Episode 101 – Thomas the Slav

Thomas the Slav negotiates with the Arabs (from The Chronicle of John Scylitzes)

Thomas the Slav negotiates with the Arabs (from The Chronicle of John Scylitzes)

Thomas the Slav's troops in action (from The Chronicle of John Scylitzes)

Thomas the Slav’s troops in action (from The Chronicle of John Scylitzes)

Leo’s murder is greeted with disgust in Anatolia where men rally behind Thomas the Slav. But back at the capital men get behind Michael of Amorium as a suitable replacement. This split leads to a three year civil war and a stalemate which suggests that God favours neither man.

Period: 820-824

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Categories: Podcast | 22 Comments

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22 thoughts on “Episode 101 – Thomas the Slav

  1. ArcticXerxes

    Nice episode.
    There is a repeating section around 44:00 from “But despite the impressive horde facing them…” to “….while singing the liturgy.”

  2. Laurent

    Nice story to get the narrative rolling again.
    I was a bit disappointed not to learn who killed Hae though.

  3. briugu

    Hello Robin,
    Great episode as always.
    When reading history, one usually asks ‘why’ someone did something; you have done a very good job explaining the logical and sometimes illogical reasons why events unfolded throughout the series. However, I cannot get my head around why Thomas actually attacked Constantinople!
    I understand your points: it was the heart of the Roman world, legitimacy hinged on its throne, Thomas did not want to undertake a gruelling campaign and spend his forces unnecessarily etc etc. I also understand that Thomas hoped to cow the city’s population into capitulation by simply reaching its walls.
    What I don’t understand is that Thomas, as an experienced commander, knew Fortress Constantinople. His men, who were there seven years previous, knew the city. Why would men who bore witness to one of the most heavily fortified cities in the known world think they could physically take it when so many before had failed?
    When listening to the story and upon hearing that the city’s gates remained barred I expected you to say that Thomas was going to head off into Thrace and arse around there for a while but no – he settled into a siege and attacked the walls.
    I am baffled. Can you revisit this again very briefly and give me your thoughts on it? Did Thomas really think he could take it or just hoped to hold the siege and throw some meaningless attacks at the walls in an effort to impress the population?
    You said Thomas did not want to set himself up in Anatolia as ruler (which he could have) – he wanted to reach Constantinople and make himself emperor. However, when he realised that the city was not going to fall without a fight, why did he not realise the folly of attacking the city and set himself up in Thrace or Anatolia as a separate kingdom?
    Apologies for the length!

    • All excellent questions. I think though they can be divided into two. Why did he march on Constantinople? And then why did he maintain the siege?
      1) As I said on the podcast we should remember that we only know Constantinople was so impregnable in retrospect. If you recall Constantine V actually successfully besieged the city. And of course before that you had the period of 7 Emperors when men had repeatedly captured the city. Before them Heraclius had done it. So it was possible to win a civil war by taking the capital. And so this lured Thomas into going for the main prize rather than isolating the city.
      2) I think the answer to why he maintained the siege helps answer question 1 as well. Thomas had to maintain the fiction that he was very close to victory. If he admitted that the battle was lost his men would surely abandon him. So if he broke off the siege and asked them to help him capture Anatolia instead I think they would likely have lost faith in him. Those men were probably waiting for spoils and a big bonus payment and promotion etc. If they were told “we’re going back to Anatolia, it’s the smart move but it means we’ll probably be at war for several more years” – well, I don’t think that’s what they wanted to hear.
      Once Thomas had decided to take the capital, which is what all Emperors must eventually do, he pretty much committed himself to staying there.

      • Barry Smith

        Thank you for that reply Robin. Thomas’ actions and reasoning behind them are very clear now!

      • As for the “folly” of attacking the city, it sounds more like an educated risk than a foolhardy move. As Robin says, it could have worked out well for Thomas if ONLY the defenders lost their nerve, or if even just ONE of the Constantinoplians (or is it “Constantinopolitans?”) simply flung open the gates, like the Thracians did. And I’m actually quite surprised the people of Constantinople (“i Constantinoplii?”) resisted the temptation, considering the fierce loyalty Thomas seems to have received from basically the entire military across Romania, and the serious lack of confidence Michael exuded.

        I’m guessing part of the bad reputation Michael had among the rank and file was something to do with cowardice, or foolishness, or that he inspired these same qualities in his underlings. Because Thomas seems pretty confident that Michael is going to flinch when it counts. All of Thomas’ initial moves once he hits Constantinople are just fakes and bluffs and taunts, including the visual moves towards creating a long siege itself. I think he clearly intended either to goad Michael out from the safety of his walls in boats or on the backs of horses, or spook the citizens of Constantinople (“Constantinopilites?”) into abandoning their fortifications and/or jumping into the sea.

        I suspect even Thomas’ men’s first attempt to scale the Theodosian walls was meant as psychological warfare. We have to assume that those walls wouldn’t be quite such a deadly no-man’s-land of missile fire in a Constantinople that was depleted and depopulated from the days in which those walls were built. That’s not to say that the walls would ever be fun to climb. But perhaps Thomas saw no great harm in feigning an attack. He could test the defenders’ response times, see how many of them were actually trained archers and not just bakers and blacksmiths with helmets on, etc. And yeah, maybe, just maybe, seeing their precious walls even being ATTEMPTED to be conquered might just scare the people of Constantinople (“the Constantinopilese?”) so much that one of them will finally decide to stab Michael in his sleep and get it over with.

