To be the leader of a state is to hold power and prestige. But while the position of ruler may be a coveted one, it can also be a dangerous occupation. History is rife with the names of kings and emperors whose reign ended before its time: the Gallic warlord Vercingetorix was executed by the Romans, Tsar Alexander II of Russia struck down by an assassin’s bomb, and Kaiser Wilhelm II was forced to abdicate in the final days of World War I.
But some crowns were more unstable than others. For example, let’s compare the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires on the one side to the kingdoms of England and France. Rulers of the two emperors had a much lower chance of dying peacefully on the throne than did the rulers of the two kingdoms. Of the 88 emperors of the Byzantine Empire, only 49 of them (55.68%) died peacefully on the throne (either through natural causes or an accident). The other 38 (43.18%) reigns ended with the emperor dying in battle (5.68%), being murdered (10.23%), being executed (7.95%), or being deposed (17.05%). Of the 36 Ottoman sultans, only 21 (58.33%) died naturally while on their throne. The other 15 (41.66%) were murdered (5.56%), deposed (30.56%), or captured in battle (2.78%). In comparison, 31 of 40 (77.5%) English kings died naturally on the throne, while the other 9 (22.5%) died in battle (5%), were executed (2.5%), were deposed (12.5%), or abdicated (2.5%). The French kings fared even better on average. 26 of 35 (82.86%) French kings died naturally or through an accident while on the throne. The other 9 (17.14%) French kings were either deposed (8.57%), murdered (5.71%), or captured (2.86%).
Of course, statistics cannot serve as a complete description of the differences between these different crowns; however, they can present a general trend. Why were the Byzantine and Ottoman crowns general less stable than their English and French counterparts? The idea of dynastic succession, the strength of the military, and safety at court in each of the four states were all influential on the chance of survival of a emperor or king.
The English and French crowns practiced primogeniture, the right of the firstborn son to inherit his father’s crown. This functioned differently in both: the English followed male-preference primogeniture, where a female member of the family could succeed to the throne if she had no surviving legitimate brothers, while the French followed the old Frankish Salic law, which excluded women from inheriting the throne. While this did not ensure a seamless succession from one ruler to the next (the Hundred Years War, for example, was caused by a conflict over who should become the king of France), having generally accepted principals did a considerable amount to prevent conflicts over the crown. Rebellions in both countries, with notable exceptions, were rarely aimed at toppling the entire family. The same is true of the Ottoman Empire, where the same dynasty lasted for the empire’s entire six-century existence. Although attempts to supplant the Ottoman dynasty did occur, they were relatively rare.
In comparison, the Byzantines had no really standard for succession. The emperor was God’s representative on earth, and theoretically, like the Roman emperors of old, took his power also from the military, the people, and the Senate. However, there was no established principle of dynasty. This no doubt contributed to the large number of rebellions that occurred throughout Byzantine history, aimed not at merely replacing an emperor for his son, as was the aim of a number of rebellions in England, France, and the Ottoman Empire, but for some new contender to become emperor himself. There was not necessary a negative stigma in a new emperor having killed his predecessor, beyond having to do penance for the murder as a good Christian. In fact emperors such as Basil I
(867-886) and John I Tzimiskes (969-976), who had both murdered their predecessors, were quite successful as emperors. That is not to say that the idea of dynasty was completely foreign in the Byzantine Empire: several dynasties existed and indeed flourished in Byzantium over the centuries. Some of them, such as the Macedonian Dynasty, even gained great respect from the people and were seen as the rightful emperors; attempts to overthrow them were staunchly resisted by the Constantinopolitan populace. Overall, however, the lack of such respect helps to account for the higher rate of violent ends to reigns in Byzantium.
Another reason for the different trends was the power of the military. Although the military was a powerful force in England and France, it itself did not end the reigns of any king. The military played an important role in the continued power of Byzantine and Ottoman emperors. For example, in the early 8th century, Byzantine troops from the Opsikion theme deposed two emperors and tried to depose two more. Many powerful generals, especially during the later centuries of the Byzantine Empire, led rebellions against the seated emperor. Several succeeded, including Leo III (717-741), Leo V (813-820), Isaac I Komnenos (1157-1159), Nikephoros III Botaneiates (1178-1181), and Alexios I Komnenos (1081-1118). In the Ottoman Empire, no fewer than five changes in rule took place because of the janissaries, one of the elite Ottoman units.
