Constantinople Not Istanbul: 6 Great Byzantine Emperors

Constantinople Not Istanbul: 6 Great Byzantine Emperors

Patrick Lynch - January 10, 2017

The Byzantine Empire is also known as the Eastern Roman Empire and was effectively formed in 330 AD when Constantine the Great moved the capital from Rome to Constantinople. It survived the fall of the Empire in the West in 476 AD and thrived for hundreds of years after that.

Its success was largely down to a number of exceptional rulers who overcame internal squabbling, natural disasters and hordes of foreign invaders until the empire fell to the Ottomans in 1453. In fairness, it wasn’t much of an empire after the sack of Constantinople in 1204 which is why every ruler on this list reigned before that fateful year. As Constantine the Great is already covered in the Western Roman Emperor list, he is not included here.

Constantinople Not Istanbul: 6 Great Byzantine Emperors (Justinian I monument in Skopje)

1 – Justinian I (527 – 565)

Also known as Justinian the Great, this legendary emperor was born in Tauresium, Dardania which is near modern day Skopje, Macedonia in 482-483. He was actually from a peasant background but moved to Constantinople as a young man. His uncle, Justin, was a military commander and ultimately became Emperor Justin I in 518. He quickly promoted his nephew to important roles. Justinian was adopted by his uncle and was made co-emperor in 527 while his wife, Theodora, was made ‘Augusta.’ Within four months, his uncle died and Justinian I was the sole ruler of the Byzantine Empire.

He became known for his skill as a legislator and codifier and is famous for sponsoring a codification of laws known as Codex Justinianus in 534. Justinian was genuinely concerned about the wellbeing of his subjects; he attempted to root out corruption and ensure justice was available to all. One example of this was the ban on the sale of provincial governorships. Traditionally, the men who bribed their way into office would recoup their money by overtaxing the population of their provinces.

Regarding foreign policy, Justinian focused on regaining Roman provinces in the west from barbarians and continuing the fight with Persia. The Empire fought on and off with Persia until 561 when a 50-year truce was agreed. Justinian helped expand the Empire by defeating the Vandals in North Africa in 534. The Byzantine ruler turned his attention to Italy and captured Ravenna in 540. However, the enemy Ostrogoths recaptured some Italian cities and the Byzantine general, Belisarius, was recalled to Constantinople in 549. Undaunted, Justinian sent another commander, Narses, back to Italy with a massive army and by 562, the whole of the country was back under Byzantine control.

Overall, Justinian was a man who showed tremendous attention to detail. His legal work and the construction of the Hagia Sophia (Great Church) gained him plenty of plaudits. While he did help expand the Empire, he failed to extend it to the extent his wished. In fact, his efforts to grow the Empire stretched its resources and is perhaps one of the reasons for its decline in the long-term. It should be said that he ruled during a terrible plague (in 542 which is often called the Plague of Justinian) which killed tens of millions of people and he did well to guide the empire through that turbulent time. Justinian died in 565 and control passed to his nephew Justin II.

Constantinople Not Istanbul: 6 Great Byzantine Emperors
The History of Byzantium

2 – Maurice (582 – 602)

Maurice was born in 539 in Cappadocia and is perhaps an underrated emperor. During his reign, the Byzantine Empire became well-organized, and he also consolidated its control in the Western Mediterranean. His accession to the throne was relatively rapid. Maurice only entered government as a notary, but by 578, he was in command of the imperial forces in the East. After earning a decisive victory over the Persians in 581, his stock rose to the point where he married Emperor Tiberius II Constantine’s daughter in 582. The emperor died within a few months, and Maurice was named emperor.

Maurice now led a shattered empire that was practically bankrupt and at war with several entities. He decided to deal with the Persians first and enjoyed several victories over his rivals. Ultimately, Maurice helped two Parthian brothers take the Persian throne at the Battle of Blarathon in 591. Now he was able to switch focus and handle the situation in the Balkans. It was a long and costly war, but the Byzantines eventually managed to subdue the Slavs and Avars by 602 which allowed the imperial army to hold the Danube line once again.

Regarding domestic matters, Maurice divided territories in Africa and Italy into ‘exarchates’ which were ruled by military governors or ‘exarchs.’ These men had total civil and military power, a significant departure from the typical separation of civil and military authority at the time. These exarchates are believed to be the basis of the famed Byzantine ‘theme’ system which provided the empire with a strong standing army for centuries.

