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Zeno – 474-491 AD

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474-481 AD

Emperor of the East

Zeno was an Isaurian Chieftain named Tarasicodissa. He came to Constantinople during the reign of Leo I where he first changed his name to Zeno. In 467 AD, Zeno married the Emperor’s eldest daughter, Ariadne who bore him a son, the future Emperor Leo II.

The Emperor Leo I had no heir of his own and as such he adopted his grandson, Leo II, as heir to the throne. Shortly thereafter, the Emperor died and Leo II succeeded to the throne on February 3rd, 474 AD. Leo II was still a child and both his mother and grandmother (Aelia Verina), urged him to appoint his father as co-Emperor due to the fact that Leo II was a sickly child who was not expected to live. Six days after his own rise to the throne, the young ruler crowned his father co-Emperor.

Zeno became sole Emperor on the death of Leo II, his son, which indeed came later that the same year. However, Zeno was very unpopular because of his Isaurian origin, which was still considered to be barbarian. Consequently, Zeno had to contend not only with the aggression of the Ostrogoths but also with frequent revolts and usurpations during his reign.

The Empress of Leo I, Aelia Verina (mother-in-law of Zeno), refused to stay out of politics. Verina became an almost constant source of rebellion against her son-in-law. She was behind the rebellion in which she urged her brother Basiliscus to challenge Zeno. Basiliscus had been appointed commander of the great armada which was sent against the Vandals in 468 AD. However, following the failure of that expedition, which was due his own incompetence, Basiliscus initially retired in disgrace to Heraclea. Six years later, his sister convinced him to join with her in opposition to her son-in-law the Emperor Zeno, who had married her daughter Ariadne

On January 9th, 475 AD, Zeno was forced to flee from Constantinople and Basiliscus was proclaimed Emperor. Nonetheless, Basiliscus became an extremely unpopular ruler due to his unorthodox religious policies. In August of 476 AD, Zeno returned to Constantinople and Basiliscus was deposed. He was sent, along with his wife, Zenonis, and his son, Marcus, to Cucusus in Cappadocia, where all three were beheaded.

Because of her status, Verina was not punished. This only proved to be another mistake. Verina was determined to have the final victory. In 479AD, began a quest of political intrigue against Zeno for the second time. Verina set about to convince her other son-in-law Marcian, son of the late Western Emperor Anthemius, to raise another revolt which was quickly suppressed by Zeno’s Isaurian general Illus. Verina’s involvement in both the revolt and in an attempted assassination of Illus was quite plain. She was then given to Illus to be imprisoned in Dalisandus in Isauris.

In 484 AD, the political situation had changed. Illus was reported to be conspiring against the Emperor Zeno himself, and not only refused the Empress Ariadne’s request that her mother be released, but managed to avoid being assassinated by her agents, who seem to have been as incompetent as her mother’s had been five years earlier. Illus withdrew to his native Isauria, and Zeno then sent the patrician Leontius with orders to obtain Verina’s release.

Upon the arrival of Leontius, the unexpected result happened. Leontius made peace with Verina and Illus, and after Illus brought Verina in full regalia to Tarsus, she crowned Leontius Emperor on the 19th of July, 484 AD. Verina attempted to convince the provincial forces to switch their loyalty to Leontius by stressing her legitimate right as Empress to crown an Emperor. But after a very short occupation of the city of Antioch in Syria, the rebels were defeated by Zeno.

In September, Leontius was heavily defeated in battle by Zeno’s legions under the command of John the Scythian. The survivors of the battle fled to the virtually impregnable fortress of Cherris in Isauria where Verina died later that year in 484 AD. Leontius and his remaining forces remained under siege by Zeno for four years when finally Cherris fell by treachery. Leontius and Illus were captured and subsequently beheaded in 488 AD.

Zeno eventually suffered an attack of epilepsy on April 9th, 491 AD, which caused his death after a turbulent reign of seventeen years. While the coinage evidence suggests that Zeno and Ariadne may have had two sons or perhaps twin sons, Zeno and Leo who had been proclaimed as Caesars some time around 476 AD, their fate is unknown. History merely records that upon the death of Zeno, no heir was present. Ariadne was asked to choose the next Emperor and she selected the elderly Anastasius of Dyrrhachium, whom she married.

Zeno was the last Eastern Emperor to rule over the old Roman Empire. Following the rebellion against Romulus Augustus in 476 AD in the West, the barbarian troops hailed Odovacar as their King. A delegation was sent to court at Constantinople where the insignia once worn by the Emperors of the West was handed back to Zeno. That ended Roman rule in the West and permanently divided the Empire once and for all. Zeno was left as ruler of the East and the division of the Empire was complete. From there onwards, the two regions would drift further apart both economically as well as culturally.

Monetary System

Mints: Antioch, Constantinople; Milan; Ravenna; Rome; Thessalonica

Obverse Legends:

D N ZENO P F AVG bronze only


AU Solidus (4.50 grams)
AU Semissis (2.25 grams)
AU Tremissis (1.45 grams)
AR Miliarense (4.50 grams)
AR Siliqua (3.25 grams)
AR ½ Siliqua (1.12 grams)
AE1(restored follis)

Monetary History of the World
© Martin A. Armstrong