Episode 265 – The 10 Greatest Emperors with Anthony Kaldellis

Professor Anthony Kaldellis has just completed a new history of Byzantium which will be published in October 2023. So I cheekily asked him if he would list his 10 greatest Emperors. Graciously he agreed to apply his immense knowledge to this frivolous topic.

He is a Professor in the Department of Classics at the University of Chicago. This is his third interview on the History of Byzantium. I talked to him about two of his books ‘The Byzantine Republic’ and ‘Streams of Gold, Rivers of Blood: The Rise and Fall of Byzantium, 955 A.D. to the First Crusade.’ But he is the author of over a dozen books on Byzantium along with translations of texts and many articles. Find out more here.

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Categories: Podcast | 19 Comments

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19 thoughts on “Episode 265 – The 10 Greatest Emperors with Anthony Kaldellis

  1. Frank P

    I hereby call together the internet mob to avenge Heraclius for the massive injustice of he suffered in this podcast!

    Compliments to the host and guest for an interesting and engaging conversation. I can’t wait to get a hold of Dr. Kaldellis’ book when it comes out later this year.

  2. Michael M

    This was amazing. I cannot wait for the teased Top 10 Worst Emperors list.

    I get why this kind of list doesn’t have much value to professional historians. But I greatly admire Dr. Kadellis’ willingness to put that aside. This kind of content does wonders for bridging the gap between historians and hobbyists. As Professor Kadellis has pointed out before, history can often be an impenetrable subject for lay people. So the effort he makes is incredibly refreshing. Cannot wait to buy his book–if for no other reason because of his passion to engage a wider audience than traditional historians.

  3. Arvin J

    Hello, I would like to ask if Constans II is worthy of a “honourable mention”, considering that he is one of the “child emperors” who, despite continuous losses to the Arabs, managed the Empire as well as he could.

    P.S. The arguments on Constans II’s grandfather, Heraclius, to be excluded in the top 10, are interesting to think about, though I understand those on a wider perspective and when it is combined. I think one slight downside to one of those arguments is that the situation of Heraclius in 610 has some similarities to the situation of Alexios I in 1081, though one counter-point is that Heraclius (and his father, Heraclius the Elder) initiated the chaos within the Empire (IIRC, they started the revolt in 608), while Alexios, though he usurped the throne, contributed to, but not initiated, the internal chaos (cf hello Caesar John Doukas, Roussel de Ballieul, Nikephoros III, etc.).

  4. Joshua

    Great podcast to listen to while on a long drive. Both of you put out great podcasts so the collab is always good. Something that you said during the podcast on the 717 Siege of Constantinople was that the Byzantines inherited the strong defenses and wealth from the 4th,5th and 6th centuries of when they were a superpower. It seems even the antiquity of the city meant a lot even at the current place in the narrative.


    Funny how professor Kaldellis has been trying to restore Konstantin V’s reputation for a quarter of a century now. I met him while we were both serving in the Greek army, on his native island of Lesbos , back in 1998 (in fact I was supposedly training him to be a sergeant, lol). And when prompted to elaborate on his job as a lecturer of Byzantine history in the US, the “kopronymos” part was one of the very first he told me. Thrilled to listen to these thoroughly enjoyable interviews. Also shocked regarding Heraclius, I thought he was a second Restitutor Orbis.

  6. SNL

    Loved the energy of the episode. It felt like Robin was constantly in a good mood laughing and chiming in with funny remarks, and of course prof. Kaldellis is a treat to see on the show!

  7. Iconoclast

    This was a hugely enjoyable podcast. Kudos to you and Prof Kaldellis (his last name gives it away that he comes from the beautiful island of Lesbos) for taking us on a wonderful ride through 1000+ years of history. This is the way Byzantium should be taught in schools. As a Greek I have suffered of many years of boring name and date dropping of Byzantine history without any real flow and cohesion. Your podcast has become the gold standard.

