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Martina (Second Wife of Heraclius)

Lynda Garland

University of New England, New South Wales

Coin of Martina (c) 2000 Chris ConnellMartina is on the right, Heraclius Constantine is on the left.

Martina was to have the doubtful honour of being one of the most hated rulers of any period in Byzantium, and of being probably the most detested empress of all time. Her husband, the emperor Heraclius (610-41), had been married before. His marriage to the extremely popular Fabia-Eudocia took place on the same day as his coronation, 5 October 610, but she died of epilepsy in August 612, leaving a son and a daughter.

Fabia was a hard act for any empress to follow. To make matters worse Martina, who was considerably younger than Heraclius, was his niece, the daughter of his sister Maria, by her first marriage to a certain Martinus. This incestuous relationship went against all the rulings of the church,[[1]] and caused violent reactions from both clergy and populace, which were to complicate considerably Heraclius' reign and those of his sons Heraclius Constantine (Constantine III) and Heraclonas.

Uncle and niece

The date at which the marriage and Martina's coronation as Augusta took place is disputed: Theophanes places the marriage shortly after the death of Eudocia in 612/13,[[2]] though Nicephorus does not record it until after the Avar attack of 623.[[3]] Heraclius' coinage between 615 and 629 has been used to support the argument both ways. The marriage must have occurred before 615/6 if Martina is the female figure who appears on the copper coinage with Heraclius and her stepson from year six of the reign, though it has been suggested that this figure is Epiphania-Eudocia, Heraclius' eldest daughter, who was crowned Augusta as a baby.[[4]] This empress wears a crown adorned with pyramids and long pendilia, and her position on the left of the coin shows her as taking rank after the heir, Heraclius Constantine. While it is possible that such coins might have been issued depicting Epiphania prior to Martina's marriage, it is highly unlikely that coins representing not Martina but her young step-daughter would continue to be issued once Martina became empress. It is therefore possible to use these coins as evidence for the date of Martina's marriage and for her concern to underline her own status as being equivalent to that of other empresses from Sophia, wife of Justin II, on. That the populace at least thought that the figure on the coins was Martina is shown by one example from the Dumbarton Oaks Collection, where the empress' image has been obliterated, apparently by hammering.[[5]]

Despite his disapproval of the marriage, the Patriarch Sergius performed the ceremony himself and crowned Martina in the Augustaeum after she was proclaimed Augusta by Heraclius. According to Nicephorus, the patriarch attempted to put pressure on Heraclius by writing to him and admonishing him to repudiate Martina. In reply, the emperor excused himself: 'What you say is very well. The obligation you owe me as high priest and friend you have already paid. For the rest, the responsibility shall lie on me.'[[6]] The popular reaction too was markedly unfavourable and news of the marriage was greeted in the hippodrome with insults even by the Greens, Heraclius' favoured faction.[[7]] Members of the imperial family also voiced their objections, with Heraclius' brother (and Martina's uncle) Theodore continually criticising Heraclius because of this relationship and saying 'his sin is continually before him'. This insult was a double-edged one, not only targetting the incestuous marriage but highlighting Martina's unconventional habit of travelling with Heraclius and the army.[[8]]

Heraclius and Martina were clearly a very close couple: seldom apart, they had at least ten children, though the names and order of these children are questions for debate: they seem to have included Fabius, Theodosius, Constantine, Heraclius (Heraclonas), David (Tiberius), Martinus or Marinus, Augustina, Anastasia and/or Martina, and Febronia. Of these at least two were handicapped, which was seen as punishment for the illegality of the marriage: Fabius, the eldest, had a paralysed neck and the second, Theodosius, was a deaf-mute.[[9]] Even when pregnant Martina accompanied Heraclius, and Heraclonas, perhaps her fourth child, was born at Lazica in 626 while Heraclius was on campaign against the Persians, and was with him at Antioch (with a child), when the news was received of the serious defeat by the Arabs at the river Yarmuk in August 636.[[10]]

Martina as empress-consort

Like many a step-mother Martina was concerned to secure some part of the succession for her own children, and her relationship with the well-liked Constantine, who had been co-emperor since 613, was a stormy one: she was after all both his step-mother and his first cousin, which cannot have made matters any easier. Heraclonas was the eldest of her children eligible for the throne (deformity acted as a barrier), and in 632 at the age of six or thereabouts he was proclaimed Caesar by his half-brother during Constantine's consulship, a sign that he was next in line for the throne.[[11]]

