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Theophilos › Who Was

Definition and Origins

by Mark Cartwright
published on 11 January 2018
Coronation of Theophilos (Unknown Artist)
Theophilos was emperor of the Byzantine Empire from 829 to 842 CE. He was the second ruler of the Amorion dynasty founded by his father Michael II. Popular during his reign and responsible for a lavish rebuilding of Constantinople ’s palaces and fortifications, Theophilos is chiefly remembered today for a major defeat by the Arab Caliphate in 838 CE and as the last emperor who supported the policy of iconoclasm, that is the destruction of icons and their veneration being treated as heresy.


Theophilos was from Amorion, the city in Phrygia which gave its name to the dynasty begun by his father Michael II (r. 820-829 CE). Michael's reign, tarnished right from the beginning by his brutal murder of his predecessor Leo V (r. 813-820 CE), continued its downward spiral with a serious revolt led by Thomas the Slav and significant defeats at the hands of the Arabs in Sicily and Crete.


Inheriting the throne in 829 CE aged 25, Theophilos was seen as a new hope for the empire to get back on its feet again. A return to former glories was not to be but at least Theophilos was popular because of his exuberant personality, even participating once in a chariot race in the Hippodrome of Constantinople (which he won, of course). The emperor also enjoyed a reputation as a lover of learning and justice, especially when he introduced the tradition of the emperor riding to church on Fridays and permitting any commoner to throw questions of justice or appeals his way. The historian J. Herrin recounts one such episode:
On one of the occasions a widow complained to Theophilos that she had been defrauded of a horse by the city eparch. Indeed, she claimed it was the vey horse he was riding! He ordered an investigation and discovered that her story was correct: the eparch had taken her horse and given it to the emperor. Theophilos immediately returned the horse to its rightful owner and had the very high-ranking official punished. (75)
Another eccentricity of the emperor was the habit of walking about the streets of his capital in disguise asking the people what they thought of the problems of the day and checking if the merchants were selling their goods at fair prices. Theophilos' reputation for learning stemmed not only from his own education but his endorsement of everyone else's - he increased the faculties of the university at the capital, increased the number of scriptoria where manuscripts were duplicated, and ensured that teachers were paid by the state.
Follis Coin of Theophilos

Follis Coin of Theophilos


Theophilos' other domestic achievements included a lavish restoration of the royal palace and its gardens, which, over the centuries, had become something of a hotchpotch architectural mess. Buildings were ripped down and new homogenous ones with connecting corridors were built using white marble, fine wall mosaics and columns in rose and porphyry marble. Best of all was the throne room, here described by the historian L. Brownworth:
No other place in the empire - or perhaps the world - dripped so extravagantly in gold or boasted so magnificent a display of wealth. Behind the massive golden throne were trees made of hammered gold and silver, complete with jewel-encrusted mechanical birds that would burst into song at the touch of a lever. Wound around the base of the tree were golden lions and griffins staring menacingly from beside each armrest, looking as if they could spring up at any moment. In what must have been a terrifying experience for unsuspecting ambassadors, the emperor would give a signal and a golden organ would play a deafening tune, the birds would sing, and the lions would twitch their tails and roar. (162)
Other projects, all probably funded by the discovery of gold mines in Armenia, included the building of the Bryas summer palace in the capital, adding the bronze doors to the Hagia Sophia which are still there today, extending the city's harbour fortifications, and introducing a new copper follis coin. Theophilos' reputation for extravagant spending was epitomised by the bridal show he organised to find himself a wife. The winner was an Armenian girl named Theodora who received as her prize, besides the emperor himself, of course, a magnificent golden apple just as in the judgement of Paris story from ancient Greece. If ever an emperor knew how to market to his people the good times were here again, it was Theophilos.


In foreign affairs, Theophilos benefitted from Leo V's defeat of the Bulgars in 814 CE and the sudden death of their leader, the Khan Krum. A 30-year peace allowed both the Bulgars and Byzantines to concentrate on other threats. Theophilos strengthened the empire's defences, notably building the Sarkel fortress at the mouth of the Don River c. 833 CE to protect against invasion from the Rus Vikings who had formed the state of Kiev. In a similar vein, new provinces or themes, were established: Cherson (in the Crimea, and protected by the Sarkel fortress), and Paphlagonia and Chaldia (both intended to better protect the area south of the Black Sea). Smaller military districts ( kleisoura ) were created at Charsianon, Cappadocia, and Seleukeia in central and southeast Asia Minor to protect the mountain passes most likely to be used by invading armies.
The Byzantine Empire in the mid-9th century CE

The Byzantine Empire in the mid-9th century CE

Elsewhere, although in the East the Arab Caliphate had previously been kept quiet by its own internal problems, the Byzantines lost the initiative to the western Arabs in Italy when Taranto fell in 839 CE, splitting the Byzantine territory there in two. Theophilos concentrated on meeting the Arab threat closer to home in Asia Minor and he made inroads into Cilicia in 830 and 831 CE for which he awarded himself a triumph. Relations were not always hostile between the two states as during the middle part of his reign the emperor twice sent the learned clergyman John VII Grammatikos on diplomatic missions to the Arabs from which he brought back new scientific knowledge and ideas which influenced Byzantine art and architecture.


