The Emperor and the Ape
By Lars Brownworth
On the night of December 24, 820 the furious emperor Leo V sentenced his old drinking buddy to death and started in motion one of the most bizarre events in Roman history. The 45-year-old emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire- dismissively labeled ‘Byzantine’ by later historians- had good reason to be upset. It was Christmas Eve and instead of attending a comfortable banquet in the palace he was stuck in an audience chamber listening to evidence that his best friend was plotting to assassinate him. Not quite believing the news, he had the man in question- Michael the Amorian- dragged in front of him, and was stunned to hear a full confession.
As disbelief turned to rage, the emperor screamed out his sentence. Mere execution was too good for this traitor; he had to be humiliated in the process. Michael was to be tied to an ape and hurled into the furnace that heated the imperial palace.
Much to the ape’s relief, a night in the dungeon was enough to focus Michael’s supporters. Early Christmas morning they snuck into the palace chapel dressed as monks, and when Leo arrived to celebrate the Mass they rushed at him. The emperor managed to grab a heavy metal cross and give a good account of himself, but the struggle was soon over. Michael was hastily brought up from the dungeons and- in what was surely the most undignified coronation in history- crowned with the iron chains still on his legs.
Though time has not been kind to the Byzantines, you can still see the spot where Michael was crowned today. It’s in the cavernous cathedral of the Hagia Sophia, a building by itself well worth a trip to Istanbul, Turkey. Marked out by a geometric design in the polished marble floor, the spot offers a brief glimpse at the splendor that awaited a successful claimant of the throne.
That is of course if you could survive the attempt.
Lars Brownworth, author of Lost to the West: The Forgotten Byzantine Empire That Rescued Western Civilization, is a former history and political science teacher at Stony Brook High School in Long Island, NY, a speaker and a broadcaster. He is also the creator, along with his brother Anders, of the genre-defining top 50 podcast, 12 Byzantine Rulers: The History of the Byzantine Empire. He currently resides in Maryland with his wife. Read more about Lars here.
IMAGE: The Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey