Mosaics of Hagia Sophia

The Empresses of Constantinople - Author: Joseph McCabe

Our last chapter introduced the chivalry of the West into the East, and, as numbers of the princes of the West remained and set up principalities in the East, and mingled with it in matrimonial alliance, the hope may be entertained that at last we shall witness some signal alteration of the Greek character. The more informed reader, who knows how the severe historians of recent times have washed much of the colour from “the days of chivalry,” whose acquaintance with that epoch extends beyond the “Idylls of the King,” will, perhaps, not expect any transformation of the character of the East. I will not anticipate the verdict. We have reached a time when the ideas and sentiments of the Western knights make a marked impression on the minds and ways of the East, and it will be interesting to see what types of women now arise. I shall therefore not confine myself rigidly, in this chapter, to those women who are fortunate enough to attain the supreme title, but include in the survey a number of princesses who, in various ways, approach the throne.

John the Handsome, as the citizens of Constantinople came to call the dark and by no means handsome young Emperor they had now obtained, does not provide us with an Empress of distinct or interesting character. His wife Irene, a daughter of Wratislav, King of Hungary, was too virtuous to leave a mark in the Byzantine chronicles. While her able and upright husband flung back the invaders from his territory, and essayed such improvement in its condition as his poor political faculty enabled him to achieve, she spent her days in prayer and219 the rearing of her family. Pearls and diamonds had no dangerous fascination for her; she maintained a modest demeanour in the pomp of the palace and gave the superfluous wealth to the poor and the monks. After bringing five children into the world, she died about six years after her coronation, and John remained a widower for the twenty further years of his arduous and exemplary reign. In the winter of 1142–1143, as he spent the truce from campaigning in hunting in Asia Minor, he accidentally poisoned himself with an arrow, nominated his youngest son Manuel for the succession, and died a few days afterwards.

Of his four sons: two—Alexis and Andronicus—had died before their father: two—Isaac and Manuel—survived. Manuel was in the field with his father, and he at once sent to Constantinople his father’s able Turkish minister to secure the throne for him, while he remained to care for and convey the royal remains. The Turk was vigorous, and not unfamiliar with Byzantine history. Before a soul in Constantinople had heard of the Emperor’s death he lodged the elder son, Isaac, in a safe monastery, promised an enormous sum of money to the clergy, and had the path to the throne lined with subservient courtiers when Manuel arrived. A shower of gold upon the city completed the preparation, and Manuel I., a tall, handsome, vigorous and fairly cultivated youth, took in hand the reins of the Empire. The spirit of Western chivalry had found an apt pupil in Manuel, and his robust frame, reckless daring, and fiery passions made him at once a brother of the Crusaders and their Eastern descendants. For generations men told of his feats of strength and boldness.

His first Empress was the daughter of the Count of Sulzbach, an important Bavarian noble, and sister to the wife of Conrad, the ruling Emperor of Germany. Bertha had been betrothed to Manuel before the death of his father, and some time after his coronation she was conducted from the humble castle of her father to the220 world-famed splendour of Constantinople. Her name was to be changed to Irene, and she must have had a momentary shudder when an aged lady, whose dark nun’s robe was faintly edged with royal purple and gold, was introduced to her, among the welcoming crowd, as the great Irene who had once occupied the throne. But the impression was effaced by the brilliance of the marriage ceremonies and the manly beauty of her imperial husband. He returned at once to the field and spent a considerable time in expelling the Persian invaders. After that he remained a few years in his capital, attempting to reform the Court and the administration, and the royal spouses came to know, and probably dislike, each other.

