George Finlay : History of the Bizantine Empire from DCCXVI to MLVII (part 12)

George Finlay : History of the Bizantine Empire from DCCXVI to MLVII (part 12)

Posted October 18th, 2007 by webmaster






First Edition February 1906

The habit of building monasteries as a place of retreat, from motives of piety, was also adopted by some as a mode of securing a portion of their wealth from confiscation, in case of their condemnation for political crimes, peculiar privileges being reserved in the monasteries so founded for members of the founder’s family. At this time Plato, abbot of the monastery of Sakkoudion, on Mount Olympus in Bithynia, and his nephew Theodore, who was a relation of the new Empress Theodota, were the leaders of a powerful party of monks possessing great influence in the church. Theodore (who is known by the name Studita, from having been afterwards appointed abbot of the celebrated monastery of Studion) had founded a monastery on his own property, in which he assembled his father, two brothers, and a young sister, and, emancipating all his household and agricultural slaves, established them as lay brethren on the farms. Most of the abbots round Constantinople were men of family and wealth, as well as learning and piety; but they repaid the sincere respect with which they were regarded by the people, by participating in popular prejudices, so that we cannot be surprised to find them constantly acting the part of demagogues. Plato separated himself from all spiritual communion with the Patriarch Tarasios, whom he declared to have violated the principles of Christianity in permitting the adulterous marriage of the emperor. His views were warmly supported by his nephew Theodore, and many monks began openly to preach both against the Patriarch and the emperor. Irene now saw that the movement was taking a turn favourable to her ambition. She encouraged the monks, and prepared Tarasios for quitting the party of his sovereign. Plato and Theodore were dangerous enemies, from their great reputation and extensive political and ecclesiastical connections, and into a personal contest with these men Constantine rashly plunged.

Plato was arrested at his monastery, and placed in confinement under the wardship of the abbot Joseph, who had celebrated the imperial marriage. Theodore was banished to Thessalonica, whither he was conveyed by a detachment of police soldiers. He has left us an account of his journey, which proves that the orders of the emperor were not carried into execution with undue severity. Theodore and his attendant monks were seized by the imperial officers at a distance from the monastery, and compelled to commence their journey on the first horses their escort could procure, instead of being permitted to send for their ambling mules. They were hurried forward for three days, resting during the night at Kathara in Liviania, Lefka and Phyraion. At the last place they encountered a melancholy array of monks, driven from the great monastery of Sakkoudion after the arrest of Plato; but with these fellow-sufferers, though ranged along the road, Theodore was not allowed to communicate, except by bestowing on them his blessing as he rode past. He was then carried to Paula from whence he wrote to Plato that he had seen his sister, with the venerable Sabas, abbot of the monastery of Studion. They had visited him secretly, but had been allowed by the guards to pass the evening in his society. Next night they reached Loupadion, where the exiles were kindly treated by their host. At Tilin they were joined by two abbots, Zacharias and Pionios, but they were not allowed to travel in company. The journey was continued by Alberiza, Anagegrammenos, Perperina, Parium, and Horkos, to Lampsacus. On the road the bishops expressed the greatest sympathy and eagerness to serve them; but the bigoted Theodore declared that his conscience would not permit him to hold any communication with those who were so unchristian as to continue in communion with Tarasios and the emperor.

From Lampsacus the journey was prosecuted by sea. A pious governor received them at Abydos with great kindness, and they rested there eight days at Eleaus there was again a detention of seven days, and from thence they sailed to Lemnos, where the bishop treated Theodore with so much attention that his bigotry was laid asleep. The passage from Lemnos to Thessalonica was not without danger from the piratical boats of the Sclavonians who dwelt on the coast of Thrace, and exercised the trades of robbers and pirates as well as herdsmen and shepherds. A favourable wind carried the exiles without accident to Kanastron, from whence they touched at Pallene before entering the harbour of Thessalonica, which they reached on the 25th March, 797. Here they were received by a guard, and conducted through the city to the residence of the governor. The people assembled in crowds to view the pious opponents of their emperor; while the governor received them with marks of personal respect, which showed him more anxious to conciliate the powerful minks than to uphold the dignity of the weak. He conducted Theodore to the cathedral, that he might return thanks to God publicly for his safe arrival; he then waited on his to the palace of the archbishop, where he was treated to a bath, and entertained most hospitably. The exiles were, however, according to the tenor of the imperial orders, placed in separate places of confinement; and even Theodore and his brother were not permitted to dwell together. The day of their triumph was not far distant, and their banishment does not appear to have subjected them to much inconvenience. They were martyrs at a small cost.

As soon as Irene thought that her son had rendered himself unpopular throughout the empire, she formed her plot for dethroning him. The support of the principal officers in the palace was secured by liberal promises of wealth and advancement: a band of conspirators was then appointed to seize Constantine on the Propontis. He might easily have recovered possession of the capital, had he not wasted two months in idleness and folly. Abandoned at last by every friend, he was seized by his brother’s emissaries and dragged to Constantinople. After being detained some time a prisoner in the porphyry apartment in which he was born, his eyes were put out on the 19th August, 797. Constantine had given his cruel mother public marks of affection which he appears really to have felt for her, and to which he had sacrificed his best friends. He had erected a statue of bronze to her honour, which long adorned the hippodrome of Constantinople.

