Imagine yourself sitting in a lecture hall with a small body of students studying Roman history and as a whole they are asked to name a few of their favourite emperors. I am sure you would hear cry out names like Augustus, Nero, Caligula and Constantine. Possibly ask the same question of these students to name their favourite Later Roman Empire (Byzantium) emperors and the lecturer may be greeted by a blank stare. “Oh come on, what about Anastasius and Justinian ? “ the lecturer might yell out.
It is easy to struggle with an answer to this question because many people simply are not confident enough to name you a Roman emperor beyond 476 AD. In 476 the Roman Empire fell or rather its western half did. Its eastern half, which over time we have come to know as the Byzantine Empire would survive and often flourish for over another thousand years. It’s Emperors ruled as ‘God’s regent on Earth’ and their decisions had consequences that were felt throughout the whole Byzantine world.
It is these emperors (the lecturer may ask) during a period from roughly 330 AD to 1453 AD that we are interested in. Both Anastasius and Justinian, as mentioned above, would sit easily in many history enthusiasts or historians ‘favourite five’ emperors lists. Historian Lars Brownworth, for instance, names Justinian as his favourite emperor along side Romanus Lecapenus, Nicephorus Phocas, John Tzimiskes, and Constantine V Copronymus. John Julius Norwich, whom once said to me, “Ask me anything you like… but I warn you I am not a Byzantinist”, lists Constantine, Justinian, Theodora, John VIII and Constantine XI as his five favourite Byzantine emperors. Roger Crowley, whom I also interviewed, lists Constantine the Great, Justinian and Constantine XI, as his three most favourite emperors. As you can see Justinian seems to bob up often, but if you were to ask Robin Pierson, Justinian wouldn’t even make his list. Robin, does list though, Anastasius, Maurice, Heraclius, Leo III and Constans II as his favourite emperors. He also states that his list is subject to change, as he continues to discover other emperors he has not yet covered on his amazing podcast ‘A history of Byzantium’.
The emperors who I have come to consider my favourites over time, have all come at pivotal moments in the empires history. Some were born ‘in the purple’ and others were soldiers. But amongst them all I have also listed a beautiful Empress, whose image is found shimmering in gold on the walls of the Hagia Sophia.
Lets now find out who are my five favourite emperors.
1. Heraclius (reigned 610-641)
Sometime around 610 AD the Senate sent out a call for help to be rescued from the paranoid and revengeful Emperor Phocas. That help came in the form of Flavius Heraclius, the son of the governor of Carthage. Heraclius sailed his fleet from Carthage to Constantinople, seized power and immediately began work to reinvent the Empire. Heraclius is without doubt one of Byzantium’s heroes and one of my 5 favourite emperors.
His reign (610-641 AD) came at a time when almost all had felt lost and poverty stricken. With his ability to inspire confidence he was able to bribe the Avars and turn back the tide against the Persian utterly crushing them. Not since the exploits of Caesar and Aurelius had an Emperor soldier taken the fate of an empire into his own hands. His decision in 626 AD, for example, to remain on the Anatolian front and have faith that Constantinople could defend itself was ultimately the reason the long war against the Persian was won. His reorganization of the provinces into ‘themes’ and returned to the days of old Roman soldier- farmers. These initiatives gave the empire the strength or backbone it needed for the next 600 years, even though a new threat had come about in the form of the Arab conquests. Significantly, he also replaced Latin with Greek as the empires official language administratively and militarily. Within a generation the empire itself would take on a Greek nature.
Finally, on a personal note, there is a story about how Heraclius enlisted the aid of another ally against his troubles with the Avars. These were the Croats, who upon invitation into the Balkans, defeated and expelled the Avars from Illyricum. They were then settled by order of Heraclius into these lands. The reliability of this story is doubted (with a number of different version of events about the Croats) but as a someone from Croatian heritage, I would surely love to be linked to Heraclius’ story.
2. Constantine IV (reigned 668-685 AD)
Constantine IV is said to have inherited a great deal from his great grandfather Heraclius. This alone gives him a spot on my five favourite emperors list. On a more serious note though, the qualities that give him favour over most emperors, as my choice of five favourite emperors are, that he was a very able administrator, not afraid to challenge the status quo and the fact that he was able to steady the empire; and provide the first significant check to Arab expansion.
