Romanos I Lekapenos or Lakapenos (Greek: Ρωμανός Α΄ Λακαπηνός, Rōmanos I Lakapēnos; c. 870 – June 15, 948), Latinized as Romanus I Lecapenus, was an Armenian who became a Byzantine naval commander and reigned as Byzantine Emperor from 920 until his deposition on December 16, 944.
Romanos Lekapenos, born in Lakape (Laqabin) between Melitene and Samosata (hence the name), was the son of an Armenian peasant with the remarkable name of Theophylact the Unbearable (Theophylaktos Abastaktos). Theophylact, as a soldier, had rescued the Emperor Basil I from the enemy in battle at Tephrike and had been rewarded by a place in the Imperial Guard.
Although he did not receive any refined education (for which he was later abused by his son-in-law Constantine VII), Romanos advanced through the ranks of the army during the reign of Emperor Leo VI the Wise. In 911 he was general of the naval theme of Samos and later served as admiral of the fleet (droungarios tou ploimou). In this capacity he was supposed to participate in the Byzantine operations against Bulgaria on the Danube in 917, but he was unable to carry out his mission. In the aftermath of the disastrous Byzantine defeat at the Battle of Acheloos in 917 by the Bulgarians, Romanos sailed to Constantinople, where he gradually overcame the discredited regency of Empress Zoe Karvounopsina and her supporter Leo Phokas.
Rise to power
On 25 March 919, at the head of his fleet, Lekapenos seized the Boukoleon Palace and the reins of government. Initially, he was named magistros and megas hetaireiarches, but he moved swiftly to consolidate his position: in April 919 his daughter Helena was married to Constantine VII, and Lekapenos assumed the new title basileopator; on 24 September, he was named Caesar; and on 17 December 919, Romanos Lekapenos was crowned senior emperor.
In subsequent years Romanos crowned his own sons co-emperors, Christopher in 921, Stephen and Constantine in 924, although, for the time being, Constantine VII was regarded as first in rank after Romanos himself. It is notable that, as he left Constantine untouched, he was called 'the gentle usurper'. Romanos strengthened his position by marrying his daughters to members of the powerful aristocratic families of Argyros and Mouseles, by recalling the deposed patriarch Nicholas Mystikos, and by putting an end to the conflict with the Papacy over the four marriages of Emperor Leo VI.
His early reign saw several conspiracies to topple him, which led to the successive dismissal of his first paradynasteuontes, John the Rhaiktor and John Mystikos. From 925 and until the end of his reign, the post was occupied by the chamberlain Theophanes.
War and peace with Bulgaria
The first major challenge faced by the new emperor was the war with Bulgaria, which had been re-ignited by the regency of Zoe. The rise to power of Romanos had curtailed the plans of Simeon I of Bulgaria for a marital alliance with Constantine VII, and Romanos was determined to deny the unpopular concession of imperial recognition to Simeon, which had already toppled two imperial governments. Consequently, the first four years of Romanos' reign were spent in warfare against Bulgaria. Although Simeon generally had the upper hand, he was unable to gain a decisive advantage because of the impregnability of Constantinople's walls. In 924, when Simeon had once again blockaded the capital by land, Romanos succeeded in opening negotiations. Meeting Simeon in person at Kosmidion, Romanos criticized Simeon's disregard for tradition and Orthodox Christian brotherhood and supposedly shamed him into coming to terms and lifting the siege. In reality, this was accomplished by Romanos' tacit recognition of Simeon as emperor of Bulgaria. Relations were subsequently marred by continued wrangling over titles (Simeon called himself emperor of the Romans as well), but peace had been effectively established.
On the death of Simeon in May 927, Bulgaria's new emperor, Peter I, made a show of force by invading Byzantine Thrace, but he showed himself ready to negotiate for a more permanent peace. Romanos seized the occasion and proposed a marriage alliance between the imperial houses of Byzantium and Bulgaria, at the same time renewing the Serbian-Byzantine alliance with Časlav of Serbia, returning independence the same year. In September 927 Peter arrived before Constantinople and married Maria (renamed Eirene, "Peace"), the daughter of his eldest son and co-emperor Christopher, and thus Romanos' granddaughter. On this occasion Christopher received precedence in rank over his brother-in-law Constantine VII, something which compounded the latter's resentment towards the Lekapenoi, the Bulgarians, and imperial marriages to outsiders (as documented in his composition De Administrando Imperio). From this point on, Romanos' government was free from direct military confrontation with Bulgaria. Although Byzantium would tacitly support a Serbian revolt against Bulgaria in 931, and the Bulgarians would allow Magyar raids across their territory into Byzantine possessions, Byzantium and Bulgaria remained at peace for 40 years, until Sviatoslav's invasion of Bulgaria.
Campaigns in the East
Romanos appointed the brilliant general John Kourkouas commander of the field armies (domestikos ton scholon) in the East. John Kourkouas subdued a rebellion in the theme of Chaldia and intervened in Armenia in 924. From 926 Kourkouas campaigned across the eastern frontier against the Abbasids and their vassals, and won an important victory at Melitene in 934. The capture of this city is often considered the first major Byzantine territorial recovery from the Muslims.
