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Saints and Feasts of September 19

Saturday, August 22, 2020

Saint Ariadne, Empress of the Romans (+ 515)

St. Ariadne the Empress of the Romans (Feast Day - August 22);
the bust of Ariadne is at the Louvre Museum in Paris.

The Roman Empire had clashed with barbarians on the northern border for centuries, but lost this war during the reign of Emperor Valens (364-378). In the war with the Goths, Emperor Valens died on the battlefield and Rome was on the brink of collapse. Emperor Theodosius, who came to the throne in such a period, decided to be friends instead of fighting barbarians.

This policy was politically successful and brought prosperity. On the other hand, it led to the rise of foreign soldiers in the army, such as Goths, Vandals, Germans and Isaurians. For example, General Aspar of Germanic origin played a major role in the crowning of Emperor Leo I (457-474).

If it were possible, Aspar himself would have wanted to become an emperor. However, it was still not acceptable for a barbarian to come to the Roman throne at that time. However, this rule would change only one generation later. An Isaurian general who married the daughter of Emperor Leo changed his name to Zeno. He would be the first barbarian-born emperor in Roman history.

Ariadne was the eldest daughter of Emperor Leo I and Empress Verina and born around the year 450. On 7 February 457, Leo was crowned emperor by Patriarch Anatolios of Constantinople, the first such coronation known to involve a Patriarch. At this point Ariadne became a member of the imperial family.

In 461, Leo founded the Excubitors as a counterbalance to the Germanic soldiers under Aspar. He recruited the majority of its members from among the sturdy and warlike Isaurians. In 466, Tarasicodissa, an Isaurian officer of the Excubitors came forth with evidence that Ardabur, a son of Aspar, was guilty of treason. The scandal caused a rift in the relations of Leo and Aspar, leaving the former relying even more on the Excubitors.

In 467, the alliance of Leo and Tarasicodissa was sealed with the marriage of Ariadne to the officer. To make himself more acceptable to the Roman hierarchy and the primarily Greek-speaking Roman population of Constantinople, her husband changed his name to Zeno. Their only known son, Leo II, was born within the year.


Leo II was proclaimed Caesar in October 473 and effectively became the designated heir to the throne by virtue of being the closest male relative of Leo I. On 18 January 474, Leo I died of dysentery. His grandson immediately succeeded him.

Since Leo II was too young to rule himself, Ariadne and her mother Verina prevailed upon him to crown Zeno as co-emperor, which he did on 9 February 474. When Leo II became ill and died on 17 November 474, Zeno became sole emperor, with Ariadne as empress consort.

The new reign was not particularly popular. The barbarian origins of Zeno caused antipathy towards his regime among the Greek-speaking Roman people of Constantinople. Furthermore, the strong Germanic portion of the military, led by Theodoric Strabo, disliked the Isaurian officers that Leo I brought to reduce his dependency on the Ostrogoths. Finally, Zeno alienated his fellow Isaurian general Illus.

Verina and her brother Basiliscus took advantage of the situation to form a conspiracy against their imperial in-law. In 475, a popular revolt against the emperor started within the capital. The uprising, received military support by Theodoric Strabo, Illus and Armatus and succeeded in taking control of Constantinople. Verina convinced her son-in-law to leave the city. Zeno fled to his native lands, bringing with him some of the Isaurians living in Constantinople, and the imperial treasury. Basiliscus was then acclaimed as Augustus on 9 January 475 at the Hebdomon palace, by the palace ministers and the Roman Senate. The mob of Constantinople got its revenge against Zeno, killing almost all of the Isaurians left in the city.

However, Basiliscus managed to estrange himself from most of his key collaborators. Patricius, the magister officiorum and lover of Verina, was executed to prevent her aspirations to elevate him to the throne. As a consequence, Verina later intrigued against Basiliscus, because of her lover's execution. Theodoric and Armatus were promoted to magister millitum and magister militum praesentialis and were vying for authority. Finally, the support of Illus was most likely wavering, given the massacre of the Isaurians allowed by Basiliscus.

In 476, both Illus and Armatus defected to the side of Zeno. In August, Zeno besieged Constantinople. The leader of the Pannonian Goths, Theodoric the Amal (later known as Theodoric the Great) had allied to Zeno. Basiliscus had also lost favor with the people because of his sympathy for the Monophysites. After twenty months in exile, the Senate opened the gates of the city to Zeno the Isaurian, allowing the deposed emperor to resume the throne. Ariadne was still empress.

Basiliscus' father Armatus played a crucial role in helping Emperor Zeno reclaim Constantinople from the usurper Basiliscus (whom Armatus had initially helped in his own rise to power) in 476. In exchange, Zeno crowned Armatus's son who was also named Basiliscus, still a boy, as caesar, effectively marking him out as his heir. Soon after, however, in 477 or 478, Armatus fell from imperial favor and was executed. Young Basiliscus was spared the same fate through the intervention of Empress Ariadne, but was forced to become a cleric. Initially he became a lector at Blachernae, and eventually he rose to become Bishop of Cyzicus.


In 479, Ariadne came into conflict with her husband over the fate of her mother. Verina had attempted to assassinate Illus and had become his prisoner. She had supported the revolt of her other son-in-law Marcian even during her captivity. Ariadne endeavored to obtain her release, first from Zeno, and then from Illus, to whom the emperor referred her. Illus not only refused her request, but charged her with wishing to place another person on her husband's throne. This irritated her; and she, like her mother, attempted to assassinate Illus. Jordanes ascribes her hatred to another cause: he says that Illus had infused jealous suspicions into Zeno's mind which had led Zeno to attempt her life, and that her knowledge of these things stimulated her to revenge. The assassin whom she employed failed to kill Illus, but cut off his ear in the attempt. The assassin was taken, and Zeno, who appears to have been privy to the affair, was unable to prevent his execution.

The affair does not seem to have had long-term effects in their marriage. She remained married to Zeno to his death by epilepsy on 9 April 491. According to later stories recorded by two 11th century and 12th century writers, and which is likely untrue, Zeno, who was heavily drunk, was passed off as a dead man and buried alive. At the same time, when screams were heard from the closed sarcophagus saying "have pity on me!", a report was made to Ariadne, who did not give timely instructions to immediately open the coffin and the emperor suffocated. The widowed Augusta was able to choose his successor for the throne and a second husband for herself in the person of Anastasios, a palace official (silentiarius), whom she preferred to Longinus, Zeno's brother. Anastasios was proclaimed emperor on 11 April and they were married on 20 May 491. Their marriage remained childless.

She died in Constantinople in 515 and was buried in the Church of the Holy Apostles. The Empress Ariadne had assumed an unprecedented level of authority during her life. She determined a sequence of three emperors in her roles as mother and wife, for after her son ruled, Ariadne’s two husbands, Zeno and Anastasios, reigned in succession. Anastasios was buried beside her in 518.

Since the Empress was no longer alive, the army would have to choose the person who came to the throne. In such an environment, the name of Justinus, the commander of the palace guards, was put forward. Justinus, who was crowned in the presence of tens of thousands in the Hippodrome, was Roman and Orthodox, but peasant born and even illiterate.

The commemoration of Ariadne as a Saint is preserved in the 10th century Synaxarion of Constantinople, the Synaxarion of Delahaye, as well as in Codex Oxon (Codex Biblioth. Bodleianae Oxon) t. III 16, and in Parisian Codex 1617.


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