In the fifth century A.D. there was a craze for religious men to clamber up pillars and proclaim themselves 'closer to God, further away from Man'. It had started with St. Simeon 'Stylites' in the 420s who had religiously dossed out on a pillar near Aleppo in Syria. He had stayed there until his death 30 years later. In time other religious men (no women tried this trick) had also shimmied up spare columns to proclaim their sanctity. There they would stay, becoming living tourist attractions and objects of peasant adoration.
One particular 'holy man on a pillar' was St.Daniel the Stylite. He found his particular preaching perch near Constantinople. This column had been erected on private land to advertise a local temple building business. Daniel found it and refused to budge for the next 40 years. The land owner complained but was told there was exemption to evicting holy men from pillars. Daniel gained powerful friends, despite looking like a desiccated scarecrow. One of these was a Roman general called Zeno.
Zeno was born in around 425 in the wild country of Isauria in South Eastern Asia Minor (Turkey). His original birth name was 'Tarasikodissa Kodisa Rousombladadiotes' and he spoke a non-Greek tongue as his first language. 'Tarasis' (as he was more likely to be called then) took the usual path of advancement in the Roman world by becoming a soldier but his 'barbaric' name still meant he was discriminated against. So Tarasis changed it to 'Zeno', perhaps because he loved a paradox.
The future emperor soon got his sword bloodied in a battle in 447 against Attila the Hun. Zeno was congratulated for his 'saucy sword play' and got a promotion. This perhaps also got him first wife, a Roman aristocrat called Arcadia. She liked her 'barbarian rough' and they had a family. Two of their kids apparently ended up as saints whilst a son called Zenon went 'transgender' as a cute girl with ponytails.
Imperial Marriage and a VisitEdit
In the 460s Zeno's wife Arcadia died. It was also about then that Zeno met Doolally Daniel on his column. Zeno appears to have got hold of an extra long ladder to talk to the holy man. He apparently said 'Go to the Big City and give the Emperor this token'. It was a clump of hair from Daniel's head. Zeno took the gift and gained an audience with Emperor Leo I.
- Leo:So you met Mad Dan, the Saintly Man?
- Zeno:I did your imperialness.
- Leo:What did he say?
- Zeno:25, 47, 67, 74, 75, 76 and the bonus ball 91
- Leo:That funny geezer gave me similar numerical advice. My bonus ball is 74.
- Zeno:So this means something? What have I won??
- Leo:My daughter Ariadne's hand in marriage. I was waiting for the right chap.
Zeno was then presented with Ariadne, the eldest daughter of Leo and his wife Verina. The Imperial princess looked less than impressed by her new husband with his distinctly shaggy look despite the Greek name. Ariadne eventually consented and the couple were married.
The new imperial-son-in-law had hoped to bring the rest of his family into the imperial court but Empress Verina refused to go along with this. The newlyweds produced a young prince within a year of marriage who was named Prince Leo (later Emperor Leo II) after his grandpops.
Zeno's position at court should have been secure as he was the father to the next possible ruler of the Eastern Roman Empire but this wasn't the case. Besides Verina, Zeno was also considered the enemy of the empire's military master manipulater Aspar. The latter's son Ardabur - a typical son of a powerful man and full of his own arrogance - hired assassins to kill Zeno but they failed. Taking the hint, Zeno left Constantinople with his wife Ariadne and son Leo and took refuge in Chalcedon, just across the Bosphorus from the capital.
Zeno stayed out of trouble and with satisfaction saw Aspar and his family bumped off by the old Emperor. Yet Zeno was still finding it hard to be accepted by the aristocratic snobs in Constantinople. More to the point, Emperor Leo started acting strange towards him. He made it clear that Zeno had just 'provided the right seed', the next emperor would be young Leo.
In January 474 Leo died. Empress Verina (now with a new lover Patricius) claimed the regency for her grandson Emperor Leo II. However Ariadne resented her mother's scheming and insisted Zeno be crowned co-emperor with his son. Little Leo took little persuasion, Zeno was now emperor.
