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Constantine VI › Who Was

Definition and Origins

by Mark Cartwright
published on 22 January 2018
Seventh Ecumenical Council (Unknown Artist)

Constantine VI, also known as Constantine "the Blinded”, was emperor of the Byzantine Empire from 780 to 797 CE, although for most of his reign his mother, Irene the Athenian, ruled as regent. When Constantine did finally get a go at ruling in his own right, he was anything but successful. Deposed by his own mother, Constantine was infamously blinded by her in the royal palace and, as was the intention, he died from his injuries.


Constantine was the son of Leo IV (r. 775-780 CE) and when, in 780 CE, his father died of fever, aged just 30, Constantine became emperor Constantine VI. However, as the new emperor was still a minor at nine or ten years of age, his mother Empress Irene ruled as his regent, a role she performed until 790 CE. Irene had immediate problems and had to quash a rebellion led by the other sons of Constantine V (r. 741-775 CE) and half-brothers of Leo IV. Once that was dealt with, she ensured the loyalty of the palace entourage by dismissing any ministers and military commanders of questionable affiliation. To this end, she trusted two court eunuchs, in particular, Staurakios and Aetios.
Irene attempted to further entrench her position by arranging a marriage alliance with the Franks and promising Constantine to Rotrude, the daughter of the Franks' king Charlemagne. For unknown reasons, Irene changed her mind, though, and in 787 CE she found an alternative wife for her son, one Mary of Amnia, a pious but slightly boring girl selected via the traditional “bride show” which Byzantine rulers organised for their offspring. The Frankish-Byzantine alliance would have been an intriguing one and joined the two halves of the old Roman Empire but the opportunity would come around again, as we shall see.


As ever, the borders of the Byzantine Empire needed constant vigilance and defence. Irene enjoyed certain successes against both the Slavs in Greece and Arabs in Asia Minor. Closer to home, Irene convened a Church council in Constantinople in 786 CE which, despite initial opposition from members of the army who thought defeats on the battlefield were God's punishment for the widespread veneration of icons, decreed an official end to iconoclasm, that is, the destruction of icons, a key feature of her predecessor's reigns. The regent then went one step further and invited 350 bishops to the Seventh Ecumenical Council in September 787 CE which ruled to restore the orthodoxy of the veneration of icons in the Christian Church.
Empress Irene

Empress Irene


Traditionally, a Byzantine monarch took their place on the throne when they reached 16 years of age and the regent gracefully stepped aside. Not so for Irene, the first ominous sign being the removal of Constantine's face from the imperial coinage.When Irene made it be known that she intended to rule above her son Constantine no matter how old he was, many of those who opposed the restoration of icons, saw the dangers to the empire's army strength Irene's purges had threatened, and who believed Constantine had the rightful claim to the throne alone, rallied around the young emperor. Irene responded by executing seven dissenting generals and throwing her son in prison, but by 790 CE both the army and an anti-Irene mob came to Constantine's support, stormed the prison, and released him. Fortunately for the young emperor, the army still contained many iconoclasts, and many had refused to swear loyalty to Irene alone on religious grounds.
Now 19 years of age and keen to remove his interfering mother once and for all from state affairs, Constantine banished her from court along with her closest advisors while he engaged as his own advisor Michael Lachanodrakon, the influential general and governor of the Thrakesion region of the empire. After a decade in the shadows, Constantine took his rightful place at the apex of Byzantine government.


Unfortunately, the young emperor was not actually up to the task of ruling. Serious and immediate defeats against the Bulgars and a shameful truce against the Arabs did nothing to aid his popularity. Even on the battlefield, where an emperor might gain some admirers for heading his own troops, Constantine's cowardice had been revealed as he panicked and fled before the enemy. Now, back at court, conspiracies were rife. One led by Constantine's uncle Nikephoros was quashed, and the emperor blinded the ringleader in an all too familiar act of imperial Byzantine brutality. Constantine then ordered the tongues of all four of his uncles to be torn out. The emperor then created another problem when he blinded Alexios Mousele the droungraios tesviglas or Commander of the Imperial Watch, an act which sparked off yet another rebellion, this time in the province of Armeniakon in northeastern Asia Minor.
Leo IV & Constantine VI

Leo IV & Constantine VI

Irene was not to be so easily ushered to the wings of power, either, and she returned to the court in 792 CE, invited by her son as a last-ditch attempt to restore some order to his reign. In effect, they ruled jointly for the next five years, but Irene soon began to plot against her son. Significantly, Constantine could no longer call on the support of Michael Lachanodrakon, the general having been killed that year while campaigning against the Bulgars. The army was all too unimpressed with the young emperor, and his popularity plummeted even further when he began to blame his soldiers for their defeats, taking the ill-advised action (cunningly suggested by Irene, of course) of tattooing the word “traitor” on the faces of 1,000 of them.


