Romanos I (920–944)

Romanos I (920–944)

Of peasant origins, Romanos rose through the naval ranks to become strategos of Samos and droungarios of the fleet. He led a coup against the regency of Zoe Karbonopsina, and took over the reins of government in a series of events lasting from February 919 until his coronation on 17 December 920. Romanos associated himself with the Macedonian dynasty by marrying the young Constantine VII to his daughter Helena in May 919, but also crowned three of his sons in an effort to push the porphyrogennitos further into the background. Romanos’s reign was a bright one, which suffers from his status as a usurper.

With Constantine VII married to Romanos's daughter Symeon of Bulgaria's plans to control the Byzantine Empire were thwarted. Romanos rode out the invasions of Symeon by staying safe in Constantinople, and by using diplomacy to deny the Bulgar khan outside help from the Arabs. In 927 Symeon died, and his son Peter made terms with Romanos. The general John Kourkouas made major advances against the Arabs, campaigning far into Mesopotamia. In 934 Melitene was captured, providing greater security to Byzantine Anatolia, and in 944 Edessa surrendered its most precious relic, the Mandylion, as the price for Kourkouas to lift his siege of the city. This brought Byzantium into direct contact with the Emir of Aleppo, Saif al–Dawla. The emir conducted numerous raids into Byzantine territory and would remain a thorn in the side of the empire for decades. In 941 Oleg, Prince of Kiev, attacked Constantinople. He was defeated by Kourkouas on land while his fleet was obliterated by Greek Fire.

Romanos worked closely with the Church, found an ally in Patriarch Nicholas I Mystikos, who considered Constantine VII to be illegitimate, and later made his son patriarch. He passed a series of land laws aimed at protecting small landholders against the rapacity of the dynatoi—the powerful. The  territories conquered by Kourkouas in the East were transformed into vast imperial estates (kouratoreia), largely to keep them out of the hands of the dynatoi. Romanos's eldest son Christopher died in 931, and from that point on Romanos seems to have been reconciled to the eventual succession of Constantine VII over his two younger sons. To forestall their disinheritance, his sons Constantine and Stephen led a coup against Romanos, forcing him into exile on Prote in December 944.

Romanos issued two types of seal, one depicting the usurper with Constantine VII, and the second showing three emperors. The absence from this seal of Christophoros, Romanos’s son and co-emperor for the years 921–31, suggests that it either pre-dates his coronation or post-dates his death. Although there is no way to be certain, it seems that an earlier date is more likely. This seal follows the same composition and stylistic patterns of earlier Macedonian seals, particularly in the pairing of the emperors and the flat, generic way in which their likenesses are handled. This stands in clear contrast to the later seals of Romanos, which have a three-figure design and realistic handling of the portrait of the senior emperor. This new realism, although absent on the early seals of Romanos, Constantine, and Christopher, is present on later specimens, and also on all examples firmly dated after Christopher's death, when his brother Stephen took his place on the seals (see top). It seems more likely that this seal belongs to an earlier phase of the reign, before Christopher's elevation and the reintroduction of realistic portraiture, rather than it being an anachronistic interlude. As noted above, the seals of Romanos I, depicting himself in the foreground and one of his sons and Constantine VII in the background, display a mixture of portrait styles. Early seals show the emperors in the stylized form initiated by the Iconoclast emperors. On later seals Romanos is portrayed more realistically, with a square head and a parted, pointed beard. The co-emperors, however, retain the stylized Iconoclast type. The seals of Romanos I thus mark a return to a type of realistic portraiture not seen since the early eighth century. In addition, the modified loros, a garment that would dominate imperial portraits for centuries, makes its first appearance on the seals of Romanos (although it was already briefly in evidence on the class 2 follis of Basil I, 868–70).

 
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