The Byzantine Empire was extremely cosmopolitan. Inside its borders lived Greeks, Armenians, Syrians, Cappadocians, Pahlagonians, Germans, Isaurians, and many others. Nonetheless, Byzantines identified as Roman, a supra-ethnic form of identity that was continued from the Roman Empire. But while this Roman identity may have bound Byzantines together, ethnic identities and divisions still existed. Byzantine primary sources are replete with references to specific ethnicities inside the Empire, such as “Armenians” and “Isaurians.” Byzantine emperors were no different than their subjects in this respect; they were an ethnically diverse cadre of rulers.
Some Byzantine emperors were never ethnically identified in primary sources. In other cases, historians used terms that could refer to both a geographic or ethnic origin. It is not an easy task to delineate the ethnic origins of the Byzantine emperors. In the following paragraphs, I will try to lay out the ethnic origins of the 90 Byzantine emperors (not counting Basiliscus, Mezezius, Artabasdos, Michael IX, Andronikos IV, John VII, or Andronikos V, all of which were short-lived usurpers or junior emperors).
Early Byzantium was mostly ruled by emperors from the Balkans, with most of Illyrian or Thracian origin. The dynasty of Constantine I (r. 306-337), Jovian (r. 363-364), and the family of Valentinian I (r. 364-375) were all Illyrian. There was a brief interlude of Spanish rule under Theodosius I (r. 379-395) and his descendants, but Marcian (r. 450-457) and Leo I (r. 457-474) were both Thracian. Leo’s successors, his grandson Leo II (r. 474) and son-in-law Zeno (r. 474-491) were both Isaurian, a rough people from the mountains of Cilicia. But Zeno’s successors (Anastasius I, Justin I, Justinian I, and Justin II) were Illyrian. Tiberius II Constantine (r. 578-582) was Thracian. Maurice (r. 582-602) was mostly likely the first ethnically Armenian emperor, and when Phokas usurped the throne from Maurice, he became the last of the Illyrian/Thracian stock to become Byzantine emperor.
In all, this means that between 306 and 610, 18 of the 25 emperors (72%) were Illyrian or Thracian, with the vast majority of these (14) being Illyrian. The small numbers of Spanish, Isaurian, and Armenian emperors during this period do not change the fact that this was an era of the Illyrian emperors. But during the reigns of Phokas and Heraclius (r. 610-641), most of the Balkans was lost to invading Avars and Slavs and wouldn’t be recovered by the Byzantines for centuries. Illyrians and Thracians ceased to exist or blended with the invaders. By the time the Byzantines recovered these territories, they were mostly populated by Slavic peoples. The era of Illyrian emperors was at an end.
But Maurice was a harbinger for what was to come. The middle period of Byzantium (610-1071) was dominated by ethnically Armenian emperors. Heraclius overthrew Phokas in 610 and his dynasty (lasting until 695, and then again from 705-711) was most likely Armenian. The brief intermission during the reign of Justinian II (r. 685-695, 705-711) involved an Isaurian, Leontios (r. 695-698), and a German, Tiberius III (r. 698-705). After Justinian II was murdered in 705, he was succeed in quick succession by Philipikos Bardanes (r. 711-713, Armenian), Anastasius II (r. 713-715, unknown), and Theodosius III (r. 715-717, unknown). Leo III (r. 717-741) eventually re-established order and ushered in the incorrectly labeled Isaurian Dynasty. Leo and his son Constantine V (r. 741-775) were Syrian. Constantine married a Khazar princess, making his son Leo IV (r. 775-780) part Syrian and part Khazar. Constantine VI (r. 780-797), Leo’s son by the Greek Irene (r. 797-802), was Greek, Syrian, and Khazar.
We know that Nikephoros I (r. 802-811) and his son Staurakios (r. 811) were from Pisidia, but we don’t know about their ethnic origin. We also do not know the ethnic origin of Michael I Rhangabe (r. 811-813). Leo V (r. 813-820) was Armenian (as his epithet “the Armenian” would indicate). The Amorian Dynasty (Michael II and Theophilos) came from Cappadocia, but its exact ethnic origin is unknown. Theophilos’ son, Michael III (r. 842-867), was Armenian through his mother. He was overthrown by Basil I (r. 867-886), whose mislabeled Macedonian Dynasty (Leo VI, Alexander, Constantine VII, Romanos II, Basil II, Constantine VIII, Zoe, and Theodora) was Armenian and ruled until 1056. Romanos I Lekapenos (r. 920-944) ruled as the dominant emperor concurrently with Constantine VII and was also Armenian. Nikephoros II Phokas (r. 963-969) ruled as emperor for the young Basil II, and it is possible that the Phokas family was of Armenian blood. His successor, John I Tzimiskes (r. 969-976), was certainly Armenian.
The last years of the Macedonian Dynasty were controlled by Zoe’s husbands. Romanos III Argyrus (r. 1028-1034) came from Anatolia, but we don’t know his ethnic origin. Michael IV (r. 1034-1041) and his nephew Michael V (r. 1041-1042) were Paphlagonian. Zoe’s third husband Constantine IX (r. 1042-1055) was from an Anatolian family, but his ethnic origins are unknown. Theodora’s successor, Michael VI (r. 1056-1057), was Paphlagonian. He was succeeded by two Greeks (Isaac I Komnenos and Constantine X Doukas). Romanos IV Diogenes (r. 1068-1071) was most likely also Greek, but we only know for sure that he was from Cappadocia.
For the period between 610 and 1071, only 20 of the 43 emperors (47%) were Armenian (not counting Nikephoros II Phokas, who could have also been Armenian). Although this is a substantially lower percentage than during the Illyrian period, an ethnically Armenian emperor was on the throne 314 out of 461 years (68%). In addition, many of the great emperors of this period, such as Heraclius and Basil II, were ethnically Armenian. But after 1071, almost all of Byzantine Anatolia and its Armenian population were lost. But the end of the middle period was, like the end of the early period, a transition into the late period of Byzantine history in terms of emperors’ ethnicities.
Greek rulers dominated the period from 1081 to 1453 much more completely than the Illyrians had dominated the early period or the Armenians the middle period. The Komnenos (1081-1185), Angelos (1185-1204), Laskaris (1204-1259), and Palaiologos (1259-1453) Dynasties were all Greek. Michael VII Doukas (r. 1071-1078) and Alexios V Murtzuphlus (r. 1204) were also Greek. The only emperors during this period that were potentially not of Greek origin were Nikephoros III Botaneiates (r. 1078-1081) and John III Doukas Vatatzes, although they might very well have also been Greek. Out of the 22 emperors during this final period of Byzantium, 20 (91%) were Greek. This makes sense given that the areas of the empire that remained at this late stage in Byzantine history were mostly Greek, especially under the Palaiologos Dynasty.
Although Byzantine emperors were ethnically diverse and came from at least ten different ethnic groups, there was a pattern in which ethnicity dominated the throne. The early Byzantine rulers were mostly Illyrians and Thracians from the Balkans, ethnically Armenian emperors dominated the middle Byzantine period, and the final era of Byzantine history was presided over by ethnically Greek emperors. All of these rulers considered themselves Roman, but by examining the ethnic origins of all 90 emperors of Byzantium, we get some insight into the ethnic diversity and power dynamics inside the Byzantine Empire over time.