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.