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7-08-2015, 22:11

Palace intrigues and coups

These underlying stabilisers of ‘the great laden ship of the world’26 pass virtually unnoticed in the chronicles composed in Constantinople, which focus on the colourful factional rivalries between leading courtiers and generals. Thus the eunuch Samonas tried unsuccessfully to flee to the caliphate c. 904, but was soon restored to favour in the palace, rising to the position of parakoim¯omenos in 906. But ultimately he depended on the emperor’s favour, and once this was withdrawn, in June 908, Samonas became a political nullity confined to a monastery. The patriarch could sometimes, if determined enough, exert moral pressure on the emperor about matters with some religious or ethical content. In 906–7 Patriarch Nicholas IMystikos made an issue of the marriage of Leo to his mistress, who had recently borne him a longed-for male heir, Constantine. This, Leo’s fourth marriage, flagrantly violated canon law and a recent edict issued by Leo and his father Basil. Nicholas caused the emperor acute political embarrassment, and his involuntary abdication in 907 was galling to many churchmen. But deposed he was. One of the charges laid against him was that he had written a letter to the domestic of the Schools, Andronikos Doukas, urging him to continue with his stand at Kabala (see above, p. 499) and promising that ‘the City by our exhortations will soon ask for you’.27 Whether authentic or not, the letter touched on the rawest of political nerves. Andronikos belonged to one of the families which had risen to prominence in the army in the later ninth century through martial talents and imperial favour. Andronikos’ son, Constantine, who had fled with him to Baghdad, later returned, to be pardoned and even promoted. He became domestic of the Schools in the last years of Leo’s reign or during that of Leo’s brother, Alexander (912–13). However, the latter’s death and the infancy and debatable legitimacy of Constantine VII presentedDoukas with an opportunity, and he is alleged to have been ‘ever longing for the crown’.28 His attempt to seize control of the palace met with stiff resistance fromthe reigning emperor’s bodyguards, and in the house-to-house fighting within the palace complex he was killed. After this foiled coup attempt in June 913, the Doukai ceased to hold senior army commands. The family which became the military mainstay of the Macedonian dynasty was neither illustrious nor particularly wealthy by origin. Its first outstanding member,Nikephoros Phokas, rose thanks to the favour of Basil I. He must have acted largely on his own initiative while domestic of the Schools on the eastern frontier, yet his exploits are approvingly mentioned by Leo VI, who repeatedly calls him ‘our general’.29 Nikephoros was the pr¯otostrat¯or during Leo’s childhood, a post entailing close contact with the emperor. He most probably won Leo’s trust then. The emperor on the Bosporus, culling ancient writers on strategy for his generals’ benefit, was demonstrating that he was still supreme commander, making his unique contribution to the war effort. The artificial convention of imperial omniscience was one to which the Phokades were normally willing to subscribe. Skirmishing cited Leo’s work as the source for an exploit of Nikephoros, even though the account given in Skirmishing is much fuller than that in Leo’s Tactica.30 The two families had risen together and their interests were furthered by mutual praise and material aid. The build-up of lands, wealth and local connections of the Phokades in Cappadocia was set in motion by imperial patronage and office. Nikephoros’ elder son, Leo, was seemingly made strat¯egos of the single most important theme, the Anatolikoi, in the early tenth century. The post was held subsequently by Leo’s younger brother, Bardas. The Doukai were then in the limelight and Andronikos Doukas was clearly regarded by some courtiers as a budding usurper. Perhaps for that very reason ties were kept up with the Phokades. ConstantineDoukas’ coup attempt appeared to confirm the courtiers’ darkest suspicions. It could be a sign of contemporary Byzantine preoccupation with coups that Symeon of Bulgaria’s march on Constantinople later that summer was assumed to be aimed at the throne. Nicholas I Mystikos, the chief regent, had no special reason to cherish the boy emperor; his refusal to sanction Leo VI’s marriage to Constantine’s mother, Zoe, had cost him his patriarchal throne. He regained it only after Leo’s death, and upon becoming chief regent in June 913 he expelled Zoe from the palace. Nicholas is not implausibly alleged to have incited Constantine Doukas’ attempted coup. In a letter to Symeon of July 913 Nicholas seems to hint that if only Symeon will stop short of outright usurpation, a role as guardian of the boy emperor may yet be found for him. Nicholas’ position was insecure within the palace, understandably enough given his attitude to Constantine VII, and early in 914 the boy’s yearning for his mother was cited as grounds for ousting Nicholas from the regency council. Zoe returned to the palace, and took charge. The following six years are commonly regarded as a break in the generally orderly political history of tenth-century Byzantium. However, the period of overt jockeying for power was relatively brief. Moreover, Zoe seems to have maintained a stable regime for some three years, renewing the imperial axis with the Phokades. Leo Phokas was appointed domestic of the Schools, probably at the same time as or soon after the eunuch Constantine was restored as parakoim¯omenos, early in 914. Leo is said by the main chronicle to have been endowed with ‘courage, rather than a commander’s judgement’.31 A court orator was even less flattering, dubbing him ‘the deer-hearted brother-in-law’32 of the parakoim¯omenos. But the expeditions sent to distant theatres in Armenia and central Italy were successful, and the government felt confident enough to attempt to ‘annihilate’ Symeon of Bulgaria (893– 927) with a surprise attack.33 Bitter recriminations followed the disastrous defeat at Anchialos on 20 August 917. An attempt was made to lay heaviest blame on the admiral of the fleet, Romanos Lekapenos, for failing to ferry the nomadic Pechenegs across the Danube to attack Symeon from the north, and also for not picking up survivors. These allegations probably represent an official attempt to exonerate the land army’s commander, Leo Phokas. He proceeded to station himself at Constantinople with his surviving soldiers, as did Lekapenos with the imperial fleet.