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THE EASTERN EMPIRE IN THE NINTH CENTURY
Nicephorus I. and his wars—He is slain by the Bulgarians—Short reign of Michael I.—Leo V. defeats the Bulgarians—His ecclesiastical troubles— Michael the Amorian dethrones him and reigns nine years—His policy— Reign of Theophilus—His wars with the Caliphs—He persecutes imageworshippers—Long minority of Michael nI.—Restoration of imageworship—Orgies and end of Michael—Basil I. and the Macedonian dynasty.
The East Roman Empire was always at its best when it was subject for several generations to princes of the same family; it was always at its worst in the periods between the fall of one dynasty and the rise of another, when the crown had become for the moment a prize that could be grasped by every successful general or intriguing statesman. In such times attempts at usurpation grew so frequent that civil war became an endemic disease, and while the empire was troubled within, foreign enemies were always ready to take their opportunity to assail it from without. We have already noted one of these anarchic and disastrous intervals, that between 695 and 717, when the house of Heraclius had fallen, and that of Leo the Isaurian had not yet come to the front. We have now to record a second period of short reigns, and of troubles both at home and abroad, between the deposition of the empress Irene and the establishment on the throne of Michael the Amorian, the founder of the next dynasty. This period, which filled the years between 802 and 820, was by no means so disastrous as that which followed the fall of Justinian n. in the earlier century, but, nevertheless, it was distinctly a time of decline and decay, from which the empire took many years to recover.
The wicked empress Irene was dethroned, as we have already had occasion to relate, by a palace-conspiracy, headed by her high-treasurer, Nicephorus. The new monarch was a man of mature years, who was known merely as a capable finance minister, and had never been suspected of any great ambition. When he had seized the reins of government he proved that he had more character, more self-will, and more energy than his contemporaries had credited him with. He put down with success two rebellions of discontented military chiefs, who thought that they had as good a right to the throne as he, and established himself so firmly on his seat that none could shake him. In matters ecclesiastical he reversed the policy of the superstitious Irene, and showed a perfect tolerance for the Iconoclasts, as well as for all the other dissident sects in the empire. He kept a firm hand over the patriarch and clergy, who would have been glad to persecute these schismatics, a fact which probably explains the bitterness with which the chroniclers of the succeeding age write of him,—a bitterness which nothing in his actions seems to justify. He was neither cruel nor arbitrary in his rule, and the only accusation against him which seems to have the least foundation, is that after his accession he still remained too much of the high-treasurer, caring more for a good balance in the exchequer than for the welfare of his subjects.
Nicephorus's reign was not untroubled by wars. Haroun-alRaschid still sat on the throne of Bagdad, and the caliphate was still a dangerous neighbour to the empire. Nicephorus refused to pay the tribute which Irene had promised to the Saracen, so Haroun renewed the intermittent war with the East Romans, which had dragged on, with short intervals, ever since the days of Constantine Copronymus. The emperor was not favoured by fortune in the war; it would seem that the maladministration of Irene's eunuch-ministers had caused
War with the army to deteriorate, and matters went so ill that
the Caliph. Nicephorus was glad to buy a peace when Haroun
offered to grant him one. The emperor was to pay 30,000
solidi annually, beside—a curious detail—six large gold medals
of greater weight for himself, and one for his son and heir,
In spite of this humiliating treaty it was not the Saracen war that was to prove Nicephorus's direst trouble; nor did he fare very badly in his struggle with Charles the Great. The long and desultory war with the new western empire terminated in a treaty which left Frank and East Roman exactly where they started. Not even Venice, which was now completely surrounded by the dominions of Charles, and which had been for a time in his hands, was sacrificed. Nor did Nicephorus find himself compelled to take what he would have regarded as the degrading step of recognising Charles as his equal and colleague in the administration of the empire.
