Last Updated on November 27, 2023 by Vladimir Vulic
Life: AD ? – 491
- Name: Tarasikodissa
- Born in Rosoumblada in Isauria (Asia Minor).
- Consul AD 469.
- Became emperor 9 February AD 474.
- Wife: (1) Arcadia, (2) Aelia Ariadne.
- Died AD 491.
Zeno was from Rosoumblada in the province in south-eastern Asia Minor known as Isauria.
The emperor Leo called him to Constantinople as the leader of a force of Isaurians in order to counter the ever-growing German influence over the empire.
Also a special imperial guard was set up, made up entirely of Isaurians, and Zeno was granted command of this highly important force.
It was only at that stage that he assumed the name Zeno. Apparently it was the name of a dignitary of high standing back in Isauria, and Zeno thought it more befitting of his new high office to have a name less common than Tarasicodissa.
To further increase the bond with his new Isaurian guardsmen, Leo married his elder daughter Aelia Ariadne to Zeno.
In AD 467-8 Zeno was given the powerful position of ‘Master of Soldiers’ in Thrace to repel an assault by the Huns under the son of Attila, Denzig (Densegich).
Though Aspar, the powerful German ‘Master of Soldiers’ of the eastern empire, well understood Zeno as an ambitious new opponent and sought to see him out of the way. An assassination attempt was made by a group of soldiers at his behest, but Zeno managed to escape to Serdica (Sofia) in advance.
In AD 469 he held the consulship. Thereafter he was granted the post of ‘Master of Soldiers’ of the eastern provinces. In this role he set out to deal with brigandry and banditry of the Isaurian warlord Indacus.
But Zeno’s ambitious suffered a setback as Leo elevated Aspar’s son Patricius to the rank of Caesar and betrothed him to his daughter Leontia. Further still Aspar, through his elder son Ardaburius, was trying to win the support of Zeno’s power base, the Isaurian guard, in order to regain supremacy over his rival.
Zeno moved back to Chalcedon from where he could influence matters in Constantinople.
Aspar’s attempts to see his son made heir to the throne had outraged many in the capital, as his Arian beliefs were a heresy to the orthodox Christians of Constantinople. Among the mayhem and rioting which ensued, Zeno arranged the assassination of Aspar and Ardaburius (AD 471).
Next, in AD 473 Zeno was made ‘Master of Soldiers’ of the eastern empire, taking Aspar’s place.
In October AD 473 Leo elevated his five year-old grandson, who was the son of Zeno and Aelia Ariadne, to be co-emperor Leo II.
On 18 January AD 474 Leo died and Leo II was sole emperor, with Zeno as regent of the eastern empire. But already on 9 February Zeno was appointed co-Augustus by the senate.
Before the year AD 474 was over Leo II was dead. There were rumours that Zeno had killed his own son to have the throne for himself.
On his accession Zeno enjoyed a good relationship with the west. For the current western emperor, Julius Nepos, was related by marriage to Zeno’s wife.
Meanwhile relations with the Vandals though suffered, as king Geiseric was still angry at the assassination of Aspar, a fellow German, and clearly had preferred his influence over the east to that of Zeno.
With relations so soured, Geiseric invaded Epirus and captured the city of Nicopolis.
Though after this initial hostility a treaty was alas agreed and peace was restored.
But just as Geiseric had at first taken offence, so too did the Ostrogothic chief Theodoric Strabo seize the opportunity of Aspar’s death to renew hostilities with the eastern empire. After early successes, he though eventually was brought to a halt by the Isaurian general Illus.
Though Illus himself soon was the cause of trouble to Zeno, as he became involved in a conspiracy against the emperor at Constantinople. The conspiracy was a far reaching one, involving even Zeno’s mother-in-law and widow of Leo, Aelia Verina.
The plan was to overthrow Zeno and instead place Aelia Verina’s lover Patricius on the throne.
Further Illus’ brother Trocundes and Aelia Verina’s brother Basiliscus were party to the conspiracy.
Zeno though received a warning that his life was in danger and fled to his homeland of Isauria.
The senate though rejected Patricius as new emperor and instead decided on Basiliscus (AD 475).
Though Basiliscus’ reign was not to last for long. So unpopular was his rule, that he soon lost much of the support which had carried him to power.
On of the key moments in Basiliscus’ demise was when Illus, the very general who had plotted against Zeno, decided that his rule was so bad, that he would instead rejoin Zeno and help him back to power.
With Illus’ support Zeno now marched out of Isauria towards Constantinople. So unpopular was Basiliscus by then that an army which was sent against them, under command of Armatus, the empress’ lover, on purposely avoided them, to allow them an unopposed passage toward the capital.
There was simply no resistance when Zeno re-entered his capital in August AD 476.
One of his first roles as re-instated emperor was to oversee the formal end of the western empire, traditionally referred to as ‘the fall of Rome’.
Had his initial colleague Julius Nepos been driven out of Italy and replaced by Romulus Augustus, then the new emperor also had been forced to abdicate, when Odoacer had led a rising of the German mercenary troops in Italy.
Odoacer now demanded recognition as ruler of Italy, though at least offered to do so in the name of the eastern empire. Was Odoacer’s submission to the eastern throne purely a theoretical one, with little practical meaning, it at least allowed for the hope in the east of one day recovering the Italian territories from the Germans.
Zeno recognized Odoacer as a patrician (patricius) and ruler of Italy, though insisted on Julius Nepos continuing, though in exile, as emperor of the west.
Historian Franco Cavazzi dedicated hundreds of hours of his life to creating this website, roman-empire.net as a trove of educational material on this fascinating period of history. His work has been cited in a number of textbooks on the Roman Empire and mentioned on numerous publications such as the New York Times, PBS, The Guardian, and many more.