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Who was Emperor Zeno?

Who was Emperor Zeno?

Zeno was the Eastern Roman Emperor from 474 to 475 and again from 476 until 491. 

Born in Tarasis, Isauria (Asia Minor) in around 425 and originally known as Tarasikodissa. His father was called Kodisa and his mother was called Lallis. His father had a first wife, Arcadia, who had an aristocratic lineage. 

Tarasikodissa assumed the name ‘Zeno’ when he married Ariadne, the daughter of Emperor Leo I, in 466. The following year Zeno and Ariadne had a son, Leo. At this point Zeno became father of the heir apparent in the form of his son, as Emperor Leo I had no surviving sons. 

Emperor Leo I died of dysentery on 18th January 474 at the age of 73. Leo II, Zeno’s son, then ascended the throne as sole ‘Augustus’. However, as he was aged only seven, the Byzantine Senate named Zeno as co-Augustus eleven days later. 

Leo II’s reign was short lived however and he died within the year, leaving Zeno as sole ruler.

Emperor Zeno’s initial actions as ruler saw an ‘eternal peace’ agreed with Genseric, the King of the Vandals. This ended Vandal raids against Byzantine cities and trade routes and also saw the ransoming of prisoner. 

Despite this early success, trouble was brewing on account of Zeno having Isaurian heritage and the weakness of his imperial lineage – his only link being his marriage to Ariadne. Zeno had compounded this by favouring the Isaurian faction in the army. The plot was hatched by Verina, dowager Empress of Leo I, who launched a coup to put her lover Patricius on the throne, with the assistance of her brother Basiliscus. Zeno fled to Isauria on 9th January 475 and holed up in a fortress where he was besieged. However, it wasn’t long before things stated to go awry for the conspirators, as may have been expected. Basiliscus seized the thrown by murdering Patricius, which in turn did little to impress Verina. He then allowed the mob to kill all the Isaurians in Constantinople and appointed his nephew as Magister Militum – both actions which alienated different parts of his power base. Things went from bad to worse for Basiliscus. Zeno has taken all the money when he fled, and so he was obliged to levy high taxes, never a winner amongst the populace. He then alienated the Church by supporting the Monophysites. 

This historical dumpster fire of a reign opened the door to Zeno who, bribing people liberally with the cash he had swiped, marched with an army from Isauria and besieged Constantinople in August 476. The Byzantine Senate opened the gates to Zeno and, as he entered the city, Basiliscus fled to the Hagia Sofia with his family. He later surrendered himself to Zeno having extracted a promise to ‘not shed their blood’. This was not the end of the woes of Basiliscus, who found himself walled up in a dry cistern to die of exposure. 

The chaos of Constantinople was at the time being mirrored by tumult in the Western Empire. At the time there were two rival powers in the West, in the form of Julius Nepos and Chieftain Odoacer. The later had overthrown Romulus Augustus and killed his father who had placed him on the thrown. Nepos had been recognised as co-emperor with Romulus but had been forced into exile in Dalmatia with no army and little other than his name. The Roman Senate, with the agreement of Odoacer, sent an envoy to Zeno to request that the split in the Empire being dissolved and for him to rule as sole Emperor with Odoacer as patricius and Imperial Governor of Italy. Julius Nepos additionally sent an envoy asking for assistance to reclaim his position. Zeno replied to the effect that Odoacer was to be recognised in his position but additionally that Nepos should be recognised in his title but little else. Odoacer played the game effectively and even minted coins in Nepos’ name although he did not permit his return from exile. This seemingly suited all the parties that mattered (i.e. Zeno and Odoacer), especially after Nepos was assassinated in 480. Odoacer, quite properly some would say, invaded Dalmatia to punish the killers of Nepos and as a happy benefit claimed the province whilst at the same time recognising Zeno as sole Emperor. 

The rise of Odoacer, whilst he recognised Zeno as unitary Emperor, effectively marked the end of the Western Empire. Odoacer was effectively King in Italy until the invasion of the province by Theodoric the Great in 489 who defeated and eventually murdered him in 493.

Zeno had his hands full however closer to home to worry too much about the West. He narrowly survived a revolt by his brother in-law Marcian in 479, was compelled to banish the scheming Verina who then (not being one to known when beat) allied herself with Illus in rebellion. 

