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SECTION III - part 1: CONSTANTINE V (COPRONYMUS) A.D. 741-775 | Hellenismos.com


Posted March 17th, 2007 by webmaster


Section III


Character of Constantine V. – Rebellion of Artavasdos – Saracen War –Bulgarian War – Internal condition of the empire – Policy regarding image-worship – Physical phenomena – Plague at Constantinople.

Constantine V., called Copronymus,* ascended the throne at the age of twenty-two, but he had already borne the title of emperor as his father’s colleague one and twenty years, for the Byzantine empire preserved so strictly the elective type of the Roman imperial dignity, that the only mode of securing the hereditary transmission of the empire was for the reigning emperor to obtain his son’s election during his own lifetime. Historians tell us that Constantine was a man possessing every vice disgraceful to humanity, combined with habits and tastes which must have rendered his company disgusting and his person contemptible. Yet they record facts proving that he possessed great talents, and that, even when his fortunes appeared desperate, he found many devoted friends. The obloquy heaped on his name must therefore be ascribed to the blind passion inspired by religious bigotry. The age was not one of forbearance and charity. The wisest generally considered freedom of opinion a species of anarchy incompatible with religious feeling, moral duty, and good government; consequently, both iconoclasts and image-worshippers approved of persecution, and practised calumny in favour of what each considered the good cause. Constantine tortured the image-worshippers – they revenged themselves by defaming the emperor. But the persecution which rendered Constantine a monster in the eyes of the Greeks and Italians, elevated him to the rank of a saint in the opinion of a large body of the population of the empire, who regarded the worship of pictures as a species of idolatry abhorrent to Christianity. His religious zeal, political success, courage, military talents, together with the prosperity that attended his government, all conspired to make him the idol of the Iconoclasts, who regarded his tomb as a sacred shrine until it was destroyed by Michael the orthodox drunkard.

Constantine was able, prudent, active, and brave; but he was not more tender of human suffering than monarchs generally are. The Patriarch Nicephorus justly accuses him of driving monks from their monasteries, and converting sacred buildings into barracks. In modern times, orthodox papist sovereigns have frequently done the same thing, without exciting much ecclesiastical indignation. But when the Patriarch assures us that the emperor’s mind was as filthy as his name, we may be allowed to suspect that his pen is guided by orthodoxy instead of truth; and when we find grave historians recording that he loved the odour of horse-dung, and carried on amours with old maids, we are reminded of the Byzantine love of calumny which could delight in the anecdotes of Procopius, and believe that the Emperor Justinian was a man of such diabolical principles, that he was not ashamed to walk about his palace for many hours of the night without his head. An account of the reign of Constantine by an intelligent Iconoclast, even if he represented the emperor as a saint, would be one of the most valuable illustrations of the history of the eighth century which time could have spared. He was accused of rejecting the practice of invoking the intercession of the Virgin Mary, though it is admitted he called her Mother of God. He was also said to have denied the right of any man to be called a saint; and he had even the audacity to maintain, that though the martyrs benefited themselves by their sufferings, their merit, however great it might be, was not a quality that could be transferred to others. His enemies regarded these opinions as damnable crimes. Few reputations, however, have passed through such an ordeal of malice as that as Constantine, and preserved so many undeniable virtues.

Shortly after his succession, Constantine lost possession of Constantinople through the treachery of his brother-in-law Artavasdos, who assumed the title of emperor, and kept possession of the throne for two years. Artavasdos was an Armenian noble who had commanded the troops of the Armeniac theme in the reign of Theodosius III., and aided Leo to mount the throne. He was rewarded with the hand of Anna, the Isaurian’s only daughter, and with the dignity of caropalates, second only to that of Caesar, a rank then usually reserved for the imperial blood. Artavasdos had increased his influence by favouring the orthodox; his long services in the highest administrative offices had enabled him to attach many partisans to his personal cause in every branch of the public service. The manner in which Constantine was engaged in a civil war with his brother-in-law reflected no dishonour on the character of the young emperor.

The Saracens had pushed their incursions into the Opsikian theme, where the imperial guards, under the command of Artavasdos, were stationed. Constantine took the field in person to oppose the enemy, and advanced to the plains of Krasos. Here he ordered Artavasdos, who was at Dorylaeum, to join him with the troops of the Opsikian theme. The order alarmed Artavasdos, who seems to have been already engaged in treasonable intrigues. Instead of obeying, he assumed the title of emperor, and attacked Constantinople so unexpectedly, that the imperial army was easily dispersed, and the young emperor could only avoid being taken prisoner by galloping off alone. When his own horse sank from fatigue, Constantine was compelled to seize a post-horse, which he happened to find ready saddled, in order to continue his flight. He was fortunate enough to reach Amorium in safety.

Artavasdos marched to Constantinople, where, it appears from coins, he affected for some time to act as the colleague of Constantine; and it is possible that some treaty may have been concluded between the brothers-in-law. The usurper, however, soon considered himself strong enough, with the support of the orthodox, to set Constantine aside. The pope acknowledged him as emperor, pictures were replaced in the churches, a strong body of Armenian troops was collected, and Nicephorus, the eldest son of Artavasdos, was crowned as his father’s colleague; while Niketas, the second, took the command of the Armeniac theme, where the family possessed great influence. All persons suspected of favouring Constantine were persecuted as heretics hostile to picture-worship.

