The Ravenna Mosaics and What to Expect (Special Edition Article)

Posted by Powee Celdran 

God is in the mosaics of Ravenna” -Marguerite Yourcenar (1903-1987)

Welcome to another article by the Byzantium Blogger! Alright, so this is my first travel article for this blog site; however, I already do travel articles with my other site, Far and Away, but since this is mostly about the art and mosaics of the Byzantines and will have a lot of mentions of Byzantine emperors and contemporaries, instead of a general tour of a city, I am putting this article on this site. So, as I’ve been talking about making an article about Ravenna, Italy, the real deal of this city is really its ultra-stunning mosaics and nothing more. The mosaics is what makes this city in the east coast of the Emilia-Romagna region popular and nothing else, as the churches with its exteriors look like they could be anywhere the former Roman world and the streets of the city could look like any generic Italian town. In truth, Ravenna’s city streets and atmosphere is nothing much mainly because it was bombed during World War II but miraculously its 5th– 6th century mosaics still survived and remain intact till this day. Earlier this year, I have read Judith Herrin’s “Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire” and the whole of chapter 6 is dedicated to the mosaics of Ravenna and its history, and after reading it gave me a reason to travel all the way to Ravenna, which is a bit out of the way. To be fully honest, yes, the mosaics are literally impressive, all the way to the point where you will start feeling headaches from looking up at them. In Ravenna, not only one place (such as the Basilica di San Vitale) has the full set of Byzantine mosaics, almost all the main churches do and 8 landmarks in the city are considered to be UNESCO world heritage sites. Everything is walkable in the city center of Ravenna, but the churches are the only best places to stop in unless you visit the Tomb of Dante and the Mausoleum of Theodoric. In history, Ravenna has been an important trading port along the Adriatic Coast from the time of the Roman Empire to the Middle Ages with many canals coming from the sea flowing through the city- similar to Venice- up until sometime in the 15th century when the water dried up making the harbor pushed a lot farther, leaving only canal connecting the city to the Adriatic Sea. Anyways, Ravenna is I guess the only place in the world to see mosaics fully intact, more than Constantinople (which of course had more mosaics than Ravenna back in its day). It is also one of the few places on earth to see a lot of the late Roman and early Byzantine era, when Byzantium was still very much Roman before becoming very “Greek” in culture. Ravenna is also the place where different empires- Imperial Rome, Western Roman Empire, the Ostrogoth Kingdom, the Eastern Roman Empire, and the Lombards- meet over different periods leading to differences in art styles. Now, let’s begin the article!

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Byzantine Imperial flag and symbols
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Map of the sites of Ravenna

 

Other related Byzantine articles: 

7 Reasons to be Interested in Byzantium

The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire 

The Byzantine Emperors

An Overview of Byzantium 

Byzantine art, architecture, and fashion 

Traveling the Byzantine World (from Far and Away)

Byzantine Mosaics in Rome (from Far and Away)

Up next: Byzantine Science and Technology

 

Ravenna’s origins are unknown but it is said that its first settlers were the Etruscan people from Umbria as well as Thessalian Greeks. In the 1st century BC, the Roman built Ravenna as a port town becoming a municipium or city in 89BC. The original Roman city of Ravenna was a port as it was made up of several islands on the bay with small bridges connecting them and from the salt trade, it grew rich. However, today the water dried up and the port that was once the Roman port of Classe is farther from the center. Ravenna then became important in the 5th century after the Roman Empire was divided between east and west; the story here takes place when Western Roman emperor Honorius moved the capital to Ravenna in 402 as it was a strategic position along the sea compared to Rome which was more prone to attacks, and which it indeed was attacked in 410 by the Visigoths. Ravenna lasted as the western capital as Rome declined in power but at the end of the Western Empire in 476 when the last emperor Romulus Augustus was overthrown by the Germanic general Odoacer in Ravenna becoming the 1st king of Italy, who was then overthrown by the Ostrogoth Theodoric who made himself king of Italy (493-526).

Near the train station of Ravenna is something dating back to the time of the Western Roman Empire, which is now the 14th century Gothic brick church of San Giovanni Evangelista, but the original church dates back to the 5th century, built by the empress Galla Placidia. The only remains of the 5th century there is the floor while the mosaics on display date back to the 13th century as they depict the 4th Crusade and capture of Constantinople in 1204. Although near this brick church is the much more impressive Basilica di Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, dating back to the early 6th century built by the Ostrogoth king Theodoric the Great as the church of his palace found right next to it. Theodoric, an Ostrogoth barbarian was a very civilized person who built many structures and repaired the Roman aqueducts but was an Arian Christian, a follower of the Arian Heresy of Arius the 4th century theologian believing that Christ is the son of God but not divine. Theodoric was as well, founding the Ostrogoth Kingdom of Italy was one of the founding rulers of the European kingdoms, together with Clovis I of France who was his contemporary, while Byzantium was quickly rising under the reign of Emperor Anastasius I Dicorus. Part of what made King Theodoric a civilised person and an admired of Roman culture was that he was educated in Constantinople as he was sent there at a young age as a hostage to the imperial court. Being an admirer of the Romans (and Byzantines of Constantinople), Theodoric built many grand monuments and churches in Ravenna and wrote to the eastern emperor Anastasius I (the emperor with mismatched eyes), “Our royalty is an imitation of yours, a copy of the only empire; and insofar as we follow you do we excel all other nations.” The Sant’Apollinare Nuovo Basilica, which is a UNESCO world heritage site was at first an Arian church before becoming an Orthodox Christian one (then later Roman Catholic) after the Byzantine conquest of Belisarius under Emperor Justinian I in the 530s. The exterior of the church looks quite simple and so is the main nave without the mosaics lining both walls, partly because the apse and its mosaics were damaged during World War I. However, when seeing the mosaics, you will already be stunned and this not all yet on the Ravenna mosaics. Here there are layers of mosaics descending down the walls and they mostly have gold a background. The characters on the wall mosaics include early Christian saints, the 3 Magi, prophets, and 2 versions of the image of Christ- one being a young beardless man and one being older with a beard- as this was part of the Arian belief of Jesus being man and not divine. The mosaics here do not only show characters but structures as well such as Ravenna’s old port of Classe depicted with ships and the palace of Theodoric. Another image here near the entrance is a lone panel depicting the emperor Justinian of the Byzantine Empire (r. 527-565), although it said to be originally a mosaic of Theodoric but after the Byzantine conquest, the face of Justinian was overlaid showing the emperor as an old man, which is true since he lived until his 80s.

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Streets of Ravenna
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Basilica di Sant’Apollinare Nuovo

 

Close to the Basilica di Sant’Apollinare Nuovo is the Arian Baptistery (Battistero degli Ariani in Italian), the proximity between these 2 UNESCO world heritage sites show that in the beginning of the 6th century, the Arian Christian community lived together apart from the Chalcedonian Orthodox Christians. The Arian Baptistery outside is also an octagonal shaped brick building and beside it is the Church of Spirito Santo, once an Arian cathedral commissioned by King Theodoric as well. The Arian Baptistery doesn’t have much inside it except for its well-preserved impressive mosaic ceiling, and before when the was water below at the baptismal font, the mosaics would reflect on it. The mosaic on the ceiling depicts Christ on the River Jordan half submerged and strangely unclothed and looking very much younger than the actual age he is usually depicted as he is seen without a beard. To the right of Christ is St. John the Baptist, to the left is an old man who is the personification of the River Jordan and above is the Holy Spirit. Surrounding the center of the ceiling are the 12 Apostles led by St. Peter and St. Paul (on opposite sides of the throne) in opposite directions. The rest of the interiors are just brick walls, but in the past, they’ve been covered with mosaics. A short walk away from this baptistery goes to the Orthodox Baptistery or the Baptistery of Neon. But before reaching this other UNESCO world heritage site, you will come across other Ravenna landmarks, which on the other hand are not world heritage sites but still important. These include the Piazza Garibaldi, the Piazza del Popolo or the main town square, and the Tomb of Dante Alighieri. It was here in Ravenna that Dante wrote the 3rd and last part of “The Divine Comedy” which is entitled “Paradise” (Paradiso in Italian) and in 1321 he died in Ravenna being exiled from Florence, his home city for writing against a powerful family there.

Now slightly to the west of it is the Baptistery of Neon (Battisterio degli Ortodosi in Italian), which was the Orthodox baptistery and the most ancient monument that remains in the city being originally a Roman bath. The Orthodox Baptistery on the other hand shows something different yet so similar to that of the Arian one. This baptistery also has an octagonal shape but its interiors are much larger and more detailed than the other one. Inside, you will see the same figure of Christ at the center of the ceiling being baptized in the River Jordan half submerged in the water with St. John the Baptist, the old man who personifies the river, and the Holy Spirit above with a gold background but here Christ is depicted in what Christians picture him, which is a much older man with a beard. Surrounding the central image is the same circle of the 12 Apostles led by St. Peter and St. Paul facing each other, but here there is not throne dividing them and the background is dark blue. Not only the ceiling here has mosaics but the base of it as well which depict the Gospels and even the arches and corners have intricately made colorful tiles as well covering every little space. Beside this Baptistery of Neon (named after the late 5th century Bishop Neon who completed it) is the Duomo or cathedral of Ravenna which was during the time of the Ostrogoth rule the cathedral for the Orthodox Christians of Ravenna, but part of it today is the Archiepiscopal Museum (Museo Arcivescovile in Italian) which holds the relics of early Christian saints, mosaics from the old cathedral of the Orthodox Christians of Ravenna, and the ivory throne of the bishop given as a gift by Emperor Justinian I from Constantinople. A part of the museum is the remains of the Cappella di San Andrea, the private chapel of the bishop of Ravenna and up to this day, the mosaics even at a curved ceiling remain intact. The mosaics here have a different touch to them as some parts depict birds but images of the saints are still seen in circles lining the arches of the narthex. The most distinct feature in the mosaics here is the image of Christ above the doorway where he is seen dressed up like a warrior in Byzantine (late Roman) style armor instead of wearing robes as he is usually depicted. This image was done this way since the bishop wanted to see Christ as the defender against the Arian heretics ready to fight them at any time.

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Ceiling mosaics of the Arian Baptistery
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Ceiling mosaics of the Orthodox Baptistery
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The Duomo beside the Orthodox Baptistery

 

After quite a walk from the area of the Duomo are the main highlights of Ravenna, the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia and the Church of San Vitale, known for its impressive Byzantine mosaics. The ancient but intact mausoleum and the large church are side by side with each other sharing the same courtyard. Both the church and the basilica use the Romanesque style brick architecture, and the mausoleum looks like a small cross-shaped house outside but its interiors are breathtaking. The Mausoleum of Galla Placidia (Mausoleo di Galla Placidia in Italian) is a UNESCO world heritage site that dates back to the mid-5th century built by the Empress Galla Placidia (r. 423-437) being the regent empress for her young son Valentinian III until he was old enough. Galla Placidia, the mother of Emperor Valentinian III was also the daughter of the last emperor of the full Roman Empire Theodosius I (r. 379-395) before the full east-west division after his death in 395; she was also the sister of Western emperor Honorius (r. 395-493), the half-sister of Eastern emperor Arcadius (r. 395-408), and wife of the Western Emperor Constantius III (r. 421); she died in 450 and the story goes that she had the mausoleum built for herself and family. However, you will not find her sarcophagus here as it has been moved to Rome but the tomb of her son Valentinian III (or said to be the tomb of Honorius) and of her husband Constantius III are found inside. Earlier on, the mausoleum was connected indoors to church of Sta. Croce beside it, which was also commissioned by Galla Placidia but is now in ruins. The floor of the mausoleum today is 5ft higher than it was in the time it was built as it had to be raised due to the rising levels of the Adriatic Sea. When entering the mausoleum, you will see one of the finest pieces of Byzantine mosaics, and this one is found at the 4 arched ceiling of the 4 sides, showing what happens to be a dark blue sky filled with circles which are supposed to be stars. This mosaic patterns turns out to be one of the symbols of Ravenna and one of the finest examples of Byzantine mosaics. However, this is not it as the central part has a dome with the same dark blue mosaic ceiling with gold tiles representing the stars, and at the center is a gold cross. The arches are as well lined with mosaics depicting nature with one even depicting something that looks like modern art while the semi-circle edges of the mausoleum depict images of the apostles, other saints, and another one with St. Lawrence next to a flaming grill beside a bookcase containing the 4 Gospels of the New Testament. One of the semi-circles here shows an image of Christ, this time as The Good Shepherd surrounded by a flock of sheep instead of a warrior in armor. Here, Jesus is depicted with a staff looking authoritative while his body looks realistic as it shows movement.

Meanwhile, next to the mausoleum is the Basilica of San Vitale, which I could say is the actual highlight of Ravenna. San Vitale is also one of the UNESCO world heritage sites of Ravenna and it dates back to 526 (the same year as the death of Theodoric) and finished in 547 when Ravenna was already under Byzantium after being captured by Belisarius. The story of Belisarius’ capture of Ravenna for Byzantium in 540 is written by the historian Procopius who says that while the reconquest of Italy was ongoing, Emperor Justinian I ordered him to march into Ravenna and capture the Ostrogoth monarch in power which was Vitiges and the conquest turned out to be successful. The exteriors show an example of early Byzantine architecture, having 8 sides, small arched windows, flying buttresses, and a belltower looking like the Galata Tower of Constantinople, while the church building looks a bit like the church of Hagia Eirene in Constantinople. The church is said to be erected on the site of the martyrdom of St. Vitalis but it is confused whether it was St. Vitalis of Milan or St. Vitale of Bologna who was martyred together with St. Agricola. When entering, the mosaics will already immediately stun you as you face the church’s altar area as every space is filled up with colorful mosaics. The entrance arch already shows a full set of mosaics with the image of Christ above the arch and the images of the apostles descending down the arch. The 4 corners of the mosaics in the presbytery have the images of the 4 Evangelists (St. Matthew, St. Mark, St. Luke, and St. John) and their respective symbols, while at the center of them are open arches with mosaics lining their narrow ceiling, and at the ceiling above are alternating leaf patterns with the Lamb of God at the center. Other images depicted on the mosaics are the Old Testament prophets and scenes from the Old Testament. Meanwhile, the apse shows Christ at the center dressed in the imperial purple which happens to look like brown, to his left are 2 angels and above the blue and red lines represent clouds, while below him is a sphere representing the earth which must is a possible hint to whether the Byzantines believed the earth was round. The far right figure of the apse is Bishop Ecclesius of Ravenna presenting the model of the church and to the far left is St. Vitale who Christ is going to give the crown on his hands to. Below the apse is already the windows but, in the space leading to the apse, it was maximized with 2 panels facing each other depicting the imperial court of Emperor Justinian I of Byzantium (r. 527-565) which was made after the conquest of Ravenna, but strangely the emperor never even stepped foot in the basilica or to Ravenna in his lifetime. The panel on the left shows Emperor Justinian I being the central figure dressed in purple robes that looks like brown, but the image of the Bishop Maximian of Ravenna looks larger as he was the bishop when this church was consecrated in 547, then behind Justinian and Maximian is either the image of the eunuch general Narses or the financial donor Julius Argentarius who spent 26,000 gold coins to create the mosaics of the church. Beside Justinian on his left include the general Belisarius who he places his feet over, and beside Belisarius is most likely Justinian’s court financer John the Cappadocian, and beside him are the palace guards or Excubitors with the Byzantine PX symbol on the shield (the PX being the first 2 syllables of Christ’s name in Greek “chi” and “rho”) while to the right of Maximian are clergymen. Across this panel is the panel of Empress Theodora, the wife and brains behind Justinian who was 18 years younger than him and also died 17 years before he did and together they had no children. Theodora is the tall central figure also with halo, just as Justianian is, although she has a dome also above her head while to her right is Antonia the wife of Belisarius, and to the left is most possibly the historian Procopius of Caesarea, and on the right side are other female courtiers of Constantinople. Justinian and Theodora happened to be the most influential rulers of Byzantium even though both began as commoners (Justinian being an Illyrian peasant and Theodora being a circus performer). Justinian was most famous for introducing the code of laws and during his reign Byzantium was at its largest. Both the emperor and the empress are facing each other on 2 opposite side and appear to be offering gifts to the saint this church is dedicated to. On the other hand, the rest of the basilica’s interiors have Baroque frescoes lining the dome and parts of the ceiling which date back to the 18th century. Aside from San Vitale, the other Byzantine era church in Ravenna is found a few kilometers away from the city center south at Classe. This landmark is the Church of Sant’Apollinare in Classe which has a surviving colorful Byzantine mosaic apse and a panel depicting the court of the Byzantine emperor Constantine IV (r. 668-685).

So, after the golden age of Byzantine Ravenna in the mid 6th century during the reign of Justinian I, Byzantine power eventually began to decline with the presence of the invading Lombards from the north. After 584, the Byzantine emperor Maurice (r. 582-602) changed the province of Ravenna into the Exarchate of Italy governed by an exarch with about the same power as the emperor over the army and civil services in Italy, while another exarch ruled in North Africa. Byzantine rule in Ravenna and the rest of northern Italy ended in 751 when the Lombard king Aistulf captured the city forcing the exarch to surrender, meanwhile the Byzantine emperor Constantine V in Constantinople did not send an army to help defend Ravenna. Some years later in 774, Charlemagne the Frankish king conquered Ravenna from the Lombards as part of building the Holy Roman Empire, meanwhile Ravenna was handed over to the pope by Charlemagne as part of the Papal States. Under Charlemagne and his successors, some items in Ravenna including marble columns and the equestrian statue of Theodoric were moved to Aachen, then the capital of the Holy Roman Empire. After this, Ravenna lost most of its significance but the mosaics remain in place; for the next centuries Ravenna became part of the Republic of Venice during which more buildings were built such as the fortress of  Rocca Brancaleone near the tracks across the large Mausoleum of Theodoric, another of the 8 UNESCO world heritage sites.

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Exterior of the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia
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Ceiling mosaics of the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia
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Basilica di San Vitale Romanesque exterior
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Full view of the presbytery of San Vitale and its mosaics
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Mosaic panel of Emperor Justinian I, Belisarius, Bishop Maximian, churchmen, and Excubitors 
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Mosaic panel of Empress Theodora, Procopius, and courtiers
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Byzantine exarch of Ravenna

 

Now as I finish this article, I still have quite a lot to say about Ravenna and what to expect. First of all, Ravenna is quite underrated despite being one of, if not the best place in the world to see Byzantine mosaics (even the street signs have mosaic replicas on them), this is surely because its location is a bit out of the way, not near the main cities of Italy such as Rome, Florence, or Venice, but if you are in Bologna it is quite near. However, even if it is out of the way it is still a must visit for the mosaics that even 19th century Austrian artist Gustav Klimt was inspired by them to create his famous works. Since Ravenna has been the capital of 3 powers: The Western Roman Empire, Ostrogoth Italy, and Byzantine Italy, there is a complete reason for the city to have breathtaking colorful mosaics (which were even more in number ack then) and even after more than a thousand years they still remain preserved well. More importantly though, without patrons such as Empress Galla Placidia, King Theodoric, the bishops, and even Emperor Justinian I, Ravenna would not have this kind of world class art it still has. The mosaics here have survived a lot including 2 world wars but today they still look as good as it was in the 6th century making it the best place in the world to see Byzantine mosaics, even more than Constantinople iconic landmarks like the Hagia Sophia. What makes Ravenna the ultimate place to see Byzantine art is that is preserved as these mosaics were spared during the Iconoclast period in Byzantium from the 8th -9th centuries as Ravenna was no longer under Byzantine control, and it also survived the fall of Byzantium in 1453 and the shift to Islam, obviously because the Ottomans never reached and over the years Ravenna’s mosaics remain in place even if the city lost its importance. On the other hand, I still have to mention the experience of seeing the mosaics and how it can affect you. At the end, it turns out seeing too much of these colors and keeping your head up all the time can result in giving you a headache. However, at the end, the memory of these mosaics will stay with you even if you have left the place. When visiting Ravenna, keep it in mind that these 8 UNESCO world heritage sites (in which I have visited only 6 of them) are the only impressive things to see as the city itself may just look like a generic Italian town if not for its rich history. When it comes to a Byzantine history lover such as myself, going to Ravenna is a must no matter how much of a hassle it is getting there because you won’t see mosaics this well preserved anywhere else as I have said so many times. Anyway, this concludes the Ravenna mosaics article and seeing these mosaics surely will teach you a lot of how the changing of powers over a short period of time changed the style of art. And this is all for now… thank you for viewing!

The 94 Emperors of Byzantium and their Intriguing Tales

Posted by Powee Celdran 

Glory to God who has thought me worthy to finish this work. Solomon, I have outdone you.” -Emperor Justinian I (527-565)

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Hello again and welcome to another article by The Byzantium Blogger! Here is another article on the Byzantine Empire and this time about the long history of the Eastern Roman emperors from 324-1453, from Constantine I to Constantine XI and all their bizarre and inspiring stories. This article’s main source is the book, “A Cabinet of Byzantine Curiosities” by Anthony Kaldellis (2017), but of course the real source of all these stories are from various Byzantine historians from the era of their empire. The Eastern Roman Empire or Byzantine Empire lasted for 11 centuries and had a total of 94 emperors, 23 of them died violent deaths, 31 were dethroned and replaced by another regime but 8 of the dethroned emperors managed to reclaim the throne after a few years, 37 of them succeeded their fathers in the traditional way of monarchy but some did not immediately become emperor after their father’s death mainly due to their young age. Meanwhile, 10 rulers succeeded other family members while 4 were elected by the army or people, while a few others either led a rebellion or imposed themselves to become emperor, and 8 became emperor from marriage to a widow, sister, or daughter of the pervious ruler. Out of the 94 rulers, only 2 women fully ruled the empire as sole empress, these 2 being Empress Irene of Athens (ruled 797-802) and Theodora (r. 1055-1056) while 7 of them never set foot in the capital, Constantinople such as Jovian and Gratian in the 4th century, Staurakios in the 9th century, and the 4 emperors of the Nicaean period (1204-1261) when Byzantium was temporarily dead. The average reign length of a Byzantine emperor is 12 years; some ruled for only a few months while some ruled for almost half a century; the Byzantine emperor with the longest reign is Basil II the Bulgar-Slayer ruling for 49 years (976-1025) uninterrupted. However, other emperors ruled for this long as well such as John V Palaiologos (r. 1341-1391) but with 3 interruptions within those 50 years; other emperors with long reigns include Andronikos II Palaiologos (46 years), Theodosius II (42 years), Justinian I (38 years), and Alexios I Komnenos (37 years). Out of 94 emperors, 10 are official saints in the Orthodox Church while 4 of them are unclear of having the status of saint. This article will show you how violent the reigns of these emperors were especially by being dethroned by the rebellions and forced to live their lives as monks in a monastery, and some were blinded when dethroned. In most points of Byzantine history, there was instability in succession leading to civil wars and a constant change of emperors such as in the 20-year anarchy period (695-717), but there was a bit of stability with the rule of a dynasty, the longest being the Palaiologos dynasty (1261-1453) lasting for 192 years followed by the Macedonian dynasty (189 years, 867-1056). On the other hand, all these intriguing tales of the emperors, court intrigues, and succession struggles show the interesting and complex life of the Byzantine Empire. If one might think that the monarchies of England and France was full of intrigues and succession issues, take a look at Byzantium and see that it is 10 times more complicated, thus giving us the adjective “byzantine” meaning complicated and difficult to understand. Warning, THIS IS A VERY LONG POST but enjoy it as you learn the complex history of the 1,100-year succession of emperors.

