Natural Disasters in Byzantine History

Posted by Powee Celdran 

During the whole year (536) the sun gave forth its light without brightness, like the moon, and it seemed extremely like the sun in eclipse, for the beams it emitted were not clear nor like those it usually makes.” -Procopius, Byzantine historian on the “dust-veil” of 536

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Welcome to another article by the Byzantium Blogger! This month, I have just finished 3 extremely long, complex, but interesting articles on all the Byzantine emperors and their personalities and with so much information and stories about them and their actions, I had to make not one article on it but 3! Now that I’m done with the 3-part series on the Byzantine personality through the emperors’ lives, it’s time to move to another topic which will be on Disasters in Byzantine history, which are mostly acts of God. After writing such a long scholarly series on the emperors, it’s time for a break and for this, I will here an article less serious and focus more on Byzantine historical trivia. This article will once again be based on the book A Cabinet of Byzantine Curiosities by Anthony Kaldellis and specifically on Chapter XVII which is “Disasters- Mostly Acts of God”. When it comes to natural disasters, they are considered as “Acts of God” and therefore are events that cannot be foreseen and in legal terms these are called Fortuitous Events and these unforeseen disasters I will write about in this article include tsunamis, earthquakes, floods, extreme weather events or the “dust-veil”, plague, ice, and fire. Meanwhile many of these events were acts of God like earthquakes, floods, and tsunamis but some fortuitous events can be acts of man as well like fire and plague in the sense of not being able to control it. The quote I used above is from the 6th century Byzantine historian Procopius who discusses what the extreme weather events of the year 536 when the sun was blocked by a thick layer of ash known as the “dust-veil”. This article will be written in a chronological form of disasters from the beginning to end of Byzantine history which is from the foundation of Constantinople in 330 to the fall of it in 1453 covering the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd ages of Byzantium, also it will only stick to these kinds of events in Byzantine history and not on these kinds of events that happened in the Roman Empire before Byzantium such as the Eruption of Vesuvius and the destruction of Pompeii in 79AD; and each paragraph will be made per year of the disaster. This article will feature specific highlighted years which had a major disaster in Byzantine history and will not cover every natural disaster in Byzantine history as it will be too much to write about, also all the disasters I will mention here are those that had only taken place within the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empire between 330 and 1453, which means that if a location was no longer under Byzantine control but faced some of these natural disasters, it will not be mentioned. Also, the article will continue what was discussed the last time which was on the personalities of the emperors as it will mention who the reigning emperor was during the time of these disasters as well as in some parts how these emperors based on their personalities dealt with these disasters. In the last 3-part series I wrote, I have discovered that the personalities of the emperors do affect the turn of events in Byzantine history, now since I am writing about natural disasters, these events also did a more major rile in turning Byzantine history itself and both the articles on the imperial personalities and this one would be something I write to learn more about the turn of events in Byzantine history, as the final year ender article will be the “Turning Points in Byzantine History” and will be mostly based on the information of this one and the past 3 as the personalities and disasters did in fact play a big role in the changing of Byzantium’s history itself. Apparently, the Byzantine Empire who’s reign saw the most natural disasters was Justinian I the Great (r. 527-565) and many of the disasters that will be featured here took place during his reign, also because his reign was the most recorded by Byzantine historians such as Procopius as well as it was the most eventful reign out of all the Byzantine emperors. During Justinian I’s reign, the Byzantine Empire faced extreme weather events, a massive plague, a large flood, 2 tsunamis, and 3 major earthquakes but earthquakes on the other hand were the most common disaster in the Byzantine Empire as the empire itself was located in an area which is Anatolia and the Mediterranean that is prone to earthquakes. In fact, Constantinople, for all its greatness in architecture had one major flaw, which was that it was located in an active seismic zone, meanwhile other parts and major cities of the empire including Antioch and many parts of Asia Minor were in active seismic zones too. In Byzantine history, earthquakes were one of the major factors for turning points in their history not because it destroyed cities but affected people forcing them to migrate as seen with a major earthquake in 1354 which destroyed most of the Gallipoli Peninsula in Thrace forcing people to move out allowing the Ottomans from Asia Minor to make their first move into Europe, thus beginning their conquest of the Balkans and the Byzantine Empire itself. The Byzantine people were however superstitious and many of them judged these disasters to be God’s way of punishing them, and some emperors even took action on these disasters by using them as a way to repent such as Leo III in 726 after the eruption of Thera seeing this as the reason for icons to be banned as he saw that the icons had no power to stop these calamities from happening, therefore the Iconoclast movement began. The other disaster most common in the Middle Ages was plague and throughout Byzantine history, there were 2 major devastating recorded plagues first being the Plague of Justinian from 541-542 and the Black Death in the 1340’s and both created such a decline in population and a weakening of the empire and its resources, meanwhile both these plagues too have mysterious origins coming all the way as far as from China. Now since Byzantine history went a long way and changed itself so much that things were no longer the way they were in the 6th century in the 14th century but one thing that never changed for the Byzantines were natural disasters, but at least they at times knew how to prepare for them. Anyway, let’s begin with the article featuring key years of natural disasters having some bizarre stories about them!

