Flavius Zeno (formerly Tarasis)
Timeline: Western Roman Glory

Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Emperor
October 31, 475 - August 12, 525

Predecessor Leo I
Successor Armatus I
Imperator Augoustos (Greek; Eastern Roman Emperor)
Born c. 425
Zenonopolis, Asia Minor
Died March, 477
Mediolanum, Italy
Profession Royalty

Zeno, originally named Tarasis, was an Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Emperor from 474 to 476. Domestic revolts and religious dissension plagued his reign, which nevertheless succeeded to some extent in foreign issues. His reign also saw the rebirth of the Western Roman Empire under Romulus Augustus, and saw it quickly began a shockingly quick return to prestige and power, serving as a catalyst for the future of Rome.

Early Life

Zeno was born into a divided Roman world. The Western Roman Empire, more Latin-cultured and Roman-centered than the East, was on the verge of collapse due to nearly a century of political instability, military decline, and general decay. The Eastern Roman Empire was much more stable, although it depended more on strategic trade locations than ruling its lands as an empire. Consequently, its capital, Constantinople, was one of the richest cities in the known world. It was also more dominant in an odd mixture of Romano-Greek culture and language, rather than Latin tradition.

Zeno's original name was Tarasis. He was born in Isauria, at Rusumblada, later renamed Zenonopolis in Zeno's honour. His father was called Kodisa, his mother Lallis, his brother Longinus. Tarasis had a wife, Arcadia, whose name indicates a relationship with the local Greek aristocracy, and whose statue was erected near the Baths of Arcadius, along the steps that led to Topoi. Tarasis was also related to the Isaurian general Zeno, who had fought against the Huns in 447 to defend the Eastern Roman Empire and had been consul in Constantinople the following year.

By mid-460s, Arcadia and Tarasis had moved to Constantinople to live a life of luxury amidst the great city's riches. Around this time, the western division of the empire appealed to Leo I, the Eastern emperor to help their fellow Romans fight off invading Germanic tribes which had already sacked Rome and reduced the West to little more than scattered outposts in southern Italy. However, Leo ignored the requests and concluded he could not spare any of his troops to go assist them against the Barbarians.

In 464, Tarasis uncovered a plot against the Eastern Empire when he put his hands on some letters written by an Alan military magistrate named Aspar, which proved that the son of the general had incited the Shah of Persia to invade Eastern Roman territory, promising to support the invasion. Through these letters, which Tarasis gave to Leo I, the emperor could dismiss the traitor, who at the time was magister militum per Orientem and patricius, thus reducing Aspar's influence and ambition. As reward for his loyalty, Tarasis was appointed comes domesticorum, an office of great influence and prestige.

In 465 Leo and Aspar quarrelled about the appointment of consuls for the following year; it was in this occasion that Tarasis' position was strengthened, as he become friend and ally of the emperor.

Rise to Power

To make himself more acceptable to the Roman hierarchy and the population of Constantinople, Tarasis adopted the Greek name of Zeno and used it for the rest of his life. In mid-late 466 Zeno married Ariadne, elder daughter of Leo I and Verina after the death of his previous wife. The next year their son was born, and Zeno become father of the heir apparent to the throne, as the only son of Leo I's had died in his infancy; to stress his claim to the throne, the boy was named Leo, after the emperor himself. Zeno, however, was not present at the birth of his son, as in 467 he participated to a military campaign against a Germanic tribe in the Balkans.

Zeno, as member of the protectores domestici, did not take part in the disastrous Roman expedition against the German Vandals, led in 468 by Leo I's brother-in-law, Basiliscus. The following year, during which he held the honour of the consulate, he was appointed magister militum per Thracias and led an expedition in Thrace to defend Constantinople itself. Around this time, Zeno discovered he would have been the target of a conspiracy but had escaped unharmed. What happened was that Leo I sent some of his personal soldiers with Zeno to protect him, but they were bribed by Aspar to actually capture him. Zeno was informed of their intention and fled to Serdica, and because of this episode Leo grew even more suspicious of Aspar and left Constantinople.

After the attack, Zeno did not return to Constantinople, where Aspar still held considerable power. Instead he moved to the "Long Wall" (the Chersonese Long Wall or, less probably, the Anastasian Wall), then to Pylai and from there to Chalcedon. While waiting here for an opportunity to return in the capital, he was appointed magister militum per Orientem. He took the Roman monk Peter the Fuller with him and left for Antioch, his office's see, passing through Asia Minor, where he put down a small rebellion. Zeno then stayed at Antioch, Syria, for two years.

