Their armies march with unparalleled prowess, slicing through battlefields like a well-forged blade. Their towering edifices, laced with artistic brilliance, leave indelible imprints on city skylines, their majesty unyielding to the passage of time. The Mediterranean, once a sprawling mosaic of disparate cultures, bends to their will, unified under a single banner. This is an empire that clings to the heritage of Rome, yet stands distinct – its language is Greek, its faith Christian, and Rome’s iconic seven hills fall far beyond its control. This is the Byzantine Empire, a story of power, prestige, and paradox …a tale that, for too long, has been relegated to the cobwebbed corners of historical memory.
Yet, as a historian and an artist, I find myself drawn to the meandering narrative of Byzantium – its captivating complexities, its nuanced narratives, and its profound influence that ripples through European culture even today. It is a story woefully untold, frequently misunderstood, and, in many circles, nearly forgotten. But not today. Today, we turn back the sands of time, peeling away the layers of obscurity that shroud this fascinating era.
Allow me to introduce you to one of the Empire’s most polarizing figures, an emperor who was as much a subject of fascination as he was of dread. A man who, in the pursuit of power, was brought face to face with his own humanity in the most gruesome way imaginable. This is the tale of Justinian II, the slit-nosed emperor, whose riveting story mirrors the intriguing paradoxes of the empire he led.
Together, we will voyage through the turbulent seas of Byzantine history, navigating the captivating undercurrents of politics, ambition, retribution, and art that defined this enigmatic epoch. So, brace yourself, for we are about to embark on a journey to uncover the hidden depths of Byzantium, and I assure you, it is a journey you won’t soon forget.
Youth and Power: The Rise of Justinian II
Emerging from the shimmering veil of history is the figure of Justinian II, born under the gilded arches of Constantinople, the heartbeat of Byzantium, in the uncertain years of 668 or 669. The exact date of his birth, like so many details of Byzantine history, has slipped through the cracks of time, a morsel of knowledge lost in the labyrinthine annals of the past.
The Byzantine Empire during his childhood was a deceptively serene landscape. The Arab forces, engrossed in their relentless conquest of Persia, seemed to have momentarily forgotten their Byzantine adversaries. The constant menace – the Slavs, the Huns – had withdrawn temporarily a peace the empire hadn’t known in centuries. Yet, this tranquillity was a mere façade, for the empire was as vulnerable ever, its stability as precarious as a house of cards.
Among the numerous elements that coloured Justinian II’s life, one was particularly prominent – his namesake, Justinian I, fondly remembered as ‘the Great.’ The original Justinian had swelled the Byzantine borders to an unprecedented expanse, sculpting an era of grandeur and dominance over two centuries earlier. To bear such a name was to carry a weighty legacy, and young Justinian II was all too aware of it.
He grew up cradling an intense fascination, almost an obsession, with his illustrious predecessor. He yearned to emulate Justinian I’s feats, and indeed, to outshine them. He envisioned restoring the Byzantine military to its past glory, erasing the memory of recent humiliations at the hands of the Arabs. He dreamt of an era of Byzantine resurgence, punctuated by grand architectural projects that would signal a revival of their cultural prominence. Yet, in his fervour to leave his mark, he overlooked one crucial factor – reality.
Such grand ambitions required grand funds, a treasure that couldn’t be conjured out of thin air. Justinian II, in a move that was economically sound yet socially dangerous, decided to target the empire’s elite with oppressive taxes. It was a strategy that stoked the smouldering embers of discontent among his subjects, planting the seeds for an inevitable clash. His hunger for glory, it seemed, was pushing him onto a path of potential self-destruction.
Thus, we glimpse a paradoxical figure at the helm of an empire on the brink – a leader blinded by ambition; in a realm whose serenity masked an undercurrent of instability.
Power Plays and Brutal Humiliation
Now with a lot of money and a powerful army at his disposal, a young and eager Justinian II, only 20 years old, decided it was time to take on the distracted Arabs. He started an invasion in 688, but both sides soon realized that a major war could be disastrous. So after this brief skirmish, they decided to make peace. The well-known Arab general, Abd al-Malik, led these peace talks. The Arabs agreed to pay a fee for the peace and share tax rights to Cyprus with the Byzantines.
But peace is a delicate thing, especially when you have a young, headstrong leader like Justinian II. He had created the ‘Jesus’ coin’, a move which understandably upset the Arabs, who then refused to pay the agreed fee. Justinian II’s response was clear, and it seemed that the young emperor, possibly longing for this conflict all along, was prepared; all-out war was now inevitable.
But I can’t begin to explain how badly this conflict went for Justinian II. A devastating defeat at the Battle of Sebastopolis was the last straw for his people. They were fed up with this leader and they decided to revolt. With few supporters left, this coup happened extremely quickly.
Now, the rebels had to decide what to do with Justinian II. Killing him could cause all sorts of problems, like political instability or even a religious war. So, they chose a different type of punishment: they cut his nose and caused brutal humiliation. This was a terrible type of punishment, meant to mark him for life and keep him from power. They used a blade to cut through the skin and cartilage of his nose, which would have been incredibly painful and risked serious infection, I cannot even begin to imagine the pain let alone the psychological scars of this event for our young monarch.