Manuel had the vices, as well as the virtues, of a Western knight; Irene had no vices, and her virtues were old-fashioned. The emergence of these modest and tender young women, such as the last two Irenes, from the Courts of central Europe warns us to refrain from thinking that chivalry everywhere meant gaiety and licence of conduct. Irene had no love of luxury or of the breaking of lances. Such comeliness as she had she declined to adorn with perfumes and fine silks, placing her ideal in the practice of Church virtues and the quiet performance of a mother’s duties. But Manuel had the eye and the blood of unrestrained youth, and he soon wandered from his cold and passive spouse to other women of the Court. His elder brother, Andronicus, had left three fascinating daughters, and two of these were of a temper to welcome the freer and livelier spirit which Manuel encouraged. The eldest of the three, Maria, confined herself to a sober marriage, but Theodora became the acknowledged lover of the Emperor (her uncle), and the youngest, Eudocia, was even more flagrantly connected with the Emperor’s cousin, Andronicus, one of the most handsome, most daring and most unscrupulous nobles of the time. Andronicus, who in time ascended the throne, will engage us, with221 his lady-loves, presently. For the moment we have only to note that the Comneni princesses lived at Court without a pretence of restraint. Manuel frowned when he heard that his cousin met what little expostulation was made with the cheerful assurance that he felt it his duty to imitate the example and copy the taste of his sovereign; but Manuel had himself too little self-control to dismiss Theodora.

The clergy were at the time too corrupt and subservient to interfere, and the courtiers are contemptuously dismissed by the historian Finlay as “a herd of knaves.” The chief minister, a keen financier and most successful extortioner, was known to sell in the market, even two or three times over, the choice fish or game which suitors presented to him. The favourite minister, John Camateros, was a handsome man of gigantic stature, who enjoyed the repute of drinking more wine, and retaining a clearer head, than any man of his time. He won a bet off the Emperor by emptying at two draughts an immense porphyry vase full of water.

Such were the character and pursuits of the Court into which the virtuous Irene had entered, and in which she remained a silent and despised figure for fourteen years. The second Crusade, led by her brother-in-law, Conrad, passed through Constantinople, on its way to destruction, without altering her condition. Manuel was not less unwilling than his people to cheat the despised Westerners, and further seeds of bitterness were sown in the soil of the time. Irene lingered on for some years, while Manuel waged his endless campaigns against Sicilians, Servians, Scythians and Turks, or flung himself into hunts and tournaments for the entertainment of his mistress and her friends. Then, about the year 1158, Irene died, leaving a young daughter (a second daughter having died in infancy) to the care of her boisterous spouse.

For his second wife Manuel turned to the Latin nobility who had settled in Syria. During a recent222 campaign in the east he had joined with the Latins in a tournament at Antioch, and made a deep impression on them by his personal bravery, the golden trappings of his charger, and the embroidered silk tunics and mantles of his suite. He begged Baldwin III., King of Jerusalem, to choose for him a bride among the Latin nobility, and professed that he would abide by Baldwin’s choice. Baldwin selected Melisend, sister of Raymond, Count of Tripoli (on the Phœnician coast), and legates were sent to obtain the ready consent of her father and inquire carefully into the lady’s morals and physical condition. The sad story of Melisend’s disappointment is very differently told by the Greek and the Latin historians. According to the Eastern writers Melisend passed the tests of Manuel’s legates, and for some months the city of Tripoli was enlivened by the preparations for her exalted marriage. The most splendid clothing, plate and jewels that the family and principality of Raymond could provide were contributed to her trousseau, and no less than twelve large galleys, laden with her treasures, lay beside the imperial trireme at the quays. The day of departure came, and the princess bade farewell to her proud relatives; but the ships had not advanced far from port when Melisend became so ill that they were forced to return. She recovered, and they set sail again, but the mysterious illness returned, and as often as they attempted to convey her across the seas she became livid with sickness or burning with fever. The legates then made a closer inquiry—of a local soothsayer—found that there was a grave flaw in the genealogical tree of the princess, and departed without her.

