Unsuccessful Byzantine Coup Attempts: Part I

We discussed the large number of usurpation attempts in the Byzantine Empire in an earlier post. It made sense to follow up by exploring why there were so many of these attempts — and why so many failed to change where power resided at that moment in history. The very first coup attempt in the Eastern Roman Empire occurred during Emperor Zeno’s reign in 479 AD. Keep in mind that this was technically before the Byzantine Empire was established in 527, when Justinian I took power. 

We started so early because we think it’s important to understand that Byzantine power and control was always tenuous at the best of times. Power changed hands often, and those who obtained it must have known that the chances were extremely good that they would lose it to someone else — and that the near-inevitably of that loss would likely result in their violent deaths; perhaps even the deaths of sons and close family members as well. But to some, that greed for power, control, and legacy must have outweighed the fear.

Or maybe they all thought they could perform more admirably than their immediate predecessors. Who really knows?

A man named Marcian attempted to overthrow Emperor Zeno in 479 AD, but he was unsuccessful. He and his brothers Procopius Anthemius and Romulus mustered all the military strength they could, but their rag-tag group of citizens and foreign-born peoples was unable to take Zeno. The coup attempt might have succeeded, but reinforcements arrived to overwhelm Marcian’s forces. Zeno fled. 

Marcian tried to find sanctuary in church, but he was arrested instead. The rest of his story is equally chaotic. Several times, he nearly grasped power, but each time he failed to seal the deal. A man who finally made a successful coup attempt to remove Zeno decided to put a man named Leontius on the throne instead. We’ll discuss Leontius in part two of this series.

Prayer Was As Powerful As Medicine To The Byzantines

Medicine was a powerful component of the Byzantine Empire and its many citizens. The empire made important advancements in medicine, including diagnosing illnesses through observation and examination, especially of urine, heartbeat, and excrement. They knew that physicians needed a soft touch and an acute awareness when something wasn’t quite right. They even knew how to separate urine’s components using a vial. They prescribed lifestyle changes through diet, medicine, and even bloodletting in some cases.

But medicine was still in its infancy compared to what we know about the human body today. A Byzantine citizen couldn’t just expect to hire a medical malpractice lawyer when the diagnosis and prescription didn’t work out. In these cases they turned to religion instead.

Christians were known to have built many of the empire’s hospitals, even sometimes using churches as would-be care facilities when others weren’t available. The Byzantines were devoutly religious, and when medicine didn’t work they believed the blood of Jesus would protect them or lead them into salvation. Prayer simply mattered more and was taken more seriously than science — which might sound familiar if you live in the United States.

Icons like Cosmas and Damian were important to the sick Byzantines. They were Arab physicians who lived in the third century AD in Cyrhus. Stories suggest they may have been twin brothers who died in martyrdom. They provided their medical expertise without asking for anything in return. According to legend, the brothers were persecuted by Emperor Diocletian during his historic purge of Christians. They were tortured through stoning before they were ultimately beheaded. 

Byzantine medicine was influenced by the Greeks as well. Paul Aegina wrote a Medical Compendium in Seven Books in the seventh century. He took knowledge that already existed, put it all in one place, and helped get it into the hands of the people who could use it to the betterment of society. But he also injected some of his own ideas.

He wrote, “The case of a broken thigh is analogous to that of the arm, but in particular, a fractured thigh is mostly deranged forwards and outwards, for the bone is naturally flattened on those sides. It is to be set by the hands, with ligatures, and even cords applied, the one above and the other below the fracture. When the fracture takes place at one end, if at the head of the thigh, the middle part of a thong wrapped round with wool, so that it may not cut the parts there, is to be applied to the perinaeum…”

This particular knowledge of how to set and mend a broken bone was transferred for centuries throughout Arabia. 

Medicine in Byzantine was made readily available to all through the charity of the Church, whose members believed it was their duty to help the ill and ailing. Of course, not all medicine was realistic: much of it involved mixing Holy Water with other benign ingredients.

How Many Emperors Sat On The Throne Through Usurpation?

Usurper. It’s an undeniably cool word. History buffs around the world are obsessed with the intricacies of history, some of which led to outcomes that were never expected. In the history of the United States, how many usurpations of power have occurred? If you ask modern-day Republicans, there was just one — when Biden “stole” the election from former president Donald Trump. But of course that’s nonsense. We’ve had exactly zero usurpations of presidential authority in the United States.

Is that a testament to the quality of our own government? It’s a tough question to answer, especially at a time when so many people believe that our government cannot be trusted. This is the sentiment no matter which side of the aisle you land on. 

The best way to figure out the answer to that question might be to first decide where the bar is. We could look to the Roman Empire, which stood far longer than our own country has. We could look to the Byzantine Empire, which has accomplished the same. Since this website is called ByzConf for a reason, let’s start there.

How many emperors sat on the throne through usurpation in the Byzantine Empire? Let’s start with the number of unsuccessful attempts to perform the coup d’etat, something that either works perfectly on the first try — or doesn’t work at all. From the year 395 AD until 1453 AD, there were exactly 48 attempts that didn’t quite manage to follow through. That tells us something critical about the Byzantine Empire right away: it was filled with social and political strife from start to finish.

Add to that number the 26 emperors who sat the throne through a successful coup, and you can see that it got quite bad. And that probably answers our earlier question, too. The United States might not be perfect, but our government is nowhere near as bad as it gets.

What Types Of Jobs Were Held By Byzantine Citizens?

Consider this: Even before the Byzantine Empire was established, its western counterpart the Roman Empire already had achieved elaborate feats of engineering even by today’s standards. They had pipelines. They had sewers. They had running water. They even had contraptions built to heat the floor! Of course, only the rich had access to the best luxuries, but the point is that they were available. And with those elaborate feats of engineering came the requirement for specialized jobs and careers. 

Here are a few jobs that were around at some point in the history of the Byzantine Empire.

Many reflect the same jobs we might have today: merchants, farmers, doctors, architects, teachers, artists, poets, writers, politicians, accountants, etc. Other jobs were even more specialized.

These ancient societies required plumbers to maintain their pipes and prevent serious damage to city infrastructure — even though backups were inevitable and the plumbers had their work cut out for them. Sanitation standards took a serious nosedive after the fall of the Roman Empire, and even traditions like public bathing were suddenly frowned upon. This change in thinking occurred because of new religious standards, which required you to be earthly, pious, and abstain from materialism. Bathing was actually seen as a sign of great vanity!

The food service industry in Ancient Rome was booming, and it transferred over to the Byzantine way of life. Most citizens ate three square meals a day, including cheese, fish, meat, fruit, and some type of grain. This provided a great opportunity for food handlers to make jobs. Of course, a waiter pay infographic today might not look the same as it once did during the days of the Roman or Byzantine Empires. 

That’s because the dining experience — and the economics of food — in ancient times was much different than today. Rich citizens of these two great empires might stay home to hold elaborate meals in their own dining rooms, but for the poor it was more economical to go out to eat! Compare it to today’s popularity of fast-food for low-income families. 

Another great byproduct of the Roman Empire were its roads. Consider the effort these must have required: first, you needed to excavate enough rock to build a road across miles and miles of land. Second, you needed to clear that land. Third, you needed to transport the rock. And last but not least, you needed trained workers who were capable of building the roads. Sometimes the laborers were slaves.

Although wealthy aristocratic women were expected to manage the home’s affairs, they could not vote or hold office. Plebeian women were far more likely to work, although many were forced into prostitution because they weren’t paid very well. Some owned their own businesses. Others became acting. Still others would work alongside men by farming the land or finding a job in food service. 

Although it might sound surprising, the Roman concept of work wasn’t so different from what it is today. Both men and women worked a variety of jobs. Keep in mind that most women stayed at home here in the United States only a century ago!

What Was Byzantine Life Like Under The Doukas Dynasty?

