You could almost miss Leontius of Byzantium with such a short reign, but if you did, you would miss out on a mystery. Who was this flash in the pan, 3-year emperor?
We are about to take you through his origins, his rise, his reign and his fall. Nobody could tell you what Leontius was thinking at every moment of his journey.
By the end of this article, you will definitely have your own theory though.
Where did Leontius come from?
When the Byzantine empire looked to recruit troops, it looked to Isauria. Soldiers, generals, and military leaders of all stripes came from the fearsome province.
We can guess from his rapid rise that he started with some connections. By his early twenties, he could count the Emperor, Constantine IV, as a friend. Leontius had talent, his rise was meteoric, but it wouldn’t have been possible for a peasant boy.
What we do know is that he joined the military, probably at one of the earliest opportunities. If he was the son of a noble house, he could have joined the army with a leg up. We can guess that he was a gifted warrior. We know he could be a talented strategist because of his stratospheric rise. He rose at a rate that connections wouldn’t have been able to buy in most cases.
Leontius got the call to become the Strategos of Anatolia. Taking up the role in 685 CE, he was barely twenty-five years old. The job was equal to a high-ranking general and included responsibility for a large area. The province had a large chunk of the Byzantine empire’s population. It also boasted plenty of high-value strategic assets.
The records have little to say about this early phase of Leontius’ life. Fortunately, in this case, the results speak for themselves.
What was the peak of Leontius’ career?
In 686 CE Constantine IV left the throne to his son, Justinian II. Justinian was like his father in some ways. He was ambitious about enlarging the empire. He took a pugnacious tone with its neighbors, and he was keen to see Byzantium rise in influence. Justinian’s ambitions meant he had plenty of use for a capable and experienced military leader like Leontius.
Justinian was keen to test his strength against the Umayyad Caliphate. Their reach extended to the south-east of the byzantine empire. They were formidable enemies. Since before Constantine IV ruled tension had smoldered between the Caliphate and Byzantium. An uneasy watchfulness existed across the mediterranean sea during this era. Enter Leontius. His campaign against the Caliphate in the early years of Justinian’s reign made him stand out.
Leontius won several victories in contested Umayyad territories in Armenia and Iberia. Their subjects began paying tribute to the Emperor. Horses, slaves, and gold poured in. Leontius and Justinian were riding high after forcing the new Caliph into a truce.
The terms of the agreement favored the Byzantine Empire heavily. At less than 30 years old, he had made a mark on the world.
Leontius was young, victorious, and at the pinnacle of his military career. He had beaten Caliph Abd Al-Malik back. For better or worse, this success whetted Justinian’s appetite for military victories.
Leontius kept his position for the next few years. Meanwhile, Justinian II pursued territorial expansion in the Balkans. Leontius is unlikely to have been directly involved in these campaigns. It was only a matter of time before they became his concern and his career hit choppy waters.
What soured Justinian II and Leontius’ partnership?
Justinian’s Balkan exploits had left him with approximately 30,000 Balkan men in his custody. He wanted to use them to his advantage. He conscripted them into his armies and he marched them south. There they became Leontius’ problem.
Justinian II may have thought that these 30,000 men were going to be a real asset. Their old factional loyalties couldn’t function anymore. Justinian didn’t bargain on the fact that being far away from home wasn’t going to make the Slav troops loyal. He was mistaken.
The emperor commanded Leontius to take the Slav auxiliary troops with him to Cilicia. He was under instructions to push into Arab territory. Justinian was violating the treaty his father had established with the Umayyad Caliphate. He was violating it on a massive scale.
Leontius might have trusted his auxiliaries or not. If he disagreed with the emperor, he was wise enough not to do so in public. As the general of the Eastern Thema, Leontius had to make the best of the situation.
Once the soldiers from both sides had joined the battle, things took an unexpected turn. Leontius saw his troops melt away. The divisions of Slav auxiliaries who were there against their will defected. Some historians suggest they may have taken bribes to switch sides.
The battle turned against Leontius and the Byzantine soldiers. The loss took a toll on Justinian’s pride. The territory of the empire had reduced.
When the news got back to Justinian, it seems that he blamed Leontius. We can assume so from his response. Leontius did not air any complaints. That does not necessarily mean he did not have any. Unhappy conscripts are not the same as ordinary soldiers. Leontius could not have failed to notice the discrepancy.
Leontius would have had more than enough time to consider where the battle had gone wrong. Justinian II imprisoned him for almost three years. During his confinement in a monastery, he had the chance to dwell on Justinian’s flaws.
