Ariadne (fl. 457–515)

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Ariadne (fl. 457–515)

Fifth-century Byzantine empress and daughter of Leo I, whose two marriages preserved the dynasty until her death. Pronunciation: Ari-AD-nee. Name variations: Aelia Ariadne. Born before February 7, 457; died in Constantinople, late 515; daughter of the future Leo I, Byzantine emperor (r. 457–474), and Empress Verina; married the future Emperor Zeno (Tarasicodissa Rousoumbladeotes) in 466 or 467 (died, April 9, 491); married Emperor Anastasius I Dicorus (r. 491–518), on May 20, 491; children: (first marriage) Leo II (b. around 467).

Son Leo II became emperor (473); Leo II died leaving Zeno as ruler (474); Ariadne styled "Augusta" during reigns of Zeno and Anastasius (474–515); possibly involved in the revolt of Basiliscus (475–76); conspired in unsuccessful plots against the general Illus (477, 478, and 480–81); dominated court after death of her husband (491); chose and married his successor, Anastasius I (491).

Following the death of East Roman Emperor Marcian in 457, the Theodosian dynasty of nearly 80 years came to an end, and the dangerous question of succession commanded the attention of the empire. The most powerful man of the day was General Aspar, the magister militum per orientem (Master of Soldiers in the East), the highest military rank in Byzantium. But Aspar was eminently unsuited for imperial dignity: he was by descent a barbarian, and by creed an Arian—literally anathema to the official orthodoxy of the state. In order to preserve his power, he nominated and effected the election of one of his own officers and private attendants. The new Emperor Leo I, to be remembered as Makelles (the Butcher), was both Orthodox and of acceptable Dacian origin. The imperial family that he settled in Constantinople consisted of his wife Verina , and a young daughter Ariadne.

At Leo's accession in 457, he was the creature of his general, and he had made Aspar two promises: that Aspar's son be raised to the secondary imperial rank of caesar, thus designating him the successor to the throne, and that this man should then marry one of his daughters. It is possible that Ariadne was first betrothed to the caesar; later her younger sister Leontia , born after her father's coronation, took her place as his betrothed. As events transpired, however, neither daughter actually married Aspar's son. In one of his many attempts to break the barbarian influence at court, Leo took a step that would consign his dynasty to alternating threats of exterior and interior plotting and alliance.

Leo was not as compliant an appointment as Aspar had hoped (tension between the emperor and the general would be strong for over a decade, until Leo had Aspar and one of his sons cut down in 471). To oppose the power of Aspar and his German allies, Leo sought to harness the raw power of the Isaurians, a tribal group from the mountainous Mediterranean coast region of present-day Turkey, opposite Cyprus. Though they were fierce, uncouth, and all but autonomous, their lands had long been contained within the imperial borders, and they were technically Romans. The emperor's most successful overture in bringing the Isaurians to his side was his betrothal of his eldest daughter Ariadne to one of their chieftains, Tarasicodissa Rousoumbladeotes, who, before marrying her in 466 or 467, "exchanged that barbarous sound for the Greek appellation of Zeno," wrote Edward Gibbon.

After a tumultuous reign that saw fires in Constantinople, disastrous foreign wars, and religious upheaval, Leo died in 474. Since he was without male offspring, several months before his death he had designated as his successor the six-year-old son of Ariadne and Zeno. At Ariadne's urging, and with the concurrence of the Senate and the Empress Dowager Verina, the little Leo II elevated his father to imperial distinction on February 9, 474, by making Zeno regent. Probably also at this point, Ariadne adopted the imperial title of "Augusta." Within nine months, Leo II was dead. Later Latin historians did not hesitate to suggest that he was murdered by his unpopular father, who then became sole ruler of the East.

