Justinian II – Medieval Monster or Medieval Normal?

Justinian II of Byzantium

Justinian II of Byzantium

Some years ago, early in my Byzantine obsession, I found a novel “Justinian” which I naively thought was about the great Justinian, the one who built the Hagia Sophia. The novel’s author was “H.N. Turteltaub”, the pen name of Harry Turtledove who also happened to be the translator of the medieval Chronicle of Theophanes, which included Justinian II’s reign but was written about 200 years later.

Once I was into the book I realized there was another Justinian, the second emperor of that name, whose reputation would never have allowed the sobriquet of “the Great”. This Justinian was vicious, angry, brutal, and unforgiving. The novel portrayed a man crueler than most, in an era of excessive cruelty. It was an ugly picture and it almost turned my off the Byzantines.

Scott Rowland, founder of the Roman & Byzantine History Facebook group, got me interested in learning more about Justinian so I purchased Constance Head’s 1972 biography, “Justinian II”. Her research into his reign included papal documents in Rome, the work of a historian in Ravenna, and Arab accounts from that period that gave a more nuanced picture of the man known as “Rhinotmetos” (the noseless one).

A brief summary of his reigns: he ascended to the throne at the age of 16 in 685 and ruled for 10 years before being deposed by Leontios, a member of the aristocracy, having his nose cut off and tongue cut and being exiled to a bleak town on the Black Sea, Cherson. While in exile, he was befriended by a Khazar Khan, married to the Khan’s sister, before eventually making his way to Bulgaria where he convinced its leader to support his bid to retake the throne. After a 10-year exile from Constantinople, he returned with a prosthetic nose and, sneaking in through a secret entrance, deposed the then emperor, Tiberius Apsimar. He ruled for another six years before he was killed by supporters of another aspirant to the throne.

Head’s biography used the Theophanes chronicle, as well as another one from a slightly earlier period, Nikephoros, equally as condemning of Justinian, but leavened it with the other histories I mentioned. Instead of saying that Leontios deposed Justinian for his cruelties, she points out that Justinian was making efforts to strengthen the small farm holders at the expense of the large landholding aristocracy of which Leontios was a member. Justinian may have been incautious in this effort, but given that many emperors also tried to limit the aristocracy’s power, it appears to have been a recurrent problem.

Head also points out that, aside from the fact that they were writing many years after Justinian’s reign and had no personal experience of it, Theophanes and Nikephoros were writing about an iconodoule emperor (Justinian) during a time of passionate iconoclasm during the reigns of Justinian’s successors. It would have been politically unwise for these two to be complimentary of Justinian, or even just imply he was a mildly bad ruler. Also, the fact of his horrible disfigurement, said to have been covered with a gold replacement, would have been an unattractive image.

Constance Head is not naive about Justinian, and points out where his actions were unwise, particularly after he retook the throne and took revenge on those who had harmed him. But by the standards of the age, he was probably no more brutal than most other rulers.

Turteltaub/Turtledove’s Author’s Note at the end of his novel said that he disagreed with Head’s conclusion that Justinian II was not as bad as his historic reputation has been. Certainly it is not surprising that the translator of Theophanes would support his historian’s descriptions, and that harsher image of the emperor is definitely better material for a novel. However, I find Head’s additional research into sources outside of Theophanes and Nikephoros to be convincing that Justinian was quite probably not the monster we have been lead to believe he was. Her explanations of the motivations of Theophanes and Nikephoros also help to understand why they wrote what they did about him.

I would be interested to know what opinions others might have on this emperor whose name may have been unjustly maligned for over a thousand years.


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Eileen Stephenson

Eileen Stephenson

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