There is no doubt that this story is a malignant untruth published by the Greeks in order to cover the heartless vacillation of their Emperor. The Latin historian of the time in the East, William of Tyre, tells a simpler story. Manuel’s legates lingered at Tripoli, month after month, until Raymond angrily asked them either to223 convey his daughter or refund the cost of the preparations. They then fled secretly, offering no reason whatever for the desertion, and the only consolation afforded to the wounded Melisend was that her father handed over her twelve bridal galleys to a band of pirates, and sent them to spread their terrible ravages along the Greek coasts and islands. We know little of Melisend; she may have been a woman of mature years, and one of the most lamentable signs of the abandonment of the times was the eagerness of monarchs and nobles for child brides. Manuel had discovered a child of ravishing beauty in the Court of Antioch.

Maria, daughter of Raymond of Poitou, the prince of Antioch, must have been in her early teens when Manuel’s legates reported her beauty to him. Her mother, Constance, and stepfather, Reginald of Chatillon, a French adventurer, eagerly welcomed the alliance with the powerful Manuel, and the young girl was conveyed on a gilded galley to Constantinople and married to Manuel, in or about 1161, with the utmost splendour. She received the imperial title, but she naturally escapes the notice of chroniclers during the next ten years, and we may assume that Manuel continued to entertain his more mature niece, who bore him a son and was rewarded with one of the most luxurious palaces in the city. Corrupt as Constantinople was, an illegitimate son could not hope to wear the purple, and Manuel was concerned about the succession. He betrothed his daughter Maria (daughter of Irene) to the younger brother of the King of Hungary, but six years later Maria retired to the Porphyra palace, and Manuel, a keen student of astrology, consulted the heavens with feverish anxiety. The conjunction of the planets was auspicious at the hour of delivery, the child proved to be a son and heir, and the wildest rejoicing filled the Court and city. From that time Maria became “mistress” in reality as well as name, and Theodora passes from the chronicles. The Hungarian prince, who224 awaited his marriage and elevation at the Court, was wedded to Philippa of Antioch, and the nobles were summoned to swear allegiance to Maria and the infant Alexis. The princess Maria, Manuel’s daughter, was now thrust aside as of no political importance, and was suffered to continue, “celibate and sad,” at the Court until the leisure of old age permitted her father to reflect on his neglect of her.

Ten further years of warfare occupy the chronicles, and leave no room for the mention of princesses and Empresses. Then the tireless and restless monarch begins to show signs of age, and we prepare for the crisis which so frequently brings the imperial women more prominently before us. Manuel’s last campaign had been overcast by grave disasters; he had lost the vigour of youth and had never possessed any large and orderly power of controlling events. Weary and saddened, he concluded an indecisive peace with the Turk, and returned to ensure the succession to the throne. His legitimate son Alexis was now, in the year 1180,31 turned twelve years old, and therefore, in view of the political circumstances and the lax feeling of the time, fit for marriage. Some years before Manuel had learned from one of the Crusaders that Louis of France had a beautiful young daughter, and legates were sent to ask her hand for Alexis. One reads with strange feelings that the child was only seven years old when, in the spring of 1180, she was wedded to Alexis in the ancient palace of Daphne. We shall see to what a sordid fate this premature marriage to a helpless boy exposed her. From the Latin writers we learn that her name was Agnes, but it seems to have been changed to Anna (as the Greeks always call her) at her marriage. She at once received the imperial title, and must have seemed225 a strange young figure in the stiff gold-cloth garments and rich jewels of a Byzantine Empress.

It is interesting to notice that the thought of matrimony reminded Manuel of his “celibate and sad” daughter Maria. She was now in her thirty-first year. A spouse was found for her in a handsome seventeen-year-old Western youth, Reyner, son of the Marquis of Montferrat, and they were married with pomp at the Blachernæ palace. But the character of Maria will presently become clearer to us, and we shall see that it does not call for sympathy.

Weary and ill as Manuel was, he had by no means the idea that he was preparing for death in making these arrangements. The astrologers, in whom he put supreme confidence, assured him that he would yet live fourteen years, and he looked forward to rising from his bed and once more dashing with lance and sword against the Turks or Persians. A few months spent in his capital must have shaken his confidence. Thirty-five years of strenuous war had added no material security to his Empire and had alienated his subjects. Vast sums had been wrung from them, but they had passed into the purses of soldiers, foreigners, monks and astrologers, and the civil framework of the vast Empire was in a state of decay. Men spoke with bitterness of the superb palaces, their ceilings plated with gold, their walls lined with mosaic representations of the Emperor’s victories, which Manuel had added to the imperial town. He grew sombre, his illness increased, and, one day in September, he felt his own pulse and concluded that he was sinking. Impetuous to the last, he slapped his thigh and called for the robe of a monk. He at once exchanged his purple for the rough cloth, gave his signature to a condemnation of astrology, and bade farewell to the world. He died a few days later; and the shadow of tragedy began to creep over the gold-roofed halls in which his young widow, and the child-bride of his son, played with the imperial toys while men looked on with dark and selfish designs.

226 The character of the Empress Maria is obscured for us by the somewhat conflicting reports or suggestions of the authorities. Finlay says that she at once retired to a monastery, and, although I can find no direct authority for this, she is so frequently named “Xene” in later passages that one may conclude that she took the veil and changed her name. The next statement about her, however, is little in accord with this. The central and most powerful person at the Court after the death of Manuel was Alexis, brother of the sisters Theodora and Eudocia whose amours had enlivened the Court. Now advanced in years, but ambitious, covetous and luxurious, he became the virtual ruler of the Empire. A somewhat repulsive picture is drawn of his efforts to maintain himself in sufficient health to enjoy the sensual rewards of his position, and it is added that he contracted a liaison with Manuel’s young widow. We are quite free to reject this sordid suggestion, as a calumny of those who sought to displace her or of those who afterwards murdered her, but it must be recollected that we have arrived at a period of grosser immorality than ever. It is essential only to observe that she was closely allied to Alexis (the minister) and was accused of intimacy with him.

The Emperor Alexis, who was only thirteen years old at his coronation, was a flippant and heedless boy. The base and astute intriguers about him encouraged him to spend his time in hunting or drinking or dressing in imperial finery. On the other hand, his sister Maria (the daughter of Manuel) now began to display a dangerous ambition and an unscrupulous character. The supposed intimacy of the Empress and Alexis alarmed her; she feared, or affected to fear, that Alexis would marry Maria and seize the throne. She therefore conspired with her relatives, and sent assassins to make an end of Alexis, as he hunted in the country. Presently, however, a messenger returned, not with the head of the minister, but with the news that he had discovered the plot and227 was returning to wreak his vengeance. Maria and her young husband fled to St Sophia, and, as the crowd gathered in the church at the news, she loudly and bitterly harangued them on the scandalous vices of the Empress and the licentious dotage of her uncle. A judicious distribution of money opened the ears of the clergy and the mob to her charges, and she grew bolder. When the Emperor, or his minister, threatened to drag her from the church, she enlisted a troop of Italian gladiators and Iberian soldiers, and, before the clergy could follow her furious proceedings, turned the cathedral into a fortified citadel, and egged on the mob to loot the mansions of Alexis and his friends. On 7th May the troops issued from the palace, and a bloody battle was fought at the entrance to St Sophia, but the horrified clergy now intervened, and Maria and her husband were allowed to return in safety to the palace.

On this squabble of hawks there now descended a veritable eagle of intrigue, and a brief account of his story will greatly add to our knowledge of the noble women of the time. I have previously mentioned that, while Manuel made love to his niece Theodora, her sister Eudocia was the mistress of Manuel’s cousin Andronicus, one of the most romantic figures in history. Andronicus Comnenus, in whom the great line of the Comneni comes to an appalling end, was one of the most handsome, most robust, most fascinating and most unscrupulous men of his age. Tall and massive of build, tender and engaging in countenance, endowed with a voice of singular strength and sweetness and an easy flow of language, he could enslave any woman on whom his heart was set; and it was set on many. Sober in diet and drink, he would avoid the revels and carouses of his brother officers, and spend hours of delight in reading the rugged epistles of St Paul. But in the enjoyment of love or the pursuit of ambition he recognized no moral principle whatever, and few men ever crowded more adventure into a single career.