Caliph Mutasim (r. 833-842 CE) was ambitious, though, and he sent a huge army into Byzantine territory in 838 CE. Despite having the two gifted generals of Theophobos and Manuel, the Byzantines were unable to prevent defeat at the battle of Dazimon in Pontos (northern Asia Minor) on 22 July 838 CE. The victorious Arab army, led by the Caliph's own star general Afshin, were then able to sack and take the strategically important cities of Ankara and Amorion. The acquisition of Amorion - the emperor's hometown - was sweet revenge for Mutasim, whose father's city of Zapetra had been sacked by Theophilos only the year before. This fact may also explain the Caliph's forced relocation of the entire civilian population and infamous execution of the so-called 42 Martyrs of Amorion who had all refused to convert to Islam after seven years of imprisonment.


The emperor's domestic affairs were largely focussed on the battle within the church on whether or not the veneration of icons was acceptable or not as orthodox practice. Leo V had begun a second wave of iconoclasm in the Byzantine Church (the first having occurred between 726 and 787 CE), whereby all prominent religious icons were destroyed and those who venerated them were persecuted as heretics. After a lull during the reign of Leo's successor Michael II, Theophilos picked up the pace again and vehemently attacked the iconophiles. In this campaign he was aided by the staunch iconoclast John VII Grammatikos who had served under Leo V and who was made Patriarch (Bishop) of Constantinople c. 837 CE. A major force behind the iconoclasm policies of Leo V, the fact that John was Theophilos' tutor and advisor, perhaps unsurprisingly, led to a new wave of attacks on icons and their supporters.
Byzantine Iconoclasm

Byzantine Iconoclasm

Important figures who suffered for their pro-icon beliefs included the brothers Theodore and Theophanes Graptos and the icon-painter Lazaros. The Graptos brothers acquired their name after both had their foreheads branded ( graptos ). Theophilos ordered that twelve iambic pentameters were to be tattooed on the pair as a warning to all of the dangers of superstition and disobeying the law. Lazaros' punishment was different but no less painful, as he was flogged and had his hands burned with red-hot nails. The painter was permitted to leave Constantinople, though, and he sought refuge in the Phoberou Monastery at the north end of the Bosphorus.
Theophilos might have been good at bending the clergy to his way of thinking but closer to home he was rather less successful. The emperor's consort Theodora remained a regular venerator of icons in secret, even inside the royal palace.After Theophilos' death, John VII Grammatikos was exiled in 843 CE and in March of the same year Theodora swiftly ended iconoclasm in a move widely known as the “Restoration of Orthodoxy' or even the “Triumph of Orthodoxy”, which was celebrated in a new outbursting of religious art.


Heraclius › Who Was

Definition and Origins

by Mark Cartwright
published on 29 November 2017
Heraclius Returning the True Cross to Jerusalem (Miguel Ximenez)
Heraclius (Herakleios) was emperor of the Byzantine Empire from 610 to 641 CE. He crushed the Persian empire and returned the looted True Cross to Jerusalem, but the second half of his reign was beset by intrigues and ecclesiastical controversies which split the Christian church; worst of all, he could do nothing to halt the relentless march of the armies of the Arab Caliphate. Heraclius' reign was one of “what might have been?” but at least he saved the empire when at its lowest ebb and founded a dynasty which provided some much-needed political stability in the 7th century CE.


Heraclius was born c. 574 CE, the son of the governor of Carthage, also known as Heraclius. In October 610 CE the future emperor was elected by his father to respond to a plea from the Senate in Constantinople to come and relieve them from the bloody tyrant Phokas (r. 602-610 CE). Heraclius was given command of a fleet which, when it was sighted from Constantinople, caused an immediate rebellion and the overthrow of Phokas right there and then. Heraclius, aged 36, was proclaimed the new emperor, and with his height, good looks, and golden locks he certainly looked the part but his empire was crumbling - already half the size of its former glory - and even more significantly, it was bankrupt.


The initial military escapades of Heraclius were nothing short of a disaster, with defeats to the Persians, losing Jerusalem in 614 CE and, in 618 CE, parts of Egypt - the empire's chief grain source. The trend of reverses would continue in North Africa until 629 CE despite the emperor acquiring the Church's valuables in order to pay for his failing armies. Things were so bad that Heraclius seriously considered returning home to Carthage and setting up his capital there but was persuaded to stay on by the bishop of Constantinople Sergios I and the general populace, who knew their fate if Constantinople were abandoned.


