could not even briefly conceal by hypocrisy his innate evil and avarice. Rather, he established his own wicked, unjust court at Magnaura, on the pre- text of removing injustice. But, as events showed, the tyrant’s aim was not to give the poor justice, but through his court to dishonor and capture all the men in power and transfer to himself control of all affairs.
He saw that everyone was dismayed at him, and grew fearful lest they should perchance recall the pious Irene’s benefactions and summon her to rule once more. In November, after winter was firmly entrenched, the heartless man, taking no pity on her, exiled her to Lesbos. He ordered her securely imprisoned and, in general, seen by no-one.
On April 30 Niketas Triphyllios died, killed (as they say) by Nikephoros’ poison.
On Thursday, May 4, Nikephoros went to the suburb of Chalcedon. Though he was mounted on a well-trained, gentle horse, by divine providence it threw him, crushing his right foot.
At the first hour of Wednesday, July 18, Bardanes (surnamed 1 ourkos), the patrician and general of the theme of the Anatolies, was proclaimed Emperor by the thematic troops of the opposite shore. But although he harangued them at some length, he could not make them cross. He went to Chrysopolis and besieged it for eight days; when the city did not accept him, he withdrew to Malagina. He feared God and did not think he should be responsible for the slaughter of Christians, so he sent a message to Nikephoros and received a written guarantee from the Emperor’s own hand that he and all his men would not be harmed or liable to any penalty. The holy patriarch Tarasios and all the patricians also subscribed to it..
At midnight on September 8 Bardanes secretly ran away to the monastery of Herakleios in Bithynian Kios. He found one of the Emperor’s warships which had been left behind, was tonsured, and assumed monastic garb. He boarded the ship and traveled to the island called Prote (on which was a monastery he had built), thinking Nikephoros would respect the fearful pledge he had given him, and would 480 not harm him. But Nikephoros first divested him of his property, then found an excuse to arrest all the officers and property owners of the themes, as well as some from the imperial city. He let the whole army go unpaid. What tale could one tell worthy of the deeds he did at that time? They opposed God, but were permitted because of our sins.
On August 9 of the eleventh indiction the Empress Irene died in her exile at Lesbos. Her body was moved to the nunnery she had built on the Prince’s Island.
Michael Attaleiates on the Rise and Fall of Michael IV Kalaphates
The wife of this emperor, the empress Zoe, returned to the palace that is situated south of the more northerly regions of the City, for the emperor had been buried there, by the monastery of the Holy Anargyroi. An assembly was convened in the Great City, as happens whenever there is a change in the regime, and not long afterward Michael, the nephew of the recently departed emperor, was proclaimed emperor, who for many years had held the rank of .
He was then adopted by the empress and swore fearsome oaths affirming that he would never break faith with her, or so he claimed, and these were confirmed not with ink but with the undefiled blood of the theanthropic Word and using the hand of the greatest man born of women, the Baptist.
In the past, he was maligned for his previous conduct and for not associating with men who had conducted themselves in a praiseworthy way. But when he was elevated to the imperial position he was praised greatly and solemnly exalted, since he now began to grant more honor to the Senate and his other subjects than any previous emperor, rewarding a vast number of them with illustrious rariks and honors. More than anyone he also made an effort to restore lawful government, and he presented himself as the inexorable avenger of the victims of injustice and as honoring and preferring justice above all else.
He freed that famous man, Konstantinos Dalassenos, from his imprisonment of many years -he had been confined to a tower by the emperor’s uncle on the suspicion of plotting to seize the throne – as well as that well-known patrikios Georgios Maniakes, whom he honored with the rank of magistros and appointed katepano of Italy. But his own relatives, who were many and rich but also seemed burdensome because of their overbearing deeds, he wholly removed from the scene. Their leader, the monk and orphanotrophos Ioannes, who had governed the state as deputy emperor, he condemned to everlasting exile, while the rest, whether they were grown men with a blooming beard or just adolescents, he had castrated. In this way he destroyed his family, which intelligent men saw as mindless zeal, for it deprived him of the crucial support of his relatives.
On the day of the divine festival of the supernatural Resurrection of Christ our God, which is celebrated by the entire populace and known to the Orthodox as the salvific Easter, the superintendents of the marketplace made ready for the imperial procession by covering the road with luxuriously woven silk cloths all the way from the palace itself to the gates of the revered and great church of the Holy Wisdom of the Word of God. They made these preparations diligently so that the emperor, surrounded by his stately retinue, could walk across in this way. After this, the procession takes place on horseback from the point where it reaches the New Church, and here they spread out the most luxurious and expensive fabrics while other glittering gold and silver ornaments were affixed along the full length of the route. The entire forum was garlanded and, as if it too were celebrating, shone with joyful thanksgiving for salvation. The procession was truly wondrous and befitting an emperor, and the City resounded everywhere and was exalted with acclamations, thanksgiving, and songs of praise with one exception, namely that the procession took place earlier than was customary, which caused concern among more intelligent onlookers. They noticed that the emperor gave the signal to start before the scene was fully set and the streets were full, and this untimeliness was not regarded as a good omen. In the meantime, the emperor returned to the palace from the great church of the Holy Apostles, proud of the approbation and attendance that he had received, while the empress was made to dress in black, shorn of her hair, and transported toward evening to Prinkipos, an island not far from the Reigning City.
On the next day, when most people were still unaware of that dramatic turn of events, there was much excited discussion about the previous day. One man said that he had been most impressed with this, another with that, and a third jumped in to praise something that the others left out; in short, everyone wanted to exalt greatly what they had seen. But when the evil fate of the empress became known to the populace and the news spread everywhere, you could see everyone’s mood instantly change to its opposite: sullenness rose up against joyful thanksgiving and an outbreak of implacable hatred took the place of the honor and praise that they had bestowed upon the emperor. People strove to surpass each other in their anger and express their displeasure and lack of respect for him.
When the emperor learned about this he wanted to quell the outrage of the Byzantines. He wrote up some document to be read aloud to them from the most conspicuous part of the forum, laying all the blame on the victim: it was she who had started the trouble and it was he who had valorously suppressed the plan. He proffered a fabricated account of a plot against his own life in order to distract the aggrieved people and evade the danger that he suspected was upon him, but he did not realize that by dodging the smoke he would fall into the fire. As the imperial missive was unrolled, a great crowd poured into the area of the proclamation. Yet the herald had not made it to the second word before the multitude began to heave and swell like a stormy sea. First one man, before the rest, yelled out an insult and, along with it, threw a rock. And then the multitude that was crowding that place took up this citizen’s lead, as though he were their general, and shouted the same abusive term. Those present rushed against the eparchos roaring and yelling, full of anger and wrath. After smashing up the merchants’ stands, they used the pieces as weapons to fight hand-to-hand against the imperial guardsmen and the men of the eparchos. Routing them utterly and forcing them to shameful flight, they did not disperse, as usually happens to a mixed crowd that lacks a leader, but as though they were led from on high they became ever stronger and bolder in their resolution, especially as their numbers were swelling by the hour from those who poured in to join them.
Their leading objective was neither to yield nor to show weakness nor to suffer any delay, but to depose from power that ungrateful and unfeeling man who had turned against his own benefactress and violated the most fearsome oaths, on the grounds that he was guilty and unworthy of his office. A voice was then heard distinctly inciting them to do just that. Some of them broke open the prisons and freed the prisoners from their bonds, making them participants in the uprising and the vengeance to which their spontaneous urges incited them, while others moved on the palace, thereby kindling a civil war. Others surrounded the houses of the emperor’s relatives who held great power at that moment, stormed them, destroyed them, and emptied out the riches stored inside, the fruits of much injustice and the groans of the poor. Nor did they respect either churches or monasteries that his relatives had built luxuriously and at great expense, but they likewise plundered, defiled, and stripped them bare as if they were polluted. A third group poured into the sanctuary of the Holy Wisdom of the Word of God, brought down the patriarch himself in his sacerdotal stole, and compelled him not to remain indifferent to the empress, the heir to the throne who was suffering the worst injustice at the hands of that interloper and whose reward for her greatest benefaction was a foul outrage. They thus obtained the support of this most holy man for their just cause. He was Alexios, who had formerly practiced the monastic life to perfection. On the advice of certain officeholders, they also brought back the suffering empress’s sister, whose name was Theodora, from one of the monasteries in the Petrion region, where she had lived an essentially sequestered life for many years. They persuaded her to set aside her feminine modesty and weakness and follow them, for they were prepared and determined to suffer anything readily and risk their lives for her and her sister in order to rid them once and for all from the fear and danger posed by their enemy.
So Theodora mounted a horse and was surrounded by a splendid and heavily armed escort of formidable guards; securing the roads in advance, she proceeded directly through the City, acclaimed by the entire population and encouraged not to abandon the struggle and to topple the usurper. Late at night she safely reached the famous holy church and went up to the patriarch’s chambers. She turned her eyes to the crowd assembled in the church and they again exhorted her to stand firm. Thus she passed the night. Swiftly summoning all the magistrates and stripping her imperial opponent of all authority; she appointed men to the highest offices and to the supervision of the market. She thus capably took on the governance of the empire.
At dawn courageous military men assaulted the palace with a rain of arrows, and their shouts were accompanied by the blaring of trumpets and bugles. The force of the uproar struck the emperor like a typhoon and he fled the palace by sea as a fugitive to the monastery of Stoudios, where he sought refuge in the sanctuary, hoping that he would suffer no harm and pay no penalty for his unholy deed. But Justice did not long postpone his punishment. His pursuers entered the sanctuary, all of them bellowing, and dragged him out by force. They loaded him onto a pitiful and wretched mule, an object of ridicule. When he reached the Sigma, an order arrived from the Augusta that he be blinded immediately, as well as his father’s brother, the nohellisimos. For he was with him as both his adviser and accomplice, and now would share in his miserable fate. So they were pulled down from their mules in a disgraceful way, and with everyone looking on, the pupils of their eyes were punctured with needles. In this way they lost their sight along with the imperial power, and were delivered over to become monks. Let their dismal tale be remembered by posterity and may it set upon a better path anyone who intends to be ungrateful to his benefactors. This Michael, then, reigned for only five months.
- How does Theophanes depict empress Irene? Does he have a positive, negative, or neutral depiction of her?
- How is Irene’s generosity to the people described and why does this matter for the historical account?
- What was the role of the people in the rise and fall of Michael IV according to Attaleiates? What about the role of the empire’s nobles? How did they contribute to the rise and fall of this emperor?
- Why did Michael IV feel comfortable enough to dispatch empress Zoe to a monastery on an island outside Constantinople? What was the mistake in his calculation of the public consensus?