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 Bits & Pieces about the Byzantine Emperors
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  Bizarre Byzantine Imperial Stories
▼      Prophesies
  • Pontifex Maximus

    Gratian was fanatically Christian and played an important role in the final prevalence of Christianity.

    In 382, at the urging of Saint Ambrose, he removed the Altar of Victory from the Forum and withdrew state funding for pagan activities. When the Senate protested, Gratian rejected the honorary title of pontifex maximus and the ceremonial robes that went with this office. This incident prompted a senator to prophesy that there would be inevitably a new pontifex maximus. The killing of Gratian by the usurper Magnus Maximus was seen as a fulfillment of the prophesy.

  • A Vandal Prophecy

    leo 1

    In 431/434, while the unknown, middle-rank officer Marcian was participating in a military campaign in Africa, he was taken prisoner by the Vandals. Marcian was brought before King Geiseric (428–477), who knew by a prophecy that Marcian was to be emperor and released him on his oath never to take up arms against the Vandals. Marcian must have been amused, but he became emperor 20 years later.

  • The coming of the circumcised man

    Islamic sources record that Heraclius saw in a dream that a new kingdom of the "circumcised man" will be victorious against all its enemies. When he discussed the dream in his court, his patricians, who did not have a clue about the rising Islam in Arabia, "advised him to send orders to behead every Jew in his dominion."(!!!)

    Only when a Bedouin trader spoke to the emperor of a man uniting the tribes of Arabia under a new religion, did Heraclius and his court realize that the kingdom of the "circumcised man" was not the Jews but the Arabs.

  • Bad dream

    Before the his landmark defeat in the sea battle of the Mast (655), emperor Constans II dreamed of being at Thessaloniki.

    The dream interpreters explained (maybe after the battle) that the dream predicted his defeat by the Arabs because the word "Thessaloniki" is similar to the sentence "thes allo niki", that means "you want another victory" (a little far-fetched).

  • The Oracles of Leo the Wise

    Leo VI the Wise (886-912), was considered an authority in witchcraft and astrology. Succeeding generations saw him as a prophet. A collection of oracular verses, the so-called Oracles of Leo the Wise, based in part on earlier Greek sources, were in circulation at least since 1200, under the emperor's name.

    The oracles foretell the future of the world and the fate of the Greek Empire for many hundreds of years. They were also the source for the famous prophecies of Pseudo-Joachim of Fiore about future Popes.

    The most remarkable oracle was the prediction that Constantinople would be liberated 320 years after its fall (i.e. 1773. It didn't happen...)

  • Short reign

    Alexander (912-913), died 13 months after his ascension to the throne (after a polo match, possibly of a heart attack ). When he died, the Byzantines remembered that an oracle of his brother, Leo VI, predicted that Alexander would reign for 13 months only.

  • Bloody prophesy

    The AIMA prophecy was a prophecy which was taken very seriously during the reign of the Byzantine emperor, Manuel I Komnenos (1143-1180).

    According to it, the initial letters of the names of the emperors of the Komnenid dynasty would spell "aima" (αιμα), the Greek word for blood. The emperors had been, in order, Alexius I , Ioannes (John) II, and Manuel I (whose succession was unexpected, being the fourth son of Ioannes).

    Because of his belief that his successor's name would have to start with "alpha", Manuel had the name Alexius bestowed on his daughter first fiancé and on at least one of his illegitimate sons, and finally on his legitimate son Alexius, child of his second marriage.

    The reign of Alexius II lasted only three years. He was deposed and killed by his cousin, Andronicos I Komnenos, with whom, apparently, the AIMA sequence began again. According to the prophecy, Andronicos would be succeeded in turn by an emperor whose initial would be the letter I (iota). Hence, he was afraid of another cousin, Isaac Komnenos of Cyprus. In fact, Andronicos was killed in 1185 and succeeded by Isaac II Angelus...

▼      Imperial follies
  • Bad hand

    Zeno (474-475 & 476-491) was a player of Tabula, a game similar to modern backgammon. In 480 he had a hand that was so unlucky that he wrote an epigram to record it; Agathias reproduced it half a century later and this allowed the game to be reconstructed in the 19th century.

  • Idolized Pig

    Like his predecessor Leo the Wise, Alexander (912-913), had a taste for the paranormal. Among other follies, he was persuaded that an ancient bronze statue of a boar in the Agora was his own spirit.

