Political mutilation in Byzantine culture

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Depiction of the blinding of Leo Phokas the Elder after his unsuccessful rebellion against Romanos Lekapenos, from the Madrid Skylitzes chronicle

Mutilation in the Byzantine Empire was a common method of punishment for criminals of the era but it also had a role in the Empire's political life.[1] The mutilation of political rivals by the Emperor was deemed an effective way of sidelining from the line of succession a person who was seen as a threat. In Byzantine culture the Emperor was a reflection of heavenly authority. Since God was perfect the Emperor also had to be unblemished; any mutilation, especially facial wounds, would disqualify an individual from taking the throne.[2] An exception was Justinian II (ὁ Ῥινότμητος, "the slit-nosed") who had his nose cut off (Greek - rhinokopia) when he was overthrown in 695 but was able to become Emperor again in 705.[3]

Some disfigurements practised bore a secondary practical rationale as well. This can be seen in a common method of maiming, blinding. By blinding a rival one would not only restrict their mobility but make it almost impossible for them to lead an army into battle, then an important part of taking control of the Empire. Castration was also used to eliminate potential opponents. In the Byzantine Empire, for a man to be castrated meant that he was no longer a man, half-dead, "life that was half death".[4] Castration also eliminated any chance of heirs being born to threaten either the Emperor or the Emperor's children's place at the throne.

Blinding as a punishment for political rivals and a recognized penalty for treachery was established in 705, although Emperor Phocas used it earlier during his rule as well, becoming common practice from Heraclius onwards.[5] Castration as a punishment for political rivals did not come into use until much later, becoming popular in the 10th and 11th centuries. Castrated men were not seen as a threat, as no matter how much power they gained they could never take the throne, and numerous eunuchs were entrusted with high and confidential offices in the Byzantine court and administration. A good example is that of Basil Lekapenos, the illegitimate son of the Emperor Romanos I Lekapenos, who was castrated when young. He gained enough power to become parakoimomenos and effective prime minister for three successive emperors, but could not assume the throne himself.[6][7] Other mutilations were the severing of the nose or the amputating of limbs.

The last to use this method voluntarily was Michael VIII Palaiologos, although some of his successors were forced to use it again by the Ottoman Sultans.

