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Aelia Verina (Wife of Leo I)

Geoffrey B. Greatrex
University of Ottawa

A few general remarks are in order before turning to recount the life of Verina. During the fifth century women of the imperial family came to exert considerable influence in the eastern Roman empire. This rise to prominence is well documented by Kenneth Holum in his Theodosian Empresses and is exemplified in the influence wielded by Pulcheria, sister of Theodosius II.[[1]]

This background is important to an understanding of the ambitions harboured by Verina. Of her birth and origins nothing is known - although, if the view that Basiliscus, her brother, was of barbarian origins is accepted, it follows that the same must be true of her.[[2]] She was married to Leo before he ascended the throne and they had already had one daughter, Ariadne. It seems likely that she assumed the name Aelia upon becoming empress: from the time of Theodosius I's first wife Aelia Flacilla, it had become a standard name for empresses.[[3]] While no relatives of Leo are known (except perhaps for a sister Euphemia),[[4]] Verina's family was large and soon rose to prominence. The Life of Daniel the Stylite (ch.69) notes a brother, Basiliscus, a nephew, Armatus, and a brother-in-law, Zuzus. During the reign of Leo nothing is known of the empress's activities, save for the fact that she bore him one further daughter, Leontia, who was married to Marcian, the son of the western emperor Anthemius. A son was also born, but survived for only a few months. In 466/7 the elder daugther of Leo and Verina, Ariadne, married the Isaurian commander Zeno, and they had one child, Leo II.

After the death of Leo I in January 474, Verina remained in the imperial palace. The remaining ten years of her life were turbulent, and she figures prominently in our sources. The difficulty lies in trying to ascertain whether any consistency can be observed in her actions.  She turned against her brother Basiliscus for having colluded in the ousting of Zeno, and supported the return of Zeno. She then resorted to repeated intrigues against Zeno's right-hand man Illus, yet at the end of her life supported him and his candidate for the throne,  Leontius, against Zeno. [[5]] Since Illus had deceived her in 474 in a coup which had cost the life of her alleged lover Patricius, Verina's enduring enmity towards him is unsurprising. Her support for his candidate, Leontius, may have been forced, as we shall argue below.

Verina's grandson, Leo II, died in November 474. Zeno was therefore now sole emperor, but his mother-in-law remained in the palace. According to certain sources, Verina had by this point taken a lover, a former praetorian prefect by the name of Patricius.[[6]] The sixth-century chronicler Malalas reports that Verina made a request of Zeno, which he refused.[[7]] She therefore plotted against him - or rather, was drawn into a plot against him - and in January 475 tricked him into abandoning the city with his wife (and her daughter) Ariadne and his mother. Almost as soon as Zeno had departed, Basiliscus was crowned emperor - according (e.g.) to Malalas, by the dowager empress herself. Verina, it seems, had been led  by Illus to suppose that if she could remove Zeno from the city, then Patricius could seize the throne for himself. Yet as soon as Zeno had gone, Basiliscus was elevated in his place.[[9]] Patricius was soon executed by Basiliscus, and the empress, who now began to contribute funds for Zeno's return, was forced to seek refuge in a church in Blachernae. Even there she might have come to harm, had not her nephew Armatus rescued her.[[9]] Given the swiftness of Basiliscus' elevation and the role attributed to Verina in it by several sources,[[10]] it seems unlikely that she can realistically have aspired to seize power herself and bestow it on Patricius.[[11]]

Zeno's return to the throne in August 476 was in large measure due to his fellow Isaurian Illus, who turned against Basiliscus and who went on to enjoy high office under Zeno. It was against him that Verina now turned her fire. Already in 477 an attempt was made on the life of the magister officiorum (master of offices) Illus by a slave of Zeno; no source associates Verina with this plot, however. Compensated for this attack by receiving the consulship, the new consul fell victim in 478 to a further plot - this time by an agent of Epinicus, a high official working for Verina. Illus discovered this from Epinicus himself, whom Zeno had handed over to Illus and who  had been sent to Isauria. Illus was therefore understandably reluctant to return to Constantinople in late 478, insisting that Verina be removed from the capital. She was accordingly sent off to a monastery at Tarsus in Cilicia, from which she was later moved to Dalisandus, and then Cherris in Isauria.[[12]] Verina never returned to Constantinople.

