The many faces of Constans II: the seventh-century empire in non-Roman eyes

[The emperor] was driven from his capital into voluntary and perpetual exile. Constans embarked for Greece and, as if he meant to retort the abhorrence which he deserved he is said, from the Imperial galley, to have spit against the walls of his native city. After passing the winter at Athens, he sailed to Tarentum in Italy, visited Rome, and concluded a long pilgrimage of disgrace and sacrilegious rapine.1

This was how the great eighteenth-century historian Edward Gibbon summarised the reign of Constans II (641-668), as essentially a time of tyranny and fear, with the emperor even being driven from his capital to Italy by his people. But in the west the emperor continued to terrorise the locals, culminating eventually in his assassination in 668 (with a bucket). This is the picture we have of the emperor from sources produced within the Roman empire, from both the accounts of his contemporaries and from sources written centuries later. The question is, can we trust this narrative? As I have hinted before, there is evidence otherwise from some pretty unexpected places. Although he was hated by many, it is important to also note that Constans had his admirers, whose stories perhaps provide a very different view of the Mediterranean world in the seventh century.

A great deal of my research focus on events from this period, so I have spent a lot of time (probably too much) thinking about what kind of a person he was. Before long I realised how complicated this tangent has become. As you will see, there were many, many views on the emperor, most of them contradictory or wildly polemical. An attempt to synthesise all of the evidence will have to wait, but for now I hope to illustrate here that, regardless of whether his contemporaries saw him as their ruler, a foreign potentate, or their worst enemy, Constans’ influence on his wider context was not ignored.

Constans II, a great emperor with a great moustache?

Constans II, a great emperor with a great moustache?

The loudest contemporary voices were the circle that gathered around the Greek monk Maximus the Confessor and his papal allies in Rome, who had loudly agitated against the monothelete doctrine that was tacitly backed by Constantinople. These men of the church quite literally supported two usurpers’ attempts to overthrow Constans, perhaps even to the extent of bringing the emperor’s brother into their conspiracy; their words naturally captured their sense of dismay at Constans’ long reign. From an anonymous pamphlet cursing Constantinopolitans for their horrid treatment of the anti-monotheletes’ idol, we learn that Constans was ‘the most irrational, most unintelligent, and most silly emperor’.2 In Old Rome, a contemporary biography of Pope Vitalian likewise recorded the papacy’s view of the emperor’s financial policies:

He imposed such afflictions on the people, occupiers, and proprietors of the provinces of Calabria, Sicily, Africa, and Sardinia for years on end by registrations of land and persons and by imposts on shipping as had never before been seen, and such as even to separate wives from their husbands and sons from their parents; so much else unheard of did they suffer that no one expected to survive. They even took away all the sacred vessels and equipment from God’s holy churches, leaving nothing behind.3

These attitudes were effectively summarised by Theophanes the Confessor, who wrote an important Chronicle in the ninth century. In his words:

After the murder of his brother, Theodosius, he was hated by the people of Byzantium, particularly because he had brought ignominiously to Constantinople Martin, the most holy pope of Rome and exiled him to the Klimata of Cherson, because he had cut off the tongue and hand of the most learned confessor Maximus, and had condemned many of the orthodox to torture, banishment, and confiscation of property. […] For these reasons he was greatly hated by all, and it was out of fright that he intended to transfer the seat of the empire to Rome.4

This is one view of Constans, a particularly accessible one given the reputation of Maximus the Confessor as an ‘orthodox’ theologian and the importance of Theophanes as a primary source. But there is another side as well, one that we have to tease out from sources that were either written in obscure languages or had only tangentially touched on the emperor’s life. From the Armenian History of pseudo-Sebeos, written around 660, we learn that Constans marched to the Caucasus to secure his eastern flank c.653, and that after the first Arab offensive against Constantinople faltered in 654, the caliphate was on the ropes. To quote Peter Sarris, ‘for the first time in a generation, the Arabs’ foes sensed blood’.5 Amidst the first Arab civil war of 656-661, pseudo-Sebeos even noted that an Arab army in Egypt actively sided with the Romans:

