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7-08-2015, 23:34

Romanos lekapenos: regime, achievements and exile

Romanos I Lekapenos (920–44) was a provincial without particularly close court connections, but he exploited the fact that Constantine VII was now too old to be ignored.Romanos struck early in 919, benefiting fromsurprise, sympathisers in the palace and the apparent paralysis of Zoe and Phokas, once the intelligent parakoim¯omenos had been seized and stowed aboard one of Lekapenos’ ships. Lekapenos claimed to be acting in response to a handwritten appeal from the boy emperor. On the morrow the thirteenyear- old Constantine announced that he would assume imperial power in conjunction with Patriarch Nicholas and a veteran courtier, Stephen magistros. Zoe was to be expelled from the palace – although her tearful pleas at once made her son relent – and Phokas was to be replaced as domestic of the Schools. Remarkably, Phokas’ reaction was merely to insist, before leaving the palace, that a brother and nephew of the parakoim¯omenos be appointed to key commands. Still more remarkably, when these were also immediately expelled from the palace, Phokas turned to Lekapenos for consolation and support. Oaths of mutual assistance were sworn between them. Phokas’ prominence at court had not been in reward for political skills. Romanos Lekapenos, in contrast, was a politician to his fingertips, who even capitalised on his status as an outsider to the palace and posed as disinterested arbiter.He made the modest request of access to the palace, the better to guard the porphyrogenitus. Although in lateMarch he resorted to a display of force, arraying the entire fleet in the main harbour of the palace, he relied heavily on a small number of active sympathisers in the palace and acceptance by courtiers loyal to the porphyrogenitus. He entered the massively fortified precincts with only a fewfollowers ‘to perform obeisance’ to the emperor,34 exchange oaths and be appointed commander of the imperial bodyguard. Once installed in the palace, Romanos Lekapenos acted promptly yet circumspectly. Letters in Constantine VII’s name were sent to Leo Phokas, who had withdrawn to Cappadocia, warning him not to contemplate rebellion. Equally promptly, Romanos betrothed his daughter to Constantine. The marriage was celebrated on 9 May 919 and Romanos assumed the title ‘father of the palace’ (basileiopat¯or).His rapid rise now alarmed well-wishers of the porphyrogenitus; but Lekapenos controlled the fleet and the palace, as well as Constantine’s person and thus his validating authority. It was the last of these cards that he played against the large army which Phokas led from Cappadocia to Chrysopolis, across the straits from Constantinople. A letter from the emperor was read out to the rebels, singing Romanos’ praises as his most trustworthy guard and denouncing Phokas as a traitor who had ‘always’ coveted the throne.35 Upon hearing this, the soldiers apparently deserted en masse and Phokas, who tried to flee, was caught and blinded. These events suggest the focal role of the emperor, in whose cause all parties professed to be acting, even though Constantine VII’s forebears had only worn the purple for half a century and even though he had been born out of wedlock. It was Romanos’ talent to harness this sentiment to his own interests. More than eighteen months elapsed before Romanos induced his son-in-law and Patriarch Nicholas to crown him co-emperor, on 17 December 920. By mediating between NicholasMystikos and his enemies Romanos had given Nicholas a stake in the perpetuation of his rule. Romanos was now about fifty years old and so 34 TC, he needed to move fast, yet any outright deposition of Constantine would outrage the very sensibilities which he had harnessed to seize power. On 17 or 20 May 921 Romanos induced the porphyrogenitus to crown his eldest son, Christopher, co-emperor. The ‘unusual profusion of patterns and ceremonial issues’36 of coins in the 920s reflects Romanos’ aspirations, but also his hesitation about promoting Christopher to the exclusion of Constantine VII. On certain classes of nomisma Constantine appears smaller than Christopher and (unlike him) beardless, while on the commonest class of the 920s only Romanos and Christopher are depicted. Nonetheless, Constantine retained his formal position as second after Romanos in the palace ceremonies. In the early 920s Romanos constructed, in effect, an alternative palace with adjoining monastery on the site of his private residence, over one kilometre to the west of the Great Palace. The new complex, although small by comparison, was clearly intended to be the shrine of the Lekapenos dynasty, and Romanos’ wife was buried there in 922. TheMyrelaion might lack a Porphyra, birthplace of emperors, but the monastery implied that in piety, at least, the new imperials were unimpeachable. Romanos also sought to demonstrate his philanthropy to the citizens of Constantinople through charitable foundations. Even so, Romanos could be branded a ‘stranger and intruder’ by Symeon of Bulgaria,37 and charged with imposing himself upon Constantine. The furiousness of Romanos’ denial said it all; the Bulgarian had put his finger on the speciousness of the pretext for Romanos’ rise to power.38 However, if Symeon hoped to destabilise Romanos’ regime, he was to be disappointed, and his armies’ repeated attacks on Constantinople may well have rallied support behind the seasoned naval commander. In autumn 924 Symeon led his host in person, and at a preliminary meeting with Patriarch Nicholas he requested an encounter withRomanos.Romanos is credited with delivering a miniature homily, exhorting Symeon to desist from slaughtering fellow Christians and demonstrate his Christianity by making peace. Symeon is depicted as being shamed by these words and agreeing to make peace, though in reality nothing firmer than an accord was negotiated; the account most probably echoes contemporary imperial propaganda. Romanos also turned the Bulgarian problem to political advantage in 927, when emissaries from Symeon’s heir, Peter (927–69), arrived, proposing peace. A treaty was soon ratified and on 8 October the young tsar was wedded to Maria, daughter of Romanos’ eldest son, Christopher. Romanos had his reasons for publicising the wedding. Losses in the Bulgarian war had been substantial, and peace was more than welcome to the citizens and also to the provincials in Thrace who had lived through years of Bulgarian occupation. Romanos also sought to advance his own son’s status through the marriage: the Bulgarians were ‘barbarians’, and Peter’s father had styled himself emperor only from, probably, 913, but Peter’s family had long been royal. It was most probably at Romanos’ prompting that the Bulgarians insisted on Christopher’s name being acclaimed before that of Constantine at the wedding, and Romanos bowed to their protests. The predilections, and imperial style, of the Bulgarians could thus be yoked to Lekapenan aspirations. In so far as the interests of these two families converged, the court rhetoric about ‘union’ and fellowship had an unsuspectedly solid foundation. Christopher’s imperial credentials were enhanced and he could be described as revitalising his father’s old age through ‘flourishing in his turn in majesty, and he nourished [it] with hopes of [his] succession to the throne’.39 Romanos Lekapenos is said to have been devastated by Christopher’s death in August 931. He does not seem to have had the heart to set about advancing his younger sons Stephen and Constantine ahead of the porphyrogenitus; they were still only boys. Constantine VII was restored to the gold coins, even occupying a position senior toRomanos’, amove which reflects the uncertain political outlook. Constantine was neither assured of the succession nor involved in decision-making. His bitter disdain for his father-in-law is patent in his De administrando imperio, most explicitly in his dismissal of the Bulgarian marriage arranged by the ‘common and illiterate fellow’.40 This uneasy m´enage was upset publicly by Romanos’ show of favour towards Constantine VII: he proposed that Constantine’s son should marry the daughter of his domestic of the Schools. Stephen and Constantine Lekapenos protested vehemently and the plan was dropped. It is striking that the domestic, John Kourkouas, was brought into play by Romanos to counteract the tensions of court factions, inevitably aggravated by his advanced age. Romanos’ alertness to the post’s significance is suggested by the brevity of domestics’ tenure early in his reign, in contrast with Kourkouas’ twenty-two-year stint. Kourkouas was under thirty when appointed in 922, and he had no record of associations with the Macedonian house, probably a prime recommendation in Romanos’ eyes; his experience of pitched battles on the eastern borderlands was then minimal. But Kourkouas proved to have military talents. From the later 920s onwards, he was repeatedly sent eastwards and won praise from Byzantine chronicles for all the towns, forts and castles, allegedly numbering over 1,000, that he captured from the Saracens. The troublesome Muslim raiding bases of Melitene and Theodosioupolis were repeatedly attacked. Melitene was finally annexed in 934, and Theodosioupolis was eventually captured in 949. Muslim forts along the upper Euphrates and its tributaries were turned into Byzantine