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December 28, 2018

The Singing Emperor Who Was Murdered in Church on Christmas Day

Emperor Leo V leading the chanting at Christmas,
12th-century Madrid Skylitzis, Fol. 23r top.

By John Sanidopoulos

On Christmas morning in the year 820, while the iconoclast Emperor Leo V the Armenian was chanting in the palace chapel of Saint Stephen to celebrate the birth of the Lord, he was brutally murdered in the sanctuary. This took place because his friend Michael II the Stammerer became disgruntled with Leo V, when the Emperor divorced Michael's sister-in-law, and he began a plan to dethrone him. On Christmas Eve 820, Leo V accused him of conspiracy, jailed him, and sentenced him to death. Leo concocted a scheme where Michael was to be tied to an ape and cast into the bathhouse furnace of Zeuxippos, to be either maimed by the monkey or die from burning or dehydration under the heated bathhouse floor. It was the empress Theodosia, we are told, who fatefully interceded for Michael, imploring Leo not to taint his rule with such a savage act on the sacred feast of Christmas day. Leo too was troubled by the judgement he had passed upon his former friend and spent a sleepless night. He agreed to put off the execution until after the Christmas festivities. It would prove a fatal delay. During the night, Michael’s supporters put a conspiracy into action. Under the pretext of the prisoner wishing to confess his sins, a priest was sent for from the city. The servant sent to bring the priest summoned a number of conspirators who, disguised as monks, made their way into the Daphne palace complex and entered the Chapel of Saint Stephen, where the emperor would celebrate Christmas liturgy at dawn.

In the History of John Skylitzes, we read:

"Leo thought highly of his voice and he wished to be considered musical although he was not graced with this by nature. In contrast he was unmusical and not capable of harmonious chant. He was wont to intone the three concluding Psalms of David and to sing at Christmas the canons of the feast. He intoned the odes with a piercing and savage voice and when he began the seventh ode of the Christmas canon [of John of Damascus based on the canticle of the Three Children in the furnace] with the text 'Caught and held fast by love for the King of all, the children despised the threats of the impious tyrant' [Tω παντάνακτος εξεφαύλισαν πόθω], those who heard it had to laugh."

The body of Leo V is dragged to the Hippodrome through the Skyla Gate,
12th-century Madrid Skylitzis.

It was at the point when Leo was chanting the seventh ode of the Christmas canon that his assassins, donned in monastic robes, sprang from a dark corner, and went to kill him. In the dim light they mistook the officiating priest for the Emperor, killing him by mistake, and the confusion allowed Leo to snatch a heavy cross from the altar and defend himself. He called for his guards, but the conspirators had barred the doors and within a few moments a sword stroke had severed his arm which was still clasping the cross, and he fell before the altar, where he was beheaded. His remains were dumped unceremoniously in the snowy sewer and the assassins hurried to the dungeons to free Michael. Unfortunately for them Leo had hidden the key on his person, and since it was too early in the morning to find a blacksmith, Michael was hastily crowned in Hagia Sophia as Emperor by Patriarch Theodotos I of Constantinople with the iron clasps still around his legs. Leo's family (including his mother and his wife Theodosia) was exiled to monasteries in the Princes' Islands. His four sons (including ex co-emperor Symbatios) were castrated, a procedure so brutally carried out that one of them died during the "operation".

Though Skylitzes in the eleventh century spoke of the graceless singing voice of the emperor, it should be noted that earlier chroniclers disagreed. The tenth century compiler of the so-called Theophanes Continuatus credits Leo with an unusually melodious voice (P.G. 109, 52). Recounting how Leo drew near to the singers on that fateful Christmas morning in 820 in order to chant the canon of John of Damascus, the author mentions in parenthesis that Leo was gifted with a good voice and sang as melodiously as any singer of his time. It would seem that this earlier account is probably more true than later accounts who would give Leo a horrible singing voice. It is also interesting if not ironic that he was mocked and eventually murdered while chanting the seventh ode of the canon containing the canticle of the Three Children in the furnace, since Michael had been condemned to be killed in a furnace. Perhaps Leo's immoderate passion for singing was concocted into a clever condemnation of his iconoclasm by biased iconodules.