|Emperor of the Romans
|18 June 741 – 14 September 775
|31 March 720
|Leo III the Isaurian
|Leo IV the Khazar
(now Istanbul, Turkey)
|14 September 775 (aged 57)
|Leo III the Isaurian
Constantine V (Greek: Κωνσταντῖνος, translit. Kōnstantīnos; Latin: Constantinus; July 718 – 14 September 775) was Byzantine emperor from 741 to 775. His reign saw a consolidation of Byzantine security from external threats. As an able military leader, Constantine took advantage of civil war in the Muslim world to make limited offensives on the Arab frontier. With this eastern frontier secure, he undertook repeated campaigns against the Bulgars in the Balkans. His military activity, and policy of settling Christian populations from the Arab frontier in Thrace, made Byzantium's hold on its Balkan territories more secure.
Religious strife and controversy was a prominent feature of his reign. His fervent support of Iconoclasm and opposition to monasticism led to his vilification by later Byzantine historians and writers, who denigrated him with the nicknames "the Dung-Named" (Greek: Κοπρώνυμος, translit. Koprónimos; Latin: Copronymus), because he allegedly defaecated during his baptism, similarly "Anointed with Urine" (Greek: Οὐραλύφιος, translit. Ouralýphios; Latin: Uralyphius), and "the Equestrian" (Greek: Καβαλλινος, translit. Kaballinos; Latin: Caballinus), referencing the excrement of horses.
However, the Byzantine Empire enjoyed a period of increasing internal prosperity during Constantine's reign. He was also responsible for important military and administrative innovations and reforms.
Constantine was born in Constantinople, the son and successor of Emperor Leo III and his wife Maria. In the Easter of 720, at two years of age, he was associated with his father on the throne, and crowned co-emperor by Patriarch Germanus I. In Byzantine political theory more than one emperor could share the throne; however, although all were accorded the same ceremonial status, only one emperor wielded ultimate power. As the position of emperor was in theory, and sometimes in practise, elective rather than strictly hereditary, a ruling emperor would often associate a son or other chosen successor with himself as a co-emperor to ensure the eventual succession. To celebrate the coronation of his son, Leo III introduced a new silver coin, the miliaresion; worth a 12th of a gold nomisma, it soon became an integral part of the Byzantine economy. In 726, Constantine's father issued the Ecloga; a revised legal code, it was attributed to both father and son jointly. Constantine married Tzitzak, daughter of the Khazars's khagan Bihar, an important Byzantine ally. His new bride was baptized Irene (Eirēnē, "peace") in 732. On his father's death, Constantine succeeded as sole emperor on 18 June 741.
Historical accounts of Constantine make reference to a chronic medical condition, possibly epilepsy or leprosy; early in his reign this may have been employed by those rebelling against him to question his fitness to be emperor.
Immediately after Constantine's accession in 741, his brother-in-law Artabasdos, husband of his older sister, Anna, rebelled. Artabasdos was the stratēgos (military governor) of the Opsikion theme (province) and had effective control of the Armeniac theme. The event is sometimes dated to 742, but this has been shown to be wrong.
Artabasdos struck against Constantine when their respective troops combined for an intended campaign against the Umayyad Caliphate; a trusted member of Constantine's retinue, called Beser, was killed in the attack. Constantine escaped and sought refuge in Amorion, where he was welcomed by the local soldiers, who had been commanded by Leo III before he became emperor. Meanwhile, Artabasdos advanced on Constantinople and, with the support of Theophanes Monutes (Constantine's regent) and Patriarch Anastasius, was acclaimed and crowned emperor. Constantine received the support of the Anatolic and Thracesian themes; Artabasdos secured the support of the theme of Thrace in addition to his own Opsikion and Armeniac soldiers.