    The statue was consequently treated with great reverence: it was adorned with new tusks and other ornaments, and its reintegration in the hippodrome was celebrated as a public festival, with profane games and even with religious ceremonies.

    As it might have been expected, the Church was not particularly amused.

  • Big Party

    To celebrate, in 537, the dedication of the new church Hagia Sophia which is recognized as the supreme product of Byzantine art and architecture, the Emperor Justinian held a banquet for which 6,000 sheep, 1,000 oxen, 1,000 pigs, 1,000 chickens, and 500 deers were slaughtered.
    Hagia Sofia
  • Hydrophobia

    Herakleios (610-641) was so afraid of water that it took him months to find the courage to cross the Bosporus. He was finally able to do it only after having a bridge built of boats heavily camouflaged by shrubbery.

  • Undercover story

    Leo VI the Wise (886-912) imitating Caliph Harun al-Rashid, would sometimes disguise himself and go about Constantinople looking for injustice or corruption.

    Once, he was captured by the city guards during one of his investigations. Though he bribed two patrols for 12 nomismata, and moved on, the third city patrol arrested him. When a terrified guardian recognized the jailed ruler in the morning, the arresting officer was rewarded for doing his duty, while the other patrols were dismissed and punished.

  • Secret monk


    Nikephoros II Phokas (963-969) was a very devout and ascetic man. There was a rumour that he was wearing a monk's habit under the imperial garments. He also wanted to sanctify all the soldiers that had died in the wars against the Arabs, but the Church did not like the idea.

  • Beauty queen

    Zoe (1028-1050) was fifty when she became empress and married for the first time. Despite her age and the fact she was a virgin until then, she had since many lovers and married two more times.

    She was aware of her charms and meant to keep and use them for as long as possible. Determined to stay young, she was using secret filters and recipes and was able to keep her face free of wrinkles until she was sixty.

    ZoeTowards the end of her life however, she lost any interest in staying young and looking beautiful and developed a passion for experementing with perfumes. It became an obsession and she had many rooms in her chambers converted into laboratories for the preparation of secret ointments and new perfumes. Acoording to Psellos, both Zoe and her sister Theodora were "weird".

  • Machismo

    Manuel I Komnenos (1143-1180) was a pro-western emperor. Among other things, he was organizing jousting matches. Sometimes was participating in them.


    He was huge and strong. It is reported that Raymond of Antioch was incapable of wielding his lance and buckler. In a famous tournament, he is said to have entered the lists on a fiery courser, and to have overturned two of the stoutest Italian knights.

    In one day, he is said to have slain forty Turks with his own hand, and in a battle against the Hungarians he allegedly snatched a banner, and was the first, almost alone, who passed a bridge that separated his army from the enemy. On another occasion, he is said to have cut his way through a squadron of five hundred Turks, without receiving a wound.

  • Hygiene freak

    Isaac II Angelos (1185-1195) maintained a lavish lifestyle that astonished his contemporaries. It was rumored that he even bathed every other day.

  • Grief

    Manuel II Palaiologos (1392-1425) was said to be a splendid sight. A great man with the misfortune of being born at the wrong time, he typically clothed himself in solid white, the customary Byzantine color of mourning, in reference to the moribund state of his empire.

▼      Cruel stories
  • Gothic story

    In 390 the people of Thessalonica rioted complaining against the presence of the local Gothic garrison, and the Goth commander was killed. Emperor Theodosius was furious and ordered the Goths to kill all the spectators in the circus as retaliation. 7000 Thessalonikeans died.

  • Buried alive

    According to a popular legend recorded by two ancient historians, emperor Zeno died when he was buried alive after loosing his senses, either because of epilepsy or as a result of heavy drinking. He called for help when awoke but he was already in the sarcophagus and empress Ariadne did not allow to open it. Zeno, officially, died of dysentery.

  • Bad Mother

    Empress Irene of Athens (797-802) was certainly no paragon of maternal love. To secure the power of the throne, she had her son Constantine VI (780-797) blinded and then imprisoned him in the room in which he was born. Irene was the first Byzantine or Roman woman to rule the Empire alone and specifically took the title of "Emperor," not "Empress."

  • Financial policy

    Like all wartime leaders, Justinian needed money. Like most successful leaders, he found someone who could find the means to access that money: John the Cappadocian. John became Praetorian Prefect in 531. His tax policies were so brutal that is was said that he tortured the wealthy in his home. He became so unpopular that it is likely Theodora had him set up for treason.