The Doukas Dynasty enjoyed a short rule between the years 1059 and 1081 AD. Somehow, they squeezed six emperors into this 22-year period, so you might say they didn’t do a bang-up job. Emperor Constantine X Doukas reigned between 1059 and 1067. After him, there was his brother John Doukas (Caesar Romanos IV Diogenes) from 1068 to 1071, his son Michael VII Doukas from 1071-1078 (whose own son co-ruled with him), and lastly Nikephoros III Botaneiates. 

Although the last of the bunch was a Doukas, he decided to rule under the Botaneiates name and claimed the Phokas family as his own.

The decline of the Byzantine Empire was quite apparent during Doukas rule, as the Seljuk Turks were successfully battling back Byzantine forces. Much of the empire’s territory in Asia Minor disappeared after the decimation of Byzantine forces at the Battle of Manzikert in 1071 AD. Territory also evaporated in the Balkans — and even back in Italy after an incursion by the Normans. How embarrassing is that?

Subsequent to Doukas rule, the empire continued to be pared away by outside forces — especially the Ottoman Empire.

Alexios Komnenos ascended to emperorship in 1077, when his marriage to Irene Doukaina and fame as a Byzantine general allowed him to take over without shedding a drop of blood. He didn’t warm the seat for long, though, because the following year both Nikephoros Bryennios and Nikephoros Botaneiates — generals — revolted and marched on Nicea and Constantinople. 

The “election” of this man (who had proclaimed himself emperor, as so many emperors are wont to do), was “ratified” by members of the clergy and aristocracy. A great many conspiracies, violent uprisings, and foreign incursions followed, and soon enough a man named Alexios Komnenos bribed the Constantinople garrison to crown himself king, which resulted in the establishment of the Komnenos dynasty. The previous emperor was out of time at the time. Whoops.

The Roadways Of The Byzantine Empire

Take a look at any of today’s roads, interstates, or highways, and you might be forgiven for forgetting that cars themselves are barely more than a century old. And certainly, there were no massive roadways designed for side-by-side travel of dozens of vehicles a hundred years ago. But we have the old Roman Empire — and eventually its continuation, the Byzantine Empire — to thank for the idea of a government spending a fortune to ensure its people have the ability to cover great distances on a single path. 

Byzantine roads were hardly like California superhighways, but they were certainly some of the best in the world.

The Romans were also famous for naming their paths. The Via Egnatia, for example, was built sometime in the second century BC. And it was massive. The undertaking must has cost the Roman Empire a pretty penny, lots of manpower, and many years of work. It spanned Illyricum, Macedonia, and Thracia — or modern day Albania, North Macedonia, Greece, and Turkey when its name became the Via Appia, one of Rome’s most famous roads.

One of the reasons that the Via Egnatia was such a tremendous undertaking was because its path wasn’t over flat terrain. This route was twisted and tangled, closely following the Genusus River before wending through the Candaviae Mountains, and up into the Lake Ohrid highlands. It continued even farther toward the Aegean Sea and then all the way to Byzantium (which would eventually become the capital city of the Byzantine Empire and have its name changed to Constantinople). 

The length of this impressive road? Around 1,120 Km. 

But these roads were probably more impressive than you think. They weren’t your typical hiking path through the woods and over the mountains. In fact, we may have overstepped by suggesting they were hardly comparable to California’s superhighways — because the Via Egnatia was a whopping six meters (or 19.6 feet) across, and paved in stone and hard sand. By comparison, a single U.S. Interstate Highway lane is a standardized 12 feet. Certainly bigger when you have at least four of them side by side, but still — the Romans gave us the right idea.

These roads were also notable for their straight continuity — i.e. one end is usually directly across from the other. They rarely “wind” like many of ours do. This made it easier to navigate in the ancient world, even if you were an ordinary citizen.

The Via Egnatia was also given historical significance when the Apostate Paul used it as a means to travel from Phillippi to Thessalonica during his second missionary pilgrimage. Paul wasn’t the only important figure to travel this stretch: Julius Caesar and Pompey both used it during the civil war of Caesar’s making. Mark Antony and Octavian used the road to follow Cassius and Brutus until they met at the Battle of Philippi.  

When the Roman Empire fell, the Byzantine Empire provided some much-needed improvements to the failing infrastructure and used the road to trade with most of Europe. Armies also used the road to travel from place to place during the Crusades.

