Justinian II: The Byzantine Emperor with a golden nose
The Byzantine Empire had its fair share of bad rulers. But what it never had was a bad ruler who, against all odds, managed to stage a successful comeback and conduct swift and extreme revenge against his political enemies.
This is the story of Justinian II, whose reigns of terror cost him his reputation…and his nose. Named after Justinian I (Justinian the Great), who was one of the greatest Byzantine emperors, and having co-ruled with his father Constantine IV, Justinian II had impressive role models to follow. However, he did the complete opposite.
But while his story might be riddled with the atrocities he committed, he certainly goes down as one of the very few infamous yet interesting Byzantine emperors to have ever ruled.
A humiliating coup, severe body mutilation, and a revenge plot…that is the perfect mix for a thrilling story. But was Justinian II’s desire for revenge his downfall? Read on to find out.
Justinian II’s Family History
Justinian II was the son of Emperor Constantine the Younger (or Constantine IV) and Anastasia. He was born in 668 AD, the same year that Constantine became ruler. One of his father’s biggest achievements was protecting the capital of Byzantium, Constantinople, against the Arabs. His mother, Anastasia, came from nobility and served as the Empress Consort during Constantine’s reign. She would later outlive both her son and husband.
Justinian had a younger brother called Heraclius; however, not much is known of him except that he did not support his brother’s reign. Together, they formed the fifth generation of the Heraclian Dynasty (610-711). Justinian II’s reign later ushered in the sixth dynasty.
On his father’s side, Justinian II’s grandparents were the former Emperor Constans II and Empress Fausta. His uncles were Heraclius and Tiberius, who were brothers to Constantine. During the reign of Emperor Constans, he made Constantine co-emperor in 654 AD. About five years later, he also declared Heraclius and Tiberius co-emperors.
When Emperor Constans died in 668, Constantine’s position was elevated to senior emperor and ruled with the support of his brothers. After thirteen years of joint rulership, Constantine set himself on a mission to seize his brothers’ positions. It wasn’t clear what his motivations were for removing his brothers from power. Perhaps, Constantine had wanted his successor to emerge from his line. Whatever the reason was, his decision was met with fierce retaliation.
In the Anatolic Theme (present-day modern Turkiye), the military embarked on a revolt. They sent a delegation to the Byzantine capital to present their argument in support of Heraclius and Tiberius. They believed that the empire had to be ruled by three persons in the same way the Trinity (God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit) ruled in Heaven.
At first, Constantine appeared to listen to the delegation, and his next steps seemed to appease the aggrieved group. Satisfied with the outcome of their mission, the army retreated back to Anatolia. But Constantine took advantage of the army’s absence, captured the leaders of the revolt, and had them executed.
Now suspicious of his brothers, in 681, Constantine ordered for them to be mutilated. Mutilation was a common practice in ancient Byzantium. Victims usually had their noses, limbs, ears or even genitals cut off. Many emperors, like Constantine the Younger, used this method to limit the powers of any threat to the throne.
Did you know…?
For his efforts in stifling the growth of monothelitism, Byzantine Emperor Constantine IV is venerated as a saint in the Eastern Orthodox Church, with his feast day on September 3.
Rhinotomy in the Byzantine
Although mutilating a person was and is cruel, the people of Byzantium had religious reasons for carrying it out. They believed that whoever sat on the throne was in the image of God, and God was perfect, right down to his appearance. If that was the case then a mutilated emperor was deemed unfit for the throne and would be sent to live in exile for the rest of their lives.
Heraclius and Tiberius had their noses cut off and their images were taken off all coinage. Furthermore, their names were also erased from any royal documents. With his brothers out of the picture, Constantine crowned his son Justinian II co-emperor.
Rise to Power & First Reign (685-695)
On July 10, 685, Constantine the Younger died from dysentery. Justinian II was about 16 when he succeeded his father and became the Emperor of Byzantium. His father had left behind a strong legacy. Byzantium, especially its Eastern Provinces, was relatively stable. The young emperor, who was named after former successful ruler Justinian I, tried to live up to his namesake’s legacy.
