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Byzantium: Constantine Porphyrogenitus

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Byzantium: Overview | Constantine and the Founding of Constantinople | Justinian and the Nika Riots | Heraclius and the Persians | Irene and Iconoclasm | Constantine Porphyrogenitus | Basil the Bulgar-Slayer | Empress Zoe | Romanos Diogenes and the Loss of Anatolia | The Sack of Constantinople | Constantine XI and the Fall of Constantinople | The Walls of Constantinople | Hagia Sophia

In the entire history of Byzantium, there was rarely a time when the Empire wasn't under attack from somebody. For much of the 9th and 10th centuries, there was a constant threat from the Bulgars to the northwest; they twice invaded the Empire and reached the walls of the city; the walls, however, were impregnable, so they never got the prize of the treasures in the city. Suitable peace settlements were negotiated and the invaders were forced to withdraw.

Despite this background of war, there was plenty of scope for an emperor to get on with the things he thought were important, such as art, literature and theology - this last one being a particular Byzantine speciality. Constantine Porphyrogenitus was one such emperor. He made a name for himself as a scholar, writing books, and as an artist.

The Colour Purple

Porphyrogenitus means 'born to the purple' and we'll have to take a little digression to understand the significance of this.

Since the start of the Roman Republic, purple was a special colour. Normal attire for rich Romans in the early days was a plain white toga, which was a bit like a large sheet. Senators, on the other hand, had their togas dyed purple as a special honour. The dye known as Tyrian Purple came from a rare type of sea-snail known as a murex. It was a rich maroon colour, described as the colour of clotted blood.

With the establishment of the Roman Empire, the emperors adopted the purple robes of the senators, and purple ever afterwards was the imperial colour.

Fashions changed over the centuries, and the artwork of the period shows that the Byzantines no longer wore the plain white of the early Romans. Their clothes were multicoloured, and rich people would have much brocade and many jewels attached to their clothes: but purple was still considered the imperial colour. The emperor wore a lot of purple, including purple shoes embroidered in gold with a two-headed eagle - a symbol of his rule over both church and state. When an emperor was crowned, he was said to 'take the purple'.

Constantine's Credentials

In later years, the succession of Emperors went by the rule that if a child was born to the Emperor and his wife after the Emperor was crowned, then he was more-or-less automatically the heir to the throne. Such a child, born in the palace and child of the ruling Emperor was said to be 'born to the purple', signifying that they were a potential heir to the throne. On the other hand, if a child was born before the Emperor had been crowned, then he would not be considered automatically. Constantine was in fact born in the palace, hence his title, but whether he was a legitimate heir or not is far from clear. For this, we'll have to go two emperors back, to his father, Leo.

Leo VI was a good Emperor, who ruled for a long time and kept the Empire at peace. He improved the laws of the Empire, redistributed wealth and generally left the place better off than he had found it. Leo's biggest problem was that he had no son, and his brother who would inherit the Empire when he died was a drunkard and unlikely to produce any heir himself. If no suitable heir was found, the normal practice in Byzantium was for some general to take control of the Empire; this had frequently led to civil strife in the past, so a good Emperor like Leo wanted to avoid this.

Leo married twice and both wives died without producing a son. Under Byzantine law he was forbidden from marrying a third time, but the Patriarch of Constantinople (the leader of the Christian Church in the city) was an easy-going type who gave the Emperor a special dispensation, and Leo married a third time. His new wife produced the long-sought son, but died during childbirth and the son died a few days later. Leo was once again without an heir, he was getting old, and permission to marry a fourth time would not be so easy to get.

Leo chose a mistress, a woman called Zoe 'Coal-Eyes'. She moved into the palace with him, and in 905 produced a son, Constantine Porphyrogenitus. Leo then tried to legitimise his union with Zoe, but met with strong resistance from the Church.

Leo decided to marry Zoe in private and look for the Church's blessing later. He then took advantage of some infighting within the hierarchy of the Church to get the required approval from Rome and from a new Patriarch who he appointed himself. So now he was legally married to Zoe, and she was appointed Empress. However, Constantine had been born out of wedlock. He kept the title 'Purple-born' for the rest of his life to remind people that although he had not been born legitimate, he was born in the palace, the son of the reigning Emperor, and was the true heir.

The Good King Dies

Leo VI died in 912. His drunken sot of a brother, Alexander, took the reins, mismanaging the Empire for a year before he himself died of his own excesses. In that year he managed to undo a lot of the good work done by Leo, annoying the Bulgars and sacking a lot of the good administrators who ran the Empire. So when Alexander died in 913, the Empire was a troubled place. The sole heir Constantine was only seven years old, and a sickly child at that.

