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Justinian II, The Byzantine Emperor Who Had His Nose Cut Off

Justinian II byzantine emperor nose
A Medieval manuscript depicting the mutilation of Byzantine Emperor Justinian II, who had his nose cut off. Credit: Public Domain

Justinian II is remembered for his brutality as the last Byzantine emperor in the Heraclian dynasty. His reign of terror inspired a popular uprising to his rule, which resulted in his nose being forcefully cut off; he later replaced it with a gold prosthetic.

Justinian II, the son of Contantine IV, was known as a brutal and oppressive leader, who sought to restore the Roman Empire to its former glory but did so in a way that involved crushing his enemies without mercy.

The oldest son of Constantine IV and his wife Anastasia, he assumed the role of Emperor in the year 685, when he was just 16 years of age.

Byzantine Emperor Justinian II known for brutality

His father’s successful reign and many victories set Justinian II up for success, particularly in the Eastern provinces of the Empire. Justinian, in addition to striking against Arab rulers and acquiring higher rates of annual tribute, also managed to negotiate a treaty with the Caliph Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan to make the island of Cyprus, control of which was previously split between the Arab rulers and the Byzantines, neutral ground.

He also regained control of much of the Balkans, which previously had been ruled by Slavic tribes. He also captured the city of Thessaloniki from the Bulgars in 688-689.

Justinian was able to subdue the Slavic tribes and use them as a strong military force numbering 30,000. The emperor then decided to employ his newly-acquired forces in a series of battles against Arab leaders. Although he has some successes, Justinian II was defeated at the Battle of Sebastopolis after much of his Slavic army defected.

Enraged at the defectors, he set out on a mission to slaughter as many Slavs as he could, indiscriminately.

He also persecuted religious minorities, particularly Manichaeans, and even Christians whose beliefs were not Chalcedonian in origin.

Despite his brutality, Justinian II did try to protect the rights of peasants, who made up the largest number of potential recruits for military campaigns. He resisted attempts by aristocrats to usurp the land of peasants, which made him unpopular with the aristocracy.

He also soon fell out of favor with peasants, who, despite his previous support, were against his tax plans. The emperor used taxes to cater to his luxurious tastes and to create large, monumental buildings.

With neither the peasants nor the aristocracy on his side, Justinian II was in danger of losing power.

His religious persecution and brutality also provoked the public uprising amongst his people, who deposed him in 695, and announced that Leontios, the Strategos of Hellas, would be the new emperor. In order to ensure that Justinian II never again reach the throne, the angry mob cut off his nose, which was a very common form of mutilation during the Byzantine Era.

The former cruel tyrant was then exiled to the Crimea. Leontios held the throne for just three years, however, before he himself was dethroned by Tiberius Apsimarus, who took power.

Justinian II has nose cut off, is exiled, but doesn’t give up

Due to his disfigurement, Justinian II became known as “Rhinotmetos,” or “the slit-nosed.” While in exile, he had a gold replica of his nose created, and he wore the prosthetic for the rest of his life.

While in the Crimea, Justinian II began to develop a plan to regain the throne. He began to gather enough supporters that he soon became a threat to the Emperor. Authorities were set to arrest the exiled emperor to bring him to Constantinople in 702, but he managed to escape and sought out refuge provided by Busir, the khagan of the Khazars, a semi-nomadic Turkic people.

Busir gave Justinian II land near the Sea of Azov, which is located north of the Black Sea. He also offered his sister as a bride to the exiled emperor, who renamed her Theodora, after the wife of Justinian I.

Tiberius Apsimarus, aware of the deposed Emperor’s location, worked out a deal with Busir to have Justinian killed.

Busir sent two of his men to his brother-in-law’s home to carry out the deed. But Theodora, his sister, warned her husband of the plot, and Justinian II was prepared when the men entered his home. According to historical sources, he strangled them both to death with his own hands.

The couple then made a daring escape, returning back to the Crimea, where Justinian gathered his supporters and began to sail across the Black Sea.

During their journey, the crew faced a powerful storm. One of Justinian’s supporters called out to the exiled emperor and stated that if he promised God that he would not take revenge on those who wronged him and spare them all, the ship and all aboard would survive the storm.

Justinian, who had always been known for his brutality, didn’t depart from his old ways, stating, “If I spare a single one of them, may God drown me here.”

Despite this, the ship made it through the storm, and Justinian approached Tervel of Bulgaria for support in his mission to regain control of the empire. He offered the hand of his daughter, Anastasia, in marriage, as well as Caesar’s crown. Tervel accepted.

Justinian II rode to the walls of Constantinople in 705, accompanied by an army of 15,000 Bulgar and Slav horsemen.

He and his forces waited outside of the city’s gates for three days, hoping the citizens would let them in willingly. When they realized that the plan was futile, they snuck through a water conduit under the walls of the city in the dead of night and took control of Constantinople.

Justinian II then became emperor for the second time, and broke the rule that had stated that those who had been mutilated could not take the throne.

Drunk on power, the emperor found his rivals, Leontius and Tiberius, and brought them to the Hippodrome before a massive crowd.

Byzantine emperor faces second popular uprising

The emperor, with his gold prosthetic nose shining in the sun, then placed his foot on the necks of his enemies, and declared that they be beheaded. He also had other political rivals and supporters of his enemies put to death.

Although his first rule had moments of brutality, Justinian also achieved many important military successes. His second rule, however, was marked by defeat, particularly in Bulgaria and against the Caliphate.

He betrayed Tervel just three years after the Bulgarian leader had provided him support and troops in 705. Justinian invaded Bulgaria and tried to take take the territory he had offered Tervel in exchange for his support, but he was defeated.

Once again, Justinian faced a popular revolution against him in 711, when rebels from Crimea launched a rebellion against the ruler. The forces sent to quash the rebellion later actually joined it, spelling major trouble for Justinian, who was on a trip to Armenia at the time.

The forces stormed Constantinople, and Justinian, who was traveling, was unable to defend it. He was later arrested and executed.

After his execution, Justinian’s mother took his son, who was just six, to a church for sanctuary, but supporters of Philippicus, the man who took the throne after the rebellion, dragged the child from the church and murdered him, which thereby ended the line of Heraclius.

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