10 Most Famous Byzantine Emperors and Empresses
The Byzantine Empire, which was an extension of the Roman Empire, was one of the longest-running and most powerful empires in global history. Spanning from around 330-1453, the empire had its fair share of rulers, some good and some bad.
Many of the good rulers, though they had their shortcomings and controversies, brought immense wealth, power, and success to the empire. They were the ones responsible for keeping such a massive empire running for over a thousand years. In no particular order, here are some of the best emperors and empresses that the Byzantine Empire ever witnessed:
Justinian the Great, or Justinian I, was perhaps the most popular and highly-regarded emperor of the Byzantine Empire. He was born in Tauresium (in present day North Macedonia) circa 482, a few years after the fall of the Roman Empire.
Justinian succeeded his uncle Emperor Justin after having spent many years receiving training from his predecessor. In 527, the two men served as co-emperors but it only lasted a short while. Four months later, Justin died, and Justinian became sole ruler of the empire.
Unlike many other former emperors, Justinian’s closest advisor and confidante was his wife, Empress Theodora. She was an exceptionally smart woman and helped her husband run the affairs of the state. For example, it was Theodora who advised her husband against running away from the Byzantine capital of Constantinople during the Nika Riots of 532. Caused by Justinian sweeping reforms, Nika Riots was a week-long rebellion that came close to toppling Justinian from power. Theodora also assisted Justinian to carry out some of his religious reforms.
Following the riots, Justinian embarked on a project to restore Constantinople. One of his biggest architectural feats was the reconstruction of a cathedral called the Hagia Sophia. It remained the biggest domed cathedral until the Renaissance era.
Justinian also found immense success in his military conquests. He recaptured many former Roman territories in the West with help of one of his best military generals Belisarius. As expected, he was met with several challenges during this quest.
The Emperor’s attempt to reclaim lost territories nearly divided Italy. Compounding those issues was the plague that befell the empire in the early 540s. Known as Justinian Plague, the disease was caused by the bubonic plague bacteria (Yersinia pestis). It nearly destroyed the empire’s military and the economy. Emperor Justinian, who caught the plague in 542 and luckily recovered, had to put on hold his plans for the reunification of the Roman Empire.
Nonetheless, Justinian came out triumphant in 562 and regained full control of Italy. For the remainder of his reign, the Byzantine Empire continued to expand well into the Mediterranean, Iberia, Syria, and sections of North Africa.
Although Justinian the Great restored some of Rome’s former power, he did so at an exorbitant cost to the empire. When he died in 565, the empire’s coffers were almost depleted and many other neighboring enemies were waiting for the right time to strike.
Emperor Basil II was a true warrior king. But he had to wait a long while before ascending the throne despite being born “Porphyrogennetos” or “born in the purple”, which means his father was emperor at the time of his birth.
However, he lost his father, Emperor Romanos II (reign: 959-963), when he was five years old. Two other army generals served as emperors, as he was too young to take over. Finally, he was crowned emperor in 976 and went on to rule until 1025 when he died. His reign, which saw the Byzantine Empire flourish, was the longest of all Roman emperors since Augustus.
One of the first major events that occurred during Basil’s reign was his battle against some of his military generals during a rebellion, where he crushed them. Following this victory, he also defeated the Fatimid Caliphate, which resulted in the empire’s further expansion into Mesopotamia and Syria.
His biggest military achievement was the conquest of Bulgaria in the Battle of Kleidon (1014), which had evaded him for many years. With this victory, the empire also gained full control over the Balkan Peninsula, as well as the Danube region. For his victory, he earned the nickname “Boulgaroktonos”, which means “The Bulgan Slayer.”
What set Basil II apart from his predecessors was that he preferred to lead his military during campaigns as opposed to giving instructions from the comfort of his throne back in Constantinople. By the end of his reign, the Empire was the largest and most powerful it could ever be.
Aside from his military achievements, he also led several economic reforms. For example, he passed the Allelengyon Tax in 1002, which compelled wealthy landowners to pay higher taxes to support the poor. While it made him unpopular among the wealthier people, it vastly improved the empire’s economy. By the time of his death in 1025, the Byzantine Empire was thriving and prosperous.
He was succeeded by his brother Constantine VIII. Originally intended to be placed in the rotunda of Constantine I, Basil II’s tomb was placed in the Church of St. John the Theologian. The church is in turn located at the Hebdomon Palace complex outside the walls of Constantinople, i.e. present-day Bakırköy, a neighborhood on the European side of Istanbul, Turkey.