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Byzantine Imperial flag and symbols
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Map of the Byzantine Empire at its greatest extent, 555 during the reign of Justinian I
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“A Cabinet of Byzantine Curiosities” by Anthony Kaldellis

Note: This article’s information comes from various Byzantine historians from the ear of the Byzantine Empire (330-1453). Facts come from A Cabinet of Byzantine Curiosities by Anthony Kaldellis 

Warning: THIS IS A LONG ARTICLE!!

Other Articles from the Byzantium Blogger:

The Complete Genealogy of the Byzantine Emperors

7 Reasons to be Interested in Byzantium

Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire

The 94 Emperors of Byzantium

Byzantine Science and Technology

Crime, Punishment, and Medical Practice in the Byzantine World

The Art of War in the Byzantine World

A Guide to the Byzantine Empire’s Themes

Byzantine Imperial Personalities Part1

Byzantine Imperial Personalities Part2

Byzantine Imperial Personalities Part3

 

358- Earthquake of Nicomedia

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Nicomedia (known as Izmit today) was a major city of the Eastern Roman Empire in Asia Minor located in the region of Bithynia just along the Sea of Marmara on the Asian side very close to Constantinople. Before the transfer of the Roman Empire’s capital to Constantnople and the founding of the Byzantine Empire, Nicomedia was the center of the persecutions of Christians beginning in 303 under the emperor Diocletian (r. 284-305). In 358, the 2nd Byzantine emperor Constantius II (r. 337-361), the son of the empire’s founder Constantine I the Great (r. 306-337) proposed to hold a Church council at the cathedral in Nicomedia, although Constantius II was an Arian in belief and probably wanted to hold the council to make Arian Christianity the religion of the empire. However, on August 24, 358 which some days before the council could be held, a massive earthquake struck the city at dawn destroying almost everything, including the cathedral. Since the city was built on a slop descending to the sea, houses built along the slope tumbled down crushing each other creating a cascade. The Byzantine historian at that time Ammianus Marcellinus describes the devastation of the earthquake, as when the sun rose the damage was so bad that houses tumbled down on top of each other, people were crushed by the damage, others buried up to the neck in the debris, and some were skewered on sharp points and beams. Worse than this, the damage trapped people in their homes leaving them to starve to death, including the governor Aristainetos. The semi-Arian bishop Cecropius too was found dead from the earthquake, although surprisingly the number of the deaths from this earthquake was only 15 and one of the people killed apart from the bishop and governor was the Persian soldier/ philosopher Arsacius who previously predicted the event but was ridiculed, though after the earthquake, strangely he was found dead in his tower which remained undamaged. This earthquake was held to be an act of divine judgment by Arian opponents believing that God caused this earthquake to punish the Arian heretics, which included the bishop. After the earthquake that brought so much destruction, Nicomedia would eventually be rebuilt but in a smaller scale until in the 6th century when Justinian I built it at the level of an imperial city again.

