Topics in Middle East History

Chapter 10: Glory Outside - Rot Inside (860 to 1060)

Copyright ©2010 by T. Pavlidis

The Macedonian Dynasty

The last emperor of the Isaurian dynasty was Michael III whose mother Theodora had restored Orthodoxy. He reigned until 867 when the throne passed to Basil I, the founder of the Macedonian dynasty (see Table 10.1 for a listing of its members).

Name Years of Reign Comments
Basil I 867-886  
Leo VI 886-912 Officially son of Basil I but more likely son of Michael III.
Alexander 912-913 Undisputed son of Basil I
Constantine VII, Purple-born, Πορφυρογεννητος 913(age 7)-959(age 54) His mother Zoe was regent until 919.
Romanos I, Lekapenos 920-944 Regent 919, then father-in-law of Constan-tine VII, then co-emperor.
Romanos II 959-963 (age 24) Son of Constantine VII. Wife Theophano.
Nikephoros II, Phokas 963-969 Second husband of Theophano
John I, Tzimiskes 969-976 Lover of Theophano, then her third husband.
Basil II 976-1025 Son of Romanos II. Never married.
Constantine VIII 1025-1028 Younger brother of Basil II. He had three daughters, one of them Zoe.
Romanos III, Argyros 1028-1034 First husband of Zoe. Probably killed by his successor.
Michael IV 1034-1041 Lover and then the second husband of Zoe.
Michael V, the Caulker 1041-1042 (four months only) Nephew of Michael IV. He was deposed by popular (?) revolt, blinded and castrated.
Constantine IX 1042-1055 Third husband of Zoe.
Theodora 1055-1056 Sister of Zoe.
Michael VI, Bringas 1056-1057 Relative of eunuch Joseph Bringas

Basil was born in Macedonia in a humble family that may have been Armenian. His first job in the capital was as a groom to a relative of the emperor. Basil managed to ingratiate himself with Michael III becoming eventually becoming co-emperor. In the meantime Michael III persuaded Basil to divorce his wife and marry instead Michael's mistress Eudokia. At the end Basil arranged for Michael's assassination and he became the sole emperor [EG, Chapter XLVIII, vol. 5, pp. 101-105]. Basil I became one of most successful emperors of the Byzantine and Gibbon summarizes his career by the phrase: "he dissembled his ambition and even his virtues, and grasped, with the bloody hand of an assassin, the empire which he ruled with the wisdom and tenderness of a parent." [ibid, p. 103].

Basil had four sons with Eudokia, but since the latter had been the mistress of Michael III there are claims that the first three sons were Michael's [WT97, p. 455]. It is also reported that Basil had the youngest of the three, Stephen, "castrated and dedicated to the Church" [ibid]. Basil was succeeded by the eldest who reigned as Leo VI. Leo appointed his brother Stephen as patriarch. The first three wives of Leo had died and he married his fourth wife Zoe only after the birth of their son Constantine. He succeeded his father as Constantine VII and insisted on the eponym Purple-born to dissuade any disputes about the legitimacy of his birth.

Constantine VII died from apparent poisoning and he was succeeded by his son who reigned as Romanos II. The poisoning was attributed to Romanos wife Theophano. According to Gibbon she was of base origin and had scandalous manners and he holds her responsible for Romanos II death after a reign of only four years [ibid, p. 110-111] . Theophano married a prominent general, Nikephoros Phocas who became emperor. Phocas had achieved remarkable successes against the Arabs by taking Crete from them and by sacking the Syrian city of Aleppo. As Nikephoros II he reigned for only six years. Early on Theophano had taken as lover another general, John Tzimiskes. (According to Gibbon Theophano had numerous lovers [ibid, p. 112].) Tzimiskes killed Nikephoros with his own hands [ibid, 112-113]. Tzimiskes reigned as John I during 969-976. On the insistence of the patriarch of Constantinople he banished Theophano from the palace. Gibbon thinks that Tzimiskes welcome the demand of the patriarch [ibid].