But the army which was in Egypt united with the king of the Greeks, made a treaty, and joined him. The host of troops, about 15,000, believed in Christ and were baptized.6

This claim is difficult to substantiate, but we can infer that the Romans were interested in supporting large-scale treason within the caliphate, or at least they were thought to be doing so by an interested contemporary. In 660-1 Constans had also once again journeyed to the east and built for himself a network of Christian princes as a defensive bulwark against further Arab incursions. This was recorded for posterity by Movses Daskhurants‘i, whose History is from much later but he had nonetheless drawn upon a contemporary source from c.682. One letter preserved in this work was from a prominent Caucasian noble to the emperor:

Juansher, sparapet and prince of Aghuania, together with his vassal land of the East, humbly and reverentially greets you, O all-conquering lord, powerful and merciful emperor of the Byzantines, Constantine Augustus, whom God has appointed to be ruler of land and sea. May it be agreeable to your Christian lordship to accept this new offer of vassalage from a distant people so that God-given benevolence be bestowed from your great dignity and glory on our humble selves who seek a crown [from you].7


A map of the Roman empire in the early eighth century. The major difference here is that the Romans still held North Africa under Constans, although it did rebel against the emperor in 646

A great deal of this was of course just due to the author’s use of topoi, that of a well-connected lord using conventional imperial rhetoric to appeal to the emperor. However, at a moment when the caliphate was in turmoil, when Constans was consolidating his hold on his still considerable empire, I’d like to think that this message had more than a ring of truth to it. Pseudo-Sebeos at this time even hoped that ‘the day of their [Arabs’] destruction is close’,8 so the idea of an ascendant empire was not a unique one in this region – on the fringes of the Roman world, it would appear that Constans was a very vigorous emperor indeed!

Just as Constans loomed large in the imagination of eastern authors, his actions were also remembered by sources in the west. Whilst pseudo-Sebeos was foreseeing the end of the caliphate, c.660, an anonymous chronicler in Burgundy, pseudo-Fredegar, was similarly positive about the emperor. Having first described Constans’ tricky position on his ascension and the military defeats in the first decade of his rule, this chronicler then goes on to write about the empire’s health in the 650s:

So reduced, Constans became in the last resort their [the Arabs’] tributary, merely controlling Constantinople and a handful of provinces and islands. […] but then he somewhat recovered his strength, little by little won back his empire and refused to pay tribute.9

It is unfortunate that pseudo-Fredegar’s account ended before he could expand on this brief summary, but this is still a testament to the empire’s vitality at this point – more importantly, this was known by a (presumably) monastic author in Burgundy of all places and the chronicler thought it important enough to be remembered in his work, which perhaps tells us more about the world around 660 than the words themselves. In this context, with three generally well-informed sources telling us that the empire was resurgent in the late 650s and early 660s, Constans’ expedition to Italy in 662 becomes not the act of an emperor fleeing his people, but a move from a position of strength. With his eastern flank seemingly secure, he now moved to the west to do the same. Of course, at this time we also have the words of the anti-monotheletes, so Constans’ rule was certainly not uncontested. Yet I can’t shake the feeling that these angry monks were largely unrepresentative, whose diatribes did not represent the views of the average Roman.10 These Greek and Latin sources were no doubt the most influential for future historians, but did they have the same impact on their contemporaries? Their revolts against Constantinople had floundered in the early 650s and later efforts to foment unrest, perhaps by suborning the emperor’s brother, did not lead to any military uprising, but was instead seemingly crushed without too much trouble by Constans.