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Byzantine Imperial flag and symbols

Note: This information is from sources written by Byzantine historians; names of emperors are in bold letters.

Watch this video for a quick lesson on every Byzantine emperor from 306-1453 

My other Byzantine articles:

7 Reasons to be Interested in Byzantium

The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire

Byzantine Architecture, Fashion, and Arts

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Mosaic of the emperors Justinian I (left) and Constantine I (right), Hagia Sophia

 

The first of the 94 Byzantine emperors was Constantine I the Great beginning his rule as Roman Emperor of the west in 306 when he was proclaimed emperor by his army in present day York in England after the death of his father, Constantius I Chlorus. Constantine like the Roman emperors of his time was not of Roman ethnicity but born in the Balkans, in his case he was born in present day Nis, Serbia, and on the other hand he had the nickname of “thick neck” due to his large neck. He was a popular and effective emperor starting out as the minor emperor or Caesar in the west later becoming the senior emperor or Augustus but to become sole ruler of the Roman Empire, he had to eliminate all his political rivals until he became full emperor in 324 moving the capital from Rome to Constantinople, the new city he founded building over the ancient Greek colony of Byzantion. Even if Constantine was a popular and effective ruler as well as a great military strategist and the emperor who made Christianity the official religion of the empire, he was worse than the Roman Emperor Nero (r. 54-68) in killing family members; in this case he ordered the deaths of his father-in-law Maximian, his brother-in-law Maxentius who he defeated in battle in 312, his other brother-in-law in 325 Licinius and his 10-year old nephew, his son Crispus in 326 for unknown reasons, then his wife Fausta who was put to death by being steamed to death in her bath; it is claimed that he converted to Christianity before his death in 337 for the forgiveness of his sins. Constantine I was succeeded by his 3 sons who were named using different versions of his name; these were Constantine II (r. 337-340), Constantius II (r. 337-361), and Constans I (r. 337-350) and out of the 3, Constantius II outlived his 2 brothers and ruled until his death in 361, he was then succeeded by his cousin Julian, who was crowned emperor in present day Paris before the death of Constantius II as a way to declare war but the civil war never took place and Julian was only emperor for 2 years. Julian was a very complex figure as he was both a philosopher and soldier but he rejected Christianity giving him the title “the Apostate” making him the last Pagan emperor, he also thought about rebuilding the Jewish temple in Jerusalem which had been destroyed centuries before, and as emperor he was a lenient judge that magistrates complained to him; he was however killed in battle against the Sassanid Persians in 363 ending the Constantinian dynasty as he was succeeded by Jovian, the captain of his guards who died before he even returned to Constantinople.

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Constantine I the Great, founder of Constantinople

 

After the deaths of Julian and Jovian, Valentinian I, also a commander in Julian’s army was elected emperor beginning the Valentinian dynasty in 364. As emperor, Valentinian was a cruel one who had 2 pet bears placed outside his bedroom whom he fed prisoners to. Valentinian though did not rule long and was succeeded by his younger brother Valens after his death, who only ruled for 3 years (375-78) as emperor of the east. Valens was known for constructing the large aqueduct in Constantinople still seen today but he also invented new ways to torture people saying that people had already found ways to deal with existing methods of torture. Valens was killed in the Battle of Adrianople against the Goths in 378 leaving his nephew Gratian, the son of Valentinian to be emperor, although Gratian stayed in Rome and never set foot in Constantinople, making him appoint the general and his brother-in-law as Theodosius as Emperor Theodosius I to rule the east beginning 379, and with the death of Gratian’s brother the western emperor Valentinian II in 392, Theodosius was full emperor of the Roman Empire. Theodosius I in his reign promoted Christianity as the state religion, although at one point he was excommunicated for a few months by the bishop of Milan St. Ambrose for the massacre of the people of Thessaloniki and upon his death in 395, the empire was permanently divided between east and west and his sons ruling each part. His son Arcadius inherited the east and this is when it could be said the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire really began; Arcadius ruled for 13 years until his death in 408, he was however a weak ruler and at his death was succeeded by his son Theodosius II who was still a boy. Theodosius II’s early reign was mostly taken care of by the commander of the imperial guard, though Theodosius lived most of his life as emperor ruling for 42 years. Theodosius II is best remembered for building the triple-layered walls of Constantinople to withstand heavy sieges from enemies on all sides, but apart from this, he was lazy and it was said that he would sign any document even without reading them, once his sister Pulcheria– later empress- placed a contract before him to sell his wife into slavery which he signed making his sister scold him for his lazy attitude. In 450, Theodosius II died in a riding accident and was succeeded by his sister Pulcheria and her husband who became Emperor Marcian (r. 450-57) who however died 7 years being followed by Leo the Thracian, a soldier who became Emperor Leo I with the help of Aspar, a Gothic commander in the army.

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Illustration of Emperor Arcadius (left), Theodosius I (center), and Consul Flavius Felix (right)

 

Leo I (r. 457-474) began the short-lived Leonid dynasty, he was an ambitious ruler known as “the butcher” but was also known for issuing a law that Sunday is a full rest day which meant that even no musical instruments were to be played. After his death in 474, he was succeeded by his grandson Leo II, the son of his daughter Ariadne and the Isaurian general Zeno, however Leo II was only age 7 when he was crowned and after only 10 months, he died leaving his father Zeno (r. 474-491) who was most likely of Persian ethnicity to be next in line. 1 year into his reign, Zeno was overthrown by Leo I’s brother-in-law, the general Basiliscus, but in the next year (476), Zeno returned to power forcing Basiliscus into exile; and at the same time, the Western Roman Empire had finally come to its end when its last emperor was overthrown by the Germanic general Odovacar, who Zeno made King of Italy. Zeno died in 491 possibly from his epilepsy but it is believed that his wife Ariadne buried him alive due to his disease and after his death, Ariadne’s new husband the financial officer Anastasius I Dicorus (r. 491-518) followed Zeno as emperor; his nickname Dicorus was given to him because his heterochromia where one eye was a different color from the other. Anastasius died at a very old age in 518 without any children but at his death, Byzantium reformed its coinage system and the economy was strong. Without any heirs except for his nephews, the commander of palace guard Justin used this situation to his advantage by using the money he was given to bribe the chief chamberlain Amantios instead to be used by his men to make him emperor, thus he coming from a peasant background became Emperor Justin I (r. 518-527) beginning the Justinian dynasty.

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Emperor Leo I the Thracian
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Anastasius I Dicorus, with 1 green and 1 blue eye

 

Byzantium reached its height of power in the years of the Justinian dynasty in the 6th century but what most do not know is that this ruling family came from humble origins as Illyrian peasants from the present-day Republic of Macedonia. Justin I rose to power by being in imperial palace guard or excubitors for decades during the reigns of Zeno and Anastasius and over the years rose through the ranks until making himself emperor despite his illiteracy. He was however of old age when he was emperor and his staff had to make him use a wooden stencil to sign documents mainly because he couldn’t write, this was either due to illiteracy or his old age. With Justin’s death in 527, the throne passed down to his nephew Justinian I the Great, the most influential Byzantine ruler known as “the emperor who never sleep” as he spent his reign constantly campaigning and building things. Like his uncle, Justinian was also born a peasant but at an early age was sent to Constantinople to be educated making him become a great jurist and an officer in the imperial guard; his wife Empress Theodora also came from humble origins as a performer. As emperor, Justinian I (Iustinianus in Latin) named almost everything after himself including the famous book of laws the Codex Iustinianus, as well as many towns, and students and government officials used his name as a title. During Justinian’s reign, Byzantium went through glorious and difficult times including the large scale Nika riots of 532, the plague of 542 which even hit him but still recovered and the Constantinople earthquake in 557, but these glorious moments included the successful conquest of Italy and North Africa by the general Belisarius from the Vandals and Ostrogoths. Justinian died in 565 at age 83, 17 years after the death of his wife Theodora with the empire at its largest from Spain to Syria and was succeeded by his nephew Justin II. During the reign of Justin II (565-574), Byzantine lost parts of Italy which had been recently conquered and constant war with the Sassanid Persian Empire took place, this is probably some of the reasons that drove this emperor insane. Justin II is the only Byzantine emperor who is said to be clinically insane as he would run around the palace making the noises of wild animals, try to bite his attendants, and even tried to throw himself out of the window a few times that his wife had to put bars on his windows to avoid it. At the end, Justin II was no longer fit to rule so the throne was passed down to the commander of the palace guard (excubitors) Tiberius II Constantine in 574, and after Justin II’s death in 578, Tiberius II was full emperor and with his death in 582, his son-in-law the Cappadocian general Maurice (r. 582-602) came next and during his reign, the war with the Sassanids continued and he was the last of the Justinian dynasty, he was then deposed and executed by the rebellion leader Phokas (r. 602-610) who made himself emperor.

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Emperor Justin I
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Emperor Justinian I and Empress Theodora
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Byzantium in Justinian I’s reign, 555

 

With Phokas as emperor, the Byzantine military leader in North Africa, Heraclius led another revolt which ended with overthrowing Phokas in 610 leaving Heraclius to be emperor (610-641) beginning the Heraclian dynasty. In his reign, Constantinople was besieged by the Persians, Slavs, and Avars while Heraclius was away but he still brought the war against the Sassanids to an end in 628 with the execution of their king, Chosroes II but some years later, the Arabs began to make their move into Byzantine territory beginning the spread of Islam, thus beginning the long Arab-Byzantine wars where Byzantium lost Syria. Even though Heraclius was a war hero and known for introducing Greek as the official language of the empire replacing Latin, he was so afraid of water that when having to cross the Bosporus Sea to arrive at Constantinople after the war, he had to have a bridge of logs built for him to cross without having to see the waves. At Heraclius’ death in 641, his son Constantine III succeeded him as emperor for only 3 months, in which after his death his 15-year-old half-brother Heraklonas- also the son of Heraclius- and co-emperor came next but only ruled for 4 months as he was deposed by his troops in September of 641. With pressure from the army, the son of Constantine III, Constans II (r. 641-668) who was only 11 was made emperor. During his reign, as Greece had faced invasions from the Slavs in the north and the war with the Arabs continued in the south and east, Constans II planned to move the capital to Syracuse in Sicily and probably because of this plan of his, in 668 he was assassinated in his bath by his chamberlain using a soap dish. Although during Constans II’s reign, Byzantine ambassadors were said to have reached the imperial court of China. After the murder of Constans II, the throne was passed down to his son Constantine IV (r. 668-685), nicknamed “big beard” who was best known for successfully defending Constantinople from the 1st Arab siege in (674-78) and after his death was followed by his son Justinian II in 685. Justinian II was deposed by a military revolt in 695 where his nose was cut off by the rebels before he was sent into exile whereas the rebellion leader Leontios (r. 695-98) became emperor only to be replaced by Tiberius III (r. 698-705) who was deposed in 705 with the return of Justinian II supported by the Bulgarians; after re-entering the capital by passing the aqueducts he became emperor again until 711, this time with the nickname “Rhinotmetos” or “Slit-Nosed”. However Justinian II’s 2nd reign also ended violently as he was again dethroned by the rebellion led by Philippikos Bardanes (r. 711-13) who later executed Justinian II but 2 years later was overthrown by his secretary who became Emperor Anastasius II (r.713-15), but he was also overthrown by the military rebellion of Theodosius III (r. 715-17).

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Byzantine- Sassanid Wars, 602-628
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Mosaic of Constantine IV in Ravenna

 

The years from 695-717 was marked by a period of anarchy but this troubled time was put to an end by Leo III (r. 717-741) known as “the Isaurian”, who led another rebellion in 717 and secured the throne for himself; he then began the movement of Byzantine Iconoclasm, repelled the 2nd Arab Siege of Constantinople (717-18), introduced the land system of the Themes, and after his death in 741 was succeeded by his son Constantine V (r. 741-775) beginning once again a stable line of succession. Constantine V known to some as “Kopronymos” or “dung-faced” by hostile critics- as he allegedly defecated in the baptismal font as a baby- was dethroned 1 year into his reign by the general Artavasdos (r. 742-43) but a year later, Constantine V reclaimed the throne. Constantine V was a strong supporter of Iconoclasm just as his father was, but he took it to a higher level by even issuing a law that banned the use of the word “saint” for the saints but he also sent an organ as a gift to King Pepin of the Franks, thus introducing the organ to Europe. In 775, Constantine V’s son Leo IV (r. 775-780) succeeded him as emperor after his death, he was nicknamed “the Khazar” because his mother was the Khazar princess Tzitzak, though Leo IV only ruled for 5 years and in 780 was succeeded by his son Constantine VI (r. 780-797), who was then overthrown by his mother Empress Irene of Athens (r. 797-802) who blinded and imprisoned him; Constantine died shortly after from his wounds. Irene after taking the throne from her son was the 1st sole empress of Byzantium and temporarily ended the Iconoclast movement, but in 802 she was overthrown by a palace coup and exiled as Nikephoros I (r. 802-811) took the throne.

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Map of the Byzantine Themes

 

During the reign of Nikephoros I, Byzantium went to war with the Bulgarian Empire in the north and at the battle of Pliska in 811, the Byzantines were defeated, Nikephoros was executed, and it was said that the Bulgarian Khan Krum used Nikephoros’ skull as his drinking cup. With Nikephoros’ death, his son Staurakios (r. 811) became emperor for only 3 months without even setting foot in the capital and had to abdicate due to being paralyzed at the Battle of Pliska, leaving the throne to his brother-in-law Michael I Rangabe (r. 811-813) who then had to abdicate the throne in 813 because of the rebellion of Leo V the Armenian (r. 813-820), whereas Michael I retired and lived the rest of his life in a monastery as a monk. The Armenian general Leo V however also faced a revolt by the army officer Michael of Amorion, and during Christmas of 820, Michael of Amorion was charged for treason and imprisoned by Leo V, although during the Christmas Day Mass, the conspirators led by Michael locked Leo inside the Hagia Sophia as the Mass began and posing as the choir, they pulled out their weapons and one by one mutilated him. Leo’s mutilated body was dumped in the snow and Michael was crowned Emperor Michael II (r. 820-92) while still chained in prison as the key could not be found, although he was officially crowned by the patriarch the next day. Theophilos (r. 829-842) succeeded his father Michael II after his death and during his reign, Byzantium developed the beacons system to send a message across Anatolia within only an hour and as he began to grow bald, he ordered that no Roman (Byzantine) should grow their hair longer than the neck, though this was partly to revive the ancient Roman hairstyles. Michael III (r. 842-867), succeeded his father Theophilos even if he was still very young, which meant the earlier part of his reign was under the regency of his mother Theodora, who fully put an end to Iconoclasm in 842. Michael III was a pleasure-loving ruler earning him the nickname “the drunkard” though this led to a plot by his courtier, Basil the Macedonian to assassinate him on September 23, 867, Michael was then killed at only 27 and a new golden age for Byzantium was to begin with the start of the Macedonian dynasty.