From the beginning of his reign, his capital Constantniople was assaulted by relentless attacks by the Arabs between the years 674-78. Doggedly he never gave up the fight, inspiring his people with the courage and morale to withstand five long years of siege warfare. It was only broken when he decide to try out the states new secret weapon ‘Greek fire’. A devastating flammable liquid made from some form of crude oil that was projected onto the Arabs ships. However, Constantine’s most enduring achievement was finally to resolve the Monophysite and Monothelite problem. Religion ran through the veins of this empire and after two hundred years the nature of Christ seem to be finally resolved. I often wonder what more could he have achieved if he had not died at the age of thirty five ?
3. Basil ll (reigned 976-1025 AD )
Basil II was one of the most powerful, effective and outstanding rulers of the Byzantine Empire. The ultimate ‘Hero Monster’ ! He ranks as one of my five favourite emperos, and possibly the greatest ? During his fifty year reign the Empire reached its pinnacle in power and wealth. He stabilised and expanded the Empire’s frontiers, he was much loved by the country farmer, where he sourced great pools of soldiers, and left the Empire a full treasury upon his death.
In his infant years as Emperor he faced one of the greatest crisis of his reign. Soldiers of the rebel general Bardas Phocas were ready to strike at Constantinople from across the Bosporus. Basil appealed to Prince Vladimir l of Kiev for assistance and in return promised the hand of his sister in marriage. (He set a precedent by marrying off a Byzantine princess to a barbarian. Royalty ranked with Greek fire as a state treasure that should never have been bargained with or given over to the enemy.) Nevertheless, Vladimir sent Basil 6,000 Varangians, who were expert Viking mercenaries who settled in Russia. They crushed the rebel soldiers and many stayed on to become the elite personal guards of Basil and emperors that followed. But possibly above all, he was best known for conquering the Bulgarians into complete subjugation with relentless campaigning year after year. He is therefore, more often that not referred to as Basil the Bulgar Slayer.
4. Zoe (Reigned 1042)
If Justinian is the ‘poster boy’ of Byzantium (with his Ravenna mosaic plastered on more history book covers than any other), his wife Theodora is the equivalent for women of Byzantium. Although, I believe that symbol of Byzantine women is rivalled by Empress Zoe, who easily is one of my five favourite rulers of Byzantium.
The historical record shows her ruling jointly with her sister Theodora for a handful of months in 1042, but her dynastic influence is far greater. I am also as much as infatuated by her great beauty, as I am of her role as empress. In her early twenties she was betrothed to Otto III, but she would arrive in Italy to find that Otto had died. Her first marriage of convenience would not occur until 1028 with her dying father arranging for her to marry Romanos III Argyros who would become the next emperor. Amazingly, after her first husbands death she would elevate three other men to the throne of her choice. These three men who ruled with her were all dependent on Zoe for their authority. When Michael V tried to usurp imperial power by exiling Zoe to convent, Constantinople broke out in riot. He was blinded and removed for power, leaving the two sisters to rule for a short period in 1042 with Zoe the senior empress.
The famous mosaic of Zoe shimmering in gold from the galley of Hagia Sophia is an everlasting reminder of her status. The legitimacy of her husbands to be seen physically next to her on the mosaic was incredibly important. The face and names on the mosaic was change to reflect who she was married to at the time.
5. Alexios I, a/k/a Alexius Comnenus (Reigned 1081-1118)
Throughout Byzantium’s history on a number of occasion we have read about the stories of emperors, who had come as the empires last hope of avoiding imminent ruin. Alexios I (1081-1118 AD) was one of these emperors and is sometimes hailed as a ‘saviour of Byzantium’. He is my last of five favourite emperors. We have seen Byzantium’s enemies in many forms, from the Persian and slavs to the Arabs. In 1081, Byzantium had a new enemy from the west led by Norman Robert Guiscard and his son. I like Alexios for the simple fact that he desperately fought through advance and defeat to hold the empire together. Famously Alexios I would resort to bribing the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV to attack the Normans and forever shifting the balance back into Byzantium’s favour. He also famously negotiated that the first crusader leaders would have to swear an allegiance to him and return any lands conquered back to Byzantium. He was definitely a crafty emperor who knew what was at stake. But the success of the crusade also caught Alexios by surprise and in turn he spend the remainder of his reign fighting off the Turks and the crusader kingdoms.
I wrote this article in 2014 and it was originally featured on Sean Munger’s website. You can view it here.