Saturday, July 11, 2009

Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus: a few notes

Constantine VII Porphrogenitus

Constantine Porphrogenitus was a Byzantine Emperor who reigned 913-959 C.E... He was the son of Leo VI called the Wise. Constantine VII Porphrogentius was born in 905 C.E.1 His nick name Prophrogenitus simply mean “born to the purple”.2 He was called this because he was born to a reigning Emperor.

Constantine was not born legitimately. His father Leo had been married three times before and had failed to have a son who lived. The Orthodox Church frowned on the idea of a fourth marriage so after his third wife died Leo did not marry his new mistress Zoe Carbonopsina, (meaning dark eyed). Leo had taken up with her in 902 C.E. When Constantine was born in late 905 C.E., Leo decided he had to risk a crisis in the Church for the sake of securing the succession which could only be done by legitimizing his son. Under the laws of the time Leo would legitimize any children born out of wedlock by marrying the mother. This Leo did, marrying Zoe secretly in early 906 C.E. When word got out this provoked a serious crisis in Church and State. Eventually after a rather terminable and tedious dispute the marriage was accepted and Constantine legitimized. The condition was that fourth marriages would not be accepted in the future.3
Leo VI, the Wise

Leo died in 912 C.E. and was succeeded by his brother (or half brother) Alexander who only reigned for 13 months.4 What evidence we have indicates that Alexander detested Leo and disliked both Constantine and his mother Zoe, who he forced in a Convent. When Alexander died he had created a board of seven regents for his young nephew.5

Soon afterwards a tedious power struggle began which lasted for seven years. It involved The Patriarch Nicholas Mysticus and Zoe, who had returned from her Convent and later the general Romanus Lecapenus. The ins and outs of this struggle although of interest will be past over here. In the end the upstart general Romanus I called Lecapenus won and put Zoe back in the Convent, this time for good in 920 C.E.6
Coin with Portrait of Romanus I, Lecapenus

It seems to be quite clear that Romanus intended to displace the Imperial family and establish his own family on the throne permanently. Constantine was in the way of this so the established Byzantine practices of murdering him, castrating him or blinding him would seem to be in order so that this could be done. However Constantine was saved by a number of factors. Firstly he was still very young about 14 years of age. Secondly he was since birth plagued by the poor health that would bother him until he died. Finally Romanus does not seem to have been, for a Byzantine Emperor, especially blood thirsty or ruthless. So Romanus dealt with the situation by marrying Constantine to his daughter Helena and probably hoping that Constantine would just die of natural causes.7

Probably by this time Constantine had developed the scholarly interests that would be his chief interest and career during the years that he was out of power. Probably these very same interests helped to keep him safe by making Romanus and his sons not take him too seriously. His marriage to Helena was also a success it appears that she became a voice at court in favour of her husband’s interests.

Romanus’ reign was an overall success.8 Romanus was however a total failure in his efforts to establish a new Imperial line. His favourite son Christopher died young in 931 C.E. Romanus’ two other sons Stephen and Constantine were too put it mildly unsuitable. Making it even more difficult Helena and Constantine VI had several children including a eldest son named, like his grandfather, Romanus. Romanus was also faced with the indisputable fact that Constantine was not dying and was through his considerable scholarly pursuits showing clear signs of real intelligence. That and the fact that Romanus began to believe that he was being punished for trying to overthrow the legitimate dynasty. The fact that if Constantine succeeded him Romanus’ grandchild would reign probably played a role in Romanus recognizing his son in law as his successor.9

Romanus’ two other sons faced with the near certainty of being forced into a monastery at best when their brother in law succeeded to power upon their fathers death decided to overthrow their father. On December 20th 944 C.E., The sons having secreted their supporters into the palace kidnapped their father from his bedroom and sent him by boat to become a monk in a monastery on a near by island close to the capital Constantinople. Unfortunately for the usurpers upon hearing of the overthrow of Romanus a mob gathered in front of the palace demanding to see Constantine VI. Fearing what the mob might do the two brothers showed Constantine to the crowd, although he looked dishevelled and had been fetched from the Imperial libraries where he had been researching another book.10

In consequence to the mobs threats the brothers were forced to recognize Constantine VI has senior Emperor. They however plotted to kill Constantine and take sole power. Unfortunately for them Constantine acted before they did. Aided by his wife Helena the two brothers were arrested, on the 27th of January 945 C.E., and they were both exiled and imprisoned. They both died in prison, one most conveniently “while trying to escape”. 11

The two brothers were briefly imprisoned on the same island with their father who said to them:

