Thecla (c. 775–c. 823)

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Thecla (c. 775–c. 823)

Byzantine empress. Name variations: Thekla. Born around 775; died around 823; daughter of a general; first wife of Michael II of Amorion, Byzantine emperor (r. 820–829); children: Theophilus I (r. 829–842). Michael's second wife was Euphrosyne (c. 790–c. 840).

Thecla was the daughter of an unnamed general who was the chief military official of the Anatolian theme of the Byzantine Empire sometime during the late 8th century. As was common at that time (c. 795), Thecla's father patronized fortunetellers, one of whom predicted that two officers under his command, one named Michael (II) of Amorion (after the Phrygian village of his birth) and the other unnamed, would both one day become Byzantine emperors. As a result of this prophecy, Thecla's father arranged a banquet to which he invited the two officers. Michael was surprised by the invitation because of the humbleness of his birth, and was even more so when, in the course of the evening, the commander offered two of his daughters in marriage. Noting the differences in their respective social ranks, Michael and his colleague are initially said to have declined, but after their commander pressed his proposition, they accepted the extraordinary alliances. Thus was the marriage of Thecla to Michael arranged, and the latter's rise to the imperial throne begun. (Michael's unnamed brother-in-law did not fare so well, thus calling into question the infallibility of the agent of Michael's ascent.)

Byzantium during Thecla's lifetime was a troubled state, beset as it was with foreign threats from every point of the compass (but especially from Bulgaria and the Arab world), and subject to the domestic turmoil brought on by the Iconoclastic Controversy. Between 717 and 867, the empire was deeply divided over the use of religious icons: one faction (primarily monastic) was devoted to their veneration, while another was equally bent on their destruction since it believed that it was the icon itself—and not the idea behind the icon—which was being adored by iconodules. One of the greatest of iconoclastic emperors, Constantine V (r. 741–775), was also one of the era's most successful generals against foreign enemies, a fact not lost upon many in the army who associated Constantine's military success with a divine favor bestowed as a result of his anti-icon religious policy. Only five years after Constantine's death, however, his son, Leo IV, also died. At the time, Leo's heir, Constantine VI, was still a minor, a fact which allowed Leo's iconodule widow Irene of Athens to seize control of the empire, initially as her son's regent. In 784, Irene restored the veneration of icons, but the military's hostile reaction led to her ouster (790) and to the elevation of Constantine VI. Not a strong ruler, Constantine reappointed his mother to imperial status in 792, but in 797 the two had a complete falling out, at which time Irene dethroned her son, blinded him, and began to rule alone. Since Irene's reign saw military disaster after military disaster, the Byzantine army's bias against the veneration of icons was reinforced. After a palace coup toppled Irene (802), the emperors who served in her wake tended to favor the iconoclastic cause of the army yearning for the good old days of Constantine V. Growing up in a military household, Thecla was almost certainly an iconoclast, as was her husband, although when he ruled he would be somewhat moderate in his approach to iconodules.

Thecla's husband was an ambitious opportunist who exploited every chance to advance his career. After the overthrow of Irene by Nicephorus I, Michael supported the revolt of Bardanes Tourcus (803) against the new emperor, but Michael quickly abandoned that rebellion when it became evident that it would not succeed. Instead, when offered an olive branch by Nicephorun, Michael switched sides, for which treachery he was elevated in rank to the position of "Count of the Tent" and given a palace in Constantinople. A military disaster cut short Nicephorus' reign, but under the rule of Michael I Rangabe (r. 811–813), Michael of Amorion continued to advance under the patronage of Leo the Armenian, who himself engineered the coup which toppled Michael I. Under the newly ensconced Leo V (r. 813–820), Michael of Amorion again flourished, being regularly promoted and elevated into the patrician order. The relationship of Michael and Leo was as personal as it was professional: at some time Leo even stood as the godfather of one of Michael's and Thecla's sons (probably Theophilus, the later emperor). Michael's success, however, led him to conspire against Leo. Although Leo discovered Michael's treachery, had him arrested, and sentenced him to death on charges of treason, conspirators serving Michael's interest assassinated Leo and freed Michael. He was crowned emperor on December 25, 820, with Thecla at his side. In the spirit of the age, an ambitious former comrade-in-arms with Michael, Thomas the Slav, immediately rebelled against the new order, hoping to dislodge the new imperial claimant before Michael consolidated his power. After a three-year war, Michael overcame this threat to his personal authority.

It must be assumed that Thecla stood close by Michael's side as his fortunes rose, because when she died sometime during, or shortly after, Michael's war with Thomas, Michael mourned her deeply. Before her death, however, Thecla lived to see one of her sons, Theophilus, enthroned as Basileus and Augustus beside her husband, thus securing Michael's succession. Although it cannot be known for sure, it was probably Theophilus for whom Leo V acted as godfather. That, at least, would explain why immediately after Michael II's death in 829, Theophilus (an emperor who made the pursuit of justice one of his reign's central themes) executed the murderers of Leo, whose very deeds had saved Michael's life and ensured his own elevation to the throne.

Theophilus was enthroned on May 12, 821, on which day he was also married to Theodora the Blessed , who had been selected by an imperial Bride Show probably run under the supervision of Thecla. If so, Thecla's military upbringing probably helped to shape imperial policy, for Theodora was from Paphlagonia and both her father and her uncle were officers in the army. Since Theophilus was succeeded on the throne by his son, Michael III, Michael II and Thecla established a dynasty (the Amorion, or Phrygian), an accomplishment unmatched by Michael II's three imperial predecessors.

William S. Greenwalt , Professor of Classical History, Santa Clara University, Santa Clara, California

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