  • Bad toast

    Nikephoros I (802-811), who overthrew Irene, was killed in the disastrous battle of Pliska. The victorious Bulgarian King Krum had the dead Emperor's skull made into a silver-lined goblet from which visiting Byzantine ambassadors were thereafter forced to drink a toast.
  • Army of Blind

    In 1014, Basil II decided to end for once and for all a war that had already lasted forty years. After decisively defeating the Bulgars in the battle of Kleidion, to break their spirit, he had the 15,000 prisoners blinded, sparing one eye of every hundredth man. The one-eyed ones led groups of one hundred back home. It is said that when the Bulgarian King Samuel beheld the pitiful sight of his blind army, suffered a stroke and died two days later.

▼      Throne stories
  • Surprise

    Jovian (Jovianus, 363-364) was elected by the army after Julian’s death. His election was a big surprise. Ammianus Marcellinus suggested that he was wrongly identified with another Jovianus, chief notary (primicerius notariorum), whose name also had been put forward.

    Another theory is that,during the acclamations, the soldiers mistook the name Jovianus for Julianus, and imagined that the deceased emperor had somehow recovered and came back.

  • Good choice


    Anastasius I (491-518) could not decide which of his 3 nephews should succeed him, so he put a billet under a couch and invited his nephews in a room, where there were 3 couches, including the one with the billet. He had decided that the nephew to sit on the special couch, would be his proper heir. However, two of his nephews sat on the same couch, and the one with the concealed billet remained empty.

    Then, he determined that the first person to enter his room the next morning should be the next emperor. That person was Justin I, the chief of his guards. Justin proved a good emperor who had an even better successor, Justinian I.

  • The Reluctant emperor

    Theodosios III, (715-717), was forced by army troops to take the crown, probably because they needed a puppet to take the blame if the coup failed. Theodosios who was a tax collector, was totally unwilling (5 emperors before him were violently deposed and mutilated).

    According to the chronicler Theophanes the Confessor, he even attempted to hide in the forests near Adramyttium, but he was found and forced to become emperor. He was a kind man and an efficient ruler but he was looking for an opportunity to abdicate safely, which he finally did. He retired in a monastery, where he was much happier.

  • Crowned in Chains

    Michael II of Amorion (820-829) was freed from prison by his supporters, who had killed his predecessor Leo V the Armenian. The keys to Michael's chains could not be found in time, so he was crowned Emperor while still fettered.

▼      Other fascinating stories
  • Lost in translation

    In 519, Pope Hormisdas sent a delegation to Constantinople to discuss resolution of the Acacian Schism. The papal legates took with them as interpreter a deacon named Dioscorus, a Greek from Alexandria. Discussions came close to fail when Justin ignored the demand of the westerners to nominate Dioscurus patriarch of Alexandria.

    It is certain however that the Pope knew nothing about it; it was just Dioscurus’ own initiative, who took advantage of his role as an intermediate.

  • The arrogant horseman

    After recovering the Holy Cross from the Persians, Heraclius insisted to enter the Jerusalem carrying himself the cross (against the advice of the Patriarch). At first, when he was on horseback, the burden was too heavy, and he could not advance into the city. So, he dismounted and removed his crown and the cross became miraculously light, and the barred city gate opened of its own accord.

  • Smugglers

    Emperor Justinian bribed two Persian monks, who had lived in China, to return there and smuggle back silkworm eggs in hollow bamboo canes. Thus, Constantinople was able to begin silk production around 550 A.D. After this, silk was no longer a monopoly of the Chinese. From those worms were descended all the silk-producing caterpillars in Europe down to modern times.

  • Greek fire

    The powerful weapon of the Byzantines was the "Greek Fire". It was a liquid invented by Callinicus of Heliopolis, a Greek refugee from Syria, that was pumped through a siphon onto enemy ships and that burst into flames upon contact with the timbers. Constantinople might have fallen but for Greek fire, and conceivably the Muslims might have taken over a weak and divided Europe.

    The knowledge of the ingredients for making this flammable liquid was considered a state secret by the Byzantines, and was so zealously guarded that the recipe remains unknown to this day. All we know is that it burned all the more fiercely when wet (hence it likely contained some sort of petrol compound), and that it could be floated toward the enemy's wooden ships.

    The name that the Byzantines used for this weapon was "Liquid Fire" (Υγρόν Πυρ). They had also some other similar names for it, but never called it "Greek".

    Greek fire