And this is how Justinian II became known as “the Slit-Nosed”.
Relentless Thirst for Vengeance
Now, we turn a new page in our tale, witnessing a man fuelled by vengeance against presumably in his warped sense of events the ungrateful elites who turned on him. Justinian was exiled to Cherson, a remote town seemingly lost to time, where without failing the character, I have certainly built up in my mind his immediate concern was to fashion a golden prosthetic nose to mask his disfiguring wound.
As expected, tranquillity was fleeting in this tumultuous era. The dark whispers of death reached Justinian in his exile, a warrant for his life issued by his enemies back in Constantinople. Not one to idly await his doom and playing the long game, Justinian sought refuge among the Kharzas, a group of Jewish-Turkic nomads in the north. He won their respect with his relentless determination to regain his throne and his surprising martial prowess. He impressed the Khagan to such an extent that he was even offered the ruler’s sister in marriage.
Meanwhile, Emperor Leontios, either driven by jealousy of this badass or the fear of the exiled emperor’s increasing influence, issued a hefty bounty on Justinian’s head. A group of assassins, lured by the promise of riches, tried to kill Justinian while he slept. Details are sketchy, but what we do know is that Justinian overpowered them, displaying his recently honed martial skills. The ‘Slit-Nosed’ had survived… once again.
Realizing he couldn’t fend off these would-be killers indefinitely, Justinian hatched a daring plan. He rallied a formidable force of 15,000 Bulgar warriors (how he achieved this we literally don’t know) and set his sights on his old throne. With this army, he marched towards the seemingly impregnable walls of Constantinople. The exiled emperor was on his way home, and he wasn’t planning on knocking politely at the gates.
Let the Streets Run Red: A Chaotic Return
Against seemingly insurmountable odds, Justinian II managed to marshal this nomadic force, and in a twist that seems straight out of Lord of the Rings, he besieged Constantinople. The precise details of how he breached the city’s immense walls remain shrouded in the mists of time. Yet, it was clear that his return marked the beginning of a chilling reign of revenge. Blood flowed through the city’s streets like rivers as he relentlessly pursued his former adversaries, exacting brutal reprisals on the chief figures of the two preceding regimes, Leontios and Tiberios III; their families were executed in gruesome fashion. This purge, while consolidating his power, sowed seeds of fear and paranoia amongst his subjects. His second stint on the throne was a far cry from a benevolent rule, as he pushed his empire further into anarchy. This turbulent epoch came to a close in 711 when Justinian II, his wife, and his young son, Tiberius, fell victim to yet another revolt. Thus, Justinian II’s turbulent life ended in a manner not too dissimilar to his reign—violent and tragic.
In retrospect, one cannot help but ponder whether Justinian II’s thirst for vengeance brought him any real satisfaction. Did the fleeting sense of retribution compensate for the blood spilt, the lives upended, and his eventual downfall? Did he savour the incredible feats during the reclamation of his throne and the satisfaction of persecuting those who did him wrong? Can a man responsible for this level of carnage be proud of the chaos he created? The ruthless actions of this emperor, who once sought to restore his empire to glory, resulted in a reign remembered more for its brutality than its achievements. The silence of history leaves us to speculate on the true cost of Justinian II’s vengeance and the legacy of this despotic era in Byzantine history.
The Richness of Byzantine Culture
Delighted we’ve got the turbulent tale of Justinian II behind us; a madman, yes, but undeniably intriguing. Now, I thought it apt to dedicate this section to the richness of Byzantine culture—essentially an embodiment of Greek refinement rather than Roman rigour. While Romans are renowned for their relentless determination, the Greeks have always held a unique flair for artistic expression.
Byzantine art—resplendent yet flat, intricate yet bold—is imbued with profound religious symbolism. We see countless depictions of Christ, the Virgin Mary, and various emperors (though admittedly none quite as eccentric as our friend Justinian II). Their stunning mosaics, a personal favourite of mine, weave together countless tiny tesserae to create narratives of exquisite detail and vibrancy. A visit to Athens earlier this year opened my eyes to these masterpieces, and I deeply regret not capturing them on camera.
Architecturally, the Byzantine Empire merged the grandeur of Rome with the subtleties of Middle Eastern design. Any visit to Greece, with its myriad of dome-crowned Orthodox churches, provides a glimpse into the architectural wonders of the Byzantine epoch. It’s strikingly similar to the structures that the Byzantines once erected.
My fascination with the Byzantine Empire lies in its underappreciated yet profound influence on the cultural tapestry of the Middle Ages, both in Europe and the Middle East. It functioned as an intriguing cultural bridge, amalgamating elements of the Greco-Roman civilizations. Today, its artistic legacy resonates worldwide. A recent encounter with a beautifully preserved Byzantine chest piece in Leon, Spain, stands testament to this enduring impact.
Thanks for sharing this historical journey with me. Given the chance, I could ramble on about history all day, and who knows—I just might!
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