The reopening of the war between the empire and the caliphate after 661 however did not lead to more Roman victories, but instead a series of setbacks, a crisis that eventually caused the defection of a Roman general in 667 and a new siege of Constantinople in 668.11 Even so, as I noted previously, the Romans had nonetheless sent embassies to China and Francia in the 660s, even when the war in the east might on the surface hinder contact across Eurasia or otherwise drive imperial attention away from the west. Bede’s narrative I quoted there is also relevant, since the Anglo-Saxon historian preserved for us an account of Frankish paranoia over Constans’ schemes. Bede’s words were written much later, so it is difficult to assess their value, but they would fit in very well with the earlier sources I examined here, since Bede still described a world in which imperial intervention beyond the empire’s borders was very plausible.

Still, this is a far from comprehensive survey of the available sources, but it, I hope, has illustrated that another picture of the empire in the mid-seventh century is possible, one that is quite different from the picture we get from the ‘traditional’ sources. Regardless of the Romans’ many weaknesses and military failures, their empire in the mid-seventh century was still a force to be reckoned with, far outweighing the power held by the Caucasian princes or the fractious Frankish kings – a fact recognised by their contemporaries.

For all his flaws, we can also move towards a more nuanced picture of Constans. Already, historians are quite happy to acknowledge his ability and drive to restore his empire, take for example Peter Sarris:

Yet even the prejudices and distortions of Theophanes cannot entirely obliterate the traces of what was clearly a reign of breathtaking creativity as well as extraordinary courage and imagination.12

But there is still space for improvement. How did his neighbours see him? What was the place of the empire in the western imagination? Due to a lack of sources, it is difficult, if not impossible, to answer these questions. A transnational perspective is however an incredibly useful one regardless, as it can only add to what we know from the Greek and Latin sources written within imperial borders. Even if we agree with the most negative interpretation of Constans, that he was a brutal tyrant, these words were not used with such fervor, if at all, by writers beyond the empire, making it important for us to integrate these two contrasting interpretations together. Recent research has shed new light on the chronology of this period, but I think that the task now to focus on the contemporaries themselves, to understand how they saw their world. As with so many things, the study of Constans II captures this dynamic perfectly, since the many contradictory interpretations of his rule were all, in their own way, correct, each representative of a facet of the seventh century and each a fascinating insight into a world that defies generalisation.

Footnotes (I cite here the most accessible edition of each work):

1. E. Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, chapter 48
2. Against the People of Constantinople, 1; trans. P. Allen and B. Neil, Maximus the Confessor and his Companions: Documents from Exile (Oxford, 2002), p.173.
3. Book of Pontiffs, 78; trans. R. Davis, The Book of Pontiffs: The Ancient Biographies of First Ninety Roman Bishops to AD 715 (Liverpool, 2010), p.70.
4. Theophanes the Confessor, Chronicle, A.M.6160; trans. C. Mango and R. Scott, The Chronicle of Theophanes Confessor (Oxford, 1997), pp.490-1.
5. P. Sarris, Empires of Faith: The Fall of Rome to the Rise of Islam,
(Oxford, 2011), p.286.
6. Pseudo-Sebeos, History, 52; trans. R. Thomson, The Armenian History Attributed to Sebeos (Liverpool, 1999), p.154.
7. Movses Daskhurants‘i, History, 2.20; translation available here.
8. Pseudo-Sebeos, History, 52; trans. R. Thomson, The Armenian History Attributed to Sebeos (Liverpool, 1999), p.152.
9. Pseudo-Fredegar, Chronicle, 4.81; trans. J. Wallace-Hadrill, The Fourth Book of the Chronicle of Fredegar (London, 1960).
10. This position is also taken by W. Brandes, ‘Orthodoxy and Heresy in the Seventh Century: Prosopographical Observations on Monotheletism’, in A. Cameron (ed.), Fifty Years of Prosopography (Oxford, 2003),pp.103-18.
11. M. Jankowiak, ‘The First Arab Siege of Constantinople’, Travaux et Mémoires, 17 (2013), pp.237-320.
12. P. Sarris, Empires of Faith: The Fall of Rome to the Rise of Islam, 500-700 (Oxford, 2011), p.293.


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