A plot in 637 may have been influenced by her manoeuvres on behalf of her children: the plotters included Heraclius' illegitimate son Atalarichus and his nephew Theodore: the noses and hands of all conspirators were cut off, one of Theodore's legs was also amputated, and they were exiled to Prinkipo.[[12]] One of the consequences was that Martina's son Heraclonas (officially Heraclius II) was crowned emperor in July 638, and his younger brother David made Caesar: Heraclius also had his daughters Augustina and Anastasia pronounced Augustae.[[13]] The situation was exacerbated because Constantine may already have been suffering from ill-health, while the elder of Constantine's two sons, another Heraclius, was then only seven years of age. The political situation was therefore tense and Martina's children were clearly in a position to make a move on the throne in the event of anything happening to Constantine.

Mother and Empress

Early in 641 Heraclius made a will, not leaving the empire to Constantine his eldest son as his undisputed successor, but providing for his sons Constantine and Heraclonas (Constantine III and Heraclius II) to be emperors of equal rank. Martina was to be honoured by them as 'mother and empress'.[[14]] Constantine at this time was twenty-eight years of age with two sons of his own, and yet had his fifteen-year old half-brother associated with him, while Martina was clearly to have some authority in government, not just as a regent figure but as a ruler in her own right. Heraclius was within his rights in nominating two of his sons as co-rulers, but the decision was not a popular one, the situation being complicated by the terminal illness suffered by Constantine. In the event of Constantine's death the throne was now to pass to his half-brother by Martina, and not his own two sons. As a result, strife within the capital, based on the factions of the two emperors and popular hatred of Martina, continued to grow.

Heraclius died on 11 February 641 of dropsy. The incestuous nature of his marriage was still not forgotten, and Nicephorus considers Heraclius' final illness (in which his private parts turned around and discharged the urine in his face, unless he placed a board against his abdomen) as punishment for his transgression in marrying his niece.[[15]] After his three-day lying-in-state and burial in the Church of the Holy Apostles, his will was made public by Martina herself in an unheard-of show of authority by an empress. She summoned the patriarch Pyrrhus, the senate and other dignitaries and called an assembly of the people in the hippodrome to show them the testament of Heraclius and the provisions for herself and Heraclius' sons. This took place in the absence of Constantine and Heraclonas, for the populace's first reaction was to insist that they be brought out. She proceded to demand, as empress, first place in the empire (in other words to assume authority herself); the crowd in contrast made their wishes for an emperor, Constantine in particular as senior emperor, very plain: 'You have the honour due to the mother of the emperors, but they that of our emperors and lords.... Nor can you, O Lady, receive barbarians or other foreign emissaries who come to the palace or converse with them. May God forbid that the Roman State should come to such a pass!' And they came down from their seats acclaiming the emperors. When Martina had heard these things, she withdrew to her palace.[[16]]

This objection to her participation in government was in direct opposition to Martina's own plans, and she was clearly unhappy at this turn in events, though not without a further agenda. Heraclius had apparently before his death given Martina a private sum of money, left in the care of the patriarch Pyrrhus for her protection in case Constantine should evict her from the palace. This money Constantine now forced Pyrrhus to disgorge, perhaps because the empire was in such dire financial straits. His supporters feared action against him on the part of Martina and Heraclonas, and the treasurer Philagrius advised him to write to the army, informing them that he was dying and asking for their assistance in protecting the rights of his children. He also sent a vast sum of money, more than two million solidi (gold coins), to Valentinus, an adjutant of Philagrius, to distribute to the soldiers to persuade them to secure the succession for his sons after his death.[[17]]

As expected, Constantine was soon to die, after only ruling for 103 days, according to Nicephorus. His death, probably from tuberculosis,[[18]] perhaps took place on 24 May 641.[[19]] The belief that Martina had poisoned him was rampant, and was later officially propagated by Constantine's son Heraclius (who ruled as Constans II). The patriarch Pyrrhus is often mentioned as her accomplice. Theophanes, for example, states: 'when Heraclius had died and his son Constantine became emperor, Pyrrhus along with Martina killed him by poison.'[[20]] It is unclear why Pyrrhus would have been involved, unless because he felt that Constantine was not properly supportive of monotheletism, a doctrine propounded (unsuccessfully) by Heraclius in an attempt to heal the breach between orthodox and monophysites: Pyrrhus, appointed by Heraclius on Sergius' death in 638, was, like Martina, a fervent monothelete.

