It’s 695 A.D., and Emperor Justinian II is facing a rebellion. For ten years, he has sought to expand the reach of the Byzantine Empire, but his unpopular policies have made enemies of aristocrats and commoners alike. Eventually, then, he is deposed and left mutilated – although that’s far from the end of his eventful career.
At the height of its power, the Roman Empire stretched across around two million square miles – from what is now Portugal and North Africa in the west all the way to Armenia and Mesopotamia in the east. However, the Romans’ reign did not last, and in the fifth century A.D. large swathes of their territory fell to enemy powers.
Even after the Western Roman Empire collapsed, though, its eastern counterpart continued to flourish. In fact, the Byzantine Empire, as it was known, survived in various forms for another thousand years. And for much of this time, the region was recognized as being among Europe’s greatest political and cultural powers.
At its peak, the Byzantine Empire covered vast swathes of Eastern Europe as well as much of North Africa and the Mediterranean coast. By the time that Constantine IV came to power, however, the empire was in decline once more. And the rich lands of Syria and Egypt were in enemy hands, too.
For half a century, Arab forces had been slowly encroaching on the provinces held by the Byzantine Empire. But Constantine took measures to halt their expansion, and he successfully defended the city of Istanbul – then known as Constantinople – against a half-decade siege.
Constantine also helped end the ongoing controversy surrounding the Church, settling the debate that had been raging between different Christian doctrines. Yet it should be noted that his reign was not exactly a peaceful one. In fact, it’s claimed that Constantine ordered both of his brothers be mutilated – a practice that would have rendered them unable to reign as emperors.
Then, after Constantine’s brothers had been removed from the picture, the emperor took the next step towards securing his dynasty by appointing his young son to rule alongside him. Four years after this decision was made in 681, however, Constantine passed away – leaving his 16-year-old boy to inherit the vast empire.
The young emperor was henceforth known as Justinian II. But while Constantine had been praised for his diplomacy, Justinian was less popular. And although he had plenty of ambition, he soon developed a reputation as a temperamental ruler with a cruel streak. Regardless, Justinian began his reign with a bold move against the Arab-controlled region of Armenia.
Early on in his rule, Justinian also entered negotiations with the Umayyad Caliphs – a group of Islamic leaders. Impressively, too, the young ruler managed to persuade them to increase the amount of money that they paid to the empire as a tribute each year. And in addition, he re-acquired partial sovereignty over the island of Cyprus.
As a result of his negotiations with the caliphate, though, Justinian had to oversee the removal of 12,000 Christians from their homes in Lebanon. That was in 687. Then, during the following year, he was able to ensure that Cyprus’ tax proceeds were divided between the two great powers.
Meanwhile, Justinian regained the Balkan Peninsula in southeast Europe and fought against the semi-nomadic tribes who roamed the region. And eventually, his forces conquered the city of Thessalonica – at the time second only to Constantinople in terms of power in the area. This triumph also brought with it the boon of additional troops. Driven from their homes, the native Slavs were sent to Anatolia in western Asia, where they became a significant asset to the empire’s military.
This relative peace between the Empire and the Caliphate was not to last, however. Apparently, it was difficult for the two great powers to share control of Cyprus, so they were soon at war once more. And after Justinian’s Slavic forces turned against him, his armies were routed at the Battle of Sebastopolis in 692.
Angered, Justinian retaliated by massacring his Slavic subjects en masse. The damage was done, though, and the Caliphate soon had control of Armenia. Meanwhile, religious dissent was on the rise, and the emperor’s attempts to quell it only served to drive a wedge between him and the Roman Church.
Elsewhere, Justinian managed to anger both the aristocracy and the common people with his policies towards taxation and land. Recognizing that the peasants were the backbone of his military power, he attempted to safeguard them from the rich and powerful individuals who sought to acquire their land.
But while these efforts earned Justinian the dislike of the aristocracy, they didn’t actually win him the respect of the common people. In fact, his attempts to fund his lavish lifestyle through harsh taxation angered his subjects across the empire. And, ultimately, dissent against the emperor grew into a full-blown revolt.
In 695 Justinian’s subjects rebelled, deposing him and appointing the military general Leontios as emperor in his stead. The former ruler’s enemies also sliced off his nose – a common act in a time when such a disfigurement would have rendered a man supposedly unfit to reign. Indeed, this tactic was the same one that Constantine had reportedly used against his brothers 14 years before.
So, stripped of his power, Justinian was thereafter banished to the Crimean province of Cherson. Leontios, meanwhile, continued to wage war against the caliphate. And after an unsuccessful attempt to conquer the city of Carthage, another revolt saw the commander Apsimar seize control of the empire.
After just three years in power, then, Leontios suffered a similar fate to that which had befallen Justinian, ending up deposed, mutilated and exiled to a monastery. In the meantime, Apsimar became Tiberius Apsimarus – an emperor who enjoyed some success in the conflicts with the caliphate. But while Apsimar was busy waging war, Justinian soon began plotting his own return to power.
During his time in the Crimea, Justinian learned that the new emperor hoped to have him arrested. So, in order to escape that fate, Justinian allied himself with Busir, the leader of the semi-nomadic Khazar tribe. The deposed emperor even married Busir’s sister, naming her Theodora in honor of a former Byzantine ruler’s wife.
Eventually, though, Busir succumbed to temptation and accepted a bribe from the emperor to murder his brother-in-law. But Theodora was able to get word to her husband, and so Justinian escaped before assassins could take his life. The former emperor then retreated back to the Crimea, where he gathered his supporters around him and set out to reclaim the throne.
