Today in Military History: December 11, AD 711

Byzantine Emperor Justinian II «Rhinotmetos» (Cut-Nosed) Executed

Byzantine Emperor Justinian II "Rhinotmetos" (Cut-Nosed) Executed

Unknown artist’s conception of
Byzantine Emperor Justinian II with replacement nose
[Illustration courtesy of ]
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are courtesy of Wikipedia)


The month of December has been notoriously poor pickings for military history subjects since I first began writing this blog five years ago. Therefore, to sort of fill in the spaces, I present to you a man who was twice emperor of the Byzantine Empire. And, he did it the second time without the ability to smell which way the wind was blowing…


Justinian was born in 669. In the year 681 his father, Emperor Constantine IV raised him to the office of joint emperor. Justinian held this office until 685, when he became sole Byzantine ruler at the age of 16. The military situation in the empire was mostly quiet, due to his father’s many victories, especially against the Ummayyad Caliphate. As sole emperor, Justinian had some goals of his own.

Justinian II was an ambitious and passionate ruler who was keen to restore the Empire to its former glories, but he responded poorly to any opposition to his will and lacked the finesse of his father, Constantine IV. He raised taxes so he could institute an expensive building program in the Byzantine capital. Justinian also came into conflict with the Orthodox Church. Finally, he managed to lose the support of the aristocracy by blocking them from acquiring more land that was already under the supervision of non-aristocratic landowners.

He managed two major military campaigns during his initial reign, but failed to keep up the momentum of these early successes:

  • After a preliminary strike against the Arabs in Armenia, Justinian managed to augment the sum paid by theUmayyad Caliphs as an annual tribute, and to regain control of part of Cyprus. The incomes of the provinces of Armenia and Iberia were divided among the two empires. In 687, as part of his agreements with the Caliphate, Justinian removed from their native Lebanon 12,000 Christian Maronites, who continually resisted the Arabs. Additional resettlement efforts, aimed at the Mardaites and inhabitants of Cyprus allowed Justinian to reinforce naval forces depleted by earlier conflicts.
  • Justinian took advantage of the peace in the East to regain possession of the Balkans, which were before then almost totally under the heel of Slavic (read Bulgarian) tribes. In 687 Justinian transferred cavalry troops from Anatolia (central Asia Minor) to Thrace. With a great military campaign in 688–689, Justinian defeated the Bulgars of Macedonia and was finally able to enter Thessalonica, the second most important Byzantine city in Europe.
  • After defeating the Bulgars, he transferred nearly 30,000 of them – women and children included – to Anatolia to provide manpower to oppose the Arabs. In 692, the Byzantine ruler broke a treaty with the Ummayyads that had been in force for a dozen years. [One chronicler stated that instead of a battle flag, the Muslims hoisted pages of the abrogated treaty on flagpoles.] The two sides met at the battle of Sebastopolis, a resounding victory for the Arabs. The turning point of the fight came when about 20,000 Bulgarians switched sides and attacked the Byzantines. Fleeing back to his capital, Justinian took his revenge by slaughtering any Slavs and Bulgars his troops could find.

In 695 the population rose under Leontios, the military governor of Hellas, and proclaimed him emperor. Justinian was deposed, his tongue was slit, and his nose was cut off (later replaced by a solid gold replica of his original) to prevent his again seeking the throne: such mutilation was common in Byzantine culture. He was exiled to Cherson in the Crimea. Leontius, after a reign of three years, was in turn dethroned and imprisoned by Tiberius Apsimarus, who next assumed the throne.

Byzantine Empire c. AD 700
Byzantine Empire c. AD 700

Return of Justinian «Cut-Nosed»

Justinian spent about seven or eight years in exile in Cherson, but his ambitions were undiluted. With a number of supporters, he escaped the Crimean port and sailed back towards the Byzantine capital. His vessel was caught in a storm; as the vessel threatened to sink, one of «Rhinotmetos’s» supporters made a prediction. If the former emperor agreed not to take revenge against those who deposed him, God would grant him deliverance from the storm. Having none of that, Justinian declared, «If I spare a single one of them, may God drown me here!»

Eventually making a safe landing, Justinian and his supporters when to the ruller of the Khazars, a nomadic tribe inhabiting an area north of the Black and Caspian seas, in modern day Russia, Crimea, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan. The Khazar kagan gave Justinian his sister in dynastic marriage. Soon aftewards, however, the kagan was bribed by the current Eastern Greek ruler to assassinate Justinian. Warned by his wife, Justinian strangled the two Khazar officials sent to kill him.