Unfortunately, Maurice’s multiple campaigns left the imperial treasury perpetually short of money which meant high taxes were necessary. In 602, he forced the army to stay beyond the Danube for winter but instead of following his orders to begin a new offensive, the soldiers mutinied and named Phocas as the new emperor. Maurice was murdered in November 602, and it is suggested that the unfortunate man watched his six sons being executed before he shared their fate.

Maurice was a courageous and insightful leader who took over a fractured empire and held it together with skillful military command. He also showed diplomatic ability during negotiations with Khosrau II during the Persian conflict. Historians suggest his biggest flaw was his inability to judge the mood of his men; a fact evidenced by the events surrounding his death. However, it was a disastrous move to assassinate him as Phocas was to become one of the worst Byzantine Emperors.

Constantinople Not Istanbul: 6 Great Byzantine Emperors
Wikipedia (A fragment of True Cross (Kreuzpartikel) in the Schatzkammer of Vienna)

3 – Heraclius I (610 – 641)

Heraclius I was born in 575 in Cappadocia and is credited with introducing Greek as the official language of the Byzantine Empire. By 610, the Senate was fed up with the terrible rule of the cruel and vengeful Emperor Phocas. Heraclius answered the call for help and sailed from Carthage to Constantinople to take the throne. He was able to enter the city with no resistance and beheaded the tyrannical Phocas after a brief exchange.

The new leader faced a serious challenge; he was in charge of a crumbling empire under constant attack and also facing mass internal dissension. The Byzantines needed a robust and capable Emperor, and Heraclius was the right man for the job. After suffering early setbacks at the hands of the Persians, Heraclius turned the tide and eventually pushed the Persians out of Anatolia. The Persian leader, Khosrow II, rejected an offer of peace and referred to the Byzantine emperor as an imbecilic slave. By 627, the war with the Persians was in the balance, but the Byzantines won a decisive victory at the Battle of Nineveh. Khosrau was killed in a coup led by his son Kavadh II who became king and sued for peace.

Had Heraclius died in the late 620s, he would be regarded as one of the great military leaders in Byzantine history. However, he found the newly unified Muslim forces to be too powerful. The first fight between the Byzantines and Muslims occurred in 629, and the empire suffered several defeats. The most crucial loss came at the Battle of Yarmouk in 636 when the Byzantine army was annihilated. Within five years, the empire had lost the Levant and most of Egypt. Heraclius suffered from poor health in later life and died in 641; the empire was left to his sons Heracleonas and Constantine III.

Heraclius is credited with recovering the True Cross from the Persians, and his reign was marked by military success (in the early years) and reorganization of the government and military. The government reforms, in particular, were necessary to halt the corruption that was rampant during the reign of Phocas. However, the victory over the Persians was a pyrrhic one as both empires were significantly weakened and easy pickings for the marauding Muslims. While the Sassanid Empire crumbled quickly, the Byzantines were more durable and, despite suffering numerous heavy defeats, they managed to prevent the Muslims from destroying the empire.

Constantinople Not Istanbul: 6 Great Byzantine Emperors

4 – Leo III (717 – 741)

Also known as Leo the Isaurian, this future Byzantine emperor was born in Syria in approximately 685 although some sources suggest he was born up to 10 years earlier. One of his great achievements was to bring an end to the Twenty Years’ Anarchy, a period of severe instability in the empire. This era was marked by a succession of weak rulers, and in 717, Leo seized the throne from the weak and ineffectual Theodosius III.

Leo had used deception to take the crown. He managed to convince the invading Arabs that he would help subjugate the empire for them in return for their support in his attempt to become emperor. Once he was the ruler, Leo organized Constantinople against the invaders. The Arabs felt betrayed and angrily attacked the empire’s capital city. Leo’s skillful organization held the enemy at bay; Greek Fire was used to great effect and ultimately, the Arabs had to abandon their siege of Constantinople.

It didn’t take long for Leo to establish himself as the supreme ruler of the empire; a fact which was emphasized with his swift dismissal of a rebellion in Sicily. He also displayed diplomatic skill and married his son Constantine to a daughter of the Khagan of the Khazars; the result was a powerful military alliance. Leo cleverly maintained good relations with the Bulgarians in the north of the empire. This allowed him to focus on driving back the Arabs. A significant victory at Akroinos in 740 ended any immediate Arab threat in Asia Minor. Unfortunately for the Empire, Leo died from dropsy in 741.

Leo was an excellent soldier-emperor who often led his men into battle. He restructured the theme system to decrease the throne’s vulnerability. Previously, certain themes were so large that its leader could conceivably take the crown by force. There is some doubt over whether he established a complex system of social reforms and his policy of Iconoclasm angered a number of religious groups. However, Leo should be remembered for saving the Byzantine Empire from an Arab conquest; with a less able ruler, Constantinople may well have fallen.

