Wednesday, March 18, 2015


Juan Signes Codoñer, The Emperor Theophilos and the East, 829-842: Court and Frontier in Byzantium during the Last Phase of Iconoclasm. Birmingham Byzantine and Ottoman Studies, 13. Farnham; Burlington, VT: Ashgate Variorum, 2014. Pp. xii, 518. ISBN 9780754664895. $165.00.

Reviewed by Denis Sullivan, University of Maryland College Park (

Version at BMCR home site


In the view of Signes Codoñer, modern historians have portrayed the emperor Theophilos (829-842) positively by accepting his legendary status as a "righteous and learned ruler" and by attributing his "military failures against the Muslims" to bad luck (p. 1). The author posits that the absence of significant military success would not have allowed an otherwise positive view of Theophilos to be sustained among his contemporaries and that recent progress on sources for the ninth century allows a more positive view of the emperor's military record.

Signes Codoñer indicates that the greatly increased volume and organization of source materials make possible more accurate use of the evidence, but complicate its presentation and require more specifically focused topics. He thus chooses to limit his study to "the relationship of the empire under Theophilos with its eastern neighbors" (p. 8). His primary sources are Theophanes Continuatus, Genesios, the Annals of Tabari, the Chronicle of Michael the Syrian, and the Letter to Theophilos of the Melkite patriarchs; numerous others are also employed. His approach is not to create a "coherent narrative" (p. 7) while relegating the source material to footnotes, but to include quoted source material and discussion of it in the main text, followed by his conclusions. He acknowledges that this will make reading more difficult, but argues that, "The reader can thus easily check the arguments at stake for every single passage and eventually refute them if unconvincing" (p. 7).

The book is organized in seven main sections followed by an Epilogue and Chronology of Theophilos' Reign. Section I ("Prolegomena to a Reign: Internal Conflict in the Empire Under Leo V and Michel II") examines the revival of iconoclasm and the 'civil war' of Thomas the Slav as essential background for understanding many aspects of Theophilos' reign. Section II ("The Armenian Court") sees in the influence of Armenians the link of Theophilos to Leo V the Armenian and to Theophilos' interest in the east. Section III ("Supporting the Persian Uprising against the Abbasids") sees the recruitment of Persians into the army as a check on Abbasid campaigns into Anatolia, but with consequences in the army's declaration of the Persian Theophobos as emperor. Section IV ("Warfare against the Arabs") reviews and assesses the sources of the military campaigns of the Abbasids and of Theophilos' personally campaigning beyond the eastern Anatolian borders, "providing an improved and more detailed sequence of events" (p. 8). Section V ("The Khazar Flank") redates the renewal of Byzantine interest in an alliance with the Khazars (due to their commercial ties with the caliphate) to the beginning of Theophilos' reign, and places the shift to the Rus' "only towards 838" (p. 8). Section VI ("The Melkites") argues that the Letter to Theophilos of the Melkite patriarchs does not prove that the Melkites opposed Theophilos in his iconoclastic policy. Section VII ("Cultural Exchange with the Arabs") sees in Abbasid philhellenism one of the factors in the origin of the ninth-century Byzantine revival. The volume concludes with an Epilogue (and Chronology) in which Signes Codoñer seeks "to balance Theophilos' eastern policy against his image as a righteous ruler as advanced in contemporary or later sources" (p. 9).

Three examples give a sense of Signes Codoñer's approach. All deal with a relatively specific and circumscribed issue and hence lend themselves to some description of the nature of argumentation, but even here the deep level of detail precludes a full presentation. Nasr, a Khurramite commander, is mentioned in a number of sources; he fled the caliphate, came to Theophilos, and converted to Christianity. H. Grégoire proposed identifying him with Theophobos, also a Khurramite and one of Theophilos' most trusted associates. In chapter 10 Signes Codoñer presents and examines in minute detail all the sources (e.g., Michael the Syrian, Tabari, the Golden Meadows of Masʿudi, the poetry of Abu Tamman, and a Byzantine seal of [Α]ΛΝΑΣΙΡ) which mention Nasr. Among them he notes Michael the Syrian's report that the caliph Muʿtaṣim, following his victory at Amorion, demanded that "Nasr the Khourdanaya, his son and Manuel be handed over to him." Signes Codoñer then argues by process of elimination that the only likely reason the caliph demanded the son was that the latter must have been a man who was himself of some military accomplishment. In chapter 11 Signes Codoñer likewise considers the sources (primarily the conflicting accounts of Theophanes Continuatus and Genesios) on the birth and education of Theophobos, concluding he must have been a child when taken into the palace by Theophilos, then suggesting that Theophobos was a child hostage to insure Persian loyalty in the combined effort against the caliphate. He postulates that the child's unnamed father must have been a prominent Persian, and suggests Nasr.1 He concludes that Grégoire's identification of Nasr as Theophobos, "accepted until now by all scholars . . . must be discarded" (p. 162).

