After having his kingdom taken away, his nose cut off, and his tongue split, Justinian II sailed across the Black Sea

Friday, June 17th, 2022

Benjamin H. Milligan opens his oddly named history of the rise of the Navy SEALs, By Water Beneath the Walls, with a short passage on an ancient amphibious commando operation:

In 705 CE, after having his kingdom taken away, his nose cut off, and his tongue split, Justinian II sailed across the Black Sea and led a small group of fighters under the impregnable walls of Constantinople by way of an unguarded aqueduct and captured the city. It was a victory that never should have been, by water beneath the walls.

Game of Thrones fans might compare this to the Fall of Casterly Rock. Justinian II‘s whole story is rather…Byzantine:

While his land policies threatened the aristocracy, his tax policy was very unpopular with the common people. Through his agents Stephen and Theodotos, the emperor raised the funds to gratify his sumptuous tastes and his mania for erecting costly buildings. This, ongoing religious discontent, conflicts with the aristocracy, and displeasure over his resettlement policy eventually drove his subjects into rebellion. In 695 the population rose under Leontios, the strategos of Hellas, and proclaimed him Emperor. Justinian was deposed and his nose was cut off (later replaced by a solid gold replica of his original) to prevent his again seeking the throne: such mutilation was common in Byzantine culture. He was exiled to Cherson in the Crimea. Leontius, after a reign of three years, was in turn dethroned and imprisoned by Tiberius Apsimarus, who next assumed the throne.

While in exile, Justinian began to plot and gather supporters for an attempt to retake the throne. Justinian became a liability to Cherson and the authorities decided to return him to Constantinople in 702 or 703. He escaped from Cherson and received help from Busir, the khagan of the Khazars, who received him enthusiastically and gave him his sister as a bride. Justinian renamed her Theodora, after the wife of Justinian I. They were given a home in the town of Phanagoria, at the entrance to the sea of Azov. Busir was offered a bribe by Tiberius to kill his brother-in-law, and dispatched two Khazar officials, Papatzys and Balgitzin, to do the deed. Warned by his wife, Justinian strangled Papatzys and Balgitzin with his own hands. He sailed in a fishing boat to Cherson, summoned his supporters, and they all sailed westwards across the Black Sea.

As the ship bearing Justinian sailed along the northern coast of the Black Sea, he and his crew became caught up in a storm somewhere between the mouths of the Dniester and the Dnieper Rivers. While it was raging, one of his companions reached out to Justinian saying that if he promised God that he would be magnanimous, and not seek revenge on his enemies when he was returned to the throne, they would all be spared. Justinian retorted: “If I spare a single one of them, may God drown me here”.

Having survived the storm, Justinian next approached Tervel of Bulgaria. Tervel agreed to provide all the military assistance necessary for Justinian to regain his throne in exchange for financial considerations, the award of a Caesar’s crown, and the hand of Justinian’s daughter, Anastasia, in marriage. In spring 705, with an army of 15,000 Bulgar and Slav horsemen, Justinian appeared before the walls of Constantinople. For three days, Justinian tried to convince the citizens of Constantinople to open the gates, but to no avail. Unable to take the city by force, he and some companions entered through an unused water conduit under the walls of the city, roused their supporters, and seized control of the city in a midnight coup d’état. Justinian once more ascended the throne, breaking the tradition preventing the mutilated from Imperial rule. After tracking down his predecessors, he had his rivals Leontius and Tiberius brought before him in chains in the Hippodrome. There, before a jeering populace, Justinian, now wearing a golden nasal prosthesis, placed his feet on the necks of Tiberius and Leontius in a symbolic gesture of subjugation before ordering their execution by beheading, followed by many of their partisans, as well as deposing, blinding and exiling Patriarch Kallinikos I of Constantinople to Rome.


  1. Joseph A. says:

    “If I spare a single one of them, may God drown me here.”

    Will we see the likes of such men again?

  2. Steve Doc 22 says:

    After regaining the throne, Justinian II betrayed Tervel of Bulgaria by invading his land, but was soundly defeated. He ruled as a tyrant. His reign was ended when his own army, sent to suppress a rebellion at Cherson, instead joined the rebels, captured and killed him. The new emperor also made sure to kill his young son as well, ending his line. So, he was not actually a ruler to be emulated.

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