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File:Michael III with Theodora and Theoktistos.png
Michael III with Theodora and Theoktistos (with the white cap), from the Madrid Skylitzes

Theoktistos (Greek: Θεόκτιστος; died November 20, 855) was an influential senior Byzantine official during the reigns of Michael II and his son Theophilos, and the de facto head of the regency for the underage Michael III from 842 until his dismissal and murder in 855. He is noted for his administrative and political competence, for ending the Byzantine Iconoclasm, and for helping the ongoing renaissance in education within the Empire.

Early life

Nothing is known of Theoktistos' early life. He is called a eunuch in the sources, although a passing reference to a daughter has cast some doubt on this.[1] By 820 he held an unspecified position at the court of Emperor Leo V the Armenian (ruled 813–822), possibly as a member of the imperial guard. Theoktistos played a major role in the plot to assassinate Leo, and was rewarded by the new emperor, Michael II the Amorian (r. 822–829), with the rank of patrikios, and the confidential court post of chartoularios tou kanikleiou ("secretary of the ink-pot").[2][3] Under Michael's son and successor, Theophilos (r. 829–842), he obviously continued to be a trusted advisor, as he rose to the rank of magistros, and was appointed logothetēs tou dromou, effectively the Empire's foreign minister. Theophilos also appointed him as a member of the regency council for his two-year-old son Michael III shortly before his death in January 842.[2][3]


Following Theophilos' death, a regency consisting of the empress-dowager Theodora, Theoktistos, the magistros Manuel the Armenian. Theodora's brothers Bardas and Petronas and her relative Sergios Niketiates also played an important role in the early days of the regency.[3][4]

The regency moved quickly to end Byzantine Iconoclasm, which had plagued Byzantine religious and political life for over a century. In early 843, an assembly of selected officials and clerics convened in the house of Theoktistos, repudiating iconoclasm and re-affirming the decisions of the 787 Second Council of Nicaea, and deposing the pro-iconoclast patriarch John the Grammarian and electing Methodios I, who had been imprisoned by Theophilos for his iconophile beliefs, in his place; an event that is commemorated as the "Triumph of Orthodoxy".[5] Theoktistos played a major role in these events, and is credited by almost all sources as a driving force behind the restoration of the icons.[2][3]

Map of Byzantine Asia Minor and the Arab–Byzantine borderlands in the mid-9th century

A week after that, Theoktistos and Sergios Niketiates were sent on a campaign to recover Crete, which had been conquered in the 820s by Andalusian exiles. The expedition at first went well, as the Byzantine army landed and took control over most of the island, confining the Andalusians to their capital, Chandax. At this juncture, Theoktistos heard a rumour that in his absence, Theodora intended to raise her brother Bardas to the imperial throne. He hastily abandoned the army under Niketiates and returned to Constantinople, only to find the rumours false.[3][6] Once in Constantinople, news arrived of an invasion of Asia Minor by Umar al-Aqta, emir of Malatya. Theoktistos was sent at the head of an army to confront him, but the resulting Battle of Mauropotamos ended in a Byzantine defeat. At the same time, the expeditionary corps left in Crete was defeated and almost annihilated by the Andalusians, who killed Niketiates.[6][7] Despite his personal involvement in these military disasters, Theoktistos was able to use them to sideline his competitors: Bardas was blamed for the desertions that plagued the Byzantines at Mauropotamos and exiled from Constantinople, while the magistros Manuel was slandered and forced to retire. With Niketiates dead, Theoktistos was now the undisputed head of the regency, a position described in the sources as "paradynasteuon of the Augusta".[8][6]

Theoktistos continued the persecution of the Paulicians, which had been initiated by Theodora in 843. Many were resettled in Thrace, while many others fled to Arab territory, where with Umar al-Aqta's aid they established a state of their own at Tephrike under their leader Karbeas. Nevertheless, when Umar launched another raid in 845, he was defeated by the strategos of Cappadocia, allowing Theoktistos to conclude a truce with the Abbasid Caliphate and arrange an exchange of prisoners.[2][9] With the Bulgarian frontier quiet except for a brief clash that led to the renewal of the 30-year peace treaty of 815, Byzantium remained largely in peace over the next few years. An attempt to drive back the ongoing Muslim conquest of Sicily failed in 848, but it was not until 851 that annual raids recommenced in the East, under the new emir of Tarsus, Ali al-Armani. The Byzantines responded with a naval expedition in 853 that sacked the port of Damietta in Egypt, while in the next year a Byzantine army invaded Arab lands in Cilicia and sacked Anazarbus. Some 20,000 prisoners were taken, some of whom were executed on Theoktistos' orders after they refused to convert to Christianity, probably as a gesture of retaliation for the Caliphate's execution of the surviving Byzantine prisoners from the Arab Sack of Amorium a few years before.[2][10]

Only fragmentary evidence survives concerning Theoktistos' domestic policies.[7] He certainly "[continued] the sound fiscal policies of Theophilos" (P. A. Hollingsworth), leading to the accumulation of considerable monetary reserves in the imperial treasury, to the amount of 19,000 pounds of gold and 30,000 pounds of silver by 856.[2] He also promoted the career of Constantine-Cyril, whom he first met ca. 842, helping him to acquire a good education and later to find a post as chartophylax in the patriarchal library, after Constantine rejected an offer of becoming a provincial strategos.[7] Theoktistos' sponsorship of men like Constantine and Leo the Mathematician contributed to the revival of secular learning in Byzantium.[2] Theoktistos was also engaged in building activity, erecting new structures in the Apsis near the Great Palace of Constantinople, installing a new iron door in the Chalke Gate, as well as sponsoring unspecified buildings in the Thracian suburbs of Constantinople, notably Selymbria.[7]

Downfall and death

In 855, Michael III turned fifteen and thus came nominally of age. His mother and Theoktistos both underestimated the young emperor's desire to free himself from their custodianship, and antagonized him further when they arranged a bride show and selected Eudokia Dekapolitissa as his bride, disregarding Michael's attachment to his mistress, Eudokia Ingerina.[7][11] Theodora's brother Bardas was able to use Michael's resentment for the high-handed manner in which he was treated and began to turn him against the regency. With Michael's backing, Bardas was allowed to return to the capital, and on 20 November 855, Theoktistos was murdered. Theodora was compelled to retire to a monastery a few months later, bringing the regency officially to an end.[7][11]


  1. Winkelmann et al. 2001, p. 579 (note 1).
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6 Hollingsworth 1991, p. 2056.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 Winkelmann et al. 2001, p. 578.
  4. Treadgold 1997, p. 446.
  5. Treadgold 1997, pp. 446–447.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 Treadgold 1997, p. 447.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 7.4 7.5 Winkelmann et al. 2001, p. 579.
  8. Winkelmann et al. 2001, pp. 578–579.
  9. Treadgold 1997, pp. 447–448.
  10. Treadgold 1997, p. 448.
  11. 11.0 11.1 Treadgold 1997, p. 450.