“Oh happy hour,’ he cried, ‘that has compelled Your Majesties to visit my humble estate. That filial affection which drove me from the palace, I suppose, has not allowed you yourselves to remain there any longer. How fortunate that you should have sent me here some time in advance: my brother-monks and fellow soldiers in Christ devote their days to things of the spirit, and would not have known how Emperors should be received had they not had me with them, an expert in imperial protocol. Here is boiled water for you, colder than the Gothic snows; here are soft beans, all manner of greenstuffs, and leeks freshly plucked. You will find none of those delicacies from the fishmongers that cause illness; such maladies as we have here are brought about by our frequent fasts. Our modest abode has no place for a large and extravagant company; but it is just large enough for your Majesties, who have refused to desert your father in his old age.”12

Romanus died in that monastery on June 15, 948 C.E.13

Constantine VI reigned until 959 C.E., when he died, and was overall a successful monarch.14...

Constantine VII, Porphrogenitus Being crowned by Christ

Constantine as adult was described as tall and broad shouldered, with a large black beard and pale blue eyes. He also apparently drank a lot. It is of interest to point out that Constantine was also an icon painter and apparently the only Byzantine Emperor to be one.15

Constantine was mainly a scholar and that remained until he died his chief interest and passion. Since it is hard to distinguish between works he commissioned or wrote himself here is a list of the major works either written by him or commissioned by him.

De Thematibus, A history of the development of the Byzantine administrative Theme system complete with an over view of how it worked in Constantine’s day. Written by Constantine.

Genesius’ History, A History of Byzantium.

Theophanes Continuatus, Books I-IV, A continuation of The Chronicle of Theophanes.

Constantine’s biography of his supposed grandfather Basil I. (Theophanes Continuatus, Book V). Written by Constantine.

De Administrando Imperio, An overview of Byzantine foreign affairs contains much information that would have been considered in Constantine’s day state secrets. Written for Constantine's heir Romanus II.

De Caerimoniis Aulae Byzantinae, An overview of Byzantine court ceremonial. Written by Constantine.16

Among other things Constantine also commissioned an immense work of 53 books of extracts from Greek literature grouped around topics.17 Constantine cannot be described by a long shot has a great writer, but he had access to sources we do not have today and was, apparently from the books we have of his today, a tireless researcher.18

Here I will discuss only one of Constantine’s books his De Administrando Imperio.19

The De Administrando Imperio, is divided into sections by country described and outlines proper / or recommended imperial policy towards said country. It also contains in many respects brief outline histories of some of these countries, in some cases it is the first even remotely reliable histories of these countries brief has these sections are. In some places Constantine extensively quotes other authors, and further he gives some geographical information.

In his introduction Constantine says:

(Proem) A wise man maketh glad a father, and an affectionate father taketh delight in a prudent son….

Lo, I set a doctrine before thee, so that being sharpened thereby in experience and knowledge, thou shall not stumble concerning the best counsels and the common good: first, in what each nation has power to advantage the Romans, [The Byzantines] and in what to hurt, and how and by what other nation each severally may be encountered in arms and subdued; then, concerning their ravenous and insatiate temper and the gifts they demand inordinately; next concerning also the difference between other nations, their origins and customs, and manner of life, and the position and climate of the land they dwell in, its geographical description and measurement, and moreover concerning events which have occurred at various times between the Romans and different nations; and thereafter, what reforms have been introduced from time to time in our state, and also throughout the Roman Empire.20

This book gives us some insight into the workings of Imperial policy and certainly an insight into Imperial realpolitik. For example:

(s. 4) So long as the Emperor of the Romans [The Byzantine Emperor] is at peace with the Pechenegs, [A Nomadic steppe people] neither the Russians nor Turks can come upon the Roman dominions by force of arms, nor can they exact from the Romans large and inflated sums in money or goods as the price of peace, for they fear the strength of this nation which the Emperor can turn against them while they are campaigning against the Romans. For the Pechenegs, if they are leagued in friendship with the emperor and won over by him by letters and gifts, can easily come upon the country of both the Russians and of the Turks, and enslave their women and children and ravage their country.21

Being a Christian he describes the prophet Mohammed as

(s. 14) “The blasphemous and obscene Mahomet,…

But as he had the disease of epilepsy, his wife, a noble and wealthy lady, was greatly cast down at being united to this man, who was not only destitute but an epileptic into the bargain, and so he deceived her by alleging: ‘I behold a dreadful vision of an Angel called Gabriel, and being unable to endure his sight, I faint and fall’;..”22
Not exactly an exercise in ecumenical understanding, too put it mildly, but an excellent view into the mind set of a pious Byzantine Christian of the 1oth century C.E.

