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Emperor Zeno › Who Was

Definition and Origins

by Michael Goodyear
published on 18 June 2018
Emperor Zeno (by The Trustees of the British Museum)

Zeno was Byzantine emperor from 474 until 491 CE. An ethnic Isaurian, Zeno was repeatedly criticized as an outsider during his reign, which was full of rebellions and attacks by the Ostrogoths. He is best known for his failed attempt to compromise between Chalcedonian Christians and the Monophysite Christians, the Henotikon, which led to the Acacian Schism with Rome, and for sending Theodoric the Great to conquer Italy.


Zeno came from Isauria in what is today southern Turkey. His birth name was Tarasicodissa Rousoumbladotes, but he later changed it to Zeno to seem more Hellenized and to honor a general of the same name, also of Isaurian descent, who had served under Theodosius II (r. 408-450 CE). Zeno grew up to be a leading Isaurian chieftain, and he eventually attracted the attention of Leo I (r. 457-474 CE) when he reported a treacherous plot between the Persians and Ardaburius, the son of Aspar, a Germanic warlord who had made Leo emperor and wielded immense power in the Byzantine Empire. Leo appointed Zeno Count of the Domestics to reward him for his loyalty, and his influence only rose from there. Especially helpful for Leo was the fact that Isauria, Zeno's homeland, was a mountainous country and bred tough men, ideal soldiers for Leo to counter the influence of Aspar.

Leo I

Leo I

Zeno continued to rise in influence, becoming consul and master of soldiers for Thrace. Zeno then married Ariadne, the daughter of Leo I. The mere fact that the emperor would marry his daughter to an Isaurian shows the amount of support and value Leo placed on Isaurian power, and, more specifically, Zeno. Roman and Byzantine emperors rarely married their children to foreign peoples, especially before the 12th century. In all cases where such marriages did occur, there was a significant benefit for the emperor. Most often the benefit was strategic or military-based.
Under pressure from Aspar, Leo also had to marry his other daughter, Leontia, to Aspar's younger son, Patricius. But Leo bided his time, appointed Zeno master of the soldiers for the East, and let popular hatred against Aspar rise. With the help of the Isaurian troops and Zeno, Leo had Aspar killed and greatly reduced Germanic influence in the Byzantine Empire.


Leo II (r. 474 CE), the half-Isaurian grandson of Leo I by Zeno and Ariadne, became emperor after Leo I's death. It is unclear whether this decision was dictated by deference to dynastic principles or lack of support for Zeno being crowned emperor.Irrespective of Leo I's reasons for crowning his seven-year-old grandson rather than his mature son-in-law, Zeno soon took power anyway. The Senate in Constantinople appointed Zeno as emperor along with his son, due to his son's young age and obvious inability to govern. Zeno then succeeded Leo as sole emperor when he died a few months later.
Zeno was not secure on the Byzantine throne for long. His mother-in-law, Leo I's widow Verina, and her brother Basiliscus joined together with a disgruntled Isaurian general named Illus to plot against Zeno. Zeno heard of the plot and fled to his homeland, leaving Constantinople to Basiliscus in early 475 CE. Basiliscus turned out to be a terrible emperor and a Monophysite, a religious doctrine declared heretical. He allied himself with Theodoric Strabo, the chieftain of the Ostrogoths, and let Germanic influence grow once again. Zeno convinced Illus to switch sides after Basiliscus massacred Isaurians in Constantinople, and the people turned against Basiliscus. When Zeno marched on Constantinople in 476 CE, he was practically unopposed and reclaimed the throne from which he had never quite been deposed. He then let Basiliscus starve to death and removed Strabo from office, reducing Ostrogothic influence at court.


Zeno became Byzantine emperor only two decades after the Fourth Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon, which split the orthodox Christians who followed the Council of Chalcedon's ruling on Christ's nature and the Monophysites who thought differently. The Council of Chalcedon decided that Christ had two distinct natures and wills, one human and one divine, perfectly united in hypostasis with neither being superior or inferior. This decision provoked much resentment in the eastern provinces of the Byzantine Empire, where many locals believed in the Christological position of Monophysitism. Monophysites believed that Christ has one nature in which divinity and humanity are perfectly united.