Constantine the Great
Another highly influential and important ruler of the Byzantine Empire was Constantine the Great, the ruler who is best known for reuniting Rome and becoming the first emperor to convert to Christianity. He was born between 272-284 in Moesia (located in modern-day Serbia) to Flavius Valerius Constantius, a military general who also became an emperor, and Helena.
Constantine succeeded his father in 306 after the latter ruled briefly before dying. He became the Emperor of Western Rome. But his early years were tough, as he had to defend the throne from other people who believed they were the rightful heirs. During that time, there was also a struggle for power in Eastern Rome and a man named Licinius emerged victorious and was crowned emperor in the east.
Constantine and Licinius clashed several times over who should control East Rome. Despite Constantine winning, the conflict continued for many more years and that period was called the Tetrarchy Civil Wars. Eventually, Constantine defeated Licinius and became ruler of both Eastern and Western Rome.
The emperor’s reign was very successful as the empire saw a lot of development in the areas of religion, economics, and administration. He established the city of Constantinople, which served as the capital of the Byzantine Empire. Located in modern-day Istanbul, Turkiye, Constantinople was the crown jewel of Byzantium. It was a very beautiful city, with several amenities such as water fountains. It was also a highly-secure place, until it was besieged and conquered by the Turkish Ottomans (led by Sultan Mehmed II) in 1453.
Constantine’s conversion to Christianity also helped spread the religion throughout the empire. During his life, he saw many Christians persecuted for their faith and that transformed him spiritually. Many modern-day Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Churches hold him in high regard and view him as a saint. He is also known for building the Church of Holy Sepulchre, located in Jerusalem, Israel.
He died in 337 after falling ill. It is believed that it was on his deathbed that he fully converted to Christianity and got baptized.
There weren’t that many female empresses that left an indelible mark as Empress Theodora did in the empire’s history. Although she is mostly known as the wife to Justinian the Great, she was extremely powerful and used that power to do good within the empire.
She was born in Constantinople around 497, and her rise to empress was nothing short of extraordinary. It’s said that she met Justinian in a beauty contest. She was formerly a dancer and actress, and Justinian ensured the laws were amended to accommodate their marriage. The then-senator was reportedly taken away by her beauty and married her in 525. Theodora rose to not only become Justinian’s closest advisor, but she served in an almost co-ruler capacity.
One of Empress Theodora’s biggest achievements was her support of women’s rights. With her power, she ensured several laws were passed to protect women, particularly those who were being abused or trafficked. She also advocated for divorce laws to be friendlier towards women. Aside from that, she took up several charitable exercises, lending her support to orphanages, hospitals, and religious bodies. She also provided training opportunities for women like her who had once been actresses and dancers.
Theodora also famously helped her husband put an end to the Nika Revolt in 532 and used her intelligence to remain active in Byzantine politics. Many laws that were passed during her reign bore her name. As a miaphysite herself, she also stood up for the miaphysites when they were being persecuted. For this act, she was recognized as a saint by the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches. Every year, those churches remember her on 28th June and 14th November, respectively.
Theodora died around 548 and was buried Church of the Holy Apostles, a Byzantine Eastern Orthodox church in Constantinople. Some historians believe that she died of either cancer or gangrene. Her death affected Justinian so much that he refused to remarry.
John I Tzimiskes
With a reign that spanned 969 – 976, Byzantine Emperor John I Tzimiskes had a relatively short reign compared to some of his predecessors. He was a member of one of the elite military families, which included the Phokas and the Kourkouas clans. His uncle Nikephoros Phokas ruled before him and made his nephew commander in the military. But the relationship between the two men soured, resulting in John murdering his uncle and becoming emperor.
Despite that rough start, he was still welcome by the people and remained so throughout his reign. In addition to reducing taxes, he is credited with putting an end to the religious persecution against the Jacobite Syrian Church. The emperor was described as extremely kind, often making several donations to support his people. During a famine, he even partook in the distribution of grain.
John I Tzimiskes’s biggest achievement was perhaps his ability to restore relative peace. The empire was still under threat, mostly from the Rus in Bulgaria that his predecessor had sent there, as well as from the Fatimids from Syria. He also faced internal troubles from relatives of Nikephoros, who he had exiled. They attempted to seize the throne from John multiple times but failed.