How Many Languages Were Spoken In the Byzantine Empire?

The Roman and Byzantine Empires were used by the American Founding Fathers to set a framework for a new (or more aptly “updated”) form of government after the Revolution. Although the United States was always called a melting pot, many of our citizens have never really embraced the idea that we’re stronger through our diverse cultures, many languages, and innumerable ethnicities. The Roman Empire certainly experienced its fair share of racism — but they also embraced other cultures much more easily than we do. 

Because the building of these extraordinary empires occurred on the premise of assimilation — but not total assimilation, as conquered territories were originally allowed to keep their own customs and religions — there were also many languages commonly spoken across the Byzantine territories. These included aging Latin, Koine Greek, and Medieval Greek.

The Byzantine Empire continued to embrace much of what made the Roman Empire strong, but one of its great failings was the lack of religious diversity. Christianity was a mainstay of traditional beliefs, which ultimately reduced diversity and fomented distrust of outsiders (sound familiar?). Latin was already spoken in fewer regions, and most Byzantine territories relied on Greek. We associate Latin with the Catholic Church, but in fact Greek was most commonly used there as well. 

Greek was eventually associated with scholars, artistic endeavors, and the language of trade. What English is today, Greek was yesterday. Of course, there were innumerable dialects spoken over a massive space. Koine and Medieval Greek became the most commonly spoken. Before Koine came along, Attic Greek pervaded.

It is widely considered possible that Emperor Justinian I may have been the last to speak Latin. His Corpus Juris Civilis was written in Latin, and he believed it was an important language that should be taught and used. Shortly after his time as emperor, it fell out of use entirely. Latin was revived several times throughout Byzantine history, though, especially during the 10th and 11th centuries.

Could A Byzantine Citizen Sue Someone For Damages?

If someone’s negligence results in injury or financial damages in the United States, we have a relatively simple solution: sue the jerk. But it’s important to recognize that the ability to receive that sort of compensation isn’t pervasive in other countries (even in the developed world) and that many people have the view that accidents will always happen. What about the legal process in the Byzantine Empire? Could one citizen sue another?

We acquired many of our “rights” from the original Roman Empire. There was a latin concept coined as “lus conubii,” which represented a person’s right to a lawful marriage. This was generally a legal concept between two Roman citizens based on traditional Roman principles. But Romans also enjoyed citizenship rights, the right to run for office, and the right to vote or make legal contracts (dependent on who you were). But they also had the right to sue for damages!

What is personal injury? It’s a form of law in which a person who was physically or financially harmed by a person or organization can recoup proportional damages. The Byzantine Empire was an extension of the Old Western Roman Empire, and thus assimilated many of its laws and traditions. The right to sue was one such tradition.

Many of these laws were predictably acquired through a heavily Christian influence, which was the official religion of the Byzantine Empire. Byzantine law is generally assumed to be a continuation of Roman traditions that had begun in the sixth century. They collapsed when Constinople was sacked in the fifteenth century.

Byzantine also had a number of “codes” to determine what was legal and illegal. The Sea Laws, for example, provided seafaring travelers with a set of maritime laws. Not only were Byzantine landmasses subject to regulation by the Empire, but so were the seas! One of the earliest sea laws was simply called “Naval Law.”

Other laws were intended to help oversee how certain professions could do business. A set of “Farmer’s Laws” to regulate the mostly agricultural society that thrived inside Byzantine’s borders. The Nomos Georgikos (sometimes called the Lex Rustica or Farmer’s Law) has been researched for a long time because the relevant texts are some of the most routinely discovered. Farmer’s Law was heavily influenced by the Slavs, who immigrated into the Empire in very large numbers during the first days when these laws were established.

Byzantine peasants were themselves organized into groupings called communities, but only for the purpose of collecting taxes every so often. The entire community of a certain region was responsible for making sure those taxes were paid. If they were not paid, then the entire community was liable for a sort of “personal injury” against the Empire itself. In turn Farmer’s Law influenced Slavic countries like Bulgaria, Serbia, and Russia.

Emperor Leo III the Isaurian ratified an important set of laws called the Ecloga, which regulated civil and criminal law. These were the laws that provided citizens with the right to marry or file lawsuits and, notably, provided them with equality in the eyes of Byzantine legal system.

Were There Contested “Elections” In The Byzantine Empire?

The word “contested” has taken on somewhat of a dark connotation as of late, defined by most of us as signifying a contest many participants consider stolen or false. Our current presidential election is but one example of this kind of contested outcome. But a contest all by itself is simply a pairing off of two or more distinct parties. In this way, a “contested” event could signify something as benign as a race in which all participants are equally matched.

The archaeological remains of the city of Pompeii showcase ancient Roman elections. Graffiti inscriptions from the city seem to show that its citizens took various back and forth positions on elections that had occurred in or around the year 79 A.D. 

Not everyone had the authority to cast a vote in Ancient Rome, or its succeeding empire — the Byzantine Empire in the east. But those who did certainly found themselves in contentious positions. One ruler might have been desired while another found himself in the position of emperor after all the votes were cast. Sometimes, these events were “contested” as we’ve come to know the word.

Not surprisingly, these events were more contentious when the papacy was at stake. The emperor was important, but no one was more important than the supreme servant of God — who we still today know as the pope. For example, the deaths of Pope John V and Pope Conon led to respective elections that were inevitably contested.

Pope John died in 686 A.D., which led to a division between the clergy, which preferred Archpriest Peter, and the army, which supported a different priest. Although the army’s input was heavily weighed in the emperor’s succession, the clergy had the ultimate say in this case.

Pope Conon was barely in office for a single year before his death, which set off a heated dispute — again between the clergy and army. His death marked the last and most significant contested election of a pope.

Did The Byzantine Government Help Disabled Workers?

You probably already know that the Roman Empire was eventually divided into East and West — and that the Western Roman Empire fell into chaos and disintegrated much earlier. But at its height, the emperors of the Roman Empire provided the plebeian “mob” with grain to keep them fed. The government of any body of people bases its existence on protecting those people, which is why systems like helping the poor worked so well. But how did these ancient societies help out those who couldn’t work at all?

You might be shocked to hear they did anything at all! But providing these disabled workers with help is how most scholars begin discussing the history of workers compensation.

The U.S. National Library of Medicine acknowledges the modern failures of workers compensation and likens our own inability to make it work to those civilizations that came long before us failing to accomplish exactly the same thing. 

The NLM said: “The history of compensation for bodily injury begins shortly after the advent of written history itself. The Nippur Tablet No. 3191 from ancient Sumeria in the fertile crescent outlines the law of Ur-Nammu, king of the city-state of Ur.”

The Code of Hammurabi set out compensation for injuries and impairments circa 1750 B.C. — in addition to perpetrating many of those injuries on those accused of many crimes. The NLM continued: “Ancient Greek, Roman, Arab, and Chinese law provided sets of compensation schedules, with precise payments for the loss of a body part. For example, under ancient Arab law, loss of a joint of the thumb was worth one-half the value of a finger.”

Perhaps more comically, a similar law compensated a severed penis proportional to how long the member was.

The point is this: most ancient civilizations were socially advanced enough to offer “benefits” or “entitlements” to those who needed them to survive. These benefits are still controversial today, but they are as old as time itself. The laws surround compensation were much more documented by the Middle Ages (ironically a time when we usually consider nothing to have happened, it was filled with young scribes who copied down many texts on the basis of religion).

Most of the these ancient societies — Byzantine Empire included — would not give a worker any form of compensation if his own negligence was the reason the injury was sustained. This clause of “contributory” negligence was something that has persisted even to this very day.

It should be noted that impairments were not defined in ancient societies, and that they differ from what we traditionally consider a disability. The former means loss of function, while the latter means loss of ability to perform a function — more or less. That made it just as difficult for an Ancient Byzantine citizen to acquire workers compensation as it would be for a worker in the United States today.

Curious how the Byzantine and Roman Empires differ? Check out this video for a few examples.