Tzimiskes was able to achieve victories against the Russians as well as the Arabs but in his last return from Syria he observed that the best lands of the new provinces had been taken over by the palace eunuchs. He voiced his displeasure and his death at age 50 may be the result of poisoning by the eunuchs [ibid]. Whittow [MW96, pp. 310-357] devotes a chapter to this period titled "The Age of Reconquest: 863-976" that includes information about the military organization as well as the names of some of the eunuchs who held power in the palace. The eunuch Joseph Bringas was the dominant figure during Romanos reign but he lost power after he opposed the new emperor Nikephoros. He was then replaced by another eunuch, Basil Lekapenos who is the main suspect for the poisoning of Tzimiskes [ibid, p. 348-349]. The Lekapeni were a wealthy and influential family in the Byzantine empire and one of its members became emperor as Romanos I. That one of its members was also a eunuch suggests that castration was performed on members of influential families in order to increase their access to the palace. (See also [WT97, p. 551].)

When Tzimiskes died in 976 the general Bardas Skleros (one of the main backers of Tzimiskes) expected to become co-emperor and be the actual ruler instead of the young heirs of the Macedonian dynasty. These were the sons of Romanos II and Theophano, Basil II (18 years old) and Constantine VIII (16 years old) and had been named co-emperors by their father when they were still infants. However, the eunuch Basil Lekapenos did not go along with Skleros and, instead, supported Basil II. As a result Skleros raised the standard of rebellion and he was acclaimed emperor in the eastern Asia Minor region of Melitene [MW96, p. 361]. There was a clear split in the empire. Constantinople and the European parts were supporting Basil II as emperor while most of the Asian parts supported Skleros. Constantinople tried to get to their side the Phokas family and indeed troops of the latter defeated Skleros, but then Bardas Phocas wanted to be emperor himself.

A civil war raged for 13 years detailed by Whittow [ibid, pp. 361-373] and summarized by Gibbon [ibid, pp. 113-115]. Eventually Basil II won with help from the newly Christianized Russians. The prince of Kiev Vladimir I was baptized in 988 and had his subjects also baptized, apparently following the precedent of the Roman emperor Theodosius who had obligated his subjects to follow his own religion (Chapter 4). Vladimir also married Basil's sister Anna starting a connection between the Russian and Byzantine empires that lasted till modern times. When the Byzantine empire fell to the Ottomans, the Russian rulers claimed for themselves the role of protectors of the Orthodox Christian subjects of the Ottoman sultans.

Basil II went on to more victorious campaigns against the enemies of the empire. His major accomplishment was the destruction of the Bulgarian kingdom and he became known as the Bulgar-slayer (Βουλγαροκτονος in Greek). Gibbon rates that the result as the most important accomplishment of the Roman arms since the time of Belisarius [ibid, pp. 113-115]. Whittow devotes a whole chapter on him [MW96, pp. 358-390]. Basil II died in 1025 and he was succeeded by his brother Constantine IX who reigned only for three years.

Figure 1: Lands of the Roman Empire (in blue) in 1040 at the end of the Macedonian dynasty. The label on the right spells Manzikert, a place that will play a fateful role 30 years later.
Adapted from

The Sad End of the Macedonian Dynasty

Basil never married and his brother had only daughters. One of them, Zoe took the throne and she married three times, with each of her husbands becoming emperor. The second, Michael IV was of humble origin but his brother John was a eunuch in the palace. John introduced Michael to Zoe and the two of them killed Zoe's husband with Michael becoming emperor (Gibbon [ibid, pp. 115-116]). The end of the Macedonian dynasty came in 1054 with the death of Zoe's third husband.

Constantine IX was succeeded by Theodora, another niece of Basil II, but she reigned barely a year before she died. She was the last of the Macedonian dynasty and she was succeeded by a favorite of hers, the general Michael Bringas, a relative of the eunuch Joseph Bringas who had held sway in the palace 80 years earlier (see previous section). He took the throne as Michael VI, but he lasted only one year. The years 1028-1056 when the empire was ruled either by the nieces of Basil II or their husbands are given quite a grim assessment by Gibbon [EG, Chapter XLVIII, vol. 5, p. 117] "... shameful and destructive period of twenty-eight years, in which the Greeks, degraded below the common level of servitude, were transferred like a heard of cattle by the choice or caprice of two impotent females."

