Emperor Heraclius seized power over Constantinople and its empire by force in 610, usurping the throne from his predecessor, Emperor Phocas (r. 602-610)—who was, himself, a usurper. After seeing the vulnerabilities of unstable successions firsthand, Emperor Heraclius made a concerted effort to pave for his children a smooth pathway to the throne. Heraclius’ first wife, Empress Eudokia, gave birth to her first son, Constantine, in 612. Eudokia, tragically, died a few months after young Constantine was born, but their son was well looked after by the emperor. The very next year, in 613, Emperor Heraclius affirmed Constantine as his heir apparent by naming the young child as a co-emperor. Although he had no real power in his symbolic co-emperor role, especially as a child, the move clearly indicated to the realm that the boy, if he survived, would eventually succeed Emperor Heraclius as the next emperor of Constantinople. Emperor Heraclius eventually re-married, controversially making his niece, Martina, the next empress. From her, many children were born, including the next potential heir—Heraclonas, who was born in 615. For decades, Emperor Heraclius kept the younger son, Heraclonas, strictly ranked underneath the elder brother, Constantine, but this changed in 638, when Empress Martina successfully convinced Emperor Heraclius to allow Heraclonas to join his elder brother as a co-emperor. Unfortunately for the family, this belated promotion would cause dire consequences.
Emperor Heraclius died of illness in 641, and after his death, the two appointed heirs (who were both in their twenties) ascended to the throne. The elder brother became Emperor Constantine III, co-ruling with his step-sibling, Emperor Heraclonas. Constantine III, tragically, was a sickly man (tuberculosis being the likeliest culprit) when he became emperor, and his health deteriorated quickly during his reign. After ruling only a few months, he succumbed to his aggressive ailment and died. The death of Constantine III left his brother, Heraclonas, as the sole emperor of Constantinople by mid 641. Yet, Heraclonas’ reign would be nearly as short as his brother’s.
Unfortunately, Emperor Heraclonas suffered great harm from his connection to his mother, Empress Martina. Many churchmen, courtiers and common people in the empire had deemed the marriage of the late Emperor Heraclius and his niece Martina as incestuous, taboo, and potentially illegitimate. Emperor Heraclius steadfastly supported Empress Martina until the end, but after his death, Empress Martina remained a stigmatized figure, looked upon with animosity by many. Martina’s son, Heraclonas, as an offspring of the taboo marriage, inherited much of his mother’s stigmatized nature. Worst of all, as Empress Martina had been the step-mother of Constantine III (whose birth mother was Heraclius’s fist wife, Empress Eudokia), the city of Constantinople quickly became awash with stories that portrayed Martina in the classic evil step-mother trope. During the course of the incredibly successful smear campaign, a narrative was formed that Martina and her son, Emperor Heraclonas, had poisoned Emperor Constantine III. Long-grudging enemies of Empress Martina seized upon this story as a pretext to remove the controversial woman and her taboo-laced son from power. This vicious backlash benefited Constantine III’s son, Constans, who was free from the stigma of Martina and stood to gain from Emperor Heraclonas’ demise.
Supporters of Constans ultimately overthrew and arrested Emperor Heraclonas and Martina before the end of 641. Unfortunately, with the preexisting dislike and accusations of murders attached to the ousted individuals, the captors were not inclined to treat their prisoners kindly. Instead, the deposed emperor and his mother were subjected to mutilation. As told by the chronicler Theophanes (c. 750s-818), “They cut out Martina’s tongue, slit Heraklonas’ nose, and exiled them, elevating to the throne Constantine’s son Constans…” (Theophanes, Chronographia, entry for Annus Mundi 6133). Deposed Heraclonas was known to have been sent to Rhodes for his exile, where he faded from history.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Solidus of Heraclius, Heraclius Constantine, and Heraclonas, dated 638–641, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the MET).
- Theophanes, The Chronicle of Theophanes, translated by Harry Turtledove. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982.