Emperor Constans II of Constantinople (r. 641-668) had a lot on his imperial plate when he ascended to the throne after a complicated succession. Constans’ famous grandfather, Emperor Heraclius (r. 610-641), had died of ill health in 641, as, immediately, did one of Heraclius’ successors, Emperor Constantine III (r. 641). Constantine III’s brother, Emperor Heraclonas, then briefly ruled as sole emperor in 641 until, before the end of the year, a faction in support of Constans II—who was Constantine III’s son—ultimately dethroned, imprisoned and mutilated Heraclonas. After such a tumultuous year and succession, it was understandable that Emperor Constans II’s ascension was met with great discontent and unrest in the empire, causing plots and uprisings. Compounding the empire’s internal division was the growing threat of Arab armies. During the reign of the first caliph, Abū Bakr (r. 632-634), Arab forces began expanding into the regions of Jordan, Palestine, Syria and Iraq, and these expansionist wars increased dramatically during the reigns of Umar I (r. 634-644) and Uthman (r. 644-656). In particular, Emperor Constans II found himself trading blows with the formidable Arab military leader and future Umayyad ruler, Mu’awiyah, whose campaigns threatened the empire’s territory by land and sea. Speaking of the sea threat, an Arab fleet led by an officer reportedly named Abu ‘I-Awar began raiding in the environs of Rhodes and the Lycian coast of Anatolia around 655. In response, Emperor Constans II mobilized a fleet of his own to confront the Arab ships, clashing with the rival force at the Bay of Phoenix. There, the battle went horribly wrong for the emperor, and he was reportedly almost captured. According to legend, the defeated emperor’s escape was quite elaborate and bizarre. A chronicler named Theophanes (c. 750s-818) recorded the tale:
“Abu ‘I-Awar came to Phoenix in Lykia, where he fought a sea-battle against the Emperor Constans and his Roman expeditionary force…the Romans were defeated, and the sea was mixed with Roman blood. The Emperor clothed someone else in his garments. Then one of Bucinator’s sons leaped onto the imperial ship; he picked up the Emperor and hurled him onto another vessel, unexpectedly saving him. He stayed himself on the imperial ship; the noble fellow gave up his life for the Emperor. After he had killed many, the enemy slew him and the man wearing the imperial raiment. But the Emperor, who had been put to flight like this, was saved. He abandoned all his men and sailed away to Constantinople” (Theophanes, Chronographia, entry for Anno Mundi 6146 [654-655 CE]).
Such were the tales that spread about Constans’ behavior at the Battle of Phoenix, in all its unflattering detail. As the story goes, he dressed up a body-double in imperial regalia and left the actor, with other brave warriors, to make a doomed last stand while the real emperor escaped back to safer waters. The plan, in its goal of protecting the emperor from capture, was a success, allowing Constans II to emulate the namesake of the bay—the phoenix—and rise from the ashes of defeat to continue ruling for more than another decade. Nevertheless, the stories of him abandoning his troops and leaving behind a body-double did nothing to improve his dire public relations problems. Discontent and uprisings would continue, and Emperor Constans II ultimately met a violent end by assassination in 668 or 669.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Byzantine fashion from The costumes of all nations from the earliest times to the nineteenth century. Sotheran, 1882) Kretschmer, Albert (1825-1891), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the NYPL).
- Theophanes, The Chronicle of Theophanes, translated by Harry Turtledove. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982.
- The Oxford Dictionary of Late Antiquity, edited by Oliver Nicholson. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018.