splitting his tongue – ensuring he could never return. However, after ten years in exile, Justinian did return – wearing a prosthetic golden nose. Leontius had already lost his own nose by then, but Justinian returned the favour to his other rivals, even blinding the patriarch who had opposed him. While he would later be assassinated after a second reign of terror, Justinian’s remarkable return to power made him the last emperor to be disqualified by rhinotomy; instead, blinding would become the punishment of choice – starting with his successor, Philippikos, who was blinded by his officers in 713 after succumbing to Arab raids.
A SLICE OF LIFE In 726, Emperor Leo III published the Ecloga code, a landmark body of laws that further clarified the emerging Byzantine identity. Unlike Justinian I’s code, the Ecloga was written in Greek, which had replaced Latin as the official court language. While Leo used Roman laws as a foundation, he drew upon local eastern traditions and a fanatical interpretation of Christianity – ostensibly to make the law fairer and more humane. He took his moral cues from the Bible – “Cut off your hand or your foot if it scandalises you,” and “If thine eye offend thee, pluck it out” – as he announced a varied list of mutilative punishments whereby appendages, polluted with sin, were simply cut off. If someone stole a horse, wounded another with a sword, or beat someone to death, they would have their hand amputated. Anyone who perjured themselves or stole from a church would have their tongue cut out. Outside the cities, a person who illegally poached an ox or cut down another man’s tree in spite would have their hand severed. Anyone who started a stampede trying to steal an ox would be blinded, as would a thief who stole corn from a granary three times. Curiously, the Ecloga laws introduced a laundry list of violent punishments for sex crimes. Homosexuals were executed, as was anyone who committed incest. More forgivingly, a man who had sex with a nun would have his nose slit, as would anyone who committed adultery or slept with their in-laws. Bizarrely, the law even recommended that anyone who sexually abused an animal should have their penis severed. ‘Emasculating’ a man in this way was tantamount to the death penalty – perhaps echoing Leviticus’ admonishment of bestiality and homosexuality as the chief sins. Having declared image-worship a heresy in 754, Leo’s successor, Constantine V, abused the provisions set by the Ecloga –
giving him carte blanche to mutilate any who offended his iconoclast sensibilities. He blinded “a multitude without number, and cut off the arms and legs of others”. His fanatical generals not only destroyed monasteries but
If someone stole a horse, wounded another with a sword, or beat someone to death, they would have their hand amputated. Anyone who perjured themselves or stole from a church would have their tongue cut out. Outside the cities, a person who illegally poached an ox or cut down another man’s tree in spite would have their hand severed.
slit the noses of monks, offering others the choice of either being blinded and exiled or marrying a nun. Constantine’s vindictive exploits earned him the nickname ‘Constantine the Dung-Named’. When mutilating his more powerful opponents, he added a theatrical touch to the proceedings, dragging his blinded enemies into the Hippodrome, in chains or on the backs of donkeys. Emperor Basil I and his son Leo VI later translated Justinian’s laws into Greek and reorganised them, removing those considered contradictory or arbitrary. While some aspects of the Ecloga were overturned, with the punishment for castration downgraded into a fine, others, such as the nose-slitting for adulterers, remained well into the late days of the Empire. The Byzantines were by no means the first culture to use corporal mutilation and nor were they the last; Aethelred the Unready notoriously blinded three enemies and King Cnut punished adulterous women by cutting off their noses and ears. However, the sheer volume of corporal mutilations, and the level to which they were codified into law, made the Byzantine Empire, particularly its court, a terrifying place to sin. AH
Hareth Al Bustani is a journalist, specialising in Japanese, British, and Roman history. Follow him on twitter @harethb.
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