The rival emperors bided their time making military preparations. Artabasdos marched against Constantine at Sardis in May 743 but was defeated. Three months later Constantine defeated Artabasdos' son Niketas and his Armeniac troops at Modrina and headed for Constantinople. In early November Constantine entered the capital, following a siege and a further battle. He immediately targeted his opponents, having many blinded or executed. Patriarch Anastasius was paraded on the back of an ass around the hippodrome to the jeers of the Constantinopolitan mob, though he was subsequently allowed to stay in office. Artabasdos, having fled the capital, was apprehended at the fortress of Pouzanes in Anatolia, probably located to the south of Nicomedia. Artabasdos and his sons were then publicly blinded and secured in the monastery of Chora on the outskirts of Constantinople.
Further information: Byzantine iconoclasm
Like his father Leo III, Constantine supported iconoclasm, which was a theological movement that rejected the veneration of religious images and sought to destroy those in existence. Iconoclasm was later definitively classed as heretical. Constantine's avowed enemies in what was a bitter and long-lived religious dispute were the iconodules, who defended the veneration of images. Iconodule writers applied to Constantine the derogatory epithet Kopronymos ("dung-named", from kopros, meaning "faeces" or "animal dung", and onoma, "name"). Using this obscene name, they spread the rumour that as an infant he had defiled his own baptism by defaecating in the font, or on the imperial purple cloth with which he was swaddled.
Constantine questioned the legitimacy of any representation of God or Christ. The church father John Damascene made use of the term 'uncircumscribable' in relation to the depiction of God. Constantine, relying on the linguistic connection between 'uncircumscribed' and 'incapable of being depicted', argued that the uncircumscribable cannot be legitimately depicted in an image. As Christian theology holds that Christ is God, He also cannot be represented in an image. The Emperor was personally active in the theological debate; evidence exists for him composing thirteen treatises, two of which survive in fragmentary form. He also presented his religious views at meetings organised throughout the empire, sending representatives to argue his case. In February 754, Constantine convened a synod at Hieria, which was attended entirely by iconoclast bishops. The council agreed with Constantine's religious policy on images, declaring them anathema, and it secured the election of a new iconoclast patriarch. However, it refused to endorse all of Constantine's policies, which were influenced by the more extremist iconoclasts and were critical of the veneration of Mary, mother of Jesus, and of the saints. The council confirmed the status of Mary as Theotokos (Θεοτόκος), or 'Mother of God', upheld the use of the terms "saint" and "holy" as legitimate, and condemned the desecration, burning, or looting of churches in the quest to suppress icon veneration.
The synod of Hieria was followed by a campaign to remove images from the walls of churches and to purge the court and bureaucracy of iconodules. Since monasteries tended to be strongholds of iconophile sentiment and contributed little or nothing towards the secular needs of the state, Constantine specifically targeted these communities. He also expropriated monastic property for the benefit of the state or the army. These acts of repression against the monks were largely led by the Emperor's general Michael Lachanodrakon, who threatened resistant monks with blinding and exile. In the hippodrome he organised the pairing of numerous monks and nuns in forced marriage, publicly ridiculing their vows of chastity. An iconodule abbot, Stephen Neos, was beaten to death by a mob at the behest of the authorities. As a result of persecution, many monks fled to southern Italy and Sicily. The implacable resistance of iconodule monks and their supporters led to their propaganda reaching those close to the Emperor. On becoming aware of an iconodule influenced conspiracy directed at himself, Constantine reacted uncompromisingly; in 765, eighteen high dignitaries charged with treason were paraded in the hippodrome, then variously executed, blinded or exiled. Patriarch Constantine II of Constantinople was implicated and deposed from office, and the following year he was tortured and beheaded.
By the end of Constantine's reign, iconoclasm had gone as far as to brand relics and prayers to the saints as heretical, or at least highly questionable. However, the extent of coherent official campaigns to forcibly destroy or cover up religious images or the existence of widespread government-sanctioned destruction of relics has been questioned by more recent scholarship. There is no evidence, for example, that Constantine formally banned the cult of saints. Pre-iconoclastic religious images did survive, and various existing accounts record that icons were preserved by being hidden. In general, the culture of pictorial religious representation appears to have survived the iconoclast period largely intact. The extent and severity of iconoclastic destruction of images and relics was exaggerated in later iconodule writings.