First Bulgarian Empire c. AD 700 under Tervel
First Bulgarian Empire c. AD 700 under Tervel

Justinian then fled to the Bulgar court and – despite his victory over them nearly 10 years earlier – the Bulgar khan Tervel agreed to give Justinian 15,000 horsemen to topple the usurper Tiberius in exchange for financial cosiderations, an imperial crown, and the hand of Justinian’s daughter in marriage. Arriving before the walls of Constantinople, Justinian tried to convince the city’s populace to accept him as emperor. They rejected him outright. Since Justinian had not brought any siege equipment to attack the city, he decided to achieve his objective by stealth.

With a picked band of followers, Justinian entered the city through an abandoned water conduit. Once inside the walls of Constantinople, he contacted his supporters and seized control of the city in a midnight coup d’etat. Justinian once more ascended the throne, breaking the tradition preventing the mutilated from Imperial rule. Several days later, after tracking down his predecessors, Justinian had his rivals Leontius and Tiberius brought in chains before him in the Hippodrome; Justinian’s first public appearance revealed his newest fashion accessory – a golden nasal prosthesis. There, before a jeering populace, Justinian placed his feet on the necks of Tiberius and Leontios in a symbolic gesture of subjugation before ordering their execution by beheading. Their deaths were followed by many of their partisans. Finally, the Orthodox Patriarch Kallinikos I of Constantinople was deposed, blinded and imprisoned in a monastery. [Kallinikos had a hand in the deposition of Justinian in 695. He is recognized as a saint by the Eastern Orthodox Church.]

Justinian’s Second Reign

His second reign was marked by unsuccessful warfare against Bulgaria and the Caliphate, and by cruel suppression of opposition at home. In 708 Justinian turned on Bulgarian Khan Tervel, whom he had earlier crowned Caesar, and invaded Bulgaria, apparently seeking to recover the territories ceded to Tervel as a reward for his support in 705. Justinian was defeated, blockaded in Anchialus, and forced to retreat. Peace between Bulgaria and Byzantium was quickly restored. This defeat was followed by Arab victories in Asia Minor, where the cities of Cilicia fell into the hands of the enemy, who penetrated into the Byzantine Empire’s core provinces in 709–711.

In addition, Justinian suppressed any and all opposition to his rule. Most notably he sent a «strong suggestion’ – which was still a part of the Byzantine dominion – to Rome to force Pope Constantine to come to the Byzantine capital and submit to the declarations of a recent church council. Pope Constantine visited Constantinople in the fall of 711 and gave into the emperor’s demands. [Pope Constantine was the last Pope – until Pope Paul VI in 1967 – to visit the city.] At about the same time, Justinian outfitted a military expedition to attack and punish the north Italian city of Ravenna for local opposition to his policies.

Justinian’s tyrannical rule provoked another uprising against him. The Crimean city of Cherson revolted. Under the leadership of the exiled general Bardanes, the city held out against a counter-attack and soon the forces sent to suppress the rebellion joined it. The rebels then seized the capital and proclaimed Bardanes as Emperor Philippicus. Justinian had been on his way to Armenia, and was unable to return to Constantinople in time to defend it. He was arrested and executed outside the city in December 711, his head being sent to Bardanes as a trophy.

Footnote #1: Justinian may have self-consciously modelled himself on his namesake, Justinian I «the Great,» who reigned over the East Roman Empire from 527-565. This can be seen in his enthusiasm for large-scale construction projects and the renaming of his Khazar wife with the name of Theodora.

Footnote #2: Depsite his outocratic tendencies, Justinian «Rhinotmetos» was a pious ruler. He was the first Byzantine monarch to include the image of Christ on coins minted in his (Justinian’s ) name. [See below]Justinian also tried to suppress various non-Christian local festivals, which did not endear him to many of the members of the lower class. This was no doubt a contributor to his eventual downfall.

Front & reverse of gold solidus minted during the second reign of Justinian II [Justinian's image is on the right; he holds a globe with the word 'pax' (peace) inscribed on it]
Front & reverse of gold solidus minted during the second reign of Justinian II
[Justinian’s image is on the right; he holds a globe with the word «pax» (peace) inscribed on it]

Footnote #3: With Justinian’s death – and the murder of his six-year old son and co-emperor Tiberius – the Heraclian dynasty came to an end. After his death, three unrelated emperors ruled the empire over the next six years, before Leo III established the Isaurian dynasty.

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