10 Byzantine Emperors Who Met a Violent End

10 Byzantine Emperors Who Met a Violent End

Patrick Lynch - August 20, 2017

Throughout the ages, men and women have plotted to take power by force, and the person on the throne suffers because of the misdeeds of others. On occasion, the monarch was a tyrant and arguably deserved their fate. On the other hand, some kings and queens lost their crown and their lives due to the greed of others. In this article, I will look at 10 Byzantine Emperors who died prematurely and none too peacefully.

1 – Maurice (602)

By all accounts, Maurice was an excellent emperor and was handpicked as Tiberius II’s successor. His reign began in 582, and he led his armies against Persia. Ultimately, Maurice helped the Persian Khosrau II gain the throne and signed a peace agreement that both sides deemed satisfactory. However, Maurice’s subjects did not appreciate the benefits of peace with Persia and the Christians within the Byzantine population did not like the fact that their Emperor was an atheist.

The Byzantine treasury was low on funds which forced Maurice to be frugal. Alas, his subjects were unhappy; in particular his troops. In 602, Maurice refused to allow his soldiers to return home for the winter and ordered them to remain beyond the Danube River. Moreover, he told them to live off the land instead of having rations sent from Constantinople. The angry troops mutinied and were led by an officer called Phocas.

They stormed the Byzantine capital and seized the city. The regular citizens of Constantinople joined the rebellion and were not just angry at their emperor; they were violent towards any wealthy person they saw. Soon, the poorer elements of the city looted the homes of wealthy Christians and murdered them. The rebels asked Maurice’s son, Theodosius, if he would become the new ruler but he refused.

Eventually, the army chose Phocas as the new emperor, and one of his first actions was to eliminate Maurice and his family. The emperor’s sons were butchered in front of him before he was executed and beheaded. All six heads were put on display while the bodies were tossed into the sea. Empress Constantina and her three daughters were also tortured and executed. Meanwhile, Pope Gregory was delighted at the news and hoped Christians would get behind Phocas. The usurper had power, but his demise was little better than his enemy.

10 Byzantine Emperors Who Met a Violent End
Possibly a bust of Phocas. thehistoryofbyzantium

2 – Phocas (610)

Phocas was unquestionably one of the most incompetent and cruelest of the Byzantine Emperors. Khosrau II of Persia was reportedly devastated when he heard of Maurice’s death, and the relationship between the nations soon deteriorated to the point where they descended into all-out war. The Persians declared war in 603 and began their invasion of the Byzantine Empire. The conflict lasted for over a quarter of a century and weakened the Sassanid Empire to the point where it was easy pickings for the invading Arabs.

The war proved costly while Phocas distinguished himself through his complete inability to rule an empire. He quickly became unpopular and in 608, Heraclius, the Exarch of Africa, and his son, also called Heraclius, started a rebellion against the tyrannical leader. It was at this stage that Phocas ordered the execution of Constantina and her daughters. The younger Heraclius responded by planning an invasion of the Byzantine Empire.

In 610, the younger Heraclius reached the region near Constantinople. The panic-stricken Phocas knew the game was up when most of his forces abandoned him. Heraclius easily defeated the rest of Phocas’ resistance and several Byzantine aristocrats approached him with an offer to make him Emperor. By the time Heraclius reached the capital, Priscus, the son-in-law of Phocas, switched sides and brought the imperial guard with him.

Phocas was captured, and according to legend, he was brought to Heraclius who said: “Is this how you ruled wretch?” Phocas replied: “And you will rule better?” Apparently, this response angered Heraclius who beheaded Phocas there and then. However, other sources suggest that Phocas was executed at a later date. His body was mutilated, paraded around Constantinople and burned. In the end, Heraclius was a vastly superior Emperor.

10 Byzantine Emperors Who Met a Violent End
Constantine VI on his throne. Wikimedia

3 – Constantine VI (797?)

Constantine VI became the Byzantine Emperor in 780 when he was just nine years of age. His mother, Irene of Athens, assumed control of the Empire until Constantine was old enough to rule alone. Although he ‘ruled’ the Empire for 16 years, Constantine was the actual Emperor for a few years because his mother had complete control throughout. She was supposed to relinquish control when he turned 16, but this didn’t happen.

In 788, he was meant to marry Rotrude, one of Charlemagne’s daughters, but Irene stepped in to call off the engagement. She turned against Charlemagne by supporting a pretender to the Lombard’s named Adalgis, but the gamble backfired when Adalgis was defeated in battle. There was a conspiracy against Irene in 790, but she managed to suppress it and used the momentum to try and become recognized as sole ruler.

