The Emperor Whose Nose Was Cut

and the Bulgarian Caesar


Zahari Zlatev

Extended resume


The beginning of the eighth century was an interesting period in the early Middle Age European history mainly because of the Arabian attempts to invade Europe. The Arabs continued to be a great danger for the most powerful European state, the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantium). Bulgaria and Khazaria were still great powers in South-Eastern Europe. The state of the Avars in Pannonia, which was very powerful about hundred years ago, was becoming weaker and weaker. Many Christian states were already established in Western Europe. These states started to gather strength, but they would become real powers in the continent only after one or two centuries. This is the stage on which the events described in this book took place.


Justinian II, who was only sixteen years old when he became emperor in year 695, was one of the most controversial figures in the whole history of the Eastern Roman Empire. The young and very ambitious ruler wanted very much to exceed the great achievements of the glorious emperor with the same name, Justinian I, who ruled very successfully the empire more than hundred and fifty years before him. The start of Justinian’s reign was indeed nearly triumphant. He won great victories against the Arabs and the Slavs. His agricultural laws were remarkable. He succeeded to gather 165 Eastern bishops in 691-692 to a great Synod in which among other things the family relations of the priests were regulated. The most important of these rules was the fact that the celibacy was not a requirement for the priests. They could marry. However, there was one important exception: the priests were not allowed to marry prostitutes. Finally, Justinian had also a passion for building and in this field he could righteously compare himself with his famous predecessor Justinian I.


However, soon many problems arose. Pope Sergius I did not accept the decisions of the great Synod from 691-692. The priests in the countries in Western Europe were not allowed to marry. The requirement for celibacy remained and this is giving great problems for the catholic priest even in our days. Justinian tried arrest the Pope for the refusal to follow his orders, He wanted to bring the Pope in Constantinople, to condemn him and to send him in exile to Chersonesos in Taurica (as his grand-father Constans II did with Pope Martine in year 653). This attempt was not successful. Thus, Justinian did not succeed to enforce the decisions of the great Synod from 691-692 in the countries of the Western Europe.


Soon after that failure many others of his actions ended with failures too. The taxies had to be increased in order to finance the numerous and very expensive building projects started by the too ambitious and still very young emperor. A rebellion was raised in Constantinople, Justinian was dethroned, his face was mutilated (his nose was slit) and he was send in exile to Chersonesos in Taurica.


The belief that a man with a mutilated face will never succeed to regain his throne was the reason for performing such an act. However, the emperor, who lost his nose, was nevertheless dreaming to return to Constantinople and to become again an emperor. Nine years he conspired and fought unceasingly for regaining the highest title in the empire. On the tenth year he succeeded with the help of the Bulgarian ruler Tervel. However, he had neither learned many new things nor forgotten his old and too ambitious plans during the exile in Chersonesos in Taurica. Furthermore and this turned out to be fatal for him, he was seeking revenge against all his enemies, absolutely all, without any exception. Therefore, his destiny was sealed. After several years another rebellion was raised. Justinian was defeated and executed. On the other hand, it became quite clear that mutilation of the face did not guarantee that the mutilated person will not attempt to regain his throne. Therefore, this kind of punishment of dethroned rulers was never used in the further history of the Eastern Roman Empire.


Justinian was one of the most tragic rulers of the Eastern Roman Empire. He was deeply religious and his intentions were good, his intentions were indeed always good. However the end results of all his efforts to perform the right actions were in most of the cases failures and disasters. In this book I tried to emphasize fact that this extremely unhappy ruler of the empire intended always to perform good and right actions. However, he demanded too much from his servants, from all of his servants. They had to be perfect. Therefore, Irina was quite right when she said about him in this book: ‘Justinian should have been born in a perfect world and he should have been living there. Our world is unfortunately by far not perfect’.


All events in this book, which are related to Justinian and which happened in Khazaria, Bulgaria and Constantinople, are based on real historical facts and most of them are described in the first volume of the history of Byzantium in three volumes, which written by John Julius Norwich and published by Penguin Books in 1990. The only exception is the Justinian’s hijacking from Pliska by the representatives of the clan Vokil. This event was introduced in the book only in order to justify better the strong relations between Justinian and Tervel, which are well-documented and continued until the death of the poor emperor.


After stopping the Khazars in 670 and winning over the Roman army and fleet in 680, Bulgaria became a great power in South-eastern Europe. Nevertheless, Bulgaria was not the first choice of Justinian when was forced to leave the empire. His decision to escape to Khazaria, when his life in Chersonesos in Taurica was in danger, was dictated by the close relations, which his father, Constantine IV, had with this state. Indeed Constantine supported the Khazars in 670.  Later he attacked Bulgaria in 680. Therefore, the escape of the emperor who lost his nose to Khazaria was quite natural, but not the correct one. Fortunately, Justinian understood soon that it was a wrong and dangerous move, a completely wrong and very dangerous move. Killers were sent to Phanagoria to murder him. Nevertheless, he was very fortunate, because he succeeded to escape to Bulgaria, where he was supported in his efforts to regain his throne.


Tervel was the ruler of Bulgaria at that time. His grand-father Kubrat spent many years in the Great Palace in Constantinople. There he and many leaders of the clan Dulo became Christians in year 619. They and their descendants remain Christians. After Kubrat, the Bulgarian rulers from the dynasty Dulo remained Christians, admired the empire and always tried to improve the relations between Bulgarians and Romans. No ruler from the dynasty Dulo started a war against the Roman Empire.


Therefore, the arrival of Justinian to Bulgaria was a turning point in his life. He was strongly supported by Tervel and with his help succeeded to regain his title. The military help given by Tervel to Justinian was a historical fact documented in several chronicles from the Middle Age. It is also historically true that Justinian rewarded richly Tervel’s soldiers, proclaimed Tervel a Caesar and gave to him the region Zagoria to the South of the Haemos Mountain. The historians from the Middle Age mentioned on several places that Tervel had to marry Justinian’s daughter, because at that time only a member of the imperial family could become a Caesar. However, no information about the marriage of the Roman princess and the Bulgarian ruler is given in the chronicles from the Middle Age. The solution presented in this book (Justinian ordered the murder of his own daughter) is a fiction. I wanted to emphasize by this action the obsessive desire of Justinian to keep always what he promised and swore; to keep it at any price.


Rodelinde, Irina, Zoie, Totila, Zessa, Anastasios and Kubrat Junior are fictitious characters. The same is true for the Tervel’s advisors Beruk, Organa, Rean and Sabin as well as for his wife Chinara. However, Stefan is a historical person. It is mentioned in some chronicles from the Middle Age that a man named Stefan performed the negotiations with the Bulgarians after the arrival of Justinian and his friends in Tomis.


From the above description it becomes clear that the main events in this book are based on real historical facts and fiction is used only in order firstly to connect in a more solid way the single episodes recorded in different chronicles from the Middle Age and secondly to justify better the behaviour of the two major characters in this book, the Bulgarian khana-subigi Tervel and the Roman emperor Justinian. 


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Department of Atmospheric Environment, National Environmental Research Institute (Denmark)