By Constantine XI, 25 May 2007; Revised
Constantine V (b. 718 – d. 14 September, 775) was the first son of Emperor Leo III. Constantine V is often allotted the nickname Kopronymos, a derogatory term employed by later historians whose theological leanings on the issue of Iconoclasm have resulted in its use.
Constantine was born shortly after his father, Leo, had made himself Emperor of Byzantium and had decisively beaten the invading Arabs in the crucial Siege of Constantinople 717-718. Leo was the first of a new dynasty, known as the Isaurians, who restored the Empire to viability and stability after a century of decline, territorial contraction and chaos. Leo’s reign saw the consolidation of Byzantium’s provinces (known as themes) into units better suited to increasing agricultural yield and supporting an effective defence system. Leo’s reign also saw the introduction of Iconoclasm, a theological movement, which sought to denounce the awe in which holy relics, ikons, religious art and religious symbols were held. A return to abstract worship was sought by the Isaurian dynasty, which had substantial backing from the military in Anatolia.
After being elevated to the throne as co-Emperor in 720 at age 2, Constantine was married in adolescence in 732 to the Khazar princes Tzitzak, who was rechristened Irene. Constantine’s exposure and taste for military activity became evident early in life. He was present at the decisive battle of Akroinon in 740, where Leo III decisively ensured the security of Western Anatolia against Arab attacks. When Leo died, Constantine soon after organised an attack against the Arab Umayyad Caliphate to capitalize on the recent success of the Byzantine armies – with himself in command.
Constantine’s plans were soon to be interrupted by the revolt of his brother-in-law, Artabasdus. Artabasdus was a seasoned and experienced strategos (general), whose grip on the Armeniac theme in the east of Anatolia served as a formidable powerbase. Married to Constantine’s elder sister, with the support of the Patriarch and in command of considerable military forces, the experienced general may have been expected to prevail over the young Emperor. Constantine was initially attacked by the forces of Artabasdus in Anatolia as he marched east against the Caliphate. Forced to flee, Constantine found refuge in the central and western Anatolian themes of Anatolikon and Thracesion.
The young Emperor soon proved his capacity for military genius which would be repeated over the course of his lifetime. On three separate occasions, Constantine defeated the forces of Artabasdus, retook Constantinople, and, ultimately, quashed the revolt in little more than a year.
The revolt produced a number of results which would affect the remainder of Constantine’s reign. Constantine’s success brought about the strengthening of his own personal autocracy. His victories, personally won, brought him the respect and continued support of his soldiers. Constantine pursued Iconoclastic policy with far greater zeal than his father, possibly a response to the Iconodule (icon loving) policy of Artabasdus. Constantine also humiliated Patriarch Anastasios publicly (subjecting him to jeers and insults of the populace in the hippodrome as he rode backwards on a donkey) for switching sides, an act, no doubt, designed to strengthen his own autocracy and leave the church in no doubt of where real mastery in the Byzantine world lay.
Iconoclasm means literally “smashing of icons”, a description of Constantine V’s reign cannot proceed without explaining it. The Iconoclastic movement was introduced by Leo III in 726 and sought to destroy idolatrous behaviour in the Empire. The awe in which many held holy pictures, mosaics, statues and symbols became a concern to the Isaurian dynasty as a deviation from the worship of God as something whose form could not be represented. Leo III had contented himself with symbolic displays of icon banishment and removal. Constantine’s policy was far more intolerant. The most vocal proponents of icon worship were persecuted, some were even killed. Constantine convened an ecumenical council in 754, not attended by any of the five Christian Patriarchs, to confirm imperial policy regarding the worship of icons.
There can be little doubt that the Emperors Leo and Constantine, both, had devout personal beliefs in the theological righteousness of their Iconoclastic beliefs. Yet, more pragmatic reasons may explain the execution of this imperial policy. The monastic class of the Empire had grown to be one of the most extensive in history, some sources putting the monastic population at 100,000. Such persons took up land, required food, were not required to serve in the military, were not liable for taxation and, typically, did not reproduce. To a Byzantine Empire stricken with military emergency, underpopulated due to raids and bubonic plague and in a difficult financial state due to piracy and lack of cultivators, such a vast liability was a luxury which could be ill afforded. Constantine’s policy of Iconoclasm persecuted those who defended icon worship, which included the monastic order. Some authors have argued that attacks on the monastic order had in mind the pragmatic aim of returning to productive citizenship thousands of much needed soldiers, workers and farmers. Quite telling is the incident in which the governor of Thracesion theme paired up monks and nuns, ordering them to marry and return to secular life or face deportation. This move was much lauded by Constantine, indicating the Emperor approved of such pragmatic actions as would restore to health the precarious position of the Byzantine state.
The issue of Iconoclasm plays a dominating role in the historiography of Constantine V to the extent that the Emperor’s notable military competencies received less than due credit. Constantine inherited an Italy which had been slipping away with the advance of the Lombards, this trend accelerated by the implementation of Iconoclasm, which was unpopular in the Empire’s European provinces. In the Balkans, the Slavs had already overrun virtually the whole of modern Greece, while the Bulgars on the lower Danube consolidated and grew. In the east, the Arabs continued to be formidable and powerful, raiding Anatolia at times and causing massive disruption to shipping through piracy. To complicate matters further, the bubonic plague hit in 745-747 and destroyed perhaps a third of the Empire’s population. Even after having overcome the revolt of Artabasdus, the position of the young emperor was hardly envious.