Irene was now publicly proclaimed sovereign of the empire. She had for some time been allowed by her careless son to direct the whole administration, and it was his confidence in her maternal affection which enabled her to work his ruin. She of course immediately released all the ecclesiastical opponents of her son from confinement, and restored them to their honours and offices. The Patriarch Tarasios was ordered to make his peace with the monks by excommunicating his creature, the abbot Joseph; and the closest alliance was formed between him and his former opponents, Plato and Theodore, the latter of whom was shortly after rewarded for his sufferings by being elevated to the dignity of abbot of the great monastery of Studion.

The Empress Irene reigned five years, during which her peace was disturbed by the political intrigues of her ministers. Her life offers a more interesting subject for biography than for history, for it is more striking by its personal details, than important in its political effects. But the records of private life in the age in which she lived, and of the state of society at Athens, among which she was educated, are so few, that it would require to be written by a novelist, who could combine the strange vicissitudes of her fortunes with a true portraiture of human feelings, coloured with a strain of thought, and enriched with facts gleaned from contemporary lives and letters of Greek saints and monks. Born in a private station, and in a provincial, though a wealthy and populous city, it must have required a rare combination of personal beauty, native grace, and mental superiority, to fill the ranks of empress of the Romans, to which she was suddenly raised, at he court of a haughty sovereign like her father-in-law Constantine V., not only without embarrassment, but even with universal praise. Again, when vested with the regency, as widow of an Iconoclast emperor, it required no trifling talent, firmness of purpose, and conciliation of manner, to overthrow an ecclesiastical party which had ruled the church for more than half a century. On the other hand, the deliberate way in which she undermined the authority of her son, whose character she had corrupted by a and education, and the callousness with which she gained his confidence in order to deprive him of his throne, and send him to pass his life as a blind monk in a secluded cell, proves that the beautiful empress, whose memory was cherished as an orthodox saint, was endowed with the thoughts and feelings of a demon. Strange to say, when the object of Irene’s crimes was reached, she soon felt all the satiety of gratified ambition. She no longer took the interest she had previously taken in conducting the public business of the empire, and abandoned the exercise of her power to seven eunuchs, whom she selected to perform the duties of ministers of state. She forgot that her own elevation to the throne offered a tempting premium to successful treason: Nicephorus, the grand treasurer, cajoled her favourite eunuchs to join a plot, by which she was dethroned, and exiled to a monastery she had founded in Prince’s Island; but she was soon after removed to Lesbos, where she died in a few months, almost forgotten.

Irene must have felt that there was some justice in the saying by which the Greeks characterised the hopeless demoralisation of her favourites: “If you have a eunuch, kill him; if you haven’t one, buy one, and kill him.”

The unnatural mother was canonised by the Greeks as an orthodox saint, and at her native Athens several churches are still pointed out which she is said to have founded, though not on any certain authority.

Under the government of Constantine VI. and Irene, the imperial policy, both in the civil administration and external relations, followed the course traced out by Leo the Isaurian. To reduce all the Sclavonian colonists who had formed settlements within the bounds of the empire to complete submission, was the first object of Irene’s regency. The extension of these settlements, after the great plague in 747, began to alarm the government. Extensive districts in Thrace, Macedonia, and the Peloponnesus, had assumed the form of independent communities, and hardly acknowledged allegiance to the central administration at Constantinople. Irene naturally took more than ordinary interest in the state of Greece. She kept up the closest communications with her family at Athens, and shared the desire of every Greek to repress the presumption of the Sclavonians and restore the ascendancy of the Greek population in the rural districts. In the year 783 she sent Stavrakios at the head of a well-appointed army to Thessalonica, to reduce the Sclavonian tribes in Macedonia to direct dependence, and enforce the regular payment of tribute. From Thessalonica, Stavrakios marched through Macedonia and Greece to the Peloponnesus, punishing the Sclavonians for the disorders they had committed, and carrying off a number of their able-bodied men to serve as soldiers or to be sold as slaves. In the following year Irene led the young Emperor Constantine to visit the Sclavonian settlements in the vicinity of Thessalonica, which had been reduced to absolute submission. Berrhoea, like several Greek cities, had fallen into ruins; it was now rebuilt, and received the name of Irenopolis. Strong garrisons were placed in Philippopolis and Auchialos, to cut off all communication between the Sclavonians in the empire, and their countrymen under the Bulgarian government. The Sclavonians in Thrace and Macedonia, though unable to maintain their provincial independence, still took advantage of their position, when removed from the eye of the local administration, to form bands of robbers and pirates, which rendered the communications with Constantinople and Thessalonica at times insecure both by land and sea.

After Irene had dethroned her son, the Sclavonian population gave proofs of dangerous activity. A conspiracy was formed to place one of the sons of Constantine V. on the throne. Irene had banished her brothers-in-law to Athens, where they were sure of being carefully watched by her relations, who were strongly interested in supporting her cause. The project of the partisans of the exiled princes to seize Constantinople was discovered, and it was found that the chief reliance of the Isaurian party in Greece was placed in the assistance they expected to derive from the Sclavonian population. The chief of Velzetia was to have carried off the sons of Constantine V. from Athens, when the plan was discovered and frustrated by the vigilance of Irene’s friends. The four unfortunate princes, who had already lost their tongues, were now deprived of their sight, and exiled with their brother Nicephorus to Panormus, where they were again made tools of a conspiracy in the reign of Michael I.

The war with the Saracens was carried on with varied success. The military talents of Leo III. and Constantine V. had formed an army that resisted the forces of the caliphs under the powerful government of Mansur; and even after the veterans had been disbanded by Irene, the celebrated Haroun Al Rashid was unable to make any permanent conquests, though the empire was engaged in war with the Saracens, the Bulgarians, and the troops of Charlemagne at the same time.