Upon his ascension, the outlook for Justinian II appeared positive. He chalked a few military achievements just like his father, defeating the Arabs and Slavs who had been attempting to invade Byzantium.
Justinian II also managed to get Caliph Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan, the then-ruler of the Umayyid Caliphate, to pay Byzantium tributes. He also distributed in a fair manner the riches that come from regions like Iberia, Cyprus, and Armenia with the Byzantines.
Emperor Justinian II also allowed for the defeated Slavs to settle in Anatolia and serve as the first line of defense against any future Arab invasions. This move resulted in the empire’s loss of Armenia.
He was also involved in the formation of themes/blocks (i.e. a military-civilian province) throughout Byzantium. These were typically administrative or military divisions that supported the empire. Under his reign, he established a new theme called Hellas in Greece and also assigned leaders to the main four themes: Anatolikon, Armeniakon, Opsikion, and Thracesion.
These themes served as the major recruitment pools for the Byzantine army, so Justinian II ensured that peasant landowners were protected. This move made him unpopular with wealthy landowners who would have otherwise seized those lands from the poor.
Justinian II’s increasingly tyrannical rule
Justinian II was off to a good start. Military-wise, he had shown that he was an effective leader. He also protected the peasants from the aristocrats. However, when it came to Byzantium’s domestic policies, Justinian II’s capabilities were heavily criticized. He incurred the wrath of the people when he increased taxes to exorbitant levels. Even the Slavs that had settled in Anatolia, protested against the those tax increments, with some of them switching sides and joining the Arabs.
If anything might have slightly redeemed the emperor, it should have been his personality. But even that made him more unpopular within the empire. He was known for his extravagant tastes and desire for constructing expensive buildings.
But even more dangerously, Justinian II was extremely vengeful; he neither forgave nor forgot anyone who questioned his authority. In fact, he responded to his critics by meting out harsher punishments. Sadly, many of the Slavs that had chosen to stay loyal to Byzantium paid for the sins of those that had switched to the side of the Arabs. In response, Justinian II ordered for many of them, including children to be killed.
He also failed to do anything about his unfavorable tax policies, preferring to shoot down or ignore any recommendations and solutions from the senate and other nobles.
Justinian II’s support for Monothelitism and the Quinisext Council
Like many other Byzantine emperors, Justinian II was also deeply involved with the Church. He believed strongly in orthodoxy and persecuted other Christian sects, including the Paulicians (i.e. a Medieval Christian sect which originated in Armenia in the 7th century), whose mission was to destroy religious icons. He was also against the idea of Monothelitism, which was the belief that Jesus Christ had one will. In order to promote his own beliefs, Justinian II called for the Quinisext Council (also known as the Fifth-Sixth Council or the Council in Trullo) to meet in Constantinople. This event occurred between 691 and 692, and following the meeting the council came out with 102 disciplinary canons concerning the Church.
The Quinisext Council banned pagan festivals and practices, condemned the differences in certain Christian practices among the various sects and recognized the Church of Constantinople as orthodox, and also set moral codes for the clergy. For example, the clergy were prohibited from gambling, liaising with soothsayers, abortions, promoting pornography, and attending the theater.
The Bishop of Rome, Pope Sergius I, refused to accept the canons that the Quinisext Council had issued. Upon hearing of the pope’s refusal, Justinian II attempted to arrest him. However, the Romans and the Italian army in Ravenna did not heed the emperor’s demands to bring him to Constantinople.
The events following the Quinisext Council further deepened the animosity between the Eastern and Western Churches, which had already been in conflict over who could determine the rules of Christianity. Not that the emperor seemed to care much about the division. He went on to further show his zealousness by depicting Jesus Christ on all of Byzantium’s coinage. Some of the coins had statements like “Jesus Christ, King of those who rule” on the front of a coin and “Lord Justinian, the servant of Christ” on the back.
