Sometimes referred to as the Eastern Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire was undoubtedly one of the greatest, most powerful and longest-lived empires in the history of mankind. The continuation of the Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire existed for more than a thousand years (from c. 330 to 1453), and it spanned over a number of different dynasties with hundreds of emperors. Considering the huge number of Byzantine rulers, it is quite natural that not all of them became prominent figures who would go down in history, but some of them did, and today’s post is dedicated to them. If you liked our previously published post with 25 Things You May Not Know About The Byzantine Empire, you will surely enjoy this one too because it features 25 Most Notable Byzantine Emperors in History. From the very first Byzantine Emperor Constantine the Great to the very last one, Constantine XI, it is our pleasure to present you with these 25 Most Notable Byzantine Emperors in History.
Note: as we already mentioned, the Byzantine Empire was the continuation of the Roman Empire so some of its early emperors are also referred to as Roman Emperors.
Constantine the Great
Let us start out with the very first emperor of the Byzantine Empire. Constantine the Great was a Roman Emperor (306 – 337) who built a new imperial residence at Byzantium (back then it was an Ancient Greek colony. Today it is Turkey’s capital, Istanbul) and renamed the city Constantinople after himself. The city later became the capital of the entire Byzantine Empire.
Also known as Julian the Apostate, Julian was a Roman Emperor (361 – 363). Julian was a man of unusually complex character – he was also a brilliant military commander, theosophist, philosopher, social reformer, and respected author. Julian was the last non-Christian ruler of the Roman Empire, and it was his desire to bring the Empire back to its ancient Roman values in order to, as he saw it, save it from dissolution.
Also known as Theodosius the Great, Theodosius I was a Roman Emperor (379 – 395) known as the last emperor to rule over both the eastern and the western halves of the Roman Empire. In 393, he banned the pagan rituals of the Olympics in Ancient Greece. After Theodosius’ death, his young sons Arcadius and Honorius inherited the east and west halves respectively.
Commonly known as Theodosius the Younger or Theodosius the Calligrapher, Theodosius II was an Eastern Roman Emperor (408 – 450). He is mostly known for promulgating the Theodosian law code, and for the construction of the Theodosian Walls of Constantinople. He also presided over the outbreak of two great christological controversies, Nestorianism and Eutychianism.
Leo I the Thracian
An Eastern Roman Emperor (457 – 474), Leo I the Thracian was a capable ruler who oversaw many ambitious political and military plans, aimed mostly for the aid of the faltering Western Roman Empire and recovering its former territories. Notable for being the first Eastern Emperor to legislate in Greek rather than Latin, Leo I the Thracian died at the age of 73, a very old age for that time.
Anastasius I was an Eastern Roman Emperor (491 – 518) whose reign was characterized by substantive accomplishments, which were representative of emerging patterns of government, economy, and bureaucracy in the Eastern Roman empire. In addition, Anastasius is known for leaving the imperial government with a sizable budget surplus due to minimization of government corruption, reforms to the tax code, and the introduction of a new form of currency.
Traditionally known as Justinian the Great, Justinian I was a Byzantine Emperor (527 – 565) who sought to revive the Roman Empire’s greatness and re-conquer its lost western half. He is also known for the uniform rewriting of Roman law, the Corpus Juris Civilis, which is still the basis of civil law in many modern states. During Justinian’s reign, the Byzantine culture thrived, and his building program yielded such masterpieces as the iconic church of Hagia Sophia in today’s Istanbul.
Maurice was an Eastern Roman Emperor (582 – 602) who is best known for his successful military campaign against the Sassanid Persians. He brought the war with Sassanid Persia to a victorious conclusion: the Empire’s eastern border in the Caucasus was vastly expanded, and for the first time in nearly two centuries, the Romans were no longer obliged to pay the Persians thousands of pounds of gold annually for peace.
A prominent Byzantine Emperor (610 – 641), Heraclius was responsible for introducing Greek as the Eastern Empire’s official language. His reign was marked by several military campaigns including the Byzantine–Sassanid War and the Muslim Conquests. His government reforms reduced corruption, and he also reorganized the military with great success.
Justinian II was the last Byzantine Emperor of the Heraclian Dynasty, reigning from 685 to 695 and again from 705 to 711. He 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, which resulted in his deposition in 695. He returned to the throne in 705 but his second reign was even more despotic than the first, and it too saw his eventual overthrow in 711.
Leo III the Isaurian
Also known as the Syrian, Leo III the Isaurian was a notable Byzantine Emperor (717 – 741) who put an end to the Twenty Years’ Anarchy, a period of great instability in the Byzantine Empire, marked by the rapid succession of several emperors to the throne. Known for his innovative reforms on military, political, and administrative levels, he also successfully defended the Empire against the invading Umayyads and forbade the veneration of icons.
The son of Leo III the Isaurian, Constantine V was a Byzantine Emperor from 741 to 775. Born in Constantinople, Constantine V was an able general and administrator. He reorganized the themes (military and administrative districts of the Empire) and created new field army divisions called tagmata. This organization was intended to minimize the threat of conspiracies and to enhance the defensive capabilities of the Empire.