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Byzantine era Nicomedia

 

365- Earthquake and Tsunami of Crete

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On July 21, 365, a massive earthquake occurred with its epicenter at the large island of Crete in the Eastern Mediterranean and the effects of it were so strong it reached as far as Sothern Greece, Northern Libya and Egypt, Cyprus, Sicily, and Southern Spain. Modern geologists say that this earthquake had a magnitude of 8.5 or above as it was so strong enough to trigger a tsunami that devasted Crete and went as far as Alexandria in the south killing thousands and pushing ships 3km inland. The massive tsunami and its aftermath that came from the powerful earthquake of Crete is described in detail by the same historian Ammianus Marcellinus who writes that the sea was pulled back from its bed exposing numerous sea animals stuck in the land where ships were also left stranded, also underwater valleys and mountains were seen for the first time by the people and as the sea was pushed back, the people ran to this “new land” to scavenge the ships that were stuck and to collect sea creatures but soon enough, the sea came back at them killing all of them as it rushed quickly into the land. When the tsunami hit the land, thousands were killed by drowning in the sea water, cities were flooded by the water, and ships were carried inland and were even stranded above buildings from the tsunami’s effects. The earthquake’s epicenter may have been in the middle of the sea but it was so strong that it created a tsunami powerful enough to destroy nearly all the towns in Crete and permanently lift parts of the island out of the water, and today the effects can still be seen with some parts that were submerged no longer buried underwater including sea caves that were lifted by 9m.

Meanwhile, the tsunami caused by the earthquake did not only hit Crete, it travelled south directed towards Alexandria, the largest city of Byzantine Egypt. According to a later legend written in the Chronicle of the 7th century Egyptian Coptic bishop John of Nikiu, the powerful and energetic bishop of Alexandria who was strong opponent against Arianism and Church Father, St. Athanasius (296-373) faced the sea charging towards the city with a Bible in his hand and said “Oh God, you never lie, and you promised after the flood of Noah that you will not again bring a flood of waters upon the earth” and with the help of Athanasius, the water of the tsunami stopped and the city was saved, though many parts of the coast of North Africa were devastated by the tsunami at the same level of damage as Crete, but at least Alexandria was saved. However, even if the earthquake and tsunami took place in 365 during the reign of the Byzantine emperor Valentinian I (364-375), some Christian authors predate the event by 2 years to 363 as a way to interpret the tsunami as God’s anger against the emperor Julian the Apostate (r. 361-363) for rejecting Christianity and returning to Paganism. Meanwhile, the Pagan writer and philosopher Libanius who was a fan of Julian included this event as one of the events caused by the earth to mourn Julian’s passing, as in June of 363 Julian was killed in battle against the Sassanid Persians. From 366 up to the late 6th century, July 21 would be commemorated by the Byzantines as “The Day of Horror”.

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Map of the range of the Earthquake and Tsunami of Crete, 365
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Summary of the Crete and Alexandria earthquake and tsunami, 365

 

525- Flood of Edessa

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Now fast-forward to the early 6th century and in 525 during the reign of Emperor Justin I (518-527)- the uncle and predecessor of Justinian I the Great- the Daisan (or Skirtos) River in Southeast Asia Minor which is a tributary of the River Euphrates flooded so suddenly at an extreme level that the waters of the river poured through the doors of a bathhouse and drowned those bathing in it. According to the Chronicle of John Malalas, within a couple of hours the flood filled up the entire city and since the city was surrounded by walls, the flood turned it into a lake until the water’s pressure made the walls collapse releasing the flood to the plains outside, and as the flood subsided and the city was being rebuilt, the Shroud of Turin also known as the Image of Edessa or Mandylion was allegedly discovered hidden in a wall hidden above one of the gates as a cloth with the facial features of a man believed to be Christ. This event became known as “The Anger”, which was God’s anger.