What is monothelitism?
Justinian II used his position to promote monothelitism, which is a theological doctrine in Christianity that maintains Jesus Christ has only one will or one energy. It differs from dyothelitism, which sees Christ as having two energies. At the Third Council of Constantinople (also known as the Sixth Ecumenical Council) in 680–681, monothelitism and monoenergism were taken as heretical, maintaining that Christ had two energies and two wills – human and divine.
Rebellion and the overthrow of Justinian
Life under Justinian II was unbearable. At some point, he pleased no one, neither the peasants nor the aristocrats nor the foreigners, and he did all this with the support of his main agents: Stephen of Persia and Theodotos. Back in Hellas, which was one of the themes that the emperor had established, the discontent was reaching untenable levels.
In 695, a military general called Leontius from Hellas overthrew Justinian II. But it wasn’t entirely out of nowhere. It appeared that the two men had history. Back in 692, the emperor had sent Leontius to fight against the Umayyads. Unfortunately, the military general was defeated in the Battle of Sebastopolis (692). As a result, Justinian II ordered the arrest and imprisonment of Leontius. He was eventually released in 695.
Dissatisfied with the emperor’s rule and with the support of the people, Leontius led a rebellion against Justinian II shortly after his release from prison. He was successful.
Why was Justinian II’s nose cut off?
After seizing the throne, General Leontius had the emperor tied up in chains and then had him march around the Hippodrome of Constantinople for all to see. But that wasn’t the end of Leontius’ revenge. To ensure that the emperor could never reclaim the throne, he mutilated Justinian II by cutting off his nose, the same fate the emperor’s uncles had suffered under Constantine the Younger.
Exile to Cherson
Justinian II’s slit nose earned him the nickname Rhinotmetos, which meant “the slit-nosed.” As was with custom, the disgraced and deposed emperor was then sent to live in exile in the Theme of Cherson. The emperor’s former allies were then burned alive.
With their wicked ruler gone, perhaps the Byzantines had expected life in the empire to improve. But that wasn’t the case. Leontius’s reign was short and extremely unsuccessful. Byzantium suffered from a plague and also had to give up Carthage to the Arabs in 697. Leontius was overthrown by another military general called Apsimar the following year. Similar to what had transpired between Leontius and Justinian II, the former had sent Apsimar to reclaim Carthage. But when Apsimar failed, he decided to lead a revolt against the emperor.
Again, like Justinian II, Leontius also had his nose slit off and sent to live in exile. Now, Apsimar, who renamed himself Tiberius III, ruled over Byzantium. His military campaigns were unsuccessful, and it was during his reign that the Arabs further expanded into North Africa.
Justinian II’s comeback
If the empire had once been in trouble under Justinian II, it was now in further trouble as a result of the turbulent reigns of both Leontius and Apsimar. So, it became very easy for the former emperor to start plotting his comeback.
He couldn’t carry out his plan without help. Around 702/703, the authorities in Cherson were beginning to consider sending Justinian II back to Constantinople. However, he managed to escape prison with the help of the leader of the Khazars, a man named Busir. The Khazars were a semi-nomadic Turkish tribe. Justinian II solidified his alliances by marrying Busir’s sister, whom he renamed Theodora after the wife of the Justinian I.
However, the relationship between Justinian II and Busir soured. Back in Constantinople, Apsimar bribed Busir with a reward if he could kill his brother-in-law. The latter accepted the bribe and hired two men, Papatzys and Balgitzin, to assassinate Justinian II. But Theodora got wind of the assassination plot on her husband’s life and informed him. Justinian II killed the two men and returned to Cherson briefly to rally his supporters and make his way back to Constantinople by ship.
“If I spare a single one of them, may God drown me here.”
While sailing along the Black Sea, the ship that the former emperor boarded encountered a storm. During the storm, one of Justinian II’s supporters reportedly told him that if he promised God that he would not seek revenge against his enemies then the storm wouldn’t take their lives. In response, Justinian II said, “If I spare a single one of them, may God drown me here.”
Before arriving in Constantinople, the ship docked in Bulgaria, and Justinian II sought the alliance of its king, Tervel of Bulgaria. Justinian received military support from the king in exchange for Caesar’s crown, money, as well as his daughter’s hand in marriage. With the trade made, Justinian arrived in Constantinople in 705 with the backing of more than 14,500 men.
At first, he tried to plead with the citizens to open the gates of the city for him. But when they refused to do so, he decided to secretly enter the city with his men through an aqueduct.
A golden-nosed Justinian II reclaims his throne
Justinian II mounted a successful comeback with a strong rebellion, and on August 21, 705, he overthrew Apsimar and reclaimed the throne despite his mutilation. He had replaced his lost nose with a golden fake nose.
Justinian II was still as vengeful as ever. He tied up Leontius and Apsimar and made them march around the Hippodrome just like Leontius had done to him.
Unfortunately for Justinian, winning the trust of his people proved to be an uphill battle. The simply people refused to accept Justinian II. It was not as if the megalomaniac was bothered one bit.
One by one, he took out all those who wronged him in his first reign, or individuals who were involved in his overthrow. He ordered for Leontius and Apsimar to be beheaded. He also executed supporters of Apsimar, including his own younger brother, Heraclius.
He also blinded the Bishop of Constantinople, Callinicus, who had crowned both Leontius and Apsimar, and had him exiled. Many of his enemies were captured, tied up in sacks, and thrown into the sea.
Second reign (705-711)
Justinian II’s second reign might have been shorter than his first, but it was more brutal and he suffered more losses. Shortly after reclaiming the throne, he turned against King Tervel of Bulgaria, who had helped him make his comeback. The emperor’s reason for fighting against the Bulgarians was to reclaim the lands that he had given to Tervel in exchange for his support. However, Justinian II was defeated. Fortunately, the relations between Bulgaria and Byzantium remained peaceful.
But it was only the start of a string of military defeats. During his second reign, Byzantium lost more of its territories to the Arabs. In Asia Minor, for example, Byzantium lost control over Cilicia. It also lost control of the city of Tyana in Cappadocia in 709. It didn’t help that he killed several of his aides and advisors, including astute military generals, on the suspicion of disloyalty.
Later that year, Justinian II embarked on a military campaign against Ravenna, the city that had once rejected his orders to arrest Pope Sergius I. At the same time, he also ordered the Byzantine Pope John VII to accept the previous canons that the Quinisext Council had issued during his first reign.
His captives in Ravenna were brought back to the Byzantine capital, where they were quickly executed. That particular act was done to suppress the rise of the Western Church, which Justinian II saw as a slight against him; and once it was over, the new Roman Pope, Constantine, decided to visit Constantinople in 710. During that visit, the emperor received the Holy Eucharist from Pope Constantine and reinstated the Western Church’s powers.
Unlike his predecessor, Sergius I, Constantine appeared to have given his support to canons. It would take another 1,257 years for the next pope to visit Constantinople. This visit was perhaps the only peaceful event to have happened during the emperor’s second term.
Justinian II’s revenge mission took a new turn when he turned against the city of Cherson, where he had once lived in exile. His persecution of the inhabitants of Cherson was perhaps his most brutal revenge attack yet. He arrested seven nobles and ordered for them to be burned alive. Others had weights attached to their legs and then thrown into the sea, letting the drown in the most gruesome of ways. Such was his wickedness that when his men encountered a storm on their way back home – which caused their ship to sink – Justinian II reportedly laughed at their misfortune.
The Second Uprising against Justinian II
The Byzantine Empire was in a state of shambles during the second reign of Justinian II, so it was no surprise when the unhappy citizens led another revolt against him. In 711, Cherson retaliated by leading the revolt with the help of the Khazars. An Armenian man named Bardanes led the rebellion.
