In the 660s, Emperor Constans II of Constantinople (r. 641-668) relocated himself, along with a large military force, to Italy in hopes of retaking the region from Lombard and rebel control. Constans II also wanted to use Italy, especially the island of Sicily, as a new base of operations in Constantinople’s ongoing struggle against Arab expansion. Therefore, to keep an eye on both the Lombard front in the Italian Peninsula, as well as nearby Arab activity on the North African coast, Emperor Constans II decided to situate himself centrally between the two threats and place his headquarters at the Sicilian city of Syracuse. From his Syracusan base, the emperor expanded his influence outward over the island, making efforts to solidify his control over his new island stronghold before moving on to other objectives.
While overseeing this Sicilian campaign, Constans II was reportedly ruthless and tyrannical. The Lombard historian, Paul the Deacon (c. 720-799) wrote, “having entered Sicily during the seventh indiction, he dwelt in Syracuse and put such afflictions upon the people—the inhabitants and landowners of Calabria, Sicily, Africa, and Sardinia—as were never heard of before, so that even wives were separated from their husbands and children from their parents” (Paul the Deacon, History of the Lombards, 5.11). A chronicler named Theophanes (c. 750s-818) gave an alternative account of Emperor Constans’ time in Italy. Although Theophanes was a scholar from Constantinople, his descriptions of the emperor’s actions in Sicily were incredibly brief compared to Paul the Deacon’s account. Theophanes was more focused on clashes between imperial defenders and Arab invasions in the Middle East, describing these events in long detail. Between lengthy in-depth stories about the Middle-Eastern front, Theophanes would sometimes include brief updates about the emperor, such as “In this year the Emperor abandoned Constantinople and moved to Sicilian Syracuse; he wanted to transfer the capital to Rome” (Chronographia, entry for Annus Mundi 6153 [660-661 CE]) and “In this year part of Sicily was captured and, at their wish, its inhabitants were settled at Damascus” (entry for Annus Mundi 6155 [663-664 CE]).
Theophanes, unfortunately, gave no further information or contexts about the mysterious people in Sicily who were captured and sent, reportedly by their own choice, to the curious destination of Damascus. The choice of Damascus was especially intriguing, as it had been under Muslim control since the 630s and was the city used as a principal residence and administrative center by the powerful Umayyad Dynasty leader, Mu’awiya (r. 661-680). Perhaps, some of the people who decided to settle near Damascus were the individuals, mentioned by Paul the Deacon, who had been separated from their families. Whatever the case, in Theophanes’ account, Emperor Constans II was not mentioned again in the chronicle until the entry for 668, when the emperor was assassinated by dissidents at Syracuse.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Portraits of Emperor Constantine III and his son Constans II, made by Joos Gietleughen between 1557 and 1559, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the Rijksmuseum).
- Theophanes, The Chronicle of Theophanes, translated by Harry Turtledove. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982.
- History of the Lombards by Paul the Deacon, translated by William Dudley Foulke (c. 1904). University of Pennsylvania Press, 1907, 1974, 2003.
- The Oxford Dictionary of Late Antiquity, edited by Oliver Nicholson. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018.