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.