However, the Armeniacs rebelled against her and Constantine VI finally assumed power in 790. Irene retained her title as Empress, and it was officially confirmed in 792. Now that he was the Emperor, Constantine didn’t show much in the way of competence. He suffered a major defeat at the Battle of Marcellae in 792, and when his uncle, the ‘Caesar’ Nikephoros, gained support, Constantine had him blinded and also ordered further mutilations to other members of his family.

Constantine was losing popularity and sealed his fate by divorcing Maria of Amnia and marrying Theodote, his mistress. It was a canonically illegal act and cost him what little support he had left. In 797, the emperor was captured, blinded and imprisoned by supporters of Irene; she reigned as Empress Regent until 802. No one knows when Constantine died; it was certainly before 805. Certainly, he died in great pain from his wounds.

10 Byzantine Emperors Who Met a Violent End
Leo V on a coin. thehistoryofbyzantium

4 – Leo V (The Armenian) (820)

The eighth and ninth centuries were dangerous times to be a Byzantine Emperor. In 811, Nikephoros I had the indignity of having his skull turned into a drinking vessel by Khan Krum after dying at the Battle of Pliska. Although Leo V didn’t suffer the same indignity, his demise was no more pleasant.

Leo reached the position of commander of the foederati under Nikephoros I but was expelled for supporting a rebel named Arsaber and also for personal enrichment. Emperor Michael, I recalled him from exile in 811 and gave him the important position of strategos of the Anatolikon. Leo wasn’t exactly in Belisarius’ league when it came to commanding his army. For instance, his troops were the first to flee the battlefield in the disaster at Versinika in 813.

Just a few weeks later, these troops proclaimed Leo as Emperor after deposing Michael I. They also castrated Michael’s two sons. Leo was able to extend Constantinople’s walls at Blachernai and improve the defenses at Thrace because the Bulgars and the Arabs allowed some breathing space. Leo reinstated Iconoclasm in 815 and appointed Thomas the Slav and Michael II the Amorian to positions of high command. He would regret this decision within a few years.

In 820, Leo sentenced Michael II to death on charges of treason, but on the following day, Michael’s supporters burst into the Hagia Sophia on Christmas Day where Leo was attending the Matins service. He called on his troops to defend him, but his attackers barred the doors and sliced off his arm. Leo fell before the Communion table, and his body was cut into pieces. The men went to Michael’s cell and released him. However, they could not find the keys to free him, so he was named Emperor while still in chains.

10 Byzantine Emperors Who Met a Violent End
Ceasar Vardas executed in front of the emperor Michael III. Byzantio

5 – Michael III (867)

Michael III became emperor in 842 when he was just two years of age. As a result, a regency ruled the Empire; it consisted of Michael’s mother Theodora, her uncle Sergios and a minister called Theokistos. As he grew up, various members of the court fought to curry favor with the young ruler. Michael grew close to his uncle Bardas and didn’t prevent him from murdering Theokistos in 855.

In 856, Michael overthrew the regency with the aid of Bardas and general Petronas. However, Bardas was the real power behind the throne until he was murdered around a decade later by Basil I. Michael’s rule saw some military success for the Empire as Petronas campaigned beyond the Euphrates and in 863; Petronas defeated the emir of Melitene. The Byzantines also repelled a Russian invasion in 860.

Although Michael had no heir, he did not want to risk the wrath of the people by marrying his mistress Ingerina. Instead, he ensured she married one of his court favorites, Basil the Macedonian. As a result, the Emperor continued his affair with Ingerina while Basil courted Michael’s sister. In 866, Basil convinced Michael that Bardas was plotting a coup, so the Emperor stepped aside and allowed Basil to kill Bardas. Basil became co-emperor in May 866; perhaps Michael did this to legitimize the claim of Leo, Ingerina’s new baby, who was probably the son of Michael.

It was a grave error, compounded by Michael favoring a courtier named Basiliskianos who was in line to become another co-emperor. In September 867, Basil ordered the assassination of Michael while the emperor was asleep in his chambers after a heavy drinking session. Basil entered with a number of accomplices and ensured there were no guards present. A man named John of Chaldia cut off Michael’s hands before stabbing the emperor in the heart. Basil became the new emperor after ensuring that Basiliskianos was also murdered.

10 Byzantine Emperors Who Met a Violent End
Basil I on the Left and Leo on the right. Ancient Origins

6 – Basil I (886)

If Basil’s ascent to the throne was bloody and brutal, his death was similar. However, unlike the others on this list, Basil died horribly in a freak accident. Although he became Emperor through deceptive and murderous means, he was one of the greatest Byzantine Emperors. Admittedly, his legacy is enhanced by the fact that he was succeeded by high-quality emperors. Nonetheless, he set in place the political, social and economic conditions to help the Byzantine Empire grow and flourish.