Iconodules considered Constantine's death a divine punishment. In the 9th century, following the ultimate triumph of the iconodules, Constantine's remains were removed from the imperial sepulchre in the Church of the Holy Apostles.
Assiduous in courting popularity, Constantine consciously employed the hippodrome, scene of the ever-popular chariot races, to influence the populace of Constantinople. In this he made use of the 'circus factions', which controlled the competing teams of charioteers and their supporters, had widespread social influence, and could mobilise large numbers of the citizenry. The hippodrome became the setting of rituals of humiliation for war captives and political enemies, in which the mob took delight. Constantine's sources of support were the people and the army, and he used them against his iconodule opponents in the monasteries and in the bureaucracy of the capital. Iconoclasm was not purely an imperial religious conviction, it also had considerable popular support: some of Constantine's actions against the iconodules may have been motivated by a desire to retain the approval of the people and the army. The monasteries were exempt from taxation and monks from service in the army; the Emperor's antipathy towards them may have derived to a greater extent from secular, fiscal and manpower, considerations than from a reaction to their theology.
Constantine carried forward the administrative and fiscal reforms initiated by his father Leo III. The military governors (στρατηγοί, strategoi) were powerful figures, whose access to the resources of their extensive provinces often provided the means of rebellion. The Opsikion theme had been the power-base that enabled the rebellion of Artabasdos, and was also the theme situated nearest to the capital within Asia Minor. Constantine reduced the size of this theme, dividing from it the Bucellarian and, perhaps, the Optimaton themes. In those provinces closest to the seat of government this measure increased the number of strategoi and diminished the resources available to any single one, making rebellion less easy to accomplish.
Constantine was responsible for the creation of a small central army of fully professional soldiers, the imperial tagmata (literally: 'the regiments'). He achieved this by training for serious warfare a corps of largely ceremonial guards units that were attached to the imperial palace, and expanding their numbers. This force was designed to form the core of field armies and was composed of better-drilled, better-paid, and better-equipped soldiers than were found in the provincial themata units, whose troops were part-time soldier-farmers. Before their expansion, the vestigial Scholae and the other guards units presumably contained few useful soldiers, therefore Constantine must have incorporated former thematic soldiers into his new formation. Being largely based at or near the capital, the tagmata were under the immediate control of the Emperor and were free of the regional loyalties that had been behind so many military rebellions.
The fiscal administration of Constantine was highly competent. This drew from his enemies accusations of being a merciless and rapacious extractor of taxes and an oppressor of the rural population. However, the empire was prosperous and Constantine left a very well-stocked treasury for his successor. The area of cultivated land within the Empire was extended and food became cheaper; between 718 and c. 800 the corn (wheat) production of Thrace trebled. Constantine's court was opulent, with splendid buildings, and he consciously promoted the patronage of secular art to replace the religious art that he removed.
Constantine constructed a number of notable buildings in the Great Palace of Constantinople, including the Church of the Virgin of the Pharos and the porphyra. The porphyra was a chamber lined with porphyry, a stone of imperial purple colour. In it expectant empresses underwent the final stages of labour and it was the birthplace of the children of reigning emperors. Constantine's son Leo was the first child born here, and thereby obtained the title porphyrogénnētos (born in the purple) the ultimate accolade of legitimacy for an imperial prince or princess. The concept of a 'purple birth' predated the construction of the chamber, but it gained a literal aspect from the chamber's existence. The porphyry was reputed to have come from Rome and represented a direct link to the ancient origins of Byzantine imperial authority. Constantine also rebuilt the prominent church of Hagia Eirene in Constantinople, which had been badly damaged by the earthquake that hit Constantinople in 740. The building preserves rare examples of iconoclastic church decoration.
