Five Roman Emperors
In this article we will shortly introduce five Roman Emperors, rulers of an Empire that lasted for more than 1500 years. Conditions, means and meanings changed in this long time period and so did its Emperors. Diokletian is sometimes considered the first Byzantine Emperor while Andronikos II one of the weakest.
Though not a Medieval character, his career is a remarkable one because it stands out and it represents the Empire’s origin in the classical period. He usurped the throne, ended the worst period of the Roman Empire’s political instability and military weakness and then he shared power with three other competent men, later retiring from his office.
He reformed the Empire both fiscally and administratively by cleverly increasing tax revenue without burdening the population much more than before and by increasing the number of soldiers in his pay. But he also was one of the few Roman rulers to persecute Christians and his policy to pay low wages to his soldiers and bureaucrats opened the door to corruption and extortion.
Diokletian is probably best known for establishing a tetrarchy, a joint rule of four emperors (2 senior and 2 junior) and his division of the Empire in East and West. Less well known is that he was neither the first nor the last to do so. All this worked really well as long as he was the undisputed leader of those four men, both out of charisma and success. That system quickly turned ugly when he was no longer in charge and the four rulers started to eye each other with distrust and unveiled aggression.
There is a funny anecdote about him with a less funny ending: Diokletian, after retiring from his office voluntarily (probably to make a precedence for his successors on how to get a peaceful chain of succession) to a huge, fortified palace in today’s city of Split in Croatia, then turned his attention to growing cabbages. Seriously… cabbages.
When the quarrel between his successors became too troublesome he was asked to return to office, but he declined, helping instead to arrange a fragile peace. But a retired ruler has to watch passively what others make out of the things he had created and it is suspected that Diokletian’s death was one by his own hand.
Anastatios is the role model of an effective, pragmatic, down-to-earth and boring ruler. He came into office by marrying the widowed Empress Ariadne after serving the Empire as a high ranking official in its bureaucracy, and that probably wasn’t even his idea.
Of some mediocre noble descent, already old himself, Anastasios was good and respected enough in his former job to be noted by the imperial counselors. Handsome and with two differently colored eyes which made him popular among the common people as well, he lost territory and won it back, fortified the boarder after the war had ended, reduced taxes and made the fiscal department work so damn well, he could leave his successor an enormous amount of money nonetheless.
So what made him especially boring? No great parties in Constantinople during his reign, but no great bloodshed either. Less well known is the fact that he also built another wall to protect Constantinople, maybe because he didn’t add it to the city wall, but had it built in Thrace, stretching all the way from the Black Sea coast to the Sea of Marmara, totaling around 60 km in length.
With that name one has to expect great ambition in this man. Given the name of famous Emperor Justinian, whose reign is associated with Empress Theodora, the generals Belisarius and Narses, the Nika Riots and the construction of the Hagia Sophia (among many other admirable achievements), you can hardly get any more superlative on your expectations.
Justinian The Second was a promising, intelligent and energetic man, scrupulous in securing his power and in collecting taxes and also probably pathologically paranoid. He quickly became as unpopular with the people as his namesake. When the people finally had enough, he was overthrown and his nose cut off (or so it is said, it may just have been split: Roman Emperors, being considered God’s vicar on earth, had to be physically flawless, so a mutilation of that sort was supposed to get rid of him for good). But It did not.
He was exiled, but returned with an army of steppe warriors to take over the Empire once again. It is said that his nose was replaced with a golden prosthesis. He was then even more paranoid and unbearably tyrannical than before and eventually got himself killed by his subjects. People thought two chances certainly were enough and the unreliable practice of mutilating overthrown emperors became unfashionable. Though blinding one’s opponents remained in practice for centuries.
Despite this practice had shown ineffective, for centuries the east had been popular for two things: as much glamour and pomp and as much brutality you could afford to impress people was simply considered a necessity.
It slowly became customary for overthrown Roman Emperors not to be killed or mutilated anymore, but to be forced into a monastic life. This way some Emperors came to end their lifes as monks, contemplating about their curious biographies and exercising the art of writing greek literature, mostly chronicles which always tried to copy the style of the great greek writers of antiquity.
One of those Emperors was Andronikos II, probably one of Byzantium’s saddest figures (not counting his daughter Simonis, who’s fate may have been even more discouraging than his). Generally considered a well-meaning and pious intellectual in times the Empire would have needed a bold warrior, he had to face too many problems he was ill-equipped to solve: an aggressive Serbian Empire as well as an Bulgarian one, a rising and expanding Ottoman dynasty, the Catalan-company – a mercenary army gone rogue -, civil war and usurpation to name just a few. Basically everything he touched turned into shit, if you don’t mind me say so.
Irene of Athens
Usually Empresses were consorts of male rulers. They had their own responsibilities, but their power was limited and generally only men were considered to be fit to rule alone. This thinking will come and bite the Romans at the end of this paragraph. If an Emperor died, his widowed wife was expected to marry a new man to then become acting ruler and guardian of any heirs (usually those heirs, under-aged boys, were then either killed or had an accident).
Irene instead became the first and the only Empress ever to rule the Empire in her own name. There were others that went different ways to hold on to their power, some more, some less successful. Friend and foe alike made her life hard, local governors broke away from the Empire, whole armies deserted to the enemy, forcing Irene to pay huge tributes to get peace.
But at some point she turned everything around. She appointed the right persons, mostly eunuchs, into important positions, brutally and ruthlessly got rid of her incompetent son when he came of age and only after intriguing to get public opinion of him to an extreme low. It is said she got him blinded in the very room she had given birth to him in, but that sounds like ancient yellow press.
Then, she ended Iconoclasm, the century long bitter conflict of Christianity, like it was the easiest thing to do. Well, almost: the soldiers that were garrisoned in Constantinople interfered, but Irene sent them on a fake campaign and took their families hostage to get them back in line. Today this sort of stuff gets millions to watch pay tv.
After this, she healed the rift in the Church. But at the same time, in the West, a certain bishop of Rome and a certain King of the Franks later called Charlemagne, took their chance and re-made the western Roman Empire. Opportunistic and chauvinistic suckers. I told you it would end like this.