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How to Murder a Byzantine Emperor

An empire like Byzantium does not last for a thousand years without its own share of political intrigue. Here are three accounts of murder told by medieval chroniclers in vivid detail, in which the plot did not go as smoothly as the conspirators hoped, but in end resulted with a new emperor on the throne.

Emperor Leo V the Armenian.

Leo V, murdered on December 25, 820

The first account is told by John Scylitzes in his Synopsis of Histories, and tells of the death of Emperor Leo V, who reigned from 813 to 820. Scylitzes remarked that while this emperor was diligent and successful in managing the state, he was also very cruel and harsh, and had “earned the hatred of all his subjects.”

The historian adds that “he was very proud of his voice and aspired to be something of a musician, but his natural gifts were not commensurate with this aspiration. He could not keep time and he had little talent for signing in tune either.” Still, whenever he was in church he would join in on the psalm-singing.

When word reached Leo that one of his generals, Michael of Amorion, was speaking ill against him, the Emperor sent out his spies to collect evidence. Soon enough, Michael was overheard plotting against Leo. He arrested and found guilty by a court presided over by the emperor, and sentenced to be killed by being tossed into the furnace that heated the palace baths. However, the Emperor’s wife came out to plead for Michael’s life. Leo eventually agreed, but said to the empress,”Woman, thanks to your ravings, I have done as you required. But before long, you will see that shoots that spring forth from my innards and what bad fortune is reserved for us, even though you have delivered me from sinning today.”

The emperor had the Palace-keeper take Michael away and hold him, but he was still very uneasy about the situation and for many nights he could not get any sleep. Finally, he decided to go check on Michael and went over to Palace-keeper’s quarters. John Scylitzes writes:

As he entered the room, a sight met his eyes which left him dumbfounded. He beheld the condemned man lying gloriously ensconced in a high bed, whilst the Palace-Keeper lay on the bare floor. He approached and looked more carefully at Michael. Did he have the shallow and troubled sleep of those whom destiny tosses around and whose life is a gamble? Or did he, on the contrary, enjoy a calm, untroubled rest? When he found him sleeping calmly (he couldn’t waken him even when he touched him) his anger became yet more inflamed at this unexpected revelation. He went off hurling terrible verbal insults not only against Michael, but against the Palace-keeper too.

The staff of the Palace-keeper were worried about the situation, fearing that the Emperor would punish them as well, and they spoke with Michael, who came up with a plan. He asked for a priest named Theoctistos to come to his chambers so he could make his confession to God, but once he arrived Michael told him, “Now is the hour, Theoctistos. Threaten the conspirators that unless they make haste to get me out of danger, I am going to tell all to the Emperor.”

Theoctistos did as he was told, and he met with Michael’s supporters. After debating what they should do, it was decided that they needed to make an attempt on the Emperor’s life, and planned to attack him while he in the palace church for dawn service. John Scylitzes explains that they gathered outside the church:

The conspirators mingled discreetly with the clerks, their daggers hidden in their cloaks, and went in with them. They then assembled in a dark corner of the church, awaiting the prearranged signal. As the hymn was being sung, the Emperor – who was already there – took up the refrain, as was his custom: “They poured contempt on the yearning of the king of all kings.” (As we remarked, he had a fine voice which carried well.) It was then that the conspirators struck, en masse. Their first attack went awry because they mistook the master of the clerks for the Emperor, perhaps because he bore a certain physical resemblance to him; or because he was wearing the same kind of head-gear. For it was a cold winter night, so everybody was in heavy clothing and each man had covered his head with a tightly-fitting felt hat. The master of the clerks contrived to save himself by removing his felt hat, thus revealing that he was bald. When the Emperor realized that he was being attacked, he went into the sanctuary and seized the thurible by its chains (some say it was the divine cross) with which to ward off the blows of his attackers. But the conspirators attacked all together, not one at a time. He was able to resist for some time by parrying the sword-thrusts with the divine cross, but then he was set upon from all sides, like a wild beast. He was already beginning to flag from his wounds when, at the end, he saw a gigantic person about to deal him a blow. Then, with an oath, he invoked the grace which inhabited the temple and begged to be delivered. The noble was of the Krambonitai family; “This is not the time for swearing oaths, but for killing,” he declared – and dealt him a blow which cut off the arm at the joint, not only severing the member, but also sundering an arm of the cross. Someone also cut off his head, which was already damaged by wounds and hanging down.