228 His father was the elder brother of the Emperor John, Manuel’s father, and, on the accession of Manuel, he was called to Court. He was married, but he admitted with equal freedom the devotion of his pretty cousin Eudocia and that of other ladies of less distinction. His wife seems to have cheerfully recognized that large need of his nature, and the lips of Manuel were sealed by his own love affair; but there were men and women of the family who cherished the older ideas, and Andronicus nearly lost his life at an early date. After failing in Armenia—for he was a lax and unskilful general—he was appointed governor of some of the chief towns on the Hungarian frontier. Hither the devoted Eudocia accompanied him, and she lay in his arms, one night, in the tent when it was announced that her brother and brother-in-law were approaching with drawn swords. She pressed him to disguise himself in some of her garments, but he buckled on his immense sword, slit the canvas of the tent, and was deep in the neighbouring forest when the young men arrived.

He was next detected in treasonable correspondence with the Hungarians. Manuel overlooked his crime, but Andronicus went on to make two attempts on the life of his cousin, and wore so brazen a face when he was charged, that he was sent in chains to Constantinople and lodged in a strong tower connected with the palace. Here he one day discovered an old and forgotten passage, almost filled with rubbish, which branched from his prison. He scooped out a hiding-place in it with his hands, entered it, and concealed the entrance. When the furious search of the guards had ended, and messengers had been despatched over the Empire with orders to arrest the fugitive, the Emperor, suspecting that his cousin’s wife had aided him to escape, ordered her to be lodged in the tower. No sooner had the jailers left her than the poor woman was terrified, and then delighted, to see the burly form of her missing husband emerge from a heap of rubbish, and they fell into each229 other’s arms. For a long time husband and wife lived together in the prison, but at length Andronicus escaped. His splendid frame betrayed him, and he was recaptured and enclosed in a more formidable prison. Once more he escaped and was caught, and for nine years he remained in prison.

At length he induced the boy who brought his meals to take an impression in wax of the key of his prison while the jailers enjoyed their midday siesta, the impression was sent to his faithful wife and son (the fruit of his earlier confinement in the tower), and a key and a rope were stealthily conveyed to him. He escaped at sundown, lay in the long grass in the garden for two days, until the search was abandoned, and then took a boat at the quay by night and reached his wife’s house, where his fetters were struck off. He returned to his boat, rowed to a district beyond the walls where a horse awaited him, and set out in the direction of Russia. Once again he was captured, but, as the soldiers conducted him through a forest during the night, he feigned illness and retired a few yards. After repeating the trick a few times, so that they watched him less closely, he put his mantle and hat on his stick, so that the soldiers seemed to perceive his figure crouching in the dark, and plunged into the forest. He reached Scythia in safety, and was after a time recalled by Manuel, pardoned, and, after striking a few heavy blows in the wars, was made Governor of Cilicia. Here a fresh chapter of his love stories opened. Eudocia had married after the vigorous intervention of her brother, and his wife seems to have entered a monastery.

Endowed by Manuel with the rich revenues of the island of Cyprus, as well as the poorer proceeds of his province, he entered with alacrity the gay circle of the Latin nobles at Antioch, clothed himself in the finest embroidered silks, and kept about him a handsome suite of young courtiers. It was not long before his fascinating manner and brilliant appearance won the heart of the230 Princess Philippa of Antioch, a sister of the Empress Maria, and she proved to be no more scrupulous than the Greek ladies had been. William of Tyre says that he married her, but the Greek writers speak of the relation as a scandal, and the sequel favours their view. Manuel was enraged at this outrage, and because Andronicus dallied in Antioch instead of taking the field against the Armenians, and he sent a noble to replace Andronicus in his office and in the affections of Philippa. The young princess scorned the meaner figure of the new governor, but Andronicus was alarmed and, quitting his new love with a light heart and taking with him all the imperial funds he could secure, he fled to Palestine.

