There are very few figures in history like the Eastern Roman emperor Zeno (r. 474-491), an emperor who was seen as an outsider by his people, had the rare occasion of succeeding his son as a ruler, was overthrown in the middle of his reign, witnessed the Fall of the Western Roman Empire, and faced a large number of internal and external threats to his rule. In the end, he managed to survive all the political turmoil, use diplomacy at times to save his position, and die peacefully. No matter how eventful and complex the reign of Zeno was, he is still not a very well-remembered historical figure, even in Byzantine history as compared to the emperor Justinian I the Great (r. 527-565). Little is known of the influence the rule of Zeno played in contributing to the golden age the Byzantine Empire had under Justinian in the 6th century.
Ever since the final division of the Roman Empire in 395, which created two separate Roman Empires: the Eastern Roman Empire based in Constantinople and the Western Roman Empire based in Ravenna, the west would gradually lose control of their provinces across Western Europe and North Africa to barbarian invasions leading to the creation of new barbarian kingdoms while the east would basically remain intact. The Eastern and Western Roman Empires were plagued by the heavy influence of Germanic barbarians in the army, wherein the Roman emperor both in the east and west were generally mere puppets to powerful generals of Germanic descent. For instance, in the Eastern Roman Empire, its emperor Leo I came to power in 457 as a result of being chosen as a puppet by the powerful Germanic General Aspar.
Emperor Leo soon came to realize he did not want to be a puppet to a barbarian. Aspar held a significant amount power, making it impossible to remove him. Thus, to find a way to balance the power of the Germanic elements in the army, Leo decided to recruit a new contingent into the army, and these were the Isaurians, a fierce people from the mountains of Southern Asia Minor (today’s Turkey). Now the Isaurian people, despite being Roman citizens for centuries living within Roman borders and Chalcedonian (Orthodox) Christians as well, were still seen as “internal barbarians” by the more civilized Greek and Latin speaking people of the empire, especially in the capital Constantinople. The Isaurians did not speak Greek or Latin and were still living in tribal societies.
The leader of these Isaurian tribesmen recruited by Emperor Leo I was a man named Tarasikodissa which in his native Isaurian language meant “Tarasis, son of Kodisa”. Born in Isauria around 425, events of his early life remain unclear and only in 464 is he first mentioned, most possibly when he arrived in Constantinople to be recruited. To appear more acceptable to the more educated Greek and Latin speaking people of Constantinople, Tarasis changed his name to the Greek “Zeno”, and after proving to be a loyal ally to Leo, Zeno, in around 466, was married to Leo’s daughter Ariadne. In the following year their son, also named Leo, was born. In very little time, Zeno rapidly rose up in the ranks of the army becoming the “Master of Soldiers” and assigned to different parts of the Eastern empire, including Thrace and Antioch.
However, back in the capital, the influence of Aspar over Leo I remained strong. In 471, after a conspiracy hatched by Leo I and his loyal Isaurian troops, Aspar together with his son were murdered, thus putting an end to Germanic influence in the Eastern Roman army. Zeno also may have been involved in the plot to kill Aspar, as he together with another general, being Leo I’s brother-in-law Basiliscus, were heading towards Constantinople. Whether Zeno was involved in the murder or not, he still took over Aspar’s position of Magister Militum Praesentalis.
Leo I would not have much longer to live, and in early 474, he died at age 73, having already appointed his grandson, Zeno and Ariadne’s son Leo II as his co-emperor before his death, thus the 7-year-old Leo II succeeded his grandfather. Being a minor, Leo II could not fulfill his duties as emperor, which thus led to his father Zeno being made his co-emperor and the one basically in charge. However, Leo II died before the year 474 ended, possibly from an outbreak of an epidemic in Constantinople, leading to Zeno becoming the sole emperor succeeding his son.