In the following year (742) Constantine assembled an army composed chiefly of the troops of the Thrakesian and Anatolic themes. With this force he marched to Chrysopolis (Scutari,) hoping that a party in Constantinople would declare in his favour; but, being disappointed, he was compelled to withdraw to Amorium, where he passed the winter. In spring, Artavasdos marched to dislodge him, ordering his son Niketas to bring up the Armenian troops to operate on the right flank of the young emperor. All the country in the usurper’s line of march was ravaged, as if it was a territory he never hoped to govern. Constantine, whose military genius had been cultivated by his father, formed a daring plan of campaign, and executed it in the most brilliant manner. While his enemies believed that they were advancing to attack him with superior forces, he resolved to move forward with such celerity as to become the attacking party, before they could approach near enough to combine any simultaneous movements. His first attack was directed against Artavasdos, whose numerous army was inferior in discipline to that of Niketas, and over which he expected an easier victory. A general engagement took place near Sardis, on quitting the Kelvian plain, watered by the Kaister. The victory was complete. The usurper was closely pursued to Cyzicus, from whence he escaped by sea to Constantinople. Constantine then moved forward to meet Niketas, who was defeated in a bloody battle fought at Modrina, in the Boukellarian theme, to the east of the Sangarius. The Armenian auxiliaries and the troops of the Armeniac theme sustained their high reputation, and long disputed the victory.

The emperor then marched to invest Constantinople, crossing the Bosphorus with one division of his army, and sending another, under the command of Sisinnios, the general of the Thrakesian theme, to cross the Hellespont at Abydos, and reduce the cities on the shores of the Propontis. The fleet of the Kibyrraiot theme was ordered to blockade the capital by sea. All communications with Greece, one of the strongholds of the image-worshippers, were thus cut off. Constantine repulsed every sally by land, and famine quickly made frightful ravages in the dense population of the capital, where no preparations had been made for a siege. Constantine acted on this occasion in a very different manner from Artavasdos during the campaign in Asia Minor. He felt that the people suddenly besieged were his own subjects; and his enemies record that he allowed all the starving population to seek refuge in his camp.

Niketas quickly reassembled the fugitives of his own and his father’s army, and made an attempt to cut off Constantine’s communications in Bithynia; but the emperor left the camp before Constantinople, and, putting himself at the head of the troops in Asia, again defeated Niketas near Nicomedia. Niketas and the orthodox archbishop of Gangra were both taken prisoners. The belligerent prelate was immediately beheaded as a traitor; but Niketas was carried to Constantinople, where he was exhibited before then walls laden with fetters. Artavasdos still rejected all terms of capitulation, and Constantine at last ordered a general assault, by which he captured the city on the 2nd November, 743. Artavasdos escaped by sea to a fortress called Pyzanitis, in the Opsikian theme, where he was soon after taken prisoner. His eyes, and those of his sons, Nicephorus and Niketas, were put out; and in this condition they were exhibited as a triumphal spectacle to the inhabitants of Constantinople, at the chariot races given by the emperor to celebrate his re-establishment on the throne. His brother-in-law ands nephews were then immured in a monastery. Some of their principal adherents were beheaded. The head of Vaktageios, the principal minister of the usurper, was exhibited for thee days in the Augusteon – a custom perpetuated by the Ottoman emperors in similar circumstances until our own times, the heads of rebel viziers having adorned the gate of the Serail during the reign of the late sultan. The Patriarch Anastasios was pardoned, and allowed to remain in possession of his dignity; yet Theophanes says that his eyes were put out, and he was exhibited in the circus, mounted on an ass, and exposed to the scorn of the mob. Sisinnios, who had commanded one division of the emperor’s army, was soon found to be engaged in treasonable intrigues, and lost his eyes forty days after he entered the capital in triumph with his sovereign.

Constantine no sooner found himself firmly established on the throne, than he devoted his attention to completing the organisation of the empire traced out by his father. The constant attacks of the Saracens and Bulgarians called him frequently to the head of his armies, for the state of society rendered it dangerous to intrust large forces to the command of a subject. In the Byzantine empire few individuals had any scruple of violating the political constitution of their country, if by so doing they could increase their own power.

The incursions of the Saracens first required to be repressed. The empire of the caliphs was already distracted by the civil wars which preceded the fall of the Ommiad dynasty. Constantine took advantage of these troubles. He reconquered Germanicia and Doliche, and occupied for a time a considerable part of Commagene; but as he found it impossible to retain possession of the country, he removed the Christian population to Thrace, where he founded several flourishing colonies, long distinguished by their religious opinions from the surrounding population, A.A. 746. The Saracens attempted to indemnify themselves for these losses by the conquest of Cyprus. This island appears to have been reconquered by Leo III., for it had been abandoned to the Mohammedans by Justinian II. The fleet of the caliph sailed from Alexandria, and landed an army at the port of Kerameia; but the fleet of the Kibyrraiot theme arrived in time to blockade the enemy’s ships, and of a thousand Mohammedan vessels three only escaped, A.D. 748. The war was continued. In 752 the imperial armies took the cities of Melitene and Theodosiopolis, but some years later the caliph Mansour recovered Melitene and Germanicia: he seems, however, to have considered the tenure of the last so insecure, that he transported the inhabitants into Palestine. The Saracens invaded the empire almost every summer, but these incursions led to no permanent conquests. The agricultural population along the frontiers of the two empires must have been greatly diminished during these successive ravages; for farm-buildings and fruit-trees were constantly destroyed, and slaves formed the most valuable booty of the soldiers. The mildness and tolerant government of the emperor of Romania (for that name began now to be applied to the part of Asia Minor belonging to the Byzantine empire) was so celebrated in the East, in spite of his persecutions of the image-worshippers at Constantinople, that many Christians escaped by sea from the dominions of the Caliph Al Mansour to settle in those of Constantine. In the year 769 an exchange of prisoners took place, but without interrupting the course of hostilities, which were continued almost incessantly on the frontiers of the two empires.


* Constantine received his name of Copronymus from having defiled the baptismal font when the Patriarch plunged him into the water according to the usage of the Greek Church.