In the year 606 or 607, Emperor Phokas of Constantinople (r. 602-610) arranged for his daughter, Domentzia, to marry an influential man named Priskos. This Priskos was a high-ranking patrician and was also the leader of the excubitors—guards of the emperor and defenders of the capital. The marriage ceremony, itself, was reportedly held without incident. Yet, when the emperor subsequently ordered for celebratory horse races to be held in Constantinople, problems started to occur. At the core of the issue, Emperor Phokas apparently was unnerved by the popular reception that his new son-in-law was receiving from the Constantinople’s masses. In particular, the emperor was incensed by an artwork set up at the horseraces that depicted the newlyweds, Priskos and Domentzia, in regalia that was reserved for emperors and empresses of Constantinople. This imagery was dangerous for Phokas, as he was an unpopular emperor who was vulnerable to coups and rebellions. In order to remind people who was in charge, and to stop Priskos and the excubitors from having any funny ideas, Emperor Phokas lashed out harshly against the men responsible for putting up the controversial artwork at the horse races. The incident was described by the chronicler, Theophanes (c. 750s-818), in his Chronographia:
“Phokas ordered horse races to be held. The leaders of the two factions erected images of Priskos and Domentzia with the imperial portraits on a four-columned monument. When he saw this, the Emperor became angry. He sent out men who brought back Theophanes and Pamphilos (the leaders of the faction). He stood them naked on the stama and ordered them executed…Since the masses were crying for him to have mercy on the leaders of the demes, the Emperor acquiesced” (Theophanes, Chronographia, entry for Annus Mundi 6099 (606-607 CE)).
Although the patrons or artists behind the monument had been spared by the emperor, Phokas’ angry response was not forgotten by the populace. The man who took the emperor’s reaction most seriously was Priskos, who began to fear for his life and also likely felt a bit insulted by the emperor’s response to the artwork. Giving way to these emotions, Priskos reportedly started plotting against the emperor, and, as the story goes, he went on to encourage the rebellion of Heraclius, who usurped power from Emperor Phokas in 610.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Chariot Race, painted by Jean Léon Gérôme (1824-1904), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the Art Institute of Chicago.jpg).
- Theophanes, The Chronicle of Theophanes, translated by Harry Turtledove. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982.