The conspirators then released Michael from the Palace-keeper’s quarters, although they could not remove the shackles from his feet. So Michael was place on the Imperial throne, still wearing his fetters – he would go on to rule Byzantium for nine years.

Entrance of the emperor Nikephoros Phocas (963-969) into Constantinople in 963 from the Chronicle of John Skylitzes

Nikephoros II Phokas, murdered on December 11, 969

Nikephoros II Phokas was a brilliant general before he took control of the Byzantine throne, with the help of Theophano, the wife of the previous Emperor. However, Nikephoros was done in by a plot launched by Theophano and his own nephew, John Tzimiskes. While John had helped his uncle in his wars and in gaining the throne, Nikephoros was apparently worried about his nephew’s growing influence, and for a few years he was exiled away from Constantinople and from military command.

According to the History of Leo the Deacon, it was Theophano who convinced the Emperor to bring John Tzimiskes back to the capital and into a position of power. What Nikephoros did not know was that Theophano and John were having an affair, and that he was using secret passageways into the Imperial Palace to send his hand-picked men inside and hide out in the empresses’ quarters.

The plotting did not escape everyone’s notice, and a priest handed Nikephoros a note saying:

“Let it be known to you, O Emperor, that a terrible death is being prepared for you tonight. Because this is true, order a search of the women’s quarters, where armed men will be apprehended who are planning to carry out your murder.”

The Emperor ordered a search to be done of the Empresses’ rooms, but nothing was found. That night, the empress was with Nikephoros and explained she had to go check in on some guests. She said, “I am leaving to give some instructions about their care, and then I will come back to you. But leave the bedchamber open and don’t lock it for now; for I will lock it when I come back.”

As she left, John Tzimiskes was setting the final part of his plan into motion:

The clock was just indicating the fifth hour of the night, a fierce north wind filled the air, and snow was falling heavily. Then John arrived with his fellow conspirators, sailing along the shore in a light boat and disembarking on land where the stone lion is seizing the bull (traditionally the place is called Boukoleon), whistling to his retainers, who were leaning out from the terrace above, he was recognized; for this was the signal he had given to the murderers. They let down from above a basket attached to ropes, and hauled up first all the conspirators one at a time, and then John himself. After thus ascending without being detected, they entered the imperial bedchamber with swords drawn. When they reached the bed and found it empty with no one sleeping in it, they were petrified with terror and tried to hurl themselves into the sea [from the terrace]. But a dastardly fellow from [the staff of] the women’s quarters led them and pointed out the sleeping emperor; they surrounded him and leapt at him and kicked with their feet.

One of the men struck the sleeping emperor on the head with a sword, leaving a wound along on his eyebrow. The bleeding emperor pleaded, “Help me, O Mother of God!”, but Tzimiskes had his men seize Nikephoros and hold him on the bed. According to Leo the Deacon, John then began to monologue like an evil villain:

“Tell me, you most ungrateful and malicious tyrant, wasn’t it through me that you attained the Roman rule and received such power? Why then did you disregard such a good turn, and driven, by envy and evil frenzy, did not hesitate to remove me, your benefactor, from the command of the troops? Instead you dismissed me to waste my time in the countryside with peasants, like some alien without any rights, even though I am more brave and vigorous than you; the armies of the enemy fear me, and there is no one who can save you from my hands. Speak then, if you have any grounds of defense remaining against these charges.”

The emperor, who was already growing faint and did not have anyone to defend him, kept calling on the Mother of God for assistance. But John grabbed hold of his beard and pulled it mercilessly, while his fellow conspirators cruelly and inhumanely smashed his jaws with their sword handles so as to shake loose his teeth and knock them out of the jawbone. When they had their fill of tormenting him, John kicked him in the chest, raised up his sword, and drove it right through the middle of his brain, ordering the others to strike the man, too. They slashed at him mercilessly, and one of them hit him in the back with an akouphion [a hooked hammer] and thrust it right through to the breast.