Back in Constantinople, Justinian II received assistance from Tervel, who supplied him with 3,000 men. Meanwhile, Bardanes had reclaimed Cherson from the Byzantine army and made his way to Constantinople, where, together with his rebels, seized the capital and overthrew Justinian II.
How did Justinian II die?
At that time that Bardanes seized Constantinople, the beleaguered emperor had been on a trip to Armenia and could not make it back to the Byzantine capital to defend his throne. On November 4, 711, Justinian II was arrested and beheaded. He was around 42 years old at the time of his death. His enemies paraded his head through the cities of Rome and Ravenna.
His mother Anastasia attempted to escape with her grandchild, Tiberius and sought asylum from the St. Mary’s Church. However, Bardanes’ troops caught up to them and murdered Tiberius, effectively putting an end to the Heraclian Dynasty (610-711). They also murdered several of Justinian II’s supporters and advisors.
Bardanes was then proclaimed Emperor of Byzantium and adopted the name Philippikos. But the empire’s woes were far from over. The political instability would continue until the arrival of Emperor Leo III in 717, whose successful reign eventually stabilized Byzantium and brought back some modicum of peace.
Justinian II had two children from two different marriages. His first child, a daughter named Anastasia, was through his first marriage to Empress Eudokia. Anastasia married Tervel as part of the deal the emperor made with the Bulgarian ruler. Through his second marriage to Theodora, he welcomed his son Tiberius (705-711), who was appointed co-emperor in 706.
Justinian II in Literature
The despotic Byzantine ruler has appeared in a number of literature works. The 1998 book “Justinian”, written by American author Harry Turtledove, told a fictional account of the emperor’s life. In this story, Justinian II underwent surgery to replace his nose.
Comparing the Reigns of Justinian I and Justinian II
It’s clear that throughout his life, Justinian II tried to emulate the former emperor, Justinian I. He even renamed his Khazarian wife Theodora in honor of the predecessor’s wife. But their reigns and personalities were vastly different.
Justinian I embarked on several successful military campaigns and expanded Byzantium. On the other hand, most of Justinian II’s campaign had ended up in losses. Again, his predecessor had made attempts to improve the economic lives of the Byzantine citizens by improving cereal trade, producing silk, and reforming tax policies. Justinian II, however, imposed heavy taxes on the citizens, which made him extremely unpopular.
They did have very little similarities concerning religion. Like Justinian II, Justinian I abolished pagan worship. But there was much more religious tolerance during Justinian I’s reign unlike his successor’s. Justinian I also believed in Monothelitism and recognized that Jesus Christ had one will. Justinian I also oversaw the reconstruction of the Hagia Sophia, which initially served as a church.
Perhaps the biggest difference between the two rulers was that where Justinian I strengthened the Byzantine Empire, Justinian II weakened it and left it in a state of chaos after his death.
What was Justinian II’s legacy?
Although Justinian II did not leave a stellar legacy behind as some of his predecessors like Justinian I and even his father Constantine IV had, he still did make some changes:
The reign of Justinian II marked the beginning of Byzantium’s shift from the cultural practices of Rome to adopting its own culture. During that time, the Loros made a comeback. It was a traditional garment worn by consuls. Formerly, the outfit had been depicted on coinage but during the time of Justinian II, it had not been in circulation for close to a century. The consulate had also remained largely unrecognized in about 50 years. The reason why the Loros reappeared was due to the emperor’s plan to fuse the offices of the emperor and the consulate. So, there was no separate consul during Justinian II’s reign and he named himself consul in 686.
Justinian II also left behind a religious legacy. He might have been wicked but he considered himself pious. He was the first Byzantine emperor to put the image of Jesus Christ on coinage and he abolished pagan festivals and other traditions.
The emperor also oversaw some construction projects, including expansions to the palace, a fountain at the Augusteum, and the Church of the Virgin in Petrion. His support of the Eastern Orthodox Church hasn’t gone unnoticed. Every year, on August 2, the church celebrates his life.
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