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. They include Empresses Zoe and Theodora; Constantine IX Monomachos; several great historians; Nikephoros Byennios; and others. Now, I will turn your attention to some of the lesser-known individuals of that century. These men and women were important in the empire’s evolution and held prominent positions at the time, but now are often only historical footnotes. 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.

The Paphlogonian Family

I start with John the Orphanotrophos (the Orphan Master), a eunuch who worked his way to great power, and kept control through terror. His family hailed from Paphlogonia in Anatolia and 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”. Some families castrated sons to give them the lucrative opportunity of working for the emperor in the Great Palace. However, a couple of historians imply that the boys’ father committed a crime and this was the punishment, or part of it.

In any case, John made his way to Constantinople to find employment 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 was in John Skylitzes’ history, where he had the job of “protonotarios”, a position that translates as 1st scribe. At the time, he worked for the Emperor Basil II.

Climbing the Imperial Ladder

John knew how to ingratiate himself, rising through the ranks during the reigns of Basil II and Constantine VIII. He received the title of Orphanotrophos, which is how the historians of the period referred to him. The Orphanotrophos title meant he had responsibility for the city’s orphanages. The position was an important one at the time. The habit of referring to him by his title rather than by his name seems akin to “he who must not be named” in the Harry Potter books.

Empress Zoe inherited the throne from her father, Constantine VIII, who had married her to a distant cousin, Romanos. The Orphanotrophos made his big move during the reign of Romanos III Argyros and Empress Zoe. The marriage was not happy and Zoe’s lonely eye wandered, landing on the handsome brother of the Orphanotrophos, Michael. The three of them conspired to assassinate Romanos so Zoe could marry Michael. There was a rumored first unsuccessful attempt at poison, but the man began to recover. Finally, the conspirators drowned the unfortunate husband in his bath. Zoe and Michael married on that same day before the dead man’s body was cold.

The Orphanotrophos at the Pinnacle

Zoe and her new husband, Emperor Michael IV, had an all too brief honeymoon. Soon Zoe found herself increasingly confined to the gynecaeum, with the Orphaonotrophos’ minions spying on her. At the same time, Michael’s brothers received new titles and positions with access to massive amounts of the empire’s money. Michael’s visits to Zoe’s bed became infrequent until they all but ended.  Zoe believed the Orphanotrophos caused the estrangement between her and her husband and attempted unsuccessfully to poison the eunuch. (The image above is from the History of John Skylitzes and is of Zoe’s attempted poisoning.)

The dynatoi of the empire became disgusted by what happened to Romanos and the imperial wealth these Paphlogonians transferred to their own pockets. Rebellious conspiracies began to abound. Even speaking against Michael IV without scheming became a criminal offense. The Orphanotrophos confined the great General Constantine Dalassenus and his son-in-law, Constantine Ducas, among others, for years for simply speaking against Michael. He imprisoned and tortured another general, Constantine Diogenes, until he committed suicide. Anyone suspected of rebelling could receive the tonsure and exile to a distant monastery. The Orphanotrophos soon frightened most of the dynatoi into submission.

Wars and Rebels

From a broader perspective, other problems occurred. A disastrous change in tax collecting laws led to rebellion in the empire’s Bulgarian provinces. The cost to put it down was likely greater than the increase in collections might have been.

In addition, the General George Maniakes led a successful expedition against Moslem invaders in Sicily,  wresting the island back from them. However, 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. After a vigorous reprimand from Maniakes, the humiliated Stephen returned to Constantinople where he accused the general of conspiracy. The Orphanotrophos had Maniakes arrested and imprisoned. Stephen carries the weight of responsibility for the permanent loss of Sicily as a Byzantine possession, as well as a large part of the empire’s treasury soon lost to the Moslems.

The End

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. His nephew, the son of the hapless Stephen, and also named Michael, succeeded by him as emperor. This foolish young man thought he could rule without the help of the cunning Orphanotrophos. John the Orphanotrophos soon found himself exiled to the remote island of Lesbos where he died two years later. Still, he lasted longer than the nephew whose ineptness caused the people of Constantinople to riot and blind him, death following shortly.  At least during his six months on the throne he rid the empire of his uncle, a man who had made so many other lives miserable.


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Eileen Stephenson

Eileen Stephenson

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