By delivering a son, Ariadne had seemed to secure the continuity of Leo's dynasty; following the death of the male blood line, she became the sole guarantor of her father's achievement. She was not, however, the only powerful imperial female at court in Constantinople. Leo's widow and Ariadne's mother Verina also wielded influence, and though she had acquiesced in Zeno's elevation, she (and much of the populace with her) came to hate him as a barbarous intruder. Added to this hatred, no doubt, was the fact that, as noted by J.B. Bury, "being a woman of energy and ambition, she found it distasteful to fall into the background, overshadowed by her daughter." Out of this atmosphere grew the conspiracy of 475, by which Verina Augusta, using her brother Basiliscus as general, hoped to place herself and her lover Patricius at the helm of empire. The conspiracy was a success insofar as Zeno, perhaps taking Ariadne with him, fled to his mountain strongholds in Isauria, leaving the throne unguarded. It failed for Verina insofar as Basiliscus seized the throne for himself and had Patricius done to death. After 20 months, Zeno overcame this rebellion and returned to Constantinople.

The varied fortunes of the Basiliscan revolt had been largely in the hands of the general Illus, an Isaurian and former confidant of Zeno who had initially acted with the rebels against the emperor, and then had turned on them to return Zeno to power. At Zeno's reappearance in the palace, Illus was naturally well rewarded. Among other distinctions, he was made magister militum and became one of the most powerful figures in the empire. Accompanying his ascendancy however, was the swelling hatred of the Augustae Verina and Ariadne, who resented his influence at court. In 478, Verina originated an attempt to assassinate Illus. It was foiled, and the empress dowager was readily turned over to Illus for safekeeping; there was of course no love lost between the emperor and his mother-in-law after the Basiliscan affair.

Verina (fl. 437–483)

Byzantine empress. Name variations: Verina Augusta. Birth date unknown; died before 484; sister of the general Basiliscus; married Leo I, emperor of Byzantium (r. 457–474); children: Ariadne (fl. 457–515); Leontia (b. after 457).

Verina and her husband, the future Leo I, were of humble birth. One legend has it that they once worked together in a butcher shop in Constantinople.

After Illus successfully suppressed yet another revolt towards the end of 479, Ariadne approached him with a petition to release her mother, whom he had forced to become a nun and to live in an Isaurian fortress. Johannes Malalas, a chronicler of the next generation, describes scribes the scene dramatically. Ariadne had received secret letters from Verina and besought Zeno to release her. Zeno told Ariadne to refer her plea to Illus. She had Illus summoned, and tearfully asked him to release her mother. "Why do you seek her?" Illus asked, "So that she can again set up another Emperor against your husband?" Returning to Zeno, Ariadne delivered her ultimatum: "Is Illus in the palace, or me?" Shamed into acquiescence, Zeno replied to her, "If you can do anything, do it. I want you here."

Ariadne took action, plotting the death of Illus. Though her intended assassin got close enough to slice off an ear before being slaughtered, Illus escaped with his life. The result was another bout of dynasty-threatening civil discord. Illus was not convinced by Zeno's professions of ignorance about Ariadne's plot, and the general relocated to his native lands once more, where he rallied military support for a new rebellion. Along with Illus this time was the Empress Verina, whose hatred of Zeno had allowed a reconciliation with her jailer. By 484, the rebellion had been crushed and Verina had died, but it was another four years before Illus was finally seized in his fortress and executed.

After the death of Illus, only three years were left for Zeno to rule. By the time of Zeno's death on April 9, 491, he had overcome the two largest problems of his reign: threats from the barbarian Goths on his borders and the series of political revolts inside his dominion. Only the religious tension among the various factions within the church had not been calmed; in fact, Zeno's apparent sympathy for the Monophysite heresy precipitated a schism with the papacy that would last for 35 years. Zeno apparently had the foresight to realize that his death was approaching, and it seems likely that he expected the royal diadem to pass to his unpopular brother Longinus. Superstitious, and perhaps weakening in mind as well as body, Zeno consulted Maurianus, "who was knowledgeable in certain mysteries," as to who would take the throne after him. As Johannes Malalas relates the story, Maurianus replied that "one of the silentiarii would receive both his throne and his wife." The silentiarii were a relatively low-ranking corps of palace officials, whose job nevertheless ensured them access and intimacy with the imperial person: it was their duty to maintain order and silence within the palace. Although Zeno tried to avert the prophecy by having the unfortunate silentarius Pelagius strangled, the prophecy did come true, whether by supernatural or more mundane maneuvers.

