Political Mutilation in the Byzantine Empire
Eastern Roman emperors were seen as more than monarchs – they were seen as mirror images of God, and His regents on Earth. Because of this, only those perfect in appearance (reflecting God’s perfection) could be eligible to ascend to the throne. For the same reason, political mutilation became a common method of punishment in the Eastern Roman Empire, especially for those who would plot against the emperor or attempt to usurp his God-sanctioned position. Throughout the history of the Empire, countless men (and even a few women) paid with their eyes, tongues, noses, limbs and genitals for their defiance or ambitions.
Ironically, these punishments were even seen as a magnanimous gesture of the emperor’s forgiveness, since he could simply put the condemned to death if he so wished. Yet, he allowed them to live, only without certain body parts. It was enough, after all, since no disfigured, maimed or castrated man could ever be crowned emperor on account of his repulsive appearance and bodily imperfection. There had been only one exception in the entire history of the Eastern Roman Empire – Justinian II, the last of the Heraclian dynasty.
Justinian II became emperor at the age of 16 after the death of his father Constantine IV, in 685. Taking advantage of his father’s victories in the East, Justinian signed a treaty with the Arabs at the beginning of his reign, imposing a higher annual tribute onto them and regaining (limited) control over Cyprus, Armenia and Georgia. This allowed Justinian to focus on other, more pressing matters, namely dealing with the Slavs and Bulgars. These warring tribes invaded the Balkans and occupied Macedonia and Thrace, posing a great threat to the Empire. In response, Justinian led a campaign into the Balkans in 688 and successfully regained the lost Imperial territories, crushing the invaders.
The subjugated Slavs were drafted into the Eastern Roman military and 30,000 of them were resettled in the Eastern provinces (in Anatolia) as soldier-farmers. This strengthened Justinian’s resolve in dealing with the Arabs, which precipitated another conflict in 691-692. However, the Slavs that were resettled on the frontier and Justinian was counting on deserted in massive numbers, causing a humiliating defeat at Sebastopolis – Justinian himself had to flee the battlefield in order to save his life. The disgruntled Emperor headed to the Sea of Marmara after the battle, where he personally slaughtered every Slav he encountered in retribution for the betrayal.
Justinian’s internal policies mainly focused on restoring the Eastern Empire back to its former glory. He reformed and improved the thematic (themata = administrative division) organization of the Empire, secured its frontiers, restored old edifices and raised opulent new ones. However, Justinian had frequent despotic outbursts and his other policies, coupled with his overall disdainful attitude towards religion, made him greatly unpopular.
He ruthlessly persecuted all non-Orthodox believers, most notably the Manichaeans, and irremediably damaged Eastern Roman relations with Rome after holding the Quinisext Council in 692. The bishop of Rome, Sergius I, refused to sign the canons of the council, and rejected it entirely. This angered Justinian who quickly dispatched prōtospatharios Zacharias to arrest Sergius and bring him to Constantinople. The attempt failed, being frustrated by the armed forces of the Exarchate of Ravenna, but the relations between Constantinople and Rome were greatly strained, and would continue to erode.
Justinian tried to gain popularity with the masses by protecting the property rights of peasant landholders from the aristocracy, but that only turned most of the aristocracy against him. The commoners Justinian tried to protect and win over were also ill-pleased with his reign, becoming more and more irritated by the new taxation system which was nothing short of extortion. This tense, generalized dissatisfaction among every social class within the realm eventually escalated, culminating with a great rebellion in 695.
Dethroned, Mutilated and Exiled
The fuming masses arose under Leontius, a powerful general in the Imperial Army, and proclaimed him Emperor. Justinian was overthrown and, in an attempt to prevent him from ever returning to power, his nose was sliced off, earning him the byname Rhinometus – the Slit-Nosed. This measure would normally neutralize anyone, no matter how powerful, as a threat since only those unblemished in appearance could occupy the throne. Justinian, however, would eventually become an exception to the rule.
Following his deposition, Justinian was exiled to Cherson (in the Crimean Peninsula) where he spent several years gathering supporters and plotting to retake his position. In 688, Justinian decided to act after learning that Leontius was himself toppled and imprisoned by Tiberius Apsimar, an ambitious Germanic naval officer. The newly-enthroned Tiberius feared Justinian and had him transferred to Constantinople, thus giving him an opportunity to escape. While en-route to his new prison, Justinian managed to run away from his guards, and make his way to the court of Busir Glavan, the Khan of the Khazars and an old “family friend” of the Heraclians.
Busir Glavan not only granted Justinian asylum, but also gave him his own sister as a bride. The Khan also gave him a sumptuous new home in Phanagoria, at the entrance to the Sea of Azov. Before long, however, Tiberius Apsimar bribed Busir to have Justinian killed, and proving to have more love for money than for his own brother-in-law (the motives were most likely more pragmatic and political in nature), Busir sent two of his agents to carry out the deed. Forewarned by his wife, Justinian prepared to meet his would-be assassins, and in a fit of rage he killed both of them with his bare hands, strangling them to death.
Knowing that he was no longer safe in the domains of the treacherous Busir Glavan, and determined to regain his throne, Justinian fled the Khazar lands and returned to Cherson. Once within the city, he gathered all his supporters and set off to the Bulgar Empire in order to obtain an army strong enough to capture Constantinople. Justinian found a great ally in the person of Tervel, ruler of Bulgaria, who agreed to provide all the assistance and manpower he needed in exchange for the hand of his daughter Anastasia, new lands for the Bulgars to settle and a Caesar’s crown.
Retaking the Throne
In 705, ten years after his dethronement, Justinian marched on Constantinople leading an army of 15,000 Bulgar horsemen and Slav warriors. After three days of failed negotiations with the citizens of the great city to open the gates, Justinian cunningly used an abandoned aqueduct to sneak in at night. With only a handful of trusted companions the dethroned emperor awakened and roused many of his supporters within the city walls, and before dawn Justinian successfully seized full control in a midnight coup.
After being officially recognized as Emperor once more despite his disfigurement, Justinian, now wearing a golden nose prosthetic, had both Leontius and Tiberius put in chains, tortured and humiliated in public. Justinian had the two usurpers dragged into the Hippodrome before a scornful audience, forced them to prostate themselves in front of him, treaded on their throats, and finally had them decapitated along with many of their supporters. This was a theatrical reaffirmation of Justinian’s power. Kallinikos I, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople who played a major role in putting Leontius on the throne, was spared death, but was blinded and exiled to Rome.
Downfall and Death
Justinian’s second reign was marked by his increasing obsession with vengeance against his rivals and opponents. He did little to stabilize the Empire or to consolidate his reacquired position, instead carrying outmass executions and bloody reprisals which only led to the estrangement of his followers one by one. Justinian even turned against Tervel of Bulgaria, the one who made his return as possible, unsuccessfully going to war against the Bulgars in 708.
In the East, the conflict with the Arabs also escalated in the following years, leading to the loss of Cilicia. Ultimately, in 711, the city of Cherson revolted against Justinian and proclaimed an exiled Armenian general named Bardanes as Emperor Philippicus. In the meantime, Justinian was gone to Armenia on official business, so Constantinople was defenseless and quickly fell under rebel control.
When Justinian returned in December he was arrested and summarily executed, having his head sent to Philippicus as a trophy. His six-year-old son and heir, Tiberius, was hunted down by Philippicus’ lackeys and assassinated. Tiberius was Justinian’s son by Theodora of Khazaria, Busir Glavan’s sister. His mother [Theodora] tried to hide him in Saint Mary of Blachernae Church, but Philipicus’ men ultimately located them. Unable to take the life of Tiberius inside the sanctuary, as it was a great tabu to kill someone within a church, the assassins dragged the boy from the altar and slit his throat in the streets. With him died the line of the Heraclians.
Consulted Works and Sources:
- Theophanes’ 9th century Chronographia
- Kazhdan, A. (1991). The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium. Oxford University Press.
- Treadgold, W. (1997). A History of Byzantine State and Society. Stanford University Press.
- Treadgold, W. (2013). The Middle Byzantine Historians. Palgrave Macmillan UK.
- Stratos, A. N.(1980). Byzantium in the Seventh Century, Volume V: Justinian II, Leontius and Tiberius, 685–711. Amsterdam: Adolf Hakkert.
- Canduci, A. (2010). Triumph & Tragedy: The Rise and Fall of Rome’s Immortal Emperors. Pier 9.
- Luttwack, E. (2009). The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire. Harvard University Press.