Despite these challenges, John still managed to expand the Byzantine Empire. He conquered Upper Mesopotamia, as well as some regions in Syria. John died at the age of 50 and many believed that he was poisoned. He was succeeded to the throne by his nephew, Basil II.
Alexios I Komnenos
Alexios I Komnenos’ reign was a relief to citizens of the Byzantine Empire after years of incompetent rulers. He was born to John Komnenos and Anna Dalassena in 1048 and spent his early adult years serving in the military under different rulerships.
He eventually received help from his brother and other family members to overthrow then-emperor Nicephorus III. Alexios had a big job ahead of him as emperor, especially in keeping encroachers out of Roman territory. He successfully routed the Balkans and Seljuq Turks out of the empire.
Back home, he strengthened the army and navy, giving them more numbers in certain areas like the Mediterranean and Anatolia. His policies helped bring relative peace and stability within the empire, but he wasn’t without his challenges. Alexios also played a crucial role in the start of the First Crusade (1096-1099). He was able to appeal to Western Christendom to raise an army and wage war against Muslims that had reconquered a number of territories in the Holy Land.
Heraklios was born in Cappadocia in 575. His father, Heraklios the Elder, was a prominent military general. After years of dedicated service, the older Heraklios vowed not to support the Byzantine Empire because of a disagreement with the then-emperor Phocas (reign: 602-610). The younger Heraklios sought the help of his cousin and seized the throne from Phocas in 610. After executing Phocas, he was crowned emperor that same year.
But Heraklios quickly realized that he had inherited a failing empire. Furthermore, the economy was in shambles, as was the military and other administrative bodies. And, of course, he also had to contend with external threats from the empire’s neighbors, especially from the powerful Sasanian Empire in the East.
His first military campaign was against the Sasanian Empire, but it took him many defeats before successfully emerging victorious. His later campaigns saw him launching invasions into Persia, eventually winning the Battle of Nineveh in 627, which saw him reclaim some of the empire’s lost lands.
Unlike many other emperors, Heraklios barely enjoyed a moment of peace for a few years. After the defeat of the Persians, the empire had a more powerful threat, the Muslim Arabs, i.e. the Rashidun Caliphate from the Arabian Peninsula. However, by that time the emperor was too old to join in any battles. Unfortunately, that spelled doom for the Byzantine armies because they were utterly lost without their skilled leader.
There was very little that Constantinople and its ageing emperor could do as the Muslims conquered territories of the Sasanians before heading deep into Roman Syria, where they even conquered the territories of Heraklios’ brother, Theodore. Heraklios’ military reforms were able to keep the Muslims away from Asia Minor.
Although Heraklios managed to expand the territory and reclaim some lost lands, he sadly lived to see most of those lands recaptured once more. Despite this rather sad ending to his reign, Heraklios is mostly recognized as the first emperor that taught the empire how to prepare well for war. Many other leaders after him built on his initial knowledge. This strategy helped the empire defend itself against future attacks from the Muslim Arabs many years later.
Tiberius II Constantine
Thracian-born Tiberius II Constantine rose to power during the reign of Justin II (r. 565-578), who made him his co-ruler a few weeks to his death in 578. He was an experienced military general before and after his ascension to the throne. But he was best known for his benevolence to his people.
He oversaw the construction of several building projects, including the Great Palace located in Constantinople. He also removed taxes that his predecessor had imposed on bread and wine, provided his supporters with expensive gifts, and refused to condemn the monophysites. However, with his generosity came its disadvantages and the coffers that formerly financially-conservative Justin had spent years building up were soon depleted.
Much of his reign involved the empire’s conflict with Persia. Initially, both parties had agreed to a peace treaty and the Persian king Khosrow I appeared to be satisfied with the terms. Upon the death of Khosrow, his son Hormizd IV rejected the terms of the treaty, igniting the conflict once again.
Before Tiberius II’s death in 582, he appointed his general, Maurice, as his successor.
Another woman to leave her mark in Byzantine history was Empress Zoe Porphyrogenita. Like Basil II, she was also “born in the purple.” She was born circa 978 in Constantinople to Emperor Constantine VII and Empress Helena. She had two sisters, Eudokia and Theodora. The former was disfigured and sent away to live in a convent while the latter later became Empress herself in 1055.
