Episode 178 – Questions VII

Heraclius by Rossen Toshev (from 'Rulers of the Byzantine Empire' published by KIBEA)

Heraclius, only the second best Emperor so far? Outrageous.

Listener questions on Varangians, provincial administration, diplomacy, family mottos and the ever popular top 5 best and worst Emperors.

Period: 913-1025

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Categories: Podcast | 19 Comments

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19 thoughts on “Episode 178 – Questions VII

  1. J Crickmore

    Forgive my potential foolishness – and I feel I know what your answer is, I just want to be sure because its an interesting pick either way – but when you say Anastasius do you mean Anastasius I or II? Thanks!!

    • The first, sorry for any confusion. I forgot there was a second because I think of him as Artemius.

      • J Crickmore

        No worries at all. That was indeed the answer I figured it would be I just wanted to be sure. Given the nuance of your pick on both sides (as well as, on one other commenter’s observation, the Byzantine Empire has far fewer unmitigated disasters as rulers than its more ancient iteration it would seem!) you’ve somehow given me something to look forward to in 1453; listening to your explanation for these picks will be satisfying for sure.

  2. are you sure in making anastasius 481-518 the best byzatium emperor do mean Justinian 527-565

  3. my TOP 5
    5- manuel comene 1143-1180
    4- maurice 582-602
    3- basil 976-1025
    2-justinian 527-565
    1-Heraclius 610-641

  4. Brent

    Anastasius as the best pre-1025 Emperor? I don’t know if I can wait to 1453 to hear your reasons (although I can make some educated guesses)!

    • I’ll definitely have to review all pre-Heraclius Emperors because I wasn’t yet researching in the detail I do now. But I was struck at the time how different Anastasius’ attitude was to Justinian’s. Rather than be driven by ego and ideology he looked to maintain and manage and compromise. Given everything that has come afterwards I see much wisdom in that approach.

  5. Josh

    Robin thanks for the great podcast. The episodes this year have really helped me to better understand the Byzantine Empire and have set a solid foundation for when the narrative resumes in 2019. I’ve been listening since 2012 sometimes I like to go back and listen to old episodes just to see how far the narrative has changed through the centuries.
    I’m looking forward to the 11th and 12th centuries and seeing familiar stories from the byzantine side.
    When you started the podcast did you imagine you’d still be going 7 years latter? Thanks for the excellent podcast.

  6. JeanDukeofAlecon

    “Listener DV also asked if there were boundary markers delineating the borders of themes […] I assume the answer is no”

    We don’t have any information on the themes specifically, but in his history Attaleiates notes that, during one of Romanos Diogenes campaigns (in which he was serving as military judge),

    “Setting out the next day we entered Roman territory. This was signaled by the boundary markers, but the land had previously been attacked and laid waste.”

    So boundary markers were evidently still in use delineating international borders at least, even if no references to their internal use survive.

  7. JA

    That list of worst emperors really puts into perspective how few absolute tar fires the Empire has had so far. Those five hardly seem so bad next to a Commodus or a Caligula. I’m curious if the next two centuries are going to feature some strong contenders for the bottom 5; Andronikos Komnenos at the very least seems like he should be on it.

    • Yeah someone asked me why Byzantium seemed to produce less horrible Emperors. I think Christianity has a lot to do with that. I think actively tormenting/torturing or having orgies would have brought the Emperor into disrepute. It would have invited others to proclaim their piety as a reason to replace them. Also with the church as an institution becoming part of the State it was harder for the Emperor to act in truly mad autocratic fashion.

  8. ST

    Hey, Robin. Seeing Heraclius as the illustrative picture for the episode and then ending up with you picking Anastasius as your ‘best emperor’ post-fall of the West was quite the plot twist! So much, it made want to go back and re-analyse that period in more detail. Like you said yourself, the podcast didn’t go into the detail it does now, back when it was covering that period. Are you thinking of doing a sort of deeper analysis of previously covered stuff in the future, maybe after finishing the narrative after the Ottoman conquest?

