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SECTION IV - part 1: REIGNS OF LEO IV, CONSTANTINE VI AND IRENE | Hellenismos.com
SECTION IV - part 1: REIGNS OF LEO IV, CONSTANTINE VI AND IRENE

SECTION IV - part 1: REIGNS OF LEO IV, CONSTANTINE VI AND IRENE

Posted March 17th, 2007 by webmaster

 

SECTION IV
REIGNS OF
LEO IV (THE KHAZAR), CONSTANTINE VI AND IRENE
A.D. 775-802

Leo IV.
Succeeded his father at the age of twenty-five. His mother, Irene, was the daughter of the emperor or chagan of the Khazars, then a powerful people, through whose territories the greater part of the commercial intercourse between the Christians and the rich countries in eastern Asia was carried on. Leo inherited from his mother a mild and amiable disposition; nor does he appear t have been destitute of some position of his father’s talents, but the state of his health prevented him from displaying the same activity. His reign lasted four years and a half, and his administration was conducted in strict accordance with the policy of his father and grandfather; but the weak state of his health kept the public attention fixed on the question of the imperial succession. Constantine V. had selected an Athenian lady, of great beauty and accomplishment, named Irene, to be his son’s wife, and Leo had a son named Constantine, who was born in the year 771. The indefinite nature of the imperial succession, and the infancy of Leo’s child, gave the two half-brothers of the emperor, who had been invested by their father with the rank of Caesar, some hope of ascending the throne on their brother’s death. Leo conferred on his infant son the title of Emperor, in order to secure his succession; and this was done in a more popular manner than usual, at the express desire of the senate, in order to give the ceremony all the character of a popular election. The young emperor’s five uncles – the two Caesars, and the three who bore the title of Nobilissimi – were compelled to take the same oath of allegiance as the other subjects. Yet, shortly after this, the Caesar Nicephorus formed a conspiracy to render himself master of the government. Leo, who felt that he wad rapidly sinking into the grave, referred the decision of his brother’s guilt to s Silention, which condemned all the conspirators to death. Nicephorus was pardoned, but his partisans were scourged and banished to Cherson. The death of Leo IV. happened on the 8th of September, 780.

Constantine
was ten years old when his father died, so that the whole direction of the empire devolved on his mother, Irene, who had received the imperial crown from Constantine V.; for that emperor seems to have felt that the weak state of Leo’s health would require the assistance of Irene’s talents. The virtues Irene had displayed in a private station were insufficient to resist the corrupting influence of irresponsible power. Ambition took possession of her soul, and it was the ambition of reigning alone, not of reigning well. The education of her son was neglected – perhaps as a means of securing her power; favour was avowedly a surer road to preferment than long service, so that the court became a scene of political intrigue, and personal motives decided most public acts. As no organ of public opinion possessed the power of awakening a sense of moral responsibility among the officers of state, the intrigues of the court ended in conspiracies, murder, and treason.
The parties struggling for power soon ranged themselves under the banners of the ecclesiastical factions that had long divided the empire. Little, probably, did many of the leaders care what party they espoused in the religious question; but it was necessary to proclaim themselves of an ecclesiastical faction in order to secure a popular following. The Empress Irene was known to favour image-worship; as a woman and a Greek, this was natural; yet policy would have dictated to her to adopt that party as the most certain manner of securing support powerful enough to counterbalance the family influence of the Isaurian dynasty, which was wielded by the uncles of the young emperor. The conflict between the image-worshippers and the Iconoclasts soon commenced. The Caesar Nicephorus, who was as ambitious as his sister-on-law, was eager to drive her from the regency. He organised a conspiracy, in which several ministers and members of the senate took part. Irene obtained full proof of all its ramifications before the conspirators were prepared to act, seized her five brothers-in-law, and compelled them to enter the priesthood. In order to make it generally known that they had assumed the sacerdotal character, they were obliged to officiate during the Christmas ceremonies at the high altar of St. Sophia’s, while the young emperor and his other restored to the church the rich jewels of which it had been deprived by the Iconoclast emperors. The intendand-general of posts, the general of the Armeniac theme, the commander of the imperial guard, and the admiral of the Archipelago, who had all taken part in the conspiracy, were scourged, and immured as monks in distant monasteries. Helpidios, the governor of Sicily, assumed the title of emperor as soon as he found that his participation in the plot was known at court; but he was compelled to seek shelter among the Saracens, in whose armies he afterwards served. Nicephorus Doukas, another conspirator, fled also to the Mohammedans. Some years later, when Constantine VI had assumed the government into his own hands, a new conspiracy was formed by the partisans of his uncles (A.D. 792). The princes were then treated with great severity. The Caesar Nicephorus was deprived of sight; and the tongues of the others were cut out, by the order of their nephew, not long before he lost his own eyes by the order of his mother.
The influence of the clergy in the ordinary administration of justice, and the great extent to which ecclesiastical legislation regulated civil rights, rendered councils of the church an important feature in those forms and usages that practically circumscribed the despotic power of the emperor by a framework of customs, opinions, and convictions which he could with difficulty alter, and rarely oppose without danger. The political ambition of Irene, the national vanity of the Greeks, and the religious feelings of the orthodox, required the sanction of a constitutional public authority, before the laws against image-worship could be openly repealed. The Byzantine empire had at this time an ecclesiastical, though not a political constitution. The will of the sovereign was alone insufficient to change an organic law, forming part of the ecclesiastical administration of the empire. It was necessary tom convoke a general council to legalise image-worship; and to render such a council a fit instrument for the proposed revolution, much arrangement was necessary. No person was ever endued with greater talents form removing opposition and conciliating personal support than the empress. The Patriarch Paul, a decided Iconoclast, was induced to resign, and declare that he repented of his hostility to image-worship, because it had cut off the church of Constantinople from communion with the rest of the Christian world. This declaration pointed out the necessity of holding a general council, in order to establish that communion. The crisis required a new Patriarch, of stainless character, great ability, and perfect acquaintance with the party connections and individual characters of the leading bishops. No person could be selected from among the dignitaries of the church, who had been generally appointed by Iconoclast emperors. The choice of Irene fell on a civilian: Tarasios.