In the town of Acre, to which he soon repaired, he found a pretty and wealthy widow with whom he could claim a cousinship, and we are introduced to another branch of the Comneni family. Eudocia and Theodora, the frail ladies who have previously engaged our attention, were the daughters of Manuel’s brother Andronicus. A third brother, Isaac, had left six daughters, of whom the eldest, Theodora, had been married in her fourteenth year to Baldwin III., King of Jerusalem. Baldwin had died four years afterwards, and the young widow had received the town of Acre as her estate. She was still in her early twenties, in the ripest development of her charms and her passions, when the handsome Andronicus came to tell the story of his misfortunes. From mutual consolation they quickly passed to love, and Manuel was once more infuriated to hear that his scapegrace cousin was openly fouling the honour of the family in the friendly kingdom of the Latins. He sent to Acre a secret and pressing request that the beaux yeux of his cousin should be cut out, and his dangerous person forwarded to Constantinople. But the letter fell into the hands of Theodora, she showed it to her lover, and the devoted pair packed their treasures and fled to Damascus and on to Mesopotamia.

231 A few years, in which several children were born, were spent in this extraordinary exile by the rivers of Babylon, where the passionate love of the young ex-queen endured without regret the rude accommodation of a camp in what was almost a desert. Andronicus turned brigand when their money and jewels failed, and, at the head of his little band of Arabs, raided the territory of his imperial cousin and even carried off the Christian inhabitants to be sold as slaves. His queen and he laughed at the anathema which the Greek Church laid on them. At last the Governor of Trebizond, at the request of Manuel, enticed Theodora from the camp and captured her, and Andronicus sought pardon once more. We may honour the reluctance of Manuel to shed the blood of his subjects, but in the case of Andronicus it was an almost criminal weakness. That astute adventurer put a heavy iron chain round his neck, covered it with his mantle, and sank on his knees at a respectful distance from his cousin’s throne. When he was pressed to come forward to receive a cousinly embrace, he opened his cloak and protested that he must be dragged by the chain to the feet of the Emperor. The comedy ended in his receiving a wealthy appointment, but he was separated from Theodora and sent into a comfortable exile on the southern shores of the Black Sea.

Such was the man who, after the death of Manuel, came forward as the champion of the moral principle and Byzantine honour. Manuel’s daughter Maria, “the virago,” as Nicetas calls her, appealed to him to end the scandalous rule of the Empress Maria and her reputed lover. Age had made him cautious, however, and he allowed the conflicting parties to exhaust themselves, and the young Emperor fully to reveal his incapacity and unworthiness. Then he began to write indignant letters on the state of the Court to the patriarch and to the provincial authorities. In his great anxiety for the welfare of the Empire he left his exile and moved nearer to Constantinople, winning many to his side by his tears232 and his venerable appearance. He was now a white-haired old man, approaching his seventieth year, his still robust and magnificent frame made more attractive by the apparent sobering of his character. At length he reached Chalcedon, and the citizens of Constantinople went across the straits in crowds to hail the deliverer of the Empire, or of the Emperor, as he was careful to say. The sins of Andronicus had faded in the memories of their fathers, and they returned to the city to praise his loyalty and his demeanour. Before long they arrested the minister Alexis and put out his eyes. It remained to disarm the clergy, who had been forced to excommunicate him for enslaving Christians. When the patriarch came over to visit him, the wily hypocrite fell at his feet and kissed them, protesting that the archbishop had saved the Emperor, to whose cause he was devoted.

In brief, Andronicus was presently installed in the palace, and a ruthless suppression of his opponents began. Eyes were cut from their sockets, the jails were filled with nobles, and confiscated property swelled his treasury. The Princess Maria, who had appealed to him, and must now have seen her error, perished with her vigorous husband; one of their eunuchs was bribed by Andronicus to poison their food. The clergy next discovered his hypocrisy. He ordered the patriarch to marry his illegitimate daughter Irene to Manuel’s illegitimate son Alexis—the natural children of two sisters—and, when he refused, deposed him and found some other bishop complaisant enough to perform the ceremony. The nobles hastily plotted to displace him, but it was too late. Another batch of condemnations routed his opponents and enriched his purse. The people, it is lamentable to find, supported his every deed with enthusiasm, and were not slow to take up the cry of “Andronicus Emperor” which his creatures soon whispered in their ears.

