Quick History: Constantine I – Basiliscus
Just going to state, this was written off the top of my head. I’ve recently been obsessed with Byzantine history thanks in part to Unit 1.1.1 of a history course I’ve been taking. I’ve decided to take the course a little further, so I’m currently trying to memorize the names and stories of all the Byzantine emperors. Yeah, I know. If this is how I react to the first subsection of the first unit, then this course is going to take me forever. I can currently get all the way to Justinian, but here are the stories of Constantine I – Basiliscus. Of course, I’m not an expert in the slightest. Yet, hopefully.
Constantine, the son of Augustus Constantinius Chlorus and Helena, was proclaimed the Augustus of the Western Roman Empire upon the death of his father on July 25th, 306 CE. He became the sole ruler of the empire after the Battle of Milvian Bridge in 312 and the defeat of Licinius in 324, after which he re-United the Empire under his reign. Building Constantinople, “Constantine’s City” or “New Rome”, he created the new capital of the empire. He would go on to revolutionize and reform coinage, with his reign introducing a new “form” of gold called solidus. He played a crucial role in the Christianization of the Roman World, getting baptized on his deathbed and leaving the standards for future emperors.
After the death of Constantine in 337, the empire was fractured into thirds after he left it to his three sons. Constantinius II controlled the eastern third, and he gained the central third after his brother Constans I was assassinated in around 353. He was incredibly controversial with religion, accepting Arianism instead of Orthodox Christianity, and he oversaw the creation of the original Hagia Sophia. He promoted Julian, a very well-advanced soldier, as general of the army who began to rise against his regime, and died on his way to meet him.
Julian, the cousin of Constantius II, took control of the empire after his own army in Gaul elected him. He would declared war against Sassanid Persia, where he would be killed on one of his first campaigns. He would be the last non-Christian ruler of the Byzantine Empire.
After Julian’s death, the empire’s military elected Jovian, a high ranked military official, to become the next emperor. Seeking peace with the Persians, he was humiliated in the peace treaty and would become somewhat of a disgrace to his own people. He re-established Christianity as the state church and threatened Arianists. He rushed to Constantinople to assert his power, despite his unpopularity, but was found dead in his tent halfway between Ancyra and Nicaea. Historians believe he either died from mushrooms or carbon monoxide poisoning.
An officer under Julian and Jovian, Valentinian I was elected by the army to become emperor after Jovian’s death. He quickly appointed his younger brother Valens as Emperor of the East and took control of the West for himself. He successfully fought wars and conducted campaigns against the Alamanni, the Quadi, and the Sarmatians. He also conducted campaigns across both the Rhine and the Danube rivers, creating success for the empire on both fronts. He himself declared Christianity as his personal religion, but permitted religious freedom to his subjects, allowing any religion to be practiced. He would die only a year into his reign due to a cerebral hemorrhage and his brother Valens inherited the western half of the empire.
Valens was immediately shattered with several problems. The 365 CE undersea earthquake (a record magnitude 8-9 at the time) caused a tsunami to crash against the eastern coast of the empire. He simultaneously had to deal with the Revolt of Procopius. After hearing the neighboring Goths supported Procopius, he declared war and cut off all relations with them. This lack of support would later come back to haunt him at the Battle of Adrianople, where he would be killed in 378 CE.
Valen’s brother Gratian would inherit the empire. He felt uncomfortable controlling both the East and the West, fearing revolution. He immediately promoted Theodosius I to govern the eastern portion of the empire. He would later be assassinated in 383.
Theodosius I, an aristocrat and successful militia general, controlled the eastern portion until Gratian’s death in 383, when he took control of both halves of the empire. Fighting in two destructive civil wars, he became the last emperor to control both halves. He banned the Olympics in 392, fearing Pagan uprisings. The next Olympic Games would be held in 1896. Over 1500 years went by before the next Olympic games would be held. He died suffering from disease in 395.
Theodosius I’s eldest son Arcadius inherited the east, and Theodosius I’s youngest son Honorius inherited the west. An incredibly weak ruler, Arcadius left his empires regime to his ministers and wife. He allowed the empire to be permanently divided.
After Arcadius’s death in around 408, his seven year old son Theodosius II inherited the empire. He had already been co-emperor since the age of five, making him the youngest in history to have the title. Theodosius’s older sister Pulcheria, age 15, would do most of the work for him as regent. As a young man, Theodosius began revolutionizing the empire itself. He declared religious war against Sassanid Persia, created new laws, and constructed the Theodosian Walls of Constantinople to protect the capital.
Theodosius II, unfortunately, would die in a riding accident in 450 CE. Pulcheria inherited the empire. However, fearing her people would want a king and not a queen, she quickly married the general Marcian despite making vows to remain a Virgin. She would die three years afterwards, being declared a saint by the Church.
Marcian refused to deal with Atilla the Hun, who was used to Theodosius II’s reign and policies. However, knowing he could never take Constantinople, Atilla took his revenge out on the western empire. Reforming finances, Marcius ignored the western empire completely, leaving it to whither. He died in 457 to gangrene, which he got on his trip to visit the Church.
Leo the Thracian was announced the new emperor after the death of Marcian by Aspar, the general of the military. Aspar believed Leo would be an easy puppet ruler. However, Leo refused to listen to Aspar and had him assassinated after becoming independent. Leo proved to be a damn good leader, with political and military triumph across the former western territories. He died somewhat unpopular, however, after he abolished any non-religious events that took place on Sundays. He would die of what we believe to be dysentery.
Here’s where things start to sound Shakespeare-y.
Leo the Thracian left his empire to his seven year old grandson Leo II, who was poisoned ten months into his reign by his own mother Ariandne (the daughter of Leo the Thracian) who wanted her husband Zeno to have the thrown. His grandmother Verina (the wife of Leo the Thracian) would later hear of this and used it to conspire against Zeno (her son in law).
Sure enough Zeno took the thrown shortly afterwards, becoming the 15th emperor. He immediately inherited the religious and domestic revolutions sprouting all across the empire. He fled from Constantinople after his mother in law Verina “warned” him he was going to be killed.
Basiliscus, a disgraced but rather competent military general, exploited Zeno’s unpopularity to place himself on the thrown after Zeno fled. He was most known for having the empires entire navy sink at Carthage after his disaster of an attack against Vandal Africa. He tried to fix the empire, but was forced to raise taxes and extort money from the church to replenish the imperial treasury. He also had to deal with a major fire that occurred immediately after he was crowned empire, one that destroyed half the churches in the city and destroyed the great university 3rd emperor Julian had built. He was seen as a bad omen. He had his Isaurian generals sent out to find and kill Zeno, but somewhere along the line he angered them. His generals returned with Zeno on Zeno’s side, marching into the city and capturing Bascilicus. Zeno re-abdicated the thrown. Basiliscus (along with his wife and son) were enclosed in a dry cistern, left to die from exposure.
Zeno would later watch as the western empire completely collapsed. He would have to deal with hundreds of more revolutions, but managed to rule the empire from 476 – 491 after the 20 month reign of Bascilisus. He died on April 9th, 491 of either dysentery or epilepsy. Two ancient accounts, however, say that they knew he was drunk at the time of his death. They claim that his wife had him buried alive, where he began screaming for help. His wife, according to this popular rumor, refused to let anyone open the sarcophagus.