Byzantine Ivory Panel Depicting the Adoration of the Magi

Byzantine Ivory Panel Depicting the Adoration of the Magi

To heal this rift, Zeno encouraged Acacius, the Patriarch of Constantinople, to release the Henotikon in 482 CE. It was an attempted compromise that would have united the Chalcedonian orthodox and the dissenting Monophysites. The Henotikonaffirmed several of the rulings of the Council of Chalcedon, including the condemnation of Nestorius and Eutyches and the affirmation of the Twelve Anathemas of Cyril. However, it avoided the most important Christological issue of the day: whether Christ had one or two natures. Although the Henotikon provided a basic definition of Christ's nature, it did not offer a firm stance on either side of the issue. Although there was some initial support, at least in Alexandria, Egypt, this evasive definition ultimately pleased neither side, and the definition was deemed inadequate.
Pope Felix III (483-492 CE) condemned the Henotikon and deposed Acacius, the Patriarch of Constantinople. The resulting Acacian Schism split the churches for the next three decades until the reign of Justin I (r. 518-527 CE).


We suffer from a lack of primary sources during Zeno's reign, but we can still gain a partial impression of the emperor. The 6th-century CE churchman Evagrius considered Zeno a coward who was overly interested in pleasure and debauchery. However, the Life of Daniel the Stylite, a biography of the contemporary saint, described Zeno as a pious and successful ruler. Looking at both of these sources provides a mixed view of Zeno, one that shows that Zeno's reign was certainly controversial and he was not a popular emperor.
A notable example is the Henotikon, which Zeno promulgated to end a controversy but became one itself. Zeno had a tortured relationship with Verina, his mother-in-law and widow of Leo I, and both carried out vicious plots against the other. His many plots illustrated a penchant for avarice and deceit. Zeno was also from the foreign, semi-barbarian Isaurians, arousing apprehension in the general Byzantine populace. The fragments of other remaining contemporary sources that exist today, such as the extremely anti-Zeno Malchus and the Isaurian pro-Zeno Candidus only exacerbate this view of Zeno as a controversial emperor. At the very least, Zeno was a survivor, managing to cling to power despite a slew of rebellions.