Zoe was known to be extremely beautiful but she was known for also playing a huge role in setting up succession plans of dynasties. She barely ruled alone, as she either co-ruled alongside her sister Theodora or one of her three husbands, Romanos II, Michael IV, and Constantine IX.
Her earlier reigns with her first two husbands were terrible experiences for the empress. Zoe killed Romanos and had Michael banished. Following her first two failed marriages, she co-ruled with Theodora. Since she was the older one, she had a bit more power than her sister.
Perhaps, her time with her sister was her most successful. Together, they pushed many people to join the senate and also gave back to society. The daily administration of the Byzantine government was relatively peaceful. For a while, they seemed to consult with each other on various topics, but eventually, each sister wanted to be sole ruler. Zoe seized the throne from Theodora and became the sole empress of the empire.
She married Constantine IX to protect her seat and chose to take a backseat in politics, choosing to spend her time creating beauty products. As a dedicated Christian, she also established a church. Before dying in 1050, she paid back her debts and forgave criminals.
A mosaic depicting the empress with the caption “Zoe, the most pious Augusta” was placed in the Hagia Sophia. Despite her difficult start, the people loved her.
Anastasius I is known for running a fully robust financial system in the Byzantine Empire. Not only that but he was also a skilled diplomat. He was relatively unknown when Empress Ariadne, the wife of the deceased emperor Zeno, elected him to succeed her husband in April 491. Before then he worked in the department of finance and served as Zeno’s bodyguard.
After ascending the throne, he married Ariadne in May of that year. Emperor Anastasius I started off his reign by introducing new tax reforms and ending the sale of offices. Anastasius also took the safety of the empire seriously and threw out the Isaurians from both Constantinople and later Thrace. He also built a wall (The Anastasian Wall) to protect the capital from the Bulgarians and the Slavs. The wall, which was around 56 km (35 mi) long, stretched from the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara.
Anastasius excelled in foreign policy and diplomacy. However, his initial agreement to rule alongside Emperor Theodoric in Italy fell apart and they entered into conflict. At the same time, the Persians also launched attacks (i.e. during the Anastasian War fought from 502 to 506) at the empire. Anastasius decided to also build forts along the empire’s eastern frontier to protect it from future attacks.
His choice of religion caused much controversy within the empire. He was a monophysite, and his religion caused bouts of unrest in Constantinople, as well as rebellions in Thrace. Nonetheless, he was a good ruler and he was responsible for making the future reigns of his successor Justin I and the others more successful.
In Syriac Orthodox Church, Emperor Anastasius I is venerated as a saint. His feast day is on 29 July.
Did you know…?
- Constantine the Great is credited with declaring the ancient city of Byzantium as the new capital of the Roman Empire. And in his honor, the city, which went by the name “New Rome”, was renamed Constantinople in 330. For many years in the medieval era, Constantinople, which is in present-day Istanbul, Turkiye, was considered the largest and most developed city in all of Europe.
- In addition to being the cradle of Orthodox Christianity, Constantinople served as an important place during the Crusades. The city is awash with many spectacular architectural buildings, most famous among them the Hagia Sophia, a cathedral which was reconstructed by Emperor Justinian in the 6th century.
- Justinian the Great (or Justinian I), the nephew of Emperor Justin I, was responsible for the death of senator Hypatius, the nephew of Emperor Anastasius I. During the Nika Riots of 532, the rebels, who vehemently protested Justinian’s unpopular advisers, tried to replace Justinian with Hypatius. After crushing the rebellion with the massacre of close to 30,000 people in the Hippodrome, Justinian, at the urging of Empress Theodora, proceeded to execute Hypatius.
- Emperor Basil II was given the nickname “the Bulgar Slayer”. This was due to his relentless military campaigns against the Bulgars. It is said that he blinded about 14,000 prisoners and left the remaining prisoners with just one eye so that they could lead the injured back home.
- Starting as a stage performer, Empress Theodora, the wife of Emperor Justinian, rose to become one of the most powerful women in the history of the Byzantine Empire. The empress was heavily involved in her husband’s sweeping reforms.
- Emperor Justinian was said to have the ability to bend iron bars with his bare hands.
- Ruling from 886 to 912, Byzantine Emperor Leo VI (also known as Leo VI the Wise) officially had four wives, however, he was rumored to have maintained a harem of more than 450 women.