G. Finlay : History of the Byzantine Empire: Part 14

G. Finlay : History of the Byzantine Empire: Part 14

Posted April 21st, 2008 by webmaster

         CHAPTER II




A.D. 802-820






His family and character – Rebellion of Bardanes – Tolerated ecclesiastical policy – Oppressive  fiscal administration – Relations  with Charlemagne – Saracen war – Defeat of Sclavonians at Patras –  Bulgarian war – Death of Nicephorus.


Nicephorus held the office of grand logothetes, or treasurer, when he dethroned Irene. He was born at Seleucia, in Pisidia, of a family which claimed descent from the Arabian kings. His ancestors Djaballah, the Christian monarch of Ghassan in the time of Heraclius, abjured the allegiance of the Roman empire, and embraced the Mohammedan religion. He carried among the stern and independent Moslems the monarchical pride and arrogance of a vassal court. As he was performing the religious rites of the pilgrimage in the mosque at Mecca, an Arab accidentally trod on his cloak; Djaballah, enraged that a king should be treated with so little respect, struck the careless Arab in the face, and knocked out some of his teeth. The justice of the Caliph Omar knew no distinction of persons, and the king of Ghassan was ordered to make satisfactory reparation to the injured. The monarch’s pride was so deeply wounded by this sentence that he fled to Constantinople, and renounced the Mohammedan religion. From this king the Arabs, who paid the most minute attention to genealogy, allowed that Nicephorus was lineally descended.

    The leading features of the reign of Nicephorus were political order and fiscal oppression. His character was said to be veiled in impenetrable hypocrisy; yet anecdotes are recounted which indicate that he made no secret of his avarice, and the other vices attributed to him. His orthodoxy was certainly suspicious, but, on the whole, he appears to have been an able and human prince. He has certainly obtained a worse reputation I history than many emperors who have been guilty of greater crimes. Many anecdotes are recounted concerning his rapacity.

    As soon as he received the imperial crown, he bethought himself of the treasures Irene had concealed, and resolved to gain possession of them. These treasures are conceived by the Byzantine historians to be a part of the immense sums Leo III. and Constantine V. were supposed to have accumulated. The abundance and low price of provisions which had prevailed, particularly in the reign of Constantine V., was ascribed to the rarity  of specie cause by the hoards accumulated by these emperors. Irene was said to know where all this wealth was concealed; and though her administration had been marked by lavish expenditure and a diminution of the taxes, still she was believed to possess immense sums. If we believe the story of the chronicles, Nicephorus presented himself to Irene in a private garb, and assured her that he had only assumed the imperial crown to serve her and save her life. By flattery mingled with intimidation, he obtained possession of her treasures, and then, in violation of his promises, banished her to Lesbos. 

    The dethroned Constantine had been left by his mother in possession of great wealth. Nicephorus is accused of ingratiating himself into the confidence of the blind prince, gaining possession of these treasures, and then neglecting him. Loud complaints were made against the extortion of the tax-gatherers in the reigns of Constantine VI. and Irene, and Nicephorus established a count of review to revise the accounts of every public functionary. But his enemies accused him of converting this count into a means of confiscating the property of the guilty, instead of enabling the sufferers to recover their losses.

    The accession of Nicephorus was an event unexpected both by the people and the army; and the success of a man whose name as previously almost unknown beyond the circle of the administration, held out hope to every man of influence that an emperor, who owed his elevation to a conspiracy of eunuchs and a court intrigue, night easily be driven from the throne. Bardanes, whom Nicephorus appointed general of the troops of five Asiatic themes to march against the Saracens, instead of leading this army against Haroun Al Rashid, proclaimed himself emperor. He was supported by Thomas the Sclavonian, as well as by Leo the Armorian, who both subsequently mounted the throne. The crisis was one of extreme difficulty, but Nicephorus soon convinced the world that he was worthy of the throne. The rebel troops were discouraged by the preparations, and rendered ashamed of their conduct by his reproaches. Leo and Michael were gained over by a promise of promotion; and Bardanes, seeking his army rapidly dispersing, negotiated for his own pardon. He was allowed to retire to a monastery he had founded in the island of Prote, but his estates were confiscated. Shortly after, while Bardanes was living in seclusion as a humble monk, a band of Lycaonian brigands crossed over from the Asiatic coast and put out his eyes. As the perpetrators of this atrocity were evidently moved by personal vengeance, suspicion fell so strongly on the emperor, that he deemed it necessary to the a solemn oath in public that he had no knowledge of the crime, and never entertained a thought of violating the safe-conduct he had given to Bardanes. This safe-conduct, it must be observed, had received the ratification of the Patriarch and the senate. Bardanes himself did not appear to suspect the emperor; he showed the greatest resignation and piety; gave up the use of wheaten bread, wine, oil and fish, living entirely on barley cakes, which he baked in the embers. In summer he wore a single leather garment, and in winter a mantle of hair-cloth. In this way he lived contentedly, and died during the reign of Leo the Armenian. The civil transactions of the reign of Nicephorus present some interesting facts. Though a brave soldier, he was essentially a statesman, and his conviction that the finance department was the peculiar business of the sovereign, and the key of public affairs, can be traced in many significant events. He eagerly pursued the centralising policy of his Iconoclast predecessors, and strove to ender the civil power supreme over the clergy and the Church. He forbade the Patriarch to hold any communications with the Pope, whom he considered as the Patriarch of Charlemagne; and this prudent measure has caused much of the virulence with which his memory has been attacked by ecclesiastical and orthodox historians. The Patriarch Tarasios had shown himself no enemy to the supremacy of the emperor, and he was highly esteemed by Nicephorus as one of the heads of the party, both in the church and state, which the emperor was anxious to conciliate. When Tarasios died, A.D. 806, Nicephorus made a solemn display of his grief. The body, clad in the patriarchal robes, crowned with the mitre, and seated on the Episcopal throne, according to the usage of the East, was transported to a monastery founded by the deceased Patriarch on the shores of the Bosphorus, where the funeral was performed with great pomp, the emperor assisting, embracing the body, and covering it with his purple robe.