Constantine’s aborted advance against the Umayyad Caliphate is proof of the man’s natural tendencies to decisive military action. Having, once again, secured his throne, Constantine, again, set out east to capitalise on the progress made during his father’s reign. For the first time since the Arab invasions, the Byzantine Empire made permanent expansions to the east. Constantine captured a number of key fortresses in upper Mesopotamia and consolidated the Byzantine position in general. Greatly aiding this was the collapse of the Umayyad Caliphate and its replacement by the Abbasid Caliphate.
In the far West the Exarchate of Ravenna fell to the Lombards, as did Rome. Constantine prioritised the Byzantine possessions in Anatolia and the Balkans over that of Italy, a key step in transforming Byzantine into a more oriental power and cutting it off from developments in the West.
Constantine turned his attention against the Bulgars in 756, fighting nearly a dozen campaigns in which he, personally, directed all except one. Constantine’s frightful effectiveness as a general can be seen in the catastrophic defeats inflicted on the Bulgars at such a battle as Anchialus, where Constantine V’s pincer movement destroyed the Bulgar army. Leadership of the Bulgars changed hands six times during Constantine’s offensives as the Bulgars deposed one unsuccessful answer to Byzantine might after another. Although Constantine made a tactical error in mistakenly revealing to the Bulgars the identities of Byzantine subversive agents in Bulgarian territory, his campaigns gave the Byzantines a decisive opportunity to further expand their power in the Balkans. That this did not occur owes more to the incapabilities of Constantine’s successors than any flaw in his conduct of military affairs.
Constantine’s military record left the Empire with solid security in the parts of it which were most crucial for its economic and military revival: the Balkans and Anatolia. The stability and careful management of Constantine’s reign allowed a renewal in areas which mattered most to Byzantium’s survival: administration and agriculture. After the revolt of Artabasdus, Constantine broke the Opsikion theme into smaller units. This was the first subdivision of themes. It allowed the governors (strategoi) of the themes to be better controlled, because each strategos controlled a smaller area and their chances of rebelling were smaller. Subdivision of themes may also have enabled greater micro management of provincial affairs, though this is speculation.
The amount of arable land brought into cultivation also considerably increased. Constantine settled hundreds of thousands of Slavs in Anatolia, as well as many Syrians and Aramaeans in Thrace, on small land holdings which would increase agricultural yield and allow a greater number of soldiers to be equipped.
Constantine was also responsible for a little noticed but very important accomplishment in the field of military organisation: the creation of the tagmata. Ordinary Byzantine troops, known as themata, were farmers in the themes called up to military service during emergencies. Although economically very easily supported and very useful in defensive operations against raiders and invaders, these troops lacked the professional panache needed for a high performing field army. The tagmata were professional imperial troops who, at this point, held land in the old Opsikion theme, received extensive drill, were equipped in a manner superior to the themata, and a sizable portion were composed of heavy shock cavalry. The creation of the tagmata in Byzantium would serve in a role very similar to that of the medieval knight in Western Europe, a core of professional soldiers whose presence would keep discipline among semi-professional troops and who could act as a decisive shock force to be employed at crucial parts of battle to bring about victory.
As a result of Constantine’s domestic policy, the military was placed on a still firmer footing. The Empire was able to begin recovery after the bubonic plague of 745-747, and agricultural yield was geared to undergo enormous increases. Some estimates put Byzantine agricultural production at double or triple what it was at the end of the eighth century, compared to the beginning.
It is to Constantine’s eternal misfortune that, in the dispute over Iconoclasm, the icon supporting faction in Byzantium ultimately won in the middle of the ninth century. For his harsh treatment of the Iconodule faction, the somewhat scarce sources on Constantine V are unforgiving.
Yet, in examining Constantine as a human being and an Emperor, it is worth noting his reign resulted in a great consolidation of the power of the Empire. Militarily and economically, the Byzantine state had never been so viable. His military accomplishments rank amongst the finest in the Empire’s history, and there is little reason to think that Byzantium would have been propelled to magnificent heights had the Empire not been passed down to Constantine in such a feeble and embattled state. Constantine’s reign set the stage for a revival of the Byzantine Empire as a military and economic superpower. That this revival was delayed half a century and had to wait until the middle of the ninth century should be ascribed to the failures and inertia of the reigns of the last three Isaurian rulers.
As an individual, Constantine V was a patron of non-religious art and was personally an accomplished harpist. The Iconodules also note his love of sexual favourites of both genders, though the Emperor did marry three times and produced six sons and a daughter. Attempts to portray this Iconoclast as a culturally deficient puritan would be incorrect. Instead, at a period where war and plague had reduced Constantinople to a population as low as perhaps 30,000, the scant literary and cultural activity of the times was symptomatic of scarce resources and an overwhelmingly agrarian way of life.
A summary of Constantine must conclude the man to be an outstanding military leader, a thorough autocrat, a prudent economist and single minded in theological matters. Constantine provided the Empire with a healthy string of potential successors, a critical responsibility in Byzantine monarchy. Constantine V died on 14th September, 775, on his way to launch yet another campaign against the Bulgars. Succession passed smoothly to his son, Leo IV. Constantine, making the best of a situation in which resources were scarce, was a key leader in the rebirth of Byzantium as a viable state.