Byzantine Emperor Theophilos (r. 829-842), surrounded by dignitaries of his court. Illustration from the Madrid Skylitzes (Fol. 42v) c. 12th century, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons
Court of Emperor Theophilos

 

Basil I (r. 867-886) founded the Macedonian dynasty after Michael III’s assassination in 867, and like Justinian I, Basil came from a peasant background originally from Byzantine Macedonia- although it is said that he is a descendant of the 1st century Arsacid dynasty of Armenia- but quickly rose to power by being a courtier of Michael III, though Basil who was much older rose to power by scheming but also by marrying Michael’s mistress Eudokia Ingerina so that Michael could keep her close. It was even believed that Basil’s son and eventual successor Leo VI the Wise (r. 886-912) was the son of Eudokia and Michael since he was born in the year of the “overlap” of his mother from Michael to Basil, although this could be true because Leo VI transferred the body of Michael III to the Church of the Holy Apostles where the emperors are buried in after Basil’s death in 886. Leo VI is known as the wise as he was a scholar and philosopher and was also credited for inventing the hand-held flamethrower, a portable Greek Fire. Leo was married 4 times in his life and each wife could not bear him a son until only his mistress Zoe Karbonopsina did in 905 with the birth of Constantine VII, his only son and heir (similar to the story of 16th century King Henry VIII of England), and his 4th marriage to Zoe was seen as controversial that he had to marry her in secret, but when discovered by the patriarch, Leo was excommunicated for a year. Leo VI died in 912 with his son too young to rule, so the throne was passed on to his younger brother Alexander (r. 912-13) who hated Leo and as emperor was a debauched ruler who listened to sorcerers to perform the pagan ritual to sacrifice clothes to the statues in the Hippodrome and light candles before them to cure his sickness. Alexander fired everyone from Leo’s court when becoming emperor but only ruled for a year as he died from a heart attack after playing his favorite sport, Polo and today and image of him survives at the Hagia Sophia where he is seen in a full body mosaic at a large panel, even if he is an obscure short ruling emperor. After Alexander’s death in 913, the young Constantine VII nicknamed “Porphyrogennetos” or “purple born” became emperor but under regents but in 920, his regent and father-in-law, the Armenian admiral Romanos Lekapenos seized the throne for himself becoming the senior emperor Romanos I while Constantine remained as a puppet ruler. Romanos I was another ruler from humble origins but rose to power at the imperial court and as emperor from 920-944, he was a great one ending the ongoing Byzantine-Bulgarian War, boarding up the porticoes in Constantinople to protect the homeless from the snow, and also appointed his family members to powerful positions in the court. Romanos however was overthrown by his sons Stephen and Constantine in 944 and forced to live his life as a monk in a monastery, while in 945 Constantine VII retook the throne for himself exiling the brothers to the same monastery as their father. Aside from being an emperor, Constantine VII was a scholar and prolific writer who wrote down several histories as well as an artist and sculptor but was an unsuccessful military leader and an elitist, although he promoted the Renaissance of Byzantine arts and the lavish lifestyle of the imperial court. Constantine VII’s death in 959 was said to be from poisoning but the transition of power to his son Romanos II was peaceful, Romanos however died 4 years later in 963 and it was said that he was poisoned as well, by his wife Theophano who is said to have previously poisoned his father. Romanos’ II son Basil was then still too young to rule, so Theophano married the successful Cappadocian general Nikephoros II Phokas (r. 963-69) who was best known for recapturing Crete, Cyprus, and Aleppo from the Arabs; Nikephoros was proclaimed emperor by the army in 963 and ruled for the next 6 years successfully campaigning against the Arabs and Bulgarians, although westerners including Liutprand of Cremona depict him as a “monstrosity of a man”, partly because of his mistreatment at the court. Nikephoros II was murdered in his sleep by the general and his associate John Tzimiskes on December 11, 969 whereas John became Emperor John I (r. 969-976)- similar to the play “Macbeth” where Macbeth kills the king in his sleep and is proclaimed the next ruler. John I, the husband of Romanos II’s sister Theodora was also a successful general and master horseman who was able to jump from one horse to another while the horses were galloping, but he died on his way back to Constantinople in 976 after campaigning against the Abbasids in the east. By that time, the rightful heir Basil II (r. 976-1025) was old enough to rule and he did rule for almost 50 years defeating a couple of rebellions that could have started civil wars, starting an alliance with the Rus by marrying his sister to Prince Vladimir of Kiev, forming the Varangian Guard unit made of Nordic mercenaries, and most of all best remembered for finishing the war with Bulgaria and claiming almost the entire Balkan Peninsula for Byzantium in 1018 after a 20-year-war. Before the defeat of the Bulgarian Empire, after the Battle of Kleidion in 1014, Basil II is said to have blinded the 14,000 defeated Bulgarians leaving 1 out of every group of 100 left with one eye to lead the rest back, which left the Bulgarian Tsar Samuil die from shock upon seeing this, this then gave Basil II the tile “Boulgaroktonos” or “the Bulgar Slayer”, and he ruled until his death in 1025 at the age of 67 and he surprisingly was never married and had no heirs, he was also a hero of the poor, and today a national hero in Greece but despised in Bulgaria. Since he had no heirs, Basil II was succeeded by his younger brother Constantine VIII (r. 1025-28) who was already of old age and unlike his brother was a weak ruler who then died 3 years into his reign passing the throne to his son-in-law the aged Romanos III Argyros (r. 1028-1034), Romanos III was the first husband of Constantine’s daughter Zoe Porphyrogenita (r. 1028-1050) who ruled as empress with her 3 husbands, the first one being Romanos III, then after his death with the epileptic Michael IV the Paphalagonian (r. 1034-1041) who helped Zoe kill her former husband Romanos III, then after his death with Michael’s nephew Michael V Kalaphates known as “the caulker” for only 1 year (1041-42) although he was not Zoe’s husband, then after the death of Michael V, Zoe ruled with her 3rd husband Constantine IX Monomachos (r. 1042-1055) outliving Zoe who died in 1050. After Constantine IX’s death, Zoe’s sister Theodora Porphyrogenita (r. 1055-56) became the sole empress of Byzantium claiming that she had already become empress ever since she was raised as co-ruler in 1042. Theodora was the last of the long reigning Macedonian dynasty and died without any heirs, thus beginning the 11th century crisis which took place shortly after Emperor Basil II had made Byzantium again into a world power.