Perhaps the largest event of Zeno's reign was completely out of his control: the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 CE, which happened just a month after Zeno regained the throne from Basiliscus. The Germanic warlord Odoacer deposed the last Western Roman emperor, Romulus Augustulus (r. 475-476 CE), and sent the imperial regalia to Zeno in Constantinople with an offer to be Zeno's representative in Italy. Zeno was faced with offers from Odoacer and a deposed Western Roman emperor, Julius Nepos (r. 474-475 CE), requesting Zeno's recognition. Zeno asked Odoacer to recognize Nepos in Italy, but Zeno really took no action in Italy, allowing Odoacer de facto recognition as ruler of Italy.
Many barbarians led incursions into the Byzantine Empire during Zeno's reign, and their success increased through Zeno's impotence. Zeno's Isaurian troops had broken the power of Aspar during the reign of Leo I, but the Ostrogoths under Theodoric Strabo were a serious threat to the Balkans. Zeno supported a rival Ostrogothic chieftain, Theodoric the Amal, later known as “the Great.” Theodoric's Ostrogoths lived in the core Byzantine lands of Macedonia, but Zeno convinced them to move further north into Moesia and further away from Constantinople. However, over the course of Zeno's reign, his relations with the two Theodorics constantly shifted, and he played the risky game of playing the two against each other.
The general theme of Zeno's reign was unrest, both through barbarian incursions and internal rebellions. There was an internal rebellion by Marcian, grandson and namesake of Leo I's predecessor, Marcian (r. 450-457 CE) and son of the Western Roman emperor Anthemius (r. 467-472 CE), against Zeno in 479 CE. Marcian was defeated, but then Theodoric Strabo marched on Constantinople itself and was only foiled by the quick action of Illus manning the walls. In his retreat, Theodoric Strabo was mortally wounded after he was thrown onto a spear by his horse.
Zeno could no longer play the Ostrogoths against each other now that Theodoric Strabo was dead. After Strabo's death, Theodoric united both bands of Ostrogoths and ravaged the Balkans yet again, but Zeno successfully managed to use the Ostrogoths for his own ends. Zeno appointed Theodoric as master of the soldiers in the Emperor's presence once again and even appointing him consul for 484 CE.
The second most important rebellion of Zeno's reign, after that of Basiliscus, was a rebellion by Illus. Ariadne, Zeno's wife, despised Illus and tried to have him killed before Zeno reassigned him as master of the soldiers for the East. Zeno's relationship with Illus was a rocky one, but Illus had been invaluable in supporting Zeno against the previous rebellions by Basiliscus and Marcian. However, Ariadne's, and later Zeno's plots against Illus drove him into rebellion around 484 CE.Taking advantage of Zeno's unpopularity stemming from the Henotikon, Illus revolted in Asia Minor. He had Verina, who was his captive in Isauria, proclaim the Isaurian general Leontius as emperor. Zeno had his general John the Scythian lead a combined Byzantine- Ostrogoth force, with Theodoric's support, against Illus and Leontius, which crushed them.
Illus had also received some support from Odoacer, who annexed Dalmatia after the death of Julius Nepos, the ex-Western Roman emperor. Meanwhile, Theodoric was an erstwhile and dangerous ally for Zeno in the Balkans. To get rid of two birds with one stone, Zeno had the daring idea of sending Theodoric to Italy and allowing him to rule in Zeno's name. After all, Zeno had never officially recognized Odoacer, the conqueror of Romulus Augustulus, the last Western Roman emperor. Theodoric marched into Italy in 488 CE, fought with Odoacer's forces until 493 CE, and agreed on co-rulership of Italy only to kill Odoacer at a dinner shortly thereafter. Theodoric then claimed Italy as a representative of the Byzantine Empire, at least originally. In time these conquests, potentially initiated on the orders of Zeno, developed into the powerful Ostrogoth Kingdom and Theodoric is remembered by history as Theodoric the Great, one of the greatest barbarian kings.


When Zeno's son, Zeno the Younger, died in 491 CE, the future of the throne was thrown into uncertainty. Zeno himself died shortly thereafter. Meanwhile, other sections of Byzantine society viewed and resented the Isaurians as distinct. The Isaurian sense of privilege during and after Zeno's reign follows the same trend as that of northern barbarian elements during the apogee of Aspar's power and influence. Ariadne married an imperial chamberlain, Anastasius I, who came from Greek -speaking Dyrrhachium. A general impression of the Isaurian era is that the Roman people had suffered under the rule of Zeno and the influence of the Isaurians, since the decapitated heads of Isaurians after their revolt against Anastasius I (r. 491-518 CE) were seen as “a pleasing sight for the Byzantines in return for the troubles they had suffered from Zeno and the Isaurians" (Evagrius Scholasticus, 180). Yet at the very least Zeno had cleared the Balkans of the Germanic tribes, which would be crucial for establishing peace in that region during the reigns of his successors.

Black Death › Antique Origins

Definition and Origins

by Mark Cartwright
published on 20 June 2018
The Plague by Arnold Bocklin (by Arnold Böcklin)

The Black Death was a plague pandemic which devastated Europe from 1347 to 1352 CE, killing an estimated 25-30 million people. The disease, carried by fleas on rodents, originated in central Asia and was taken from there to the Crimea by Mongol warriors and traders. The plague entered Europe via Italy, carried by rats on Genoese trading ships sailing from the Black Sea. With up to two-thirds of sufferers dying from the disease, it is estimated that between 30% and 50% of the population of those places affected died from the Black Death. The death toll was so high that it had significant consequences on European medieval society as a whole, with a shortage of farmers resulting in demands for an end to serfdom, a general questioning of authority and rebellions, and the entire abandonment of many towns and villages. It would take 200 years for the population of Europe to recover to the level seen prior to the Black Death.


The plague is a disease caused by a bacillus bacteria which is carried and spread by parasitic fleas on rodents, notably the brown rat. There are three types of plague, and all three were likely present in the Black Death pandemic. Bubonic plague, the most common during the 14th century CE outbreak, causes severe swelling in the groin and armpits (the lymph nodes) which take on a sickening black colour, hence the name the Black Death. The black sores which can cover the body in general, caused by internal haemorrhages, were known as buboes, from which bubonic plague takes its name. Other symptoms are a raging fever and joint pains. If untreated, bubonic plague is fatal in between 30 and 75% of infections, often within 72 hours.The other two types of plague - pneumonic (or pulmonary) and septicaemic - are usually fatal in all cases.
The terrible symptoms of the disease were described by writers of the time, notably by the Italian writer Boccaccio in the preface to his 1358 CE Decameron. One writer, the Welsh poet Ieuan Gethin made perhaps the best attempt at describing the black sores which he saw first-hand in 1349 CE:
We see death coming into our midst like black smoke, a plague which cuts off the young, a rootless phantom which has no mercy for fair countenance. Woe is me of the shilling of the armpit…It is of the form of an apple, like the head of an onion, a small boil that spares no-one. Great is its seething, like a burning cinder, a grievous thing of ashy colour…They are similar to the seeds of the black peas, broken fragments of brittle sea-coal…cinders of the peelings of the cockle weed, a mixed multitude, a black plague like half pence, like berries…(Davies, 411).


The 14th-century CE in Europe had already proven to be something of a disaster even before the Black Death arrived. An earlier plague had hit livestock, and there had been crop failures from overexploitation of the land, which led to two major Europe-wide famines in 1316 CE and 1317 CE. There was, too, the turbulence of wars, especially the Hundred Years War(1337-1453 CE) between England and France. Even the weather was getting worse as the unusually temperate cycle of 1000-1300 CE now gave way to the beginnings of a “little ice age ” where winters were steadily colder and longer, reducing the growing season and, consequently, the harvest.

Spread of the Black Death

Spread of the Black Death

A devastating plague affecting humans was not a new phenomenon, with a serious outbreak having occurred in the mid-5th century CE which ravaged the Mediterranean area and Constantinople, in particular. The Black Death of 1347 CE entered Europe, probably via Sicily, when it was carried there by four Genoese rat-infested grain ships sailing from Caffa, on the Black Sea. The port city had been under siege by Tartar-Mongolians who had catapulted infected corpses into the city, and it was there the Italians had picked up the plague. Another origin was Mongolian traders using the Silk Road who had brought the disease from its source in central Asia, with China specifically being identified following genetic studies in 2011 CE (although South East Asia has been proposed as an alternative source and actual historical evidence of an epidemic caused by plague in China during the 14th century CE is weak). From Sicily, it was but a short step to the Italian mainland, although one of the ships from Caffa had reached Genoa, been refused entry, and docked in Marseilles, and then Valencia. Thus, by the end of 1349 CE, the disease had been carried along trade routes into France, Spain, Britain, and Ireland, which all witnessed its awful effects. Spreading like wildfire, it hit Germany, Scandinavia, the Baltic states, and Russia through 1350-1352 CE.
Medieval doctors had no idea about such microscopic organisms as bacteria, and so they were helpless in terms of treatment, and where they might have had the best chance of helping people, in prevention, they were hampered by the level of sanitation which was appalling compared to modern standards. Another helpful strategy would have been to quarantine areas but, as people fled in panic whenever a case of plague broke out, they unknowingly carried the disease with them and spread it even further afield; the rats did the rest.
There were so many deaths and so many bodies that the authorities did not know what to do with them, and carts piled high with corpses became a common sight across Europe. It seemed the only course of action was to stay put, avoid people, and pray. The disease finally ran its course by 1352 CE but would recur again, in less severe outbreaks, throughout the rest of the medieval period.