It was the late summer of 1183, only three years after233 the death of Manuel. The foolish young Alexis still caroused and hunted in frivolous unconcern, but his mother now saw that the end of her reign approached, and might come in dreadful form. She was transferred to a suburban palace, and her life was embittered by calumny and petty persecution. It is in view of these circumstances that we must hesitate to accept the charge of misconduct with the minister Alexis; she seems to have been one of the best of the princesses of the time, though her personality never comes clearly before us. Presently Andronicus charged her with treachery. Her sister, Philippa, was, after being detached from Andronicus, married to the King of Hungary, and it is not impossible that some letters were exchanged between them in regard to the monster who now aimed at the throne. Philippa would retain little tenderness for him since he had fled straight from her arms to those of Theodora. Maria was, of course, found guilty, and lodged in a dungeon. Her son, little dreaming how soon he would follow her, signed the death-warrant, and in the month of August 1183 her sufferings came to an end. A high commander of the army and a eunuch of the Court strangled her with a bowtring.

Alexis lightheartedly pursued his pleasures for a few weeks, until he heard about him the cry of “Andronicus Emperor.” He nervously applauded it, and offered a share of his throne; and, with feigned reluctance, Andronicus yielded to the general demand and was crowned by the clergy in St Sophia. When, in the course of the coronation Mass, the chalice was brought to him containing the consecrated wine, he took it in his hands and swore on the living body of Christ that he accepted the crown only in order to assist Alexis. A few days later the youth was strangled by his orders, and, when the lifeless body was placed at his feet, he kicked it and observed that it was the child of a perjurer and a whore. One further detail will complete the234 picture of the degradation of the Eastern Empire. Two high officials of the Court took the body out in a boat, flung it in the sea, and sang gay songs as they returned to the Bucoleon quay. One of them became Archbishop of Bulgaria.

The two years’ reign of the Emperor Andronicus was an orgy of bloodshed, spoliation and vice. Perhaps the most abominable detail of it is that he at once married the child-widow of Alexis, Anna, the beautiful daughter of Louis VII. She had not yet completed her twelfth year, yet she now became the daily and—one fears—nightly companion of an erotic old man of seventy, whose devices to maintain his virility are hardly less repulsive than his murders. It is in one sense a relief to know that little Anna was only one member of a veritable harem of singing and dancing girls, and some nobler women, who filled the palaces, especially the pleasure-palaces on the Asiatic coast, of the repulsive monarch. Powerful in frame and fresh in countenance to the end, Andronicus maintained even in the palace his sobriety and moderation at table in order to preserve his youthful vigour. He was, if ever a man was, an erotomaniac, one of the strangest personalities in the whole of Byzantine history. He brought about several excellent reforms in the administration of the failing Empire, and had, almost to the end, the enthusiastic attachment of his people; but his brutality in the punishment of rebels, who were numerous, was too appalling to be described, and his conduct in many ways approached insanity. He raised a statue in the city to his first wife; she was represented as a nun accompanied by a handsome youth.

We hasten through this welter of brutality and licence to the natural termination. Deliverers of the Empire arose in various places, and were either savagely crushed or showed a savagery equal to that of Andronicus. The natural son of Manuel, whom he had married to his daughter Irene, rebelled; his secretary was burned alive in the Hippodrome, his eyes were removed, and Irene was banished for shedding tears over his fate. A nephew of his mistress Theodora (of Acre) rebelled, and captured the island of Cyprus, and Andronicus impotently ordered the two innocent nobles who were Isaac’s sureties to be stoned to death by their fellow-nobles in the palace; but Isaac proved as savage and licentious as Andronicus. Then another Alexis Comnenus, a grand-nephew of Manuel, fled to the West for assistance, and the Sicilian army set sail for Constantinople; but the soldiers merely fell like a fresh flood of savagery on the miserable Greeks. At last a deliverer arose, almost by accident, in the city.