Basil founded the ‘Macedonian Dynasty’ which was a period of expansion for the Empire. It has to be said that Basil’s military record was far from spotless. He successfully expanded eastwards by defeating the Paulicians in 872 and sacking their main city, Tephrike. However, he was less successful in other areas and failed to prevent the Empire of Sicily from taking Syracuse in 878. The Byzantines recovered by taking Taranto in 880 along with most of Calabria. These Italian Peninsula successes enabled the Byzantines to expand over the next few generations.

Due to the enormous amount of legislative work he undertook, Basil is sometimes known as the Second Justinian. All of his laws were collected in a 60 book series called the ‘Basilika’ and Leo VI completed these works. Basil clearly sought to emulate Justinian the Great by focusing on an extensive building program in the capital. He also did his best to ensure good relations with Rome on the ecclesiastical front.

In terms of succession, Basil suffered a blow in 879 when his favorite son, Constantine, died. He raised his youngest son Alexander to be the new emperor and despised Leo who he suspected of being Michael III’s son. After imprisoning Leo on suspicion of plotting against him, he wanted to blind his son but was talked out of it by Photios.

In 886, Basil had a freak accident while hunting. His belt apparently got caught on the horns of a deer; some sources say he was impaled. The deer dragged him for 16 miles before it was hunted down. Basil accused the man who saved him of attempted murder so he had the unfortunate attendant executed. Basil died from a fever sustained during the accident, and his hated son Leo became the new emperor.

10 Byzantine Emperors Who Met a Violent End
Nikephoros II Phokas by Spatharokandidatos Basileus. Deviant Art

7 – Nikephoros II Phokas (969)

Given the fact that he had the names of two former Byzantine Emperors who met terrible fates, perhaps it is not surprising to learn that Nikephoros II followed suit. He was the best Byzantine general of the era, and his military brilliance helped the Empire flourish during the 10th century.

Nikephoros’ career did not get off to the best start however as he suffered defeat to the Abbasid Caliphate in 954 when he was the Byzantine Empire’s supreme commander on the eastern frontier. He recovered by earning several victories in Syria and was placed in charge of the eastern field army when Emperor Romanos II came to power in 959. Two years later, Nikephoros defeated the Muslims and gained the island of Chandax.

After the death of Romanos II in 963, Nikephoros seized power with the aid of his nephew, John Tzimiskes. He did not quell his natural military instincts once he became emperor and his reign was marked by a succession of campaigns. As he spent so much on the army, he was forced to cut back in other departments. As well as forbidding the building of new monasteries, he debased the coinage. The frugality shown in everything outside of the army ensured that Nikephoros was an unpopular emperor and riots were common.

His second wife, Theophano, began an affair with Tzimiskes and the duo plotted the death of the Emperor. On December 11, 969, the conspirators entered the palace dressed as women. Nikephoros learned of a plot to kill him and ordered a full search of the palace. However, the Empress’ chambers were not searched, and the plotters remained hidden. Nikephoros slept on the floor of his room, so the assassins were initially surprised when they saw an empty bed. Nikephoros woke up, and one of the assassins tried to decapitate him but sliced his face instead. The emperor was dragged to the feet of Tzimiskes who called him a tyrant; then one of the assassins beheaded Nikephoros and paraded his head on a spike.

10 Byzantine Emperors Who Met a Violent End
Michael V on coins. Wikimedia

8 – Michael V Kalphates (1042)

Michael V was one of the shortest reigning Byzantine Emperors as he spent just four months on the throne. Michael was the nephew of the previous Emperor, Michael IV, who died in 1041. He is commonly known as ‘kalphates’ or ‘the caulker’ after his father’s profession.

He was elevated to the role of Emperor by Zoe (the wife of Michael IV) and his uncle, John the Eunuch. Michael made a terrible mistake by exiling both of his supporters soon after becoming emperor. He was determined to rule by himself and banished John to a monastery. Not only that, he reversed all the decisions made by John and recalled nobles and courtiers that were exiled during the reign of Michael IV.

On April 18/19 1042, Michael sealed his fate by banishing Zoe and officially becoming sole ruler. When he made the announcement the following morning, there was a revolt within the city of Constantinople as a mob surrounded the palace and demanded the immediate restoration of the popular Zoe. Michael quickly folded, and Zoe was restored to her position along with her sister Theodora. They acted quickly as Theodora declared that Michael had been deposed and he fled to a monastery in Stoudion.

Michael had no popular support, so he was hunted down. Even though he had taken monastic vows at this point, he was arrested. His captors proceeded to blind and castrate him before leaving him at Stoudion. He died in August 1042 as a monk.