        The only part of the battle where it sounds like Thomas is getting serious is when he’s tethering his boats together in order to steady them so he can fire siege missiles using amphibious catapults and/or trebuchets or what-have-you, and I assume that’s just because the threat of brigands from the north has made him feel like time is running out. And that is the point that, to me, boggles my mind. Because even if Thomas wasn’t setting himself up to get rammed, I mean… why would Michael not then attack him with Greek fire? Or for that matter, why is it out of Thomas’ power to use the same, since they both have ships from the Roman navy? This is the exact same place were the Arab invaders met their match, so I’m confused why they’re not busting out the literal matches once again. Maybe Byzantine-on-Byzantine warfare is governed by some kind of Genoese Geneva convention, so that no one who has ever lived or MIGHT ever live in Constantinople (the “Constantinianopolish?”) will be cruelly burned to death within sight of the Hagia Sophia–assuming they HAVE sight and haven’t been blinded by their uncle’s widow.

  4. Hey Robin – I’m looking for that jaunty little tune that played near the end of the show when you talked about Thomas’ identity controversy. Did you say it’s from WorldPercussion.net (because I wasn’t able to locate it there)?

    • Hey, the worldpercussion was for the drum sound effect to mark the end of the year. The tune I played was a little joke because its the music from the “Serial” podcast. If you put Serial music into youtube you will find it 🙂

    • I’m more interested in the lyrics to that song by the “peasant musician” at about 1:02:10 that was sung to encourage a bishop to open the gates of a city! How would I spell the name of that town? And from what source material does that anecdote spring forth? I’d like to find the words and put them to music–ideally both the original Greek and a good English translation.

      • I don’t think that level of detail was available I’m afraid

      • Alas, it was too much to hope for that lyrics might have come down through the ages. But whose history, saga, or scholarly report is the “peasant musician” at 1:02:10 originally mentioned in? If I can just read the original mention, even if it’s only a sentence, I can intuit the rest.

        I’ve been having some fun over the last couple years making “folk music” based on the lives of folks from antiquity–here’s the one I’ve been working on from Boudica’s perspective, about ten minute before the Battle of Watling St. begins, when she’s sure she’s going to slaughter all the Romans:

        (WARNING: She says some things about Claudius that I would not say. And some things about Seneca’s hypocrisy that I would.)

        But back to this “peasant song” from the podcast: it sounds like it might be some gonzo historian’s invention from the Ninth Century. But would be SUPER fun to try and create an approximation of what a real peasant song from that era might sound like, if the bard singing it had crafted it on the spot to persuade a bishop to betray his conscience–and his city–in order not to betray his emperor.

  5. I, for one, believe that Thomas really was Nero finally returning from the east. He was just a few centuries late.

  6. McEwen Reil

    I know I probably won’t get a responce on this because this is like 8 months late but were can I find this information? Thanks a million if you answere this and if you don’t then thanks for the fantastic podcast!

  7. dustz92

    I’ve decided to check the wikipedia article of Thomas after this great episode and:
    1) I was surprised how good it was. Waaay better than Michael II’s. You have to go all the way to Heraclius to find another guy from the ERE with such a detailed biography. I guess that, at least in legacy, Thomas has ended up beating Michael.
    2) Even more than here, almost every part of the war was described as “X,Y and Z historians think that this happened, but according to A, B and C what happened was that other thing”. In the end, it seemed that such long article was wortless because you could not believe anything described in it… But because of that it really looks like a “history written by the victors thing but now uncovered”. Definitely the most detailed “this actually may not had happened at all” part of Roman story so far.

  8. That’s great 🙂 It’s been a long time since I researched this period. I believe the historian covering this period is https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Hamartolos – but I don’t know of an English translation of his work though as I say it’s been a while. Warren Treadgold is the historian who puts this period together in a detailed modern narrative. If you send me an email I will get you the pdf of his book.

  9. My email is writerdmcollins with “gmail.com’ as the domain. Thank you so much!

  10. Kamiar Torabi

    Hey Robin, great episode as so many before!

    I just recently listened to this one and I remember you answered the question a few episodes ago on which part of Byzantine history would make a good movie or tv series.
    Well, the thought appeared to me that the rebellion of Thomas the Slav would make an excellent movie! Especially as one can do what you did in the podcast: present one possible version of the history and in the end for example have the French king reading the letter from Michael explaining his version of the facts as a plot twist. (This could also stress the importance of knowing how to deal with modern news and sources critically to a broad public).

    Maybe this could be a new project of yours with some British movie studio (or HBO as they did a good job in the Rome series so many years ago) after you reach 1453 in your podcast? 😉 This would also make Byzantine history even more known to a Western public.

    • I would love to do something like that

      • Kamiar Torabi

        Me too honestly (although I have no professional experience as an historian or in the movie industry). You already got at least one very motivated assistent when the day would be there 😉

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