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The Mighty Murtzuphlus


What price fame?

This was the question that crossed my mind last summer, as I was reading about the Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople. The Crusades are great reading in general, and #4 has a lot of good drama. #2 probably gets the most attention these days, thanks to Saladin and Richard the Lionheart. But it can be argued that #4 has arguably as much or more historical significance, since it culminated with the destruction of Constantinople and the end of the Byzantine Empire. According to historian Speros Vryonis, the Latin conquerors “...destroyed indiscriminately, halting to refresh themselves with wine, violation of nuns, and murder of Orthodox clerics.” Among the various forms of havoc they wreaked, the victorious Crusaders wiped out the last remaining library of the ancient world.

One of the more corrupt and nefarious dudes on the scene in the early 1200’s was Alexios Doukas, more generally known and remembered by his nickname Murtzuphlus. I doubt most people called him this to his face, since the rough translation is “Monobrow.” Apparently the malevolent Murtz had a real thatch going on his forehead, and a surly disposition to match. There isn’t a whole lot written about him, but what there is makes it crystal clear that Murtzuphlus was NOT a nice guy. In January 1204, with the Crusaders closing in, Murtzuphlus usurped the sitting emperor Alexios IV, had him imprisoned and ultimately murdered, and declared himself the new Byzantine Emperor. This reign lasted about two months, until it became clear the Crusaders were going to take the city, and at which point Murtzuphlus snuck away, leaving the imperial throne vacant. (Surprisingly, no one else wanted the job...maybe due to the horde of bloodthirsty conquerors poised to wipe out Constantinople.)

Murtz stayed on the run for a while, but he was ultimately captured, beaten, blinded, then dragged back to the city and thrown off the Column of Theodosius. (This was the going style of public execution at the time, a real scoundrel’s death.) So it’s safe to assume that Murtzuphlus’ power play didn’t turn out well.

Or is it?

The story above isn’t the most flattering legacy, but it’s a legacy just the same. And of all the characters who lived at that time, and who played a part in the events of the Crusades, we can still read about a guy who rose from no particular position of advantage and somehow became the last Byzantine Emperor. That’s pretty odd, when you think about it. Murtzuphlus only sat on the throne long enough to have a cup of coffee, but we still remember his name 800 years later. He was an asshole, but we know what else he was: a guy who saw a chance to seize power and write his name into history, and took it with both fists. Maybe that’s what he really wanted.

Thinking about Murtzuphlus if he lived in modern times, he sounded a lot like a guy who would ruin his life by ending up on some awful reality TV show. I could picture him as a washed-out rock star with no shame and no self-respect, only the burning desire to have his name echo through the ages.

Of course, he probably wanted his real name to be the one that people remembered. Too bad, Murtz. You don’t get to choose. But we know you, and here’s a song for you, old friend.


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