Martina's regency

Heraclonas, aged fifteen years, then succeeded to the throne, though the de facto ruler was of course his mother Martina.[[21]] John of Nikiu records that the entire clergy was opposed to the new regime, declaring, 'it is not fitting that one derived from a reprobate seed should sit on the imperial throne: rather it is the sons of Constantine, who was the son of Eudocia, that should bear sway over the empire.'[[22]] Donatives were given to the army to ensure its loyalty,[[23]] and unpopular punitive measures taken against Constantine's supporters, including the treasurer Philagrius, who was tonsured (made a monk) and exiled. The monothelete ecclesiastical policy was also revived, and Cyrus the monothelete bishop of Alexandria was recalled from exile and sent back to Egypt.[[24]]

Martina's unpopularity -- with the clergy, the factions, the populace, the senate, and the army -- now reached an all-time low. Valentinus Arshakuni, a general of Armenian descent and Philagrius' adjutant, who had been appointed commander-in-chief of the East by Constantine, now fired the soldiery against Martina and her regime.[[25]] Following Constantine's instructions he distributed the money sent by Philagrius and prevailed on the troops throughout the provinces to act against Martina and her sons and ignore the empress' orders, as well as orchestrating a march on Constantinople.[[26]] Martina and Heraclonas held the capital securely, but Valentinus advanced as far as Chalcedon, where he remained, supposedly in order to assist the interests of Constantine's children, though there were concerns that he had designs on the throne on his own account.[[27]] In September 641, due to pressure caused by the army's presence, the young Heraclius, Constantine's son, now aged ten, was crowned in St Sophia by Heraclonas and renamed Constantine by the populace (as emperor he was known as Constans).[[28]] Rioting, however, continued in the city and that same evening the mob, with 'Jews and other unbelievers', broke into the sanctuary of St Sophia and attempted to assault the patriarch Pyrrhus, unpopular because of his support of Martina. Pyrrhus resigned his office on the following day, 29 September 641, according to Nicephorus, and left for Carthage.[[29]] In an attempt to defuse the situation further, Heraclonas and Martina came to an agreement with Valentinus, and appointed him comes excubitorum, promising he would not be called to account for the money received from Constantine. In addition his soldiers would be rewarded with gold. At the same time Martina's younger son David was crowned as third co-emperor (lessening Constantine/Constans' status as co-emperor and heir) and renamed Tiberius.[[30]]


Shortly afterwards the people of the capital revolted against Heraclonas and Martina. The senate seems to have played an important role in events but the rebellion may also have been sparked off by further trouble with the army, and been directed by Valentinus. John of Nikiu's account is not entirely reliable, but he tells us that the hatred between the two emperors (by which he presumably means their factions) continued to grow and that Satan sowed dissension between Heraclonas and the army, which must have continued to consider itself a champion of the rights of Constantine's children. The troops in Cappadocia committed atrocities, and produced a letter supposedly sent by Martina and Pyrrhus to David the 'Matarguem' (perhaps a logothete) to make 'a vigorous war, and to take Martina to be his wife, and to put down the sons of Constantine'. This letter, though possibly a forgery, was used as a catalyst for further trouble and John tells us that as a consequence all the soldiers and people in the capital rose up and a large force marched to the capital, captured the palace and had Martina and her three sons -- Heraclonas, David and Martinus -- 'escorted forth with insolence'. They were stripped of the imperial crown, their noses cut off (so that they could not attempt to regain the throne) and sent in exile to Rhodes; the youngest son, presumably Martinus, was castrated, but Theodosius, the second son, was left unharmed because he was a deaf-mute. According to Theophanes, Heraclonas' nose was cut off and Martina's tongue. The seventh-century Armenian source, Sebeos, states that Martina's tongue was cut out and then she and her two sons were killed.[[31]] Whatever the details, it was the end of Martina's involvement in political life, and she seems to have spent the rest of her life in exile.

The young emperor, Constantine's son and Heraclius' grandson, was now known as Constans (a diminutive of Constantine) and reigned as Constans II (641-68). Constans did not assume real power until about 650 and Heraclonas' and Martina's downfall was obviously orchestrated by those who assumed power on behalf of this branch of Heraclius' family, most notably Valentinus, who appears to have tried to acquire the throne for himself and who married his daughter Fausta to the young emperor. Certainly he played a part in removing supporters of Martina from their positions,[[32]] and many of the policies of her six-month period of rule were reversed.