Irene of Athens
Also known as Irene Sarantapechaina, Irene of Athens was one of just three Byzantine empresses. Ruling the Empire from 797 to 802, she is best known for the restoration of the veneration of icons. Irene was related to the noble Greek Sarantapechos family of Athens, and she was brought to Constantinople by Constantine V and was married to his son Leo IV.
The third and traditionally last member of the Amorian (or Phrygian) Dynasty, Michael III was a Byzantine Emperor who ruled the Empire from 842 to 867. He was given the disparaging epithet “the Drunkard” by the hostile historians of the succeeding Macedonian Dynasty who tried to discredit him, but modern historical research show he was a successful military leader and played an important role in the resurgence of Byzantine power in the 9th century.
Known as the Macedonian, Basil I was a Byzantine Emperor who reigned from 867 to 886. Despite his humble peasant origins, he showed great ability in running the affairs of state, leading to a revival of Imperial power and a renaissance of Byzantine art. He was perceived by the Byzantines as one of their greatest emperors, and the Macedonian Dynasty, which he founded, is regarded as the most glorious and prosperous dynasty in the Byzantine Empire’s history.
The fourth Emperor of the Macedonian Dynasty, Constantine VII ruled the Empire from 913 to 959, which makes him one of the longest-reigning emperors in the Empire’s history, but in fact, most of his reign was dominated by co-regents. Constantine VII was renowned for his remarkable abilities as a writer and scholar; he is the author of four significant books: De Administrando Imperio, De Ceremoniis, De Thematibus, and Vita Basilii.
Nikephoros II Phokas
A successful Byzantine Emperor (963 – 969), Nikephoros II Phokas was particularly appreciated for his brilliant military skills and exploits that contributed to the resurgence of the Byzantine Empire during the 10th century. He waged numerous wars throughout his reign, most of which ended up victorious. There are many streets in Greece and even a whole municipality in Crete named after this great ruler.
John I Tzimiskes
John I Tzimiskes was a senior Byzantine Emperor who, during his relatively short reign (969 – 976), managed to significantly strengthen the Empire and expand its borders. An extremely capable military leader, John I successfully invaded Upper Mesopotamia and parts of Syria but failed to take over Jerusalem. It is believed that John I Tzimiskes was poisoned (he died aged 50).
Nicknamed the Bulgar Slayer, Basil II was the longest-reigning Byzantine Emperor who ruled the Empire from 976 to 1025. During his reign, the Empire reached its medieval apogee as it stretched from southern Italy to the Caucasus and from the Danube to the borders of Palestine. Basil II was also a capable administrator as he reduced the power of the great land-owning families who dominated the Empire’s administration and military, while filling the Empire’s treasury.
Zoe Porphyrogenita was a Byzantine Empress who reigned from 1028 to 1050. Most notable for her stunning beauty, Zoe was one of the few Byzantine empresses who was Porphyrogenita, which means “born into the purple” (that is, she was born to a reigning emperor – Constantine VIII). She mostly reigned as a co-ruler, be it with her sister Theodora or one of her three husbands, Romanos III (1028–1034), Michael IV (1034–1041), and Constantine IX (1042–1050).
Zoe’s younger sister, Theodora co-ruled with Zoe for two months in 1042, after which she was a sole empress reigning from 1055 to 1056. Having no children, she was the last ruler of the Macedonian line, and upon her death, the empire entered a period of decline that lasted until the ascension of Alexios I Komnenos in 1081. Before her death, Theodora nominated Michael VI as her successor.
Alexius I Komnenos
Alexios I Komnenos was an important Byzantine emperor (1081 – 1118) and the first ruler of the Komnenian Dynasty. Inheriting a collapsing empire and faced with constant warfare during his reign against both the Seljuq Turks in Asia Minor and the Normans in the western Balkans, Alexios was able to curb the Byzantine decline and begin the military, financial, and territorial recovery. He was also one of the key figures in launching the Crusades.
John II Komnenos
Also known as John the Beautiful or John the Good. John II Komnenos ruled the Byzantine Empire from 1118 to 1143. A military genius, John has been assessed as the greatest of the Komnenian emperors. In the course of his 25-year reign, John made alliances with the Holy Roman Empire in the west, decisively defeated the Pechenegs, Hungarians, and Serbs in the Balkans, and personally led numerous successful campaigns against the Turks in Asia Minor.
John III Doukas Vatatzes
John III Doukas Vatatzes was a Byzantine Emperor (1222 – 1254) who laid the groundwork for Nicaea’s recovery of Constantinople. Despite his epilepsy, John III was successful in maintaining generally peaceful relations with his most powerful neighbors, Bulgaria and the Sultanate of Rum, and his network of diplomatic relations extended to the Holy Roman Empire and the Papacy, while his armed forces included Frankish mercenaries.
Constantine XI was the last reigning Byzantine Emperor, ruling as a member of the Palaiologos Dynasty from 1449 to his death in battle at the fall of Constantinople in 1453. After his death, he became a legendary figure in Greek folklore as the “Marble Emperor” who would awaken and recover the Empire and Constantinople from the Ottomans. Despite the foreign and domestic difficulties which culminated in the fall of Constantinople and the entire Byzantine Empire, contemporary sources speak respectfully of him.