Sorcery and astrology were at that time as rife in the Eastern Empire as they had been in the worst days of ancient Rome; the clergy were deeply corrupted and were almost idle (and wealthy) spectators of the vices and superstitions of Court and people. One of the more astute of these diviners was consulted as to the successor of Andronicus, and, by a device which was a thousand years old in the Roman world, he caused the letters I.S. to appear in answer to the inquiry. When Andronicus heard the result of the consultation, he concluded that Isaac of Cyprus, his rival in power and licentiousness, was the fated individual, and felt confident as long as that tyrant was unable to leave his island. But the prediction also assigned a very near date for the succession, and the chief minister of Andronicus was concerned. There was in the city a timid and unambitious noble, of a provincial family, named Isaac Angelus, and the minister insisted that this was the man designated by the diviner. Andronicus cheerfully ridiculed the idea, placed his little wife upon the royal galley, and went with her to join his gay ladies in one of the palaces across the water. It was the early autumn of the second year of his reign (1185).

Within a few days a messenger from the palace broke into their pleasant dalliance with the news that Constantinople236 was aflame with revolt, and Andronicus, taking with him his wife and a favourite courtesan, made with all speed for Bucoleon. It appeared that after his departure his minister had gone in person to arrest Isaac Angelus, and, in a surprising fit of boldness, the noble had drawn his sword and buried it in the body of the minister. He fled at once to St Sophia, and the people, flocking to see the man who had slain the hated minister, made him a hero in spite of himself, and burst open the prisons that all the victims of Andronicus might come and support him. He still shrank, even when they offered him the crown, and his elderly uncle, John Ducas, cheerfully presented his own bald head to receive it. “No more bald heads, especially with forked beards,” cried the people—as those were features of Andronicus—and the trembling Isaac was crowned.

At this point Andronicus and his companions reached the palace, only to discover that there were no royal troops to defend the throne. In impotent rage Andronicus snatched a bow, and, from one of the towers or balconies of the palace which overlooked the square, sent a few arrows into the crowd, but they burst into the palace, and he returned in haste to his galley. With his twelve-year-old wife and his favourite, Maraptica, he made with all speed for the Black Sea, but his popularity had turned to hatred throughout the Empire, and he was dragged from the ship at the first port and sent in chains to Isaac. His right hand and eye were removed, and he was delivered to the vengeance of the mob, whose savage torture and execution of the adventurous prince must be read in the dead language in which they are described.

The young daughter of Louis of France will come again upon the imperial stage at a later date. Already, in her thirteenth year, the widow of two murdered Emperors, she was destined to wed and lose an ambitious soldier, Branas, and for the third time, almost before she reached womanhood, weep over the bloody corpse of237 a husband. Nor were her sufferings to end here. We shall see that she remained in Constantinople, and it was reserved for her to witness the final tragedy which the chivalry of the West was to bring upon her adopted country.

Meet Bob Atchison - the Creator of this Website

I am an icon painter, Russian Historian and Austin Web Designer formerly of Seattle, Washington and now living in Austin, Texas. My interest in Byzantium and icons began when I was 8 years old and read my first book on Byzantium called "The Fall of Constantinople".

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In the Time of Manuel I

This Varangian Guard is standing outside the Boukoleon Palace, which was decorated with statues of lions and bulls.  You can see banners on the right.Here we see a guard and court official standing in the courtyard of the Blachernae Palace.  He might not be a Varangian because he is not carrying an axe.  That strange white hat was actually worn in late Byzantine times.  Byzantine peaked hats were widely admired abroad.The Chalke Gate of the Great Palace had a high dome over it like this one.

Collections of Beautiful Icons

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