While living in Antioch with his family, Zeno sympathised with the religious views of Peter the Fuller, and supported him against his opponent, the Chalcedonian bishop Martyrius. Zeno allowed the arrival in Antioch from nearby monasteries of monks who increased the number of Peter's followers, and did not repress effectively their violences. Martyrius went to Constantinople, to ask Leo for help, but returning to Antioch he was informed that Peter had been elected bishop and resigned (470). Leo reacted by ordering Peter exiled and addressing to Zeno that a Roman law that forbade the monks to leave their monasteries and to promote rebellion (1 June 471).

With Zeno far from Constantinople, Aspar had increased his influence having his son Julius Patricius appointed to a high position in the emperor's court and married to Leo I's younger daughter, Leontia (470). In 471 Leo I had Aspar treacherously killed, with Zeno's approval. In the eve of the murders, Zeno moved closer to Constantinople, expecting his return. After Aspar's death, Zeno returned to Constantinople and was appointed magister militum praesentalis.

As Emperor

On 25 October 473 Leo I appointed Caesar his nephew Leo II, the son of Zeno and Ariadne. On 18 January 474 Leo I died; if Leo II had not already been proclaimed co-emperor by his grandfather, he become Augustus in that occasion. Since Leo II was seven years old, too young to rule himself, Ariadne and her mother Verina prevailed upon him to crown Zeno, his father, as co-emperor, which he did on February 9, 474. When Leo II became ill and died on November 17, Zeno I became sole emperor.

Emperor Zeno first had to settle the matters with the Vandals, who harassed the Eastern Roman Empire's valuable sea commercial routes with their incursions on the coastal cities of the Empire. Zeno sent them a high-ranking officer as ambassador, Severus, who succeeded in stipulating a peace treaty between the Vandals and the Eastern Empire, a peace which allowed the Romans to pay ransoms for the prisoners in Vandal hands and which ended the Vandal persecution of Christians in the their territory.

Despite this success, Zeno continued to be unpopular with the people and senate because of his Barbarian origins; his right to the throne was limited to his marriage with Ariadne and his relationship to Verina, the dowager empress. Therefore he chose to support himself on the Anatolian component of the army, in particular to strengthen his bond with the Isaurian generals and brothers Illus and Trocundes. However, Verina decided to overthrow her son-in-law Zeno and replace him with her lover, the ex-magister officiorum Patricius, with the help of her brother Basiliscus. The conspirators caused riots in the capital against the new emperor; Basiliscus succeeded also in convincing Illus, Trocundes and the German general Theodoric Strabo to join the plot.

In January of 475 Zeno was forced to flee Constantinople to Isauria with his wife and mother, some loyal servants, and the imperial treasure. Illus and Trocundes were sent to chase him, and Zeno was compelled to hide himself in a fortress, where Illus besieged him, capturing Zeno's brother, Longinus, and keeping him as an hostage.

However, the conspirators quickly fell in contrast with each other. Basiliscus took the throne for himself, putting to death Verina's lover and candidate, Patricius. He also allowed the citizens to kill all of the Isaurians left in Constantinople, an episode that damaged his bond to the Isaurian generals Illus and Trocundes. Basiliscus also appointed his nephew Armatus magister militum, thus alienating Theodoric Strabo. Since Zeno had left no money, Basiliscus was forced to levy heavy taxes on the people. Finally, he alienated the Church, supporting the Monophysites. The population of Constantinople also put the blame on him for a great fire that burned several parts of the city. With the secret support of the Senate, and with the help of the bribes paid by Zeno, Illus accepted to switch sides and united his army with Zeno's, marching on Costantinople. Basiliscus tried to recover popular support and sent another army against Zeno, under his nephew Armatus' command. Zeno succeeded in bribing Armatus too, promising to confirm his rank of magister militum praesentalis for life and promoting his son to the rank of deputy emperor; Armatus' army did not intercept Zeno's troops marching on Constantinople, and the lack of Theodoric Strabo and his army decided the fate of Basiliscus, who fled with his family in the church of Hagia Sophia.

In August 476, Zeno besieged Constantinople. The Eastern Senate opened the gates of the city to the Isaurian, allowing the deposed emperor to resume the throne. Basiliscus fled to sanctuary in a church, but he was betrayed by the Patriarch Acacius and surrendered himself and his family after extracting a solemn promise from Zeno not to shed their blood. Basiliscus and his family were sent to a fortress in Cappadocia, where Zeno had them enclosed in a dry cistern, to die from exposure.

After his restoration, Zeno fulfilled his promises, letting Armatus keep his title of magister militum praesentalis (possibly even raising him to the rank of Patricius) and appointing his son in Nicaea. Upon his return to the throne, Zeno was congratulated by the official Western Roman emperor, Julius Nepos, who was in good terms with Zeno, and he even minted coins in the names of Zeno, Leo II and himself. Julius was a citizen of the Eastern Roman Empire by birth, but the powerful Constantinople had been previously appointing the Western Emperors for the last few years.