A final crushing blow to Constantine's ambitions was the protests following his divorce from Maria and subsequent marriage to his mistress Theodote, the so-called Moechian Controversy, in 795 CE. To make matters worse, the couple had a son 18 months later. Two monks were especially vociferous in their outrage at the emperor's behaviour as head of the Church, Platoof Sakkoudion and Theodore of Stoudios, who both claimed that his divorce was illegal and so in marrying again the emperor had committed adultery. The emperor had lost the support of the one group he could always depend on; the iconophiles.Constantine's unpopularity with his people and the Byzantine establishment meant that he had no friends left to block his removal from power by his own mother.


In 797 CE, when Irene took back the throne for herself, she had her son detained while out riding and, on 15 August, had him blinded, doing so in the same purple chamber of the palace in which he had been born. The Porphyra room was a powerful symbol of an emperor's legitimacy and right to rule, and, therefore, the act was as bold a statement as possible of Irene's intent, not to mention her callousness. There was not going to be another rebellion against her rule. Constantine died shortly afterwards, almost certainly as a result of his injuries, which were intended to kill not maim. With his heir having already died earlier the same year, Irene had now dealt with all of her challengers. Thereafter, Irene is referred to in official state records as basileus, emperor, and not as empress, the first woman to so rule in her own right.
Irene, as unpopular as ever and now infamous for her actions towards her son, would not reign for long. Hefty tributes to the Arabs in order to stave off further incursions into Byzantine territory made a serious dent in the state treasury and the constant whiff of rebellion around the palace meant that Irene's position was precarious. Then, in 802 CE, there was the last straw.Irene attempted a marriage of alliance with Charlemagne, now the newly declared Emperor of the Romans in the west. It simply would not do, though, for a Byzantine emperor to marry an illiterate barbarian (as the Byzantines thought of him) and the nobles convened in the Hippodrome of Constantinople to declare that Irene must be removed from office. Exiled to a monastery on Lesbos, she was succeeded by Nikephoros I (r. 802-811 CE), one of the Empress' former finance ministers.Irene died within a year of losing the throne she had loved so much and clung onto for so long. Meanwhile, the empire stumbled on, still trying to regain its former glory but without very much success.
In a bizarre postscript, Constantine VI did, in a sense, later return from the dead in the guise of the usurper Thomas the Slav, who led a rebellion against emperor Michael II (r. 820-829 CE) between 821 and 823 CE. Thomas, to add legitimacy to his otherwise spurious claim to the Byzantine throne, spread about the story that Constantine VI had not, in fact, died when his mother Irene had blinded him but had managed to escape Constantinople and he was the very same person, dead set on getting back what was rightfully his. Thomas even had himself crowned emperor in Antioch, but it was all to no avail and his rebellion was quashed by Michael in 823 CE.

Anna Komnene › Who Was

Definition and Origins

by Mark Cartwright
published on 03 May 2018
Mosaic of Alexios I Komnenos (Unknown Artist)

Anna Komnene (aka Anna Comnena, 1083-1153 CE) was the eldest daughter of Byzantine emperor Alexios I Komnenos(r. 1081-1118 CE) and the author of a lengthy biography of her father's reign, the Alexiad. Although not an impartial history, Anna's position at court, her thorough research of sources and a good measure of pithy observation and insightful opinion have all ensured the Alexiad remains one of the most important and colourful primary sources of Byzantine history.


Anna Komnene was born in 1083 CE in the Porphyra, the purple room of the Byzantine royal palace in Constantinoplewhere royal babies were usually born and which was a potent symbol of royal legitimacy. She was the eldest daughter of Alexios I Komnenos and his wife the Empress Irene Doukaina. The emperor had no sons and so, for a time, Anna was the official heir following her betrothal to Constantine Doukas, the son of Michael VII (r. 1071-1078 CE). Constantine was nine years older than Anna and the empress-to-be later wrote of him in the following glowing terms:
[Constantine was] seemingly endowed with a heavenly beauty not of this world, his manifold charms captivated the beholder, in short, anyone who saw him would say, He is like the painter's Cupid (Herrin, 233)
Anna went to live with her future mother-in-law Maria of Alania where she was educated in mathematics, philosophy and medicine. A higher education was not regarded as becoming for a lady at court but Anna pressed ahead anyway and secretly hired Michael of Ephesos to tutor her in the more complex branches of philosophy, examining the works of Aristotle, in particular.


The path of Anna's future changed dramatically in 1087 CE when Alexios had a son, John, who became his chosen heir and the object of Anna's jealous hatred for the rest of her life. When Constantine Doukas died an early death in 1097 CE, Anna, still only 14, wasted no time and married the gifted general Nikephoros Bryennios the Younger. The couple would go on to have four children. She then plotted with her grandmother, Anna Dalassene, to make her new husband the next emperor. This plan failed, largely because Nikephoros remained loyal to the official heir John and stayed away when the rebels prepared to seize control of the palace.
When Alexios died of disease on 15 August 1118 CE, his son John became emperor John II Komnenos (r. 1118-1143 CE). It seems probable that Anna was involved in an assassination attempt aimed at John during their father's funeral, of all places, and within a year John had banished his scheming sister to the monastery of the Virgin Kecharitomene. All of Anna's property was confiscated and she was prohibited from ever entering the royal palace at Constantinople again.


