Constantinople Not Istanbul: 6 Great Byzantine Emperors

The History of Byzantium
The History of Byzantium

2 – Maurice (582 – 602)

Maurice was born in 539 in Cappadocia and is perhaps an underrated emperor. During his reign, the Byzantine Empire became well-organized, and he also consolidated its control in the Western Mediterranean. His accession to the throne was relatively rapid. Maurice only entered government as a notary, but by 578, he was in command of the imperial forces in the East. After earning a decisive victory over the Persians in 581, his stock rose to the point where he married Emperor Tiberius II Constantine’s daughter in 582. The emperor died within a few months, and Maurice was named emperor.

Maurice now led a shattered empire that was practically bankrupt and at war with several entities. He decided to deal with the Persians first and enjoyed several victories over his rivals. Ultimately, Maurice helped two Parthian brothers take the Persian throne at the Battle of Blarathon in 591. Now he was able to switch focus and handle the situation in the Balkans. It was a long and costly war, but the Byzantines eventually managed to subdue the Slavs and Avars by 602 which allowed the imperial army to hold the Danube line once again.

Regarding domestic matters, Maurice divided territories in Africa and Italy into ‘exarchates’ which were ruled by military governors or ‘exarchs.’ These men had total civil and military power, a significant departure from the typical separation of civil and military authority at the time. These exarchates are believed to be the basis of the famed Byzantine ‘theme’ system which provided the empire with a strong standing army for centuries.

Unfortunately, Maurice’s multiple campaigns left the imperial treasury perpetually short of money which meant high taxes were necessary. In 602, he forced the army to stay beyond the Danube for winter but instead of following his orders to begin a new offensive, the soldiers mutinied and named Phocas as the new emperor. Maurice was murdered in November 602, and it is suggested that the unfortunate man watched his six sons being executed before he shared their fate.

Maurice was a courageous and insightful leader who took over a fractured empire and held it together with skillful military command. He also showed diplomatic ability during negotiations with Khosrau II during the Persian conflict. Historians suggest his biggest flaw was his inability to judge the mood of his men; a fact evidenced by the events surrounding his death. However, it was a disastrous move to assassinate him as Phocas was to become one of the worst Byzantine Emperors.