With the impetus of having fathered numerous offspring, Constantine codified the court titles given to members of the imperial family. He associated only his eldest son, Leo, with the throne as co-emperor (in 751), but gave his younger sons the titles of caesar for the more senior in age and nobelissimos for the more junior.
Further information: Byzantine–Arab wars (780–1180) and Arab–Byzantine wars § Stabilization of the frontier, 718–863
In 746, profiting by the unstable conditions in the Umayyad Caliphate, which was falling apart under Marwan II, Constantine invaded Syria and captured Germanikeia (modern Marash, his father's birthplace), and he recaptured the island of Cyprus. He organised the resettlement of part of the local Christian population to imperial territory in Thrace, strengthening the empire's control of this region. In 747 his fleet destroyed the Arab fleet off Cyprus. The same year saw a serious outbreak of plague in Constantinople, which caused a pause in Byzantine military operations. Constantine retired to Bithynia to avoid the disease and, after it had run its course, resettled people from mainland Greece and the Aegean islands in Constantinople to replace those who had perished.
In 751 he led an invasion into the new Abbasid Caliphate under As-Saffah. Constantine captured Theodosiopolis (Erzurum) and Melitene (Malatya), which he demolished, and again resettled some of the population in the Balkans. The eastern campaigns failed to secure concrete territorial gains, as there was no serious attempt to retain control of the captured cities, except Camachum (modern Kemah, Erzincan), which was garrisoned. However, under Constantine the Empire had gone on the offensive against the Arabs after over a century of largely defensive warfare. Constantine's major goal in his eastern campaigns seems to have been to forcibly gather up local Christian populations from beyond his borders in order to resettle Thrace. Additionally, the deliberate depopulation of the region beyond the eastern borders created a no-man's land where the concentration and provisioning of Arab armies was made more difficult. This in turn increased the security of Byzantine Anatolia. His military reputation was such that, in 757, the mere rumour of his presence caused an Arab army to retreat. In the same year he agreed a truce and an exchange of prisoners with the Arabs, freeing his army for offensive campaigning in the Balkans.
With Constantine militarily occupied elsewhere, and the continuance of imperial influence in the West being given a low priority, the Lombard king Aistulf captured Ravenna in 755, ending over two centuries of Byzantine rule in central Italy. The lack of interest Constantine showed in Italian affairs had profound and lasting consequences. Pope Stephen II, seeking protection from the aggression of the Lombards, appealed in person to the Frankish king Pepin the Short. Pepin cowed Aistulf and restored Stephen to Rome at the head of an army. This began the Frankish involvement in Italy that eventually established Pepin's son Charlemagne as Roman Emperor in the West, and also instigated papal temporal rule in Italy with the creation of the Papal States.
Constantine sent a number of unsuccessful embassies to the Lombards, Franks and the papacy to demand the restoration of Ravenna, but never attempted a military reconquest or intervention.
The successes in the east made it possible to then pursue an aggressive policy in the Balkans. Constantine aimed to enhance the prosperity and defence of Thrace by the resettlement there of Christian populations transplanted from the east. This influx of settlers, allied to an active re-fortification of the border, caused concern to the Empire's northern neighbour, Bulgaria, leading the two states to clash in 755. Kormisosh of Bulgaria raided as far as the Anastasian Wall (the outermost defence of the approaches to Constantinople) but was defeated in battle by Constantine, who inaugurated a series of nine successful campaigns against the Bulgarians in the next year, scoring a victory over Kormisosh's successor Vinekh at Marcellae. In 759, Constantine was defeated in the Battle of the Rishki Pass, but the Bulgarians were not able exploit their success.
Constantine campaigned against the Slav tribes of Thrace and Macedonia in 762, deporting some tribes to the Opsician theme in Anatolia, though some voluntarily requested relocation away from the troubled Bulgarian border region. A contemporary Byzantine source reported that 208,000 Slavs emigrated from Bulgarian controlled areas into Byzantine territory and were settled in Anatolia.
