The Unlucky Diogenes Family

Romanos IV Diogenes - submitting to Alp Aslan after defeat at the Battle of Manzikert


Romanos IV Diogenes – submitting to Alp Aslan after defeat at the Battle of Manzikert

The Diogenes family first came to prominence during the reign of Basil II early in the 11th century. Constantine Diogenes rose through the ranks of the taghmata – the central armies under the control of the emperor- to become a highly successful general, important in Basil’s conquering of Bulgaria. Following the subjugation of Bulgaria, Basil gave Diogenes responsibility for ruling Serbia and the Balkan area. Some years later, about the time Basil died, Constantine was named Strategos/Autokrator (military governor) of Bulgaria. In 1027, during the short three year reign of Constantine VIII, he repelled an attempted invasion by the violent and brutal Pechenegs.

Constantine VIII died in 1028, leaving his daughter Zoe to rule, but with a new husband, Romanos III Argyros, who was the uncle of Constantine Diogene’s wife. The history books give no explanation for why Diogenes rebelled (if, in fact, he did), but he was accused of conspiring with Empress Zoe’s younger sister, Theodora, in an attempt to seize the throne. Both Theodora and Diogenes were sent to monasteries as punishment. At the time, Constantine’s young son, Romanos, would have been little more than a baby.

Fast forward two years – Constantine Diogenes is accused of further plotting against the emperor. He is pulled from the monastery and taken to Blachernae, where he throws himself from a window rather than be tortured and implicate others.

Maybe it could all be true, but a few elements of this situation give me pause. First, it was at this time that the ambitious eunuch, John the Orphanotrophos, was becoming the power behind the throne. Also, it was no secret that the Imperial sisters, Zoe and Theodora, loathed each other. It is not much of a stretch to think John may have curried favor with Zoe by concocting a scheme to implicate Theodora in rebellion, and Constantine Diogenes was just the collateral damage.

Second, the historical reputation of the Orphanotrophos is one that says he might have used a “suicide” by Diogenes as a warning to others that this is what happened when you oppose him.

Third, suicide in this highly religious civilization does not seem common. In fact, I don’t believe I’ve read of any other suicide in Byzantine history. Not that it didn’t or couldn’t have happened, and the Orphanotrophos was nasty enough to inflict torture of sufficient brutality to make a prisoner consider it, but I’ve also thought that “falling from a window” could have been a euphemism for “being thrown from a window”.

Arguably, Constantine Diogenes’s son, Romanos, had worse luck than his father did. Similarly, he rose up through the taghmata to become a leading general during the reigns of Isaac I Comnenus and Constantine X Ducas. By his first wife, he had an unnamed daughter and a son, Constantine, but his wife had apparently died by 1067, since there is no mention in the historical record of an impediment to his second marriage.

The second marriage occurred on January 1, 1068. The historical record states that this was the first time Romanos Diogenes and his second wife, the Regent for young Emperor Michael VII, his mother the Dowager Empress Eudokia Makrembolitissa, met. I find that hard to believe since Eudokia’s first husband, Constantine X Ducas, was a supporter of Isaac I Comnenus when he took the throne, and Romanos Diogenes was a relation of Anna Dalassena’s (Isaac’s sister-in-law). They may not have known each other well, but it seems likely that they would surely have encountered each other from time to time.

This marriage between Romanos and Eudokia meant that Romanos was now the Emperor Romanos IV Diogenes. None of my favorite historians of the period (Psellus, Attaleiates, or Skylitzes) records anything about their marriage, but it did produce two sons, the Porphyrogeniti Leo and Nikephoros, by August 1071 when Romanos left to fight the Turks led by Alp Arslan, with their key battle at Manzikert.

The problem was that Romanos and Eudokia had two sons, not daughters. The boys would have had as equal a claim to the throne as Eudokia’s oldest son, the incompetent Michael VII had. Maybe more since they were “Porphyrogeniti” – born in the Imperial purple marble room at the Great Palace, while Michael was born some years before his father became emperor. However, Michael’s uncle, John Ducas, was apparently still loyal to his dead brother, Emperor Constantine X Ducas, and conspired to do away with Romanos rather than see his nephew shunted aside for Romanos and his sons. The opportunity presented itself at Manzikert, where his son, Andronikos, was instructed to do what he could to ensure Romanos’s defeat. Which is what occurred. The picture above is of a famous incident where Romanos was forced to submit to being under the foot of the victor, Alp Arslan.

Matters went downhill swiftly for Romanos after that defeat, and within less than a year he had lost the throne, his wife and young sons, his eyes, and, finally, his life from a terrible, painful infection brought on by the blinding.

Romanos’s sons fared little better. His oldest, Constantine, son of his first wife, died in Antioch about a year after his father, before his only child was born (this daughter later married into the Serb royal family). His son Leo was killed on campaign against the Pechenegs with Alexios I Comnenus when he was about 17. And Nikephoros, a handsome boy who had been raised in the Great Palace by Alexios I Comnenus and served in the military, conspired against Alexios in 1094 to take the throne, but was caught and punished with blinding – one of the few incidents of blinding during the Comneni era. He would have been in his mid-20’s at the time.

All in all, the Diogenes family was a short-lived shooting star in the Byzantine firmament – burning out after a few brilliant days in the 11th century sun.

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Eileen Stephenson

Eileen Stephenson

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