About the early history of some of the Slavic settlers of the Balkans Constantine has some interesting information. For example concerning the Croatians he say:

(s. 31) The Croats who now live in the region of Dalmatia are descended from the unbaptized Croats, also called ‘white’, who lived beyond Turkey [Not modern Turkey but the steppe region] and next to Francia, and have for Slav neighbours the anabaptized Serbs. ‘Croats’ in the Slav tongue means ‘those who occupy much territory’. These same Croats arrived to claim the protection of the emperor Romans Heraclius before the Serbs claimed the protection of the same emperor Heraclius at that time when the Avars had fought and expelled from those parts the Romani whom the emperor Diocletian had brought from Rome and settled there, and who were therefore called ‘Romani’ from their having been translated from Rome to those countries, I mean, to those now called Croatia and Serbia. These same Romani having been expelled by the Avars in the days of this same Emperor of the Romans Heraclitus, their countries were made desolate. And so, by command of the Emperor Heraclius these same Croats defeated and expelled the Avars from these parts, and by mandate of Heraclius the emperor they settled down in that same country of the Avars, where they now dwell. These same Croats had at that time for prince the father of Porgas. The Emperor Heraclius sent and brought priests from Rome, and made of them an archbishop and a bishop and elders and deacons, and baptized the Croats; and at that time the these Croats had Porgas for their prince.23

In another section Constantine gives the genealogy of King Hugh, his father in law, whose daughter Eudocia was married to his son, Romanus II; no doubt to flatter his father in law and his son.

(s. 26) Now, she who came up to Constantinople and was joined in marriage to Romanus, the son born in the purple of Constantine, the Christ-loving sovereign, was the daughter of the same illustrious king Hugh, and she was called Bertha after the name of her grandmother, I mean the elder Bertha, who after the death of Adalbert her husband reigned ten years; but she, the young Bertha changed her name to Eudocia, after the grandmother and sister of Constantine, the Christ loving sovereign.24

The above is just a sampling from this work.

As I said Constantine VII died in 959 C.E., to be succeeded by his son Romanus II.

Constantine’s legacy is not his doings as monarch but his scholarship, without which we would have a good deal less knowledge and insight into the Byzantine world.

Solidus coin with Portrait of Constantine VII, Porphrogenitus

1. Runciman, Steven, The Emperor Romanus Lecapenus & his reign, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1929, pp. 41-42.

2. Norwich, John Julius, Byzantium: The Apogee, Penguin Books, London, 1991, p. 119.

3. Ostrogorsky, George, History of the Byzantine State, Basil Blackwell, London, 1956, pp. 259-260, Treadgold, Warren, A History of the Byzantine State and Society, Stanford University Press, Stanford CA, 1997, pp. 468-470, Jenkins, Romilly, Byzantium: The Imperial Centuries AD 610-1071, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 1987, pp. 212-226, Norwich, pp. 113-119.

4. Both Alexander and Leo VI had the same mother there is a dispute over whether or not they had the same father. It is possible that Leo’s real father was Michael III, who Basil I, Leo’s supposed father had assassinated so he could take the throne. See Jenkins, pp. 165-166, 98-199, Norwich, pp. 80-81, 102, Treadgold, pp. 455, 462, Ostrogorsky, pp. 233-234. Perhaps at another time I will tell the story of this rather complicated mess.

5. Treadgold, pp. 471-472, Norwich, pp. 122-126.

6. Treadgold, pp. 473-476.

7. Norwich, pp. 117-126.

8. More than one Byzantine Emperor could reign at a time so that Constantine continued to reign, without any power or influence during Romanus’ reign. See Runciman for the best account in English of the reign.

9. Runciman, pp. pp. 229-237.

10. Runciman, pp. 232-233.

11. Runciman, pp. 234-235.

12. Norwich, p. 158, quoting the Anapodosis of Liudprand, v, 23.

13. Runciman, p. 236.

14. Treadgold, pp. 487-494, Norwich, pp. 162-174, Jenkins, pp. 256-268,

15, Norwich, p. 162, Jenkins, pp. 256-257, Toynbee, Arnold, Constantine Porphyrogenitus and his World, Oxford University Press, London, 1973, pp. 5, 19-21.

16. Toynbee, pp. 576-577.

17. IBID. p. 576.

18. IBID. pp. 575-605.

19. Constantine Porphyrogenitus: De Administrando Imperio, Revised Edition, Translated by Jenkins, Romilly J. H., Dumbarton Oaks, Center for Byzantine Studies, Washington D.C., 1967. This edition contains the original Greek text and on the facing page a translation in English of that page.

20. IBID. pp. 45-47.

21. IBID. pp. 51-53.

22. IBID. pp. 77-79.

23. IBID. pp. 147-149.

24. IBID. p. 113.

Pierre Cloutier

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