Leo's widow, Zoe, took control as Regent, and with the aid of the general Leo Phocas, managed to subdue the Bulgars. There now began a period of years when two groups strove for control of the Empire. One group was led by Zoe and her general Leo Phocas: the other group was led by a general Romanus Lecapenus.


Eventually, Romanus was triumphant. He ordered that Zoe should become a nun and she was packed off to a convent. This was the recognised way of disposing of an important female in Byzantium. Romanus appointed himself Emperor, but in a break from normal Byzantine politics, did not kill the true Emperor, Constantine. Perhaps he did not see this sickly boy as a threat. Or perhaps Romanus was in fact influenced by the Christian commandment, 'thou shalt not kill'. If so, it was probably a first for Byzantium. Instead, he officially ruled jointly with Constantine.

It can't have been a very pleasant upbringing for Constantine, without a father or mother and sharing the palace with a usurper. Nevertheless, the boy outgrew his childhood illnesses and eventually became healthy.

Over the years, Romanus gradually increased his control of the Empire. First he passed a law which meant that his decisions took precedence over those of Constantine. Then he appointed his own sons as co-emperors - the Empire had at this point five official Emperors! Finally he appointed one of his own sons to be second-in-command, relegating Constantine to third place. Constantine was in no position to object, so he continued his lonely life, but he bided his time.

As death approached, Romanus began to regret his actions and decided that he would appoint Constantine as his heir, rather than one of his own sons. The sons (who were called Stephen and, confusingly, Constantine) realised that they were out of the running unless they acted quickly, so they overthrew their father, packing him off to a monastery where he lived out the rest of his days attempting to atone for what he now saw as the sin of having stolen the throne from Constantine.

Constantine Takes Control

Romanus had been a good and popular Emperor even though he had taken the throne by force, but his sons were not held in the same regard by the people. The everyday folk of the city liked Constantine, and he was the true heir to the throne. Before the sons were even back from the monastery where they had said their goodbyes to their father, there was an angry mob gathered outside the palace. They realised they had no alternative but to acknowledge Constantine as the senior Emperor.

Constantine would probably have left it at that, but his wife Helena, who was also a child of Romanus, was not going to give her brothers the chance to take the upper hand against mild-mannered Constantine again. She insisted on action and he responded by arresting the brothers and packing them off to separate monasteries.

Constantine In Charge

Now began a happy time when Constantine led the Empire with a sure and steady hand. He was a very good administrator and introduced a number of new laws which gave more rights to the poor, wresting some control of the land from the wealthy landlords. On the defence front, Constantine appointed a number of competent generals who kept the borders stable, and even pushed back the frontiers slightly in the east, enlarging the lands of the Byzantine Empire.

On a more personal note, at 39 years of age, Constantine was a good-looking and intelligent man. As the Emperor of the greatest Empire on the planet, he had access to vast resources of scholarship. He became a scholar himself, a good writer and a talented painter as well. He encouraged scholarship in the city, and made a number of changes which supported education.

All in all, this was one of the best times to live in Byzantium.

Constantine's Books

Historians owe a great deal to Constantine for his books. He wrote many, but two are particularly important:

  • De Administrando Imperio (On Administering the Empire) was written as advice for his own son, Romanus, and contains advice on how to run the Empire, including descriptions of all the Ethnic Groups which made up the Empire. It was never intended for publication, and its title was provided (in Latin) centuries later.

  • De Ceremoniis describes the ceremonies of the Byzantine court.

Constructions Associated with Constantine

There are a couple of constructions still standing in Istanbul today which bear the name of this Emperor. One is the Column of Constantine Porphyrogenitus, also known as the Brick Column, in Sultanahmet Square. This Square was originally the Hippodrome, and the column was built on the central spine of the racing track, where it was in full view of the populace at all the events. The column is over 100 feet high, and originally was covered with plates of bronze. These were stripped off by the Crusaders during the Sack of Constantinople.

The so-called 'Palace of Constantine Porphyrogenitus', in the northwest of the city (known in Turkish as Tekfur Sarayi) appears to be named after this Emperor, but in fact it was built in the 12th or 13th centuries, long after his time. It is named after a different Constantine, one who never got to be Emperor, but the son of Emperor Michael VIII Palaeologus.

The Death of Constantine Porphyrogenitus

In September 959, Constantine started to feel unwell, coming down with a fever. He went to the spa town of Bursa in Anatolia, hoping that the waters there would cure him. He then went on up into the mountains to a monastery for some seclusion, but it became obvious that he was failing fast. He returned quickly to the city, and died on 9 November, 959 at the age of 54. He left behind his wife, Helena, his son Romanus, and five daughters.

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