Interesting Facts About
the Byzantine Emperors

by Ed Uthman, MD

First posted on GEnie Dec 1992

Posted on this site 7 Sep 2001

The Byzantine Emperors ruled in splendor for a thousand years during the darkest days of Western Europe, but much of their history remains below the radar of popular awareness. Here are a few interesting facts about the Byzantines. This comes from a variety of sources, but the lion's share of credit should go to Constance Head for her short but fascinating book, Imperial Byzantine Portraits.

Although we think of Constantine I, the Great (306-337), as the first "Byzantine" emperor, he actually spent most of his reign as Emperor of the Western Roman Empire. On defeating Licinius, the Eastern Emperor, he unified the Empire, which remained intact for the rest of his life.

Constantius II (337-361) was known for exceptionally elegant manners. Ammianus remarked that the Emperor never spat in public.

Jovian (363-364) never ruled from Constantinople. On Julian's death, he was proclaimed emperor by the army, negotiated a peace with the Persians, but then died of apparent natural causes on the way back to the capital.

The characteristic baubles pendilia which hung from the Emperors' crowns began with Marcian (450-457). Although the years saw the styles of crown change, the pendilia remained, at least through Manuel II (d. 1425).

Leo I (457-474), who committed as many consciousless bloodthirsty acts as any ruler of his age, sometimes sounded like a flower child: "May it happen in my time that the pay of the soldiers is handed over to the teachers," he is said to have uttered.

The only instance in Byzantine history of a father succeeding his son as Emperor was Zeno the Isaurian (474-491) succeeding Leo II (474) after the latter died of some childhood disease.

The first Byzantine emperor to lose the throne by violent revolution was Mavrikios (Maurice) Tiberius (586-602). He probably ranked in competence with the best, but his strict economizing cost him the crown and his life. He refused to allow troops stationed at the frontier to return home for the winter. Moreover, he insisted they live off the land rather than be sent winter rations. The army, led by Phokas, rebelled and entered the city with the collusion of the city militia.

Phokas (602-610) was probably one of the cruelest of the Emperors as well as one of the most incompetent. He compelled the deposed Maurice to observe the execution of the latter's sons, the youngest just a baby, before being killed himself. Although he was described as being physically very ugly, Phokas began a fashion followed by almost every adult emperor that succeeded him: wearing a beard. Prior to this time, the emperors were clean shaven in the classical Roman fashion (except for those who affected the Greek "philosopher's beard," like Julian [361-363]). Phokas probably grew the beard to cover a scar.

Herakleios (610-641) was known for his military prowess with the Persians, recapturing the "True Cross" from them and restoring it to Jerusalem. However, he was so afraid of water that he took months to get up the courage to cross the Bosporus and finally could do so only after having a bridge built of boats heavily camoulflaged by shrubbery.

The emperor with the longest beard was probably Constantine III (641-668).

Justinian II Rhinotmetos (685-695 and 705-711) was first deposed by Leontios, who subjected the defeated monarch to a typical punishment for same: rhinokopia, or mutilation of the nose. It was believed that a disfigured man could not serve as emperor. However, after an adventure-filled interregnum, Justinian re-took Constantinople. It is said that he hid his disfigurement with a prosthetic nose fashioned of pure gold. The sobriquet "Rhinotmetos" means "cut nose." After this, rhinokopia was never used again.

When Phillipikos Vardan (711-713) was deposed, rhinokopia since having been proved ineffective, he was blinded.

Theodosios III, the Reluctant (715-717), was forced by conspirators to take the crown, probably because they thought their chance of success so wobbly that they needed to have a puppet to take the fall if the coup failed. The emperor spent much of his reign trying to find an opportune time to abdicate safely, which he finally accomplished. He retired to a monastery, where he was much happier and successful and came to be regarded as an Orthodox saint.

Emperor Irene of Athens (797-802) was certainly no paragon of maternal love. To secure the power of the throne, she had her son Constantine VI (780-797) blinded and then imprisoned him for life in the room in which he was born. Irene was the first Byzantine or Roman woman to rule the Empire alone and specifically took the title of "Emperor," not "Empress." She ruled at a time of magnificent contemporaries, especially Harun al-Rashid (who ruled the Abbasid caliphate at its peak) and Charlemagne. Apparently the latter wanted to marry Irene (thus reuniting the Empires), but she would not rule from such a barbaric venue as Aachen. Negotiations for Charlie to move to Constantinople were under way when Irene was deposed.

Nikephoros I (802-811), who overthrew Irene, was killed in war against the Bulgars. The victorious King Krum had the dead Roman Emperor's skull made into a silver-lined goblet from which visiting Byzantine ambassadors were thereafter forced to drink a toast.

The first Byzantine emperor to have a family surname was Michael I Rhangabe (811-813).

Michael II of Amorion (820-829) was freed from prison by his supporters, who had killed his predecessor Leo V Gnuni, the Armenian (813-820). The keys to Michael's chains could not be found in time, so he has proclaimed Emperor while still fettered.

The great emperor Basil I, the Macedonian (867-886), was killed in a freak mishap. While hunting, he was thrown from his horse and impaled on the horns of a stag, which carried him for sixteen miles before it was hunted down.

A political marriage between the Byzantine state and Western Europe did not take place until the time of John I Tzimiskes (969-976), who sent a Byzantine princess to marry Holy Roman Emperor Otho II.

The longest continuously reigning Byzantine monarch was Basil II Bulgaroctonus (976-1025). The most memorable story associated with him is that after decisively defeating the Bulgars (ending their menace forever), he had all of the prisoners blinded, except for sparing one eye of every hundredth man. Each group of one hundred was tied together with a one-eyed man, who then led the group back home. It is said that when King Samuel beheld the pitiful sight of his blind army returning home, he died suddenly of grief.

Constantine VIII (1025-1028) was reported to be nine feet tall, but this is almost certainly an exaggeration.

Manuel I Komnenos (1143-1180) was particularly interested in medicine. Perhaps his most famous patient was Second Crusader and Holy Roman Emperor Conrad III, whom the Eastern Emperor nursed through a serious illness he acquired in Constantinople while returning from defeat at the hands of the Seljuk Turks. And this was after Conrad had spent much of the Crusade plundering Byzantine territory and slaughtering his "doctor's" subjects!

Isaac II Angelos (1185-1195) excelled in maintaining a lavish lifestyle. It was rumored that he even bathed every other day.

Although Byzantine emperors frequently met violent ends, some were offed with more originality than others. Alexios V Doukas Mourtzouphlos (1204) was first blinded by his father-in-law, the former Emperor Alexios III Angelos (1195-1203), then caught by Crusaders and pushed from the top of the Column of Theodosius.

After "Latin" Crusaders captured Constantinople in 1204, a government-in-exile was set up in Nicaea under Theodore I Laskaris (1204-1222). Though not apparently the physical type he serendipitously cut down the Seljuk sultan in personal combat. This certainly made his reputation, but for the rest of his life he always made sure to not put himself at risk of a similar confrontation.

The highly effective Nicaean emperor John III Doukas Vatatzes, like his ancient imperial predecessor Julius Caesar, was an epileptic. Despite his affliction, he often led his forces personally.

The longest Byzantine dynasty, almost two hundred years, was also its last. The Palaiologos dynasty began with Michael VIII, who in 1259 blinded and imprisoned his ten-year-old predecessor (John IV Laskaris), and ended with Constantine XI, who died bravely in battle when the Ottomans took Constantinople.

Manuel II Palaiologos (1392-1425) was said to be a splendid sight. A great man with the misfortune of being born at the wrong time, he typically clothed himself in solid white, the customary Byzantine color of mourning, in reference to the moribund state of his empire.

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