Even at this distance, the empress was still able to cause trouble for both Zeno and Illus. For in late 479 her son-in-law Marcian, in conjunction with his brothers Procopius and Romulus, launched a coup in Constantinople and almost succeeded in overthrowing Zeno; only the timely intervention of troops brought over the Bosporus by Illus from Chalcedon saved Zeno's throne.[[13]] Yet Verina retained her supporters in Constantinople, including, perhaps remarkably, her daughter Ariadne, the emperor's wife. Probably in 480, having received a letter from her mother, she approached Zeno to secure her mother's return from exile. According to Malalas, he told her to approach Illus, who, naturally, refused her request. She therefore insisted to her husband that he choose between her and Illus. He chose her and apparently gave her the leave to act as she saw fit. A third assassination attempt against Illus was therefore undertaken. It was a little more successful than the previous efforts, wounding the victim, but he survived.[[14]]

In the last years of her life, Verina took up the cause of her bitter enemy Illus. For Illus, leaving behind him the dangers of the capital and endowed with the command of the eastern armies, used his position to rise in rebellion against Zeno in 484. In this context Verina could be of assistance to the rebel. He brought her out of confinement to Tarsus and had her confer the imperial crown on his nominee, a certain Leontius. She sent out orders to various cities to bolster the usurper's position and even issued a rescript, explaining her support for Leontius; in it she claims to have accepted Zeno's appointment for the good of the state, but to have now withdrawn her backing because of his avarice.[[15]] Given the consistent enmity towards Illus displayed by Verina, such a volte face is hard to account for. It may reasonably be suggested that the ageing empress had little choice but to act as Illus dictated, and that she did not freely endorse Leontius' usurpation. In this context, it is worthy of note that once the coronation at Tarsus was over, she was sent back to Papirius, while Leontius and Illus headed for Antioch.[[16]]

Illus' revolt failed to gain wide support. The rebels withdrew to the fortress of Papirius in Isauria, and it was there that Verina died (probably in 484). The fortress fell in 488; Verina's body was brought back to Constantinople for burial by her daughter Ariadne.[[17]] In the Parastaseis syntomoi chronikai, a much later Byzantine work which abounds in bizarre and unreliable traditions, Verina figures quite prominently. A statue of her is noted, erected during the reign of Basiliscus (ch.29), and in the final chapter of the work (ch.89) we learn that the empress had once bewitched the island of Kranos, causing it to be abandoned for centuries.


R.W. Burgess, 'The accession of Marcian in the light of Chalcedonian Apologetic and Monophysite Polemic', BZ 86/7
(1993/4), 47-68.

Bury, HLRE. J.B. Bury, History of the Later Roman Empire, 2 vols. (London, 1923, repr. New York, 1958).

Averil Cameron, `The Empress Sophia', Byzantion 45 (1975), 5-21.

Candidus (the Isaurian), ed. and tr. R.C. Blockley, The Fragmentary Classicising Historians of the Later Roman Empire, 2 vols, R.C. Blockley (Liverpool, 1981-3).

Chronicon Paschale, ed. L. Dindorf (Bonn, 1832), tr. M. and M. Whitby (tr.), Chronicon Paschale 284-628 AD (Liverpool, 1989).

Evagrius, Ecclesiastical History, edd. J. Bidez and L. Parmentier (London, 1898); tr. M. Whitby, The Ecclesiastical History of Evagrius Scholasticus (Liverpool, 2000).

C.D. Gordon, The Age of Attila (Ann Arbor, 1960)

K. Holum, Theodosian Empresses (Berkeley, 1982).

John of Antioch, fragments in C. Müller, Fragmenta Historicorum Graecorum, vols. 4-5 (Paris, 1851-70).

Life of Daniel, ed. H. Delehaye in Les Saints stylites (Paris-Brussels, 1923), tr. E. Dawes and N. Baynes, Three Byzantine Saints (London, 1948, repr. 1996).

M. McCormick, ‘Emperor and Court' in A. Cameron, B. Ward-Perkins and M. Whitby, eds., The Cambridge Ancient History, vol.14 (Cambridge, 2000), 135-63.

Malalas. Malalas, Chronographia, ed. L. Dindorf, CSHB (Bonn, 1831); tr. and annot. E. and M. Jeffreys and R. Scott (Melbourne, 1986).

Parastaseis Syntomoi Chronikai. A. Cameron and J. Herrin, Constantinople in the Early Eighth Century. The Parastaseis Syntomoi Chronikai. (Leiden, 1984).

PLRE II. Prosopography of the Later Roman Empire, ed. J. Martindale, vol.2 (Cambridge 1980).

Stein, Bas-Empire. Histoire du Bas-Empire, vol.1 (Paris, 1959), vol.2, ed. J.-R. Palanque (Paris-Brussels-Amsterdam, 1949).

Theodore Lector, Kirchengeschichte, ed. G. C. Hansen, GCS (Berlin, 1971).

Theophanes, Chronographia, ed. C. de Boor, vol.1 (Leipzig, 1883); tr. C. Mango and R. Scott, The Chronicle of Theophanes (Oxford, 1997).


