The Byzantine Imperial Personality through the lives of the Emperors Part1

Posted by Powee Celdran 

It does have a kind of Byzantine quality to it. There is a good bit of strange stuff going on” -John Green

Part1- Personalities of the Byzantine emperors from Constantine the Great to Theophilos (4th to 9th centuries) 

Next: Part2- Personalities of the Byzantine emperors from Basil I to Manuel I 


Welcome back again to another article from the Byzantium Blogger! The last few articles I wrote were quite heavy reads on geography, economics, and politics of the Byzantine Empire as well as other countries or kingdoms that have succeeded Byzantium at the time when the Byzantine Empire was declining as well as after its fall in 1453. This time, I will do a more interesting narrative article on the personality of the Byzantine Empire itself told through the stories of its emperors and other notable Byzantines, which was an article I’ve always wanted to do. The adjective “byzantine” meaning complicated surely describes the extremely complex personality of the Byzantine Empire itself which lasted for over 1,100 years being known to us as a weird, mysterious, violent, but an advanced civilization in the Middle Ages that has developed a strong culture that influenced others around them as they formed into their own states. This quote above by John Green, the author of The Fault in Our Stars shows that the word “byzantine” means that things do have interestingly strange things the way the Byzantine Empire did. Highly educated and literate, violent, scheming, practical, religious, ambitious, and arrogant are words that usually describe the Byzantine people and their empire but other than that, the Byzantines had excelled in many things including science, religious doctrine, military tactics, and defending their empire’s borders, but aside from being successful in successes, they were also successful in starting rebellions, overthrowing emperors beginning a new dynasty that will soon enough disappear, making high taxes to use them for useless projects, and make alliances that will only be dissolved. The best way to discuss the personality of the Byzantines and the empire itself is to go through lives of all its emperors who were not only racially mixed in blood but had very complex personalities, and the decisions these emperors made coming from their personalities would severely affect the empire as a whole and change the course of its history. Overall, Byzantine rulers were known to be power-hungry and violent people who would stop at nothing to gain ultimate power including assassinating, mutilating, and blinding rivals but this did not mean they were all that evil as some like Justinian I, Basil II, and Alexios I would use all this power to make the empire great but many others would use this power all for their own personal gain or just be plainly useless in ruling leaving the empire in a ruined state. Talking about the personality of the empire through the lives of the emperors is very subjective because many of these emperors did evil things but good resulted from their actions in the end, and some emperors especially those who have been deposed or the Iconoclast emperors were made to look evil by propaganda as it is always said “history is written by the victor”. After all, the west or the “Latins” had always seen the Byzantines as either cowards or “soft people” as well as sneaky trouble makers while the Byzantines arrogantly saw the westerners as uneducated barbarians. Byzantium truly had a strong culture in arts, sciences, medicine, theology, and warfare as well as an imperial capital so grand but having a strong culture made them feel superior looking down on everyone else but despite feeling this way, they were not invincible as they were always under the constant threat of enemy invasions for centuries and the power-hungry nature of the Byzantines- especially generals- wanting to take the throne only led to more disaster for them. Despite the power-hungry personality of the Byzantines, they also came up with practical solutions such as creating the Thematic System that would help preserve their borders and this successfully kept the empire from falling for centuries. This article will go through the lives and stories mainly of the emperors Constantine I, Julian, Theodosius I, Zeno, Justinian I and his wife Theodora, Maurice, Phocas, Heraclius, Justinian II, Leo III, Constantine V, Irene, Theophilos, Basil I, Constantine VII, Nikephoros II, Basil II, Zoe, Michael VII, Alexios I, John II, Manuel I, Isaac II, John III, Michael VIII, Andronikos III, John V, and Constantine XI as well as the emperors between these mentioned and other famous Byzantine people to fully assess what the Byzantine personality really was. However, this article on personalities will only end with the 9th century emperor Theophilos as it will be too long and difficult to put every emperor and the personalities in one article, the rest of the emperors and their personalities will be featured in the next 2 articles of this 3-part series. From Constantine the Great to Theophilos, this article will go through the first and second ages of Byzantine history; the first age being Byzantium’s transition from the Roman Empire to a Greek state which ends with the overthrow of Justinian II in 695, following this is the Byzantine second age where the empire becomes more of a Greek medieval empire. At the end, my conclusion will overall sum up what the Byzantine personality is which is not just one but a lot of personalities put together. This article will be one based mostly on my opinions of the emperors and their rules but also because descriptions of them by historians tend to be opinionated, although this would be more of a personal and narrative article compared to the encyclopedic ones I previously did. This article will be different from the one of the 94 Emperors I made before as this will be more on personality than facts and different from the Complete Genealogy as this won’t mention much about their relations to each other. A lot of the information on these emperors and their lives I would be using here come from the channel Eastern Roman History which features many topics of the Byzantine Empire but also from the 12 Byzantine Rulers podcasts of Lars Brownworth which gives detailed information on the lives of these rulers. Before I move on to the part about the emperors’ lives, I will give a short description of the 11 different personalities different Byzantine emperors possessed as well as the alignment chart of the Byzantine emperors. In this article, I will make it a more fun and easier read with a couple of memes relating to Byzantium.

Byzantine Imperial flag and symbols
The Byzantine emperors, left to right: Constantine I, Justinian I, Nikephoros II, John I, Basil II, Constantine IX, Manuel I, John VIII, Constantine XI

Note: This article’s information is mostly opinionated and mostly based on my opinion of these emperors. Names of BYZANTINE EMPERORS will be in BOLD letters. 


Other Articles from the Byzantium Blogger:

The Complete Genealogy of the Byzantine Emperors

7 Reasons to be Interested in Byzantium

Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire

The 94 Emperors of Byzantium

Byzantine Science and Technology

Crime, Punishment, and Medical Practice in the Byzantine World

The Art of War in the Byzantine World

Foreign Lands and People According to the Byzantines Part1

Foreign Lands and People According to the Byzantines Part2

15 Byzantine Related States Outside Byzantium Part1

A Guide to the Byzantine Empire’s Themes

Videos from Eastern Roman History 

Every Byzantine Emperor, 306-1453

Top 10 Byzantine Emperors Part1

Top 10 Byzantine Emperors Part2

Top 10 Worst Byzantine Emperors Part1

Top 10 Worst Byzantine Emperors Part2

Important Byzantines

Memes from Brilliant Byzantine Memes 

Byzantine personalities alignment- left to right, top to bottom: Alexios I, Theodosius II, Constantine XI, Constantine I, Constantine VII, John II, Justinian I, Nikephoros II, Basil II
How to rate the Byzantine emperors (Good- John II Komnenos, Underrated- John I Tzimiskes, Overrated- Justinian I, Neutral- Alexios I Komnenos, Overhated- Constantine V, Underhated- Andronikos I, Bad- Phocas)
How to see the Byzantine personality


The 11 Personalities:


The Visionary- These include Byzantines (particularly emperors) who dreamed at a large imperial scale that no others would, built grand buildings, executed projects and conquests no one would have ever done, and envisioned a great future for the empire, however their dreams may have been achieved but did not last long. Only very few emperors dreamed this big which include Constantine and Justinian the Great, Basil II the “Bulgar Slayer”, and Manuel I Komnenos as they had the motivation to do so.

Ravenna- Emperor Justinian I and his men


The Strategic or Practical Rulers- Rulers who did their best to keep the empire strong and stable in the protection of its borders or in making alliances but did not dream in a large imperial scale. Rather, these emperors like Theodosius II, Heraclius, Theophilos, Leo VI, and Alexios I did their best to keep the empire strong at a realistic scale but did not think about growing it to a world power the way Justinian I did. Other Byzantines such as the patriarch Photios had this personality as well that helped bring up the strength of the empire too.

Emperor Heraclius after the Battle of Nineveh, 627


The Soldier- These were emperors who possessed great skills in battle, unique strategies, or were plainly soldiers by profession and did their best to keep the empire a strong one by defending the borders and keeping the enemies away by winning in constant wars. A lot of these emperors were all in all military men who lacked in being refined; these include the emperors Valentinian I, Nikephoros II, John I, Isaac I, and Romanos IV but a lot of Byzantines who weren’t emperors like Belisarius and Narses were great generals too.

Emperor Nikephoros II Phokas (r. 963-969), the ideal soldier emperor


Good Rulers- Very few Byzantine emperors were good and virtuous rulers who ruled their subjects well, did not do brutal actions to oppress their subjects, and were well loved by the people; these include only Tiberius II, John II, and John III.

Mosaic of Emperor John II Komnenos (left) and his wife Empress Irene of Hungary (right)


Scholars- Byzantium was the ideal society for educated men and scholars with great knowledge in history, geography, theology, and science and a lot of them were emperors such as Leo VI, Constantine VII, and John VI who were the “true neutral” types. Byzantium had many known scholars and writers most of them being saints too.

The scholar emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos writing DAI


Fun-Loving Rulers- Having a rich empire made many emperors love parties and decadence but this could have also ruined their image making them look like they did not care about their empire. This type of person includes the emperors Michael III, Alexander, and Romanos II, but at the time of the empire’s decline, emperors could no longer afford to be decadent or else it would mean the empire’s extinction.

Court of Emperor Michael III the Drunkard (r. 842-867)


Religious Rulers- Byzantium was an empire where the Church stayed powerful and many Byzantine rulers were serious Christians wanting to keep the faith strong against heresies but many were also religiously fanatical in acts considered heretical like Iconoclasm. Emperors who were zealously active in keeping the Orthodox faith strong were Theodosius I and Marcian while those who were fanatical in the Iconoclast movement that raged throughout the empire were Leo III and Constantine V.

Summary of the reign of Theodosius I (379-395)


Troubled Rulers- Many emperors have faced desperate situations when the empire was in serious trouble and they would anything to handle them even though they were met with failure in the end but some managed to think of good solutions to keep the empire stable in times of trouble but some remained unpopular despite doing a lot for the empire’s survival. Some troubled emperors like John V and John VIII were so desperate that they would do anything to save their empire, some like Constans II and Zeno were troubled in their reign but managed to break out of it by creating solutions, while the last emperor Constantine XI Palaiologos was also heavily troubled but he chose to end the situation by fighting to the death.

Constantine XI at the Siege of 1453


Usurpers- A lot of Byzantines desired power and many of them were generals who started rebellions to gain the throne which would mean overthrowing the previous emperor and executing their families. A lot of these emperors usually had a horrible personality only wanting power and at the end many failed to use them while only a few of these usurpers succeeded; these usurpers include Basiliscus, Phocas, Leontios, Leo V, Romanos I, Michael IV, and Andronikos III as well as the original rulers of the Tetrarchy before Byzantium started.