Things improved in the east from 622 CE with Heraclius finally going on the attack with his carefully built-up and well-trained army and still powerful navy, gaining several victories against Chosroes II, the Persian king. Back home though, things were not going quite so well, as while the emperor was off campaigning the capital was put under siege by a combined force of 80,000 Avars and Persians in 626 CE. Heraclius sent a third of his army back to defend Constantinople but, crucially, maintained the bulk of his force in Asia.
The capital had to resist the onslaught of siege engines and missiles, the defenders organised by the general Bonos and rallied in spirit by Sergios, who marched the city ’s population around the walls brandishing an icon of the Virgin Mary. More practical and ultimately successful protection was offered by the city's formidable fortifications. Perseverance paid off for the Byzantines abroad, too, and the Persian army, weakened by the release of contingents to attack Constantinople, was destroyed at the 11-hour battle of Nineveh in 627 CE. Heraclius, leading his army in person in his famously gleaming armour, was said to have killed his opposite number, the general Razates, in single combat, lopping off the Persian's head with one swipe of his sword. As an extra bonus, the Byzantine state coffers were given a much-needed refill after the sacking and looting of Ctesiphon right after the battle, when the conquerors discovered there was, quite literally, too much gold to carry away. Chosroes II was overthrown, a peace was brokered and, when the Persian state all but collapsed in 630 CE, an end was brought to 400 years of wars between the two empires.
Byzantine Empire c. 626 CE

Byzantine Empire c. 626 CE

Not only was Heraclius praised for his military victory but also for his recovery of a relic of the True Cross (believed to be the actual wooden cross on which Jesus Christ was crucified). The Persians had stolen the fragment from Jerusalem, but Heraclius recovered and returned it. When the Arabs threatened Jerusalem in 635 CE, the emperor had it brought to Constantinople to rest in the church of Hagia Sophia.
The Byzantine Empire had acquired a new confidence - there was a capable emperor on the throne, and it was felt the time was right to cut some of the old ties with the long-dead Roman Empire. Greek was made the official language, finally sidelining Latin, already a neglected language which lingered only in the laws that so few understood. Even the long-used Roman titles of Augustus and Imperator Caesar were switched to the Greek Basileus ('king').
Despite this optimism, 636 CE would see Heraclius' fortunes plummet again when the Arabs won a decisive victory at the battle of Yarmuk. The Arabs, seemingly risen from nowhere, were led by the brilliant general Khalid who had forged a formidable and highly mobile army using camels. With dissent amongst the Byzantine commanders and a sandstorm at just the wrong time, the Byzantine army was massacred. The defeat at Yarmuk, a tributary of the Jordan River, gave the Arabs control of Syria. They would not stop there, and by the end of Heraclius' reign four years later the Arab caliphate controlled Mesopotamia, Armenia, and Egypt as well. Byzantium had neither the money nor the manpower to prevent the disintegration of the eastern part of the empire.


During Heraclius' reign, the Church continued to be split by theological arguments without any resolution in sight, notably the debate over Monophysitism versus Dyophysitism - with the former position maintaining that Christ had one inseparable nature which was both divine and human (or just divine) and the latter adherents arguing he had two separate natures. Sergios proposed a compromise, the doctrine of Monoenergism - that Christ had a single energy - and when this failed to persuade the Church in the eastern provinces, he proposed, following an alternative, the idea of Monotheletism - that Christ had one will which united his divine and human natures - which was first proposed by Pope Honorius I (625-638 CE). Heraclius attempted to resolve some of the ecclesiastical debates himself with his decree of 638 CE, the Ekthesis, which supported Monotheletism, but it did not stick as an idea, was opposed by the new pope Severinus, and was condemned by the Ecumenical Council of 680-681 CE. In any case, Heraclius' plan to pacify the two sides of the Church became unnecessary after Byzantium's loss of the eastern parts of the empire.
Coin of Heraclius

Coin of Heraclius


As if Heraclius did not have enough problems defending the empire from without, there were plenty of intrigues to challenge the status quo from within. The chief cause of disturbance seemed to be the emperor's own wife (his second), Martina, also Heraclius' niece. There had been much made of this incestuous marriage by Church and people alike, but the emperor's successes against Persia had nullified the criticism. However, when things started to unravel and the Arab armies sacked one Christian city after another, the people began to whisper that God had abandoned the Byzantines because of the sin of their emperor. The fact that six of the couple's nine children were born deformed or died in infancy added fuel to the theory that God was displeased with Heraclius and it was the people who would ultimately pay the price. The emperor had his own suffering in the form of a disease which aged him beyond his years. Heraclius died in February 641 CE and he was buried in a white onyx sarcophagus in the imperial mausoleum in the Church of the Holy Apostles in his capital.
Martina, meanwhile, conspired so that her own son, Heraklonas, would be nominated as the next emperor. In this, she half-succeeded as Heraklonas shared the throne with his half-brother Constantine III (son of Heraclius and his late first wife Eudokia). Constantine died a mere three months after his father of tuberculosis which, conveniently, gave Martina the opportunity to manipulate her son and effectively rule as regent, although she had the official title of co-emperor. The pair were unpopular and not helped by the loss of Alexandria to the Arabs. Valentinos Arsakuni overthrew them both in September 641 CE, cutting out Martina's tongue, slitting the nose of Heraklonas and exiling both to Rhodes. The mutilations were designed as a permanent mark that they were unfit for office, and it would become a common Byzantine practice from then on. Arsakuni was himself overthrown a few months later by Constans II, the son of Constantine III, who ruled for the next 27 years but fared little better than his grandfather Heraclius in halting the territorial decline of the Byzantine Empire.


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