Cases of disfigurement

Victim Date Disfigurement Details Reference
Philanthropenos, AlexiosAlexios Philanthropenos 1295 Blinded Governor of the Thracesian Theme, he rose up against Andronikos III Palaiologos, but was captured by loyalist soldiers and blinded [8]
AnastasiusAnastasius of Constantinople 743 Blinded For supporting Artabasdos's usurpation against Constantine V he was blinded [9]
, ArtabasdosArtabasdos 743 Blinded Artabasdos and his sons Nikephoros and Niketas were blinded for his failed insurrection against Constantine V during the Iconoclasm crisis [10]
Sisinnios 743 Blinded Strategos of the Thracesians, he supported Constantine V against Artabasdos but was blinded after the former's victory due to suspicions of conspiring to seize the throne himself. [11][12]
Antiochos, David, Theophylact of Iconium, Christopher, Constantine, Theophylact the kandidatos, and 11 others 766 Blinded High-ranking provincial governors and court officials, members of a group of nineteen who conspired against Constantine V. The plot was discovered and its members publicly paraded at the Hippodrome on 25 August 766. The two ringleaders, brothers Constantine and Strategios Podopagouros, were executed, the rest blinded and exiled, and every year imperial agents were sent to deliver 100 lashes. [13]
, John AthalarichosJohn Athalarichos 637 Nose and hands amputated Amputation carried out after he tried to overthrow his father, Heraclius [14]
, Bardanes TourkosBardanes Tourkos 803/804 Blinded Led an unsuccessful revolt against Nikephoros I and surrendered. Blinded whilst in confinement in a monastery, likely on Nikephoros' orders. [15]
Phokas , BardasBardas Phokas 1026 Blinded Accused of plotting against Constantine VIII [16]
Diogenes, ConstantineConstantine Diogenes 1095 Blinded Impostor pretender, led a Cuman invasion of Thrace against Alexios I Komnenos [17]
, Philippikos BardanesPhilippikos Bardanes , Theodore Myakes, George Bouraphos 713 Blinded A rebellion of Opsician troops succeeded in getting a number of men into the city where they were able to blind Philippicus at a bathhouse on June 3, 713. He was followed a week later by the patrikios Theodore Myakes and a week after that by the Count of the Opsicians, the patrikios George Bouraphos [18]
CallinicusCallinicus I of Constantinople 705 Blinded Supported the overthrow of Justinian II and was blinded when he came back to power in 705 [19]
, ConstantineConstantine , Basil, Gregory and Theodosios 820 Castrated The sons of Leo V the Armenian, who was deposed on Christmas 820 by Michael II the Amorian. They were exiled to Prote, castrated and confined to a monastery as monks [20]
Phokas, LeoLeo Phokas the Elder 919 Blinded Rose up against the assumption of power by Romanos Lekapenos but was captured and blinded [21]
Aspietes, ConstantineConstantine Aspietes 1090/1 Blinded Suspected of plotting a revolt against Isaac II Angelos because he distributed delayed pay to his troops. [22]
Phokas, LeoLeo Phokas the Younger, Nikephoros Phokas 971 Blinded Plotted a revolt against John I Tzimiskes [23]
, NikephorosNikephoros 792 Blinded Uncle of Constantine VI, blinded, while his four brothers had their tongues cut, after the tagmata conspired to put him on the throne in the aftermath of the Battle of Marcellae. [24][25]
Mosele, AlexiosAlexios Mosele 792 Blinded General of the Armeniacs, blinded because of their refusal to acknowledge Irene of Athens as empress and co-ruler of Constantine VI. [24]
Diogenes, ConstantineConstantine Diogenes 1028–1034[A 1] Blinded The popular general was blinded because of a supposed plot against Romanos III Argyros [26]
Bryennios, NikephorosNikephoros Bryennios 1078 Blinded Nikephoros had rebelled against Michael VII in 1077, and continued his rebellion against Nikephoros III Botaneiates. Defeated and captured by Alexios Komnenos at Kalavrye, he was blinded [27]
Diogenes, NikephorosNikephoros Diogenes 1094 Blinded Nikephoros was Romanos IV Diogenes' son with Eudokia Makrembolitissa; Emperor Alexios I Komnenos had him blinded after charging him with treason [28]
Diogenes, RomanosRomanos Diogenes 1072 Blinded Andronikos Doukas had Romanos IV Diogenes blinded after tricking him into stepping down as Emperor [29]
Heraklonas 641 Nose slit Overthrown, disfigured and exiled by supporters of Constans II [30]
, TheophylactTheophylact , Staurakios and Niketas (the future Patriarch Ignatius 813 Castrated Sons of Michael I Rhangabe, they were castrated after his overthrow by Leo V the Armenian [31]
Justinian II 695 Nose cut off Overthrown, disfigured and exiled by supporters of Leontios [3]
Laskaris, John IVJohn IV Laskaris 1261 Blinded Made Emperor at seven years old, he was overthrown and blinded when he was just eleven years old. [32]
Lekapenos, BasilBasil Lekapenos 920–944[A 2] Castrated As an infant he was castrated for being born an illegitimate son to Emperor Romanos I Lekapenos [6]
Martina 641 Tongue cut out Overthrown, disfigured and exiled by supporters of Constans II [30]
, The family of John the OrphanotrophosThe family of John the Orphanotrophos 1041 Castrated Michael V castrated all male members of John the Orphanotrophos' family [4]
, John the OrphanotrophosJohn the Orphanotrophos 1043 Blinded Was seen as a threat so he was blinded by the patriarch of Constantinople Michael Cerularius [26]
Prousianos 1029 Blinded After a supposed plot against Romanos III Argyros he was blinded [26]
Theodorus 637 Nose, hands and one leg amputated Mutilated for being a co-planner in Athalarichos' attempt to overthrow Heraclius [14]
Isaac II Angelos 1195 Blinded He was blinded and deposed by his brother Alexios III Angelos
Leontios 698 Blinded He was blinded and deposed by Tiberios III and later killed by Justinian II in 705.


  1. Lost his eyes sometime in the reign of Emperor Romanos III Argyros( November 15, 1028 – April 11, 1034)
  2. Basil Lekapenos was castrated as an infant sometime during Emperor Romanos I Lekapenos' rule (920–944). However, there is no date on either the castration or on when he was born.


  1. Rautman 2006, p. 30
  2. Longworth 1997, p. 321
  3. 3.0 3.1 Ostrogorski 1957, p. 124
  4. 4.0 4.1 Ringrose 2003, p. 62
  5. Kazhdan 1991, p. 297
  6. 6.0 6.1 Norwich 1993, p. 167
  7. Talbot & Sullivan 2005, p. 143
  8. Nicol 1993, p. 124
  9. Milman 1867, p. 370
  10. Garland 2006, p. 9
  11. Rochow 1994, p. 30
  12. Mango & Scott 1997, p. 581
  13. Mango & Scott 1997, p. 605
  14. 14.0 14.1 Nicephorus 1990, p.73.
  15. Kountoura-Galaki 1983, pp. 213–214
  16. Kazhdan 1991, p. 1666
  17. Skoulatos 1980, p. 75–77
  18. Mango & Scott 1997, p. 533
  19. Kiminas 2009, p. 44
  20. Treadgold 1988, p. 224
  21. Treadgold 1997, pp. 474–476
  22. Savvides 1991, p. 77
  23. Kazhdan 1991, p. 1667; Treadgold 1997, pp. 507–508
  24. 24.0 24.1 Garland 1999, p. 83
  25. Mango & Scott 1997, p. 643
  26. 26.0 26.1 26.2 Garland 1999, p. 162
  27. Kazhdan 1991, pp. 330–331; Skoulatos 1980, pp. 222–223
  28. Holmes 2005, p. 222
  29. Norwich 1993, p. 357
  30. 30.0 30.1 Theophanes 1982, p.41.
  31. Treadgold 1988, pp. 188–189
  32. Hackel 2001, p. 71


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