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Constantine V Copronymus (A.D. 741-775)

Shaun Tougher
Cardiff University


Constantine V is one of the most notorious Byzantine emperors, but also one of the most intriguing. His notoriety stems from the fact that he was an Iconoclast and thus received hostile treatment in Iconophile sources composed after his death, such as the Chronicle of Theophanes, the Life of Stephen the Younger, and the Antirrhetici of the patriarch Nikephoros. From texts such as these he emerges as an archetypal wicked tyrant, branded with derogatory nicknames, and renowned especially for his brutal treatment of monks. Despite these biased sources it is clear that there was far more to Constantine:  he reigned for a long period of time, achieved notable successes against the Arabs and the Bulgars, and could be thought to have presided over a Golden Age. Ironically Nikephoros's own Brief History conveys this more positive take on the emperor, even recording the view that Constantine was a 'new Midas'.[[1]]  Undoubtedly the emperor is someone we would like to know much more about, but we are constrained by the limited and problematic evidence. The conflicting impressions of the emperor can leave us with a complex image of the man: he can be seen as 'highly strung' but also as an individual endowed with 'personal magnetism'.[[2]]

Early life

From his birth Constantine V was accustomed to imperial privilege. He was born in 718 to the emperor Leo III (717-741) and his wife Maria, and christened on Christmas Day of the same year in Hagia Sophia. On this occasion Constantine reputedly defecated in the font, which was taken as a sign of his future evil by the patriarch Germanus.[[3]]Whether Constantine did befoul the font is a moot point. It is possible that he did and that Germanus' prophecy was added with hindsight, or the whole story may be invention.[[4]] What seems more sure is that Leo III used the occasion of the baptism to enhance the position of the dynasty; Theophanes records also that Maria was crowned Augusta, Constantine was attached to elite sponsors and that largesse was distributed as mother and baby returned to the palace. Within a couple of years Leo further consolidated the position of his son, crowning him emperor on Easter Day 720.[[5]]We do not hear of Constantine again for over ten years, the occasion being his betrothal in 732 to the Khazar Chagan's daughter, who became a Christian and was renamed Irene (in 750 she provided Constantine with his son and heir Leo IV, who was thus half-Khazar). Beyond this political marriage Leo raised Constantine's profile in other ways: he involved him in his military campaigns (Constantine was present at the battle of Akroinos in 740: Theophanes AM 6231) and in his legal work (Constantine features in the title of the Ecloga, which has been dated to 741: Burgmann 1983). It is also likely that Constantine's equestrian passion developed in his youth.

Accession and Civil War

When Leo III died on 18 June 741 it was clear that Constantine was his intended heir. Despite this he was soon fighting for his right to rule as his brother-in-law Artabasdus, the commander of the Opsikion theme, seized power. Theophanes presents Artabasdus as the innocent party, and plays up the factor of icons, but both aspects of his account can be questioned. It seems more likely that this was a deliberate coup launched by a strong candidate (as Nikephoros 64 relates); Artabasdus had a distinguished career, military backing, and imperial credentials through his wife Anna (the daughter of Leo III and the sister of Constantine V), by whom he already had two sons, Niketas and Nikephoros. Artabasdus' usurpation (which lasted for over two years) was strengthened by his grip on Constantinople and his recognition by the patriarch Anastasios; Constantine had to seek refuge in Amorion, though he secured the support of the Anatolikon and Thrakesion armies, the latter being commanded by Sisinnios, his cousin (Theophanes AM 6235). In a series of campaigns Constantine came off better, and eventually reoccupied Constantinople in 743 after besieging the city. Artabasdus and his sons were blinded, but the patriarch Anastasios was allowed to retain his position after being humiliated. (Constantine had a tendency to keep compromised patriarchs in office, perhaps as a means of controlling them more easily.) The blinding of Constantine's ally Sisinnios seems to have been punishment for plotting against the emperor.[[6]]

The East

With his power firmly established, Constantine was able to refocus on the Arabs, whom he had been intending to engage with prior to the outbreak of civil war. In 746 he invaded Syria and captured the city of Germanikeia. In 747 a Byzantine fleet defeated an Arab one off Cyprus. In 752 Constantine ventured into Armenia and Mesopotamia, occupying Theodosioupolis and Melitene. It seems that Constantine's successes were assisted by the distractions faced by the Arabs themselves, such as the establishment of the Abbasid caliphate, which seems to have led to a truce with Byzantium.[[7]]