The elevation of Michael Bringas was resented by other generals who met in secret in the sanctuary of St. Sophia and elected one of their own, Isaac Comnenus, to be the new emperor. In a battle that followed Michael VI was defended only by the Varangians and he lost. The then patriarch, Michael Cerularius, convinced him to abdicate and became a monk while Isaac was crowned emperor in 1057. Isaac lasted only two years before he too retired to a monastery. He was succeeded by a friend of the Comnenus family, Constantine X Ducas [ibid, pp. 118-120]. Ducas wife, Eudocia was the niece of Michael Cerularius, another evidence of the hold on power of a few families. Isaac had found the finances of the empire in poor state and he had institute a policy of fiscal austerity. That did not sit well with the civil servants and the church and Constantine X had to reverse Isaac's economy measures. However, that left the army weakened and in 1060 the empire lost most of its Italian possessions to the Normans. There was also losses to the new power in the region, the Seljuk Turks (see Chapter 11). The general Romanus Diogenes had started plotting the overthrow of Constantine X but the latter died before the start of the coup. Constantine X was succeeded by his young son Michael VII while his uncle John Ducas and Eudocia served as regents. Romanus conspiracy had been discovered and at first Eudocia jailed him, but then she changed her mind, married him, and made him co-emperor as Romanus IV [ibid, p. 120-121], [WT97, pp. 600-601].

Weaknesses of the Byzantine State

At the end of the reign Basil II the empire was at its biggest extent since the sixth century . However, appearances were misleading. As the civil wars at the start of Basil's reign suggest there were serious divisions within the empire, in particular between the bureaucracy in Constantinople (dominated by the eunuchs in the palace) and the military families in Asia Minor who were also major landowners.

A snapshot of the times is provided by the story of Danielis. She was a wealthy widow from Patras (In the south of Greece) who had befriended Basil I before he became emperor. When he rose to the throne she went to visit him in Constantinople. Around 870 she made the five hundred mile trip on a litter that was carried on the shoulders of ten slaves. Amongst her gifts to the emperor were "three hundred beautiful youths , of whom one hundred were eunuchs" [EG, Chapter LVIII, vol. 5, pp. 458-459]. (You can find a picture of Danielis and her mode of travel on p. 575 of [WT97].) Clearly the slave trade, as well as the practice of castration, were flourishing in the ninth century.

The Byzantines seem to have continued, and possibly expanded, the old Persian practice of using eunuchs in the palace administration. In our chronicle of the Macedonian dynasty we saw several eunuchs in high positions and in Chapter 5 we made mention of the eunuch general Narses. Even without holding a special office eunuchs had considerable power because of their close access to the emperor [WT97, p. 117 and 384]. However, several also achieved prominent positions. At least two had held the office of the postal logothete, Stauracius under the empress Irene [ibid, p. 418, 423] and Theoctistus under the empress Theodora [ibid p. 446-447]. The holder of that office was responsible not only for the mail but also for the internal security of the empire and Theoctistus even led a military campaign against the Arabs. Two others became patriarchs of Constantinople, Germanos [CM02, p. 155] and Ignatius [WT97, p. 449] who held the office twice, first under Michael III and then under Basil I. (See more about him below on the discussion of the schism below.) The church recognizes as saints both Germanos and Ignatius.

The rule of the emperor was absolute. Basil I's successor, Leo VI, abolished the senate that, anyway, had been losing power for centuries. The emperor was answerable only to God and he had full authority over the church (Gibbon [ibid, pp. 469-470].) Emperors were guarded by foreign bodyguards, the Varangians. The name usually refers to men of Scandinavian origin but the palace guard included other ethnic groups. Gibbon quotes a Greek chronicler in the original: Πολυχρονιζουσι Βαραγγοι, κατα την πατριον και ουτοι γλωσσαν αυτων, ηγουν Ιγκλινιστι. The last word means English. The first word refers to a recitation (or singing) wishing the emperor long life. A free translation will be acclaim of the king. The whole sentence is translated into "The Varangians acclaimed the king in their own language, namely English." [ibid, p. 465, footnote No. 2]. Gibbon adds (referring to the Greek chronicler): "I wish he had preserved the words, however corrupt, of their English acclamation."