The janissaries had previously been a loyal elite force of the sultan’s, but over time they became increasingly protective of their privilege and their size expanded (if not their martial abilities, which decreased rather drastically). They overthrew Ottoman sultans who tried to curb their power, until eventually Mahmud II (1808-1839) succeeded in putting an end to them. The power of military elements inside both empires also partially explains the greater danger of sitting on the Byzantine and Ottoman thrones.
Finally, there’s the general level of safety at court to consider. While intrigue and poison are almost a given at any pre-modern royal court, they were especially prevalent in the Byzantine capital at Constantinople, to an extent that intricacies and deviousness are the definition of the modern English word “byzantine.” At least six Byzantine emperors were rumored to have been poisoned to death. Several former emperors were disfigured through slicing off their nose or blinding them so they couldn’t claim the throne again (as a representative of God, the Byzantine emperor had to be physically flawless). At least two of the blindings were done in such a vicious manner that the former emperors died as a result. The Ottoman sultans themselves weren’t overthrown due to family intrigue, but early sultans murdered all of their brothers upon ascending the throne to prevent such a plot. Later the sultan’s siblings were kept in the Kafes (the cage) inside the royal Topkapi Palace to prevent rebellions, but they still lived in an atmosphere of fear. Ibrahim (1640-1648) was considered insane by the time he took the throne due to previous fears that brother Murat IV (1623-1640) would kill him (and indeed he tried). In comparison, although intrigue certainly existed at the English and French courts, there was not the same level of murderous atmosphere towards the royal family.
Although these three reasons were important factors in the rate of survival of Byzantine and Ottoman emperors compared to English and French kings, there were also trends inside the individual monarchies. Byzantine emperors died naturally on the throne from Theodosius I through Tiberius II Constantine (378-582), and the general trend was in this direction during the Macedonian (867-1056) and Palaiologian (1259-1453) Dynasties. Other periods in Byzantine history generally involved more slain or deposed emperors. Ottoman sultans were more likely to survive on the throne during the first few centuries of the Ottoman Empire: from 1299 to 1617 only three sultans hadn’t died naturally on the throne,
and only one of those was due to deposition. The last century of the Ottoman Empire was perhaps the worst for maintaining one’s throne: between 1789 and 1922 only three out of nine sultans were not overthrown. In England, most of the early ends to reigns were distributed relatively evenly between the 12th and 17th centuries, with the exception of the War of the Roses (1455-1485), when only one out of four emperors died peacefully on the throne. The French crown was most stable early on, not experiencing its first unnatural end of a reign until 1364, when John II (1350-1364) died in English captivity. The most dangerous periods for French kings to survive were during the turn of the 17th century, when both Henry III (1574-1589) and Henry IV (1589-1610) were assassinated, and in the final decades of the kingdom, Louis XVI (1774-1792), Charles X (1824-1830), and Louis-Philippe (1830-1848) were all overthrown.
In the context of these unique factors, the greater level of instability of the Byzantine and Ottoman crowns compared to those of England and France is clearer. While being a ruler in any context puts one in greater danger, statistically Byzantine emperors and Ottoman sultans succumbed more often to such dangers than the English and French kings. The greater dangers presented by the philosophy of succession, the strength of the military, and the climate at court help to explain at least part of this trend.
Note: For statistics, the following numbers were used:
Byzantine Empire – All emperors who ruled uncontested as senior emperor for a time and all Emperors of Nicaea were counted to make 88 emperors. Gratian, Valentinian II, Basiliskos, Artabasdos, Mezezios, Michael IX, Andronikos IV, and John VII were not counted.
Ottoman Empire – All 36 sultans were counted.
England – All crowned sovereigns between William I (1066-1087) and George VI (1936-1952) are counted to make 40 English monarchs. Lady Jane Grey is not counted.
France – All kings between Hugh Capet (987-996) and Louis-Philippe (1830-1848) are counted. The Carolingians and Bonaparte emperors are not counted.