 

526- Earthquake of Antioch

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Just one year after the great flood of Edessa and still during the reign of the aging Justin I who started life as a simple peasant, a massive earthquake struck the city of Antioch in Byzantine Syria which is today in southern Turkey and was one of the Byzantine Empire’s major cities in the first age of its history before the city was lost later on to the Arabs and later to the Crusaders. This powerful earthquake with a magnitude of about 7 struck Antioch sometime between May 20 and 29 of 526 at mid-morning killing about 250,000 people and afterwards it created a fire destroying most of the city’s already fallen buildings. As it turns out, Antioch is located in a major earthquake prone zone as it is right where the Eastern Anatolian Fault and Dead Sea Transform intersect, where the Anatolian, Arabian, and African plates border each other. One of the many killed in the great Antioch earthquake was the Patriarch of Antioch Euphrasios who’s house apparently was located above a tanners’ workshop and because of the earthquake, the house collapsed and according to the Chronicle of Dionysios of Tel-Mahre, he died falling straight into a vat of boiling pitch in which he was cooked in, his body was then melted from hit only leaving his head untouched so at least a part of his body was found. The buildings destroyed by the earthquake included Constantine’s the Great’s octagonal church on the city’s island along the Orontes River and the great church too was destroyed but from the fire after the earthquake, while only houses along the mountain slopes survived. Meanwhile at Constantinople, when the emperor aged Justin I heard of it, he panicked but sent money and people to reconstruct the city as well as had the church rebuilt and appointed a new patriarch who was a military leader named Ephraim, who is actually known as St. Ephraim of Antioch. Antioch however still suffered 18 more months of aftershocks and in November of 528, another major earthquake hit the city but killing less this time. Then to appease divine anger, the city of Antioch was renamed “The City of God” or Theopolis in Greek.

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Overview of Roman era Antioch
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Location of Antioch (red circle) at the intersection of the East Anatolian Fault and Dead Sea Transform, between the Arabian, Anatolian, and African plates
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Summary of the Antioch Earthquake, 526
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Modern day Antioch (Antakya, Turkey)

 