In 941, while most of the army under Kourkouas was absent in the East, a fleet of 15 old ships under the protovestiarios Theophanes had to defend Constantinople from a Kievan raid. The invaders were defeated at sea, through the use of Greek fire, and again at land, when they landed in Bithynia, by the returning army under Kourkouas. In 944 Romanos concluded a treaty with Prince Igor of Kiev. This crisis having passed, Kourkouas was free to return to the eastern frontier.
In 943 Kourkouas invaded northern Mesopotamia and besieged the important city of Edessa in 944. As the price for his withdrawal, Kourkouas obtained one of Byzantium's most prized relics, the mandylion, the holy towel allegedly sent by Jesus Christ to King Abgar V of Edessa. John Kourkouas, although considered by some of his contemporaries "a second Trajan or Belisarius," was dismissed after the fall of the Lekapenoi in 945. Nevertheless, his campaigns in the East paved the way for the even more dramatic reconquests in the middle and the second half of the 10th century.
Romanos I Lekapenos attempted to strengthen the Byzantine Empire by seeking peace everywhere that it was possible—his dealings with Bulgaria and Kievan Rus' have been described above. To protect Byzantine Thrace from Magyar incursions (such as the ones in 934 and 943), Romanos paid them protection money and pursued diplomatic venues. The Khazars were the allies of the Byzantines until the reign of Romanos, when he started persecuting the Jews of the empire. According to the Schechter Letter, the Khazar ruler Joseph responded to the persecution of Jews by "doing away with many Christians", and Romanos retaliated by inciting Oleg of Novgorod (called Helgu in the letter) against Khazaria.
Similarly, Romanos re-established peace within the church and overcame the new conflict between Rome and Constantinople by promulgating the Tomos of Union in 920. In 933 Romanos took advantage of a vacancy on the patriarchal throne to name his young son Theophylaktos patriarch of Constantinople. The new patriarch did not achieve renown for his piety and spirituality, but he added theatrical elements to the Byzantine liturgy and was an avid horse-breeder, allegedly leaving mass to tend to one of his favorite mares when she was giving birth.
Romanos was active as a legislator, promulgating a series of laws to protect small landowners from being swallowed up by the estates of the land-owning nobility (dynatoi). The legislative reform may have been partly inspired by hardship caused by the famine of 927 and the subsequent semi-popular revolt of Basil the Copper Hand. The emperor also managed to increase the taxes levied on the aristocracy and established the state on a more secure financial footing. Romanos was also able to effectively subdue revolts in several provinces of the empire, most notably in Chaldia, the Peloponnese, and Southern Italy.
In Constantinople, he built his palace in the place called Myrelaion, near the Sea of Marmara. Beside it he built a shrine which became the first example of a private burial church of a Byzantine emperor. Moreover, he erected a chapel devoted to Christ Chalkites near the Chalke Gate, the monumental entrance to the Great Palace.
End of the reign
Romanos' later reign was marked by the old emperor's heightened interest in divine judgment and his increasing sense of guilt for his role in the usurpation of the throne from Constantine VII. On the death of Christopher, by far his most competent son, in 931, Romanos did not advance his younger sons in precedence over Constantine VII. Fearing that Romanos would allow Constantine VII to succeed him instead of them, his younger sons Stephen and Constantine arrested their father in December 944, carried him off to the Prince's Islands and compelled him to become a monk. When they threatened the position of Constantine VII, however, the people of Constantinople revolted, and Stephen and Constantine were likewise stripped of their imperial rank and sent into exile to their father. Romanos died in June 948, and was buried as the other members of his family in the church of Myrelaion. Having lived long under constant threat of deposition -or worse- by the Lekapenoi family, Constantine VII was extremely resentful of them. In his De Administrando Imperio manual written for his son and successor, Romanus II, he minces no words about his late father-in-law: "the lord Romanus the Emperor was an idiot and an illiterate man, neither bred in the high imperial manner, nor following Roman custom from the beginning, nor of imperial or noble descent, and therefore the more rude and authoritarian in doing most things ... for his beliefs were uncouth, obstinate, ignorant of what is good, and unwilling to adhere to what is right and proper."
By his marriage to Theodora (who died in 922), Romanos had six children, including:
- Christopher Lekapenos, co-emperor from 921 to 931, who was married to the Augusta Sophia and was the father of Maria (renamed Irene), who married Emperor Peter I of Bulgaria; Christopher's son Michael Lekapenos may have been associated as co-emperor by his grandfather.
- Stephen Lekapenos, co-emperor from 924 to 945, died 967.
- Constantine Lekapenos, co-emperor from 924 to 945, died 946.
- Theophylaktos Lekapenos, patriarch of Constantinople from 933 to 956.
- Helena Lekapene, who married Emperor Constantine VII.
- Agatha Lekapene, who married Romanos Argyros; their grandson was Emperor Romanos III.
Romanos also had an illegitimate son, the eunuch Basil, who remained influential at court, particularly during the period 976–985.