It was a war with the comparatively insignificant power of the Bulgarians which was to be the worst of the disasters of Nicephorus. Since the failure of the great expedition of Constantine vI. in 796, the predatory tribe behind the Balkans had been growing more and more venturesome. Under a new king, the cruel but able Crumn, they were making raids far into Thrace, which at last drove Nicephorus to take the field against them in person. At the head of a great army, drawn from all the European and Asiatic themes, and accompanied by his son Stauracius, he crossed the Balkans in 811. Victory at first crowned his arms; he defeated the Bulgarians in the open field, and took and plundered their king's palace. But a few days later, as his victorious army lay carelessly encamped and paying no heed to the defeated enemy, it was Nicephorus beset by a fierce night-attack. In the confusion Bulgarians" and panic which followed the emperor was slain, 8n. and his son Stauracius desperately wounded. Left
without a leader the Byzantine army broke up, and retired in great disorder, leaving the body of the emperor with those of many of his chief officers upon the field. The Bulgarian king cut off the head of Nicephorus, and made his skull into a drinking-cup, as Alboin had done with the skull of king Cunimund three centuries before.
The wrecks of the imperial army rallied at Adrianople, whither the wounded Stauracius was borne. He was at once proclaimed Augustus in his father's room; but he never rose from his couch, for his hurt was mortal. It was evident that his end was near, and that his crown would soon be the prize of some usurper. Seeing this, his brother-in-law, Michael Rhangabe, who had married the only daughter of Nicephorus I., bribed the guards of his dying master, and had himself saluted as emperor before the breath was out of Stauracius's body (912)..
Michael Rhangabe owed his rise purely to the chance that had connected him with the family of Nicephorus. He was personally insignificant, superstitious, and cowardly. But his accession had some importance from the religious point of view; he was a European Greek—the first of his race that had yet worn the imperial crown—and, like most of his countrymen, was a strong Iconodule, and wholly opposed to his father-in-law's tolerant ecclesiastical policy. He surrounded himself with fanatical monks, and set to work to reverse the doings of Nicephorus, and to remove all Iconoclasts from high office in state and army.
These actions might have been popular if Michael had been a man of strength and energy; but he was a weak and incapable ruler. He refused for some time to enter the field against the Bulgarians, who were ravaging Thrace far and wide, and when he did at last head an army, it was only to suffer a crushing defeat. He took what his subjects considered the degrading step of conciliating the Franks, by formally recognising Charles the Great as a legitimate emperor, and treating with him as an equal. In everything that he did indecision and want of courage was to be traced.
The army was fated to be the instrument of Michael's fall.
PERIOD I. 2 H
It was deeply leavened with Iconoclastic feeling, and highly discontented with a master who sent it neither encouragement nor orders. At last, when Michael allowed king Crumn to penetrate so far into Thrace that he actually approached the walls of the capital, the army concentrated at Adrianople openly threw off its allegiance, and took the decisive step of saluting as emperor one of its generals, Leo the Armenian. Fail of Priests and courtiers could give Michael Rhangabe Michael 1.813. ljttle support when the whole military caste turned against him; he was deposed with little trouble and sent into a monastery, while the rough soldier who had headed the revolt became emperor in his stead (813).
Leo the Armenian was a capable man, not destitute of good qualities, who might have founded a dynasty had fortune played him fair. He successfully discharged the task for which he had been chosen emperor — the ending of the Bulgarian war. Immediately after his accession the king of Bulgaria marched up to the very walls of Constantinople and camped over against it. Leo at first strove to get rid of Crumn by the dishonourable expedient of attempting to seize or slay him at a conference—much as Charles the Fat dealt with king Godfred. This attempt failed, but the Bulgarians, after plundering the suburbs, retired from before the walls, and in the next year when they again advanced into Thrace, Leo met them at Mesembria and inflicted on them defeats the a bloody defeat. So crushing was the reverse Bulgarians, that the new Bulgarian king instantly asked for peace, and the empire was not troubled by another Bulgarian invasion till a whole generation had gone by.
Leo reigned for six years more, unvexed by wars without, and swaying the sceptre with a very firm hand. He reorganised the army and the finances, and did much to repair the harm caused by the depredations of Saracen and Bulgarian in the reigns of Nicephorus I. and Michael Rhangabe. But unfortunately for himself and the empire, he soon became involved in the old Iconoclastic controversy, and had no peace