535-537- The Dust-Veil

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It is said that the worst year to be alive was 536 not so much because of constant invasions but because of strange extreme weather events that caused a drop in temperatures creating crop shortages and famines that lasted the whole year. This strange case of extreme weather events was recorded by the Byzantine court historian Procopius of Caesarea (500-570) who documented the reign of Emperor Justinian I (also known as Flavius Petrus Sabbatius), Justin I’s nephew. Although from 535-536, Justinian I’s reign was strong and a golden age was on its way for the Byzantine Empire, but this did not stop nature from getting in the way as Procopius described the whole year of 536 with the sun not giving its usual brightness, instead only giving its light at the same level of brightness of the moon as the sun’s beams were not clear because of the fog that covered the sky. For the entire year of 536, it may have looked like the sun was eclipsed, but in fact there was no eclipse, it was just that a thick layer of a dust-like fog- which was actually ash- that covered the sky and the causes of this back in time of the Byzantines were unclear making many believe it was supernatural, as this thick fog which blocked the sun resulted it crop failures as the crops did not get enough sunlight. In fact, not only Procopius writes about this event, sources all the way to Ireland and China mention it as well, which means places as far as Ireland and China experienced this “dust-veil” as well. In Ireland, the Gaelic chronicles only mention that beginning 536 because of a thick fog preventing the sun to shine strong, there was a failure of bread up to 539 while in China it was recorded that temperatures dropped so low that snow fell in August of 536 creating crop failures and a delay in harvest. The dry fog extended throughout China, the Middle East, and Europe as well and even as far as Peru, drought affected the Pre-Inca Moche civilization there. The causes of this “dust-veil” are either the impact of a meteor on earth or more possibly because of a series of volcanic eruptions all over the world. Volcanic eruptions are the more the credible source for this weather event because the darkening of the sky was most likely caused by the ashes from these volcanoes that drifted really far making this kind of event a “volcanic winter”. Just recently, evidence for this event have been proven; first in 1816, this kind of event happened again as this year was known to be “a year without summer” and it was discovered that the cause of it was the ashes created by the eruption of Mt. Tambora in the island of Sumbawa in Indonesia, then in 1984 it was discovered that the Rabaul Volcano in the island of New Britain near Papua New Guinea erupted sometime in the 530’s, then in 1999 it was suggested that the volcano of Krakatoa in Indonesia erupted sometime between 535 and 536, in 2010 it was discovered that a massive volcanic eruption happened at the Ilopango caldera in El Salvador at around the same time which made it suggested in 2015 that a volcanic eruption in Central America was a major cause for the dust-veil, and lastly in 2018 it was suggested that the most possible cause of this event was a volcanic eruption in Iceland that also took place in 536. Although in 2009 it was suggested that multiple meteor impacts in Greenland created the haze in the sky as the air grew cold possibly because of the cold debris from space. It is seems very unusual that volcanic eruption taking place in lands far away that no Roman has ever known of before caused the sky of the Eastern Roman Empire and lands around it to darken, but this is possible because the ash that erupted out of these volcanoes were very thick and because of the speed and strength of the wind, the ashes could be carried as far as possible, also probably because there was a chain reaction of volcanoes in that year, the sun was able to be covered by a blanket of ash for an entire year. The Byzantines were superstitious about this event also because they had no idea where these far away volcanoes were and their eruptions were not recorded or discovered up to the modern day. This event where the temperature dropped because of the ash covering the sky became known as a Little Ice Age in the early Middle Ages and since this event caused many crop failures in Europe, this could have been one of the causes for the Norsemen to start migrating out of Scandinavia, for the Mongols to start migrating west, for the civilization of Teotihuacan in Mexico to collapse, and also for the Gupta Empire in India to collapse. For Byzantium, modern historians suggested that these extreme weather events from 535-537 caused the great plague of 541-542 and for the Arabs to begin their conquests in the 7th century beginning their attacks on Byzantium as crops grew short in their region. Nevertheless, the Byzantines still moved on with their lives despite having the whole year of 536 with the sun dimmed as the general Belisarius began the Roman reconquest of Italy that year, and it was here where Procopius wrote about these events, also the Hagia Sophia cathedral at Constantinople was being completed at this time. This had turned out to be the most severe and short-term episodes of cooling in the Northern Hemisphere in the last 2000 years and since the Byzantines among others didn’t understand it was because of volcanic eruptions from far away that they had no idea of it, they thought that these events were supernatural and could have been the end of the world itself.

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Procopius’ description of the “dust-veil”

 

