What a Way to Go!


On History

constans ii

A hexagram of Constans II struck in the Constantinople mint, struck ca. 648.

Sometimes power changes hands. Sometimes, perforce, the change is violent. And sometimes, albeit rarely, it involves a Byzantine emperor who’s assassinated in the bathtub, where his servant bashes his brains in with a silver bucket.

Such is the fate, putatively, that befell Constans II on September 15, 668, unless it befell him on July 15, 669, which is also eminently possible. As a historian on Reddit’s AskHistorians recently explained, “there is basically only one source for this, the eighth-century Theophilus of Edessa, who wrote a chronicle whilst serving the Abbasid caliph in Baghdad. This work is now lost, but it was used by several later chroniclers, including the more well-known Theophanes from the ninth century.” Said historian goes on to quote an account by the tenth-century historian Agapius:

When Constans was in the bath, one of his attendants took a bucket, mixed in it mallow and soap, and put this on Constans’s head. While the latter’s eyes were filled with the mallow and soap, so that he could not open them, the attendant took the bucket and struck Constans on the head with it, so killing him. He rushed out of the bath to escape and no one heard any more of him. The servants remained outside waiting for the king to come out, but when they had been sitting a long time and it was getting late and he still had not come out, they entered the bath and found him unconscious. They brought him out and he lived for that day, but then died having reigned for twenty-seven years.

In a paper on the era’s Roman-Arab relations, the Oxford historian James Howard-Johnston collates a number of sources to offer a slightly different account:

On the 15th of July 669, a senior courtier, Andrew, went with Constans II into the bathhouse attached to his palace in Syracuse. He was charged with carrying out the first vital act of a conspiracy which had been hatched in Constantinople two years or so earlier and which was subsequently worked up into a detailed plan, with the backing of the Caliph Mu‘awiya, in Damascus in the course of 668 … He began to wash Constans’s hair, working up a lather. Constans naturally shut his eyes, at which Andrew struck him hard with a silver bucket, fracturing his skull. Andrew then slipped away unseen. Constans died two days later.

Constans was visiting Syracuse, Sicily at the time—a rare move for an emperor from Constantinople. The motives behind his assassination are complicated, because there were any number of valid reasons for his unpopularity: he killed his brother, he persecuted a couple guys who ended up becoming saints, and rumor had it he was considering moving the capital of the empire to Syracuse. And so he wound up on the bucket list, as it were. (I’m sorry.)

One wonders how the story’s greatest detail—that the bucket was silver—came to be passed down through the ages. It seems too perfect to be true: an icon of wealth and power, destroyed in the prime of his life, at his most vulnerable moment, by blunt, precious metal. Or was it not precious enough? Gold is a softer metal than silver. Perhaps if Constantine had had his bath accessories done in gold, the trauma to his head wouldn’t have proved fatal.

What have we learned? Be nice. Do not commit fratricide or alienate future saints. Trust no one. Eschew silver. Bathe alone.