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Imperial Court of Constantine VII
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Menologion of Basil II the Bulgar-Slayer

 

With the end of the Macedonian dynasty in 1056, Byzantium’s newly gained status as a dominant world power began to decline with years of civil war, this then became known as the 11th Century Crisis beginning with the reign of Michael VI Bringas (r. 1056-57), a court official appointed by Theodora as her successor but a year after coming into power, Michael VI was convinced to abdicate by the patriarch and the people when his armies were defeated by the rebel Isaac Komnenos as the patriarch replied to Michael that he will gain the Kingdom of Heaven in return for abdicating. True enough Michael VI abdicated retired to be a monk in a monastery as the general Isaac I Komnenos became emperor in 1057 but only 2 years later, after a hunt Isaac fell ill and thought he would die soon so he abdicated appointing Constantine X Doukas (r. 1059-1067) as the next emperor as Isaac retired to the Stoudios Monastery where he was raised in and lived the remainder of his life as the doorman. Constantine X began the Doukas dynasty but died in 1067 with his son and heir too young to rule leaving his wife Eudokia Makrembolitissa to marry the general Romanos IV Diogenes (r. 1068-1071). Romanos who became emperor was a successful general but still lost to the Seljuk Turks at the Battle of Manzikert in 1071, and after this heavy defeat for the Byzantines, he was captured by the Seljuk leader Alp Arslan but still released though was deposed by the supporters of the Doukas family and was executed the next year (1072). After the dethronement and death of Romanos IV, Constantine X’s son Michael VII Doukas at last became emperor (1071-78) but was said to be “naïve, ignorant, and inexperienced, that he was only fit to be a bishop” and a parsimonious person, and at the end also had to abdicate as Nikephoros Botaneiates led a rebellion against him, Michael VII then retired to a monastery and Nikephoros was made Emperor Nikephoros III (r. 1078-1081), he also married Michael’s ex-wife Maria of Alania. Nikephoros III however faced another revolt, this time by the Komnenos clan, led by Alexios, the nephew of Isaac I who then overthrew Nikephoros sending him to a monastery, whereas Alexios was proclaimed Emperor Alexios I Komnenos, the founder of the Komnenid dynasty and stability was brought back to Byzantium in 1081.

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Emperor Nikephoros III Botaneiates and Empress Maria of Alania

 

As Alexios I Komnenos came to throne, Byzantium faced many difficulties such as the Turks overrunning Anatolia and the Normans capturing Southern Italy from them, so to combat the Turks in the east, Alexios I asked the kingdoms of Western Europe for help, while at the same time Pope Urban II called for the 1st Crusade and when crusader armies arrived in Constantinople in 1101, the lions and leopards placed by Alexios to guard the walls attacked and mauled the crusaders, though the knights managed to kill them. When Alexios I died in 1118, he was succeeded by his son John II Komnenos (r. 1118-1143), although his older sister, the historian Anna Komnene tried to claim the throne from him as she was the first child of their father. John II died while hunting in Cilicia as he accidentally pierced his hands by the poisoned arrows meant to kill the animals, he then appointed his youngest son Manuel I (r. 1143-1180) as his heir and during his reign, Manuel I depleted the empire’s resources from his constant campaigning and upon his death in 1180, his son Alexios II (r. 1180-83) succeeded him but was only a boy and ruled until his death in 1183 at only 14. Alexios II was overthrown by his 2nd cousin Andronikos I Komnenos (r. 1183-85), the nephew of John II and a very intriguing figure; he was described as handsome, eloquent, and courageous, but was also an escape artist and troublemaker who escaped prison for plotting against his uncle John II and after his escape fled to various courts all over Europe and the Middle East for 15 years to seek refuge. In 1182 as an old man, he returned to Constantinople seizing the throne from Maria of Antioch to be the co-emperor of her son Alexios II who he later had killed. Andronikos, at already 65 was still a flamboyant man dressing up in pyramid shaped hats and he even took the 12-year-old widow of Alexios, Anna of France as his wife despite being a couple of decades older than her. Andronikos I was however an unpopular ruler and a large rebellion in 1185 led by the Angelos clan was formed against him and as the rebellion spread across the capital, Andronikos moved to arrest its leader Isaac Angelos but his lieutenant was killed by Isaac who was proclaimed Emperor Isaac II Angelos. As Andronikos and his wife tried to flee the capital, he was arrested as Isaac handed him over to the angry mob to be mutilated over the course of several hours; Andronikos was physically torn apart, boiling water was thrown on his face, his eyes, were gauged out, and his life was ended in the Hippodrome when 2 Latin soldiers pierced him with their blades. Andronikos however had a surviving son, Manuel who was not an emperor but his sons Alexios and David became the first rulers of the Empire of Trebizond in 1204.

 

In 1185, the Komnenid dynasty came to an end replaced by the Angelid dynasty as Isaac II Angelos led a revolt of the populace against Andronikos I. As emperor for the next 10 years, Isaac II became unpopular to the westerners as he made an alliance with the Ayyubid Sultan Saladin and his high taxes caused the Bulgarians to declare independence from Byzantium in 1185 thus forming the 2nd Bulgarian Empire under the Asen dynasty. There was one random incident at a banquet when Isaac called for salt, in Greek “alas” but the courtiers thought he called for “other women” as it sounded like “allas” which meant that, but the courtiers told him they would have to go through the women present at the court before they bring in a new batch. While encamped on the campaign against the Bulgarians in 1195, Isaac took a break to go hunting and taking advantage to the situation, his older brother used the troops to proclaim him Emperor Alexios III (r. 1195-1203), and as Isaac returned he was arrested and blinded by his brother and locked up for 8 years. By 1203, the west had called for the 4th Crusade against Byzantium and the deposed prince Alexios, the son of Isaac asked the crusaders for their help in removing Alexios III from power to place him and his blind father on the throne. This plan worked as Isaac II was restored to power in 1203 but due to his blindness, could not fully function, so it was his son Alexios IV (r. 1203-4) that was the one really in power. Alexios IV however lost the support from his crusader allies and the people revolted against him, this move then caused Isaac II to die allegedly from shock and Alexios IV was strangled to death being replaced by the leader of the coup, the court official Alexios V Doukas who only ruled from January to April of 1204, his 3 month reign was ended by the Capture of Constantinople by the 4th Crusade; Alexios V then fled Constantinople to join forces with the deposed Alexios III but was captured and executed by the crusaders in 1205 while Alexios III roamed around looking for support but died in captivity by the Nicaeans. After Constantinople fell to the 4th Crusade in 1204, the city fell under the newly created Latin Empire with Baldwin I (r. 1204-5) as its first emperor. Meanwhile, the Byzantine Empire was broken into 3 parts; first the Despotate of Epirus ruled by the Angelos dynasty, then the Empire of Trebizond ruled by the Komnenos dynasty, and the Empire of Nicaea ruled by the Laskaris dynasty. The Empire of Nicaea out of the 3 mini Byzantine Empires was the most legitimate successor of the original Byzantium as it was the strongest of the 3. The Empire of Nicaea was established by Constantine and Theodore Laskaris after they fled there before the 4th Crusade captured the capital. Constantine was not officially and emperor and was succeeded by his brother Theodore after his death in 1205, and Theodore I Laskaris (r. 1205-1222) was only officially crowned in 1208. Theodore I was succeeded after his death by his son-in-law John III Doukas Vatatzes (r. 1222-1254), who was succeeded after his death by his son Theodore II Laskaris (r. 1254-58), and after Theodore II’s death he was succeeded by his 7-year-old son John IV Laskaris (r. 1258-1261), but since he was too young John IV’s rule was mostly taken over by his regents, one of them being the ambitious politician Michael Palaiologos. Between 1204 and 1261, these 4 Nicaean emperors who substituted as Byzantine emperors never set foot in Constantinople while being emperor.  