Constantinople Not Istanbul: 6 Great Byzantine Emperors

5 – Basil II (976 – 1025)

Basil II was born in Constantinople in 958 and is credited with being the longest reigning Byzantine Emperor. Unlike some other entries on this list, Basil was born into royalty as the son of Emperor Romanos II. His father died when Basil was five years old, so the empire was ruled by Nikephoros II Phokas for six years until he was murdered in 969. John I Tzimisces held the crown until his death in 976. By now, Basil was old enough to lead the empire, so he became the new Byzantine ruler.

During his near 50 year reign, the Byzantine Empire reached its peak regarding power and wealth. Upon his succession, Basil was faced with a declining empire with threats from the Fatimids and Bulgars. After suffering a number of setbacks against the Fatimids, Basil took control of the army and launched several incursions into enemy territory. Eventually, a ten-year truce was agreed in 1000.

Perhaps his biggest military achievement was his complete subjugation of the Bulgars who had been raiding Byzantine land since 976. Basil found the enemy to be obstinate, and he was forced to embark on a campaign that lasted several decades. He was able to redouble his efforts after making peace with the Fatimids and decided upon total conquest of Bulgaria. Basil earned a decisive victory at the Battle of Kleidion in 1014 where he also showed his cruel side by blinding 99% of the 15,000 prisoners he captured in one eye. Bulgaria finally submitted to the Byzantines in 1018. When he died in 1025, his work was quickly undone as none of his successors possessed his military intelligence.

Basil was very much a soldier-emperor who despised the literary classes. He was loved by his men as he not only campaigned with them; he also ate the same rations as they did. Basil never married nor did he have children. However, he protected the kids of dead soldiers, and they came to look upon him as a father figure. He was also very popular with the farmer classes which supplied the majority of the army’s men. By the time of his death, the imperial treasury had over 200,000 pounds of gold thanks to his conquests and prudence.

Constantinople Not Istanbul: 6 Great Byzantine Emperors
WordPress at Dartmouth (Peter the Hermit Preaching First Crusade)

6 – Alexios I Komnenos (1081 – 1118)

Alexios I Komnenos (sometimes spelled Alexius I Comnenus) was the founder of the Komnenian dynasty and is occasionally referred to as the ‘savior of the empire.’ Alexios was born in 1056 (some sources suggest it was 1048) and was part of a wealthy landowning family. His uncle Isaac I was emperor from 1057-1059. Alexios joined the army at a young age, and by 1081, he was in a position to take the throne from Nicephorus III. He inherited the crown after 50 years of weak leadership left the Byzantine Empire on the verge of collapse.

Although Alexios’ reign included constant warfare, he was able to stop the empire’s decline and help begin a financial, territorial and military recovery known as the Komnenian Restoration. Alexios’ first task was to fight back against a Norman invasion led by Robert Guiscard. The Byzantines were resilient and recovered after several defeats to eventually beat back the Normans; bribing the German King Henry IV with gold also helped! The next threat was the Pechenegs from across the Danube. Once again, the Byzantines suffered early losses only to grind down their opponents and crush their resistance.

The Seljuk Turks posed an even bigger threat, so Alexios appealed to the Papacy for help. The result was the First Crusade which began a series of conflicts that changed the course of history. This crusade lasted from 1095 to 1099 and ended when the Crusaders captured Jerusalem. It was also a success for Alexios as the Byzantine Empire regained some lost territory including Nicaea, Rhodes, Philadelphia and Sardis. The emperor lost much of his popularity in the last 20 years of his reign. One of the reasons for this was his persecution of followers of the Bogomil and Paulician heresies. Although Alexios was terminally ill in 1116, he still led his army in defense of Anatolian territories against the Turks. He defeated the Turks in 1117 at the Battle of Philomelion but died the following year.

There is some disagreement over the legacy of Alexios. Sources at the time suggested he helped keep the empire together at a critical juncture and set the scene for a revival that lasted until 1204. Modern historians suggest the Komnenians only used stopgap measures which did nothing to help the Byzantine Empire in the long term. To be fair to Alexios, he inherited a crisis and did what he believed was right by asking the West for help. Unfortunately, this action resulted in the Crusades and Western interference. Ultimately, the Crusaders sacked Constantinople in 1204. From that point on, the Byzantine Empire enduring a slow, lingering death.