Why did the Byzantines mutilate so much?

Apr 22 2010

Reader Karen asked why the emperors seemed so fond of mutilation.  Believe it or not this was actually seen as a more humane practice of dealing with potential usurpers than the standard treatment of execution.  By longstanding tradition only someone of unblemished physical appearance was fit to rule, so a little mutilation (usually blinding, cutting off the nose or splitting the tongue) was an easy way to remove a threat without killing anyone.  This held true till the reign of the monstrous Justinian II who was deposed in 695 and sent into exile without his nose.  The resourceful man had a gold replacement made and managed to storm Constantinople, taking terrible vengeance on the usurpers.  He was given the nickname “Rinotmetos” (the Slit-nosed) and since mutilation obviously hadn’t kept him from the throne, it thankfully fell out of favor.  The practice wasn’t completely abandoned, however.  Deposed rulers were still occasionally blinded and some emperors- Basil the Bulgar-Slayer comes to mind- mutilated on a mass scale as a way of intimidating their enemies.

3 responses so far

  1. I guess that the Angelus Dynasty were just extra cruel because their mutilations did not really serve a purpose.

    I am sure that other later dynasties and emperors (and empresses) did their fair share of torture and mutilations. However, the Angeli seem to stand apart in my imagination as worse than other later rulers. Or did they have to respond worse than others perhaps because of the barbarous treatment by the West?

  2. It’s ironic that the ‘Angelic’ Emperors were among the most notorious. On the plus side they did get rid of Andronicus the Terrible, but they were without exception weak, pathetic men who combined cruelty with cowardice. They did have to deal with Crusading armies, but so did the Comneni- and Alexius and Manuel actually managed to emerge from the First and Second Crusades much stronger. Isaac II Angelus by contrast nearly antagonized Frederick Barbarossa into outright war and his idiotic son Alexius drew the Fourth Crusade.

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