A second example concerns Muʿtaṣim's motive for attacking Amorion in 838. In his campaign of 837 Theophilos had taken and destroyed Sozopetra. The Greek sources, Theophanes Continuatus and Genesios, report that Sozopetra was where the caliph Muʿtaṣim was born, information that must have been derived from two of their sources. The Logothete, drawing on yet another now lost source, apparently makes a similar attribution. Yet no Arab source makes the same attribution, and other scholars have argued that the Greek sources invented the claim to parallel Muʿtaṣim's taking of Amorion. Signes Codoñer questions this explanation. While noting that according to Tabari Muʿtaṣim was born in Baghdad, Signes Codoñer suggests that Muʿtaṣim's relatives may have established themselves in Sozopetra. He notes a reference in a hagiographical text that Theophilos took "illustrious cities of the Agarenes, where the γένος [Signes Codoñer translates the term as "family," but allows that "race" or "nation" is possible"] of the ruler of the Ismaelites was living" (p. 281). Signes Codoñer finds support for this interpretation in a story reported by later Arabic sources of Muʿtaṣim's immediate response — attacking Amorion — to the plea of a Hashemite woman (origin and exact kinship unspecified) captured by Theophilos' troops in the campaign against Sozopetra, a story less specifically paralleled in Tabari. Signes Codoñer suggests that the reference to Hashim connects the Abbasids to the family of the Prophet and indicates the woman's relation to Muʿtaṣim. He adds as further evidence a version of the story in the Arab epic the Dhat al-Himma in which an enslaved Hashemite girl in 'Ammuriya cried out that she was related to the caliph and that Muʿtaṣim on being told of the incident marched on that city (pp. 279-282).2

A third example concerns the actions of Theophilos during the siege of Amorion in 838. Signes Codoñer cites Tabari's comment at the end of his narrative of the siege, "The king of the Byzantines had sent an envoy [i.e. to negotiate peace] when Muʿtaṣim first besieged 'Ammuriyya . . . . " (p. 293). Signes Codoñer notes that the purpose of this embassy is not specifically stated by Tabari, but added by the modern translator, and suggests that this does not necessarily mean that Theophilos was ready to capitulate, but may have been trying to "win some time" (p. 298) to strike back. Tabari further describes Muʿtaṣim's concern with Byzantine attacks during his withdrawal from Amorion, a fact in which the Signes Codoñer sees no indication that Theophilos "had given up the war against the invading Muslim army" (p. 299). Genesios provides a somewhat similar account of an embassy to Muʿtaṣim with no mention of its purpose, while Theophanes Continuatus also mentions an embassy whose stated purpose was "with gifts to make the other depart from thence and return to his own country" (p. 300). Signes Codoñer dismisses this as an "addition of the Continuator who liked to amplify the narrative of his sources" and comments that "no offer of peace is mentioned" (p. 300). Finally we have the comment of Yaʿqūbī in his History that when Theophilos learned of the attack on Amorion he campaigned with a large army, was defeated and put to flight by an Arab force, and sent an embassy to Muʿtaṣim offering to rebuild Sozopetra, restore prisoners and surrender those (= Persian Khurramites) who committed atrocities there. Other modern historians have seen in this last embassy the same one as that mentioned in the earlier sources. Signes Codoñer, however, notes chronological difficulties in this identification and a number of other inaccuracies in Yaʿqūbī leading to his conclusion that Yaʿqūbī has compressed details from an otherwise known second embassy from Theophilos to Muʿtaṣim that followed the campaign of 838.3 He concludes that there is no evidence that Theophilos "made a humiliating offer of peace to the caliph when the latter began his siege of Amorion" (p. 302).

In chapter 17.5 Signes Codoñer describes the year 838 as the "annus horribilis" of Theophilos' reign, noting the defeat at Anzes, the personal danger to the emperor himself, the loss of Ankyra, the rumors of usurpation which caused him to return to the capital, the loss of Amorion with the capture of important commanders, and the rebellion of the Persian allies. He argues, however, that despite modern views that the events left Theophilos ill and depressed, the sources indicate otherwise. He cites Tabari for Muʿtaṣim's decision to use a secondary and problematic desert route for his withdrawal in order to avoid Byzantine harassment and the caliph's resulting difficulties necessitating the execution of valuable prisoners. He also notes the absence of any subsequent large scale campaign against Byzantium by the caliph, Theophilos' apparent involvement in the conspiracy of 'Abbas to overthrow Muʿtaṣim, and the fact that the 42 martyrs of Amorion were executed three years after Theophilos' death, and suggests that the emperor deserves a "more charitable verdict than he has received" (p. 312). In chapter 18.2 he analyzes Theophilos' diplomatic efforts post Amorion to secure Frankish military assistance against the Muslims and in 18.3 details two Byzantine military successes in 841, the first into Cilicia, the second taking Adata and Germanikeia and raiding the outskirts of Melitene. He concludes that, "The military balance of the reign of Theophilos was not negative," but merits a "moderately positive assessment" (p. 333). In the Epilogue Signes Codoñer offers "a provisional picture of the emperor as a ruler as he is portrayed through the Byzantine sources" (p. 448). He argues that Theophilos' military prestige was not seriously damaged by the fall of Amorion. The caliph had his own difficulties, and Theophilos subsequently took effective action to counter the consequences of the defeat. He likewise suggests that Theophilos' use of Persian and Rus' mercenaries, despite aristocratic opposition, proved an effective strategy.

The volume is a tour de force in its integrated provision of a vast amount of relevant source material and detailed analysis of it. Numerous conclusions of other modern historians are subjected to detailed scrutiny and evidentiary tests. The results are provocative, but in some instances seem to rest on a significant degree of supposition and conjecture and are not always persuasive. Be that as it may, the volume is a fascinating methodological achievement and provides a valuable, if occasionally tendentious, reappraisal of Theophilos' eastern policy and military accomplishments.


1.   The argument here (p. 161) includes such phrases as "It could also be that," "He could have been sent," "It would have been quite strange," "Nasr was probably," and "If we suppose."
2.   The argument here includes such phrases as: "seems to draw from another source," "This reference may appear as an error for Arsamosata," "may be alluding to," "is apparently corroborated," "was apparently," "the possibility remains," "seems to be alluded to," "may perhaps lend some support," "it thus appears," "we may surmise," "We can therefore hypothesize," "may explain why," "in fact, Theophilos seems."
3.   The argument here includes such phrases as: "We could equally surmise," "he might have been," "is perhaps evidenced," "It could be that," "He could have written," "could have found it more expedient," "It seems that."

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