History is littered with infamous rulers; despots and madmen who brought terror and ruination to their subjects. One could endlessly debate the list of those whose deeds earn them a place in the Mad, Bad and Dangerous Hall of Fame. Here is the case for Justinian II; Emperor of Byzantium from 685 until his deposition and exile in 695. Following his bloody return to power in 705 his reign of terror continued until his final overthrow in 711.
Justinian came to power aged just sixteen; an age at which it seems that the world is at your feet even without the additional encouragement of imperial power being bestowed upon you. He bore a famous name and followed a very capable father whose achievements were considerable. Constantine IV had both defeated a mighty Arab host sent to lay siege to Constantinople and had presided over the reconciliation of the eastern and western Churches. He had been the epitomy of a Christian warrior emperor. Now his son was left with the unenviable task of filling his father’s prematurely vacated purple buskins.
The young emperor made a very promising start; securing an advantageous peace with his counterpart Abd al Malik, the newly established Caliph in Damascus. Abd Al Malik was in the process of fighting for universal recognition of his right to succeed his father as Commander of the Faithful and his need to secure his frontiers in order to focus on his internal problems obliged him to agree to the continuing payment of tribute to Byzantium. Empire and Caliphate may have been at peace for the moment, but Justinian was taking no chances.
He therefore embarked upon an effort to repopulate and restore the defences of Anatolia through large scale resettlement; strengthening the bulwark against future Arab attacks should the peace fail to hold up. In search of settlers Justinian had looked westward, to the burgeoning Slavic population in Thrace and the Balkans. Thousands of Slav families were relocated to Anatolia where they were given land in exchange for military service, replenishing the manpower reserves of the empire with hardy soldier farmers who had a real stake in defending the land from invasion, not that they had been given much choice in the matter.
Justinian II well and truly staked his claim for inclusion in the Mad, Bad and Dangerous Hall of Fame following the defeat of his army at Sebastopolis on the Black Sea coast of Anatolia. The Muslims advanced with copies of the defunct peace treaty attached to their spears and were victorious when twenty thousand Slavic troops understandably deserted the imperial cause and joined them. In the aftermath of this military disaster the ruler of Armenia transferred his undivided allegiance to the caliph. The emperor did not take the news of this development well. The defeated Byzantine commander Leontius was flung into prison and in his fury Justinian ordered the massacre of the families of the Slav deserters in Nicomedia. Thousands of women and children were slaughtered and their bodies thrown into the sea; innocent victims of the emperor’s impotent rage.
After three years Leontius was released from gaol since Justinian had need of his generalship in the Balkans. If the emperor thought that there would be no hard feelings he was very much mistaken for Leontius was feeling somewhat bitter after his incarceration and lost no time in setting out to overthrow the man who had unjustly locked him up. The emperor’s behaviour had not improved in the interlude and support for a coup was not difficult to find. Leontius and his supporters forced their way into the prison of Constantinople and released all those held there at the emperor’s pleasure. Arming themselves they then went forth into the city and called upon the citizens to make their way to the great cathedral of Hagia Sofia. There Leontius was crowned as emperor by the patriarch and the mob then set off to storm the palace of Justinian. Those cronies who had earned the hatred of the people through carrying out Justinian’s bidding were dragged through the streets and burned at the stake whilst the erstwhile emperor was brought before the jeering crowds in the hippodrome and publically mutilated. He suffered a fate known as rhinocopia; the slicing off of his nose. This grizzly operation was intended to render him physically imperfect and therefore unfit for imperial office. Justinian then received the sentence of exile and was dispatched to distant Cherson in the Crimea; there to reflect on his misfortune, nurse his resentment and contemplate his revenge.
The fall of the isolated imperial outpost of Carthage to the Arabs in 698 precipitated further upheaval in Constintinople. A relief force had been dispatched to reinforce Carthage but had arrived too late to save the city. With a large military force at their disposal and nothing to show for their efforts, the Byzantine commanders had reservations about returning to Constantinople to report the failure of the expedition. It would be far better they decided, to make use of their forces to rebel against the incumbent emperor. Electing one of their number whom they declared as Emperor Tiberius III, the fleet turned for home flying the flag of revolt. In the city the Green faction rose up in support of the rebel fleet as it sailed into the harbour and Leontius was overthrown with minimal resistance. He now suffered the same fate which he had inflicted upon Justinian and was banished, noseless, to a monastery.