Many sources suggest he began to plan to overthrow Justinian during this time. The monks may even have conspired with him.
How did Leontius become Emperor?
Leontius was a great general. The best evidence of this fact is that Justinian II let him out of captivity. In 695 CE, the Emperor was afraid he would lose Carthage. He wanted the city badly. He wanted it enough to let Leontius, a man who he suspected and resented, out of jail. The only good reason to do so was that he trusted his expertise.
It was a calculated risk to release Leontius. Justinian calculated wrong. It did not take long before the new Strategos of Hellas was raising rebellion.
Releasing Leontius was not the first mistake Justinian II had made. He had alienated parts of the nobility. They disliked his regulations on their purchase of land from peasants. He was not popular among peasants either though. His tax regime was widely disliked.
Leontius showed ability and cunning in his bid to become Emperor. He contacted and united Justinian’s opponents. They included the Patriarch of Constantinople and several influential aristocrats.
The general led a force to Constantinople. He seized Justinian II and had him taken to the Hippodrome in the center of the city. He had the Emperor disfigured by slitting open his nose.
This sounds cruel and unusual to us, but it was merciful. Mutilated people were not allowed to be Emperor. Making Justinian unsuitable to be Emperor was a way to spare his life. He exiled Justinian to Crimea and the general became the Emperor.
What happened once Leontius had the throne?
We know that he was much less aggressive with his neighbors than Justinian II. It is possible that he felt that Justinian’s spending had been excessive. It could have motivated him to keep the troops at home. He was popular at home during his reign. There were no early signs that he would have faced major opposition from within.
Justinian’s confrontational style had made an impact on the Umayyad Caliphate. Leontius made an error by underestimating the ambition of the Caliphate. His lack of response to their incursions was interpreted as weakness.
The Caliphate’s forces surged through the Exarchate of Africa. They reached Carthage in 697. Leontius dispatched a force to reclaim Carthage. Leading the force were a group of officers, among them a commander named Apsimar.
The real mystery of Leontius is why a general who had been so capable suddenly became passive. As one of the most powerful men in the world, he had the opportunity to push changes. His three years in office were peaceful and calm, but he was not able to maintain an effective foreign policy. History has no proper answer to where Leontius’ skill went. Nor the inspired tactician who seized the throne went once Leontius became emperor.
Carthage was lost. The naval expedition failed and the officers leading it began to fear punishment. They banded together to mutiny and name Apsimar as an alternative Emperor. One that would replace Leontius.
Disaster struck at home and abroad for Leontius. Carthage was conclusively lost and at once, the bubonic plague laid Constantinople low. Apsimar named himself Emperor Tiberius III and set sail for Constantinople to seize power.
Tiberius’ forces besieged Constantinople for several months. The city was under attack from within and without. Caught between the uprising and the rampaging plague. The defeat was long and drawn out, but the force of mutineers and their supporters received Constantinople’s surrender.
Leontius lost the throne. Like his predecessor, he was mutilated to make him ineligible to rule. Then Tiberius III had him exiled to a monastery.
How did the story end for Leontius?
Tiberius himself only lasted until 705 CE. He was overthrown by a familiar figure, the Emperor Justinian II. Allied with the king of the Bulgar people, he seized back his throne.
Having returned to power, Justinian was vengeful. He inflicted a humiliating death on Tiberius and Leontius. He brought them to the hippodrome. He stood on their necks and used them as footstools during the horse races. He then had them beheaded.
Why did Leontius fail?
Leontius was smart enough to seize the throne. He was determined enough to win many battles. So why couldn’t he keep hold of it?
There are a whole host of possibilities but here are some prominent theories.
- Leontius tried to stop overspending. He saw the cost of Justinian’s campaigns and wanted to be more measured. He miscalculated about the way it would appear outside his empire.
- Leontius was too compassionate. He allowed his respect for Constantine IV to blind him to the danger of leaving Justinian II alive. He was not ruthless enough to manage an empire.
- Leontius was an acceptable Emperor, but Abd Al-Malik was an exceptional Caliph. He was simply outmatched. Abd Al-Malik was a reformer with ideas for consolidation within his empire, but he had an eye on the wider world.
We do not know why Leontius failed to consolidate power and hang on to the throne. His short reign is shrouded in uncertainty.
His story has shown us that he was intriguing.
We know that he demonstrated compassion.
Leontius was a man of his time, with a vision for peace that he never successfully realized.
His compassion and restraint were admirable as a man. Sadly, they proved unforgivable in an Emperor. I leave you to imagine what Leontius might have been if the plague came a year later.