artabasdos

The histories of kingdoms and empires often feature a lot of “power behind the throne” type characters, and in Byzantine history, one of the most interesting in that category is Artabasdos. He was a military man from Armenia, born in the late 7th century CE, and walked onto the world stage about 713 when he was appointed governor of the Armeniac “Theme.” A theme, in Byzantine society, was a military district ruled by a governor whose position was usually hereditary, but who had the responsibility of fielding troops from that district when the Emperor called for them; in essence it was sort of military feudalism. As Armenia was one of the most important outposts in the Byzantine Empire, Artabasdos was a pretty important guy.

He also seems to have been quite a meddler and schemer. In 717 he teamed up with another general, Leo the Isaurian, to overthrow the Emperor Theodosius III. In exchange for Artabasdos’s help, Leo, when he came to the throne in Theodosius’s place in March 717, made Artabasdos kouropalates, or “Master of the Palace,” basically his chief of staff. But to keep him ostensibly under control of Leo’s family he was also pledged to marry Anna, Leo’s daughter, who was then only 12. (The marriage was arranged but was not supposed to actually happen until Anna grew older). It didn’t work. After Leo died and his son Constantine V came to the throne in 741, Artabasdos and Constantine split over the issue of Iconoclasm–whether it was permissible to have images of Christ and the saints. Artabasdos said sure, Constantine said no way. The Iconoclast controversy would roil Byzantine society for over 100 years.

As you did in Byzantine society when you were a powerful general ticked off at the Emperor, Artabasdos raised an army and tried to take over the throne. He was, after all, married to the Emperor’s sister, and he had an army of his own; in fact for a brief time he controlled Constantinople and was supposedly crowned Emperor there. Ultimately Artabasdos and Constantine settled their differences with (what else?) a huge battle which took place in 743. Artabasdos ended up on the short end. Constantine had him blinded–a favorite punishment for usurpers–and sent off to a monastery where he died some years later.

Although a fascinating individual in his own right, Artabasdos appears as a minor character in my 2013 novel Zombies of Byzantium, which takes place in 717 during the time he was kouropalates. Artabasdos is a pretty forgettable character but most readers remember the Emperor Leo. My additions to his character of a passion for pistachio nuts and chronic flatulence are artistic license.

The photo of the gold solidus of Artabasdos, issued briefly while he usurped the Byzantine throne, is by Classical Numismatic Group and is used under Creative Commons 3.0 (Attribution) license.
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