For six or so months the arrangement held but in November 474 Leo died suddenly. Zeno and Ariadne had no other children and once again his 'fitness' to be emperor were questioned. Moreover, Verina had collected an alliance of people who all had a personal grudge against Zeno. In January 475 they made a move, rebellions broke out in the capital city. Zeno and Ariadne packed their clothes and fled to Isauria where Zeno hoped to be safe.
Exile and ReturnEdit
Verina's alliance didn't last long. Her attempt to return to power with her boyfriend was blocked by her brother Basiliscus who became emperor instead. Zeno was faced by a former colleague and fellow Isaurian called Illus. The later blockaded Zeno and Ariadne in their mountain retreat.
It would have seemed only a matter of time that Illus would capture Zeno but the emperor was saved by the useless Basiliscus. Besides exiling his sister Verina and executing her lover Paulicius, Basiliscus had also engineered a massacre of Isaurians in Constantinople. This persuaded Illus to swop sides. Zeno and Illus then marched on the capital and re-entered the city in August 476. Zeno was back.
No More Western Roman EmpireEdit
Zeno promised an amnesty for all those who submitted to his restoration. He even let Basiliscus and family live for a few months. Though he had promised not to kill Basiliscus, he hadn't offered to feed him and in act of cruelty, dropped his rival, his wife Zenonis and their young son Marcus into a cistern where they were starved to death.
Whilst this drama was going, the Western Roman Empire was finally collapsing into an ugly heap. Zeno had accepted Julius Nepos as his Western imperial colleague but had not extended that welcome to Romulus Augustulus when he was placed on the throne in 475. At the same time Zeno had been recovering his capital from Basiliscus, Romulus Augustulus's army rebelled under their leader Odoacer and obliged him to abdicate. No official successor was chosen, Odoacer prevailed on Romulus Augustulus to send an official letter to Zeno apologising for being a snivelling kid and posting the imperial regalia to Constantinople to indicate that the Roman Empire was now officially 're-united'.
Zeno received the embassy from Odoacer with some amusement. He already had welcomed another delegation from Julius Nepos congratulating Zeno for his 'amazing military skills' and a request for military help to restore him in Rome and Ravenna. Zeno begged off on the military assistance but wrote to Odoacer to 'recognise' Julius Nepos as the rightful emperor in the West. Odoacer agreed with the stipulation that Julius Nepos never come to Italy to actually exercise his rights. It was a messy compromise but held until 480 when Nepos was assassinated by Bishop (and ex-emperor) Glycerius of Salona and a few helpers. Zeno accepted the reality that there was only one emperor left. The Western Roman Empire was deader than the Dodo.
If Zeno had hoped his troubles were over after the brutal dispatch of Basiliscus he was quickly disabused. New enemies now appeared and would often get into alliances with older foes. These now included his own sister-in-law Leontia (younger sister of Ariadne) who had married Marcian, a son of the late West Roman Emperor Anthemius. Once again Verina joined in the conspiracy. This rebellion was quelled quickly with the assistance of Illus and saw the banishment of the guilty pair. Marcian was forced to become a monk whilst Leontia sent to a nunnery where she then disappears. Verina got another banishment (she was collecting these like parking tickets), something that even upset Ariadne this time.
All the time Zeno was trying to find an acceptable successor-designate. He became friends with Armatus (a double defector and ex-lover of Empress Zenonis) and made his son Basiliscus 'Caesar' (i.e. a prince imperial contender). They fell out and Armatus was executed, his son fairing better by becoming a trainee bishop and long surviving everyone else connected with this tale of treachery and turn coating.
Yet Another RebellionEdit
It was around in 484 that Illus finally made his attempt to depose Zeno permanently. Empress Verina again supported anyone against her son-in-law. Illus was something of a rum bloke for the times. He had captured and imprisoned Zeno's own brother Longinus in 475 and had somehow kept hold of him despite the emperor's plea he be released. He was then given Empress Verina to 'look after', along with other members of the imperial family who had fallen out with Zeno. In turn Empress Ariadne had employed an assassin to kill Illus but the dagger missed and cut off the general's ear instead.
