On the Mutilation and Blinding of Byzantine Emperors from the Reign of Heraclius I until the Fall of Constantinople
By Jonathan Alan Stumpf
Journal of Ancient History and Archaeology, Volume 4, Number 3, 2017
Introduction: Niccolò Machiavelli gave the following advice in his best-known work The Prince: “Cruel acts are used well (if we can apply ‘well’ to wicked acts) if they are needed for political security and are all committed at a single stroke and then discontinued or turned into something that is to the advantage of the subjects.” Reading about Byzantine history, it becomes apparent that besides killing a pretender or emperor it was quite common to blind him – or to cut off his nose. This latter practice is called rhinotomy.
It is the aim of this paper to examine the frequency of and the reasons for these forms of punishment in Byzantium in a somewhat similar way as M. Eisner has examined the frequency of violent death and regicide amongst 1,513 monarchs in 45 monarchies across Europe between AD 600 and 1800.
As there can be identified “at least three distinct waves of regicide” in the Byzantine Empire, it might be possible to distinguish different waves of blinding and rhinotomy as well. The focus lies on punishments of emperors and pretenders, for it is they who exercise or have the capability to exercise political and military power which makes them both vulnerable and potentially harmful in regard to political security – depending on the angle of perspective.
[…] The article takes a diachronic approach to the questions regarding Byzantine emperors and pretenders who were blinded or mutilated. The multiple brief case studies provided in the first part thus make up the core of the paper. But the statistical analyses in the second half are nevertheless crucial for the conclusions drawn at the end.
Top Image: The murder of Romanos III Argyros in a bath, from the Chronicle of John Skylitzes.