strongpoints. One of them was renamed Romanoupolis, in the emperor’s honour. The domestic, who was aptly compared with Belisarius, gained for his sedentary master an aura of expansion. He is credited with having doubly benefited Romania, stemming the Muslim raids deep into AsiaMinor and extending Roman borders as far as the Euphrates and even the Tigris.41 More impressive is the fact that Kourkouas’ offensives could be sustained for almost twenty years without much overt foreboding of coups d’´etat. Romanos chose the theatres of operations no less shrewdly. They lay for the most part in Armenia andMesopotamia. He did not mount ambitious combined operations of the sort that had come to grief in Leo VI’s reign, nor was there much concentrated effort in the south-eastern borderlands. Instead, the pressure was applied further north, on Armenia and adjoining regions. Theodosioupolis and Melitene lay in fertile countryside and were important trading centres. They could yield ample revenues and Melitene was declared an imperial kouratoreia, an establishment whose proceedswent straight to the emperor’s coffers. The rocky slopes of the Taurus and the Anti-Taurus, by contrast, were neither fertile nor well-populated, while the Cilician plain was studded with Muslim forts. One further advantage of Romanos’ eastern strategy was that it did not rely on Byzantine military resources alone. John Kourkouas and his brother Theophilos were able to gain the collaboration or formal submission of certain Armenian princes, while Romanos himself sought to forge bonds with individual princes, offering titles or a residence and estates in Byzantium. He thereby complemented and, at the same time, kept track of Kourkouas’ activities. The princes’ ties were with Romanos himself. The most spectacular of Kourkouas’ tours de force induced the citizens of Edessa to surrender their famed mandylion, the cloth with the miraculous imprint of Christ’s features. In return, Romanos issued a chrysobull, pledging that Byzantium would never again molest the region of Edessa.42 Edessa lay little more than 100 kilometres south fromMelitene, but was clearly not regarded as a desirable candidate for annexation. The gaining of the relic showed up the caliph’s impotence and the mandylion was conveyed through the provinces to Constantinople. But the high-pitched celebration of its arrival had much to do with Romanos’ domestic problems. Some time earlier he had had to yield to his sons’ protests at his scheme to marry Constantine VII’s son to Kourkouas’ daughter. Now he was too frail for the main procession, from the Golden Gate to St Sophia, and the advent of the image may unintentionally have bolstered the standing of his two unfavoured younger sons; they played a leading role in the celebrations welcoming the image to Constantinople, whereas Kourkouas is not recorded as having been present.43 By the autumn of 944, Kourkouas had been dismissed. That same autumn Romanos made another gesture in favour of Constantine VII, issuing a testament declaring him ‘the first emperor’ and threatening his own sons’ imperial status should they attempt anything against Constantine. 44 Acting, presumably, in light of this, the young Lekapenoi struck against their father on 20 December 944. He was secretly abducted to one of the islands in the Sea of Marmara. It is uncertain whether Constantine VII connived with the plotters: what is (and was) clear is his status as the sole adult emperor to have been born in the Porphyra. When a rumour spread that he had been murdered by the two Lekapenoi, the populace gathered outside the palace, calling for Constantine. It was placated only by his appearance, poking his bare head out through a lattice. The citizens of Constantinople seem to have associated theMacedonian house with their own well-being, just as Leo VI had intended. But the porphyrogenitus did not rely on aura alone. He is said to have immediately appointed Bardas Phokas as domestic of the Schools, the brother of the man against whose alleged ambition for the throne Lekapenos had launched his own political career.45 Bardas’ first loyalty was patently to Constantine VII, and the appointment was a first step towards the undoing of the Lekapenoi. They themselves were apparently hatching a plot against the porphyrogenitus when they were seized in the palace on 27 January 945. They were, without any reported popular outcry, abducted to the Princes’ Islands and a new life as exiles.Had their father backed them whole-heartedly, they might perhaps have supplanted the porphyrogenitus. But Romanos had not repeated his efforts to advance Christopher. At home, as abroad, his hardheaded ambition did little more than maintain the status quo.