Leo Armenius

[This page by Madeleine Brook]

Leo Armenius (1650)

This play is the first of Gryphius’ complete tragedies. Although most probably written a few years earlier, it was first published in 1650 under the title Ein Fürsten=Mörderisches / Trawer=spiel / genant. Leo Armenius. The play is mainly based on the work of eleventh and twelfth-century chroniclers, George Kedrenos and John Zonaras. It tells the story of the fall of the Byzantine Emperor Leo V, who, having usurped the throne, was himself murdered at the altar on the morning of Christmas Day in 820AD by conspirators led by his own general, Michael Balbus, with whom Leo had experienced considerable military success. Gryphius sets his play firmly in the context of the Thirty Years’ War, focusing particularly on the question of where the right to mete out justice properly lies – with God or with human hand – and the transient nature of all earthly things, particularly secular power.

Act 1 opens with a scene between Michael Balbus and his co-conspirators as they plot to murder Leo. Leo suspects Balbus of disloyalty but is reluctant to arrest him without proof. The imperial advisor, Exabolius, is sent to test Balbus’ loyalty and, in a long conversation (Scene 4), the plot is revealed. Balbus is immediately arrested.

In Act 2 Balbus is sentenced to death by burning, but at the last minute in Scene 5 Leo’s wife, Theodosia, persuades her husband to stay the execution so as not to sully the eve of Christ’s birth, an important Christian festival, with bloodletting. Leo reluctantly grants her wish, warning with remarkable prescience of the fatal consequences his leniency will have: ‘Man richtet feinde hin die bey Altären stehn’ (‘Enemies who stand at the altar will be executed.’).


Over the course of Act 3, Leo’s disquiet rapidly increases. He dreams of his own downfall and Balbus’ elevation to the throne, prompting discussion of who is really the prisoner and who the captor. Leo comments on the irony of their respective positions in Scene 4: ‘Der Kercker in dem er voll ruh’ / Wir matt von pein’ (‘The dungeon in which he rests peacefully, while our torments exhaust us’).


Balbus smuggles a message out of his cell to a fellow conspirator, enabling his escape.

In Act 4 Balbus’ co-conspirators go to Jamblichus, a practitioner of black magic, from whom they obtain a rather ambiguous prophecy for the success of their plans to release their ringleader and murder Leo. The letter from Balbus arrives, spurring them to immediate action. They disguise themselves as priests and go to the palace.

In Act 5 a priest explains to Theodosia that her husband has been murdered while celebrating mass. His last actions had been to clutch the crucifix and kiss it before he was hacked apart. Balbus is proclaimed emperor, but Theodosia warns him that the cycle of tyranny and murder will continue.

Is Gryphius’ treatment of Leo contradictory? Characterised initially by Balbus – admittedly a biased character witness – as a usurper and tyrant on the throne, his death suggests that of a martyr. By usurping the throne Leo has certainly gone against the sanctity of kingship, an important Lutheran belief, but in murdering Leo, Balbus effectively commits the same sin. Unlike Balbus, Leo exhibits a growing awareness of the responsibilities of rule and the impermanence of princely power. Leo’s eventual, even if reluctant, decision to delay Balbus’ execution beyond Christmas seals his fate in two ways: by giving his enemy time, he seals his mortal fate; but the dawning respect this shows for Christianity indicates that Leo’s soul is not beyond redemption, tyrant though he may be. Leo turns fully to God in the moment of his death, symbolised by his clutching the crucifix and the mingling of his blood with the bread and wine. In contrast, the dismissive behaviour of Balbus and his associates towards Theodosia when she proclaims she has seen her husband alive once more, in other words, alive in Christ, suggests that the tragedy of the play is less the mortal death of Leo than the spiritual death of his killers, whose fate may ultimately be worse than that of their late emperor if they remain wedded to an earthly perspective.

Further Reading

Karina Marie Ash, ‘Theodosia in Andreas Gryphius’s Leo Armenius: The Wife of Truth?’, Daphnis 35 (2006), 537-50

Thomas W. Best, ‘”Schädliche neigungen” in Gryphius’ Leo Armenius‘, Neophilologus 70:3 (1986), 416-28

Alan Menhennet, The historical experience in German drama: from Gryphius to Brecht (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2003)

Janifer Gerl Stackhouse, The constructive art of Gryphius’ historical tragedies (Frankfurt a.M.: Peter Lang, 1986)

G. F. Strasser, ‘Andreas Gryphius’ Leo Armenius: an emblematic interpretation’, The Germanic Review 51 (1976), 5-12

Further Reading in German

Gerhard Kaiser (ed.), Die Dramen des Andreas Gryphius. Eine Sammlung von Einzelinterpretationen (Stuttgart: Metzler, 1968)