Zeno had become emperor because of Ariadne's familial tie with his predecessor. With no son to take his place, Ariadne placed herself in command of affairs at his death, and the choice of the next emperor—and her second husband—came to rest on her shoulders. A 10th-century Byzantine compendium of the rituals of the Byzantine court preserves a detailed account of Ariadne's role in the complex ceremonies and deliberations that followed Zeno's death.

Edward Gibbon">

The daughter, the mother, and the widow of an emperor.

—Edward Gibbon

On the day following (April 10, 491), the people gathered in the Hippodrome (a large stadium attached to the palace for horse racing and other public events) and acclaimed loudly for a new emperor. Summoned by the chief ministers, Ariadne appeared in imperial robes, accompanied by a retinue, and was enthusiastically greeted ("Ariadne Augusta, you conquer! Holy Lord, grant her long life!"). The throng then besought her for "an Orthodox Emperor for the world." Through the lips of one of her officials, she delivered a complimentary and popular speech, in which she informed her people that she had commanded the ministers and Senate, with the consent of the army, to choose "a Christian and Roman Emperor, full of royal virtue, neither given to love of money, nor to any other vice, as far as that is possible for human nature." After more tumultuous applause, she went on to ask the people to allow a brief delay while the funeral of Zeno was performed, and promised that the election for his successor would take place:

before the Holy Gospels and in the presence of the most reverend and holy Patriarch of this royal city … so that no one may give heed to friendship nor enmity nor fortune nor kinship nor any other private concern, but may make the election with a pure and whole conscience before the Lord God.

Concluding her speech, Ariadne returned to the palace while the ministers argued over the choice of the next emperor. After much debate, they were unable to agree on a suitable man, and so one of them proposed that Ariadne be left with the choice. She chose a man called Anastasius—a silentarius. This man met with near universal approval, and on April 11, 491, he was crowned by the Patriarch and proclaimed emperor. On May 20 of the same year, he married Ariadne.

As a convenient vehicle of imperial ambition, Ariadne's marriage to Zeno had seemed destined to serve her father Leo well. The fact that her son had not survived, and that the result was an unpopular Isaurian ascendancy in the capital, did not seem to diminish her own powers of influence; there is indication of this both in the fact that the ministers surrendered to her so important and contentious a decision as the imperial election, and in her evident popularity with her subjects. It should be noted also that she was able to overcome the displeasure of the powerful Patriarch in her choice of new husband (Anastasius was suspected of Monophysitism). There is also testimony of her influence and popularity in the unusual number of portraits of Ariadne (in various media, including statuary) that have survived to the present day.

Anastasius I's first task as emperor was to dampen Isaurian clout in high circles. Ariadne thus outlived the change in court politics she had helped to usher in. Anastasius' reign was not, in later years, a happy one, but we hear no more of Ariadne until her death in 515. Perhaps, with Anastasius' death three years later, we can point to the vicissitude that constitutes Ariadne's only failure: her second marriage (likely entered upon in early middle age) produced no offspring, and so with her died the dynasty begun by her father.


Bury, J.B. History of the Later Roman Empire. Vol. I. London: St. Martin's Press, 1923 (reprint ed., pp. 314–323; 389–404; 429–436). NY: Dover Publications, 1958.

Gibbon, Edward. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Volume 4. Edited by J.B. Bury. London: Methuen, 1901.

Malalas, Johannes. Chronographia. Edited by L. Dindorf. Bonn: Weber, 1831.

Martindale, J.R. Prosopography of the Later Roman Empire. Vol. 2. S.v. "Aelia Ariadne." Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980.

Porphyrogenitus, Constantine VII. De Cerimoniis Aulae Byzantinae. Edited by J.J. Reiske. Bonn: Weber, 1829.

suggested reading:

Norwich, John Julius. Byzantium: The Early Centuries. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1989.

Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium. Edited by Alexander P. Kazhdan et al. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991.

related media:

Portraits of Ariadne in Age of Spirituality: Late Antique and Early Christian Art, Third to Seventh Century. Edited by Kurt Weizman. Pl. 24 & 25. NY: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1979.

Peter H. O'Brien , Boston University.