Justinian and his men subsequently set sail across the Black Sea, where they are said to have encountered a violent storm. And during the turbulence, someone in the crew apparently suggested a proposal: if the former emperor pledged to show mercy to those who had wronged him, fate might guide them to their destination unharmed.
Justinian’s alleged retort was quick and to the point. “If I spare a single one of them,” he is reported to have said, “may God drown me here.” Despite this proclamation, though, he made it through the storm alive. And, emboldened, the former emperor went to Tervel, the leader of Bulgaria, for help in his bid for power.
In order to gain the support of the Bulgarian forces, Justinian named Tervel a Caesar. This was highly significant, too, as no foreigner had previously been awarded the title. Moreover, Justinian allowed the khan to marry his daughter. And so, now with an army of some 15,000 Slavic and Bulgarian troops, Justinian went on to march on Constantinople.
After several days outside Constantinople’s walls, though, Justinian and his men had still not managed to gain access to the capital. This therefore led them to sneak inside and seize control of the city under the cover of night. Soon, then, Justinian had resumed his role as emperor – and this despite the fact that his mutilated face should have kept him from the position.
Instead, Justinian had a nose forged from gold that he wore in place of the missing facial feature. And with his newly regained power, the emperor wasted no time in tracking down and punishing the men who had deposed him. Tiberius and Leontios were apparently killed, while the Patriarch of Constantinople was exiled.
In fact, it’s said that Justinian became preoccupied with exacting retribution upon individuals who had previously opposed him. Additionally – and somewhat unfairly – the emperor also went after those who’d merely worked under Leontios and Tiberius. But while mass executions eliminated people whom Justinian perceived to be his enemies, his bloody tactics turned many of his allies against him.
Meanwhile, Justinian continued to wage war across much of the former empire. In 708 he even broke off his allegiance with Tervel and launched an invasion of Bulgaria. Seemingly, Justinian hoped to reclaim the land that had been given to the khan in exchange for his help in conquering Constantinople.
The Bulgarian forces were too strong, however, and Justinian was defeated. The emperor suffered similar setbacks elsewhere as well. Over in Asia Minor, for example, the caliphate seized control of southern coastal cities, reaching Central Anatolia in 709. That same year, though, Justinian launched a mission to assert the power of the Western Church in the Italian city of Ravenna.
This time, Justinian was successful, too, and his repression of dissent in Ravenna helped to mend his rift with the Church. In 710 Pope Constantine even cemented this relationship with a visit to Constantinople. And, remarkably, this was the last occasion on which the head of the Catholic Church would visit the city for more than 1,200 years.
Justinian, meanwhile, promoted his wife Theodora to the role of augusta, or empress. With that move, he hoped to ensure the continuation of his legacy through the generations. But the tide would turn against the bloodthirsty emperor once more as rebellion started to take root in the Crimea.
Led by Bardanes, an exiled military officer, the citizens of Cherson began to rise up. And when Justinian dispatched men to halt the uprising, they switched sides and joined the rebellion instead. Hailed as the new emperor, Bardanes made his way to Constantinople, bent on deposing the current leader from power.
There, Bardanes found the city undefended. Justinian was en route to Armenia at the time, and so he was incapable of preventing the rebels from conquering Constantinople. Then, with his seat of power lost, Justinian became a wanted man. The former Byzantine ruler was subsequently arrested – and then, in December 711, executed on the orders of Bardanes, who was now going by the title Emperor Philippicus. Apparently, Justinian’s head was removed and kept as a memento by the new leader.
At that point, Justinian’s son and co-emperor, Tiberius, was six years old. And after Justinian was killed, Philippicus viciously pursued the young boy. The new emperor’s men eventually discovered Tiberius hiding in a Constantinople church and killed him – a short and bloody end to the legacy that Justinian had hoped would endure.
After Justinian’s death, the wars between the caliphate and the Byzantine Empire continued apace. And in 717 Constantinople itself was put under siege by Arab forces. The attempt was unsuccessful, however, and the military might of Byzantium eventually ended Arab expansion for good.
Then, for the next two centuries, the empire thrived under the control of the Macedonian dynasty and regained much of the land that had been lost over the preceding years. In addition, there was a resurgence of art and philosophy, as the leaders sought to return their culture to its former glories.
But all of that changed in 1071 when the Turkish Seljuks won the Battle of Manzikert and gained control of large swathes of Asia Minor. And although the empire’s fortunes improved a little over the following years, the arrival of the Fourth Crusade in the early 13th century brought with it irreparable damage.
In 1204 Constantinople was seized and ransacked by the crusaders – bringing disaster to the very heart of the empire’s power. In the aftermath, its lands were divided, and this led to the creation of a new Latin Empire. The Byzantine territories, meanwhile, were split between a number of different leaders, diluting any influence over the region.
Once a great power, the Byzantine Empire thus became a modestly sized state vying for control of its former territories. And even though it managed to regain Constantinople, its territories were gradually conquered by the Ottomans until it finally collapsed in the mid-15th century.
Historically, Justinian has been remembered as one of the more significant players in the long story of the Byzantine Empire. And although his failures and cruel acts of revenge haven’t been forgotten, he’s also acknowledged by some as having been a competent leader who achieved political and territorial gains.
Today, Justinian is also noted for the coins that were produced during his reign – the earliest to feature a depiction of Christ. His reputation as a pious leader remains one of his most enduring legacies, in fact. And even though his enemies went to great lengths to defeat him, he has gone down in history as one of only two men to have led the Byzantine Empire twice.