Views of Martina

Later opinions of Martina and her government were invariably hostile. Theophanes quotes a speech supposedly made to the senate by Constans on his accession in 641/2 in which he thanks the senators for their part in overthrowing his uncle and Martina, and condemns Martina's past actions:

'My father Constantine, who begot me, reigned for a considerable time in the lifetime of his father... and, after his death, for a very short time; for the envy of his stepmother Martina both cut off his fair hopes and deprived him of life, and this on account of Heraclonas, her illicit offspring by Heraclius. Your godly decision rightly cast her out from the imperial dignity along with her child lest the Roman Empire appeared to be ruled in an unlawful manner.'[[33]]

Empress-regents henceforth play a very understated role in government, until the time of the empress Irene in 780. Whether Constans' mother, Gregoria, widow of Constantine III, played a part in overseeing the first years of her young son's rule is a moot point. Presumably she did -- although her influence is never mentioned. And yet she was a family member in her own right, as the daughter of Heraclius' cousin Niketas, and thus had married her own second cousin.[[34]] Doubtless she had learnt from Martina the dangers which could attend popular perceptions of an intriguing empress-mother and kept her head down.

Martina's marriage to her uncle and her ambition for her family had inspired implacable resentment among the people of Constantinople. Her attempt to sideline Constantine III, who had been co-emperor since 613, and take over the reins of government in her own right on Heraclius' death, as Heraclius had himself laid down in his will, was thwarted by concerted popular opposition. She was perfectly within her rights to rule on behalf of her underage son Heraclonas, but to achieve his accession she was widely believed to have deliberately poisoned her stepson. She was probably seen as one of those persons responsible for removing God's favour from the empire, which was so clearly evidenced in the sweeping Arab victories from 636 onwards. Hated and feared by her contemporaries, Martina's career was to affect perceptions of empress-regents and their role for a considerable period.


Chronicon Paschale [Easter Chronicle], tr. M. & M. Whitby, Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1989.

Nicephorus, Patriarch of Constantinople: Short History, ed. & tr. C. Mango, Washington DC, 1990.

Theophanes, Chronographia, trans. C. Mango & R. Scott, with G. Greatrex, The Chronicle of Theophanes Confessor: Byzantine and Near Eastern History AD 284-813, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997.

The Chronicle of John, Coptic Bishop of Nikiu, trans. R.H. Charles, London: Williams and Norgate, 1916.

The Armenian History attributed to Sebeos, trans. with notes by R.W. Thompson, historical commentary by James Howard-Johnston and Tim Greenwood, 2 vols., Liverpool University Press, 1999.

Christophilopoulou, Antibasileia eis to Byzantion (Regency in Byzantium), Symmeikta 2 (1970), 1-144.

van Dieten, J.L. Geschichte der Patriarchen von Sergios I. bis Johannes VI. (610-715), Amsterdam: Hakkert, 1972.

Garland, L. Byzantine Empresses: Women and Power in Byzantium, AD 527-1204, London & New York: Routledge, 1999, 61-72.

Grierson, P. 'The Tombs and Obits of the Byzantine Emperors (337-1042),' Dumbarton Oaks Papers 16 (1962) 1-63.

________. Catalogue of the Byzantine Coins in the Dumbarton Oaks Collection and in the Whittemore Collection, vol. 3.1, Washington DC: Dumbarton Oaks, 1973.

Haldon, J.F. 'Ideology and Social Change in the Seventh Century: Military Discontent as a Barometer,' Klio 68 (1986) 139-90.

________. Byzantium in the Seventh Century: the Transformation of a Culture, Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Kaegi Jr, W.E. Byzantine Military Unrest 471-843: an Interpretation, Amsterdam, 1981.

________. Byzantium and the Early Islamic Conquests, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Mango, C. 'Deux études sur Byzance et la Perse sassanide,' Travaux et Mémoires, 9 (1985), 91-117.

Stratos, A.N. Byzantium in the Seventh Century, vols 1-2, Amsterdam: Hakkert, 1968-72.

Verghese, P. 'The Monothelite Controversy -- a Historical Survey,' Greek Orthodox Theological Review 13 (1968) 196-211.

Zuckerman, C. 'La petite Augusta et le Turc: Epiphania-Eudocie sur les monnaies d'Heraclius,' Revue Numismatique, 150 (1995), 113-26.


