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NICEPHORUS I., STAURACIUS, AND MICHAEL I.
1. The Fall of Irene
THE Isaurian or Syrian dynasty, which had not only discharged efficiently the task of defending the Roman Empire against the Saracens and Bulgarians, but had also infused new life into the administration and institutions, terminated ingloriously two years after the Imperial coronation of Charles the Great at Rome. Ambassadors of Charles were in Constantinople at the time of the revolution which hurled the Empress Irene from the throne. Their business at her court was to treat concerning a proposal of marriage from their master. It appears that the Empress entertained serious. thoughts of an alliance which her advisers would hardly have suffered her to contract, and the danger may have precipitated a revolution which could not long be postponed. Few palace revolutions have been more completely justified by the exigencies of the common weal, and if personal ambitions had not sufficed to bring about the fall of Irene, public interest would have dictated the removal of a sovran whose incapacity must soon have led to public disaster.
The career of Irene of Athens had been unusually brilliant. An obscure provincial, she was elevated by a stroke of fortune to be the consort of the heir to the greatest throne in Europe. Her husband died after a short reign, and as their son was a mere child she was left in possession of the supreme power. She was thus enabled to lead the reaction against iconoclasm, and connect her name indissolubly with an Ecumenical 1 For this negotiation see further below, Chap. X.
Council. By this policy she covered herself with glory in the eyes of orthodox posterity; she received the eulogies of popes; and the monks, who basked in the light of her countenance, extolled her as a saint. We have no records that would enable us to draw a portrait of Irene's mind, but we know that she was the most worldly of women, and that love of power was a fundamental trait of her character. When her son Constantine was old enough to assume the reins of government, she was reluctant to retire into the background, and a struggle for power ensued, which ended ultimately in the victory of the mother. The son, deprived of his eyesight, was rendered incapable of reigning (A.D. 797), and Irene enjoyed for five years undivided sovran power, not as a regent, but in her own right.
Extreme measures of ambition which, if adopted by heretics, they would execrate as crimes, are easily pardoned or overlooked by monks in the case of a monarch who believes rightly. But even in the narrative of the prejudiced monk, who is our informant, we can see that he himself disapproved of the behaviour of the "most pious " Irene, and, what is more important, that the public sympathy was with her son. conduct of the government did not secure her the respect which her previous actions had forfeited. She was under the alternating influence of two favourite eunuchs, whose intrigues against each other divided the court. After the death of Stauracius, his rival Aetius enjoyed the supreme control of the Empress and the Empire. He may have been a capable man; but his position was precarious, his power was resented by the other ministers of state, and, in such circumstances, the policy of the Empire could not be efficiently carried on. He united in his own hands the commands of two of the Asiatic Themes, the Opsikian and the Anatolic, and he made his brother Leo stratêgos of both Macedonia and Thrace. By the control of the troops of these provinces he hoped to compass his scheme of raising Leo to the Imperial throne.
We can hardly doubt that the political object of mitigating · ἐπιστήθιοι ὄντες τῆς βασιλείας, Theoph. A.M. 6290.
2 We may describe his position as that of first minister-an unofficial position expressed by παραδυναστεύων (a word which occurs in Thucydides,
ii. 97, of Odrysian nobles who had influence with the king). In the tenth and eleventh centuries the παραδυναστεύων regularly appears in the reigns of weak emperors.
her unpopularity in the capital was the motive of certain measures of relief or favour which the Empress adopted in March A.D. 801. She remitted the "urban tribute," the principal tax paid by the inhabitants of Constantinople,1 but we are unable to say whether this indulgence was intended to be temporary or permanent. She lightened the custom dues which were collected in the Hellespont and the Bosphorus. We may question the need and suspect the wisdom of either of these measures; but a better case could probably be made out for the abolition of the duty on receipts. This tax, similar to the notorious Chrysargyron which Anastasius I. did away with, was from the conditions of its collection especially liable to abuse, and it was difficult for the fisc to check the honesty of the excise officers who gathered it. We have a lurid picture of the hardships which it entailed. Tradesmen of every order were groaning under extravagant exactions. Sheep-dealers and pig-dealers, butchers, wine-merchants, weavers and shoemakers, fullers, bronzesmiths, goldsmiths, workers in wood, perfumers, architects are enumerated as sufferers. The high-roads and the sea-coasts were infested by fiscal officers demanding dues on the most insignificant articles. When a traveller came to some narrow defile, he would be startled by the sudden appearance of a tax-gatherer, sitting aloft like a thing uncanny.3 The fisherman who caught three fishes, barely enough to support him, was obliged to surrender one to the necessities of the treasury, or rather of its representative. Those who made their livelihood by catching or shooting birds were in the same predicament. It is needless to say that all the proceeds of these exactions did not flow into the fisc; there was unlimited opportunity for peculation and oppression on the part of the collectors."
