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Prehistory to 999 A.D.
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Constantine VII - Constantine Porphyrogenitus
(2 September 905 A.D. - 9 November 959 A.D.)

Constantine VII, Porphyrogenitus  or Porphyrogennetos, also known as Constantine Vii Flavius Porphyrogenitus (Greek: Κωνσταντίνος Ζ΄ Πορφυρογέννητος, Kōnstantinos VII Porphyrogennētos), in Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey), was the son of the Byzantine emperor Leo VI "the Wise" or "the Philosopher", emperor from 886 to 912 during one of the most brilliant periods of the state's history, and his fourth wife, Zoe Karbonopsina. He was also the nephew of Emperor Alexander.

Constantine’s surname, Porphyrogenitus (that is, "born in the purple chamber of the imperial palace in Constantinople", as befitted legitimate children of reigning emperors), pointedly answers the doubts expressed about the legitimacy of his birth in 905, which slowed down his career and contributed to his shyness. His mother was Zoë Carbonopsina, the mistress of his father, Leo VI, who married her in a noncanonical ceremony shortly after Constantine was born, against the bitter opposition of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Nicholas I Mystikus or Nicholas I Mystikus (Greek: Νικόλαος Α΄ Μυστικός, Nikolaos I Mystikos) (852 – May 15, 925). It was Leo’s fourth marriage, and the Greek church normally forbade a widower to remarry more than once. As the infant was Leo’s only male offspring, he was symbolically elevated to the throne as a two-year-old child by his father and his uncle on May 15, 908  and, in 911, was proclaimed co-emperor.

But, on the death of his father in 912 the succession fell to his uncle Alexander, whose death the next year and the failure of the usurpation of Constantine Doukas cleared the way for seven-year-old Constantine to become emperor.

Most of his reign was dominated by co-regents. Nicholas Mystikos became the leading member of the regency for the young emperor, and as such had to face the advance of tsar Simeon I of Bulgaria who had severely defeated the Byzantine armies and coveted the Byzantine imperial crown.  Patriarch Nicholas was presently forced to make peace with Tsar Simeon of Bulgaria, whom he reluctantly recognized as Bulgarian emperor, crowning him in a makeshift ceremony outside Constantinople, and arranged for the marriage of Simeon's daughter to Constantine VII.

This unpopular concession undermined Patriarch Nicholas' position. He was driven out of the regency by Constantine's mother who revoked the agreement with Simeon, prompting the renewal of hostilities with Bulgaria. With her main supporter, general Leo Phokas crushingly defeated by the Bulgarians at the Battle of Acheloos in 917

It was only after several years that a combination of diplomacy and successful defense of Constantinople succeeded in inducing Simeon to settle for recognition as emperor of the Bulgarians only. The strategist of this success, Admiral Romanus Lecapenus (or Lekapenus) was admiral of the Byzantine fleet on the Danube when, hearing of the defeat of the army at Achelous in 917, he resolved to sail for Constantinople. After the marriage of his daughter Helena Lekapene / Lecapene (c. 910-961 ) to Constantine VII in 919  (when she was 9 years old), he was first proclaimed "of basileopatōr" and in 920  was crowned co-emperor of  of his 15-year-old son-in-law. Constantine VII and his wife produced the following children and possibly others:

  1. Leo, who died young;
  2. Romanus II (938-963), succeeded his father amidst rumors that he or his wife poisoned him;
  3. Zoe, who was sent to a convent in 959 by her brother Romanus II;
  4. Theodora (c. 946-after 971), who married Emperor John I Tzimiskes;
  5. Agatha, who was sent to a convent in 959 by her brother Romanus II;
  6. Theophano, who was sent to a convent in 959 by her brother Romanus II;
  7. Anna, who was sent to a convent in 959 by her brother Romanus II.

