Rebellion of Bardanes Tourkos, 803

1. Historical context

Following the overthrow of Empress Eirene
by Nikephoros, logothetes tou genikou,and his accession to the throne (October 31, 802), an austere fiscal policy was implemented aimed at multiplying the income of the Byzantine Empire through increased taxation. For this reason tax exemptions that had been introduced by Eirene on ecclesiastical and monastic properties, trade and the claiming of inheritance were repealed. The so-called kapnikon was expanded so as to apply to the paroikoiof monasteries and charitable foundations, while estates belonging to the Church were annexed, without removing the Church’s obligation to pay taxes on these. Nikephoros I’s financial reforms and his neutral stance vis-à-vis the issue of Iconoclasm, contrary to Eirene’s zealous iconophile policy, caused the gradual disgruntlement of monastic and ecclesiastical circles, as well as that of large estate owners, whose interests were directly undermined. The general feeling of discontent towards the new emperor was also shared by the low ranking soldiers of the themes, who were complaining that they did not receive their statutory pay.1

In this negative for Emperor Nikephoros climate, Bardanes, the so-called ‘Tourkos’ (Turk), attempted his rebellion; he enjoyed wide support, as he was seen by all the above-mentioned groups as a person that could address their grievances. Bardanes, who belonged to the class of the landowners and was an iconophile,2 held the office of strategosof the theme of Anatolikon. At the same time he had also been appointed monostrategosof the five themes of Asia Minor, to ensure greater efficiency in the waging of Byzantine military operations against the Arabsin a period when the tension between the two enemies had intensified following Nikephoros’ refusal to continue paying the annual tribute that was agreed between Empress Eirene and caliphal-Mahdi in 782.3This further improved Bardanes generally successful political profile, already since Empress Eirene’s reign, and it served well his personal ambitions to ascend to the imperial throne.4 Beyond the circle of the landed nobility and high-ranking military officials, Bardanes was particularly popular among the army, because of his fairness in the distribution of loot. The Byzantine armed forces saw in Bardanes a person who could to ameliorate their condition; thus, either following a plan, or of their own accord, they finally rebelled against Nikephoros I. It is less likely that the aim of the rebellion was the restoration of imperial legitimacy, which had been overturn with Eirene’s overthrow.5

2. The rebellion of Bardanes Tourkos

2.1. The outbreak of the rebellion

On July 19, 8036 the armed forces of four out of the five themes of Asia Minor
(those of Thrakesion, Anatolikon, Opsikionand Boukellarion) rebelled against Nikephoros I andproclaimed Bardanes, the then strategos of the theme of Anatolikon, emperor. This took place probably in the theme of Anatolikon and more specifically in its capital, the city of Amorion,7where the Byzantine forces were rallied probably in order to launch a military offensive against the Arabs. Only the theme of Armeniakon remained loyal to the emperor, probably because of its customary policy of not siding with the theme of Anatolikon in times of internal strife,8 or because its troops had not had enough time to join the rest of the armed forces;9 it is also possible that Bardanes had participated in the crushing of the rebellion in the theme of Armeniakon in 793, and the memory of this event discouraged the thematic army from siding with him.10

Having been placed in charge of the rebellious army, Bardanes moved north and, following the road
that leads to Nicomedia, he reached Chrysopolis, opposite the capital of Constantinople. There he set up camp for eight days, hoping that his rebellion would attract supporters and cause unrest against the emperor in Constantinople.11 His hopes were disproved, however, and the reception he received was rather lukewarm; as a result he was forced to return empty handed to Malagina, an important military supply post in the area of the theme of Opsikion, expecting to find support from the troops stationed there. The emperor, however, had in the meantime dispatched his forces against Bardanes. At this crucial turning point he was abandoned by two of his closest associates, the future emperors Leo the Armenianand Michael Traulos, who defected to the imperial camp. Of those in his close circle only Thomas the Slav, the later iconophile rebel, remained loyal to Bardanes to the end.

2.2. Suppression of the rebellion

This negative turn of events, following Bardanes’ failure to secure wider support, was compounded by the treachery of his close associates, leaving him with very limited options. In order to avoid a bloody clash with the imperial army, but also before it became too late for himself, he decided to renounce the rebellion and surrender himself, requesting of the emperor the appropriate assurances for his personal safety. The negotiations were conducted through Joseph, abbot in the monastery of Katharoi, and they were successful. More specifically, Nikephoros sent Bardanes a document, signed by the then Patriarch of Constantinople, Tarasios, and several senators,with which he reassured him and his collaborators that no punishment was to be imposed on them following their surrender. This document was accompanied by the emperor’s golden cross, which conferred every possible formal validity on it. Convinced of Nikephoros' benign intentions, on September 8, 803 Bardanes Tourkos left his army at Malagina and travelling through Nicaeaand the northern coasts of Lake Ascania, he reached the monastery of Herakleios, in Ciusof Bithynia.12From there he boarded a ship sent by the emperor, destined to the monastery that Bardanes himself had earlier established on the island of Proti. While he was still aboard that vessel he was tonsured a monk, taking on the name Savvas, an act which formally signals the end of the rebellion.

3. Consequences

Immediately after the suppression of the rebellion, Emperor Nikephoros removed Bardanes from the position of strategos of the theme of Anatolikon and monostrategos of the themes of Asia Minor, while he also confiscated part of his personal property.13 Soon after, in December of 803,14
a group of soldiers from Lykaonialanded on the island of Prote and blinded Bardanes. The order to blind him probably originated from the emperor himself,15 although later, under pressure by Patriarch of Constantinople Tarasios and the Senate, Nikephoros publicly declared that he had no personal involvement in the matter.16

Apart from the leader of the rebellion, however, the emperor also punished those that supported him: he arrested the strategoi of the four themes that helped him, while he refused to pay the soldiers of the themes for one year. He also banished Euthymios,metropolitan of Sardis, Eudoxos, metropolitan of Amorionand Theophylaktos,metropolitan of Nicomedia, to Pantellaria (off the coasts of Sicily) for they had supported the rebel. On the contrary, he generously rewarded the two partners of Bardanes that finally sided with him: Nikephoros appointed Leo the Armenian tourmarchof the Foederatiand Michael komes tes kortesof the theme of Anatolikon, while he also gave to both residences in Constantinople. Furthermore, three years later Nikephoros restored the abbot Joseph to his clerical office, from which he had been removed because he had blessed the marriage of Emperor Constantine VI with his mistress, Theodote. On the surface this was a reward for the help Joseph had offered in dealing with Bardanes’ rebellion. In truth Nikephoros thus imposed his will dynamically in the area of ecclesiastical law.

Apart from the immediate consequences of this rebellion on the lives of its protagonists, it also impacted somewhat the empire’s military readiness: in a period when the Arabs had resumed their raids into the eastern provinces, Nikephoros was unable to focus on beating them back effectively, being preoccupied with dealing with internal challenges to his rule.17 Yet these consequences were rather limited, given that Bardanes rebellion never deteriorated into a full-fledged civil war, being suppressed after only two months and without any bloody battles. At any rate, precisely its short duration reveals that it rather failed to appeal to the majority of the Asia Minor troops.18

1. Kaegi,W. E., Byzantine Military Unrest 471-843 (Amsterdam 1981), p. 245.

2. Κουντούρα-Γαλάκη Ελεονώρα, “Η επανάσταση του Βαρδάνη Τούρκου”, Σύμμεικτα 5 (1983), p. 207-211, sees in Bardanes a representative of the landowners, who rebels to defend his class’ rights.

3. According to this treaty, the annual tribute owed by the Byzantines to the Arabs amounted to  70,000 (or 90,000) denarii.

4. The Byzantine forces mention that Bardanes, accompanied by Leo, Michael and Thomas the Slav and before expressing any intentions to rebel, visited a monk close to Philomelion, famous for his prophetic powers, and revealed his plans to him. It is said that the monk not only foresaw the final failure of the rebellion, but also the future of his three followers. For the various versions in the sources see Μαυρομάτη-Κατσουγιαννοπούλου Σ., «Η επανάσταση του στρατηγού Βαρδάνη στις σύγχρονες και μεταγενέστερες αφηγηματικές πηγές», Βυζαντινά 10 (1980), pp. 220-224. Kaegi, W.E., Byzantine Military Unrest 471-843 (Amsterdam 1981), p. 245, uses this reference to suggest Bardanes’ early aspirations to imperial power. Niavis, P. E., The Reign of the Byzantine Emperor Nicephorus I (AD 802-811) (Ιστορικές Μονογραφίες 3, Athens 1987), p. 62, on the contrary, notes that this is probably a subsequent fabrication to describe Leo V and Michael II’s ascent to the throne, and therefore provides no reliable evidence on which to base any hypothesis.

5. According to Treadgold, W. Τ., The Byzantine Revival 780-842 (Stanford 1988), p. 131, Bardanes alleged that he was acting on behalf of the deposed Empress Eirene, when, notwithstanding his unwillingness to participate in a rebellion against Nikephoros I, his troops proclaimed him emperor.

6. Hollingsworth, P. Α., "Bardanes Tourkos", The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium 1 (New York - Oxford 1991), p. 255, dates this event to July 18.

7. Turner, D., "The origins and accession of Leo V (813-820)", Jahrbuch der Osterreichischen Byzantinistik 40 (1990), p. 174 believes that the rebellion broke out at Malagina, basing this on the fact that the Byzantine sources use the verb ‘υποστρέφειν’ (which he translates as ‘he returned to whence he set off’) to describe Bardanes’ move from Chrysopolis, where he was right after the outbreak of his rebellion, to Malagina.

8. Kaegi, W.E., Byzantine Military Unrest 471-843 (Amsterdam 1981), p. 246.

9. Turner, D., "The origins and accession of Leo V (813-820)", Jahrbuch der Osterreichischen Byzantinistik 40 (1990), p. 174; Treadgold, W. T., The Byzantine Revival 780-842 (Stanford 1988), p. 131.

10. Βλυσίδου Βασιλική - Κουντούρα Ελεονώρα - Λαμπάκης Σ. - Λουγγής Τ. - Σαββίδης Α., Η Μικρά Ασία των θεμάτων. Έρευνες πάνω στην γεωγραφική φυσιογνωμία και προσωπογραφία των βυζαντινών θεμάτων της Μικράς Ασίας (7ος-11 ος αι.) (Ερευνητική Βιβλιοθήκη 1, Αθήνα 1998), p. 209.

11. During Bardanes’ stay at Chrysopolis the death of Empress Eirene became known on the island of Lesbos (she succumbed to an illness on August 8, 803); according to Treadgold W. Τ., The Byzantine Revival 780-842 (Stanford 1988), p. 132, this negated Bardanes an excuse for his rebellion, i.e. the pretence that he was defending the deposed Eirene.

12. Turner, D., "The origins and accession of Leo V (813-820)", Jahrbuch der Osterreichischen Byzantinistik 40 (1990), p. 176, mentions that the abbot at the monastery of Herakleios obeying Emperor Nikephoros’ command, did not allow Bardanes to remain there or become tonsured a monk.

13. Treadgold, W. T., The Byzantine Revival 780-842 (Stanford 1988), p. 132.

14. Treadgold, W. T., The Byzantine Revival 780-842 (Stanford 1988), p. 134, dates the blinding of Bardanes to 804.

15. Κουντούρα-Γαλάκη, Ελεονώρα, “Η επανάσταση του Βαρδάνη Τούρκου”, Σύμμεικτα 5 (1983), pp. 213-214, believes that Nikephoros’ implication in this is certain. On the contrary, Treadgold, W. Τ., The Byzantine Revival 780-842 (Stanford 1988), pp. 134-135, thinks it is possible that the Lycaonians acted on their own accord, for Bardanes had been neutralized and there was no reason for the emperor to incite animosity against himself by ordering his opponents’ blinding.

16. Turner, D., "The origins and accession of Leo V (813-820)", Jahrbuch der Osterreichischen Byzantinistik 40 (1990), p. 176.

17. Niavis, P. E., The Reign of the Byzantine Emperor Nicephorus I (AD 802-811) (Ιστορικές Μονογραφίες 3, Athens 1987), pp. 203-207.

18. Βλυσίδου Βασιλική - Κουντούρα Ελεονώρα - Λαμπάκης Σ. - Λουγγής Τ. - Σαββίδης Α., Η Μικρά Ασία των θεμάτων. Έρευνες πάνω στην γεωγραφική φυσιογνωμία και προσωπογραφία των βυζαντινών θεμάτων της Μικράς Ασίας (7ος-11ος αι.) (Ερευνητική Βιβλιοθήκη 1, Αθήνα 1998), p. 51.