541-542- The Plague of Justinian

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Following the extreme weather conditions or “dust-veil” of 535-537, a massive plague struck the Byzantine Empire beginning 541 in Egypt and in 542 it hit Constantinople itself very badly. The plague was said to have started in Egypt coming from merchant ships but the bacteria of this plague known as Yersinia Pestis transmitted by fleas carried by small animals such as rats came from the Tian Shan mountain range at the border of China, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan and travelled by both land and sea. The same historian Procopius of Caesarea who described the “dust-veil” also describes the plague and its symptoms in death; the symptoms for this plague included it being started with a light fever that did not do so much harm but if it continued to develop it would cause people to start falling into a deep coma or develop an acute dementia causing them to run in fear, and because of developing a mental illness these people start throwing themselves into water. Doctors of that time on the other hand were not familiar with the symptoms of the plague but many doctors weren’t affected as well because the disease was not transmitted from person to person, rather from fleas carried by animals such as rats to persons; meanwhile the most odd thing about this plague happened to pregnant women as 3 were still able to give birth despite having the plague but their babies died but one woman died while giving birth but the baby survived. As the plague hit Constantinople in 542, the mortality rate went from 5,000 to 10,000 a day, mass graves were created across the Golden Horn at the district of Pera but when the winds blew south the stench reached the city, groups had also searched homes to find any corpse they would see and would sometimes even find parents died while their children still alive and babies were even seen suckling the breasts of their dead mothers which apparently shows that the plague kills people that quick, and also people put on name-tags so they could be identified if they died away from home. Since the death rate grew so high and the mass graves could no longer fit them, bodies were stored inside forts all the way until the corpses reached the ceiling, but 4 months after the plague arrived in Constantinople, it subsided although killing up to 25-50 million people all over the Byzantine Empire and those who survived it still remained strong and could speak well except being unable to articulate some indistinct words. Among the people who were contracted by the plague but survived was the emperor Justinian I himself as he was probably inspecting the dead outside and the fleas probably transmitted the disease to him, the plague then almost killed Justinian but surprisingly he survived it after waking up from a long coma. Justinian’s wife, the empress Theodora however managed to not be affected by the plague and while the emperor fell into a coma, she ran the empire but in the east, the generals already believed the emperor to be dead so they made their move to take the throne but it failed as Justinian recovered but his full recovery still took some time. Other than Theodora, the historian Procopius, the generals Belisarius and Narses, and the finance minister John of Cappadocia did not contract the plague but one of the most notable people to die from it happened to be the jurist Tribonian who famously made the Codex of Justinian back in 529; another survivor who contracted the plague other than the emperor was the church lawyer and historian Euagrios who was still a child at elementary school at that time. Meanwhile, another contemporary historian of Procopius, John of Ephesus writes a more emotional story of the plague which is different from Procopius’ precise details as John of Ephesus describes the horrors caused by it such as scenes of corpses slit open in the streets leaking puss everywhere, ships drifting at sea with dead crews, houses with inhabitants rotting in their beds, villages where only one child survived, herds that ran off to the wild with no one to look after them as these people were killed by the plague too, and highways that were deserted. John of Ephesus also writes that a rumor went around Constantinople that monks were causing the plague, so people would flee from them on sight. This plague though lasting for less than a year killed people so quick that 13-26% of the world’s population was killed and not only was the Byzantine Empire affected, the Sassanid Persian Empire was heavily affected as well and since both empire were hit by the plague, the war between the two that was supposed to happen did not push through. This plague had also spread so quick across the Mediterranean affecting almost every place under Byzantine control including North Africa and Italy which have been recently reconquered but since the plague hit them, Byzantine control all of a sudden went out of control and for the next years after the plague, Justinian had to put everything back together again in a way repeating his hard-worked reconquest of Italy. Soon enough the empire was stable again as the plague subsided but this though happened to be the first continental scale plague to strike as plagues before that were smaller, the next large scale plague as big as this to happen would be the Black Death some 800 years later in the 14th century when Byzantium was already weakened. Because of the “dust-veil” that happened a few years before the plague, the wind carrying volcanic ashes may have affected the fleas causing them to fly out of control due to the absence of the sun which makes the fleas live and breathe more due to colder air. Overall Justinian I’s reign may have accomplished so much for the Byzantines, but it was met with the worst disasters.

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Map of the spread of the Plague of Justinian, 541-542
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The Plague hits Constantinople, 542 (from Total War: Attila)
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Map of the Byzantine Empire next to the Sassanid Empire and the Rashidun Arab Caliphate, early 7th century

 

547-548- Flooding of the Nile

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Only 6 years after the great plague hit Constantinople and a decade after the “dust-veil”, the Byzantine Empire faced another great natural disaster, this time it was the flooding of the Nile from 547 to 548. Egypt was probably the richest and most important province for the Byzantines as it produced the most grain despite being a dry dessert land but with the many tributaries of the Nile River, it was fertile. In 547, the Nile flooded more than it usually did in some places along it and as it flooded, the waters refused to recede up to 548 destroying many crops and causing a famine. The people of Egypt thought that the famine caused by the waters no receding was a bad omen but the historian Procopius comes back again and says that when people do not understand the present they like to find portents regarding the future and when they worry themselves to death about things that confuse them, they make groundless predictions about what will happen. Procopius would rather think about the present rather than what is to come and for him the flooding of the Nile and swamping of land had only become a great misfortune in present time but afterwards nothing bad happened anymore there.