[[1]] I wrongly followed Holum's reconstruction of Marcian's accession in an earlier version of this section. Burgess' criticisms must be taken into account, and it is likely that Pulcheria's room for manoeuvre in 450 was limited. See my biography of Pulcheria. Cf. now M. McCormick, ‘Emperor and Court', 146-7 on the power of empresses.

[[2]] See Hugh Elton's account of Basiliscus in the DIR.

[[3]] Cf. Holum, 24.

[[4]] PLRE II, Euphemia 3 (only known from a late and uncertain source).

[[5]] A fairly consistent hostility to the new emperor is likely and not without parallel: in the late 570s, the ailing Justin II nominated Tiberius as his successor. Justin's wife, Sophia, continued to play an important role in administering affairs while  Justin  lived, and sought to maintain this role even after his death. She remained in the palace, apparently hopeful that Tiberius might marry her, setting aside his own wife. Plots were formed against the new emperor, and eventually Sophia was forced to move out of the imperial palace.  See Averil Cameron, "The Empress Sophia", 16-21, for a convenient account (drawing mainly on John of Ephesus). Sophia recommended the appointment of (the unmarried) Maurice as Tiberius' successor, and it was suggested that she had hopes of marrying him.

[[6]] Candidus frg.1.54-5, tr. Gordon, 141; John of Antioch, frg.210, tr. Gordon, 144. Cf. PLRE II, Patricius 8.

[[7]] Malalas, p.377 (tr. Jeffreys and Scott, 209), cf. Chronicon Paschale, p.600 (tr. Whitby and Whitby, 92). Malalas (wrongly) states that Verina's request was made after Zeno had been on the throne for two years and ten months. What her request may have been is unclear; it might have been to marry Patricius, which would have threatened Zeno's position and would certainly have been turned down by him.

[[8]] Joh. Ant. frg.210, tr. Gordon, p.144 and the Life of Daniel ch.69 together imply that Verina was tricked by Illus into participating in the removal of Zeno from Constantinople.

[[9]] See Life of Daniel, ch.68-9, Candidus frg.1.56-65 (tr. Gordon, 142), Malalas, p.378 (tr. Jeffreys and Scott, 209), Chronicon Paschale, p.600 (tr. Whitby and Whitby, 92). Gordon claims that the church in which Verina sought refuge was Hagia Sophia, but the Life of Daniel clearly states that it was "the oratory of the Ever-Virgin Mary in Blachernae" (a suburb of Constantinople).

[[10]] E.g., the Life of Daniel, ch.69, Malalas, p.378 (tr. Jeffreys and Scott, 209).

[[11]] It may simply be a malicious inference by Candidus and John of Antioch. The Life of Daniel is perhaps the most favourable source to the empress, claiming that she was deceived into backing the coup which was plotted by Basiliscus and others; cf. Theodore Lector, 401.

[[12]] Our main source is John of Antioch, frg.210, tr. Gordon, 148-9. See also Malalas, p.385-6 (tr. Jeffreys and Scott, 214), Candidus frg.1.89-94, tr. Gordon, 143. Cf. PLRE II, Illus 1, Bury, HLRE I, 394. John's version has Zeno handing over Verina to Illus and him sending her off to Isauria under a heavy guard; Malalas preserves a more intricate tale of Illus and Zeno together tricking Verina into meeting Illus as he approached Constantinople. Stein, Bas-Empire II, 13 n.1, rejects Malalas' version, but it is not impossible. Evagrius, Ecclesiastical History, III.27 (using Eustathius of Epiaphania) claims that Zeno intrigued against Verina constantly, which might support Malalas' version (or suggest that he was drawing on Eustathius here).

[[13]] John of Antioch, frg.210.3, tr. Gordon, 149. Cf. Bury, HLRE, I, 395. There is no reason to suppose that Verina instigated the coup, as John claims; but she could furnish Marcian with a further ground for removing Zeno. (Marcian argued that his claim to the throne was stronger than Zeno's because his wife had been born to the purple, i.e. after Leo had become emperor: see Theodore Lector 401 and PLRE II, Fl. Marcianus 17.)

[[14] Malalas, p.387 (tr. Jeffreys and Scott, 215); cf. PLRE II, Illus 1.

[[15]] Malalas, p.388-9 (tr. Jeffreys and Scott, 216-17, who also translate frg.35 of Malalas, which gives the text of the rescript), Theophanes A.M. 5973. Cf. Bury, HLRE I, 397.

[[16]] So Theodore Lector 437. Nothing in Malalas contradicts such an interpretation.

[[17]] Malalas, p.389 (tr. Jeffreys and Scott, 215). Cf. Bury, HLRE I, 398.

Copyright (C) 2004, Geoffrey B. Greatrex. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents, including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.
Comments to: Geoffrey B. Greatrex.

Updated: 11 August 2004

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