The revised anti-Zeno alliance of Illus and Verina now produced a new emperor. This was one of Zeno's own generals Leontius who had flipped and joined the rebels. The war took on a new angle as it was now claimed Zeno was a Monophysite Christian whereas Leontius an Orthodox Christian with a dash of paganism. The rebels also received support from Odoacer in Italy who took the opportunity to invade from the West. Illus's revolt initially looked dangerous but an early defeat in the hands of Theodoric 'the Animal' Ostrogoth saw Illus, Verina and others holed up in Papurius, a fortress in Cilicia.
Reduced to eating rats, Verina died or killed herself. Illus and Leontius held out until 488 when their stronghold was betrayed and both got the chop for their pains. Finally Zeno could rest. His formidable mother-in-law was dead and Illus who had so scared him was now officially dog meat. There was only one thing else to do. Solve the Ostrogothic problem.
Since the break up of the Hunnic empire, the various allied German and other barbarian tribes who had been forcefully enlisted in Attila the Hun's army had been hanging around the Balkans. The most powerful of these groups were the Ostrogoths, brother black candle worshippers like their cousins the Visigoths. The Ostrogoths were keen to learn about Rome but at the same time make trouble. The Eastern Roman solution was to invite Ostrogothic princes to Constantinople to learn about civilization and how to clean your bottom with a sponge, rather than a clump of grass.
Two Ostrogoths stood out. One was called Theodoric 'Strabo' - aka 'the squinter' - and the other was named Theodoric 'Amal or 'the animal'. They both hated Romans but marginally, hated each other more. Theo the Squinter had ended up in charge of the Germanic military formations in the Roman army and had got involved in the rebellion that had ousted Zeno the first time round. By the time Zeno had returned, he had claimed loyalty to Zeno but mixed that up going home to his Ostrogoths and going on raiding operations. Equally dangerous to Zeno was Theodoric the Amal.
In an early example of Byzantine politics, Zeno tried to get the rival Ostrogoths to attack each other rather than him. The plan failed but then in an accident of history in 481, Theodoric Strabo contrived to skewer himself when he fell off his horse in his camp and fell chest first on the pointy end of a spear, not covered by health and safety or insurance.
Now the leader of a united Ostrogothic nation, Theodoric made trouble in the Balkans for Zeno. Oddly, at the same time, he also supplied an army to defeat Illus and his emperor Leontius before going back to more raiding. Zeno tried to buy him off but then had a wizard idea. Odoacer was still a potential threat in Italy, why not set the two ruffians on each other? Zeno therefore supplied Theodoric with a mission and an official blessing. The Ostrogoths would invade Italy on behalf of the Roman Empire to dislodge the previous guys who were holding this imperial province under the same conditions. It worked. The Ostrogoths invaded Italy but then got locked into a long struggle against Odoacer. The Eastern Roman Empire at last had peace.
End of the StoryEdit
Zeno lived on till 491. Considering how much he had gone through, Zeno could be classified as a success. His Christianity was of the distinctly Monophysite persuasion but that had given him enough flexibility to deal with the Arian Christian Ostrogoths for example. The Nicene-Chalcedonian Christians (to become later the Catholics, Protestants and Greek Orthodox) were less thrilled by Zeno but could not forget that he had been great friends with St.Mad Dan on the Pillar. So that made it sort of all right.
Perhaps Zeno's greatest disappointment that he had no heirs to carry on his dynasty. His transgender son Zenon died before him and his deathbed request that Empress Ariadne marry his brother Longius were rejected by his prickly wife. She instead chose a pensioner and former bureaucrat called Anastasius I as her next husband and emperor.
Zeno's reign had been full of incidents and near misses. He died officially as the sole Roman Emperor. The two halves of the Roman Empire were officially one state again but with the Western section currently undergoing a squatters sit-in by the Goths, Vandals, Anglo-Saxons and the Franks. Perhaps a latter emperor would change this.
And the bonus ball was...91.