  8. George

    I find it interesting that except for one name, there were no emperors not yet covered by the podcast (Looking forward to his reign btw, the few upcoming decades should actually be quite uplifting). I wonder why that is? I understand that Byzantium is never going to be more than a regional power, but that by itself should not influence the relative competence of the leaders. At some point, it would be interesting to ask Professor Kaldelis if there’s a structural reason for this. My understanding is that we actually get more sources as the fall of the empire gets closer, so perhaps there’s more room to analyse individual errors and mistakes? While potentially figures like Constatine V might have gotten away from scrutiny because we don’t know that much about them and thus give them benefit of the doubt.

  9. David Thompson

    Interesting and fun episode. I wonder if there is a difference between a “great man” and a “great emperor”. I think you and professor Kaldellis make a compelling case against Justinian, but he and Constantine seem to be the only ones who tried to shape events, rather than just react to what had happened in the immediate past, either trying to keep things together or taking small, incremental steps toward restoration.
    If there hadn’t been a Justinian, I wonder what Byzantine history would have been like? Pretty bizarre to think about.

  10. Jared Haines

    It seems strange to place so much blame on Heraclius for the state of the empire without addressing whether Phocas was a dud along with the preexisting state of hostilities with Persia sparked by Phocas’s coup.

  11. Aidan Turner

    I will say, I’m surprised to not see Maurice on the list or even as an honorable mention, seeing as how he seemed to fill all of the requirements listed. He had a long reign, he was successful on almost all of the empire’s frontiers, and he managed to mostly clean up the mess that Justinian left behind. His only real flaw was not taking the army seriously when they complained to him about having to winter beyond the Danube, leading to his deposition. Also, when talking about Constantine V’s downsides you guys neglected to mention how Ravenna fell to the Lombards during his reign, thus ending Byzantine rule in Northern and Central Italy for good. Although, how much of this can be placed directly at his feet I am unsure about.

  12. Philip P.

    While it is certainly fashionable to bash Justinian, I respectfully think he belongs at least on the “Top 10” list. His construction of the Hagia Sophia, a center of Byzantine life for the next 900 years, the rebuilding of other monuments in Constantinople, and the Corpus Juris Secundum, the basis for European civil law even today, are enough to put him on the list even by Professor Kaldellis’ standards emphasizing historical impact. Meanwhile, he kept the Empire stable from the palace while Belisarius did his thing. After Nika, no record of major unrests. And the plague and other natural disasters weakened the Empire but did not destroy it. He surely deserves some credit for handling domestic affairs without any human-made disasters.

    Those conquests are the stuff of legend, and did not collapse immediately upon his death. Byzantium maintained a presence in Carthage for over 100 years, and in Italy until 1071, 506 years after his death. Both times longer than Anatolia after Basil II’s death. Just like you can’t blame Basil for the Turks, you can’t blame Justinian for the Arabs. Even southern Spain remained in imperial hands until 621. Justinian is criticized for staying in the palace, but maybe running the civil bureaucracy while letting the generals be generals and not emperors was a good example to follow (looking at you, Nicephoras Phocas and the many, many generals who attempted usurpations over the centuries).

    Yes the conquests were expensive, drained the treasury, and were hard to retain, but the Lombards rolled into Italy only after being defeated by the Avars, Justinian’s successor foolishly started a war with the Sassanids, and Maurice foolishly made his soldiers spend the winter north of the Danube, which in turn led to the disastrous reign of Phocas and civil war. Justinian, being dead, had no control over that. Being a “tough act to follow” is not a reason to take someone of a list of the greatest.

    • You make a strong case. He is definitely the most hotly debated Emperor. I always wonder what to think of the Hagia Sophia as a legacy. Though it is undeniably spectacular – part of the reason it stands out is because the Empire declined and no one could possibly have built anything similar. Whereas had the Empire remained a super power would someone have let it fall down and replaced it with something else?

  13. Adrian Moore

    Great episode! Very much appreciated how much there was to learn from talking about these 10 emperors in the context of this list rather than in the narrative. Very cool. Also add my vote to doing a worst 10 list show!

  14. Brenda P

    I thoroughly enjoyed this interview with Prof. Kaldellis. Who knew Byzantine history could be so entertaining? I found myself laughing out loud at some points. Thank you Robin for the idea of the top 10, and thank you Prof. Kaldellis for playing along 🙂

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