A year later he sailed to Anchialus with 800 ships carrying 9,600 cavalry and some infantry, gaining a victory over Khan Telets. Many Bulgar nobles were captured in the battle, and were later slaughtered outside the Golden Gate of Constantinople by the circus factions. Telets was assassinated in the aftermath of his defeat. In 765 the Byzantines again successfully invaded Bulgaria, during this campaign both Constantine's candidate for the Bulgarian throne, Toktu, and his opponent, Pagan, were killed. Pagan was killed by his own slaves when he sought to evade his Bulgarian enemies by fleeing to Varna, where he wished to defect to the emperor. The cumulative effect of Constantine's repeated offensive campaigns and numerous victories caused considerable instability in Bulgaria, where six monarchs lost their crowns due to their failures in war against Byzantium.
In 775, the Bulgarian ruler Telerig contacted Constantine to ask for sanctuary, saying that he feared that he would have to flee Bulgaria. Telerig enquired as to whom he could trust within Bulgaria, and Constantine foolishly revealed the identities of his agents in the country. The named Byzantine agents were then promptly eliminated. In response, Constantine set out on a new campaign against the Bulgarians, during which he developed carbuncles on his legs. He died during his return journey to Constantinople, on 14 September 775. Though Constantine was unable to destroy the Bulgar state, or impose a lasting peace, he restored imperial prestige in the Balkans.
Constantine V was a highly capable ruler, continuing the reforms – fiscal, administrative and military – of his father. He was also a successful general, not only consolidating the empire's borders, but actively campaigning beyond those borders, both east and west. At the end of his reign the empire had strong finances, a capable army that was proud of its successes and a church that appeared to be subservient to the political establishment.
In concentrating on the security of the empire's core territories he tacitly abandoned some peripheral regions, notably in Italy, which were lost. However, the hostile reaction of the Roman Church and the Italian people to iconoclasm had probably doomed imperial influence in central Italy, regardless of any possible military intervention. Due to his espousal of iconoclasm Constantine was damned in the eyes of contemporary iconodule writers and subsequent generations of Orthodox historians. Typical of this demonisation are the descriptions of Constantine in the writings of Theophanes the Confessor: "a monster athirst for blood", "a ferocious beast", "unclean and bloodstained magician taking pleasure in evoking demons", "a precursor of Antichrist". However, to his army and people he was "the victorious and prophetic Emperor". Following a disastrous defeat of the Byzantines by the Bulgarian Khan Krum in 811 at the Battle of Pliska, troops of the tagmata broke into Constantine's tomb and implored the dead emperor to lead them once more. The life and actions of Constantine, if freed from the distortion caused by the adulation of his soldiers and the demonisation of iconodule writers, show that he was an effective administrator and gifted general, but he was also autocratic, uncompromising and sometimes needlessly harsh.
All surviving contemporary and later Byzantine histories covering the reign of Constantine were written by iconodules. As a result of this, they are open to suspicion of bias and inaccuracy, particularly when attributing motives to the Emperor, his supporters and opponents. This makes any claims of absolute certainty regarding Constantine's policies and the extent of his repression of iconodules unreliable. In particular, a manuscript written in north-eastern Anatolia concerning miracles attributed to St. Theodore is one of few probably written during or just after the reign of Constantine to survive in its original form; it contains little of the extreme invective common to later iconodule writings. In contrast, the author indicates that iconodules had to make accommodations with imperial iconoclastic policies, and even bestows on Constantine V the conventional religious acclamations: 'Guarded by God' (θεοφύλακτος) and 'Christ-loving emperor' (φιλόχριστος βασιλεὺς).
By his first wife, Tzitzak ("Irene of Khazaria"), Constantine V had one son:
By his second wife, Maria, Constantine V is not known to have had children.
By his third wife, Eudokia, Constantine V had five sons and a daughter: