Roman and Byzantine Comparison Series- Part2: Emperors and the Imperial System

Posted by Powee Celdran


Previous article on the comparison series: Roman and Byzantine armies

Next article on the comparison series: Roman and Byzantine imperial cultures


Welcome back to another Byzantium Blogger article and part 2 of the Roman and Byzantine Empires comparison series! The last article I wrote just recently was the first part, which was on the similarities and differences as well as the evolution from the Roman to Byzantine armies. Now for part2, I will be focusing on what the Romans and their successors the Byzantines had in common in their government, more particularly the imperial system as well as on the evolution of imperial power. This article though will be another very long one but since most of you are still in lockdown period, this is still something to read to pass the time, also it will have a lot pictures and memes to add to the fun. So anyway, basically Rome and Byzantium were still the same empire except that the Byzantine Empire had continued the Roman Empire after the 4th century with the capital  known as the Caput Mundi or “Capital of the World” being moved east to Constantinople, formerly the port of Byzantium, but even with a new capital, the government systems had stayed more or less the same, which is why Byzantium was actually the continuation of Imperial Rome. The Roman Empire if included with its continuation the Byzantine Empire had lasted for more than 1,000 years under the rule of emperors and from the foundation of the Roman Empire in 27BC to the division of the empire between east and west in 395 wherein the east became Byzantium there were more than 70 emperors and from 395 to the end of the Eastern Roman Empire in 1453, there were 84 emperors. Now the year 395 marks the final division of the Roman Empire wherein the western half based in the city of Ravenna fell in less than a century in 476 while the eastern one based in Constantinople continued on for a thousand more years. The reason for why the Roman Empire survived not only the original one based in Rome but more so its continuation based in Constantinople was that the imperial government system was a stable one despite its succession and politics being not at all stable. The system was stable basically because it never changed and people were fine with it that way, but still this has been a very drastic change from the system of the early Romans. Even before the Roman Empire was founded in 27BC with Augustus Caesar becoming its first emperor, Roman civilization has already existed for several centuries with legend claiming that Rome had been founded in 753BC and till 509BC was a kingdom until the people overthrew their kings and established a republic where the senate ruled. However in 27BC things turned differently again where a ruler with ultimate power had returned yet at the end, the Roman people came to accept it due to the success of Augustus’ rule while before that, the Romans hated being ruled by a king. The rise of Augustus as emperor and more so his death in 14AD was a total turning point in the history of the Roman world as from then on, one person would be the ultimate ruler of the empire and for more than a thousand years the Roman world, with Byzantium following it would remain this way. The change in the Roman world from the Republican to Imperial system was a solution to stop constant civil wars the tore the Romans apart but even with the imperial system in place, this was not the outcome as civil wars had still gone on but not as frequent and every once in a while a usurping general or politician would be made emperor either by the army or senate. Now even if the Roman Empire was an empire with an absolute ruler, it was still not the same as how an absolute monarchy like other empires of the ancient or medieval world worked basically since the first Roman emperor Augustus got his title as “emperor” or imperator from the senate and from then on it would not be clear if he would rule for life and his successors would be emperors too or if the republic would return. Also it was not an absolute monarchy because the emperor’s power came from the senate and succession would be approved by them, however as centuries went by and the Roman Empire had evolved into the Byzantine Empire, the imperial system had however become more like a monarchy, except with unstable succession compared to other kingdoms and empires of their time. The republic though after Augustus never returned even if the senate remained, but when it came to the succession system of the empire, it would be not like other monarchies around the world where the eldest son clearly succeeded his father and only a few times was there a stable succession of imperial power from father to son as sometimes Roman emperors chose to adopt their successor or sometimes the senate or army could overthrow and emperor who would establish a new dynasty. Basically for someone to be an emperor in the Roman world, they were not there because of divine rights like many kings were but because they had the support of the senate, army, and people and if they had lost it, then they could be deposed and lose the imperial title. However by the end of the 3rd century after a 50-year long period of anarchy wherein any strong general could be made emperor by his army, the emperor Diocletian came to power and the Roman world would change as for the first time it was divided into parts with different emperors for each part but at the same time the power of the emperor would become more absolute as before that since Augustus in the period known as the Principate, the emperor held the title of Princeps as republican systems were still present and the emperor was basically the leader of the senate while after 284 the emperor would use the title of Dominus meaning “lord” to clearly show he had more absolute power. This system from then on would be known as the Dominate, which would then be in use at the time the Byzantine Empire had been established as the emperor Constantine I moved the imperial capital to Constantinople in 330 and would be the same system used by the emperors of Byzantium up until the empire’s downsizing in the 7th century, afterwards the emperor’s power would be very much like any other king up until Byzantium’s fall in 1453. In the Byzantine Empire, the power of the emperor had become more absolute and autocratic than that of the Roman emperors of the Principate period from 27BC to 284AD and succession too would be more stable as the succession from father to son would be very much the norm, however like in the Roman Principate, the Byzantine emperors too were still not ultimately powerful as their power was still at many times challenged and it was common for Byzantine emperor to be overthrown by the army and sometimes replaced by an ambitious general who would establish a new dynasty which would usually collapse and be taken over by another dynasty in less than a hundred years. In the past, I have made several articles on the Byzantine emperors and how many of them came to power and unlike other kingdoms of their time where the king was the absolute power and it was very unlikely for a common person to rise to power, in Byzantium it was the other way around since for centuries there were times wherein certain commoners got the chance to rise up and become emperor which had been a practice in the Roman Empire too which the Byzantines have taken with them. Also I have said many times before in my other articles on the emperors that many Byzantine emperors were put in power by the popular support of the army which their predecessors the Romans too had done many times, but also in the Byzantine Empire family members too had plotted against each other and had taken the throne by overthrowing their father or grandfather. Succession in the Byzantine Empire may have been very unstable especially in certain times of anarchy and military takeovers or sudden deaths of emperors without naming their successors thus leading to civil wars sometimes even within the family, but despite the total chaos the Byzantine imperial system went through, it was no match to how chaotic the Roman imperial succession system was especially with the senate and the army particularly the Praetorian Guard being the ones to decide who can become emperor. For Byzantium on the other hand, no matter how many violent changes of emperors there had been, the empire was in fact so successful that it lasted for more than a thousand years, this was probably because many emperors were power hungry not for selfish reasons but because they were committed to the survival of their empire cause after all, the Byzantines were the descendants of the very successful Roman Empire that ruled most of the known world of their time, which meant the Byzantine Empire calling themselves the Romans or Romaioi in Greek had a great legacy to live up to. Now this article will cover topics including the changes of systems from the republic to empire and eventually to Byzantium, the history of the Roman and Byzantine senates, the stable and unstable successions of both empires, imperial titles, break-away empires that stole their imperial systems, and how the imperial system evolved to become more autocratic over centuries and yet still keeping a successful empire from Rome to Byzantium. Also, the biggest change between the Roman and Byzantine Empire was that Byzantine Empire not only had an emperor with more absolute power but as well was a full Christian Empire which means things were more lenient in when it came to deposing emperors such as a deposed emperor would be blinded and sent to a monastery for life while in Imperial Rome, a deposed emperor was usually just simply killed off, but also since Byzantium was a Christian Empire since the time of Emperor Constantine the Great (306-337), emperors too had power over the Church which meant they could appoint someone, even a relative of theirs as the Patriarch of Constantinople. Now in this article, I will limit it to topics on the emperors and governing system of the empire and a lot on how stable and unstable successions worked, while facts and stories on Byzantine emperors including their ethnic origins were discussed in previous articles I made which are linked below, and the topic on imperial women and their power behind the throne would be something I would like to discuss in a future article. Anyway, this article will of course show the similarities and differences per each topic between the Roman Empire and their successor empire, the Byzantines wherein the year that would be the division line between both empires is 395; now this article will cover a very long period of history from 753BC to 1453.

The Roman Empire at its height, 117
Map of the extent of the Byzantine Empire in 3 different periods
All Roman emperors from Augustus to Diocletian (27BC-305AD)
Coins of all Byzantine emperors (395-1453)
Complete Genealogy of the Byzantine Emperors


Related Articles (Byzantine emperor articles) from The Byzantium Blogger:

Thoughts on quarantine and self-isolation with Roman and Byzantine related stories- COVID-19 related

Story of 3 Plagues Across Centuries- COVID-19 Related

Ethnic Origins of the Byzantine Emperors

Greatest and Worst Byzantine Emperors

12 Turning Points in Byzantine History

The Complete Genealogy of the Byzantine Emperors

The Byzantine Emperors and their personalities Part1

The Byzantine Emperors and their personalities Part2

The Byzantine Emperors and their personalities Part3

15 Byzantine Related States Outside Byzantium Part1 (1-7)

15 Byzantine Related States Outside Byzantium Part2 (8-15)

Crime, Punishment, and Medical Practice in the Byzantine World

The 94 Emperors of Byzantium

7 Reasons to be Interested in Byzantium

Related Article: Roman Republic vs Roman Empire and Imperial System (from The Collector).

Related Videos:

Timeline of all Roman and Byzantine Emperors (from Dieu le Roi).

Ancient Rome in 20 Minutes (from Arzamas).

Roman Emperors and their Deeds Part1 (from The Tiny Library).

Roman Emperors and their Deeds Part2 (from The Tiny Library).

Watch: Trailer for No Budget Films’ upcoming 2020 Byzantine Epic “War of the Sicilian Vespers” here.


I. Roman Republic to Roman Empire to Byzantium


The early history of Rome itself is shrouded in mystery but tradition says the Roman city state and its government was founded in 753BC by Romulus, the first king of Rome and a demigod being a son of the god of War Mars who gave Rome its name naming it after himself after he killed his brother Remus, otherwise it Rome would have been named “Reme” and when becoming its first king, legend claims that he had established the senate which consisted of 100 men consisting of the elders of Rome’s most distinguished families. These distinguished families were known as the Patricians and were the ones basically in charge of the government and after the overthrow of the kings in 509BC these Patricians would be the ones in the senate that would control the Roman state. The same system the Romans had of senate still exists in many countries with the same function of creating laws in which they did in Ancient Rome, although the word “senate” comes from the Latin word Senex meaning “old man” as the senate was basically an assembly of the head or elder of each clan who was elected. In the time of the Roman Kingdom from 753-509BC the senate acted as a board of advisors for Rome’s kings but at the same time the king’s of the early Roman city-state which was very much a small territory consisting of Rome and its surroundings were not like other kings of the time like the Egyptian pharaohs or Persian king of kings wherein they had divine rights as for these kings of early Rome, their sons weren’t always sure to succeed them as the senate had made the ultimate acclamation of the king when he came into power. As Rome was built from scratch by Romulus in the 7 hills along the Tiber, it was barely inhabited so as king he allowed run-away criminals from other Italian states to settle in Rome, Rome then would be a city founded by fugitives seeking refuge. However it is not clear though that the early Roman state was ruled by kings or how the Republic had formed since the Romans only began writing their history by the early 3rd century BC, although historians from later on like Livy (59BC-17AD) had documented the foundation of Rome to 753BC with Romulus as its first king and that 7 kings had ruled Rome until 509BC when the monarchy was overthrown and the republic established. The last 3 kings according to legend were Etruscan, coming from the neighboring kingdom while the last king Lucius Tarquinus Superbus (r. 535-509BC) had abused his power so much that in 509BC he was overthrown and senate stepped in electing 2 leaders to balance power so that one person does not hold ultimate power. These 2 leaders who the senate had elected and would be elected every year were known as the Consuls who would be the 2 leaders of both the senate and the army, however the foundations of the Roman Republic in 509BC by Lucius Junius Brutus who was one of the first elected consuls is also unclear as when the Romans began to write their history they were under the Republic system which was controlled by the senate and its two leaders, the Consuls. The story of the Roman Republic being established by Brutus after overthrowing the abusive monarchy is probably just a dramatized story on the origins of the Roman state and so were its foundations by Romulus who was a demigod and a descendant of the people from the ancient city of Troy. The most realistic theory on how and why Rome established a republican system instead of having a monarchy is because they borrowed this system from the Greeks as by 509BC when it was said that the Roman Republic was founded, Greek city-states like Athens already had this kind of republican system where a senate consisting of an elected council of the clan elders was in control of the state, and because of trade happening in the Mediterranean, ideas had also traveled, which included the idea of having a republic and elected leaders. Ever since the time of the Republic all the way to the time of the empire, the Roman senate was always based in the Roman Forum. Now today most countries also use the same system of a republic wherein leaders are elected but also the word “republic” originates from Ancient Rome coming from the Latin word Res Publica meaning “public thing”, although with early Rome being a republic with 2 leaders the Consuls elected each year, the Republic was still not overall a democratic one- like in Ancient Greece and Carthage as well- since only men could vote and only Patricians or those from important families could be in the senate while those not born to these families even if being as rich as patricians were part of the social class known as the Plebs which means they did not have the same privileges the patricians did meaning they could not be elected to government positions, yet they still were the actual working force behind the expanding power of the republic as the plebs were the ones who produced goods and served in the army. Since the plebs did not feel represented in the Roman state they had always threatened to leave the city until the patricians feeling like they would loose a lot needed them back so to make sure the plebs were represented, a new position in the senate was made known as the Tribune who represented the needs of the Plebs and by the early 3rd century BC the plebs had achieved equal rights with the patricians, meaning plebs could already be elected to serve in the government, from then on Rome was a full republic that would use the initials of SPQR in their flags meaning “Senate and the Roman People”. Members of the senate were elected once and stayed in the senate for life but could be elected as consul or to another position more than once but serving in that position for only a year, and in the senate, all senators were required to wear a uniform of a white toga with a purple stripe. With the senate in charge, several positions were created to manage the growing Roman state other than the consuls and tribunes such as the Praetors who were in charge of the army, the Quaestors who were in charge of finance, the Aediles who were in charge of public works, the Censors who were in charge of the census, and the Proconsuls who were governors assigned to representing the Roman state in newly formed provinces which were created out of land that Rome conquered when they had expanded, then at certain times when quick decisions needed to be made such as in wars and frequent invasions by neighboring tribes like the Samnites which were common in the early days of Rome, a dictator was chosen by the senate usually from among themselves as the supreme authority to act quick but when the crisis is dealt with the dictator had to put down his power, as the Romans back then did not accept being under control by a single authority. The Republic as it turned out was successful in first conquering most of Italy, winning the war against the Mediterranean naval power Carthage and the Macedonian Greek kingdom in 146BC adding Spain, Greece, and parts of North Africa to Roman territory and now the senate had control of the new provinces by appointing one of their own as the governor for each province. When Rome had expanded its control over Italy, instead of enslaving most of the population they made agreements with those they conquered and made them citizens so that more taxes could be paid to fund the state, more could join the army, and more could vote in elections, though when conquering lands beyond from enemies like Carthage and the Greeks, the conquered would be subjects and slaves to Rome. By 107BC, change would come to the Roman system when Gaius Marius, though not from a patrician family and not from Rome but a Roman citizen entered the senate and became consul, and with him in charge the Roman army was reformed into the legions and soldiers would not lift their loyalties from the senate to their generals who cared more about them. Some years later, the history of the Roman Republic would be marked by civil wars the first one from 88-87 between the successful general Sulla and consul Gaius Marius in which Sulla won and again from 83-82BC after Sulla returned victorious after defeating King Mithridates VI of Pontus, he marched on Rome and won becoming dictator for a year- an unusual act in a century as there hasn’t been a dictator in the republic since the 2nd Punic War against Carthage more than a century before Sulla- though he retired from power in 81BC. As dictator however, Sulla did not do it so much for ultimate power but to restore more power to the senate, which had been lost in recent years to the tribunes, army, and masses under the leadership of Marius. Not so long after the civil wars of Sulla, more civil war erupted again between two of Rome’s most successful generals and patricians, the next set of civil wars would be between Pompey the general who had annexed most of Asia Minor, Syria, and Judea to Rome and Gaius Julius Caesar who had conquered Gaul; before this Caesar and Pompey together with Marcus Licinius Crassus established the First Triumvirate with them 3 in charge of the Roman Republic, which was dissolved after Crassus died in 53BC loosing to the Parthian Empire in war, therefore Caesar and Pompey were the remaining 2 leaders. The senate then feared the growing power and influence of Caesar after his conquest of Gaul but in an act of defiance and bravery, Caesar marched his legions into Italy by crossing the Rubicon River in 49BC and from there the civil war with Pompey began which would last until 45BC wherein Caesar defeated Pompey’s faction. After coming out victorious again, Caesar used the tile Imperator for himself, which meant “victorious commander” and would later be the term used for the emperors and would use the titles of consul, tribune, and dictator for life all for himself which led the senate to come up with a conspiracy to kill him in fear that Caesar would make himself king, which the Roman senate had not ever wanted. However in 44BC the senate assassinated Caesar shocking the people who Caesar was popular with, but even with Caesar dead his legacy to establish a perpetual dictatorship did not end as he named his nephew Gaius Octavius Thurinus known as Octavian his heir and soon enough Caesar’s assassins Brutus and Cassius from the senate were eliminated in another civil war wherein the Second Triumvirate consisting of the general Mark Antony, Marcus Lepidus, and Octavian was formed and the war concluding in 42BC at the Battle of Philippi where Caesar’s lead assassins Brutus and Cassius were defeated. Though after this, the joint rule particularly between Mark Antony and Octavian was unstable with Mark Antony shifting his loyalty to the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt, which led to a civil war between Mark Antony and Octavian, which concluded in 31BC at the Battle of Actium with Octavian victorious, and Egypt added to the Roman Republic. After this, Octavian was left as the sole ruler and instead of making himself dictator for life or king, he depended on the senate to vote him more titles of power such as Imperator, Princeps meaning “first in the senate” or “Princeps Civitatis meaning first citizen” and Augustus meaning “the respected one” so from 27BC onwards, Octavian began to use the title “Augustus” in which he would be known as and at the end ruled for 43 till his death in 14AD, not knowing he would rule for life. Also, since Rome’s territory had expanded so large from Gaul (France) all the way to Egypt, a senate could not handle administering an empire this large; therefore running it depended on a single authority. Because of this, the senate was in charge of Rome, Italy, Carthage, Southern Spain, Asia Minor, and Greece while the farther provinces like Gaul, Britain, and Egypt were directly under the emperor.

Watch this to learn more about Rome’s legendary first 7 kings (from Epimetheus).

City of Rome, founded 753BC (according to legend)
The 7 original kings of Rome, 753-509BC (according to legend)
Roman Republican Senate
Map of the Roman Republic after 146BC
Assassination of Gaius Julius Caesar, March 15, 44BC
Map of Roman Senatorial Provinces (red) and Imperial Provinces (purple) in the early empire


In 27BC, the Roman Empire was established as the senate gave powers to Augustus, and from here onwards this period would be known as the Principate. Under the Principate, even if the emperor beginning with Augustus was the supreme authority of the Roman world, the Republic and the senate and its function was not at all abolished except that the emperor had power over the senate, had the last say in the passing of laws, could construct landmarks and buildings using his name, had his face minted on coins, and could appoint positions himself. Overtime the senate would turn to be more and more useless and barely able to function without the emperor giving them orders. Overall, the early emperors of Rome acted more like dictators for life than monarchs as their power was not as absolute as other kingdoms of their time had like the Macedonians, Seleucid Empire, and Parthian Empire, as well as the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt except that Roman emperors ruled for life and could name their successor. Over time, the Romans could have gotten ideas of having a state ruled by an absolute power after their conquests of the kingdoms in the east such as Egypt, and over time Roman emperors like Caligula (r. 37-41AD) began thinking of themselves as divine, which was probably a custom the Romans borrowed from the traditions ancient Egyptian rulers had of them being like gods, and in fact Rome could have adopted these ideas of monarchy from Egypt back in Julius Caesar’s time since he too had a lot of connections with Egypt as he was a lover of the queen Cleopatra VII, although Egypt then was a Greek kingdom but had kept ancient Egyptian traditions such as the absolute power of a monarch. The emperor however had a dangerous position especially if he lost support of the senate so emperors tried to make sure the senate remained loyal to them, so after Augustus’ death in 14AD, he was succeeded by his stepson the general Tiberius (r. 14-37AD) who established the treason law to check the loyalty of the senate and the people to the emperor, which resulted in several exiles, tortures, imprisonments, and executions but despite this Tiberius’ reign was a successful by focusing more on consolidating the power of the empire and keeping the government and finance systems strong. It is quite strange though that the Romans from strongly hating rule by a single authority after the death of Augustus came to accept the new system as Tiberius became the next emperor rather than the republic returning, this is mainly because Augustus’ long reign was so successful that people living within the empire enjoyed peace, stability, and a golden age of the arts known as the Pax Romana, although the legions had fought hard to expand and defend territories. The emperor however was not at all safe in his position as the senate at times if having popular support could depose an emperor such as in 68AD when the senate voted the emperor Nero (r. 54-68AD) a public enemy and ordered his execution, however Nero rather than being executed fled Rome and had his secretary kill him. Later on during the reign of Emperor Domitian (81-96AD), tensions would grow between the emperor and the senate as Domitian felt he no longer needed the advice from the senate as they were just a bunch of old rich men while the emperor felt he could do everything by himself which led the senate to start distrusting him and eventually coming up with a plot to kill him, then in 96AD Domitian after spending years executing those he felt would assassinate him ended up assassinated himself, afterwards the senate had elected Nerva (r. 96-98AD), a senator as the next emperor. The 2nd century would then be a time of stability for Rome with the empire at its largest spanning north to south from Britain to Egypt, west to east from Portugal to Iraq and the emperor being the supreme authority and the senate under them but in the 3rd century chaos reigned and the senate and army played a big part in it appointing emperors beginning in 238 where in North Africa the governor Gordian I and his son Gordian II were proclaimed emperors by the army and senate but shortly after the 2 senators Pupienus and Balbinus as emperors but due to unpopularity had to step down and appoint Gordian I’s grandson Gordian III as emperor. Before this, in 212 the emperor Caracalla (r. 211-217) granted citizenship to all free inhabitants of the Roman Empire, which meant provincials and not only Italians could join the senate, although before this provincials who were Roman citizens could also join the senate. From 238 which would be known as the “year of the 6 emperors” to 284 there would be at least 27 official Roman emperors, most of them only reigning for a year or two being put in power by the army, this period would then be known as the 3rd century crisis, which was a period of military anarchy, and these emperors almost all proclaimed by the army would be known as “barracks emperors”. At this time, the army would now be the powerful force behind the government and not so much the senate anymore, also in these years Rome would be left to the senate as emperors had barely even set foot in Rome spending their short reigns commanding their armies against barbarian invasions all over the borders, thus emperors of this time were no longer the traditional Roman patricians but powerful generals many of them even being provincials from Illyria, Thrace, Syria, or North Africa rising to power in the army. At this time when emperors were proclaimed by the army, the senate had only once proclaimed an emperor, the old senator Tacitus in 275 who died a year later. The role of the Roman senate would forever change after the emperor Diocletian rose to power in 284; although an Illyrian and son of a liberated slave, Diocletian rose to power in the army and in 284 usurped the throne from the co-emperor brothers Carinus and Numerian, and afterwards in 286 divided the empire in two halves with Diocletian ruling the east from Nicomedia and his friend Maximian ruling the west from Milan, from here on Rome would no longer be the imperial capital, most especially since the capital needed to be where the emperor was and emperors now had to be closer to the borders. This system would further divided into 4 parts each ruled by its own emperor, this would be known as the Tetrarchy, though Diocletian would be the most senior of the 4 emperors and as emperor he no longer would use the title of Princeps and instead change it to Dominus meaning “Lord of the Romans” as a way to further increase the emperor’s power. Diocletian’s purpose to make the emperor’s power more absolute was basically a solution to end the anarchy crisis before him and in 300 as part of his reforms to increase imperial power, he further decreased the power of the senate and took away their role in appointing emperors which meant that being emperor no longer needed the consent of the senate; the senate though would still remain but no longer with as much power as they had before, rather the senate had devolved into something more like Rome’s town council and would remain this way for many centuries to come. The tetrarchy system on the other hand had brought back some stability by several reforms particularly military reforms in establishing a strong mobile army known as the Comitatenses which the emperor would be in command of while the other army would be the weaker ones consisting of border guards known as the Limitanei, but still did not stop civil wars as the Tetrarchs or 4 rulers fought each other for power until 324 when Constantine I won the wars and became the sole ruler of the empire, the in 330 he made the port of Byzantium into the new capital of the Roman world which be named Constantinople after him, part of the Roman senate would be moved there as well to act as the administrative council of the city. After the death of Emperor Theodosius I in 395, the Roman Empire would no longer be united, the east would live on as the Byzantine Empire with Constantinople as its capital and the west would gradually downsize due to barbarian invasions and would fall in 476. The Western Roman Empire would then use Ravenna in Italy as its capital and the senate would be based there as well but when Ravenna fell to the barbarian army of Odoacer in 476, the senate was still in place even if the Roman emperor was gone first under Odoacer who was ruler of Italy he was killed and replaced by the Ostrogoth Theodoric in 493 and the senate would still be in place as the king’s advisory council although the title “senator” was more like an honorary title without much significance. In 552, the Byzantines from Constantinople recaptured Rome and restored the senate to Rome, though their role would no longer be of the same power anymore, instead senators were just members of the nobility who would usually act as diplomats. Under the Papacy in Rome, the senate would act more like Rome’s town council, although it is not said until when the senate had lasted but the Roman Senate is still one of the hidden institutions in history that had lived on for so long that in fact it had even predated and outlived the era of the Roman emperors.

The Roman Republic vs the Principate explained
The Roman Empire at its height, 117
Graphic map of the division of the Roman Empire in the Tetrarchy (293-324)
Division of the Roman Empire in 395 between Theodosius I’s sons Arcadius (east) and Honorius (west)

Watch this for more info on the transition from the Roman to Byzantine Empires and the story of the Byzantine Empire (from Epimetheus).


True enough the Roman senate had existed centuries before the empire was founded and even centuries after the Roman Empire dissolved in the west, but in the east the senate still remained in Constantinople for centuries under the Byzantine emperors but had been slowly disintegrating over the years but the senate though had still existed only as a board of advisors for the emperor until Byzantium’s end in 1453. The senate in Constantinople known as the Synkletos in Greek would be the continuation of the Roman Senate except like in the late Roman period, the Byzantine Senate was no longer powerful and influential like in the Roman Republic and Principate, instead the Byzantine Senate was more of a board or city council of Constantinople consisting of the nobility wherein the head of each noble family sat in the senate. The position of senator in Byzantium too was a hereditary one wherein in each noble family of the city, the eldest son would take his father’s position as senator when the father had died. Also different races of people from within the empire such as Greeks, Armenians, Thracians, and Illyrians were part of the senate as long as they were from the Byzantine nobility. Like in the Roman senate before, Byzantine senators had a uniform except theirs like in the late Roman senate consisted of a white cloak or Chalmys over a long sleeved tunic, the mosaic of Emperor Justinian I in Ravenna depicts senators including the general Belisarius in this uniform. In Constantinople, the senate was based in 2 locations one being beside the Great Palace of the emperors and the other on the north side of the Forum of Constantine, the main city square. Like in the Roman senate, the Byzantine senate also elected consuls although the power of the senate and consuls was very much limited, also later on the head of the senate body would no longer be the consul but the Prefect of the City which would be like the Mayor of Constantinople. It was during the reign of Justinian I (527-565) where the position of the 2nd consul was abolished and instead the senate would only have one consul, which was usually the Prefect of Constantinople if not the emperor. In Byzantium, senators did not really have any power to appoint or overthrow emperors as in this case it was up to the army to proclaim and overthrow an emperor when they could, although there were times when senators had led people in plots to overthrow an emperor like in the Nika Riot of 532 where the senate moved to proclaim one of them as emperor and overthrow Justinian I, but this plot failed. The senate later though showed that they still had some powers when they took part in leading the people to overthrow the usurper emperor Phocas in 610, in 641 overthrowing the young emperor Heraklonas, and in the 7th century the senate played a major part in the reigns of Constans II (641-668), Constantine IV (668-685), and Justinian II (685-695) who all became emperor at a young age and needed much advice from the senate. However, in 695 the senate had led the Church, people, and army to overthrow Justinian II and cutting his nose off. There only very few times where a member of the Byzantine senate became emperor and many of them not by force, in one case a senator became Emperor Anastasius I in 491 after marrying Ariadne the widow of the emperor Zeno, then in 608 the senate elected the Byzantine governor of North Africa Heraclius and his son Heraclius as consuls wherein the son Heraclius was made emperor in 610, and in 802 the senate had voted to depose the empress Irene and replace her with Nikephoros I who as a member of the senate. Up until the 11th century the senate continued to exist and some of them even became emperors such as Romanos III Argyros (r. 1028-1034) who was a senator and Prefect of Constantinople who became emperor in 1028 after marrying Empress Zoe who was the daughter of the late emperor Constantine VIII (r. 1025-1028), then Zoe’s 3rd husband Emperor Constantine IX Monomachos (r. 1042-1055) was also a member of the senate and had allowed the merchant class to enter the senate, then later on the Doukas family which ruled the empire (1059-1081) were also a senatorial family from Constantinople. For the Byzantine people however, their loyalty would always be more on their emperors, generals, and the army wherein they despised the senate seeing them as nothing more than a body of useless, old, rich, and corrupt who were capable of doing nothing mainly because senators did not have much of a say in the Byzantine government the way the army did. By the 8th century onwards, Byzantium became a highly militarized state and the powerful aristocracy shifted from the senate to the provincial military aristocracy known as the Dynatoi. During the reign of the military emperor Alexios I Komnenos (1081-1118), the role of the senate had faded into irrelevance and the title of “senator” could even be bought from the emperor; also Alexios I had preferred the senate for family members, which is why he created all sorts of new titles. The last known act of the Byzantine Senate was in 1204 when they had elected one of their own men to replace the emperors Isaac II and Alexios IV Angelos, but after the 4th Crusade of 1204 members of the Byzantine Senate had fled Constantinople which fell to the Crusaders to the temporary Byzantine Capital of Nicaea, though after 1261 under the Palaiologos emperors who restored the capital to Constantinople, the senate would still remain in place but their title however just honorary, most of the time having a diplomatic function. The Byzantine Senate was recorded to have still been standing in the final year of the empire 1453 and the senate itself had ended with the empire when the Ottomans captured Constantinople.

Watch this to learn the history of the Byzantine Senate (from Eastern Roman History).


II. Stable Successions in Rome and Byzantium


In the Roman Empire, succession was where emperors were unfamiliar with and had no idea on how it worked. After all, the Roman Empire evolved from the Republic so the senate or the emperors themselves beginning with Augustus had no idea how a monarchy functioned, especially since the time when Rome was a monarchy is highly debated and may not have been true. Since Rome had been a republic for the longest time, people would never submit to a ruler with ultimate authority unless during a time of emergency, however after Octavian defeated all his rivals and became the only ruler, the senate voted him ultimate power as emperor, although he would be more like Rome’s supreme leader than a king. Octavian became Augustus and reigned for 43 years bringing success to Rome and expanding its borders in Europe, also within the empire he brought peace which allowed trade to operate from one end to the other, this then was known as the Pax Romana. In Rome as it was said, Augustus founded it a city of brick and left it a city of marble, which meant Rome under him turned into a grand metropolis. By the time Augustus died he had grown very popular among the people that they had gotten so used to being ruled by a single authority that after his death, no one was looking anymore for the return of the republic, instead they had just accepted it that a new emperor would come to power, which was Tiberius. As for Augustus, he had no clear idea on how succession would work so throughout his reign he kept on changing his mind on who would succeed him, at first he though of his nephew Marcellus then his friend Marcus Agrippa but both died ahead, then Augustus arranged for both his grandsons Gaius and Lucius to succeed him but they died. On the other hand, despite the empire of Augustus being a stable one, his family was not as his wife Livia had been secretly plotting against him to make her son Tiberius succeed him, then Augustus’ daughter Julia had also plotted against him and so did his other grandchildren. With Augustus’ grandsons gone by the time of his death in 14AD, there was no one left but his stepson and general Tiberius to succeed him and Tiberius would be emperor for the next 23 years till he died in 37AD isolating himself in Capri being tired of Rome and politics, instead more interested in astrology. Tiberius too did not have a clear succession plan since his son who was supposed to succeed him died some time in his reign, then a family member Agrippina the Elder tried to get in the way of the imperial succession by making one of her sons emperor but her plans failed and she was banished to the small Italian island of Pandateria. At the end, Tiberius was left with Caligula, son of Germanicus who was known as the “emperor Rome never had” and Agrippina to succeed him though before naming Caligula his heir Tiberius fell into a comma and when waking up again, Caligula had him suffocated to death by the Praetorian Guard commander. The young emperor Caligula took over and seemed popular at first but when recovering from a sickness he was totally different, grew very tyrannical and even thinking of himself as a god, at the same time he tried to invade Britain but instead made war against the sea, and he even made his horse a consul. Only 4 years into his reign, the Praetorian Guard and the senators thought of finally finishing him off for good and return the republic and in the beginning of 41AD, the Praetorian Guard assassinated Caligula but at the same day, another group of guards found Caligula’s uncle Claudius, Germanicus’ brother hiding behind a curtain and made him emperor. Just when the republic could have returned, Claudius I came to power the first one to be made emperor by the Praetorian Guard but during his reign, Claudius I proved to be successful and not just a puppet emperor of the army, though he did not want to be emperor, he had to do it to clean up the mess Caligula had brought. Everyone had thought Claudius was not capable of ruling but he proved he was by finally invading Britain in 43AD and had also constructed many projects in Rome including a new port and aqueduct. Within the family, things were however not stable as Claudius’ wife Messalina secretly plotted against him, quickly divorced him and married another senator though when the plot was discovered Messalina was executed and Claudius’ last wife Agrippina the Younger had been manipulating him to make her son Nero emperor. In 54AD, Claudius was allegedly poisoned by his wife and died in the night after which Nero became emperor, although he was not the legitimate successor since Claudius had son, Britannicus though later to eliminate him from coming into power, Nero had him poisoned. Nero would later on end up ordering the death of his mother and wife and would be overthrown when loosing the support of the senate and army in 68AD leading to his suicide. After Nero’s death there would be a period of anarchy with a year of 4 emperors which will be discussed later, but the 4th which was Vespasian (r. 69-79AD) had ended the anarchy and despite coming from an Italian family of origins had risen to power in the army being a general and when becoming emperor he established a new dynasty, the Flavian Dynasty which was though short lived. Vespasian had become a popular emperor despite introducing a urine tax and after 10 years in power he died and was succeeded by his son, the successful general Titus who had finished the Jewish Revolt of Judea and became a popular emperor and constructed the Flavian Amphitheatre or Colosseum in Rome but died only 2 years later and was succeeded by his younger brother Domitian, succeeded Vespasian after his death in 79AD. Domitian who had macro and micromanaged the empire himself tried to get the senate away believing he could run the empire himself in which the people were supportive of but when hearing of plots to have him killed, Domitian had many potential threats killed until he himself was assassinated in 96AD. With Domitian dead, the senate voted the old senator Nerva as the next emperor which may not have been the right move since the army could overthrow him but Nerva did the opposite thing and instead of being a puppet emperor, he chose to establish a dynasty but he had no children, instead he adopted the general Trajan as his successor. Nerva though old and only reigning 2 years established the period of what would be known as the “5 Good Emperors”, this one shows a time of stable succession but none of these emperors were the biological child of the previous emperors, instead these emperors would adopt their successor. These “5 good emperors” saw the time when Rome reached its peak in power; these emperors were Nerva (r. 96-98AD), Trajan (r. 98-117AD), Hadrian (r. 117-138), Antoninus Pius (r. 138-161), and Marcus Aurelius (r. 161-180), although it could also be called “the 6 good emperors” if Marcus Aurelius’ co-emperor Lucius Verus (r. 161-169) is included. Nerva had only ruled for 2 years and had adopted Trajan as his successor and under Trajan, Rome had expanded its territory to the fullest by conquering Dacia (today’s Romania) also taking over Armenia, Mesopotamia, and Jordan and by Trajan’s death in 117 Rome was at its most successful point with roads connecting and sea routes connecting it. Trajan too had no children so he adopted his nephew the governor of Syria Hadrian as his successor and as emperor Hadrian instead of conquering more territory focused on trying to keep the peace within the empire, had built a wall in the borders in Britain, and travelled all over the empire and had rarely set foot in Rome. Again, Hadrian had no children so he adopted the senator Antoninus Pius as his successor and Antoninus Pius as emperor would bring Rome a period of actual peace with less wars and no scandals, a very rare moment in Roman history and would begin the Antonine Dynasty, although without any sons he adopted Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus as his successors, also he married his daughter to Marcus Aurelius to make a dynasty. Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus ruled as co-emperors while Marcus focused on the west, Lucius focused on the east but after a war with Parthia, plague was brought into the Roman Empire by the soldiers depopulating it and killing Lucius Verus in 169, which was discussed in the previous pandemic article; meanwhile Marcus Aurelius then spent most his reign at the borders in today’s Austria fighting the Macromannic Wars against Germanic tribes which the Romans eventually crushed, but aside from being a warrior emperor, Marcus Aurelius was a philosopher too who wrote his famous book Meditations on his Stoic philosophy. These 5 emperors thought that adopting a successor would be a better way for a peaceful transition of power and felt better than a more qualified person in government would be better off at running the state rather than their children, however the last one of the 5 which was Marcus Aurelius did the opposite by making his son his successor. Marcus Aurelius died in 180 and made his son Commodus his co-emperor in 177, and for the first time in a long time a son succeeded his father as emperor in 180. Commodus (r. 180-192) was not interested in being emperor; instead all he cared about were gladiator games and joining them himself that he would have the empire ruled by advisors and as emperor, the only achievements he could do were putting up gladiator games, changing Rome’s name to Colonia Commodiana naming it after himself and even changing the months of the year naming them after different versions of his name. At the end of 192, Commodus was assassinated by being strangled and the Praetorian Guard chose to make Pertinax emperor. The beginning of Commodus’ reign in 180 marked the beginning of Rome’s decline as for the past many decades the empire had the most competent emperors until suddenly Commodus came in and by leaving the empire to other ministers and not caring for it, his death was brought by it followed by a period of slow decline for Rome.

Map of the Roman Empire under Augustus (27BC-14AD)
Family Tree of the Julio-Claudian Dynasty (27BC-68AD)
The 5 emperors of the Julio-Claudian Dynasty summarized
Family Tree of the Flavian Dynasty (69-96AD)
The 5 Good emperors (96-180AD)

Watch this to learn about the succession pattern of all Roman emperors (from UsefulCharts).

Watch this to learn more about the 5 Good Emperors of Rome (from Dovahhatty).


Rome from the 192 to the 4th century was a period of unstable succession and if was easy for anyone to become emperor especially by having the support of the army and only a few times there would be a stable succession. In 286 the empire was divided in two and in 293 in 4 parts known as the Tetrachy with Diocletian as Augustus and Galerius as Caesar in the eastern half and Maximian as Augustus and Constantius I as Caesar in the west, then to ensure it would be a system of stable succession in 305 both Diocletian and Maximian retired and Galerius and Constantius I became Augusti and Maximinus II in the east and Severus II in the west became Caesars thus repeating the cycle however Constantius I’s son Constantine I was popular with the army after Constantius I’s death in 306, Constantine was made Augustus but not legitimately so Constantine I fought all rivals in the west including Severus II, Maximian who returned to power, and his son Maxentius until in 312 Constantine I gained the whole west for himself, then in 324 he defeated his rival in the east Licinius and gained the whole Roman Empire for himself making Constantinople the capital. When Constantine I the Great died in 337, again he did not make it clear on who would succeed him so the army decided his 3 sons would rule the empire divided into 3 parts and when coming into power they had ordered the execution of any potential threat whether family members or generals but the eldest son Constantine II (r. 337-340) felt bad he got the farthest parts which were Spain, Gaul, and Britain so he asked to switch places with the youngest brother Constans I, but Constans I did not agree so Constantine II led an army into Italy and was killed in battle in 340 by his brother’s forces. The youngest brother Constans I then was assassinated by his general Magnentius in 350 so the middle child Constantius II who ruled from Constantinople was the sole ruler who later defeated Magnentius but had no sons and at the same time no more male relative was left in the family except for his cousin Julian who hated Constantius II for having his father, Constantine the Great’s half-brother Julius Constantius killed in 337 when Julian was still a child. When Constantius II died in 361, he named the orphaned Julian his successor but Julian only ruled for 2 years as in 363 he was killed in battle against the Sassanid Persians and with no children, the army voted the young general Jovian as emperor who however died in less than year not even able to make it back to Constantinople so the army elected another commander named Valentinian as emperor. In 364 Valentinian I became emperor and founded his dynasty after making his younger brother Valens his co-emperor to rule the east from Constantinople while Valentinian I ruled the west but in 375 Valentinian died of a stroke caused by his bad temper so in the west his son Gratian (r. 375-383) succeed him but in the east Valens was killed in battle against the Goths in 378, so Gratian appointed the general Theodosius from Spain to be emperor of the east. Gratian though was assassinated in 383 and succeeded by his younger brother Valentinian II as emperor of the west but in 392 Valentinian II died under mysterious circumstances and Theodosius I was left as the sole ruler of the Roman Empire after defeating 2 rival usurping emperors. Theodosius I did not live long though and in 395 he died dividing the empire between east and west, the older 18-year-old son Arcadius was left in charge of the east the younger 10-year-old Honorius was left in charge of the west but both were incompetent rulers. Arcadius died not so long after in 408 passing the throne to his young son Theodosius II who reigned long (408-450) while in the west Honorius was troubled with barbarian invasions that in 410 the Visigoths sacked Rome, the first time it was sacked since the Gauls 800 years before, though in 423 he died without naming an heir but eventually his nephew Valentinian III became emperor until he was assassinated in 455 and the Western Roman Empire until its fall in 476 also went through a period of anarchy with a change of emperor almost every year or two years and powerful Goth generals behind imperial power. In the east which was Byzantium things were more stable and even thought Theodosius II had no children, his brother-in-law Marcian succeeded him but Marcian died in 457 without any heirs so the army appointed the Thracian soldier Leo Marcellus as emperor, although this was the ambitious Goth general Aspar who put Leo I in power as his puppet emperor but Leo I (r. 457-474) did not want to be a puppet emperor so he had Aspar killed and established a dynasty, he would then be succeeded by his grandson Leo II, son of his daughter Ariadne and the Isaurian general Zeno but the same year (474) Leo II died still only a child, so in an unusual case he was succeeded by his father Zeno who in only a few months was kicked out of power and replaced Leo I’s brother-in-law Basiliscus who a year later was overthrown as Zeno returned as emperor when Zeno died in 491, he had no children as Leo II died many years ago, so his wife married the senator and financial officer who became the next emperor Anastasius I but he was old and also had no children so he tried to arrange for his nephews to succeed him but none of them did, instead after he died in 518 the commander of the palace guard, the Illyrian peasant bribed the guards and was proclaimed Emperor Justin I who began the Justinian Dynasty in which none of the emperors in this one were biological sons of the previous one. Justin I before his death in 527 named his nephew Justinian I (real name: Flavius Petrus Sabbatius) his successor and Justinian I the Great (r. 527-565) ruled a long successful reign conquering back North Africa, Italy, and Southern Spain for Byzantium to restore the Roman Empire but he died childless so he named his nephew Justin II (r. 565-574) his successor. Justin II succeeded his uncle but the massive size of the empire and external threats everywhere was too much for him so he lost his sanity and had to abdicate but without any children, he chose to adopt the commander of the palace guard Tiberius who was the same age as him. Tiberius II Constantine in 574 stepped in as acting emperor and after Justin II’s death in 578, Tiberius II was full emperor but he died only 4 years later in 582 naming his son-in-law Maurice as his successor, Maurice then ruled for 20 years until the army overthrew him. The next emperor Phocas usurped the throne but was overthrown in 610 by Heraclius who became emperor establishing a linear dynasty as after his death in 641, he was succeeded by his son Constantine III who only ruled for months as he died and was succeeded by his half-brother Heraklonas who would be overthrown in the same year (641) as the army replaced him with Constantine III’s young son Constans II (r. 641-668) who ruled till adulthood but was assassinated in his bath in 668 for planning to move the capital to Syracuse in Sicily, but even though assassinated Constans II was succeeded by his son Constantine IV (r. 668-685), who was succeeded by his son Justinian II who was overthrown in 695 ending the Heraclian Dynasty though after 10 years he returned as emperor but in 711 was overthrown again and executed. Anarchy would continue until 717 when Konon the Isaurian shepherd turned general became Emperor Leo III (r. 717-741) who established his dynasty known as the Isaurians, he would then be succeeded by his son Constantine V (r. 741-775) who was overthrown a year after becoming emperor but returned to power the next year, then he would be succeeded by his son Leo IV (r. 775-780) who however died in only 5 years while his son Constantine VI was still too young so he ruled under the regency of his mother Irene who overthrew him in 797 and became sole empress until she was overthrown in 802 to be replaced by Nikephoros I (r. 802-811), the finance minister of Arab Ghassanid descent who established a short-lived dynasty and after his death in battle against the Bulgarians in 811 he was succeeded by his son Stauriakios whose rule only lasted for months as he abdicated due to injuries so his brother-in-law Michael I succeeded him but had to abdicate in 813 when a military rebellion went up against him. The next dynastic succession of emperors began in 820 by Michael II who after his death in 829 was succeeded by his son Theophilos (r. 829-842) but after his death his son Michael III was too young but he ruled till adulthood until he was assassinated in 867 by the Macedonian peasant Basil who had long been plotting to become emperor, but he got his wish and established a long-lived dynasty. The Macedonian Dynasty would be somewhat of linear succession as after Basil I died in 886 he was succeeded by his son Leo VI (r. 886-912) although Leo VI may not have been Basil I’s son but instead Michael III’s but he was legally Basil I’s son, though when Leo VI died in 912 he was succeeded by his younger brother Alexander since he was made co-emperor earlier by his father, but Alexander only ruled for a year and in 913 was succeeded by Leo VI’s only son Constantine VII who was too young when he came to power so a regency council ruled for him until 920 when the admiral Romanos I Lekapenos who was born an Armenian peasant usurped the throne and made himself emperor while Constantine VII was not removed except demoted to co-emperor while marrying Romanos I’s daughter Helena. Romanos I in 944 was overthrown by his sons but his sons were overthrown too and Constantine VII returned as full emperor till his death in 959 and was succeeded by his son Romanos II who died only 4 years later in 963. Since Romanos II’s sons Basil and Constantine were too young to rule alone but were co-emperors, Romanos II’s widow Theophano married the general Nikephoros II Phokas who was emperor from 963-969 until he was assassinated by his nephew John I Tzimikes who was emperor from 969-976 and to be in the family he married Romanos II’s sister Theodora. John I had died mysteriously in 976 and by then Basil II son of Romanos II was old enough so he became emperor but had to fight his rivals Bardas Phokas and Bardas Skleros who were unofficially proclaimed emperors by their armies. Basil II won and his reign lasted almost 50 years but he died unmarried and childless, so dying in 1025 without children he was succeeded by his brother the co-emperor Constantine VIII (r. 1025-1028) and he too only had daughters and no sons so he was succeeded by his son-in-law the senator Romanos III Argyros who he forced to marry his daughter Zoe. Romanos III ruled with Zoe until Romanos III was assassinated in his bath in 1034 by Zoe’s orders as she took the much younger secretary Michael IV the Paphlagonian as her husband who was emperor from 1034 to his death in 1041, afterwards Zoe adopted Michael IV’s nephew who became emperor Michael V (r. 1041-1042) but when he planned to get rid of Zoe, the people overthrew him and Zoe for a few months in 1042 ruled Byzantium with her sister Theodora until Zoe married the senator Constantine IX Monomachos (r. 1042-1055) who was emperor till he died in 1055, although Zoe had already died in 1050. With Constantine IX dead in 1055, Theodora was the last remaining member of the Macedonian Dynasty and she ruled by herself for a year (1055-1056) and when she died childless she passed the throne to her secretary Michael VI Bringas (r. 1056-1057), but after him a period of unstable succession would occur in Byzantium under the Komnenos and Doukas Dynasties until 1081 when the general Alexios I Komnenos became emperor. Alexios I in 1081 came to power by force but at the end stayed long enough to fix the succession problem by extending his family by marriages and creating new government positions for family members. Alexios I died in 1118 after a long reign and was succeeded by his son John II Komnenos (r. 1118-1143) who also ruled successfully and after his sudden death in 1143 he named his youngest son Manuel I as his successor, Manuel I (r. 1143-1180) though had ruled a long and successful reign too and was succeeded after his death by his young son Alexios II (r. 1180-1183), but since he was still young his mother the western princess Maria of Antioch acted as his regent but the young emperor’s power was challenged so in 1183 he was overthrown by Manuel I’s cousin Andronikos, this now begins the long period of unstable succession which will be discussed later. Byzantium then faced several imperial take-overs even if the next emperors were from one dynasty, the Angelos though in 1204, this dynasty ended as Constantinople fell to the 4th Crusade, 3 break-away Byzantine states would be formed and one of them being Nicaea would be the legitimate successor as its first emperor Theodore I Laskaris (r. 1205-1222) came from Constantinople and moved the empire to Nicaea in Asia Minor and 57 years after 1204, the Byzantines of Nicaea would restore the empire to Constantinople. Theodore I died in 1222 and without any sons was succeeded by his son-in-law John III Doukas Vatatzes (r. 1222-1254) who married Theodore I’s daughter Irene and only had one son with her who would again peacefully succeed his father after John III’s death in 1254. Their son was Theodore II Laskaris who only ruled for 4 years as he died suddenly in 1258 possibly poisoned by the ambitious general Michael Palaiologos, however Theodore II had a son, John IV who succeeded him though he was only a child, but in 1261 when Nicaea took back Constantinople under Michael Palaiologos’ orders, Michael was crowned Emperor Michael VIII establishing the Palaiologos Dynasty, therefore having the young John IV blinded and imprisoned. The Palaiologos Dynasty beginning with Michael VIII in 1261 back in Constantinople was a long and linear one where all emperors were in a straight line of succession until the fall of the empire in 1453, except that there still moments of unstable succession and civil wars within the family. Michael VIII after his death in 1282 was succeeded by his son Andronikos II (r. 1282-1328) but though he ruled long his grandson Andronikos III, which will be discussed later, overthrew him. The only time a stable succession in the Palaiologos Dynasty would occur would be after the son of Andronikos III, John V’s death in 1391 where his son Manuel II (r. 1391-1425) succeeded him and after his death in 1425 he would be succeeded by his son John VIII who however had no children so his brother Constantine XI took his place as the last emperor of Byzantium after John VIII’s death in 1448. Constantine XI too had no children so he died without an heir when the Ottomans took over Constantinople in 1453.

Division of the Roman Empire between Constantine I’s sons Constantine II, Constans I, and Constantius II
The Byzantine Empire at its height under Justinian I, 555
The Heraclian Dynasty Family Tree (610-695)
Aftermath of Byzantium in 1204, new Byzantine Empire moved to the Empire of Nicaea (1204-1261)


III. Unstable Successions in Rome and Byzantium


After all the Roman Empire came from a republican system where leaders were elected every year so the idea of succession wherein a son succeeds his father as the leader of the empire was quite unfamiliar to them, also the idea of the eldest son succeeding their father wasn’t codified in Roman law, though emperors found ways around this such as adopting their heirs and making co-emperors to make succession stable but if not, then succession was surely unstable. Emperors did not have overall authority of naming their successor as the senate and army had to back their choice of successor. Particularly the unit of the Roman army that played a major role in appointing and eliminating emperors was the Praetorian Guard, the elite guard unit of the emperors and secret police force of Rome formed during the reign of Augustus, though ironically made to protect the emperor they were the ones who were responsible in making and destroying emperors as it was them that assassinated Caligula and made Claudius I emperor in 41AD. From Augustus’ coronation as emperor in 27BC to Nero’s death in 68AD, the Julio-Claudian Dynasty ruled the empire but none of the emperors were the son of the previous one. Nero (r. 54-68AD) as emperor thought of himself more of a performer than a ruler and was popular among the people but he was very suspicious of many high ranking people including senators and governor believing they would come up with a plot to assassinate him. Nero however had previously poisoned his step-brother Britannicus, ordered the death of his mother Agrippina the Younger to get rid of her from controlling him, then ordered the death of his wife Claudia Octavia and had later on kicked his second wife Poppea Sabina while she was pregnant thus killing her. In 64AD most of Rome burned while Nero was away but people particularly the senate put the blame on Nero for burning the city so that he could build his dream palace, Nero instead put the blame on the Christians and had them burned. In the last 4 years of Nero’s reign, the senate and governors from the provinces have been coming up with plots to remove him from power. In 68AD, Nero lost the support of the senate and army and was declared a public enemy while in Spain the legion proclaimed their general Servius Sulpicius Galba as emperor and when Galba marched in to Italy, Nero fled and committed suicide- by asking his secretary to kill him. The senate and army thought Galba would be the right choice for emperor since there was no one else and he was old and could die soon but when becoming emperor after Nero, Galba’s reign marked the beginning of a one-year anarchy period as at first he betrayed his soldiers by not fulfilling his promise of paying them bonuses. 69AD was the one year anarchy period known as the “Year of the 4 Emperors” as it began with the legions in Germany rising up against Galba proclaiming the governor Vitellius as emperor while Otho, the governor of the remote Lusitania (today’s Portugal) who helped Galba become emperor got a prophecy that he would be made emperor so he bribed the Praetorian Guards who were unhappy with Galba and in January of 69AD, they killed Galba and Otho became emperor. Otho however did not stay long in power as by April of 69AD, Vitellius with his legions marched in to Italy and defeated Otho’s army, therefore Otho committed suicide and Vitellius became emperor but would only rule until December of 69AD as earlier on the legions in Judea who were crushing the Jewish revolt proclaimed their general Vespasian emperor and by December Vespasian marched his legions to Italy, defeated and killed Vitellius and became emperor while Vespasian’s son Titus was left in charge to finish the Jewish revolt. Vespasian then became emperor and established the Flavian Dynasty, which ended in 96AD when his other son Domitian who was emperor was assassinated. The next time a period of unstable succession would happen was in 193 known as the “Year of the 5 Emperors” beginning with Commodus’ assassination at the end of 192 and when the year 193 began, the Praetorian Guard made the successful soldier Publius Helvius Pertinax as emperor but he only ruled for 3 months as he lost popularity with the Praeotrian Guard and the senate as he did not pay the Praetorian Guard their bonuses and instead only further disciplined them so when the Praetorian Guard turned to the palace to assassinate him, Pertinax made a speech to them but instead the guards stabbed him to death. Without an emperor, the Praetorian Guard then sold off the position in which a senator named Didius Julianus bought and was only emperor for a few months until the Praetorian Guard executed him the moment he fell out of favor, but also at the same time the general Septimius Severus was proclaimed emperor by his army and when reaching Rome he was made the official emperor, although 2 other generals which were Clodius Albinus in the west and Pescennius in the east had also been made emperors unofficially, which is why 193 is known as the “Year of the 5 Emperors”. Septimius Severus would first defeat Pescennius Niger in 194 thus capturing the port town of Byzantium and rebuilding long before it became Constantinople then Clodius Albinus would be defeated in 197 in Gaul; Septimius Severus then had spent his reign more on campaigning and growing the army rather than staying in Rome but in 211, he died while campaigning in Britain while his last wish was to reconcile his 2 sons Caracalla and Geta who were always against each other. As Septimius Severus died, both sons succeeded him as co-emperors but they still hated each other that in Rome they set barricades between each other, but when their mother Julia Domna tried to reconcile her sons, Caracalla had Geta killed in front of their mother at the end of 211. Caracalla (r. 211-217) tried to make himself popular by building the public baths in Rome and offering citizenship to all free inhabitants of the empire in 212 but the people still hated him for ordering massacres for those loyal to Geta, and in Alexandria in 215 Caracalla had even ordered a massacre of the people when seeing a play that was supposed to be about him murdering his brother out of self-defense. Since Caracalla was busy fighting wars against Parthia, he stayed in the east more but in 217 while stopping at a road in Asia Minor to urinate, a soldier who was refused the rank of centurion assassinated him though this soldier was sent by the Praetorian commander Macrinus to kill the emperor, 3 days later even if this soldier was killed, Macrinus who had the support of the army was proclaimed emperor and was the first emperor to never set foot in Rome while in office. Macrinus was only in power for a year (217-218) showing a rare case of how a dynasty was interrupted for a year as for this year the Severan Dynasty founded by Septimius Severus was cut off but a year later, Macrinus and his son Diadumenian who was made co-emperor by his father were killed by the army who then turned to support Caracalla’s nephew Elagabalus, a Syrian who was Julia Domna’s grand-nephew. Elagabalus (r. 218-222) though was young and more of a puppet emperor of his family while his mother Julia Soeamias was his regent, though Elagabalus’ reign was a scandal by replacing the Roman gods with Punic gods especially the sun god where he got his name from, and had even pretended to be a woman at times. His reign did not last long though as in 222 he and his mother were killed by the Praetorian Guard in Rome replacing him with his young cousin Severus I Alexander (r. 222-235), who had also been under the influence of his mother, Julia Mamaea the sister of Julia Soeamias. Severus Alexander despite his young age did his best to restore Rome from the immoral scandals of his cousin but his reign was also a disaster especially since a new empire, the Sassanid Persians rose in the east by around 224 and in the north Germanic tribes kept on attacking Roman borders. Severus was not that capable in defeating the enemy in the view of the soldiers so in 235 the soldiers discontent with his soft rule killed him in their camp in Germania together with his mother. 235 marked the start of the long 3rd century crisis as the Severan Dynasty fully came to an end and a centurion who originated as s shepherd in Thrace was made Emperor Maximinus I known as Maximinus Thrax or “big man from Thrace”, but was a brutal ruler who was said to be 8 feet tall and was only popular with the army as he demanded taxes from the people by force to fund the army, while at the same time he never even set foot in Rome. 238 would be known as the “Year of the 6 Emperors” as rebellions rose up all over the empire proclaiming their own emperors, first in North Africa where the governor was proclaimed Gordian I and his son co-emperor Gordian II but their reigns only lasted for 21 days being the shortest in Roman history as their forces were defeated by Maximinus’ forces who marched to North Africa, then in Rome the 2 senators Pupienus and Balbinus proclaimed themselves emperors but had to step down due to unpopularity and proclaim Gordian I’s grandson the 13-year-old Gordian III emperor before both co-emperors were killed by the Praetorian Guard. At the end of 238, Maximinus I was killed by his own soldiers when trying to march into Italy, Pupienus and Balbinus too were killed by their own guards and Gordian III (r. 238-244) was left as the only emperor being the youngest Roman emperor so far but had to rule under the regency of the Praetorian Prefect who later died and after his death in the east where Gordian III was as well commanding the armies, the new Praetorian Prefect Philip the Arab behind Gordian III’s back plotted to make himself emperor by cutting off the food supply for the army blaming it on Gordian III, so Philip had the army vote on who is the rightful emperor between him and Gordian III and when Philip was voted he had Gordian III assassinated and returned to Rome to get the approval of the senate, he then became Emperor Philip I (r. 244-249), who was in fact of Arab descent and in 248 made his young son Philip II co-emperor. However in 249, the general Decius who was declared emperor by his army launched a civil war against Philip I and in the Battle of Verona in 249 Philip I was defeated and killed, his son too was killed by the Praetorian Guard, and the victor of the civil war Decius became emperor and also made his son Herennius co-emperor but only ruled for 2 years as in 251 he and his son were killed in battle in Eastern Europe against the Goths. Decius’ other son Hostilian was also elevated to emperor after the death of his father and brother but the army had still made the governor in Thrace Trebonianus Gallus emperor, later in that year (251) Hostilian died and Gallus made his son Volusianus co-emperor but at the same time the Sassanids attacked the eastern borders and the Goths attacked the north again so the general Aemilianus was sent to crush the Goths and won and the other general Valerian was sent to fight the Sassanids, though after defeating the Goths, Aemilianus was proclaimed emperor by his army and when returning to Italy in 253 he battled against Gallus killing Gallus and his son in battle and becoming emperor. Aemilianus only reigned for a few months in 253 until Valerian marched in with his army the same year to avenge Gallus while Aemilianus’ troops killed him. Valerian (r. 253-260) then came in as emperor and stayed a bit longer while also making his son Gallienus his co-emperor, though the Sassanids were attacking the east again and Valerian led an army of 70,000 to attack them but with the plague happening he was defeated in 260 and captured by the Sassanid Persian king Shapur I, making Valerian the first Roman emperor to be taken as a prisoner of war by a foreign enemy shocking the Romans. Gallienus then became full emperor in 260 but his reign was faced by many revolts by several general, he then made his son Saloninus co-emperor in the west but was also killed in 260 by the rebel general Postumus who broke free from Rome and formed his own Empire made up of Gaul, Spain, and Britain but having to fight Germanic invasions, they did not bother to attack Rome. Gallienus’ rule was also troubled in the east as after the armies there drove out the Sassaninds, they proclaimed their own empire known as the Palmyrene Empire with Palmyra in Syria as the capital, then in 268 Gallienus himself was assassinated by a cavalry officer. After Gallienus’ death, the army proclaimed the general Claudius II Gothicus as emperor but his reign only lasted for 2 years (268-270) but at least he made the most of it by defeating the Goths again and taking back Spain from the Gallic Empire but in 270 he died of a plague and was replaced as emperor by his brother Quintillus but nothing much is said about his reign except that he died within the same year and was replaced the general Aurelian (r. 270-275) as emperor. Aurelian’s reign was short but successful as he built the powerful walls of Rome, defeated both the Gallic and Palmyrene Empires and brought them back to the united Roman Empire but he left Dacia abandoned and taken over by the Goths, he died in an army camp in 275 when his secretary faked a list of people he wanted dead and showed it to the Praetorian Guards who panicked and assassinated the emperor, but when the list was discovered to be fake, the secretary too was killed. Without any heirs, the senate chose the senator Tacitus to succeed Aurelian, though Tacitus was old and died a year later in 276 and was succeeded by his half-brother Florianus who only reigned for less than 3 months in 276 and was killed by his troops who went up against him, then he would be replaced as emperor by the general Probus (r. 276-282). Probus ruled a bit longer and made the most it too by defeating all rivals against him in a short matter of time and there was a bit of peace in the empire so he had the soldiers instead work on public works but in 282 when preparing for war against the Sassanids, the soldiers complaining about the hard work in having to drain a swamp somewhere in Serbia stabbed Probus to death. The soldiers then proclaimed the Praetorian Prefect Carus as emperor and as emperor he would continue with the campaign against the Sassanid Persians the next year making his son Carinus co-emperor in charge of the west but in 283 at a battle against the Persians it was claimed that Carus was struck by lightning and died that way. Carinus remained emperor in the west while Carus’ other son Numerian was made emperor in the east but when returning from the campaign Numerian died but the Praetorian Prefect Aper claimed he was still alive but when Numerian was discovered to be dead, the soldiers killed Aper and proclaimed the cavalry commander Diocles emperor who then became Emperor Diocletian in 284 and in 285 he defeated Carinus and took over the empire dividing it in half making his friend Maximian emperor in the west and he emperor in the east. In 293 the Tetrarchy system began, Diocletian and Maximian were senior emperors or Augusti and the generals Galerius and Constantius I were junior emperors or Caesars. The system though supposed to be to stop all the take-overs and civil wars still created more civil wars until Constantine I the Great defeated all rivals ending the Tetrarchy in 324.

The 4 Emperors of 69AD- Galba, Otho, Vitellius, and Vespasian
The Severan Dynasty of the Roman Empire, 193-235
The Year of the Six Emperors
238, year of the 6 emperors- Maximinus Thrax, Gordian I, Gordian II, Balbinus, Pupienus, Gordian III

Watch this to learn more about the Severan Dynasty of the Roman Empire (from Dovahhatty).

Watch this to learn more about the Crisis of the 3rd Century in the Roman Empire (from Kings and Generals).


If the Roman Empire had gone through almost 50 years of anarchy military takeovers, and frequent changes of emperors from 235 to 284, its successor the Byzantine Empire went through the same but not as long as the 3rd century crisis in the Roman Empire. However, the long period of unstable succession and military takeovers in the Roman Empire was one of its legacies that was left behind in Byzantium. Continuing the imperial traditions of Rome, the Byzantine Empire though being a more absolute monarchy was still not a monarchy by “divine right”, also there was no codified Byzantine law for emperors to be succeeded by their eldest sons and to be emperor they still needed the support of the senate and army but more so the army, in which many Byzantine emperors took the throne by a military coup as a general or sometimes in a more peaceful way to gain power, generals by married the former emperor’s widow which with the case with emperors Anastasius I in 491, Nikephoros II in 963, and Romanos IV in 1068. After all, Constantine the Great had founded Byzantium after eliminating his rivals in the west until fully ruling it in 312 and in 324 after defeating Licinius became the sole ruler of the Roman Empire ending the Tetrarchy and making the new capital Constantinople. In the history of Byzantium there had in fact been 4 times when an emperor was deposed but returned for a second reign. The first emperor of Byzantium to be overthrown was Zeno in 475 due to his unpopularity for being an Isaurian originally named Tarasis Kodisa, which people in Constantinople considered as semi-barbaric and with the support of an army, Basiliscus usurped the throne and became emperor for a year but in 476 the army sent to Isauria to chase after Zeno defected to Zeno’s side and turned on Basiliscus forcing him out of power and making Zeno emperor again, Basiliscus was then sent to exile and locked up in a cistern in Cappadocia where he died of starvation shortly after. Zeno ruled for many years till his death in 491 but his reign was challenged by different usurping generals wherein he could have almost lost the throne. The next emperor to be overthrown but had returned to power was Justinian II who became emperor in 685 but as emperor he ruled without thinking practically and wasted the empire’s funds in conquests and trying to rebuild the greatness of Justinian I who ruled a century before him in which he was named after but in 695 the people, army, senate, and Church gathered and overthrew him cutting his nose off and sending him into exile for 10 years until but in 705 he returned to power despite having a cut-off nose and he spent his second reign being even worse executing all those who had conspired to overthrow him in 695 but at the end Justinian II was overthrown again in 711 and this time he was executed. The third emperor to be deposed but had returned to power was Constantine V, the son of Leo III of the Isaurian Dynasty who became emperor in 741 after his father died but his father’s general Artavasdos who helped him take the throne in 717 felt like he deserved the throne as Leo III promised him before so in 742 while Constantine V went on a military campaign, Artavasdos stole the throne from him for a year until Constantine V returned and defeated Artavasdos who had then had blinded and sent to live in a monastery for life, Constantine V then would create the special army force known as the Tagmata to have an army loyal to the emperor and he ruled for much longer till his death in 775. The fourth emperor to be overthrown but had returned to power was Isaac II Angelos who came to power in 1185 by popular support and having the emperor Andronikos I Komnenos beaten to death but as emperor Isaac II was no worse than his predecessor Andronikos I and the Byzantine army had fallen into decline then in 1195, out of nowhere while Isaac was out hunting his older brother Alexios III usurped the throne feeling he had the right since he was older and when Isaac returned he was blinded and thrown into prison with his son. The son however escaped and travelled to Venice to get the 4th Crusade to put him in power in which in 1203 his uncle Alexios III escaped Constantinople and lost the throne while Isaac II was released from prison but ruled together with his son Alexios IV since Isaac II was blind and had grown mentally and physically weak, but early in 1204 the people rose up against them for agreeing to pay off the Crusaders so both father and son were deposed, imprisoned again, and executed. The fourth case here shows the story of the Angelos emperors from 1185 to 1204 in which all of them came to power by force despite being in the same family and with both Isaac II and Alexios IV dead in 1204, the man responsible for it became Emperor Alexios V but ruled for only 2 months as the 4th Crusade army attacked and captured Constantinople forcing Alexios V to flee but when caught he was executed by the Crusaders who threw him off a column in Constantinople. In Byzantine history itself there had been so much more stories of unstable successions and takeovers such as in 602 when the emperor Maurice (r. 582-602) could not pay his army, which led them to rebel and proclaim the centurion Phocas as emperor who was only a low, ranking officer. Phocas still took over with the support of the army, marched in to Constantinople and had Maurice and his sons executed by beheading. Phocas spent most of his reign eliminating all potential rivals leaving the Sassanid Persians to quickly take over Byzantine territory but in 610 Heraclius from North Africa sailed to Constantinople and with the support of the senate and army deposed Phocas and executed him. In the Byzantine Empire though compared to the Roman Empire before them, deposed emperors weren’t punished as severely as in ancient Rome, the usurper who would take the throne usually killed off the former emperor such as the case with Maximinus I killing off Severus Alexander in 235, though in Byzantium the update in the law on emperors created punishments for deposed emperors which was that they would be blinded so that they would not be able to take back the throne or sent to a monastery for life, although Isaac II was the exception here as he came to power in his second reign blind and Justinian II in his second reign had a mutilated nose when the law said the emperor should be of perfect shape meaning missing no body parts and not blind. At the end of the 7th century, in 695 Justinian II was overthrown and his nose cut off, then the general Leontios who was an enemy of Justinian II was proclaimed emperor but 3 years later in 698 after a mission to take back Carthage from the Arabs that failed, the army that was sent decided to turn on Leontios and had one of the commanders, Tiberius Apsimar made emperor Tiberius III, thus Leontios was banished to a monastery, but in 705 Justinian II returned and had both usurpers Leontios and Tiberius III executed. After Justinian II was overthrown again in 711 and this time beheaded, the general who took over as emperor Philippikos Bardanes only stayed for 2 years (711-713) as the army decided to overthrow and blind him replacing him with his secretary Artemios who became Anastasius II (r. 713-715) who in 715 was again overthrown by the army and without anyone to make emperor they chose a random tax official and proclaimed him Emperor Theodosius III (r. 715-717) but he never wanted to be emperor so when the general Konon revolted he abdicated and Konon became Emperor Leo III. This anarchy period with 7 changes of emperor went on for only 22 years though from 695 to 717 whereas Rome in the 3rd century had a change of emperor more than 27 times in less than 50 years. For a Byzantine ruler, it was easy to loose the throne especially when loosing the support of the army, people, and senate which was the case of Empress Irene in 802 because of her unpopular decision in marrying the new Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne for an alliance which the Byzantine people hated and move to depose Irene and replace her with the finance officer Nikephoros I (r. 802-811). In 813, the emperor Michael I abdicated when the general Leo the Armenian rose up against him and had later proclaimed himself Leo V but in 820 he was assassinated by his general Michael of Amorion who helped him come to power but both had fallen out with each other. After Leo V was assassinated, Michael II became emperor but was almost overthrown when Leo V’s other general Thomas the Slav launched a civil war that almost brought down Michael II but Thomas was eventually defeated. There would not be much of unstable succession in Byzantium until the 11th century when the Macedonian Dynasty ended after Empress Theodora (r. 1055-1056) died and was replaced by her secretary Michael VI Bringas who was unpopular with army which led them to proclaim the general Isaac Komnenos as emperor. Isaac I only ruled for 2 years (1057-1059) but tried to fix the ruin of the empire but after suffering a sickness had to abdicate and pass the throne to his friend the general and senator Constantine X Doukas (r. 1059-1067) who was a weak ruler and left the Byzantine army in ruin and after his death, instead of his son succeeding him his wife Empress Eudokia Makrembolitissa married the general Romanos Diogenes who became Emperor Romanos IV since Byzantium needed a strong ruler to defeat the invading Seljuk Turks but at the end the Byzantines in 1071 were defeated by the Seljuks at Manzikert and Romanos IV was captured but released although back in Constantinople, Constantine X’s son Michael VII (r. 1071-1078) was made emperor and while Romanos IV was on his way to return he was defeated and captured again and instead of being spared, Michael VII had him brutally blinded which killed him shortly after Now Michael VII was a weak ruler who listened to everything people in his court said and once even a rogue Norman mercenary went as far as proclaiming himself the Byzantine emperor but in 1078 the military rebellion of the generals Nikephoros Bryennios and Nikephoros Botaneiates went against him and Michael VII not being able to hold onto power abdicated and retired to a monastery wherein Nikephoros III Botaneiates became emperor for only 3 years as in 1081 the general Alexios Komenos usurped the throne and became Emperor Alexios I re-establishing the Komnenos Dynasty in which his uncle Isaac I was the first Komnenos emperor. Like the Severan Dynasty in imperial Rome which had a one year break from 217-218 when the general Macrinus took over between Caracalla’s assassination and Elagabalus’ ascension, the Komnenos Dynasty was to begin in 1057 with Isaac I but only had one emperor in its first period and in between Isaac I’s abdication in 1059 and his nephew Alexios I’s ascension in 1081 there was a whole Dynasty, the Doukas Dynasty between them. The Komnenos Dynasty saw a peaceful linear succession and 4 generations in one straight line were made emperors until Alexios I’s grandson Alexios II (r. 1180-1183) was overthrown by his relative Andronikos I Komnenos (r. 1183-1185) but because of tyrannical reign was overthrown by his cousin Isaac II Angelos who was already mentioned earlier, but Isaac II on the other turned out to another incompetent and corrupt ruler. After the fall of Constantinople to the 4th Crusade in 1204, the Empire of Nicaea had a stable succession for 4 generations until the last emperor John IV Laskaris who was still a boy was usurped by the general Michael Palaiologos when taking back Constantinople in 1261, John IV was then blinded an imprisoned while Michael VIII founded the Palaiologos Dynasty, the last one to rule Byzantium. Michael VIII though was peacefully succeeded by his son Andronikos II after his death in 1282, Andronikos II then had ruled a long reign of 46 years and in it his son co-emperor Michael IX died in which Andronikos II blamed his grandson Andronikos for, but the grandson Andronikos launched a civil war against his grandfather in 1321 and in 1328 the young Andronikos won and overthrew his grandfather sending him to a monastery. Andronikos III (r. 1328-1341) had a successful reign but his death was in 1341 was so sudden that he did not name his successor while he already had a son. The son John V was made emperor anyway but his reign was challenged as the aristocrats backed Andronikos III’s general John Kantakouzenos who was declared a public enemy by Andronikos III’s widow the empress Anna of Savoy. This was the second civil war in the Palaiologos Dynasty and a more deadly one, which ended in 1347 with John Kantakouzenos as the winner. In this case, John V like Constantine VII in the 10th century was not fully removed from power but made co-emperor while John VI Kantakouzenos (r. 1347-1354) was the senior emperor but in 1354 John V with the help of Genoese pirates took back the throne and banished John VI to a monastery but John V’s long reign was almost entirely unstable as in 1376 his son completely overthrew and imprisoned him and became Emperor Andronikos IV but in 1379 with the help of the Venetians and Ottomans, John V removed his son from power and became emperor again, but in 1390 5 years after Andronikos IV died his son John VII overthrew his grandfather John V out of revenge for only 5 months. John V was a rare case of an emperor and a tragic one as his reign of a total 50 years began with a civil war and was removed from power 3 times, he then died early in 1391 of grief and humiliation naming his second son Manuel II Palaiologos his successor. In less than a century after John V’s death in 1391, Byzantium fell to the Ottomans but the succession remained stable.


IV. Imperial Titles, Co-emperors, and Imperial Court in Rome and Byzantium


The Byzantine Empire and the Roman Empire before them had an extensive and elaborate court with people holding many different positions, lavish feasts, and advanced technologies. The Romans on the other only became extravagant people in the age of the empire as by Republican times the Romans were known as practical and hard-working people, although when it came to government things were quite complex especially with all the positions in the senate as mentioned earlier. The earlier emperors of Rome however did not use titles such as Rex that referred to them as kings- like how the Persian kings called themselves “king of kings”- even if the emperors have acted like kings at times but the titles they used such as Imperator referred to them more as the “supreme commander” or “dictator for life”. The title Caesar was originally the cognomen or 3rd name used the nickname of members from the Julian family, which Julius Caesar came from but when his nephew Octavian became the first emperor, the title became associated with the next emperors to come. As Octavian became emperor he added the title of Augustus to his name which was an honorary title given by the senate meaning “majestic” or “venerable” in which he would be forever known as, but it is quite confusing though that the name of the first emperor was not actually his name but the name used for all Roman emperors. Other than “Caesar” or “Augustus”, emperors were also given additional honorary titles like Nobilismus meaning “most noble”, Pater Patriae meaning “Father of the Fatherland”, Pontifex Maximus meaning “Chief Priest”, and Invictus meaning “unconquered”, but the original title they used was always Princeps Senatus or Princeps meaning “First in the Senate”. Now emperors or generals who returned victorious conquering a whole country would use the title of that country in their name meaning conqueror of that country, for example the general Drusus Claudius Nero when conquering Germany used the title Germanicus in his name and that title would be passed down to his sons which is why the famous Roman general Germanicus uses this name and his sons and descendants used this title as well and so did his brother Claudius but when emperor, Claudius I had conquered Britain therefore he gained the title Britannicus though he passed the title to his son. Also emperors during their reigns held the title of consul if they were elected and served as both emperor and consul, but aside from having political and military authority emperors too gained religious authority, which is why they used the title Pontifex Maximus or Chief Priest. Emperors though not supposed to be seen or acting like kings with divine rights but ironically when it was their birthdays the whole empire celebrated with feasts and soldiers were given a bonus pay and some emperors too were deified when they died, meaning they became gods if the senate voted that they become gods and people made sacrifices to them, therefore there was the cult of the Roman emperors that practiced emperor worship; for example Augustus after his death in 14AD was voted by the senate to be a god in the Roman Pantheon together with existing ones like Jupiter and Mars, his wife Livia too was made a goddess by Emperor Claudius I who after his death in 54AD became a god too. The legions in their campaigns also had one officer called the Imagnifer assigned to carrying a standard with the face of the emperor and if the standard was broken, it meant rebellion against the emperor. Augustus on the other hand who was deified after death did not see his position as emperor as something monarchical but rather something more republican as after all he was put in power by the senate and throughout his reign carefully made sure he was at the same track as them and would allow them to keep his power in check, however it was his successors from Tiberius to Nero and those after that took the role of emperor to a more autocratic level. Now in the imperial court, emperors were surrounded by many slaves, assistants, and secretaries while at the same time these secretaries were the people Roman emperors were closest too and at times had heavily influenced them in crucial decisions, yet many of these imperial secretaries were not of nobility and most were just freedmen either liberated slaves or children of liberated slaves. For example during the reigns of Claudius I and Nero, not only did the Praetorian Guard commander play an influential role in the emperor’s decision making, freedmen secretaries did too like for Claudius I it was the freedmen Narcissus and Pallas who had sat with him in dinners, stayed with him in his office almost all the time, and had even advised him in big decisions regarding the state or the imperial court like in this case, they advised him to have his wife Messalina executed seeing she might overthrow him. Now if the freedmen secretaries influenced Roman emperors in some state affairs and supervised building projects and the Praetorian commanders influenced them in military affairs, emperors too had appointed family members to act as co-emperors to help them run the empire and train them to be the next emperor. The first official duo to be co-emperors of Rome were Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus (161-169) who ruled them empire together with the same ultimate authority as emperor especially since the empire was too large for one man to govern, though Verus died in 169 from the plague and Marcus Aurelius ruled as sole emperor till he appointed his son Commodus as co-emperor in 177 which allowed him to quickly assume the title of emperor after his father died in 180. Though before Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus, there were some who practically acted as co-emperors except did not use the title beginning all the way to Augustus’ reign where his closest friend Marcus Agrippa acted as Augustus’ 2nd in command except did not use any title and he had this job from 27BC till his death in 12BC, then Tiberius in his early reign had his son Drusus and nephew Germanicus act as his co-emperos except without the title until Germanicus died in 19AD, and Drusus in 23AD, then later on Titus acted as co-emperor without the title during his father Vespasian’s reign (69-79AD), and Trajan in the last months of Nerva’s reign (96-98AD). After Marcus Aurelius, emperors would now appoint usually their sons now as co-emperors both as a way to ensure their succession and in case the emperor died someone would automatically succeed him, first Septimius Severus appointed both his sons Geta and Caracalla as co-emperors and used the title Imperator Destinatus for Caraclla meaning “Destined to be Emperor” and when Severus died in 211, both Geta and Caracalla were joint emperors but both hated each other so at the end of the year Caracalla had murdered his brother Geta. The usurping general Macrinus who had Caracalla assassinated in 217 in his 1-year reign made his son Diadumenian co-emperor until the army killed both father and son. The next emperors Elagabalus (r. 218-222) and Severus I Alexander (r. 222-235) both came into power at a young age so running the state was mostly done by the care of their mothers- next time in a future article I will talk about the powerful role of women in the Roman Byzantine Empires. After Severus Alexander’s assassination by the army in 235, the course of Roman history for forever change marking the start of the 3rd century crisis wherein from the years 235-284, it was easy for anyone regardless of race or class to become Roman emperor as long as they were strong willed men who had the trust of the army. Before this, all Roman emperors were of Italian origin or from patrician or equestrian class in society while only Vespasian (69-79) of the Flavian Dynasty was from a middle class Italian family, Pertinax (193) though was the exception as he rose up through the army though his father was originally a freed slave, but the emperor Septimius Severus though coming from an aristocratic family as a different case as he was North African, being the first Roman emperor of foreign blood as other emperors before him like Trajan or Hadrian were born in Spain but of Italian families. The 3rd century now would be a turning point not only for the change of the imperial succession from being republican to army related but also here the Italians would no longer be the master-race of the empire the way they were as emperors were of different races around the empire, most particularly Illyrians probably because of their skills as soldiers. The first of these “barracks emperors” in this 50-year military anarchy was Maximinus I Thrax (r. 235-238) who was not only a Thracian but of low birth, originally a shepherd who rose up the ranks in the Roman army, then emperors after him would either be nobles such as Gordian I and II (238), Pupienus and Balbinus (238), Decius (249-251), Trebonianus Gallus (251-253), Valerian (253-260), Tacitus (275-276), and Probus (276-282) and already had important positions in the empire such as senators or governors while other emperors in this time like Philip I the Arab (244-249), Claudius II (268-270), Aurelian (270-275), and Carus (282-283) were not so much of high birth but more of military men who advanced their careers in the army. The common thing that appears the most in this 3rd century crisis is the use of co-emperors as almost all the emperors from Philip I in 244 to Carus in 283 made their sons regardless of age- even if they were still children- as co-emperors, and since this was a time of anarchy emperors could do whatever they wanted like making their sons co-rulers even if they had no experience. This practice of making their sons co-emperors was to ensure their succession as emperor in case the senior emperor, their father died in battle. For Roman emperors, it was common that they led their armies in battle as after all their title meant “victorious commander” but in the 3rd century emperors would always be away from Rome with their armies. Unlike rulers of modern empires who had never been around the colonies of their empires, Roman emperors like Hadrian toured the empire as it was also necessary them to travel around the empire so that he got a better picture on how to rule it but this also led to usurpers to take the throne. The youngest emperor in this period was Gordian III (238-244) who was only 13 when becoming emperor and rather than having a family member as his regent, it was his Praetorian Prefect. All of this though would change after Diocletian came to power in 284, though originally a Greek-speaking commoner from Illyria (in today’s Croatia) born as Diocles who rose up to power by being in the emperor’s personal cavalry unit, he was a traditionalist and believer of absolute monarchy. First of all he made his friend Maximian, also an Illyrian as Caesar now meaning junior emperor in 285 which was the title for the “emperor-in-waiting” then in 286 Diocletian promoted Maximian to his co-Augustus beginning the Diarchy or Rule of Two wherein both were of equal power governing different halves of the empire, Diocletian took the east and Maximian the west. Diocletian later completely changed the role of the emperor from being the supreme leader of the senate to now something more like an absolute ruler, thus the title from “Princeps” or “Imperator” changed to Dominus meaning “lord” or “master”, and the new imperial system now called the Dominate. The system of the Dominate would not only apply to Diocletian in the Diarchy and in 293 onwards the Tetrarchy but to all 4 emperors, the Augusti and Caesars in the Tetrarchy in which all would now exercise more absolute power without much consent from the senate. This now would remain the system Roman emperors would use with emperors including Constantine the Great and all succeeding Western Roman and Byzantine emperors. Another items that had distinguished the authority of Roman emperors was the imperial attire which was a purple toga, first only reserved for victorious commanders in the Republic but in the time of empire, this became the attire reserved for emperors while in battle they would wear a purple cape over their armor as their title after all meant “victorious commander”, thus this associated the color purple with emperors. Now when it came to imperial crowns, the crown the Romans had used back in the time of the Republic was the Civic Crown or “Grass Crown” awarded to victorious generals when returning to Rome, later since the emperor was associated with a victorious general, their uniform included this Civic Crown, though under the empire the grass crown evolved into a metal golden wreath which became part of the emperor’s attire but only usually worn on ceremonial occasions. By the 3rd century the Civic Crown had evolved into what would be known as fuller Solar Crown inspired from the Ancient Egyptian crown, which had spikes coming out of it supposed to represent the sun’s rays, emperors at this time wore this to associate themselves with the sun god Sol Invictus. Now after 284 when Diocletian became emperor and changed the Principate to the Dominate, to assert more authority as emperor he changed the old imperial crown to the Diadem, which was full thin metal crown fastened around the head with jewels attached to it to show more authority; this design was taken from the rulers of eastern empire such as the Seleucid Greeks and Parthian and Sassanid Persians where their emperors were more autocratic rulers than the Roman emperors which is why Diocletian wanted to use their version of the crown for Roman emperors. From Diocletian onwards, the emperors including Byzantine emperors used this type of crown, also their imperial robes had started becoming more elaborate showing more purple, symbolizing the increase of the emperor’s powers over time. Now one last thing about imperial titles is that after Trajan’s rule (98-117), Roman emperors wanted to imitate both Augustus and Trajan which is why before an emperor came to power, people would say “may he be luckier than Augustus and better than Trajan”.