This summer I’ve been leading a medieval Greek reading group, and we’ve been going through Theophanes’ Chronicle. We began with the death of Herakleios in 641, ideally situated for the really dark times, which tend to be my favourite. It was also pedagogically useful, since the sections tend to be very short and so we had a chance to get a grip on Theophanes’ Greek. This worked out well, and I’m glad I did it that way.
Anyhow, this morning we killed Constans II, the emperor from 641 – 668. This was a particularly turbulent time in Byzantine history, but one that I find so interesting perhaps because it is so dark. The Arabs were advancing, the authority of the emperor was in danger, and the church remained divided by Herakleios’ late attempts at reunification that spawned yet another heresy. Constans did not take this lying down, however. He vigourously resisted the Arabs, attempting to take advantage of the divisions spawned by the First Fitna. When Mu’awiya put his new fleet to sea, Constans set out to drive it back, despite an oracle that testifies to the heights of Byzantine pedantry. Although he was defeated in a major naval engagement off of Lycia in ca. 654, it at least spawned an amusing episode as reported by Theophanes. When the battle starts to look bad, Constans gives his clothes to some brave and foolish sucker and heads for the hills. It had never occurred to me that Theophanes says nothing about Constans putting on other clothes. Presumably he did, but it nonetheless presents a literal “the emperor has no clothes” moment!
The rest of Theophanes’ account of the reign of Constans has little to say about him. We know that he went west and toured Italy, although the Liber Pontificalis is more useful for this (but no less problematic.) He spent a number of years in Sicily, allegedly having fled Constantinople because the populace hated him after he executed his brother. Tension is undeniable; some named (members of the senate?) seemed to have prevented him from taking the empress and his children west. Few scholars actually believe that Constans intended to move his administration permanently to the west. The general idea is that he was in Sicily organizing the defences for Africa from the Arabs, and keeping the Lombards at bay in Italy while building a central Mediterranean battle fleet for taking the fight to the Muslims, something in line with both earlier and later Herakleian strategy. The evidence for this is slim – it’s based upon a scanty reference to a tax imposed upon Italy that has something to do with ships, a reformed naval command that began to play imperial politics after Constans’ death, and how many ships Justinian II was able to lose. Still, this idea remains more appealing than slavishly believing a hostile chronicler who wrote almost a century and a half later.
Constans’ planned move against the Arabs never came. Instead, in his 26th year on the throne he went for a bath, and after he got all soaped up his bath attendant bashed him over the head with a bucket. Despite attempts by certain modern scholars to invent explanations, we really have no idea why Constans was murdered. Following Theophanes, the reign of his son Constantine IV began bloodily. First, he sailed to Sicily and put down the emperor who had been raised there (and by “put down” think of it in the terms of what veterinarians are sometimes called to do), although some have called into question whether he personally made the trip. Upon returning home, he met with a general revolt of the leaders of one of the major remaining army groups who wanted Constantine’s brothers to be crowned alongside him. Constantine invited them to Constantinople and then impaled them within sight of the army. Then just for good measure he decided to ensure that no one would try to crown his brothers in the future, so he chopped their noses off. And we haven’t even gotten to the bloody, violent reign of Justinian II yet. So please, remind me again of how boring medieval history is?