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Emperors Alexios IV (left), Alexios V (center), Theodore I Laskaris (right)
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The 4th Crusade- Baldwin I of Flanders captures Constantinople founding the Latin Empire
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Division of Byzantium after 1204

 

In the summer of 1261, while the Latins, the current rulers of Constantinople temporarily left the city with the Venetian fleet to patrol the Black Sea, the army of Nicaea under Michael Palaiologos out of chance reclaimed the capital and restored Byzantium. Michael as the hero was proclaimed Emperor Michael VIII Palaiologos, the 1st ruler of the longest and last dynasty of the empire. The young John IV however was sidelined and tricked making him blinded and imprisoned by Michael. As the ruler of the restored Byzantine Empire, Michael VIII ruled from 1261 till his death in 1282, and was succeeded by his son Andronikos II Palaiologos (r. 1282-1328) making him the 2nd longest Byzantine emperor ruling for 46 years and at one point in his reign, he made his son Michael IX co-emperor from 1295 until his death in 1320, it was said that his death was caused by grief when seeing his son Manuel shot dead by archers. Andronikos II was more of an intellectual than a warrior and neglected the army which led to the end of Byzantine rule and Anatolia and the rise of Turkish power there; since his son died ahead of him, he was succeeded by his grandson Andronikos III Palaiologos (r. 1328-1341), the son of Michael IX who seized power from his grandfather in 1328 and was crowned emperor while his grandfather Andronikos II abdicated and died as a monk in Constantinople in 1332. Andronikos III ruled as a successful emperor until his death in 1341 while left with only one son and heir, John V Palaiologos who became emperor at only 8 which meant that he had to rule under the regency of his mother Anna of Savoy and his father’s friend and associate John Kantakouzenos. Coming to the throne as a boy, John V’s early reign faced the outbreak of a civil war between his regents and the victor of it was Kantakouzenos who was crowned Emperor John VI in 1347 leaving John V sidelined but married to John VI’s daughter Helena. In 1354 however, John V deposed John VI and sent him to live the rest of his life as a monk in a monastery in Greece. John V then ruled as sole emperor but his reign was an unfortunate one as first the Black Death devastated Byzantium then the Ottoman Turks started their invasion of Europe and Byzantium was in the constant threat of being invaded so John V travelled to Italy and Hungary to ask for help but was declined. In Hungary, the king refused to help him when John sat on his horse and when asking for help from the Papal States, he had to convert to Catholicism but at the end still received no aid and was detained in Venice and captured by the Bulgarians on the way back to the capital. John V had no choice but to ally himself with Ottoman Sultan Murad I which became one of the reasons why his son Andronikos IV (r. 1376-79) deposed him. With the help of the Ottomans and his younger son Manuel, John V regained the throne in 1379 exiling his son to rule Selymbria instead, but before that he poured vinegar on his son’s eyes to blind him but instead of blinding him, it only improved his bad eyesight, Andronikos then died a few year later. John V was once again restored to the throne until another takeover in 1390, this time by his grandson John VII, the son of Andronikos IV for unknown reasons though John VII only ruled for 5 months as his grandfather was again restored in September 1390 again with the help of Manuel. John V suddenly died in February 1391 from a nervous breakdown brought by humiliation after razing down the walls which he had restored as the Ottoman Sultan Bayezid I ordered him to do it in order to release his son Manuel. Manuel II Palaiologos (r. 1391-1425) being next in line after his brother’s death came to the throne after his father’s death and during his reign as the Ottomans attempted to besiege Constantinople, Manuel being the most travelled emperor travelled across the courts of Western Europe to ask for help against the Ottomans, while his nephew the former emperor John VII was partially restored as emperor being the ruler of the capital in his uncle’s absence. Manuel went as far as England being the first Byzantine emperor to ever visit England since Constantine the Great and there he spent the Christmas of 1400 and the new Year of 1401 at the court of King Henry IV in Eltham Palace where a joust was made in Manuel’s honor. He also travelled to the court of King Charles VI of France at the Louvre where he wrote about the tapestries out of boredom, the court of Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund, of Queen Margaret I of Denmark, and of King Martin of Aragon in Spain. While Manuel was away, the Ottomans faced a heavy defeat by the Mongol army of Timur at the Battle of Ankara in 1402 while John VII reclaimed the European coast of the Marmara for Byzantium before Manuel’s return in 1403. Later in his reign, Manuel II travelled again and this time to Hungary to ask for help but came home empty handed and was later forced to sign a treaty with the Ottomans where Byzantium would have to pay tribute to them. Manuel II died in 1425 and is best remembered not only as a well-travelled emperor but as a poet and theologian; upon his death he was succeeded by his eldest son, John VIII Palaiologos (r. 1425-1448) and during his reign, Byzantium lost almost all its territories to the Ottomans except for the capital and Morea in Southern Greece. John VIII was the 2nd to the last Byzantine emperor and before his death of natural causes in 1448 appointed his younger brother Constantine XI Palaiologos as his successor since John was childless. In the beginning of 1449, Constantine XI Dragases Palaiologos was crowned the last emperor of Byzantium- strangely his name being the same as the first emperor and even stranger that his mother was named Helena same as the first emperor’s mother- and before Byzantium was finished in 1453, Constantine acknowledged the union of the Latin and Byzantine Churches but as the young Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II began the ultimate siege of Constantinople in 1453, Constantine XI refused to surrender to him and be spared, instead he chose to fight to the end as emperor of Byzantium even if the chances for survival were low. On May 29, 1453 after the 53-day siege, Constantinople finally fell to the Ottomans and Constantine XI died in battle while his body was never found. Before his eventual death, he made a powerful and emotional speech where he reminded all his soldiers on the former greatness of Byzantium, of all the emperors of the past, and that they are the descendants of the Greeks and Romans. A legend says that an angel took Constantine away from the battle and turned him into stone to one day return and retake the city. Constantine XI died as the last emperor of the Romans ever since Augustus in 27BC, while at the same the Hundred-Years’-War between France and England came to an end and the Renaissance started growing in Europe.

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Emperor John VI Kantakouzenos presiding over the 1351 Synod
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1453, farewell to Byzantium

 

Well, this finishes off the story of 94 emperors within 1,100 years. Within these 11 centuries, emperors succeeded each other mostly by hereditary succession- which is why some names are seen alternating after each other because of the Byzantine naming system where the first son is named after his grandfather- but also by violent plotting and rebellion. The fact that people quickly rise to power from humble origins or from distant lands to become the ruler of the whole empire makes Byzantium unique in this sense. Byzantium has become unique this way because unlike most countries in Europe where the succession of monarchy was mostly predictable, but with the Byzantines it was never that predictable making them have over 15 dynasties over the centuries, some short lived and some quite long. Something also I found interesting was that the emperors were of different backgrounds and specialties wherein many were warriors but many were intellectuals such as scholars and artists as well. What is also unpredictable about the reigns of Byzantine emperors is that some ruled for almost 50 years while some only did for a few months and many rulers were removed from power or abdicated and forced into exile mostly in monasteries. Other emperors too met violent ends being executed while the last emperor, Constantine IX was one of the few who died in battle but with his remains never found, it is said he might have survived the siege. Constantine IX was not only the last of the emperors since Constantine the Great but practically the last of the Roman emperors since Augustus who came to power in 27BC. The violent and unpredictable imperial succession culture of Byzantium was one of the cultural traits of the Roman Empire kept by them till their end in 1453. The end of the empire in 1453 was a sad one but also satisfying in the way that their great history and emperors of the past were recalled by the final speech of the last emperor. This sure is a long article and I meant A REALLY LONG ONE, but I hope you all learned a lot, but before I finish off, I would like to credit the books “A Cabinet of Byzantine Curiosities” by Anthony Kaldellis and “Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire” by Judith Herrin for the information, these 2 books have made me realize that Byzantium was a time capsule of the classical world in the Middle Ages. Anyway… thanks for viewing!!