We learn that Irene abolished this harsh and impolitic system from a congratulatory letter addressed to her on the
1 For this tax see below, Chap. VII. § 1. Theoph. A. M. 6293.
2 See Theodore Stud. Epp. i. 6, who says that the σrpayyalía of violent and unjust exactions which existed had escaped the notice of Irene's predecessors. By her measure Topos ἀδικίας πολυπλάσιος συνεξεκόπη (p. 932).
3 Theodore, ib. οὐκέτι ai ὁδοὶ τελωνοῦνται ὅσαι κατὰ γῆν ὅσαι κατὰ
θάλασσαν, οὐκέτι ἠπειρῶται ἐξαργυρί ζονται ἄδικα κατὰ τοὺς στενωποὺς ἐκ τῶν ἐπικαθημένων ὥσπερ ἀγρίου τινὸς δαίμονος. 4 The τοξότης and the ἐξευτής.
5 Theodore also mentions the removal of a hardship suffered by soldiers' wives, who, when they lost their husbands, were required to pay death duties τὴν ὑπὲρ τοῦ θανόντος ἐλεεινὴν καὶ ἀπάνθρωπον ἐξαπαίτησιν,
occasion by Theodore, the abbot of Studion. We must remember that the writer was an ardent partisan of the Empress, whom he lauds in hyperbolic phrases, according to the manner of the age, and we may reasonably suspect that he has overdrawn the abuses which she remedied in order to exalt the merit of her reform.1
The monks of Studion, driven from their cloister by her son, had been restored with high honour by Irene, and we may believe that they were the most devoted of her supporters. The letter which Theodore addressed to her on this occasion shows that in his eyes her offences against humanity counted as nothing, if set against her services to orthodoxy and canonical law. It is characteristic of medieval Christianity that one who made such high professions of respect for Christian ethics should extol the "virtue" of the woman who had blinded her son, and assert that her virtue has made her government popular and will preserve it unshaken.
Even if Irene's capacity for ruling had equalled her appetite for power, and if the reverence which the monks entertained for her had been universal, her sex was a weak point in her position. Other women had governed-Pulcheria, for instance —in the name of an Emperor; but Irene was the first who had reigned alone, not as a regent, but as sole and supreme autocrat. This was an innovation against which no constitutional objection seems to have been urged or recognized as valid at Constantinople; though in Western Europe it was said that the Roman Empire could not devolve upon a woman, and this principle was alleged as an argument justifying the coronation of Charles the Great. But in the army there was undoubtedly a feeling of dissatisfaction that the sovran was disqualified by her sex from leading her hosts in war; and as the spirit of iconoclasm was still prevalent in the army, especially in the powerful Asiatic Themes, there was no inclination to waive this objection in the case of the restorer of image-worship.2
1 It is remarkable that Theophanes (loc. cit.) does not mention directly the existence of the abuses described by Theodore. The reforms for which Theodore chiefly thanks her must be included in the chronicler's σὺν ἄλλοις πολλοῖς.
2 That her sex was regarded as a disadvantage by public opinion seems
to be disclosed undesignedly by an admirer, the deacon Ignatius, who speaks of her as a woman, and then almost apologizes for doing so. Vit. Niceph. 146 τὸ κραταιόφρον ἐκεῖνο καὶ φιλόθεον γύναιον· εἴπερ γυναῖκα θέμις καλεῖν τὴν καὶ ἀνδρῶν τῷ εὐσεβεῖ διενεγ κοῦσαν φρονήματι.