Lesser Known 11th Century Byzantines – Part 1: John the Orphanotrophos and his Brothers

Lesser Known 11th Century Byzantines John the Orphanotrophos and his Brothers

Lesser Known 11th Century Byzantines, John the Orphanotrophos and his Brothers

I have mentioned a number of relatively well-known 11th century Byzantines in my previous blogs – the Empresses Zoe and Theodora; Constantine IX Monomachos; the writers Michael Psellos, Michael Attaleiates and John Skylitzes; Nikephoros Byennios; and others. Now, I will turn your attention to some of the lesser-known individuals of that century. These men and women played important roles in the empire’s evolution and were prominent at the time, but are often only recalled as footnotes to history. Their actions for good, or more often for ill, bring to mind this quote from Shakespeare (Julius Caesar): The evil that men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones.

So, I start with John the Orphanotrophus (the Orphan Master), a eunuch who worked his way to great power, and kept control through terror. His family was from Paphlogonia in Anatolia that had at least five sons and one daughter. John and two of his brothers (George and Constantine) were castrated, while Niketas and Michael were “bearded”. Personally, I can’t imagine why a father would have three of his sons castrated, but some of what I’ve read seems to imply that it may have been some sort of punishment for actions made by the boys’ father.

In any case, young John must have made his way to Constantinople where employment for eunuchs would have been easily available at the Great Palace. All of his brothers, as well as a sister and her spouse, Stephen, eventually joined him there. The first historical mention I have seen of him was in John Skylitzes’ history, where he is called a “protonotarios”, a position which can be translated at 1st scribe so I assume he was some sort of secretary. At the time, he was working for the Emperor Basil II.

John must have been an ingratiating sort since he rose up through the ranks of eunuchs during the reign of Basil II and Constantine VIII, and was awarded the title of Orphanotrophos, which is how the historians of the period referred to him. I found it interesting in my reading that he was always referred to by his title rather than by his name, somewhat akin to “he who must not be named” in the Harry Potter books.

Empress Zoe had inherited the throne from her father, Constantine VIII, who had married her to a distant cousin, Romanos, shortly before he died.It was during the reign of Romanos III Argyros and Empress Zoe that the Orphanotrophos made his big move. The marriage was not happy and Zoe’s lustful eye wandered, landing on the handsome brother of the Orphanotrophos, Michael. The three of them conspired to assassinate Romanos, first with an unsuccessful attempt at poison, before finally making an end of the unfortunate husband by drowning him in his bath. Before the dead man’s body was cold, Zoe and Michael were wed on that very same day.

Zoe and her new husband, Emperor Michael IV, had an all too brief honeymoon before Zoe found herself increasingly confined to the gynecaeum and spied on by the Orphaonotrophos’ minions. Michael’s visits to her bed became infrequent until they all but ended. Michael’s brothers were given new positions, often with access to massive amounts of the empire’s money that they confiscated for themselves. Zoe became convinced that it was the Orphanotrophos who was the cause of the estrangement between her and her husband and made a failed attempt to poison the eunuch (the image above is from the History of John Skylitzes and is of Zoe’s attempted poisoning) .

At the same time, many of the dynatoi of the empire were disgusted by what happened to Romanos and the wealth these Paphlogonians transferred from the Treasury into their own pockets. Rebellious conspiracies began to abound. Even speaking against Michael IV without scheming became a criminal offense. The great General Constantine Dalassenus and his son-in-law, Constantine Ducas, were among those confined for years for simply speaking against Michael. Another general, Constantine Diogenes was imprisoned and apparently tortured before he committed suicide. Others were tonsured and forced into a monastery or exiled to remote locations. The Orphanotrophos had soon frightened most of the dynatoi into submission to his family’s rule.

From a broader perspective, other problems occurred. A disastrous change in tax collecting laws led to rebellion in the empire’s Bulgarian provinces which likely cost more to put down than whatever the increase in collections might have taken in. In addition, while the General George Maniakes led a successful expedition against Moslem invaders in Sicily, almost wresting the island back from them, he had been forced to bring along Michael IV’s incompetent brother-in-law, Stephen who bungled his part and allowed the Moslems to escape. This Stephen carries much of the weight of responsibility for the permanent loss of Sicily as a Byzantine possession. After a vigorous reprimand from Maniakes, the humiliated Stephen returned to Constantinople where he accused the general of conspiracy. Maniakes was arrested and imprisoned, and Sicily, along with a large part of the empire’s treasury, was shortly lost to the Moslems.

Michael IV ruled until 1041, still a young man of about 30 or 31, but ill with epilepsy and probably something else – dropsy was the diagnosis at the time. He was succeeded by his nephew, the son of the hapless Stephen, and also named Michael. This foolish young man thought he could rule without the help of the cunning Orphanotrophos and soon exiled that uncle to the remote island of Lesbos where he died a couple of years later. It was a miserable end to a man who had made so many other lives at least as miserable.


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Eileen Stephenson

Eileen Stephenson

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