Meanwhile in Cherson the exiled Justinian, complete with golden false nose, was plotting his comeback. After eight years of languishing in this backwater on the edge of the empire his desire for revenge was undimmed and he had made no secret of the fact. Fearing that he may be returned to Constantinople and deprived of his head as well as his nose by the new regime of Tiberius, Justinian decided that it was time for a change of scene and slipped away, taking ship eastwards along the Black Sea coast to the land of the Khazars. These were a formally nomadic people who had settled around the northern shores of the Black Sea and had curiously embraced the Jewish faith. Their ruler the Khagan was happy to receive Justinian as an honoured guest and even married his sister to the fugitive emperor.
For the next two years Justinian lived the quiet life of a happily married man but then the assassins came; sent by the Khagan in response to demands from Constantinople to surrender Justinian dead or alive. Justinian however was ready for them and was able to dispatch his two would-be killers with his bare hands. The time had clearly come for him to make his attempt to regain his throne and there was no time to waste. Stealing a boat, he made his way back to Cherson and was able to make contact with his supporters in the city. With this single vessel and a handful of companions Justinian set out across the Black Sea, into the teeth of a fearsome storm. As the storm raged and the waves threatened to swamp the boat, Justinian was encouraged by one of his companions to made a pledge to forgive his enemies if God should spare them from the sea. ‘If I should spare a single one of them, then may God drown me!’ spat the emperor by way of response.
Justinian and Terval
Justinian’s revenge against all those whom he felt had betrayed him was terrible and his list was long. Executions, burnings, blindings, hangings and drownings ensued by the hundred as the emperor settled every last score. As the reign of terror continued, it became apparent that the emperor was losing his grip on reality. Soon his malice was being unleashed against whole cities as reason steadily abandoned him. In 709 Ravenna was sacked on his orders after its bishop had displeased him. Two years later it was the people of Cherson, against whom he had long held a grudge from his days of exile, who felt his wrath.
The Byzantine chronicler Theophanes the Confessor probably gets a little carried away relating the terrors perpetrated on the citizens of Cherson on the orders of the emperor during his final descent into raving madness, but even allowing for some artistic licence it is clear that a monster was reigning in Constantinople. Arriving in Cherson, the punitive expedition rounded up every civilian they could find and put them to the sword, sparing only the very young who were enslaved. The leading citizens were put to death either by being roasted alive on spits or tied up on board a ship which was taken out to sea and sunk.
On its return voyage the Byzantine fleet was wrecked in a storm and thousands of sailors were drowned. When he was brought the news of the disaster Theophanes tells us that Justinian burst into hysterical laughter; his mind utterly unhinged. Dissatisfied with the level of bloodshed inflicted in Cherson Justinian ranted and raved. Soon he was planning a second expedition to return to the city and finish the job; wiping out the population and leaving not a stone standing.
The majority of the citizens of Cherson had sensibly taken to the hills upon the approach of the first Byzantine fleet, forewarned of the emperor’s intentions. Not surprisingly, having so far escaped Justinian’s wrath they now rebelled against him and sought an alliance with the Khazars who sent an army to the defence of the city. An exiled Byzantine general named Philippicus was proclaimed as a rival emperor and when Justinian’s second fleet arrived in Cherson in 712 charged with its total destruction, their commander soon decided to side with the rebels since the Khazars were too numerous to be defeated. The emperor’s fate was sealed as the fleet turned about and sailed back to Constantinople to overthrow him. Justinian was in Sinope on the Black Sea when he heard news of the rebellion and by the time he had hurried back to Constantinople he was too late for Philippicus had already taken the city. Abandoned by his troops, the emperor was apprehended outside the city and summarily executed. His six year old son Tiberius, the offspring of his second marriage to the Khazar princess, was dragged from the church where he had been taken for sanctuary and had his throat slit ‘like a sheep’.
So ends the story of Justinian II; a cautionary tale that if you overthrow a tyrant you should cut off more than just his nose.
Sack of Ravenna 709 by Scarpelli
I was lazy for this article and reused material from my own book The Battles are the Best Bits, but if you liked it please check out the book.