On August 475, during Basiliscus' reign, while Zeno was in Isauria, Julius Nepos had been overthrown by his own Patricius Orestes and forced to flee in Dalmatia; Orestes elevated to the throne his own son, Romulus Augustus. One year later, while Zeno was entering in Constantinople to end Basiliscus' reign, Romulus faced rebellion by the Chieftain of the German tribe Heruli, Odoacer.

Odoacer quickly advanced to the Western Roman city of Ravenna, where the emperor was, arriving before the gates with a great Barbarian army. Romulus, hopelessly outnumbered by the Germanic forces, turned to his advisers, who suggested that he offer Odoacer co-emperorship in exchange for lifting the siege. Odoacer ultimately accepted the position and became the effective leader of the Western Roman Empire for the brief period.


Around this point, a power struggle broke out in Constantinople which kept the Eastern Empire from interfering with affairs in the West. A conspiracy hatched by a Thracian commander attempted to oust Zeno, who gathered together loyal supporters and and the local militia, crushing the rebel forces and massacring 5,000 of them. Upon suppressing the rebellion, Zeno received an envoy from the Senate in Rome, informing him that Odoacer had seized power. At the same time Zeno received another embassy, sent by Julius Nepos (who still ruled a small portion of the empire in Dalmatia), asking Zeno to give him the money and the army he needed to take back his throne. Zeno answered the Roman Senate to welcome back Julius Nepos, their rightful Emperor; he also said that Odoacer and Romulus should receive the patriciate by Julius Nepos, and that he would be glad to grant it unless Nepos granted it first.

The request was refused outright. Odoacer was reminded that Julius Nepos challenged his claim to the throne, thus in 477 he marched a combined Roman-Barbarian army out towards Dalmatia to attack Nepos. Nepos fled into the borders of the Greece, begging Zeno to come to his aid. Realizing the potential danger, Zeno marched an army of his best cohorts from Constantinople to the Balkans. He regrouped with Julius Nepos, and they set out for Rome.

While Odoacer took his time, Zeno and Nepos made a forced march by their troops into Italy. The Eastern and Western Roman armies met near Mediolanum, where Odoacer was confident he could win in a pitched battle. The heavily-armored Eastern horsemen used by Zeno quickly decimated Odoacer's light cavalry, but were destroyed by the Western legions. The Eastern Empire brought forth its second line of battle, led by Zeno himself. The troops clashed, and the Eastern legions began to prevail. However, the day was lost when Zeno was struck by a Barbarian's sword, which pierced his plumed helmet and mortally wounded him. The Western forces pressed forward, and the Eastern legions were quickly broken.

Julius Nepos quickly took command of Zeno's army and ordered a gallant cavalry charge which resulted in the death of Odoacer and many of his other Barbarian horsemen. However, an arrow struck Nepos between the curves of his breastplate and claimed his own life, causing his men to panic upon losing both generals. In the heat of the battle, Romulus himself got directly involved in the fighting and, despite his small size and young age, managed to survive. At this point his Germanic legions heralded him as a true warrior worthy of ruling, leading to him receiving direct control over his army, instead of controlling them through a proxy. The Eastern army was completely routed, and Romulus prevailed.

Zeno had died in March 477, after ruling for 3 years and 2 months. No sons were to succeed him: Leo had died in 474, Zenon, the first son, had died in his youth, while living at court. Ariadne then chose a favoured member of the imperial court, Anastasius, to succeed Zeno, whose brother Longinus revolted, starting the Isaurian War that would throw the Eastern Roman Empire into chaos for years to come.

With the death of Odoacer bringing a free hand in the west and control over the Barbarians within Romulus Augustus's borders, the death of Nepos bringing him legitimacy and the death of Zeno bringing him new found influence even in the distant eastern empire, the boy-emperor began working to re-consolidate Roman authority in the west. As a result of this initiative, instead of overstretching himself through trying to claim the Eastern Empire, Romulus simply threw his support behind Armatus, Zeno's deputy emperor, in exchange for monetary support from Constantinople and the permanent transfer of numerous legions to Romulus' control. Due to the newly weakened state of the East and the overestimation of Romulus' military power, this deal was accepted, and the Eastern Empire further weakened as a large number of its forces and a massive chunk of its treasury went to the West to rebuild Rome.

It wasn't until 478 that Armatus would rightfully assume his throne and defeat his two imperial rivals in Asia Minor, Anastasius and Longinus.

Predecessor: Flavius Zeno House of Leo (Western Roman Glory) Successor:
Leo I Flavius Zeno

Emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire

Armatus I
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