At least Anna's forced seclusion allowed her to write her Alexiad (aka Alexias ) history in peace and, with what turned out to be a sentence of 35 years, time was not a problem. The Alexiad was begun c. 1137 (perhaps not coincidentally the year her husband died) and was worked on steadily through the mid-1140s CE. It covers the period of Byzantine history from 1069 to 1118 CE. Principally a tribute to her father and his 37-year reign, the work is the only such book written by a woman in the Middle Ages.
Consisting of 13 books written in Attic Greek, the Alexiad can be broadly divided into the following subject areas:
  • Books I-III cover the rise of the Komnenos family and justify the clan's seizure of power.
  • Books IV-IX cover various wars such as those against the Normans, Scyths, Turks and Cumans.
  • Books X-XI cover the First Crusade (1096-1104 CE) and the 1105 CE Norman invasion of Byzantium.
  • Books XII-XIII cover more military escapades and such domestic issues as the most infamous church heretics (eg the Manicheans and Bogomils).
Byzantine Hyperpyron of Alexios I

Byzantine Hyperpyron of Alexios I

Anna used and referenced earlier works such as the Chronographia of Michael Psellos (1018 - c. 1082 CE) as well as official reports, treaties, archival records, eye-witness accounts from battles, hearsay, and the speeches and audiences she herself witnessed at court. Thus Anna's description of 11th century CE Byzantium, which covers not only major events but also many physical descriptions and other details such as protocols and clothing, has become an invaluable source for modern historians.Anna was also keen that her work present an objective view of events, although she herself admits the Alexiad is somewhat prejudiced, or at least an incomplete biography of her father, for the following reasons:
And truly when writing this, partly from the nature of history and partly because of the extravagance of the events, I forgot that it was my father's deeds that I was describing. In my desire to make my history free from suspicion, I often treat my father's doings in a cursory way, neither amplifying them nor investing them with sentiment. Would that I had been free and released from this love of my father, in order that I might have, as it were, laid hold upon the rich material and shown the license of my tongue, how much at home it is in noble deeds. But now my zeal is hampered by my natural love, for I should not like to afford the public a suspicion that in my eagerness to speak about my relations I am serving them with fairy tales! Indeed very often I recall my father's successes, but I could have wept my life away in tears when recording and describing the many ills that befell him, and it is not without private lamentation and plaint that I quit the subject. But no elegant rhetoric must mar this part of my history, and therefore I pass lightly over my father's misadventures, as if I were an insensible piece of adamant or stone…let my father's woes be a subject of marvel and lamentation to me alone. (Gregory, 291-2)
Certainly, Anna presents a glowing character portrait of her father whom she saw as 'a fiery whirlwind…radiating beauty, grace and dignity and an unapproachable majesty' (quoted in Norwich, 248). As an example of the rather exaggerated presentation of Alexios' great deeds - by no means an uncommon approach of historians of the period - Anna presents the following account of the emperor, in 1082 CE, defending himself with aplomb against three fierce Latin knights who:
…took long spears in their hands and at full gallop dashed at the Emperor. Amicetas missed the Emperor because his horse swerved a little; the second man's spear the Emperor thrust aside with his sword and then bracing his arm, struck him on the collarbone and severed his arm from his body. Then the third aimed straight at his face, but Alexios being of firm and steadfast mind was not wholly dismayed, but with his quick wit grasped in the flash of an instant the thing to do, and when he saw the blow coming, threw himself backwards on to his horse's tail. Thus the point of the spear only grazed the skin of his face a little and then, hitting against the rim of the helmet, tore the strap under the chin which held it on and knocked it to the ground. After this the Frank rode past the man he thought he had hurled from his horse, but the latter quickly pulled himself up again in his saddle and sat there calmly without having lost a single weapon. And he still clutched his naked sword in his right hand, his face was stained with his own blood, his head was bare, and his ruddy, gleaming hair was streaming over his eyes and worrying him, for his horse in its fright spurned the reins and by its jumping about tossed his curls in disorder over his face; however, he pulled himself together as much as possible and carried on his resistance to his foes. ( ibid, 292)
Alexios I Komnenos

Alexios I Komnenos

Other prejudices revealed in the Alexiad include the typical Byzantine feeling of superiority over other cultures, as in this passage which describes the Franks :
[The emperor] heard a report of the approach of innumerable Frankish armies. Now he dreaded their arrival for he knew their irresistible manner of attack, their unstable and mobile character and all the peculiar natural and concomitant characteristics which the Frank retains throughout; and he also knew that they were always agape for money, and seemed to disregard their truces readily for any reason that cropped up. ( ibid, 295)
Still, in amongst the cliches of the dishonourable foreigner, there are more literary and more revealing passages of the times, for example:
And those Frankish soldiers were accompanied by an unarmed host more numerous than the sand or the stars, carrying palms and crosses on their shoulders; women and children, too, came away from their countries. And the sight of them was like many rivers streaming from all sides. ( ibid, 296)


A woman wiser than men in words, more manly in acts, more firm in plans, more prudent in tests…a woman enriched by three eyes of perception, those of her natural perspicacity, of scientific penetration and of consummate experience (Herrin, 232).


Article based on information obtained from these sources:
with permission from the Website Ancient History Encyclopedia
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