The more settled conditions on the eastern frontier are often proposed as a reason for why Constantine turned his attention to the issue of icons in the 750s; he simply had the opportunity now. It has also been suggested however that the recent plague (746-747) gave Constantine pause for thought and encouraged him to reinforce his father's policy of Iconoclasm.[[8]] Perhaps other factors could be the loss of Ravenna to the Lombards in 751 (a blot on Constantine's copy-book, and certainly a more current concern than the plague), and increased dynastic confidence with the birth of his son Leo in 750 and his coronation the following year. Whatever the motivations there is no doubt about Constantine's personal commitment to Iconoclasm. Around 752 the emperor began to espouse the cause in audiences in Constantinople, and also produced his own tracts on the subject, the Peuseis ('Inquiries'), of which some fragments survive.[[9]]  But it is his summoning of a council in 754 and its development of the argument against icons to encompass Christology for which Constantine is most famous. The council is known as the Council of Hiereia (due to the location at which it largely sat from 10 February until 8 August), but as the 'Headless Synod' by those who opposed it, as it was not presided over by a patriarch of Constantinople (the see being vacant due to the death of Anastasios; his replacement Constantine was announced by the emperor in the final session of the council) and was not attended by any other patriarchs either. Despite this the 338 bishops who attended supported its Horos ('Definition'), which survives due to its preservation by the Iconophile Council of Nicaea of 787. The Council declared that it was impossible to depict Christ in art as to do so was heretical. It also went on to argue that images of the saints and the Theotokos were unnecessary. This concern with the cult of the saints preoccupied Constantine for the rest of his reign. It seems he went on to renounce relics of saints, but stories that he rejected Mary's title as Theotokos should be doubted though he was troubled by her cult.[[10]]

The Bulgars

Whilst for the first half of his reign Constantine was preoccupied with the Arabs and the eastern frontier, for the second half he had to concentrate mostly on the Bulgars and the northern frontier. Ironically it seems that it was Constantine's concern for the condition of Thrace that sparked trouble; his building of towns and transfer of population from Theodosioupolis and Melitene resulted in a tax demand from the Bulgarians, and his refusal to pay it led to conflict.[[11]] This was followed by a series of campaigns (often on land and sea) (Ostrogorsky (1968) 168 estimates that there were at least nine campaigns in Bulgarian territory) punctuated by peace, spanning the remainder of his reign and the rule of diverse Bulgarian leaders (including Teletz and Telerig). Theophanes is more negative about Constantine's record than Nikephoros, but it is still clear that the emperor scored major victories at Anchialos in 763 and Lithosoria in 774. It is true however that the situation was still ongoing at the time of Constantine's death.

The Monks

The 760s also witnessed one of the most debated aspects of the reign of Constantine V, his persecution of monks. The most famous victim was Stephen the Younger (a monk from Mt. Auxentios, tortured to death in Constantinople in 765), though it seems he was not the first or the last. For some the emperor's hostility to monks is an expression of his Iconoclastic policy; Brown has famously remarked 'Iconomachy in action is monachomachy'.[[12]] However others have not been so quick to swallow this simple equation, pointing to the complications provided by the evidence. Certainly not all monks were Iconophiles, so some suggest that Constantine was opposed to monasticism per se.[[13]] But this seems inadequate too, as not all monks were persecuted by Constantine, as the case of St Anthousa shows.[[14]] Auzépy thus suggests that some monks were approved of by the emperor whilst others were not, and identifies the distinguishing feature as the attitude of the individual to the empire.[[15]] Whittow however favours a more direct political motivation, pointing to the context of the major plot against Constantine that was exposed in 766, in which the patriarch himself was implicated.[[16]] This however seems to overlook the reports of other attacks on monks, such as those carried out by Michael Lachanodrakon the strategos of the Thrakesian theme.[[17]] One theory that Gero quickly rejected was the idea that Constantine was prompted by a concern about population size.[[18]] Perhaps this is worth considering again. The sources certainly stress the danger that monasticism could pose in attracting people away from the secular world (Theophanes AM 6257), and the punishment meted out to monks can emphasise the taking of partners.[[19]] Further, throughout his reign Constantine did take measures to strengthen the population as Nikephoros and Theophanes make clear; he transferred Syrians to Byzantium after his seizure of Germanikeia, he repopulated Constantinople with families from Greece and the islands following the plague, he transferred Syrians and Armenians to Thrace, he settled Slavs within the empire, and he repaired the aqueduct of Valens which had been broken since 626. It seems likely however that the debate about Constantine's treatment of monks will continue.

Dynasty and Death

Like his father Constantine was also mindful of the future of the dynasty. Towards the end of 769 he provided his son Leo with a wife, Irene, who hailed from Greece. By 771 she had provided her husband with a son, Constantine, whose grandfather and namesake was no doubt pleased that the next generation of the dynasty had already arrived before his death. However Constantine himself had not been content with a single branch of the family tree (or with sexual relationships with women: Theophanes AM 6259 mentions his attraction to Strategios, whilst the Life of Stephen the Younger hints at his homosexuality: Auzépy (1997) 232 n. 249 and 265 n. 413). When Irene the Khazar died he took another wife, Maria. When she also died, he took the step of marrying Eudokia, who seems to have been very fertile. With Constantine she had five sons (from eldest to youngest: Christopher, Nikephoros, Niketas, Anthimus, Eudocimus) but also at least one daughter, Anthousa, who was a twin of one of the brothers.[[20]]  Thus Leo IV had a string of half-siblings, and they were not going to be consigned to the background. During Easter 769 Eudokia was crowned Augusta, Christopher and Nikephoros were made Caesars, and Niketas nobilissimus. It seems that Anthimus was also made nobilissimus before 775.[[21]] Thus by the time of his death from a fever on 14 September 775 whilst on campaign against Bulgaria Constantine had ensured that the imperial house was well-stocked.


