A man named Saborios served as a general for the lackluster ruler, Emperor Constans II (r. 641-668/669) of Constantinople. This emperor came to power after the political turmoil that followed the death of his popular grandfather, Emperor Heraclius (r. 610-641). Heraclius had been succeeded by his two sons, Emperor Constantine III and Emperor Heraclonas. Nevertheless, Constantine III—who was Emperor Constans II’s father—died during the inaugural year of his ascension. Following Constantine’s death, Heraclonas briefly became the sole emperor of Constantinople, but before the busy year of 641 was over, Heraclonas ultimately met the fate of being dethroned, imprisoned and mutilated by a faction that placed Constans II on the throne. This intrigue-filled path to power earned Emperor Constans II many skeptics, critics and enemies in his empire, making the realm prone to unrest and rebellion. Such was the political environment in which the general, Saborios, lived.
Constantinople’s atmosphere of dissension was amplified by military losses that the empire was suffering in places such as Italy and the Middle East. Concerning the latter theatre of war, Arab forces had begun conquering territory from the Byzantine Empire in the 630s and Emperor Heraclius, who had previously defeated the Persians in a long war between 602-628, was not able to repeat his success against the Arabs. Heraclius died without having found a way to turn the tide of the Arab invasions, and the lack of containment continued into the reigns of his successors. Constans II’s struggle against the Arabs went poorly from the start, but he luckily was given a brief reprieve due to the First Arab Civil War (c. 656-661) and a temporary truce with the Umayyad dynasty founder, Mu’awiya (r. 661-680). During that reprieve, Constans II turned his eye to other troublesome regions of his empire. Between 658 and 660, he campaigned successfully in the Balkans and the Caucasus, before finally sailing off to the nostalgic imperial target of Italy around 662 or 663, where Constans II hoped to curtail the influence of the pope in Rome (as opposed to Constantinople’s own religious patriarch) and push back against the expansion of the Lombards who had been making steady gains in Italy since their people invaded the peninsula around 568. Constans II would spend the rest of his life in Italy, leaving behind his son, Constantine IV, to oversee the administration of the court in Constantinople. Despite giving Italy his undivided attention, Constans II failed to do any meaningful damage to Lombard power, and his attempts to dominate Rome only served to further darken his tyrannical reputation and did nothing to dampen the Roman Church’s challenges against Constantinople’s religious authority. With the Italian campaigns stagnating and Arab raids resuming, Constans II soon found himself the victim of a growing number of conspiracies and revolts—including a rebellion by the aforementioned general, Saborios.
Saborios, according to a chronicler named Theophanes (c. 750s-818), was a Persian man that commanded troops in the vicinity of Armenia on the behalf of the emperors of Constantinople. It is unclear how long Saborios was a general prior to his rebellion or what official rank he held in Constans II’s administration, but Saborios undoubtedly commanded an army and had other officers serving under him who joined the rebellion. There were many prior rebellions that Saborios could learn from, notably the conspiracy of Valentinian that was crushed in 644, as well as a revolt from a certain patrician Gregory who tried to become independent in 646 or 647 before his rebels were conquered by Arab raiders, and finally Pasagnathes, a fellow leader from the Armenia region, who defected with his army in 651 or 652 to the side of Mu’awiya. Following Pasagnathes’ example, Saborios decided that his best way forward was not only to rebel, but to align his rebellious army with the Arabs. Soborios launched his rebellion around 667 or 668, several years after Emperor Constans II had made his decision to personally sail off to Italy. On the rebellion and Saborios’ outreach to the Umayyad Caliph Mu’awiya (also spelled Muawiyah), the chronicler Theophanes wrote: “In this year the general of the Armeniacs Saborios (who was of Persian race) rebelled against the Emperor Constans. He sent his general Sergios to Muawiyah, promising to subject Romania to him if he would ally with Saborios against the Emperor” (Theophanes, Chronographia, entry for Annus Mundi 6159). As Constans II was off seeing to his ambitions in Italy, Constantinople’s response to the rebellion had to be orchestrated by Constans’ son, Constantine IV.
Remembering the Pasagnathes incident, in which rebels had aligned with the Arabs, Constantine IV quickly decided to dispatched a diplomat named Andrew to seek out Mu’awiya in hopes of bribing the man’s neutrality with expensive gifts. Nevertheless, Constantine IV, as the reactionary party, was slower to dispatch a messenger than his rebel rivals. Therefore, in the resulting footrace to Mu’awiya’s court between Andrew (representing Constantinople) and Sergios (representing the rebels), it was Sergios who arrived first to the destination. Nevertheless, Andrew made good time, resulting in him arriving at Mu’awiya’s camp while the rebel representative was still there. On this awkward diplomatic mission, Theophanes wrote, “[Constantine IV] sent Andrew the cubicularius to Muawiyah with gifts so he would not cooperate with the rebel. When Andrew reached Damascus he found Sergios had got there first, but Muawiyah was pretending to be sympathetic to the Emperor. Sergios was sitting in front of Muawiyah when Andrew came in, and stood up when he saw Andrew” (Chronographia, entry for Annus Mundi 6159). Enjoying his position of hosting the imperial diplomat and the imperial rebel, Mu’awiya reportedly held a debate where he asked each side what they could offer in exchange for his support. Sergios, on behalf of the rebels, pledged a military alliance, money, and the prospect of land if the rebellion succeeded. As for Andrew, after insinuating to no avail that an emperor makes a better partner than a rebel, he ultimately stormed off after realizing that the negotiations would come to nothing.
Although the negotiations failed to go in Constantinople’s favor, Andrew did not lose any energy after his diplomatic defeat. Instead, he gathered troops and set a trap for the rival messenger, Sergios. This ambush was described by Theophanes, who wrote, “Sergios had entered into agreements with Muawiyah over what seemed good; as allies for Saborios he had gained the Arab general Fudhala and barbarian aid. Sergios traveled ahead to Fudhala, then happily went off to Saborios. But in the mountain passes he encountered Andrew’s troops, who captured him…” (Chronographia, entry for Annus Mundi 6159). Andrew, it turns out, held quite a grudge against the rebel messenger. Making a gruesome display of the man, Andrew reportedly castrated Sergios and suspended him up on a stake.
Back in Constantinople, prince Constantine IV had already sent another general named Nikephoros to deal with the rebellion of Saborios. Yet, in an anticlimactic turn to the story, Saborios was reportedly already dead by the time the army of Nikephoros reached the rebels. As it turned out, the rebel leader apparently died in a freak horse accident while he was riding near the city of Adrianople. Commenting on Saborios’ bizarre death, the chronicler Theophanes stated, “Saborios was in Adrianople readying himself for battle, as he had learned that Nikephoros was approaching. It happened that one day he left the city on horseback, as was his wont. He whipped his horse while near the gate. Refusing to obey, it dashed his head against the gate and evilly put an end to his life” (Chronographia, entry for Annus Mundi 6159). Thus, the rebel leader was killed by a rebellious horse. After the deaths of the rebel leaders, Saborios and Sergios, the rebellion reportedly fizzled out. Even so, Mu’awiya’s ressurgence of warfare against Constantinople continued to rage on despite Saborios’ downfall.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Costume designs of Byzantine fashion between 700-1000, by Friedrich Hottenroth (c. 1840-1917), [Public Domain/No Rights Statement] via Creative Commons and the NYPL Collections).
- Theophanes, The Chronicle of Theophanes, translated by Harry Turtledove. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982.