    As of now, I’m going to delve into Warren Treadgold’s ‘A History of the Byzantine State and Society’ which I finally(!) got, because the whole period from the Theodosians to the Justinians is a bit murky in my head. I find it is a very underexplored period, when it could be one of the most interesting ones. Maybe because it is stuck between the much more compelling and famous stories of the fall of the West and the Arab conquest of the East. That whole period of around 2 centuries when the Empire just seems to get back on its feet, thrive and prosper and expand once again kind of runs against the tides of History. Fascinating!

    • Hey, I am tempted to go and redo that whole period again but I’m not sure if that’s a good idea. I think I would get to Heraclius and want to redo that and then redo everything else and I’d end up like the snake eating its tail. Every year new scholarship comes out replacing ideas and theories from before so you could literally rewrite Byzantine history forever if new work keeps being done on it.

      Anyway, I will go back and have a look at Anastasius and Maurice in more detail in 1453 just to make sure I’m not over rating their achievements. Enjoy Treadgold 🙂

      • dustz92

        I think it could be a good idea. For example, I recall watching extra history’s episode on the council of Chalcedon and I was surprised in how most of what was shown there (all the councils and re-councils) was almost nowhere to be found in either THoR or your first episodes. Given the importance of these events, I really would appreciate if you could some day record the pre-Justinian stuff to improve it.

        Regarding your emperor list, given how highly you value not seeking pointless wars and securing the succession, I was expected you would have included Alexander, as his short reign can be summarized in starting a pointless war and messing with the succession.

  9. True Alexander will be in contention for the worst 🙂

  10. Ian

    Late reply, but in addition to leaving the state better than you found it and planning the succession, I think the circumstances the emperor faced have to factor heavily into where they’d theoretically rank. One reason I rate both Leo III and Alexios Komnenos very highly, probably in my top 5, was that the odds were that the empire was bound for the dustbin of history: and if they made the wrong move at the wrong moment, it would have been. Heraclius can be put into that category to an extent as well, but one thing I’ve noticed is that he did make mistakes early on, and he also has to take some of the blame for the Persian breakthrough in the first place. I’m not sure Alexios, for his early defeats, let alone Leo could have survived that. They just didn’t have as many accumulated resources as their disposal.

    (For similar reasons, I’m also quite fond of Constans II and Constantine V. Both men got lucky that the Arabs fell into civil war, but both men also worked tirelessly to ensure the state survived in a very dark period for Byzantium. I’d argue were both quite instrumental in ensuring that Byzantium did survive and eventually recover. If you put an emperor who prioritized what should be over what was possible strategically in their situations like a certain somebody we know, the empire would have collapsed.)

    Worst? I’m going to leave that until we get the Angeloi to evaluate. Reading ahead, though, I’m struck by the contrast with previous dynasties. Whatever else you can say about dynasty enders like Justinian II or Irene or Nikephoros I, there seems no doubt that they took the role seriously, brought skill and energy to their jobs. In the case of the latter two, they did very positive things for the empire that only ended up being negated by later toxic decisions that, IMO, were partly their virtues being pushed to such an extreme that they became vices. Even Phokas doesn’t come off nearly as badly from my admittedly superficial reading, certainly nothing akin to the demon painted by Heraclian propaganda. Phokas was certainly out of his paygrade in a way Heraclius wasn’t and the 602 coup ultimately was the thing that pushed the boulder off the cliff, but once in power, he seemed to genuinely try his best to repulse the invasions.

    But then, your work has been a key reason why a lot of Wikipedia pages have been overhauled. Maybe that’ll be the case for Andronikos and the Angeloi, too. Were the latter just like Phokas or Michael VII Doukas, in the wrong place at the wrong time? I’ll be curious to learn about the biases of Byzantine history during that period. Be surprising if there wasn’t a lot of emotional charged bias in the primary sources, after all, given what happened in 1204.

    • Ian


      An afterthought: I think you alluded to this once back in episode 51, but I would like to do so again. Constans II was a teenager, as was his son and grandson. Constantine V wasn’t much older-in his early 20s. Certainly both men didn’t have the time to truly enjoy young adulthood. There’s something admirable about stepping up at such an age and fighting off stuff that would kill most empires.

      Both Constans and Constantine seem to have a very hardened and somewhat paranoid streak to them, but I think that’s a pretty rational response to their own life experiences, and the greater realities they faced. 7th/8th Century Rome might not have survived emperors that were kinder and less anal.

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