We have a state where the emperor is guarded by foreign troops while surrounded by eunuchs in administrative positions of the palace. It is difficult to imagine a more remote and autocratic ruler. Of course if the emperor was a weak individual, it was the eunuchs who controlled the empire.

Emperor Heraclius had established a system where farmers were obligated to military service in exchange for their right to own land. This ensured the existence of a native army [Hu61, p. 25]. However, over the centuries major landholders took over the small farms and their previous owners became tenant farmers without the military obligation. Emperors did not seem to mind such developments. On the contrary, around 1053 Constantine IX relieved about 50,000 troops of the Armenian provinces from their military obligation in exchange for regular cash payments [WT97, pp. 595-96]. The end result was that the empire had to rely on mercenaries. Foreign mercenaries may have had an appeal for the emperor because they were unlikely to revolt in alliance with his subjects, but their loyalty against foreign powers was doubtful and very soon that proved catastrophic.

The schism between the Pope and the Byzantines

At one time the pope of Rome was only one of the four patriarchs of the Christian church, the other three being the patriarchs of Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem. Constantine I add a fifth, the patriarch of Constantinople. When Theodosius I made Catholic Christianity the sole religion of the Roman empire he mentions in his decree two bishops: those of Rome and Alexandria (Chapter 4). In Justinian's time one pope was even removed from office as a result of machinations by a general's wife (Chapter 5). The Arab conquests changed the picture dramatically. Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem came under Muslim rule and Christian population in their areas declined significantly. Another important bishopric, that of Carthage, was also lost to the Arabs. These changes increased the relative importance of both the pope of Rome and the patriarch of Constantinople. However, the tenuous control of Italy by the Byzantine emperors put the pope outside imperial control and he was able not only to take positions in opposition to those advocated by Constantinople, against iconoclasm in particular, but also to become a temporal monarch (Chapter 9). During the same period the pope entered into alliances with the Frankish kings in the West culminating with the crowning of Charlemagne as emperor of the Holy Roman Empire in 800.

In 858 the last emperor of the Isaurian dynasty, Michael III, forced Ignatius, patriarch of Constantinople to resign and in his place appointed Photius. Photius was a layman and he was rushed through the clerical orders to reach the highest office of the church. Pope Nicolas I did not object immediately because he was hoping for a deal that would transfer some dioceses from the authority of Constantinople to that of Rome. When that did not happen, the pope raised the issue and in 866 excommunicated Photius who immediately reciprocated. When Basil I became emperor a year later, he restored Ignatius and the schism was patched. One factor might have been the Arab threat in Southern Italy for which the pope needed support from the Byzantines [MW96, pp. 283-284].

The final break between the two churches took place in 1054 during the reign of Constantine IX (1042-1055), the third husband of Zoe, a niece of Basil II. During that time the patriarch of Constantinople was the strong willed Michael Cerularius who insisted on traditional Byzantine practices throughout the empire. By that time there were several differences between such practices and those in use in the West, in particular whether lower level clergy could be married (they could in the East but not in the West), whether unleavened bread should be used in the Eucharist (it was not in the East but it was in the West), etc. There was also a dogmatic difference, the filioque, whether the Holy Spirit emanates from the Father and the Son (the western opinion) or only from the Father (the eastern opinion) [WT97, pp. 688-690]. The Pope sent the equally strong willed Cardinal Humbert to negotiate with Cerularius but they clashed and the result was mutual excommunications [Hu61, p. 48]. Both Treadgold [WT97, ibid] and Hussey [Hu61, ibid] claim that the schism was in essence a misunderstanding and, except for subsequent events, the two churches could have reconciled. The trouble with such views is that they ignore the geopolitical reality. Western Europe was becoming a place quite different from the Byzantine empire and there were bound to be conflicts between the states of the West and the Byzantines. While the visible causes of the schism may appear trivial, they reflect deeper geopolitical divisions. Regardless of whether the schism reflected deep divisions or superficial differences, it did not help the diplomatic position of the Byzantine empire because it could no longer rely on alliances with states of Western Europe.

First Posted: November 11, 2010. Latest Revision: November 18, 2010.

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