Zeno’s first act was to settle peace with the Vandal Kingdom in North Africa which was successful. Despite his triumph, Zeno remained highly unpopular from the moment he became sole emperor, mostly due to his Isaurian origins. Thus, a plot was already hatched to overthrow him led by Zeno’s mother-in-law Verina, who was not content with being only a widow, along with her lover Patricius, her brother Basiliscus, and the Germanic Ostrogoth mercenary general Theodoric Strabo. Zeno had already been informed of the plot directed against him when the riots began, leading him to flee Constantinople for his homeland of Isauria in the middle of the night early in 475, together with his wife Ariadne, a number of his Isaurian troops, and the imperial treasury.
Though the plot was successful, Verina did not fulfill her wish in having her lover Patricius made emperor. Instead, her brother Basiliscus took the throne and had Patricius executed, though as emperor Basiliscus would soon not only be unpopular but highly incompetent. Basiliscus drastically lost public support for many reasons, including the heavy taxes he imposed on the people due to Zeno fleeing with the treasury, the outbreak of a large fire in Constantinople, and for supporting the branch of Christianity known as the Monophysites which was declared heretical in 451.
In the meantime, Zeno’s fellow Isaurian general Illus, who supported Basiliscus, was ordered to hunt down Zeno in Isauria. However, with Basiliscus losing his popularity, Illus switched sides to Zeno as both were Isaurians after all, and together they marched back to Constantinople. The people of Constantinople decided to switch their support back to Zeno. Despite the fact Zeno remained unpopular with the people, they preferred him over Basiliscus, and when Zeno and his men arrived at Constantinople’s gates in August of 476, the senate opened it for him thus allowing Zeno to return to the throne. Basiliscus, after being found seeking refuge in a church was, together with his wife and son, banished by Zeno to a fortress in the region of Cappadocia in Asia Minor where they died in the following year possibly from starvation.
Following Zeno’s return to power, a more pivotal event happened: the dissolution of the Western Roman Empire. The emperor there, Romulus Augustus, had come to power the previous year as his father General Orestes’ puppet. In September of 476, Romulus was overthrown by his rebellious barbarian general Odoacer, who after defeating and killing Orestes, marched to the west’s capital Ravenna and forced the young Romulus to surrender. Odoacer refused to rule as “emperor”, seeing the position now as unnecessary as the Western empire had already lost a significant amount of territory. Instead, Odoacer chose to simply be “King of Italy”.
Odoacer sent the deposed Romulus’ crown and imperial regalia to Zeno in Constantinople as a symbol of dissolving the authority of the Western Roman emperor. However, the previous Western emperor and Romulus’ predecessor Julius Nepos (r. 474-475) was still around in Dalmatia, hoping to regain the western throne. Zeno would then recognize the dissolution of the Western Roman Empire and Odoacer as his vassal King of Italy, though still recognizing Julius Nepos’ holdings in Dalmatia and Nepos only as the “de jure” Western Roman emperor. Nepos would lose his claim when he was assassinated in 480, and Odoacer, taking advantage of the situation, annexed Dalmatia into his Kingdom of Italy.
Though Zeno regained the throne, anti-Isaurian prejudice in Constantinople remained strong, once again threatening Zeno’s rule. For instance, in 479 Zeno’s brother-in-law Marcian together with his two brothers, revolted and turned Constantinople’s population against him. Zeno almost lost the throne again if not for his general Illus rapidly gathering the Isaurian garrison and defeating the rebels resulting in Marcian and his brothers being forced into exile.
In the meantime, the same rebellious general Theodoric Strabo, who previously supported Basiliscus and had backed Marcian’s revolt, was leading an insurgency in the Balkans against Zeno. To settle the threat of Strabo, Zeno asked for assistance from Theodoric the Amal, the King of the Ostrogoths from the Northwest Balkans, asking the Amal to march into the Balkans and attack Strabo. The Amal accepted Zeno’s offer but instead used it to plunder his way through Thrace while Strabo defeated an army of nomadic Bulgars hired by Zeno to attack him. Strabo then marched to Constantinople in 481 intending to overthrow Zeno. But on the way, Strabo fell off his horse into a spear and died. Strabo’s men then joined forces with Theodoric the Amal, and seeing nothing could be done to stop the Amal, Zeno chose to ally with him even appointing the Amal as Master of Soldiers, and then in 484 as a consul.