[[1]]Such marriages were banned by Constantine the Great: Codex Theodosianus 3.12.1 (AD 342).

[[2]]Theophanes AM 6105 [AD 612/3].

[[3]]Nicephorus 11; AD 624 is the terminus ante quem: see Nicephorus, ed. Mango 179-80; Chron. Pasch. 714.

[[4]]Zuckerman, Revue Numismatique, 150 (1995), believes that the female figure is Epiphania but fails to explain why she only began to be represented in 615/6.

[[5]]Grierson, Dumbarton Oaks Collection, vol. 3.1, 216-17, 288, 292 (no. 99a.1, AD 624/5).

[[6]]Nicephorus 11; V. Grumel, Les regestes des actes du patriarchat de Constantinople, vol. 1, 284; van Dieten 6.

[[7]]Nicephorus 11.

[[8]]Nicephorus 20; Theophanes AM 6125 [AD 632/3]; Kaegi, Early Islamic Conquests, 100.

[[9]]Nicephorus 11; John of Nikiu 120.54. The eldest child is often said to have been called Flavius, but see Mango, note on Nicephorus 11, where the reading Fabius should be preferred. See also the family tree in The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium, ed. A.P. Kazhdan et al, Washington D.C., 1991, vol. 2, 916; Stratos 1.358.

[[10]]Chron. Pasch. 714; Theophanes AM 6105 [AD 612/3]; Nicephorus 12, 23.

[[11]]Nicephorus 19; Theophanes AM 6108 [AD 615/6].

[[12]]Nicephorus 24; Stratos 2.137, 3.231.

[[13]]Nicephorus 25, 27 (who says that Martinus was also made Caesar: cf. de cer. 2.29); Stratos 2.140.

[[14]]Nicephorus 27.

[[15]]Nicephorus 27; cf. Theophanes AM 6132 [AD 639/40].

[[16]]Nicephorus 28.

[[17]]Nicephorus 29, with note (correcting the 50,000 solidi of Stratos 3.192); cf. John of Nikiu 120.3.

[[18]]Nicephorus 29; John of Nikiu 116.9; Stratos 2.178.

[[19]]>See Grierson, 'Tombs and Obits,' 48-49; Stratos 2.184-85, 3.196-97; Kaegi, Early Islamic Conquests, 184 for the date of his death.

[[20]]Theophanes AM 6121 [AD 628/9], AM 6132 [AD 639/40]; Leo Grammaticus 155; cf. Michael the Syrian 11.7, 8 (ed. Chabot, vol. 2.426, 430); George the Monk 673; Cedrenus, 1.753; Zonaras 3.216.

[[21]]Nicephorus 30; on Martina's regency, see Christophilopoulou, Symmeikta 2 (1970), 15-20.

[[22]]John of Nikiu 120.2; cf. Leo Grammaticus 156, who calls Heraclonas a bastard.

[[23]]Nicephorus 30; Cedrenus 1.753.

[[24]]Nicephorus 30; John of Nikiu 119.17-22, 24. Heraclius had exiled him for supposedly betraying the interests of the empire in his negotiations with the Arabs: cf. Nicephorus 23, 26; Stratos 2.188, 3.59-60.

[[25]]For Valentinus, see Kaegi, Byzantine Military Unrest, 154-58; Stratos 2.200-02; Haldon, Klio 68 (1986), 180.

[[26]]John of Nikiu 120.5; Stratos 2.189.

[[27]]Nicephorus 30; John of Nikiu 119.23, 120.41-43.

[[28]]Nicephorus 31; cf. John of Nikiu 120.44.

[[29]]Nicephorus 31-32; Theophanes AM 6133 [AD 640/1]; van Dieten 76; Stratos 2.197-8, (1976) 11-19.

[[30]]Nicephorus 32; John of Nikiu 120.61-62.

[[31]]John of Nikiu 120.45-46, 50-53; Theophanes AM 6133 [AD 640/1]; Sebeos 141. Theodosius in 629/30 had married Nike daughter of Shahrvaraz: see Nicephorus 17; Mango, Travaux et Mémoires, 9 (1985), 105-17.

[[32]]John of Nikiu 120.63, 64.

[[33]]Theophanes AM 6134 [AD 641/2].

[[34]]Nicephorus 1, 17. See Mango, Travaux et Mémoires, 9 (1985), 105-18.

Copyright (C) 2000, Lynda Garland. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents, including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.

Comments to: Lynda Garland.

Updated:15 July 2000

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