Meanwhile, the Patriarch Nicholas came to be one of the strongest supporters of the new emperor, and took the brunt of renewed negotiations with the Bulgarians until his death in 925 

Constantine gradually lost most of his power to Lecapenus and to his sons, Stephen and Constantine. It is not surprising that the young emperor slipped into a pattern of non-involvement in government. His mother had been relegated to a convent. His father-in-law relieved him of the burdensome tasks of politics and war and shouldered them masterfully but treated him with deference and left him a full share of the prestige and income belonging to the crown. Lecapenus' reign as Romanus I was uneventful except for an attempt to check the accumulation of landed property. Late in 944, Romanus Lecapenus' sons, impatient to succeed to power, deposed their own father and had him deported to the island of Prote and compelled him to become a monk. He died in 948

The populace of the capital, however, fearing only that the Porphyrogenitus emperor might be included in the purge accompanying the seizure of power, rioted until Constantine appeared at a window of the palace. This show of loyalty emboldened him to banish Romanus’ sons in January 945, thereupon ruling alone for the first time at the age of 39 and until his death. A few months later, however, on April 6, 945, Constantine crowned his son Romanus as co-emperor. Having never exercised executive authority, Constantine remained primarily devoted to his scholarly pursuits and relegated his authority to bureaucrats and generals, as well as to his energetic wife Helena.

Constantine VII appointed to the highest army commands four members of the Phocas family, which had been in disgrace under Romanus Lecapenus, but took no further reprisals, except for an incidental remark, in De ceremoniis, that his father-in-law Romanus Lecapenus was neither an aristocrat nor a cultured man. That he did not depart from the admiral’s basic policy — at home, maintaining a delicate balance among civil and military officers, landed aristocrats, and peasant soldiers; abroad, friendship with the Rus (Russians), peace with the Bulgarians, a limited commitment in Italy, and a resolute offensive against the Muslims — may be ascribed to statesmanship as well as to timidity. That policy continued to be effective.

In 947, Constantine VII ordered the immediate restitution of all peasant lands, without compensation; by the end of his reign, the condition of the landed peasantry, which formed the foundation of the whole economic and military strength of the Empire, was better off than it had been for a century.

In 959, Constantine VII died of a fever which lasted several months, not showing evidence of poisoning, but was nonetheless rumored to having been poisoned by his own son Romanus or by his son's second wife (the first having died in 949, with the marriage not consumated), an innkeeper's daughter named Anastaso (or Anastasia) of Laconian Greek origin, renown for her great beauty whom he married in 956 against his father's wishes and renamed Theophano after a sainted Empress of the Macedonian dynasty. The 21-year-old Romanus II succeeded his father that year, purged his father's courtiers of his enemies and replaced them with his own friends. Among the persons removed from court were his own mother, the Empress Helena, and his sisters, sending all of them to a nunnery. Nevertheless, many of Romanos' appointees were able men, including his chief adviser, the eunuch Joseph Bringas.

A pleasure-loving sovereign who preferred hunting to military matters which he left in the adept hands of his generals, in particular his brother Leo and Nikephorus Phokas (or Nicephorus II Phocas), the great event of his reign was the conquest of Crete by the latter Romanus II himself died unexpectedly at age 26 in 963. His widow, Theophano was still in bed only 48 hours after giving birth to Anna Porphyrogenita, their third child and had nothing to gain by her husband's death, but it was nonetheless rumored that she had poisoned her husband.

Literary Works

From his father, Constantine VII had apparently inherited a passion for learning and writing; he worked full-time at it until 945  when he was almost 40, when he became sole emperor. He was a painter and a patron of art, a literary man and a patron of literature; and herein consists his real importance, since it is to works written by or directly inspired by him that we are indebted for our chief knowledge of his times. He was the author or inspirer of several scholarly works of considerable length.

John Julius Norwich, iIn his book, A Short History of Byzantium, refers to Constantine VII as "The Scholar Emperor". Norwich describes Constantine:

"He was, we are told, a passionate collector — not only of books and manuscripts but works of art of every kind; more remarkable still for a man of his class, he seems to have been an excellent painter. He was the most generous of patrons — to writers and scholars, artists and craftsmen. Finally, he was an excellent Emperor: a competent, conscientious and hard-working administrator and an inspired picker of men, whose appointments to military, naval, ecclesiastical, civil and academic posts were both imaginative and successful. He did much to develop higher education and took a special interest in the administration of justice."

Constantine VII is best known for his four books:

1. De Thematibus, (Περί θεμάτων Άνατολῆς καί Δύσεως), probably his earliest book, is an account of the military districts (Themata) of the empire during the time of Justinian, chiefly borrowed from older sources of Hierocles and Stephanus of Byzantium.

2. De Administrando Imperio ("On the Administration of the [Eastern Roman] Empire" or "On the governanace of the Empire"), bore the original Greek title Προς τον ίδιον υιόν Ρωμανόν: ("To my own son Romanus"), revealing its role as an internal and foreign policy manual for the use of Constantine's son and successor, the Emperor Romanus II. It is an account of the condition of the empire, and an exposition of the author's view of government. It also contains most valuable information as to the condition and history of various foreign nations with which the Byzantine empire had been brought into contact on the east, west and north. It is a storehouse of information on Slavic and Turkic peoples about whom little else is known except through archaeology.(Expanded further below.)

3. De Ceremoniis aulae Byzantinæ ("On the Ceremonies of the Byzantine Court") , original Greek title: Περί τῆς Βασιλείου Τάξεως ("On the Imperial Order") - describes the customs of the Eastern Church and court. His longest work, it is  a compilation of ceremonial protocol in the Byzantine imperial court and was partially revised or updated under Nikephoros II Phokas (963-969), perhaps under the direction of Basil Lekapenos, the imperial Parakoimomenos.

It tells the most about the Byzantine mentality (and most particularly the mind of the writer), describing in minute detail the elaborate ceremonial customs of the Eastern Church and Byzantine imperial court. One of the book's appendices is the Three Treatises on Imperial Military Expeditions, a war manual written by Constantine VII for his son and successor, Romanos II.

The Treatises, as part of De ceremoniis, are assumed to have by written by Constantine VII to his son. The date of writing is unknown, but we can assume it was written after 945 AD, when Constantine regained the throne and his son was crowned co-emperor at the age of seven. Constantine’s main source for past military protocol was Leo Katakylas, who wrote in the early 10th century under emperor Leo VI the Wise. He in turn drew most of his information from the deeds of Basil I, Constantine's grandfather.

There is no doubt that this book helped Byzantium in its relations with the northern “barbarians” and even with western Europe. A monument to Byzantine patriotism, it bears traces of the spoken vernacular that crept into the stilted Greek of more academic writers. The more voluminous, encyclopaedic works compiled under Constantine’s directions are not worth describing, but he exhibited notable zeal in recruiting teachers and students for the “university” of Constantinople, inviting them to court and preferring them for public offices. He signed legislation and is said to have dabbled in various fine and mechanical arts.

4. Vita Basilii (Βίος Βασιλείου), a history eulogising the reign and achievements of his grandfather, Basilius I, based on the work of Genesius. It was an apologetic biography that stressed the glory of the founder of his dynasty and which he appended to an anonymous chronicle known as Theophanes Continuatus,

5. Two treatises on military subjects are attributed to him; one on tactics, which, as the title shows, was really written by his grandson Constantine VIII., the other a description of the different methods of fighting in fashion amongst different peoples.

6. A speech on the despatch of an image of Christ to Abgar, king of Edessa. Of works undertaken by his instructions the most important were the Encyclopaedic Excerpts from all available treatises on various branches of learning.

  1. Historica, in 53 sections, each devoted to a special subject; of these the sections De legationibus, De virtutibus et vitiis, De sententiis, De insidiis, have been wholly or partly preserved.
  2. Basilica, a compilation from the different parts of the Justinian Corpus Juris, subsequently the text-book for the study of law.
  3. Geoponica, agricultural treatises, for which see Geoponici and Bassus, Cassianus.
  4. Iatrica, a medical handbook compiled by one Theophanes Nonnus, chiefly from Oribasius.
  5. Hippiatrica, on veterinary surgery, the connexion of which with Constantine is, however, disputed.
  6. Historia animalium, a compilation from the epitome of Aristotle's work on the subject by Aristophanes of Byzantium, with additions from other writers such as Aelian and Timotheus of Gaza.

These books are insightful and of interest to the historian, sociologist, and anthropologist as a source of information about nations neighbouring the Empire. They also offer a fine insight into the Emperor himself.

Generally the most important work on Constantine VII, is A. Rambaud, L'Empire grec au dixieme siecle (1870). See also Gibbon, Decline and Fall, ch. 53, and G. Finlay, Hist. of Greece, ii. 294 (1877).

Many of his works will be found in Migne, Patrologia Graeca, cix., cxii., cxiii.; for editions of the rest, C. Krumbacher, Geschichte der byzantinischen Literatur (1897), and the article by Cohn in Pauly-Wissowa's Realencyclopadie der classischen Altertumswissenschaft (1900) should be consulted. The former contains a valuable note on the "Gothic Christmas" described in detail in the De cerimoniis; see also Bury in Eng. Hist. Rev. xxii. (1907).

De Adminstrando Imperio

De Administrando Imperio was written between 948 and 952. It contains advice on running the ethnically-mixed empire as well as fighting external enemies. The work combines two of Constantine's earlier treatises, "On the Governance of the State and the various Nations" (Περί Διοικήσεως τοῦ Κράτους βιβλίον καί τῶν διαφόρων Έθνῶν), concerning the histories and characters of the nations neighbouring the Empire, the Slavic and Turkish peoples, including the Kievan Rus', Arabs, Lombards, Armenians, and Georgians; and the "On the Themes of East and West" (Περί θεμάτων Άνατολῆς καί Δύσεως), concerning recent events in the imperial provinces. To this combination was added Constantine's own political instructions to his son Romanus.

The work describes the Pechenegs, Kievan Rus', Hungarians (under the name Turkoi), Bulgarians, Tatars, and Khazars to the north; the Arabs to the east and south and their expansion as far as Spain; and the Germans, Lombards, Venetians, Dalmatians, Croats, White Croats, Serbs, and Moravians to the west. As well as historical and geographical information, which is often confused and filled with legend, Constantine gives information on how to manipulate each nation against each other, rather than use imperial money and resources to wage war against them directly. There is also information about imperial provinces, including Armenia, Iberia, Cyprus, and the Peloponnese, with recent diplomatic events which were considered useful for Romanus' instruction.

It is obvious that this scholarly work was not intended for general publication as it contains many state secrets (including Greek fire, although, notably, not its ingredients) and is clearly written in the format of a long father-to-son letter, intended for Romanus' personal use. The earliest surviving copy was made by John Doukas in the late 11th century. As a result, it is preserved fully in only three manuscripts (two of which are now located in Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, and the third in the Vatican Library), and only partially in a fourth (now located in Modena). It was first published in 1611 by Johannes Meursius, who gave it the Latin title by which it is now universally known, and which translates as "On Administering the Empire". Constantine himself did not give the work a name. Among its later editors was Jacques Paul Migne in the Patrologia Graeca.

The latest critical edition was first proposed by J.B. Bury, but was completed by Gyula Moravcsik and translated into English by Romily J.H. Jenkins in 1967.


De Administrando Imperio includes the first historical record of Romanians in the Istrian region which dates back to 940 AD. Emperor Constantine VII recorded in this scholarly work that there were Latin-language speakers in this area who called themselves Romans but who did not come from Rome. This newly uncovered reference is consistent with what has been repeatedly taught to children in Romanian schools about the origins of their elusive distant cousins in Istria - more specifically, that they were a people who were imported with their families directly from a region of what is now called Transylvania to Istria by the Romans legions to protect the borders of the Roman Empire along the Arsa River where only a few of their descendants still remain today but who, sadly, remain virtually unenlightened - if not openly mislead - about their historical ancestral origins.


  • Administrando Imperio, ed. Gy. Moravcsik, trans. R.J.H. Jenkins, rev. ed., Washington, Dumbarton Oaks Center for Byzantine Studies, 1967.

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Created: Wednesday, March 23, 2011; Last updated: Tuesday, January 29, 2013
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