Earlier on, Zeno ordered his mother-in-law Verina imprisoned in the Fortress of Papurius in Isauria for plotting against him by first supporting Basiliscus in 475 then Marcian in 479. Ariadne, the daughter of Verina and Zeno’s wife had asked Illus, who was guarding Verina in prison to release her, though Illus refused and in return Ariadne hired an assassin to kill him. Illus survived the assassination attempt, only being wounded. He would blame the attempt on Zeno, declaring his intention to revolt against Zeno in 484. Due to Illus’ Isaurian origins, he chose not to make himself emperor but instead proclaim another general named Leontius as his puppet emperor against Zeno. Verina was released from prison and died that same year. Zeno sent an army to attack Illus and his forces at Papurius which initially failed. In 485, Zeno sent another army this time commanded by his new ally Theodoric the Amal and other generals which proved to be successful in containing Illus, Leontius, and their rebel forces to Papurius. The siege of Papurius however, went on for the next three years, ending in 488 with Illus and Leontius captured and beheaded.
Though Illus’ revolt was crushed, Zeno eventually discovered Odoacer, King of Italy, was in correspondence with Illus, allegedly supporting him and Leontius, thus making Zeno now view Odoacer as his enemy. In the meantime, Theodoric the Amal despite being an ally, was already proving to be troublesome to Zeno as seen in 486 when Theodoric threatened to attack Constantinople by cutting off its water supply. After the rebellion of Illus and Leontius was over in 488, Zeno arrived at an agreement with Theodoric wherein Theodoric would replace Odoacer as Zeno’s new vassal King of Italy as a way to pacify both Odoacer and Theodoric. In 488, Theodoric thus marched west to Italy and by 490 he began laying siege to Odoacer’s capital Ravenna. However, it wasn’t until 493 that Theodoric managed to capture Ravenna, followed by him personally killing Odoacer.
Theodoric afterwards established his own Ostrogoth Kingdom of Italy and would later be known as “Theodoric the Great”. Zeno, however, did not live long enough to see Theodoric the Amal defeat Odoacer as on April 9, 491 Zeno died at age 66, either from dysentery or epilepsy. By the time of his death, Zeno may still not have been popular but he died at least leaving the empire in a more stable state than he had founded it, considering he managed to hold on to the throne until his death, and more so dying naturally.
Zeno and Ariadne’s son Leo II had already died many years ago in 474 and they had no other children. Following Zeno’s death, Ariadne married the finance minister Anastasius, who unlike the Isaurian Zeno, was a highly educated and cultured Roman. Anastasius was a financial genius and during his reign from 491 to 518, the Eastern Roman Empire would prosper economically. Therefore, the stability in the empire Zeno left behind, along with the economic reforms of the new emperor Anastasius I, would eventually make the ambitions of possibly the most influential Byzantine emperor Justinian I the Great a reality when he acceded to the throne in 527.
About the Author: Powee Celdran is a content creator and artist who specializes in Byzantine history which is the empire and part of history he is most fascinated with. He has been doing blogs about the history of the Byzantine Empire since 2019 and now runs a Facebook page and Instagram account dedicated to sharing knowledge on the history of the Byzantine Empire.
Further Reading: “The History of the Byzantine Empire” by Radi Dikici, “Roman Emperor Zeno” by Peter Crawford, History Hit website (https://www.historyhit.com/who-was-emperor-zeno-and-how-did-he-deal-with-the-fall-of-the-western-roman-empire/), Byzantine Real History website (https://byzantinerealhistory.wordpress.com/2019/04/08/zeno-the-last-eastern-roman-emperor/)