Illus was a general who had supported Basiliscus but had switched sides to serve Zeno during which he had defeated the revolt of Marcian. Zeno though was jealous of the popularity of Illus and this had caused him to fall under suspicion. Verina was also previously not a fan of Illus and had even, with the connivance of her daughter (wife of Zeno) Ariadne tried to have him assassinated. 

Illus, probably somewhat paranoid at this point, has his position undermined when Zeno sought to replace him as ‘Magister Militum per Orientum’ with another officer named John the Scythian. Illus, seeing the writing on the wall clearly by now then fled to Asia Minor in 483 where he raised the banner of revolt. Perhaps trying to pull the old ‘war on two fronts’ move, Illus enlisted the support of Odoacer who invaded from the West in support. Illus was joined by a well known patrician of Syrian origin and officer in the army named Leontius. Illus declared Leontius as Emperor and went on to defeat an army Zeno had sent to quash his aspirations. Illus then went on to release Verina from her exile and then compelled (it’s unclear whether willing or otherwise) to crown Leontius in her capacity as Dowager Empress. 

This seemingly winning streak was to come to an end however, after Zeno sent a further army to the East under the command of none other than Theodoric the Great (remember him?) and John the Scythian. Illus and Leontius were defeated outside Antioch and subsequently besieged for a further four years in a fortress. The fortress was eventually captured and Illus and Leontius were both beheaded.

Theodoric the Great, leader of the Moesian Ostrogoths, and Zeno had on-off alliance of convenience. Zeno used Theodoric to fight against the forces of the Thracian Ostrogoths under Theodoric Strabo. Strabo had previously rebelled against Zeno and supported Basiliscus and been declared a public enemy. Strabo, with a skill at picking losers, had also supported Marcian and Zeno had ordered Theodoric to march against him, promising a Roman force in support. Theodoric had marched off and found Strabo and his army but no Roman force materialised. What were two Ostrogoths to do? Well they decided, instead of fighting each other, they would send a envoy to Zeno asking for a place for their people to settle instead. Zeno then tried to bribe Theodoric but his didn’t work, however his army had some success and Theodoric moved his forces West unopposed. 

With Theodoric and his Ostrogoths on the move to the West, Zeno then sought to split his enemies by making a deal with Strabo in which he became Magister Militum, received money and the command of two elite units. Zeno, in another twist and seeing Strabo now as a threat (an unreliable Ostrogoth with 30,000 men!) encouraged the Bulgars to attack the Strabo allied Goths.

Strabo, unfortunately for Zeno, defeated the Bulgars in 481. However, he then promptly died in the same year in an accident before he could march against Constantinople. 

Zeno, now faced with the Ostrogoths newly united under Theodoric, switched again and allied with him. Theodoric was made Magister Militum Praesentalis and even Consul in 484. The gothic/byzantine love-in was not to last however and, after Theodoric had defeated Illus and Leontius, he revolted against Zeno.

With Theodoric marching against Constantinople, the wily Zeno bought him off. As part of the peace he suggested that he might want to head to Italy and make a kingdom there.

Theodoric headed West and captured Italy in 493. He killed Odoacer and set up his realm and Zeno got his revenge for his stab in the back during the Illus revolt.

This confusing political and military situation may appear to have been enough for any Emperor to deal with but Zeno did not leave it at that. He also tried his hand at the thorny issue of religion (what could go wrong?) with his Henotikon or Act of Union, issued in 482. The Henotikon sought to lessen the differences between two Christian groups, the Chalcedonian and Miaphysites who had different beliefs concerning the nature of Christ. Essentially the Chalcedonians recognised two natures in Christ, both divine and human whereas the Miaphysites recognise one nature which is fully divine and human. To the modern mind, these differences may seem minor but in the time of Zeno these were serious and sometimes deadly issues. The two positions split the people of the Empire and notably Basiliscus had supported the Miaphysites and their ideas were strong in Asia Minor, Egypt and Syria. In essence the Henotikon brushed over the issue of the singular or otherewise nature of Christ but attempted to please both sides in other areas. This had the predictable impact of pleasing nobody at all and even lead to the condemnation of the act by Pope Felix III in Rome. The attempt to bring the two factions closer was a failure.

Zeno died, aged 61, on 9th April 491 in Constantinople of dysentery or of epilepsy – or even both. Zeno had no surviving sons, both having predeceased him. He was survived by Ariadne, who appointed a court (and personal as he later married her!) favourite, Anastasius as Emperor. This in turn lead to an (unsuccessful) revolt by Zeno’s brother Longinus which became known as The Isaurian War.      


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