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Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus

Early Life

The Byzantine Emperor Constantine VII (Porphyrogenitus) was the son of Leo VI Sophos (the Wise) by his fourth wife, Zoe Karbonopsina. Because of some strange religious rule that only the Patriarch Nicholas Mystikos knew, the thrice-widowed Leo and his mistress Zoe were forbidden to marry. The emperor was eager to have a legitimate heir (his previous marriages did not produce any), so he had Zoe moved to the “purple room”—a room with porphyry walls where empresses usually delivered imperial children—before the delivery. He named the infant Constantine after the great Roman leader. Both acts were not-so-subtle attempts to force the imperial court’s assent to his son’s legitimacy (the attempts worked). In addition, the couple defied Nicholas Mystikos several months later when they married with great pomp in Constantinople and deposed the patriarch to get him out of their way. Constantine VII is recorded on the Bible Timeline with World History during 905 AD.

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Emperor-in-Waiting

Constantine VII ruled from 913 until 959 AD, but he spent many of these years under the shadow of his powerful father-in-law and co-emperor Romanos Lecapenus. Leo died in 912 AD, and Leo’s brother, as well as co-emperor Alexander, acceded to the throne as Constantine was just seven years old. Alexander spent much of his reign fighting the powerful Bulgar Khan Simeon, but he suddenly died of a stroke while he was in the middle of the preparations against the Bulgars. Alexander named his young nephew, Constantine VII, his heir before his death and established a council of regents headed by the deposed Nicholas Mystikos.

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“Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos crowned by Christ, ivory, ca. 945”

Simeon took the moment to invade a number of Byzantine cities, and eventually came knocking at the gates of Constantinople itself. The reinstated Patriarch Nicholas Mystikos had a dilemma as he needed to support a child he denied legitimacy to some years before, but at the same time, he wanted to put up a united front against a common enemy. Nicholas’ solution was to offer the young Constantine in marriage to Simeon’s daughter in order to unite the two empires. He also took a page from Pope Leo III’s playbook and offered to crown Simeon as the Emperor of the Bulgarians which would elevate him as Constantine’s equal.

His plan outraged Zoe, so she had the patriarch removed from the palace and took up the regency for her son. Zoe also had the peace treaty Nicholas made with Simeon canceled, but this turned out to be a fatal mistake as the Bulgar Khan soon attacked Byzantines cities after his humiliation. In 917, Zoe assigned the general Leo Phokas (also rumored to be her lover) as commander of the troops who would go up against the Bulgars in a battlefield called the Plain of Diabasis. The Byzantine soldiers led by Leo Phokas were soundly defeated in this battle. Reinforcements from the naval commander Romanos Lecapenus did not arrive after news of the Byzantine defeat reached him while his fleet was at the Black Sea. Leo Phokas barely made it out of the battle alive. He attempted to fight the Bulgars again near Constantinople but the second fight ended in another disaster that virtually ended his career.

Leo Phokas’ failure did not bode well for him or the Empress, and when Romanos Lecapenus reached Constantinople, he ordered both to be banished from the palace. He, however, allowed the young Constantine to stay on as emperor and announced himself as the boy’s regent. Phokas retired to Chrysopolis in 919 AD, while the disgraced Zoe entered a nunnery. Romanos Lecapenus also took advantage of the situation to further legitimize his rule and arranged the marriage of Constantine VII to his daughter Elena. The persistent Nicholas Mystikos saw this as an opportunity to make another comeback, so he crowned Romanos as Constantine’s co-emperor. Romanos held the reins of power even after Constantine came of age, and even appointed his two sons and another grandson as co-emperors.

Constantine grew up in the shadow of the Lecapenus family for so long that he turned out to be an amiable but passive man. This was tempered by his wife’s ambitious personality. In 944, her brothers got tired of waiting for their 74-year-old father Romanos Lecapenus to die, so they arranged for him to be kidnapped and shipped off to a monastery where he died three years later. But there was another person who was also tired of waiting: Elena, Constantine’s wife. When her brothers came back to the city, she invited them to dinner but had them arrested as they sat down to eat. She had them shipped off to a far off monastery on an island. With the path to the throne now clear for her husband, Constantine VII started his solo rule.

Constantine was known as an intellectual who wrote several books about administration during his reign. Perhaps his temperament was better suited for a scholarly life as he had no major military accomplishments during his solo reign. One of the most significant events that happened during his reign was the conversion of the Kievan Rus warrior-queen Olga to Christianity during her state visit to Constantinople. She was later acclaimed as a saint and worked to spread Christianity among the Rus tribes.

Constantine VII was succeeded by his son Romanos II when he died on November 9, 959 AD.

References:
Picture By Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=387203
“Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos (945–959).” Dumbarton Oaks. Accessed September 21, 2016. http://www.doaks.org/resources/seals/gods-regents-on-earth-a-thousand-years-of-byzantine-imperial-seals/rulers-of-byzantium/constantine-vii-27-january20136-april-945.
Leo the Deacon. The History of Leo the Deacon: Byzantine Military Expansion in the Tenth Century. Translated by Alice-Mary Maffry Talbot. Edited by Denis Sullivan. Dumbarton Oaks Studies, 2007.
Scylitzes, John. A Synopsis of Byzantine History, 811-1057. Translated by John Wortley. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
Shepard, Jonathan, ed. The Cambridge History of the Byzantine Empire. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.
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