10 Byzantine Emperors Who Met a Violent End
Alexios II Komnenos on coins. Dumbarton Oaks

9 – Alexios II Komnenos (1183)

Alexios II was just 11 years old when he became emperor in 1180 after his father, Manuel I, died. His mother, Maria, decided that Alexios was too young to rule, so she became regent along with one of the new emperor’s cousins who was also called Alexios. The young emperor’s friends attempted to start a coup to ensure he gained the throne and soon, there were riots in the streets of Constantinople.

Alexios’ friends failed in their quest but on May 2, 1182, Andronikos Komnenos, Emperor Manuel’s first cousin, took advantage of the chaos and tried to place himself on the throne. He entered Constantinople and quickly overthrew the government. Almost as soon as he entered the city, there was a massacre of the Latins, the Roman Catholic inhabitants of the city. An estimated 80,000 people died, and Andronikos didn’t try to stop the purge.

Although Andronikos was happy to allow Alexios II to become emperor, he ensured that everyone close to the young man died. Maria, the other Alexios, and the emperor’s older sister Maria were all executed; apparently, Emperor Alexios was forced to sign the death warrants. It was surely just a matter of time before Andronikos made his move and sure enough, he became co-emperor in September 1183. Rather than wait for Alexios to become old enough to gain sense, Andronikos acted almost immediately.

In October 1183, Andronikos ordered the assassination of his co-emperor and the unfortunate Alexios was strangled by a bowstring. During his brief reign, the Empire’s enemies used the discord in Constantinople to make incursions into Byzantine territory. The Kingdom of Hungary took Bosnia and Syrmia in 1181 and the following year, the Empire lost Sozopolis and Cotyaeum to Kilij Arslan II. Andronikos was now the sole leader of the Byzantine Empire, but he didn’t live long enough to enjoy it.

10 Byzantine Emperors Who Met a Violent End
Depiction of the death of Andronikos Komnenos. Wikimedia

10 – Andronikos I Komnenos (1185)

Andronikos was an old man by the time he eliminated Alexios II in 1183. He was born in 1118 and was known to be a tough, courageous and handsome individual who was also an excellent general. He was taken captive by the Seljuk Turks in 1141 and remained as their prisoner for a year. After his release, he stayed at the court of his cousin Emperor Manuel I Komnenos and Andronikos was one of his favorites.

Despite this fact, Andronikos’ lust for power meant he was involved in a conspiracy against Manuel in 1153, so he was thrown in prison. He tried to escape on several occasions before succeeding in 1165. Andronikos fled to Kiev but returned to Constantinople after allying with Manuel. After refusing to swear allegiance to Bela, later to become Bela III of Hungary and due to be Manuel’s successor, Andronikos was removed from the court but received the province of Cilicia.

Andronikos continued to anger the Emperor and stayed in different locations including at the court of King George III of Georgia. Once Manuel died in 1180 and was succeeded by Alexios II, resentment within the kingdom grew as they disliked the fact that Empress Maria was of Latin origin. Andronikos saw his opportunity and marched on Constantinople with an army in 1182. He became co-emperor in 1183 and murdered Alexios II within a month.

He married Agnes of France and embarked on a short reign known for harsh measures. The aging Andronikos became increasingly paranoid and tyrannical, and soon, he began ordering mass executions. Meanwhile, King William of the Norman Sicilians invaded and got as far as Thessalonica where he killed up to 7,000 people. Andronikos failed to deal with the threat, and by now, he had decided to eliminate the aristocracy.

On September 11, 1185, Stephen, one of the emperor’s most trusted lieutenants, tried to arrest Isaac Angelos on suspicion of disloyalty when Andronikos was away. However, Isaac killed Stephen and hid in the Hagia Sophia. He appealed to the populace, and the popular Isaac was soon declared Emperor. Andronikos tried to flee but was captured along with his wife. Isaac turned him over to the mob, and the emperor was tied to a post and beaten for three days.

Someone cut off his right hand while his teeth were extracted and his hair was pulled out. One of his eyes was gouged out, and boiling water was thrown in his face. He was finally led to the city’s Hippodrome and hung by his feet from a pair of pillars. Two Latin soldiers wanted to see who could cut him the deepest and ultimately, Andronikos’s body was torn apart. Few rulers have ever suffered more as he paid the heaviest price imaginable for his deeds.


Sources For Further Reading:

Met Museum – Heraclius

Medievalists – How to Murder a Byzantine Emperor

History Collection – Lesser-Known Byzantine Empire Facts

History Collection – Under Siege! 10 Little Known Battles of the Byzantine Empire

History Collection – 7 Reasons Why the Byzantine Empire Lasted as Long as it did

History Collection – 5 Reasons Why The Byzantine Empire Finally Collapsed

History Collection – End of an Empire: How the Byzantines Fell at Constantinople in 1453