With Nikephoros dead, John Tzimiskes walked over to the imperial throne room, and declared himself the new emperor. By now, the news of the attack in the palace was spreading. Leo the Deacon adds:

When Nikephoros’ bodyguards heard, too late, about the murder, they rushed to defend him, in the belief that the man was still among the living, and they tried to force open the iron gates with all their strength. But John ordered that Nikephoros’ head be brought in and shown to his bodyguards through a window. A man named Atzypotheodorus came and cut off the head and showed it to the turbulent group of men. When they saw the monstrous and unbelievable sight, they let their swords fall from their hands, changed their tune, and with one voice proclaimed John as emperors of the Romans.

John I Tzimiskes would rule as emperor until the year 976.

The murder of Romanos III Argyros in a bath, from the Chronicle of John Skylitzes.

Romanos III Argyros, murdered on April 11, 1034

The story of this death was told by Michael Psellus in his Chronographia. Romanos’ six year reign was not a particularly successful one, and he was targeted with several conspiracies. In the end, his demise came at the hands of his wife Zoe, and her lover Michael the Paphlagonian. Michael Psellus explains that Emperor Romanos had been suffering an unusual illness that sapped him of much of his strength. The chronicler, who was 16 years old at time, wrote that he saw the emperor himself:

His whole face was swollen and the colour of it was no more pleasant to look upon than that of men three days dead in the tombs. His breathing was fast, and after moving a few paces he had to rest. Most of the hairs on his head had fallen out, as though he were a corpse, but a few strands, scattered here and there, were tousled round his forehead, moved, I suppose, by his breathing. The others despaired of his life, but he himself was by no means without hope. He had put himself in the hands of the doctors and he expected to be restored to health by their skill.

Psellus thinks that illness might have been due to slow poisoning by Zoe, but he is not sure. However, since this was not acting fast enough, a new, more direct, strategy was implemented. The emperor had gone to his swimming pool, and according to the chronicler:

To begin with, he enjoyed himself swimming on the surface and floating lightly, blowing out and refreshing himself with the greatest of pleasure. Later on some of his retinue came in to support him and give him rest, according to his own orders… when Romanus plunged his head under the water – his usual custom – they all pressed his neck and held him down for some considerable time, after which they let him go and went away. The air inside him, however, caused his body to rise and it brought him to the surface, almost breathless,. There he floated about in a haphazard way, like a cork.

When he had recovered a little and saw in what an evil plight he was, he stretched out his hand and begged someone to take hold of it and help him to his feet. In pity for him, and because of his sad condition, one man did indeed go to this aid. Putting his arms around him, he drew him out of the water and carried him to a couch, where he laid him, just as he was, in a pitiable state.

At this an uproar ensued. Several persons came into the room, among them the empress herself, without any bodyguard and apparently stricken with grief. After one look at him, however, she went off, having satisfied herself with her own eyes that he was a dying man. Romanus gave one strong deep moan, and then kept looking around, this way and that, without being able to speak, but showing by signs and nods, what he wanted. Then, as still nobody could understand him, he shut his eyes and began to breathe more fast again. Suddenly his mouth gaped open and there flowed gently from it some dark-coloured, coagulated matter, and, with two or three gasps, he died.

The next day Zoe and Michael were married, with the latter becoming Michael III. He would rule Byzantium for another seven years.


Sources:

John Skylitzes: A Synopsis of Byzantine History, 811–1057, translated by John Wortley (Cambridge University Press, 2012)

The History of Leo the Deacon: Byzantine Military Expansion in the Tenth Century, translated by Alice-Mary Talbot and Denis F. Sullivan (Dumbarton Oaks, 2005)

Fourteen Byzantine Rulers: The Chronographia of Michael Psellus, translated by E.R.A. Sewter (Penguin, 1966)

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