The mixed reputation of Constantine V is well demonstrated by episodes subsequent to his death. He remained popular with some, such as the forces of the tagmata (which he had created) who broke up the Iconophile Council of 786, and those who in 813 broke into the imperial mausoleum at Holy Apostles and threw themselves before his tomb and beseeched him to return and save the empire from the Bulgarians. However with the outbreak of Second Iconoclasm his memory was intensely reviled, and after the restoration of icons in 843 Michael III broke up Constantine's sarcophagus and consigned his remains to fire.[[22]]


Nikephoros, Short History, ed. & tr. C. Mango, Washington DC: CFHB, 1990.

Theophanes, Chronicle, ed. C de Boor, Leipzig: CSHB, 1883-1885; English translation by C. Mango & R. Scott, with the assistance of G. Greatrex, The Chronicle of Theophanes Confessor: Byzantine and Near Eastern History AD 284-813, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997.

Auzépy, M.-F. (1997), La Vie d'Étienne le Jeune par Étienne le Diacre, Aldershot: Variorum.

Brown, P. (1973), 'A Dark Age Crisis: Aspects of the Iconoclastic Controversy', English Historical Review, 88: 1-34.

Brubaker, L. and Haldon, J. (2001), Byzantium in the Iconoclast Era (ca 680-850): The Sources, Aldershot: Ashgate.

Burgmann, L. (1983), Ecloga. Das Gesetzbuch Leons III. und Konstantinos' V, Frankfurt am Main: Löwenklau-Gesellschaft.

Gero, S. (1977), Byzantine Iconoclasm during the Reign of Constantine V, Louvain: Corpus SCO.

Grierson, P. (1962), 'The Tombs and Obits of the Byzantine Emperors (337-1042)', Dumbarton Oaks Papers, 16: 3-63.

Huxley, G. (1977), 'On the Vita of St Stephen the Younger', Greek Roman and Byzantine Studies, 18: 97-108.

Jenkins, R. (1966), Byzantium: The Imperial Centuries AD 610-1071,London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson.

Mango, C. (1982), 'St. Anthusa of Mantineon and the Family of Constantine V', Analecta Bollandiana, 100: 401-409.

Mango, C. and Ševèenko, I. (1972), 'Three Inscriptions of the Reigns of Anastasius I and Constantine V', Byzantinische Zeitschrift,65: 379-393.

Ostrogorsky, G. (1968), History of the Byzantine State, trans. J.M. Hussey, 2nd edn, Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Treadgold, W. (1997), A History of the Byzantine State and Society, Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.

Turner, D. (1990), 'The Politics of Despair: The Plague of 746-747 and Iconoclasm in the Byzantine Empire', The Annual of the British School at Athens, 85: 419-434.

Whittow, M. (1996), The Making of Orthodox Byzantium, 600-1025, Basingstoke and London: Macmillan Press Ltd.

Zuckerman, C. (1988), 'The Reign of Constantine V in the Miracles of St. Theodore the Recruit (BHG 1764)', Revue des Études byzantines, 46: 191-210.

[[1]] Nikephoros 85.

[[2]] Jenkins (1966) 69 and 89.

[[3]] Theophanes AM 6211.

[[4]] Gero (1977) 173.

[[5]] Theophanes AM 6212.

[[6]] Nikephoros 66.

[[7]]Whittow (1996) 160; Treadgold (1997) 362.

[[8]] Turner (1990).

[[9]] Gero (1977) 37-52.

[[10]] Gero (1977) Chapters VI and VII.

[[11]] Nikephoros 73.

[[12]] Brown (1973) 30.

[[13]] Gero (1977) 141-142.

[[14]] Mango (1982).

[[15]] Auzépy (1997) 36-39.

[[16]] Whittow (1996) 147-148.

[[17]] Theophanes AM 6262 and 6263.

[[18]] Gero (1977) 142.

[[19]] Theophanes AM 6257 and 6262; Nikephoros 80.

[[20]] Mango (1982); Mango and Ševèenko (1972).

[[21]] Mango and Ševèenko (1972), 391.

[[ 22]] Grierson (1962) 53-54.

Copyright (C) 2004, Shaun Tougher. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents, including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.
Comments to: Shaun Tougher

Updated:28 July 2004

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