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Three Millennia of Greek Literature

Vasilief, A History of the Byzantine Empire

The Iconoclastic epoch (717-867)

Successors of the Isaurians and the Phrygian Dynasty (820-867) 


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No Byzantine emperor has been so badly treated, both in Byzantine tradition and in later literature, as this Michael III the Drunkard, a Byzantine Caligula. His incredible frivolity, his persistent drunkenness, his horrible impiety and abominable scurrility have been many times described. Recently, however, H. Gregoire opened an especially vigorous campaign to restore Michael's reputation. He pointed out many facts of Michael's epoch, particularly the energetic and successful fighting against the eastern Arabs, and he declared that this last sovereign of the Amorian dynasty possessed the temperament of a genius and truly inaugurated the triumphant phase of Byzantine history (843-1025). One cannot go quite so far as Gregoire in characterizing Michael as a genius; indeed, since he was assassinated at the age of twenty-eight, perhaps he did not live long enough to show the extent of his powers. While he possessed some highly undesirable qualities, it should be asserted that he had energy and initiative, and in addition and this is probably more important he managed to choose and keep near him talented and able advisers and executives. Gregoire has justly emphasized the deep impression left in popular tradition and popular songs by Michael's successful military activities against the eastern Arabs. His victory in the north over the Russians in 860-61 left an equally deep trace.

During the minority of Michael III his mother Theodora was the official ruler of the Empire for fourteen years; she entrusted all government affairs to her favorite, Theoctistus. When Michael came of age he ordered that Theoctistus be killed, compelled his mother to take holy orders, and assumed the rule of the Empire. This drastic change was instigated and led chiefly by Bardas, uncle of the Emperor and brother of Theodora, who soon rose to the highest ranks of curopalates and Caesar, and became very influential in all government affairs. An Arab ambassador who had an audience with Michael has left an interesting picture of his complete indifference in state affairs. The ambassador wrote: I did not hear a single word from his lips from the time of my arrival till my departure. The interpreter alone spoke, and the Emperor listened and expressed his assent or dissent by motions of his head. His uncle managed all his affairs. Highly gifted in many ways, Bardas successfully fought the enemies of the Empire and showed a clear understanding of the interests of the church. He honestly strove to spread more light and education among his people. But he, too, was treacherously killed through the intrigues of the new court favorite, Basil, the future founder of the Macedonian dynasty. After Bardas' death Michael adopted Basil and crowned him with the imperial crown. Their joint rule lasted only a little over a year, for Basil, suspecting that Michael was plotting against him, persuaded some friends to kill his benefactor after one of the court feasts. Basil then became the sole ruler of the Empire and the founder of the most famous dynasty in Byzantine history.

Thus during the period from 802 until 867 the throne was occupied by two Arabs or Semites; by one Greek, Michael I, married to the daughter of Nicephorus I, an Arabian; by one Armenian; and finally, by three Phrygians, or one might almost say, half-Greeks. It was the first time in Byzantine history that the Byzantine throne had fallen into the hands of the Semitic race. It is evident that during this period eastern elements played a very important part in the rule of the Empire.

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