The Byzantine Emperor Maurice about to be executed by the usurper Phocas, having seen his five children killed in front of him, 602
Execution of Emperor Maurice by the usurper Phocas, 602


Evil and Scheming Rulers- It would be difficult and misleading to judge someone as evil but historians describe some Byzantine rulers as evil people who plotted to gain the throne through murder and deceit but usually resulting in success for them and the empire as a whole like Basil I and Michael VIII while some with their evil deeds like Phocas and Irene only ended in failure. Other evil emperors were known to be weak and violent “evil and idiotic” rulers like Andronikos I, Isaac II, Alexios III, and Alexios IV who’s reign only led to failure in the Byzantine state; others of this type were emperors but influential people known to have done crazy or evil things.

Rise of Emperor Isaac II Angelos, 1185 


Useless Rulers- It is also quite harsh to call someone useless but a lot of Byzantine emperors did not do much to protect or strengthen their empire but rather focused more on more useless things like building palaces and monasteries or were too focused on religious doctrine failing in checking the borders which had mostly led to failure in the empire; the useless rulers of Byzantium include Arcadius, Constantine VIII, Romanos III, and Andronikos II while other were only useless because they ruled too quick or were too young and did not have much impact like Leo II, Staurakios, Theodora, Alexios II and John IV.

The court of Emperor Arcadius (r. 395-408)


Constantine I the Great, Tetrarchs, and Constantinian Dynasty


Where else to start discussing the imperial personality of Byzantium but with the empire’s founder, the Roman emperor Constantine I known as “the great” who was one of the few rulers in history who has left behind a great impact in civilization itself. Constantine the Great (r. 306-337) was a popular and energetic ruler, successful general, a visionary, and a reformer who envisioned his empire as the first Christian empire and a new city to be the new capital of the Roman Empire and because of him, the Byzantine Empire was born and the new capital of the Roman Empire built, named “Constantinople” after him. Before Constantine I, the Roman world was in chaos with an empire so large it had to be divided into 4 parts with 4 emperors, this system became the Tetrarchy established by the Roman emperor Diocletian (r. 284-305) which at the end was not successful and led to more civil wars as it was ruled by ambitious and greedy rulers wanting to claim the empire after Diocletian abdicated in 305. The succeeding emperors Maximian, Maxentius, Constantius I, Severus II, Galerius, Maximinus Daia, Licinius, and Constantine all fought for power but at the end, Constantine won and became sole ruler of the empire in 324. Constantine was born as Flavius Valerius Constantius in today’s Nis in Serbia in 272- where its airport is named after him- and before becoming emperor in 306, he was only a staff officer in the army of his father, the senior Roman emperor Constantius I Chlorus (r. 305-306) of the west, who was an Illyrian and unlike the other Tetrarchs, Constantius I was not as greedy and ambitious to take the whole empire for himself or persecute Christians the way Diocletian and Galerius did as he was more focused on fighting wars in Britain against the Picts but was also dying from a sickness that made him very pale giving him the nickname “Chlorus”. Before dying in 306, Constantius I recommended to his army that his son Constantine be made senior emperor or Augustus and they did creating shock and more wars between the rulers of the divided Roman Empire. To be the full ruler of the empire, Constantine had to fight all his rivals: Maximian, Maxentius, and Licinus and he succeeded first at winning the whole Western Empire in 312 after defeating his brother-in-law Maxentius at the Battle of Milvian Bridge where he was killed and in 324; Constantine gained the east as well after defeating his other brother-in-law Licinius who he later executed after promising to spare him. Other than being a strategic general against his enemies, which were his own people, Constantine the Great did more after receiving the vision of the Cross before winning the Battle of Milvian Bridge; particularly beginning the toleration of Christianity with the Edict of Milan in 313 and in 325 set up the First Council of Nicaea where the statement of Christian doctrine was made and would still be used up to this day- the Nicene Creed- but Constantine only became a Christian before he died in 337. His greatest achievement had happened to be transforming the small town of Byzantium along the Bosporus Sea into Constantinople, the new imperial capital and in only a few years, this town was made into a great imperial capital of the new Roman Empire. Constantine if not a great visionary who made Christianity his empire’s religion and built the “New Rome” was an arrogant and ambitious man who was that proud of himself naming the new imperial city after him, named his sons Constantine, Constantius, and Constans and his daughter Constantia, while he also planned to have himself buried surrounded by the relics of the 12 Apostles, which he was, except not all the Apostles’ relics were found. True enough he deserves to be called “the great” because of the lasting effect of moving the imperial capital to the east wherein the Roman Empire would survive for more than a thousand years and because of his decision to make Christianity the state’s religion; it was just that behind all his greatness, he, like the Roman emperor Nero (r. 54-68AD) did not care to kill his family members including his son Crispus and wife Fausta- who was suffocated in a hot steam bath- but unlike Nero, Constantine did not care to do these killings as long as it was for the good of the state. In Constantine’s reign, other influential people included his mother St. Helena who helped in strengthening Christianity and found the true cross itself, Arius who as a revolutionary started the revolutionary Arian Heresy which tore the Christian faith apart yet Constantine did not succeed in resolving it, and the energetic Athanasius the bishop of Alexandria who strongly defended the Christian belief of the Trinity against the teachings of Arianism. At the end, Constantine the Great was the late and Eastern Roman version of the first Roman emperor Augustus Caesar (r. 27BC-14AD) as he had an effective and energetic rule fighting many civil wars making the Roman Empire, now based in the east a stable one, though after his death 337, conflict would return when his sons fought each other again for control of the empire. Constantine I’s legacy however would be very great as he made Christianity the religion that would be Byzantium’s binding force- though he was not overall religious himself- but he would be looked up to by the Byzantines in the next centuries that in fact 10 other Byzantine emperors were named after him, also Constantine the Great is considered a saint in the Orthodox Church despite his murderous acts. As a Roman emperor and the first Byzantine emperor, Constantine I if in a movie, comic, or series is a heroic character who achieved but to achieve his goals, he had to do evil things making him more like an anti-hero.

Graphic map of the Roman Empire in the Tetrarchy (293-324)
Constantine I the Great, the first Byzantine emperor (r. 324-337, reign as sole ruler of the empire)
The original Roman Tetrarchy- Maximian, Diocletian, Constantius I Chlorus, and Galerius
Constantine I’s vision before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, 312
Yoda meme of the founding of Constantinople “the New Rome”
Constantine the Great Airport in Nis, Serbia, birthplace of Constantine

Watch this to learn more about Constantine the Great, the first Byzantine emperor (from Eastern Roman History). 


Julian the Apostate and the Constantinian Dynasty  


After the death of Constantine the Great in 337, the empire was once again divided, now by the rule of his 3 sons Constantine II (r. 337-340), Constantius II (r. 337-361), and Constans I (r. 337-350) where they fought each other for full control. First, the eldest son Constantine II being the least known of the 3 sons I could say was quite useless as he was given the westernmost provinces of Spain, Gaul, and Britain and did not do much in his 3 year rule except for picking on his youngest brother Constans I by marching an army into Italy where he was ambushed in battle, by Constans I’s army, thus never becoming a Byzantine emperor himself. Constans I the youngest son who ruled the central provinces of Italy, Pannonia, and North Africa was a strong supporter of the Orthodox Christian faith and the bishop Athanasius but his personal life which was his said “homosexuality” and liking for his barbarian bodyguards scandalized his army leading to his assassination in 350. At this point, Constantius II, the middle son of Constantine I was the sole ruler of the Roman empire based in the new Capital, Constantinople which at this point became equal in status as an imperial city to Rome but he was someone difficult in personality for he is mostly described as an evil ruler who was very paranoid and jealous of others that like his father, he would have anyone including family members who were a threat to him executed; Constantius II was also ironically an Arian Christian. Constantius II however was faced with multiple threats in the empire’s borders such as the Alemanni and Franks in the west and the Sassanid Persians in the east which made Constantius II appoint his cousin, Julian his co-emperor in west while he faced the Persians in the east. Julian, the nephew of Constantine the Great was another complex person who is a mix of the visionary and scholar emperor but despite being his cousin’s co-emperor because there was no more male heir left in the family, he hated his cousin Constantius II for being the person behind the murder of his father and Constantine I’s half-brother, Julius Constantius back in 337 who Constantius II falsely accused of poisoning Constantine I, thus the soldiers rushed to his house and killed him. Julian though being misjudged by later especially Christian historians as the “Anti-Christ” is the type of person to feel sorry for because his mother died shortly after giving birth to him and as a child, his father was murdered in front of him making him orphaned and sent away to Asia Minor to be educated. Julian grew up as the awkward and shy but intellectual person who loved Greek philosophy that he called himself a philosopher and because of his love for philosophy and his strong belief in them, he remained untraditional by having a beard while the rest of his family didn’t and he rejected Christianity in which he was born to and when he became sole emperor in 361 after the death of Constantius II, he thought about restoring Paganism as the empire’s religion believing that the new faith of Christianity especially because of the conflicts between Orthodox and Arian Christians will lead to destroying the empire. Julian for renouncing Christianity was given the nickname “the Apostate” but he believed this would be necessary in once again making the empire stable instead of becoming more decadent; Julian who opposed the decadence of the empire did not desire much to be emperor but rather stick to his scholarly work such as the books he would write while he also favoured the Jews over Christians as he even planned to built their temple in Jerusalem the Romans destroyed centuries before. However, he became emperor and as a ruler he was another visionary but not a practical one as when he became emperor his personality changed, now believing he was invincible thinking his plans will work, but his dreams would only leas to his end. Thinking he could end the Persian threat by defeating them, he marched to Ctesiphon, the capital of the Sassanid Persian Empire but in June of 363, he was killed in battle and before dying admitted that Christianity has won and will be the state’s religion saying “thou has conquered o Galilean”. Julian died a tragic hero who ruled a short reign and never achieved his dream, but at least his death proved he was not as invincible as he thought he was and that his uncle Constantine the Great’s vision to make Christianity the faith of the empire was not undone. Julian died the last member of the short-lived Constantinian Dynasty, the only Pagan Byzantine emperor, and last Pagan Roman emperor; he was succeeded by his general, Jovian (r. 363-364) who reversed Julian’s plans and brought back Christianity. Julian for me is an emperor to look up to for not only was he an odd and left out person but he was a visionary with good intentions as he would have ended the bloody conflicts of Christianity even though rejecting the faith itself. He is overall an underrated ruler who deserve a better image and a longer life but his plans would still not work as the many in the empire had already become Christians.

Coronation of Julian in Paris, 360


Theodosius I, Valentinian, and Theodosian Dynasties


In 363, Julian died as the last Pagan emperor with his dream of restoring Paganism as Christianity only grew stronger with the next emperors but Christianity was still divided between the Orthodox faith and other heretical faiths such as Arianism. Jovian, Julian’s successor only ruled for a few months until his mysterious death in early 364, after which the general Valentinian was elected emperor by the army. Valentinian I (r. 364-375) is considered the “last great western emperor” and the greatest early Byzantine “soldier emperor” as he more or less a soldier in person. Valentinian I was known to be against the rich and focused on helping the lower classes where his family rose from; at the same time, he was also a skilled soldier and administrator who successfully won battles against the Alemanni, Sarmatians, and saved Roman Britain from falling to the Picts, Scots, and Saxons but he was also known for his extremely bad temper and low tolerance for disappointments that his death in 375 was caused by a blood vessel that exploded in his head out of anger. Valentinian I spent most of his reign ruling the west while his brother Valens (r. 364-378) was left to rule the east and like his brother, Valens was another effective soldier emperor, also as brutal, but a serious Christian too like his brother, although Valens was more paranoid about people plotting against him that he invented new methods of torture but on the other hand, he also supported the ordinary people of the empire the way his brother did and built many structures for the benefit of the people such as the massive aqueduct in Constantinople named after him. Valens was killed in the Battle of Adrianopolis against the Goths in 378 and for 1 year the Eastern Empire was in chaos, until Valentinian I’s son Gratian (r. 375-383) who ruled at the west appointed his brother-in-law Theodosius as emperor of the east in 379.

Theodosius I (r. 379-395) who came from Roman Spain was a successful general but more importantly best known as the first most serious Christian emperor who made Nicene Christianity the official religion of the empire in 380, began outlawing Paganism, allowed the destruction of many important Greek and Roman Pagan temples, and put an end to the centuries old Olympic Games of Greece in 393. Despite being a devoted Christian, his actions in slaughtering the rebellious population of Thessalonica for killing the Gothic garrison did not stop Theodosius from being banned from the cathedral in Milan by the bishop St. Ambrose who excommunicated Theodosius for some months. In 392, Theodosius I ruled the whole empire himself after the death of Gratian’s brother Valentinian II (r. 383-392) and in 395, Theodosius I died as the last emperor of the full Roman Empire north to south from Britain to Egypt, west to east from Portugal to Mesopotamia; ironically, the bishop of Milan Ambrose praised Theodosius for his piety and suppression of Paganism. Theodosius I’s death effectively separated the empire between east and west where the east ruled by his older son Arcadius (r. 395-408) became the stronger Byzantine or Eastern Roman Empire and the west ruled by the younger son Honorius (r. 395-423) would begin its rapid decline. Despite the east being strong and stable, its first ruler, Arcadius after the division unlike his father was a weak ruler one who was dominated by powerful people of his court such as his wife Aelia Eudoxia, the Gothic commander Gainas, the Praetorian Prefects Rufinus and Anthemius, the eunuch Eutropius, and the Patriarch of Constantinople St. John Chrysostom known for his speeches against Eudoxia and the elites of Constantinople and his ambitious plans to reform Byzantine society which failed as the empress banished him in 403. As emperor, Arcadius did not care much about what was happening around him such as the controversial speeches of the patriarch John Chrysostom, he also did not care to stop invasions or stop his generals from starting a war with the western empire but rather his mind was always elsewhere and focused more on being a pious Christian; although Arcadius was not a bad and corrupt ruler, he basically did not do much as the biggest achievement he had was only a new Forum in Constantinople which he had built. If the eastern emperor Arcadius was a weak and ineffective ruler, his younger brother Honorius who ruled the west from Ravenna starting at age 10 was much worse, absent minded, and mentally unstable that when Rome was sacked by the Visigoths in 410, he thought when hearing that Rome had “perished” he thought it was his rooster named Rome that had died causing him grief; like his brother his rule was dominated by other powerful people like the barbarian general Stilicho.

Back in the east, Arcadius died young in 408 and was succeeded by his young son Theodosius II (r. 408-450) who grew up to be a more effective ruler unlike his father and more like his grandfather, Theodosius I and ruled the empire strongly for 42 years. Theodosius II was best known for constructing the impregnable double walls of Constantinople that proved to be the most successful structure in defending the city for centuries; he was also known for being the first Byzantine emperor to codify Roman laws but when it came to signing documents, he was lazy and careless signing any without reading including one his sister Pulcheria placed to test him which was to sell his wife into slavery, and when he signed it, Pulcheria scolded him for being so careless. Theodosius II would be one of Byzantium’s most strategic and practical emperors for his works such as constructing the walls and he ruled a long reign until his death from a riding accident in 450, his sister Pulcheria temporarily succeeded him as ruler of Byzantium from his death in July of 450 till when she married the soldier and politician Marcian in November who then became the official ruling emperor. As a couple, Marcian and Pulcheria were serious Christians as well that Pulcheria considered to be one of the few good and virtuous rulers would spend a lot of time helping the poor of Constantinople and all her life till her death in 453 despite marrying remained a virgin; Marcian on the other hand was a practical and strategic ruler like Theodosius II but put an end to Theodosius II’s policy in paying off Attila and his Huns, instead Marcian launched expeditions were succeeded in driving out the Huns. Marcian had also settled many barbarian tribes into Roman territory and updated Orthodox Christian doctrine by setting up the Council of Chalcedon in 451 and after his death in 457, Marcian remained a popular ruler and good example of a capable one that people would shout “reign like Marcian!” when future emperors were crowned; Theodosius I, Theodosius II, Pulcheria, and Marcian are considered as saints as well.

Emperor Theodosius I (center) with Arcadius (left) and Honorius (right)


Zeno, the Isaurians, and the Leonid Dynasty  


In the 5th century, as the Western Roman Empire was collapsing, the east remained strong but its emperors were under the influence of powerful Barbarian generals, particularly the Goth Aspar who had a strong influence over the reign of Theodosius II, then made Marcian emperor in 450 following Theodosius II’s death, and after Marcian’s death in 457, Aspar still influential made one of his army officers named Leo emperor. Leo I, though a low-ranking poorly educated Thracian officer in the Byzantine army, he became emperor but had strong commonsense especially that he did not want to rule under the influence of a Gothic commander who was not even emperor but behind the scenes was the king-maker. To break free from being a puppet of Aspar, he promoted the Isaurian mountain tribes from Asia Minor as his new loyal bodyguards instead of the ambitious Goths and to do this he married his daughter Ariadne to the Isaurian leader Tarasis Kodisa renamed Zeno and in 471, Leo I using the Isaurians had Aspar with his son assassinated breaking free from Gothic influence and ruling on his own decisions as a capable ruler with the support of the Isaurians. Leo I knew he didn’t want to be a puppet of anyone so he decided ruling on this own was better, however he was old and died early in 474 succeeded by his grandson Leo II, the son of Zeno and Ariadne but Leo II was too young to sign official documents and manage an empire so large making him useless so his father was appointed as co-emperor to do official business while the young Leo II still had much to learn though later that year, he was said to have died leaving his father to succeed him.

Zeno had become emperor later in 474 but because of his barbarian origins- despite settling conflicts with the Vandals- he was unpopular among many citizens of Constantinople and especially hated by his mother-in-law and Leo I’s wife Verina and her brother Basiliscus while early in 475, Basiliscus took the throne for himself forcing Zeno, his wife, and other Isaurians to flee to Isauria leaving Constantinople in the middle of the night. Basiliscus- who’s name is synonymous with a reptile fits him- turned out to be an incompetent and weak-minded usurper who previously failed to recapture Carthage from the Vandals in 468 and as emperor, he did nothing to improve the empire except allowing the people to kill any Isaurian left out of anger. Basiliscus sent an army commanded by the Isaurian general Illus to chase Zeno but instead of capturing him, he defected to Zeno’s side and in 476 they marched back to Constantinople and overthrew Basiliscus while Zeno was put back in power and Basiliscus banished to Cappadocia. Zeno back in power was still unpopular and in 479 he would have been overthrown another time, this time by the usurper Marcian, the grandson of the emperor Marcian but Zeno was saved again by Illus, although Illus was someone who could not be trusted as he betrayed Basiliscus for Zeno and for Zeno was paranoid Illus will betray him for power and from 484-488 Illus true enough as he could not be trusted and was not loyal to anyone but himself started his rebellion against Zeno who then had him executed. In Zeno’s 2nd reign, he however failed to send aid to the last Western Roman emperor Romulus Augustus and his father Orestes in Ravenna in 476 as Zeno had just gotten back to power but when Odoacer overthrew the last emperor, he congratulated Zeno for his return to power and Zeno recognized him as a patrician and King of Italy. Zeno ruled a total of 17 years and 2 months but even at the end of it, he still remained unpopular which shows the racism of the people of Constantinople as they disliked being under the rule of someone foreign and of barbarian origin especially an Isaurian as these people were historically known to the Romans as savage bandits, but despite being so unlikeable by the people, Zeno did a lot for Byzantium especially in helping it survive and keep it stable by bribing the barbarians to stay west instead of attacking the east as the west had already fallen. Legend says that Zeno was buried alive but the truth could be that he died from epilepsy and shortly after his death in 491, his widow Ariadne married the Illyrian (Albanian) native finance minister Anastasius who succeeded Zeno. Anastasius I Dicorus (r. 491-518)- his nickname coming from the fact of his eyes having a different color from the other- was a whole different person compared to Zeno as he was what the people called an “Orthodox and Roman emperor” and not one of barbarian origins and unlike Zeno, he though not very popular but he was the “economist emperor” with the adept skill in money. Anastasius I though a strategic ruler who reformed the tax system was also a frugal and an old one too who did not spend much on projects but this made the empire very rich by the time he died in 518 at the age of 87 but childless. The story of Zeno, how he came from a barbarian mountain tribe, succeeded his son as emperor, and struggled to remain in power while facing so many plots against him is one of the most interesting and unique stories of rulers from around the world, and is one that deserves to be made a movie or series about. If a movie or series were to be made, Zeno is the type of underrated and underdog hero, his successor Anastasius more or less an old man with great economic abilities, while Aspar, Basiliscus, Verina, and Illus are nothing more than power-hungry villains who would end up failing to use their power.

Emperor Zeno on his throne


Justinian I the Great, Theodora, and the Justinian Dynasty


With the reigns of Zeno and Anastasius I, the empire had become both stable and rich and all it took to make it a world power was the will of a single man and the people he appointed. When Anastasius I died childless, it happened by chance that the commander of the palace guards, Justin who originally was an Illyrian peasant succeeded him as emperor. Justin I (r. 518-527) was already old when becoming emperor but his rise to power only happened out of chance as Anastasius had no direct heir; although Justin I was illiterate, he had a strategic mind in making alliances and bribing his way to power and to continue in making the empire rich, he also did not spend much in projects the way his predecessor did. Now, Justin I’s nephew and successor Justinian I “the Great” would have not become emperor if not for his uncle and with Justin I’s death in 527, Justinian the Great was crowned emperor. Justinian was born Flavius Petrus Sabbatius to the same peasant family of his uncle in 482 during the reign of Zeno in today’s Republic of Macedonia but was educated at a young age in Constantinople where his dreams of making the Roman Empire great again was born. Justinian I was a one of a kind character in history who began as a nobody, although his uncle Justin I was the original nobody but through good education, the passion for learning, and great skills in putting things together, Flavius Petrus Sabbatius would change the course of history by becoming emperor. Justinian I can be considered the greatest Byzantine emperor because he did everything any powerful and extraordinary ruler could do in one reign such as completely codifying Roman laws into more understandable books, constructing the Hagia Sophia which would be the grandest and largest church for centuries, building landmarks and cities all over the empire, successfully reconquering the lost Western Roman provinces of Italy, North Africa, and Spain, introducing silk production to Byzantium from silk worms smuggled from China, making an “eternal peace” with the Sassanid Persian Empire, and sending explorers and diplomats to the far parts of Asia, Europe, and Africa no Roman has ever been to before. Justinian I was an overall energetic and ambitious person who worked hard and persistently making him known as “the emperor who never sleeps”, he also had great vision and appointed people to positions not because of their social status but because of their great talents, and would do anything to make the Byzantine Empire a world power despite resulting in many lives lost. However, Justinian I’s choices for people he appointed were not popular among people such as psychopath John the Cappadocian who was appointed as the finance minister despite torturing people at his basement for not paying taxes and the lawman Tribonian who was corrupt and accepted any kind of bribes; these choices of people led to the Nika Riots in 532 where two rival teams similar to how two rival football teams would unit against one person, which was Justinian and it almost got him killed, but because of his wife Theodora’s decision to not flee, Justinian remained in power after he ordered the deaths of 30,000 protesters. Having the rioters killed and many as well in the Reconquests of Africa and Italy, Justinian seemed not to care much about human life but at the end, everything he did no matter how bloody made his empire powerful. Behind Justinian, his wife Theodora who came from Cyprus originated as a comedy performer had strong influence over him and in crucial decisions, some of them were vital to the empire such as when she urged him to kill the protesters of the Nika Riot rather than choosing to flee Constantinople but some of Theodora’s actions though would be disastrous for the empire such as plotting to get rid of the great general Belisarius out of jealously; nevertheless, Justinian would not refuse to listen to Theodora and her advices despite it leading to disaster. The reign of Justinian I (527-565) was successful not only because of him and Theodora but also because it had the best of people who did their part in making Byzantium a world power such as the generals Belisarius who like the Roman general Scipio and Germanicus before him was known for his natural gift in commanding men successfully reconquered North Africa for the Romans from the Vandals and most of Italy from the Ostrogoths and the eunuch Narses who was a skilled politician and soldier put the rest of Italy under Byzantine control in 552, Anthemius of Tralles and Isidore of Miletus who were the architects of the legendary Hagia Sophia, Procopius who wrote the detailed history of his reign, Tribonian who codified the laws, and other successful generals as well such as Mundus, Charsios, Godilas, and Liberius. On the other hand, it was thanks to the stability left behind by Zeno, the full treasury left behind by Anastasius I, Justinian’s visions of a rebuilt Roman Empire were enabled but this was a short lasting golden age of the Byzantine Empire, which would be the only time the Byzantines would have complete hold of the Mediterranean Sea. Justinian’s reign saw so many glorious days of reconquest and the building of architectural wonders but disastrous times too such as the extreme weather conditions or the “dust-veil” from 535-536, the Great Plague of 542 which even affected and almost killed him, several earthquakes within the empire, a couple of riots, the death of Theodora in 548, and the partial collapse of the dome of the Hagia Sophia in 553 and 557. Despite Theodora’s early death in 548, Justinian managed to still rule strong even with depression as it was after Theodora’s death when the whole of Italy and Southern Spain were reconquered and embassies were sent to the farther parts of the world and despite Justinian already growing old in age, he still stayed the same continuing his mission known as Renovatio Imperii even if it had become too difficult to achieve, especially after the impact of the 542 plague. Other than Theodora, important figures of Justinian’s reign including Belisarius, John the Cappadocian, Tribonian, and Procopius died leaving only the elderly Narses to outlive him. After his death his 565 at age 83, Justinian I left the Byzantine Empire at its largest extent, north to south from the Alps and the Crimea to Egypt, west to east from Spain to Mesopotamia but it did not bring in a new golden age but instead would be the last time the Byzantine Empire would be an empire so large as these large borders would become so hard and expensive to manage. Justinian I however left behind a great legacy for Byzantium and for the world today as well not just through the legendary Church of the Hagia Sophia and other landmarks in Constantinople and the empire but with his codification of laws known as the Corpus Juris Civilis. Like Constantine the Great, Justinian the Great dreamed at a large imperial scale and in fact dreamed much bigger than Constantine, although Justinian died before seeing the greatest dreams he achieved become ineffective and fall apart and like Constantine, Justinian played an important part in strengthening the Orthodox Christian Church and its doctrines together with Christianizing people as far as Russia and Nubia in Africa being a serious Christian ruler as well and after his death recognized as a saint despite actually being inclined to the heretical beliefs of Monophysites in his last years. Despite endless deaths caused by his wars for imperial expansion and persecutions of heretics as well as pride in naming new cities and official titles after him, he is still Byzantium’s greatest ruler, thus can be considered a saint for using his conquests as a way to spread Christianity; in fact centuries after his death, when the 4th Crusade army looted his tomb, his body was left uncorrupted. No other ruler in the Byzantine Empire would have the same great dreams and ambitions he did, neither did any other Byzantine ruler achieve this much and aside from him, there was only one other Byzantine ruler named Justinian. In history, other rulers who had the same dreams and accomplishments as well as persistence who could match Justinian were Suleiman I the Magnificent of the Ottoman Empire (r. 1520-1566), Stefan IV Dušan the Mighty of Serbia (r. 1331-1355), and Ivan IV the Terrible the first Tsar of Russia (r. 1547-1584), although Ivan despite his achievements was nicknamed “the terrible” for his brutality and military failures. Justinian the Great may have been unpopular early in his reign for his high taxes but after he proved Byzantium’s military might in his wars, he became popular among the people, although Justinian would become more popular and even loved as a Byzantine hero long after his death after leaving a legacy of greatness the Byzantines would be proud of. Justinian I’s successor, his nephew Justin II (r. 565-574) was the first ruler to be crowned in the new magnificent Hagia Sophia but as emperor, he failed to live up to his uncle’s greatness and failing to run an empire so large, he descended into madness later into his reign. If a movie or series were to be made about Justinian and his reign, it would be a high budget epic one as his reign was equally a high-budget epic period in history.

Imperial court of Justinian I and Theodora
Justinian I’s mission in life
Positive and negative effects of Justinian I’s reign
Greatest extent of the Byzantine Empire, under Justinian I in 555

Watch this to know more of the story behind the Nika Riots of 532 (from Invicta).

Watch this to know more about Justinian I and how the Byzantines stole the silk production secret of China (from Kings and Generals).


Justin II, Tiberius II, Maurice, and Phocas


The death of Justinian I in 565 did not start a new golden age for Byzantium, it only began the slow decline of the short-lived era of greatness Justinian brought as his ambitious projects and reconquests led to near bankruptcy. Justin II who succeeded his uncle Justinian I was constantly under the pressure to live up to his uncle in running the empire but failed; the Lombards began their invasions in Italy while the Bulgars started raiding in the northeast, while the “eternal peace” with Persia had been broken due to lack of funds to pay them tribute. Justin II came to power unofficially not being named as his uncle’s successor but used the moment of his uncle’s death to take the throne with the support of the army and senate. Thinking he would be able to run the massive empire his uncle left, the pressure of managing it and financing a large army to defend its borders became too much for him that it would start his slow descent into madness. In 574, his mental breakdown disabled him from running the empire alone so he abdicated and adopted Tiberius, the commander of the palace guard naming him his successor; although despite his growing insanity, Justin II was still able to impress the Turkic tribes with the silks Byzantium had produced ever since the silkworms were smuggled from China back in his uncle’s reign. When no longer fit to rule beginning 572, Justin II was said to bite people in his court, run around making the noises of wild animals, and had even tried to throw himself out of the window; his wife, the empress Sophia had to bar his windows so he wouldn’t jump, and to be calmed, Justin II had to have organ music constantly playing while he sat in a rocking throne, he would later die in 578 from a failed operation dying as the last Latin speaking emperor while his adopted son Tiberius II ruled effectively. Tiberius II Constantine (r. 574-582), the first Greek speaking emperor was a capable ruler, a skilled general and minister of war, but more importantly a good ruler according to Edward Gibbon as he was just to his subjects that he did not enslave his captives, he managed money well, and was a pious Christian too. Tiberius II though remains to be one of Byzantium’s most underrated rulers but was among the very few good and just Byzantine emperors who was popular among the people as well but he had to adopt the name Constantine in his title because his name Tiberius meant something negative to the Romans of Byzantium as it was the name of the unpopular and tyrannical 2nd Roman emperor (r. 14-37AD), the successor of Augustus. Despite him being a good and merciful emperor, Tiberius II’s reign wasn’t really significant and he did not manage the economy well; at his death in 582, Tiberius had no sons, so instead he was succeeded by his son-in-law the Cappadocian general Maurice who was married to his daughter Constantia.

Maurice (r. 582-602) as it turns out was another capable and practical ruler who managed the large empire Justinian I left behind well by establishing the 2 Exarchates or semi-autonomous regions ruled by a viceroy known as an exarch, where one was based in Ravenna in Italy and the other in Carthage in Africa as the emperor was all the way east in Constantinople. Maurice’s greatest skill was in warfare and battle strategy and is known to have written a battle strategy manual called Strategikon which discusses how the battle tactics of the empires’ enemies and how to combat them and was praised by armies for centuries as a perfect example of combined arms theory until World War II, although it was said to have only been commissioned by Maurice while its real author is his brother Peter. As emperor, Maurice successfully campaigned against Sassanid Persia and made peace with them after helping Chosores II become its emperor in 591, but the lack of funds to defend all of Byzantium’s borders caused Maurice to be unpopular especially among the army as he cut their payment. Maurice’s flaw was his strong faith in judgement and despite keeping Byzantium’s borders intact, he still made his soldiers constantly fight to defend the Danube borders against the raiding Avar and Slav armies without paying them as funds went short. Without the funds to pay the soldiers, Maurice still ordered them to stay for winter in the Danube frontiers to continue the fight which led the already exhausted and unpaid soldiers led by the centurion Phocas to mutiny against the emperor and on November 27, 602 before winter came, Phocas and his army had marched to Constantinople in a massive rebellion and overthrew Maurice; Maurice was first forced to see his 6 sons beheaded in front of him before he was beheaded himself dying as the last ruler of Justinian’s dynasty and the 55-year-old Phocas was proclaimed emperor; the bodies were then tossed into the Bosporus. Maurice surely knew how to run the large empire well that his decisions especially the ones regarding constant war were effective in defending the empire but had been unpopular among his army as it resulting in them not being paid as lack of payment is one of the main reasons why soldiers start mutinies. Maurice’s story shows that he really had no choice but to protect the empire’s borders even if the empire was running out of funds to pay the army, his decisions were beneficial for the empire’s survival but not beneficial for the morale of the army; the story of Maurice rather more or less shows the consequences of Justinian I’s ambitions in enlarging the empire.

Phocas, the successor of Maurice meanwhile turned to be so much worse as his execution of Maurice and his family gave reason for the Persian king Chosroes II who was married to Maurice’s daughter Maria to start a war with the Byzantines for killing the man who put him in the throne. As emperor, Phocas is considered the real villainous, destructive, sadistic, and tyrannical emperor who at his reign mostly focused on finishing off the surviving members of Maurice’s family and executing those who he saw as traitors or those only disloyal to him including burning alive a general who defected to the Persians. Phocas who began as a commoner only at the rank of centurion made the shocking move of overthrowing and killing an emperor, becoming emperor who ruled much worse abusing his power, appointing members of his family replacing the previous experienced commanders and officials with family members as only loyalty not skill mattered to Phocas. When it came to external threats such as the Lombards invading Italy, the Slavs invading the Balkans, and the Persians in the east, Phocas did nothing to prevent them instead focusing on wiping out anyone who was a threat to his power. At the end, Phocas became unpopular and a massive rebellion led by the Exarch of Africa Heraclius the Elder, his son Heraclius, and Phocas’ son-in-law Priscus was directed against Phocas and succeeded in overthrowing him on October 5, 610. In the end of Phocas’ reign, due to Phocas’ tyranny and failure to run state, the Persians conquered almost the entire Asia Minor until reaching the Bosporus right across Constantinople as the emperor was too busy quelling the rebellion of Heraclius while the Balkans were lost to the Slavs and Avars. Even if Phocas remained an unpopular tyrant in the east, the west including Pope Gregory I in Rome saw Phocas as a liberator from Maurice’s rule.


Heraclius and the Heraclian Dynasty


The 8-year reign of the tyrannical Phocas (602-610) brought so much ruin to the Byzantine Empire that one man, Phocas’ successor Heraclius had to fix all mess his predecessor made. After marching into Constantinople in October of 610, Heraclius the son of the Exarch of Africa Heraclius the Elder overthrew the usurper unpopular Phocas, executed him displaying his body parts in public, and Heraclius was crowned emperor; when he overthrew Phocas, Heraclius said to him “Is this how you have ruled wretch?” and Phocas replied “and will you rule better?”. Phocas’ reputation however was made to look evil through Heraclius’ reign as history is always written by the victor but still, Heraclius came in as a much more capable ruler who brought order back and once he came into power, he however focused on driving out the Persians in Asia Minor only 12 years later in 622 to gain more military experience but when experienced enough he was able to march deep into the Persian heartland.  Heraclius having not much military experience turned out to be an able commander and in 627, his armies defeated the Persians at the Battle of Nineveh and in 628, the Persian Shah Chosroes II, the mentally unstable bitter enemy of Byzantium was executed thus the war with the Zoroastrian Persians ever since 602 was put an end together with centuries of conflict between the Romans and Persians dating back to the Battle of Carrhae in 53BC, and the relic of the true cross which the Persians had stolen was returned to Jerusalem by Heraclius. Heraclius’ victory was brought also by his strong diplomatic skill in turning the shah’s brother-in-law the general Shahrbaraz against him and paying the Turkic tribes to attack the Persians. Meanwhile, as Heraclius was fighting in the east, Constantinople was besieged by the Persian armies combined with the Avars and Slavs in 626 but the walls built by Theodosius II 2 centuries earlier and divine intervention successfully spared the city from falling; Heraclius then returned victorious and the empire once again stable. Though returning stability and reconquering lands in the east lost to the Persians, Heraclius’ reign met a tragic end with a new inevitable enemy quickly rising, the Arabs who quickly captured Byzantine lands in the Levant beginning in the 630s. As early as 629, the Islamic Arab armies of the Prophet Muhammad raided into Byzantine territory in the Middle East but were at first defeated by the Byzantines, though in 637, the Byzantines were heavily defeated at the Battle of Yarmouk beginning the rise of Islam in the Middle East and their conquests of Egypt and Syria. Fighting the massive armies of the Muslim Arabs was nothing familiar to the Byzantines as the military manual or Strategikon of Maurice mentioned nothing about the Arabs and their tactics so to not make the same mistake Maurice did in persistently defending the borders despite running out of funds, Heraclius made the crucial decision of abandoning Egypt and Syria for it would be too expensive to fund the armies defending it as the Arabs were too powerful. Heraclius was overall a smart and capable ruler who knew how to make the right decisions and more importantly knew how to adapt to changes when his empire was severely challenged especially when the rich provinces of Egypt and Syria were lost to the Arab Rashidun Caliphate, but with what was left of the Byzantine Empire, Heraclius did not see it as a complete loss but something to make a solution of which was to continue minimize the provinces in order to recruit locally and defend the borders against the Arabs while for the economy, despite losing Egypt, he still saw that Thrace would be good enough to provide grain for its people but grain would no longer be free anymore. Like Maurice, Heraclius was a practical ruler in defending and stabilizing the empire but not a visionary like Justinian who thought about conquering lands as far as possible as Byzantium’s resources were diminished and the empire weakened from the war with the Persians; Heraclius made diplomatic relations with the new settlers of the Balkans, the Slavic Serbs and Croats although his flaws included his phobia for water that in his later years he did not want to see the water of the Bosporus, not being able to unite Orthodox Christianity with other new heresies by promoting a compromised doctrine called Monothelistism which was also seen as heretical, and marrying his niece Martina. Nevertheless, Heraclius adapted to changes well by laying the foundations to the Thematic System that would defend the empire and changing the official language of the empire from Latin to Greek which would from then on remain the official language, and by the time of his death in 641, the Roman Empire had become more Greek; as a matter of fact, Heraclius is mentioned in the Quran as the emperor of the Romans and the Prophet Muhammad even sent him a letter. Heraclius would be remembered as one of the greatest Byzantine emperors for ending the centuries long conflict with the Persians, although Heraclius may have lived too long as it would be better of his he died after victory over the Persians, instead he lived long enough to see the Arabs threatened his empire. The end of Heraclius’ reign in 641 saw a major turning point for the empire as it had been weakened enough from the war with Persians to not be able to resist the massive invasion of the Arabs, thus Byzantium was forever minimised in size and no longer the great empire it began as. The empire was left stable and less corrupt when Heraclius died in 641 but his death created a succession crisis between his popular son and successor Constantine III and Heraklonas, Constantine’s half-brother and Heraclius’ son with Martina. Constantine III however ruled for only 3 months while it was said that the scheming empress Martina poisoned him, although it was actually tuberculosis that killed him but Martina got things her way and her son Heraklonas was made emperor, though he was useless and in September of 641, Heraklonas and Martina were deposed by the army loyal to Constantine III who installed Constantine III’s son the 11-year-old Constans II as emperor while Heraklonas who’s nose was cut off was exiled to Rhodes where he died the same year and Martina’s tongue cut off as she was exiled to Rhodes as well.

Watch this for more information on Heraclius’ war with Sassanid Persia (from Kings and Generals).

Watch this for more information Heraclius’ first encounter with the Arabs (from Kings and Generals).

Remains of the Byzantine Empire, 641 (orange)


Constans II, Constantine IV, and Justinian II the “Slit-Nosed” 


With the succession crisis of 641 over Heraclius’ death over, the young Constans II, the grandson of Heraclius became emperor and inherited an already reduced Byzantine Empire vulnerable to Arab invasions in the east and in the state of perpetual war against Islam. Constans II however would grow up being an effective ruler of the empire and in around 659 when he was old enough, he took part in fully reorganizing the empire’s structure in creating Themes or much smaller provinces as a more effective form in defending the Eastern borders from the Arabs and the northern borders from the Slavs. Constans II was another practical ruler but was unsuccessful in battle compared to his grandfather as in 654, the Byzantine fleet was defeated at the Battle of the Masts off the coast of Asia Minor by the Arab fleet of the Rashidun Caliphate. Earlier in his reign however, the young Constans II despite having a weakened empire did the impossible by sending an embassy all the way to the imperial court of the Chinese Tang emperor Taizong in 643 probably to ask for an alliance against the Arabs. As an adult, Constans II knew how to run his empire well but was in constant fear that the Arabs who he could not defeat would besiege Constantinople causing the emperor in 663 to permanently leave the capital thinking about moving it to Syracuse in Sicily as Constantinople was in a dangerous position according to him. However, his plan failed and before he could move the capital, in September of 668, while at his bath, Constans II was assassinated by a soap dish wielded by his slave; Constans II thus died a smart ruler but his decisions had cost him his life. Before Constans II would be succeeded by his son Constantine IV, the Armenian noble usurper Mizizios who plotted the emperor’s death was proclaimed emperor in Sicily by the army against his will, and with the arrival of the young Constantine IV weeks later, Mizizios and Constans II’s murderers were executed.

Constantine IV (r. 668-685) now would be another successful yet underrated Byzantine emperor but overall a practical yet a “savior” emperor for successfully defeating an Arab invasion of Constantinople. From 674-678, the armies of the Arab Umayyad Caliphate were laying siege on Constantinople but with Constantine IV’s strategic thinking and having a powerful secret weapon known as “Greek Fire” made for the first time by the engineer Kallinikos, the besieging Arab fleet was burned by this new powerful flammable naval weapon and Constantinople was thus saved from total destruction. Like his great-grandfather Heraclius, Constantine IV was a strategic ruler but unlike his great-grandfather who failed to unite Orthodox Christianity and Monophysite heresies by promoting Monothelitism, Constantine IV successfully ended the Monothelitism controversy by organizing an Ecumenical Council in Constantinople from 680-681. Where Constantine IV failed on the other hand was in stopping the Bulgars from invading the Eastern Balkans where he had to cede this land to the Bulgar Khan Asparukh recognizing the creation of the First Bulgarian Empire. Constantine IV died at only 33 of dysentery in 685 but after death he became considered a saint for ending a religious controversy and saving Constantinople; a full mosaic of him with a bowl hairstyle, his brothers, and son and successor Justinian II can be found at the Church of Sant’Apollinare in Classe in Ravenna, Italy. Constantine IV’ son and successor Justinian II ruled twice from 685-695 and from 705-711 and at his birth was named Justinian by his father seeing that he would be as great as Justinian I was and upon becoming emperor at age 16; Justinian II took his namesake so seriously believing that he could live up to the greatness of Justinian the Great just like in the new Star Wars Trilogy where Kylo Ren always thought he could live up to his grandfather Darth Vader but failed, Justinian II was then despite his name not the second Justinian. Justinian II shared many traits with the first Justinian as both were ambitious, serious Christians, and dreamed at a large imperial scale but the difference with Justinian II was that with Byzantium’s limited resources and enemy threats on all sides, it could no longer expand the way Justinian I did before when resources were unlimited. In his first reign, Justinian II was nothing more but a delusional visionary believing he could live up to Justinian I but could by doing so many ambitious projects such as planning new conquests against the Arabs, Slavs, and Bulgars but failing in it. To put it short, Justinian II lacked in practical thinking the way his father and grandfather did and his personality was mostly based on passion and arrogance in wanting to be the best and making Byzantium strong again and he would arrest anyone who brought defeat to the Byzantines in battle even going as far as planning to arrest Pope Sergius I in Rome in 692 for not agreeing unite the Roman Church with Constantinople, but this plan of arrest failed. On the other hand, Justinian II was a pious ruler who started introducing the image of Christ in the coinage as well as introducing the new imperial fashion of the loros or wrap-around robe replacing the tunic and cape, but he was also so fixated in building grand palaces and churches that he imposed high taxes on his people making him unpopular thus making many enemies. In 695, people of the Anatolic Theme led by the Strategos Leontios, the people of Constantinople, the army, the palace guards, and the patriarch deposed him and cut off his nose sending him into exile all the way in Byzantine Cherson, north of the Black Sea.

Leontios who was made emperor in 695 was a successful general and Strategos as well as an Isaurian but after leading the army to defeat against the Arabs in 692, Justinian II had him imprisoned but after being released, he led the rebellion against the emperor and won becoming the emperor himself, although his reign would not be that disastrous except it would mark the beginning of the 22-year period of anarchy and 7 revolutions and the stability brought by Heraclius was thus broken, and the second age of Byzantine history began. In 698, the Umayyad Arabs captured Byzantine Carthage which had been under them since the reign of Justinian I (527-565), Leontios responded by sending a fleet to take it back but this mission failed and the Byzantines completely lost Africa for good. Since Africa had been lost, the army fearing punishment by the emperor Leontios proclaimed the commander Apsimar who was of Germanic descent as the new emperor renamed Tiberius III in Crete and back in Constantinople, Leontios was overthrown and sent to a monastery; Leontios however happened to be quite popular except that it was his only failed reconquest of Carthage would lead to an uprising deposing him. Tiberius III’s rule wasn’t much of a disaster and he was not an ambitious or cruel ruler as he did not anymore attempt to retake Africa and was more focused on fighting against the Umayyads in the east; the only bold move he did was deposing Leontios in 698, though Tiberius III would be overthrown in 705 surprisingly by Justinian II who had returned. While Leontios and Tiberius III ruled, Justinian II while exiled in Cherson in the Crimea became difficult to handle by the people that the governor plotted to arrest him causing him to flee to Khazaria where he married a Khazar princess and then back to Constantinople and by 705 with the help of the Bulgarian khan Tervel, Justinian II daringly returned to Constantinople through the aqueduct and after deposing Tiberius III was proclaimed emperor again despite having his nose cut off and replaced with a fake metal one having the nickname Rhinotmetos or “the slit-nosed”. When taking back the throne, Justinian II immediately had the noses of the previous emperors Leontios and Tiberius III cut off as an act of revenge before both were executed and Khan Tervel was given the title of Caesar for his help. Back in power, Justinian II still remained his hard-headed self not learning from his mistakes and still continued to plan wars against the Arabs that would only end in failure while also, he returned to power at the wrong time when Byzantium was already at the state of anarchy and loyalty of the people wasn’t with a single person. Justinian II at his 2nd reign, still thinking he could live up to Justinian I even renamed his new Khazar wife Theodora after Justinian I’s famous empress but to the people he was even more unpopular as he returned to power while the people including the pope in Rome still hated him for being tyrannical in his first reign. Because of his unpopularity, rebellions rose against him and the most successful one by Bardanes, the Strategos of Cherson who took Constantinople in December of 711 while the emperor was absent, killed the emperor’s young son and co-emperor and was proclaimed Emperor Philippikos while Justinian II returned only to deposed for a second time, and this time beheaded. Justinian II overall was someone of great ambition and skill as he resettled areas of the empire to balance population but he took his idolizing of Justinian I for who he was named after too seriously that all he thought about was living up to him while it was not possible especially in his time when the Byzantine Empire grew unstable, short of funds, and threatened on all sides by enemies. Justinian II never really cared about reality and instead followed his passions too seriously that he grew too increasingly tyrannical making him not another version of the original Justinian. Like Zeno, Justinian II returned to power after being overthrown but Justinian II’s fate was more tragic as his first reign ended with his nose being cut off and his second one ending with his execution. To make it short, Justinian II put his ambitions over listening to his people and the dire situation of the empire which led to his downfall twice. At the end, the slit-nosed emperor was nothing more than a failed visionary who can be an ideal movie villain with his slit-nose as his prominent feature and origin story for villainy, but his death marked the end of the line of Heraclius.

Watch this to know more about Justinian II’s first reign (from Eastern Roman History).

Watch this to know more about Justinian II’s second reign (from Eastern Roman History).

Mosaic of Constantine IV, (center left) with his brothers Heraclius and Tiberius (2nd and 3rd on the left), and his son Justinian II (leftmost)
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Original Themes from 659 under Emperor Constans II
Remains of the Byzantine Empire after Justinian II’s death, 705


Leo III, Constantine V, and the Isaurian Dynasty


Following Justinian II’s second deposition late in 711, the empire was now in a state of ruin, heavily reduced, and likely to be ended by the Arabs and worse, the Strategos Philippikos Bardanes who took over as emperor after deposing Justinian II for the second time was another unsuccessful, violent, and useless usurper who not just finished off Justinian II’s family but failed to stop the Arabs from marching further into Asia Minor, tried to restore the doctrines of Monothelitism which had been banned earlier, and in 713 the soldiers of Opsician and Thracian Themes rebelled against him, deposed, and blinded him sending him off to a monastery where he died shortly after. The army replaced Philippikos as emperor with his secretary Artemius who was renamed Anastasius II and reigning as emperor he was a more competent one who repaired the walls of Constantinople and restocked the food supply in order to prepare for an upcoming Arab siege but the same army of the Opsician Theme grew unhappy with the new emperor and rebelled against him, and without having someone in mind as a new leader, appointed a random tax collector as the successor to the empire, though this random tax collector refused and tried to hide but when he was found, the troops proclaimed him Emperor Theodosius III in 715 thus forcing Anastasius II to step down. Nothing much can be said about Theodosius III’s reign from 715-717 but that it was only 2 years like the 2 others before him and he was not up for the job that a large rebellion of the Anatolic Theme led by its Strategos Leo the Isaurian and the Armeniac Theme led by its Strategos Artavasdos marched into Constantinople making Theodosius gladly step down passing the throne to Leo the Isaurian who was proclaimed Emperor Leo III (r. 717-741) and he came in as emperor right in time for the massive Arab siege of 717-718.

Leo III was another emperor of low birth, he was an Isaurian born as Konon in Byzantine Syria in 685 and the first recording of him was as a young shepherd encountered by Justinian II in Thrace in 705 while on his way to regain the throne in Constantinople. Since Konon provided the army of the emperor with sheep to eat and was fluent in Arabic, Justinian II put him under his service as a spy and later on sometime between 713 and 715, Konon was appointed as the Strategos of the Anatolic Theme by Anastasius II. In July of 717, some months after Konon became Emperor Leo III, the Umayyad Arabs laid siege again to Constantinople and this siege lasted an entire year but thankfully the walls were strengthened and the food supply restocked by Anastasius II; meanwhile during the period of the siege Leo III faced rebellion in Sicily but this was put down, though Sardinia and Corsica slipped out of Byzantine control, but the Byzantines still successfully defended their walls against the Arabs forcing them to flee and as the Arabs fled, the Byzantine navy destroyed the Arab fleet once again with Greek Fire but salvation came for the Byzantines when their old ally, the Bulgarian khan Tervel rode chased the remaning Arab land army making them abandon the siege. With Leo III, Constantinople was again saved and at peace with the new Bulgarian Empire while the Arabs were chased away, Leo however would not be like the previous emperors and instead declared his mission to start a new dynasty which would restore stability as he crowned his infant son Constantine V his co-emperor. Leo III would best be known for instituting a new code of laws that merged Roman Law with Biblical Law but more importantly for first instituting Iconoclasm in 726 which was his policy to ban the veneration of icons the Byzantines so loved. Leo III who came from the east came to hate the icons believing them as useless and as a symbol of the rich but also because he was exposed to Islamic teachings that forbade icons and he also blamed the veneration of icons for being the cause of Byzantium’s constant defeats making many ordinary people especially soldiers agreed with this policy to ban icons but the women and educated people opposed Leo’s policy. Leo III’s reason to start Iconoclasm was also that the Church hadn’t made up its mind yet if icons were forbidden or not but for Leo it was a violation of the second commandment and when this movement officially began in 730, icons and images were ripped off from churches and destroyed. This new policy of Leo III led many to rebel especially the western provinces that in Italy, the new settlement in the Venetian Lagoon declared independence from Byzantium becoming the Republic of Venice which elected Orso Ipato as its first doge or ruler, though the new Republic of Venice was still recognized by Leo III as they agreed to be political allies with the Byzantines. Leo III was overall a controversial figure as he was a great emperor who successfully defended Constantinople from the 2nd Arab Siege and restored stability after 22 years of anarchy but he also instituted the policy of Iconoclasm believing it would keep the empire strong, but it only led to tearing the empire apart.

At Leo III’s death in 741, he was succeeded without violence by his son Constantine V who was even more of an Iconoclast than his father but still a capable military leader and strategist but 1 year into his reign he was overthrown by his father’s old ally, the Strategos Artavasdos who was married to Leo III’s daughter and Constantine V’s older sister Anna making him a family member as well and from the Isaurian Dynasty as well. The Armenian Artavasdos usurped Constantine V most likely out of his greed for power but he also thought Leo III as his old friend promised him the throne and that Constantine V due to his medical condition of leprosy or epilepsy was not fit to rule. Like Zeno, Constantine V was deposed 1 year into his reign and forced to flee and regroup with an army but from 742-743, Artavasdos ruled abandoning Iconoclasm though his rule ended quick when Constantine V regained the throne in 743 defeating Artavasdos’ forces in battle and with Constantine back in power, Artavasdos and his 2 sons, Constantine’s nephews were blinded in public and sent to the Chora Monastery where they died. Constantine V came back to power again as the 3rd Byzantine ruler to return to power after being overthrown and reversed Artavasdos’ policies making Iconoclasm even stronger making his policies even more Iconoclast than that of his father that had all images removed from churches and replaced with simple crosses, while hearing the word “saint” made him so angry that he banned the use of the word and renamed churches, and to monks who opposed him he would have their beards oiled and lit up executing them that way. To make it short, Constantine V was the Byzantine Hitler as Constantine V carried out the holocaust on icons. Constantine V on the other hand was an effective ruler as he reorganized and limited the size of the Themes to prevent rebellion and successfully fought off the Arabs and Bulgars taking back a lot of lost parts in Asia Minor too while spending most of his reign away from the capital campaigning, but he still failed to keep Byzantine Italy protected leaving Ravenna to fall to the Lombards in 751. The biggest failure of Constantine V’s reign happens to be his strong devotion to his father’s Iconoclast policy leading to extreme religious fanaticism which was even stronger than the one of Theodosius I back in the late 4th century as Constantine V ended up persecuting countless monks while his Iconoclast policies had also created opposition to Byzantine rule from people in Italy who were mostly Catholics under the Roman Church. Constantine V ruled long until he died of sickness while campaigning against the Bulgars in 775 but when Iconoclasm was condemned after his death, writers portrayed him as an evil monster- like Byzantium’s Darth Vader and Hitler- taking pleasure in destroying icons as well as calling him Kopronymos meaning “shit-named” for they considered him a shitty person. Constantine V may have been a villain emperor for ruining Byzantium’s culture of icon art and veneration but his efforts in restoring the empire to military greatness and his abilities in war make him a great military emperor despite suffering chronic sickness. Both Leo III and his son Constantine V were exactly the same in personality as they were both talented statesmen and generals but fanatical in religious policy that would shake the empire and tear it apart except that the son was a stronger Iconoclast fanatic who didn’t care to attack monasteries for opposing him. The usurper Artavasdos on the other hand was much more different for he was nothing more but power hungry but was more relaxed when it came to Iconoclasm but he still would have allowed it to happen as he tolerated the people’s destruction of icons.

Watch this for more information about Leo III, the 717-18 Siege of Constantinople and Iconoclasm (from Eastern Roman History).

Iconoclasm under Leo III
Summary of Constantine V’s Iconoclast reign


Irene, the Isaurian, and Nikephorian Dynasties


Shortly after the death of the fanatical Iconoclast emperor Constantine V in 775, the veneration of icons would once again return due to the will of a woman ruler named Irene, Constantine V’s daughter-in-law. Constantine V was succeeded by Leo IV, the eldest of his 6 sons; Leo IV was nicknamed “the Khazar” as his mother was the Khazar princess Tzitzak while his younger brothers were his father’s sons with other wives. Leo IV was however another Iconoclast but not a serious one as he was not really an energetic and zealous ruler like his father and grandfather, not because he did not care but when he came to the throne he was already dying from tuberculosis and 5 years later in 780, he died. Leo IV at least during his 5 year reign managed to drive the Abbasids raiders in most parts of Asia Minor and dealt with the plot of his younger half-brothers the Caesars Nikephoros and Christopher to take the throne despite suffering from sickness. Leo IV’s 5 younger half-brothers saw Leo’s sickness as an advantage to take the throne but at his death, he was succeeded by his only son Constantine VI who only 9 years old ruled with his mother, Irene Sarantapechaina of Athens as his regent. Irene of Athens was chosen as Leo IV’s wife by his father Constantine V but ironically while Irene was the regent empress, she organized the 2nd Council of Nicaea in 787 that effectively brought back the veneration of icons ending Leo III’s Iconoclast policy. When Constantine VI matured in 790, he ruled on his own but as a useless and arrogant ruler while his mother constantly tried to get herself to rule with him but he kept on refusing believing he would rule effectively but he didn’t as he was defeated in battle both by the Arabs and Bulgars. Constantine VI was one emperor with a horrible personality as he always bragged that he would be an effective ruler and skilled general but when at battle against the Bulgars, he once fled like a coward when his army was at the point of defeat, he was focused on crushing rebellions against him and once blinding a rebellious general, and he was also disloyal to his wife Maria of Amnia divorcing her only for not producing a male heir while he preferred another woman. Constantine VI was so unpopular with the army that they moved to make his uncle the Caesar Nikephoros emperor but Constantine countered this act by having his uncle blinded and the tongues cut off for the other 4 uncles to disqualify them from the throne. For being a petty ruler blind to power and focused only on punishing people who opposed him, the people shouted insults at him including calling him a coward and in 797, his mother who he banished returned with the support of the army and in a coup, she arrested and overthrew him, then blinded him in the room where he was born; the blinding had been so bad that it was said Constantine VI died shortly after.

Irene of Athens, the mother of Constantine VI then became the sole ruler of the empire and the first female ruler who would be a more capable ruler but still didn’t do any better as she was bad with money that she promised to pay the Arabs a large amount of money for peace despite the empire already being bankrupt. Irene had also been unpopular with the people as they were horrified with what she did in blinding her son even if he was hated but this blinding was already considered bizarre for the Byzantines though the people hated her more for agreeing to a marriage with the newly crowned emperor in the west, Charlemagne. At this point, the pope in Rome no longer trusted the Byzantines for their arrogance as well as being horrified for their destruction of icons so for protection against the Lombards, he turned to the Franks and crowned their king as the restored Roman emperor of the west in 800 for bringing back security but to the Byzantines, this move was shocking as they were no longer the only full empire in the world and more so that the pope had crowned a barbarian as “Roman emperor”, though to Charlemagne and the west, the Byzantine Empire then was not a legitimate empire as it was ruled by a woman. Marrying Charlemagne would’ve reunited the east and west just as it was in the time of the Roman Empire but the people of Constantinople opposed it as they did not want a barbarian like Charlemagne to rule them, leading to a revolution against Irene. In 802, the people declared Irene deposed and she was replaced as ruler by the finance minister Nikephoros “Genikos”, thus discontinuing the proposed alliance with the new Holy Roman Empire and Charlemagne.

When Nikephoros I came to power on October 31, 802, Irene was exiled to Lesbos where she died a year later while the empire was left in another period of instability even if it had regained some old territories, though the new emperor would do the best he could to reorganize the empire. Nikephoros I was at least better at managing the economy as a finance person but he failed at making peace with Charlemagne and the west resulting in the loss of Byzantine Balkan territories, but he still did not care about the matter of Iconoclasm continuing Irene’s policy of allowing icons to continue being venerated. The Bulgarians however troubled Nikephoros more than the Arabs so in 811, he marched into Bulgaria, sacked their capital which was Pliska, and almost succeeded in ending the Bulgarian Empire by capturing many citizens going as far as torturing children, massacring thousands, and burning down towns. The mysterious Bulgarian khan Krum however offered to make peace with Nikephoros but as Nikephoros was determined to end the Bulgarian Empire as he was so close to capturing all of it, he led his army to a mountain pass but on July 26, 811 Nikephoros and his army were ambushed by the Bulgarians and Nikephoros was killed there, his skull was then taken to be used by the Krum as his drinking cup. Nikephoros I was succeeded by his son Staurakios who ruled for only 3 months barely accomplishing anything so in October of 811 he had to abdicate due to being paralysed in the battle that killed his father. Staurakios was succeeded by his brother-in-law Michael I but was a weak ruler defeated in battle in 813 against the Bulgars again and as a rebellion by the Strategos of the Anatolic Theme was starting, Michael I chose to abdicate rather than let the rebels depose him. Back to Irene, she was unfortunately a weak and power hungry ruler who did not know how to run the empire well compared to her predecessors Leo III and Constantine V and was bad at money but on the positive side she ruled better than her useless, power hungry, and bloodthirsty son Constantine VI that her greatest achievement was not being the first female Byzantine ruler but restoring the veneration of icons. Irene who ruled for 22 years both as regent and full ruler was the last of the Isaurian Dynasty while the new dynasty that took over, the Nikephorian was first ruled by a more able politician and energetic general but was brutal when it came to attacking his enemies, his son however would be useless only because we was seriously injured, then Michael I was rather another unfit ruler who did not have the courage to face opposition against him. However, in the dynasty of Nikephoros I, Irene’s efforts in putting down Iconoclasm continued; Iconoclasm was only dormant until 815 when Michael I’s successor Leo V instituted a second but less intense phase of it.

Watch this for more information of the reigns of the Isaurian emperors, the Byzantine-Bulgarian Wars, and the Battle of Pliska in 811 (from Kings and Generals).


Theophilos, Theodora, and the Amorian Dynasty 


Following the deposition of Irene in 802, the Byzantine Empire changed dynasty to a new one that could have promised stability but its first emperor Nikephoros I was killed in battle, succeeded by his paralysed son Staurakios who had to abdicate, who was succeeded by his brother-in-law Michael I who did not have the courage to face opposition so he resigned allowing the rebel general Leo the Armenian to be crowned emperor in 813. The short-lived Iconodule Nikephorian Dynasty was another failed one that promised success ending with a non-dynastic usurper becoming emperor and once again restoring Iconoclasm. The new emperor Leo V who was the Strategos or general of the Anatolic Theme coming from Armenian descent was a strong supporter of the policies of the late emperor Constantine V and in 815 blaming Byzantium’s defeats to the Bulgars on the restoration of icon veneration declared the second Iconoclast movement the moment Leo V ended the fighting with Bulgaria. This second movement was however not as intense as the first one as Leo V only went as far as to confiscate the properties of monasteries including its icons and treasures to raise funds unlike under Constantine V where monks were tortured and executed. As emperor, Leo V was an able ruler appointing experienced generals such as Michael of Amorion and Thomas the Slav, although growing suspicious of Michael thinking he would start rebellion against him, the emperor had Michael jailed. With Michael jailed, Leo V prepared for his execution but Leo’s wife made him postpone it to after Christmas giving time for Michael in jail to plot Leo’s death. During the Christmas Eve Mass of 820, the assassins dressed up as the choir charged at Leo killing him leaving the palace church’s doors barred so that the guards won’t stop them and help Leo; the emperor’s body was then dumped into the snow as the assassins rushed to the prison to crown Michael the new emperor. With the key kept hidden by one of Leo V’s men, the assassins could not free Michael from the chains on his legs so he was crowned Michael II in the dawn of Christmas Day of 820 while still having the chains on him until morning when a blacksmith could forge a new key.

Leo V would have succeeded in ruling but he met his end being assassinated on the orders of his friend who he fell out with, though Michael II as emperor would however still continue Leo V’s Iconoclast policies but still keeping it more moderate but as emperor, Michael II began the short-lived Amorian or Phrygian Dynasty and another period of stability. As a soldier, Michael II was skilled in handling war that we was able to crush the long rebellion of his old friend Thomas the Slav presenting himself as a champion of the poor who posed as the late emperor Constantine VI who was already said to be dead from the blinding he received; Michael II’s failures however would be losing Crete and parts of Sicily to the Arabs. Michael II with his first wife Thekla who died in 823 only had one child, the next emperor Theophilos though Michael would later marry Euphrosyne of the Isaurian Dynasty, the daughter of the late Constantine VI and granddaughter of Irene. Michael II’s rule was however not popular for his Iconoclast policies but he was still a practical ruler in times of trouble though by later sources, he is depicted as poorly educated and ignorant; he only ruled for less than 9 years dying in 829. The young Theophilos became emperor in the same year and his stepmother Euphrosyne arranged a bride-show for him featuring one woman per theme where he would have to choose one; Theophilos at first went for the later famous poet Kassia but turned her down for her rebuttal to him thus choosing another woman named Theodora.   As emperor, Theophilos proved to be a good judge charging those who were responsible for Leo V’s death but was still a strong Iconoclast who went as far as torturing Iconodule poets by tattooing their faces with poems against them and burning the hands of the icon painter Lazarus Zographos, although Theodora convinced her husband the emperor to release the painter from prison before his death. While Theophilos stuck to making the empire Iconoclast, Theodora secretly venerated icons and when caught she made up an excuse to her husband that she was playing with dolls. Theophilos was however a competent and innovative emperor who made Cherson above the Black Sea a Theme, build hospitals that would last centuries, personally lead military campaigns against the Arabs and Bulgars who became enemies again, and most importantly commissioned the mathematician Leo to make a beacon lighting system across the Themes to send word to Constantinople if any Theme was in danger, similar to the beacons from The Return of the King in the Lord of the Rings Trilogy. Theophilos was another great and smart Byzantine ruler continuing a period of stability but died young in 842 due to his failing health while his son Michael III who succeeded him was only 2 making Theodora rule for him as his regent. As soon as Theodora ruled as regent for her young son, she organised a Church council in 843 that had once and for all put an end to Iconoclasm and restore the veneration of icons for eternity. Ironically, icon veneration was once again restored by a woman as regent for her young son the same way Irene did 56 years earlier and for her efforts in restoring icon veneration, the empress Theodora is considered a saint, though ending Iconoclasm would be her only contribution to Byzantium. When Theodora’s son Michael III was old enough, Byzantium was once again a stable empire ready to expand and spread its culture, though Michael III himself was a useless and decadent ruler known as “the drunkard” who ended up being assassinated by his own protector, Basil the Macedonian who then became emperor in 867 starting the glorious Macedonian Dynasty. I will end this long article with Michael III and in my next one, I will move on to Basil I and start of the new golden age.


Now after so much words, I’ve arrived at the conclusion! However, this is not yet the end as I will have a part 2 and 3 of this article featuring the next emperors from where I left of, which was with Michael III and from this point, stories of the Byzantine Empire will get even more twisted yet the Byzantine Empire would become more successful than was for the last few centuries. If some emperors from Byzantium’s foundation in 330 up to where I left of in the 9th century had some crazy stories including a centurion who overthrew an emperor, becoming one, then being overthrown; one killed in his bath, one who’s nose was cut off, some who zealously campaigned on destroying icons, and one female ruler who though she could do better but ended up deposed; the next centuries of Byzantium, more crazy stories are bound to happen when sons would overthrow their fathers and more people coming from nothing rise to the throne. Byzantium’s history had 3 ages and in the first age, the empire was more less the continuation of the Roman Empire but undergoing transition from the Classical Age to the Middle Ages and at this time, mostly all emperors were great military leaders and administrators except for a few useless and delusional ones like Arcadius, Phocas, and Justinian II. However, when Byzantium reached its second period, after the first deposition of Justinian II in 695, a time of trouble and anarchy entered and when stability resumed with Leo III, the Byzantine Empire became much weirder and more “byzantine” to describe it especially with the Iconoclast movement going on while rulers had started to become more focused on keeping their power rather than expanding the empire, nevertheless the second age of Byzantine history was the time when the empire constantly was aware against threats and strongly fought on the defensive side, though by the 10th and 11th centuries, the tide for Byzantium would change and the empire would once again begin an age of conquests thanks to the efforts of many capable military emperors that would appear in the next articles. Out of the emperors from Constantine the Great to Theophilos, of course I have to say Justinian I the Great is my top pick as no other emperor dreamed as big as him and accomplished so much all in one reign but of course, behind it all, Constantine the Great is the greatest of the Byzantine emperors, because without him, the empire would not come to exist especially if he hadn’t moved the Roman Empire east. For a personal favorite though and a character I could relate to, it is Julian the Apostate, though being odd and controversial he had good intentions and was wise enough to see that Christianity, though being the empire’s binding force would be also its cause of destruction meaning it shouldn’t be the state religion, but at least he still tolerated it and even with him as a Pagan emperor ruling longer, Christianity would still survive; though it’s quite unfair that Byzantine historians had negatively portrayed him only because he was an odd person; he however met a tragic end but his dreams still cost him his life. Like Julian, many others emperors especially those who were deposed were made to look even worse than they actually were to strengthen the rule of the new emperor; these rulers include the emperors Phocas and the Iconoclasts Leo III, Constantine V, Leo V, and Michael II, although Phocas and Basiliscus were surely destructive rulers who would have made things worse, at least the Iconoclast emperors were not all that bad as despite their actions, they were still strong rulers and able commanders in war. Meanwhile, the early rulers like Valentinian I, Valens, Theodosius I and II, and Leo I were nothing more but practical soldier emperors while only Arcadius was a useless one but still no consequences came from his reign as his son was a strong ruler but Zeno was a different person altogether as he was also seen negatively only because of his foreign origins, but putting his race aside, he made a great emperor who helped Byzantium survive while his successor Anastasius I did even better in making the empire rich enough for Justinian to make it a world power. Justinian I’s great ambitions and conquests would have its consequences too as funds ran short and borders collapsed causing his successor Justin II to go insane and Maurice to have no more funds to pay his troops starting a period of disaster; Maurice however knew how to manage the empire well except that funds were not always unlimited especially with an empire so big. Heraclius on the other hand was more of a saviour emperor who brought Byzantium back to stability from the destruction Phocas made though Byzantium would not be great again especially since the Arabs had risen and became a constant threat, but Heraclius’ descendants like Constans II and Constantine IV were strong rulers who despite being unknown these days were actually the unknown saviours of Byzantium. Justinian II meanwhile was a tragedy for he thought he could bring greatness back but at his time it was just too impossible, thus his end was tragic and Byzantium went through a period of anarchy, but thanks to Leo III and the Isaurian Dynasty, stability was brought back when Constantinople was saved again from another siege, though things would also become worse with the destruction of icons, meaning a possible end to the meaning of Byzantine culture. Following them, Irene was someone with good intentions but failed to use them as she mismanaged the empire but after she was deposed, things would actually not become worse but start getting better by the reign of Theophilos in the 9th century. As I continue the story on the next emperors, things will both be much better when energetic and capable rulers come to the throne but also much worse for Byzantium as later rulers would see running the empire like running a family business while others had either horrible personalities or were just brainless thus leading to the empire’s decline but at the end, the Church would remain Byzantium’s strongest institution that lasted longer than all the dynasties. After all, since the personalities of the emperors affect their decisions, thus affect the empire as whole, which is why studying the emperors’ personalities are important as this is usually what changed the course of Byzantine history. Since there are more than 90 emperors, I have to continue the rest in the next 2 articles and yet this one has been so long, especially since I had to describe each of the 11 personalities and the earlier Byzantine rulers strangely have more information about them while the later one have much less. Anyway, this is all for part one the personalities of the Byzantine emperors, I hope you all enjoyed despite a long read and goodbye! thanks for viewing!

Published by The Byzantium Blogger

Powee Celdran, currently majors in Entrepreneurial Management, a Byzantine scholar and enthusiast, historical military sketch and bathroom mural artist, aspiring historical art restorer, Lego filmmaker creating Byzantine era films and videos, and a possible Renaissance man living in modern times but Byzantine at heart. Currently manages the Instagram account byzantine_time_traveller posting Byzantine history related content.

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