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 assumed concerned the great Justinian, the builder of the Hagia Sophia. “H.N. Turtletaub”, the pen name for Harry Turtledove, wrote the novel. Turtledove also translated the medieval Chronicle of Theophanes. That historian wrote about 200 years after Justinian ruled but included his reign in the work.

Justinian II – The Novel Version

Not long after beginning the novel I realized it concerned another Justinian, the second emperor of that name. This one clearly would never have earned 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. This ugly picture almost turned me off the Byzantines.

Scott Rowland, founder of the Roman & Byzantine History Facebook group, got me interested in learning more about Justinian. I found 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. These gave a more nuanced picture of the man known as “Rhinotmetos” (the noseless one).

Justinian II – The Historian’s Version

A brief summary of his reigns: he ascended to the throne at the age of 16 in 685 and ruled for 10 years before a member of the aristocracy, Leontios, deposed him. Leontios had Justinian’s nose cut off and tongue cut and exiled him to a bleak town on the Black Sea, Cherson. While there, he befriended a Khazar Khan and married the Khan’s sister. Later he found his way to Bulgaria and 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 a secret entrance, deposed the then emperor, Tiberius Apsimar. He ruled for another six years before supporters of another aspirant to the throne killed him .

Head’s biography used the Theophanes chronicle, as well as another one from a slightly earlier period, Nikephoros. Nikephoros had criticisms of Justinian, but leavened it with other histories. Instead of saying that Leontios deposed Justinian for his cruelties, she points out that Justinian tried to strengthen the small farm holders at the expense of the large landholding aristocracy, which included Leontios. Justinian was one of many emperors who tried to limit the aristocracy’s power over the centuries, so it was a recurrent problem.

Head points out that Theophanes and Nikephoros wrote many years after Justinian’s reign and had no personal experience of it. He was an iconodoule emperor written about during times of passionate iconoclasm. The two writers would have experienced political difficulties if they   even just implied Justinian was a mildly bad ruler. Finally, his horrible disfigurement, supposedly covered with a gold replacement, was an unattractive image.

The Novelist vs. The Historian

Constance Head points Justinian’s unwise decisions, particularly after he retook the throne and took revenge on those who had harmed him. But she believed that by the standards of the age, his brutality was probably no worse 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. It is not surprising that the translator of Theophanes would support that historian’s descriptions. Also, that harsher image of the emperor provides better material for a novel. However, I find Head’s additional research into sources outside of Theophanes and Nikephoros convincing that Justinian was not the monster they portrayed. Her explanations of the motivations of Theophanes and Nikephoros also help to understand why they wrote what they did about him.

I would like to know other opinions on this emperor whose name has suffered for over a thousand years.

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Eileen Stephenson

Eileen Stephenson

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