Although it spread unchecked, the Black Death hit some areas much more severely than others. This fact, and the often exaggerated death tolls of medieval (and some modern) writers, means that is extremely difficult to accurately assess the total death toll. Sometimes entire cities, for example, Milan, managed to avoid significant effects, while others, such as Florence, were devastated - the Italian city losing 50,000 of its 85,000 population (Boccaccio claimed the impossible figure of 100,000).Paris was said to have buried 800 dead each day at its peak, but other places somehow missed the carnage. On average 30% of the population of affected areas was killed, although some historians prefer a figure closer to 50%, and this was probably the case in the worst affected cities. Figures for the death toll thus range from 25 to 30 million in Europe between 1347 and 1352 CE. The population of Europe would not return to pre-1347 CE levels until around 1550 CE.

Tournai Citizens Burying the Dead during the Black Death

Tournai Citizens Burying the Dead during the Black Death


The consequences of such a large number of deaths were severe, and in many places, the social structure of society broke down. Many smaller urban areas hit by the plague were abandoned by their residents who sought safety in the countryside.Traditional authority - both governmental and from the church - was questioned for how could such disasters befall a people?Were not governors and God in some way responsible? Where did this disaster come from and why was it so indiscriminate?At the same time, personal piety increased and charitable organisations flourished.
The Black Death, as its name suggests, was given a personification for people to help understand what was happening to them, usually being depicted in art as the Grim Reaper, a skeleton on horseback whose scythe indiscriminately cut down people in their prime. Many people were simply bewildered by the disaster. Some thought it a supernatural phenomenon, perhaps connected to the comet sighting of 1345 CE. Others blamed sinners, notably the Flagellants of the Rhineland who paraded through the streets whipping themselves and calling for sinners to repent so that God might lift this terrible punishment. Many thought it an unexplainable trick of the Devil. Still others blamed traditional enemies, and age-old prejudices were fed leading to attacks on, and even massacres of, specific groups, notably the Jews, thousands of whom fled to Poland.
Even when the crisis had passed, there were now practical problems to be faced. With not enough workers to meet needs, salaries and prices soared. The necessity of farming to feed people would prove a serious challenge, as would the huge fall in demand for manufactured goods as there were simply far fewer people to buy them. In agriculture specifically, those who could work were in a position to ask for wages, and the institution of serfdom where a labourer paid rent and homage to a landlord and never moved on was doomed. A more flexible, more mobile, and more independent workforce was born. Social unrest followed, and often outright rebellions broke out when the aristocracy tried to fight these new demands. Notable riots were those in Paris in 1358 CE, Florence in 1378 CE, and London in 1381 CE. The peasants did not get all they wanted by any means, and a call for lower taxes was a significant fail, but the old system of feudalism was gone.
After the major famines in 1358 and 1359 CE and the occasional resurgence, albeit less severe, of the plague in 1362-3 CE, and again in 1369, 1374 and 1390 CE, daily life for most people did gradually improve by the end of the 1300s CE. The general welfare and prosperity of the peasantry also progressed as a reduced population reduced the competition for land and resources. Land-owning aristocrats, too, were not slow to pick up the unclaimed lands of those who had perished, and even upwardly mobile peasants could consider increasing their landholdings. Women, in particular, gained some rights of property ownership they had not had before the plague. Laws varied depending on the region but, in some parts of England, for example, those women who had lost husbands were permitted to keep his land for a certain period until they remarried or, in other, more generous jurisdictions, if they did remarry then they did not lose their late husband's property, as had been the case previously. While none of these social changes can be directly linked to the Black Death itself, and indeed some were already underway even before the plague had arrived, the shock wave the Black Death dealt to European society was certainly a contributing and accelerating factor in the changes that occurred in society as the Middle Ages came to a close.


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