706: Leontios and Apsimar

Add comment February 15th, 2019 Headsman

Likely around February 706 the Byzantine emperors Leontios (Leontius) and Apsimar were executed by the man they’d deposed.

Although a very lesser member of the Roman Empire’s purple club, they had the honor of sort of sounding the death knell of the century-old dynasty founded by the mighty Heraclius.

Heraclius’s great-great-grandson Justinian II had shown himself over a ten-year reign beginning 685 a high- and a ham-handed prince; indeed, his eventual usurper had felt that wrath in 692 when Justinian threw Leontios in prison for losing a battle to the Arabs.

Later restored as strategos of Hellas, Leontios predictably rebelled almost immediately and deposed the irritating legacy case in 695. While many of Justinian’s ministers were put to death, the new boss made an unwise show of clemency by only mutilating Justinian.

(Justinian’s nose was cut off, a mercy masquerading as a grotesquerie: it was commonly meted out in lieu of execution to potential rival imperial claimants with the understanding that the visible mutilation would make it effectively impossible for that person to effectually claim power in the future. Leontios was destined to experience this “mercy” firsthand.)

Our first usurper marks the start of a tumultuous era known as the Twenty Years’ Anarchy wherein seven different emperors ruled in the course of a single generation — so of course he did not have the perquisites of power very long. (The History of Byzantium podcast covers this period in episodes 65 and 66.)

In 698, after the Arabs conquered Carthage — permanently ending the Roman presence in Africa, which dated to the Roman Republic — an admiral named Apsimar claimed the throne for himself. Perhaps it was a pre-emptive lest he be blamed for the Carthage debacle: like Leontios, he first set his foot upon the dais thanks to a failure in the field. For whatever reason it worked with an ease that speaks to the scant legitimacy that Leontios had established among his subjects. Apsimar — Tiberius III, if you please — went as easy on Leontios as had Leontios on his own predecessor, condemning him only to nasal mutilation and monastic imprisonment.

Apsimar had a bit more success and a bit more longevity, but only a bit — for in the early 700s, the embittered and vengeful Justinian cinematically managed to escape his overseers, strangle two assassins sent to hunt him down, and sail through a deadly storm* on the Black Sea to catch on with the Bulgars.

There, mutilated face and all, he raised an army to take back Constantinople. This he duly achieved by dint of an ill-guarded water channel to re-enthrone the dynasty of Heraclius, then hauled both of the interregnum rulers before him and smugly propped up his feet upon their backs. Justinian got a golden prosthetic nose and imperial power; the now-ex-kings got publicly beheaded in an amphitheater known as the Kynegion.

Justinian’s improbable political second act lasted just six years more, until he was overthrown in 711 for the second and final time. This usurper had the good sense to kill him.

* In fear of his life during the storm, one of Justinian’s companions allegedly called on him to placate God by promising his enemies mercy. “If I spare a single one of them, may God drown me here,” replied the once and future emperor.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: Ancient,Beheaded,Byzantine Empire,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Heads of State,History,Power,Public Executions,Soldiers,The Worm Turns,Treason,Turkey,Uncertain Dates

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