 

551- Earthquake and Tsunami of Beirut

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In 551, with Justinian I still reigning as emperor, though his empress Theodora had already been dead since 548, another great disaster struck within the empire, this time it was the massive earthquake and tsunami at Beirut in Byzantine Phoenicia (today Lebanon). The earthquake took place on July 9, 551 off the coast of Beirut which in Byzantine times was called Berytus with a magnitude of 7.5 but the bigger devastation did not come from the earthquake, rather from the tsunami. This earthquake could be felt all the way from Alexandria in the south to Antioch in the north but the coastal cities of Lebanon such as Tyre and Tripoli suffered the most but in Beirut alone, it was reported that about 30,000 people died from the earthquake and tsunami. Beirut was also where one of the 3 major law academies up by Justinian were found but because of the earthquake and tsunami, the academy had to be moved to Sidon. Meanwhile, at the time the Beirut earthquake happened, the historian and lawyer Agathias was still studying at Alexandria and there he heard of the disaster and when returning to Constantinople also in 551, he passed by the island of Kos in the Aegean Sea and apparently the devastation of the earthquake and tsunami reached there. In Kos, Agathias writes in his Histories that he found the city at Kos in a pile of rubble, broken pillars and beams were sticking out everywhere, haggard people were scavenging the ruins, and the tsunami from the sea also contaminated the city’s water supply.

 

552- Tsunami of Boeotia

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Only a year after the 551 earthquake and tsunami of Beirut, the reign of Justinian I saw a strong tsunami that flooded parts of the region of Boeotia in Central Greece. According to the same historian Procopius, as the waters from flood caused by the tsunami receded, certain unfamiliar sea creatures were left behind in the muck and the locals with their first instinct decided to grill them but when the fire touched these creatures which were probably sea cucumbers, they dissolved into a gross smelly liquid.

 

557- Earthquake of Constantinople

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Constantinople was at a major earthquake zone and this was one of the city’s flaws; Constantine the Great chose Constantinople then Byzantium to be his capital in 324 seeing that it was in a perfect location that would be hard for enemies to invade but he did not see its major flaw that it was built in an area that was an active earthquake zone. After the plague of 542, the next major disaster Constantinople saw also within Justinian I’s reign was the major earthquake of 557, though earlier in 533 there was another major earthquake but it did not have any real casualties then in 540, 545, 547, 551, and 555, Justinian’s reign saw minor earthquakes in these years. In 557, there were 2 earthquakes that struck the city, one in April and the other in October but both had no real damage, however it was the earthquake that hit the city on the night of December 14, 557 that hit the capital very bad almost destroying it. Historians including John Malalas, Theophanes the Confessor, and Agathias again record this event and according to the Chronicle of Agathias, many people were asleep when the earthquake struck but when they felt it they ran out their houses refusing to return as their roofs would fall on them, although the only ones who didn’t run outside were those seeking refuge inside the churches, but since the city was so built up there were only a few open spaces where people could be safe but even though they were there, there was cold rain falling from the sky as winter had started. This earthquake had a magnitude of 6.4 and brought damage to many buildings that debris started falling on people as there wasn’t so much empty space around the city anymore, but at the end there were not that much casualties from the earthquake, and the only senator to die from it was the corrupt Anatolios as his bedroom walls were lined with sculpted marble panels and because of the earthquake it fell on him killing him in his sleep. Many people then believed the earthquake was sent to punish the unpopular Anatolios for his corrupt life but Agathias thinking more scientifically said that the earthquake did not distinguish between good and bad people but as the earthquake ceased by dawn of December 15, people were overjoyed. It was not mentioned though what the now 75-year-old Justinian himself- now that his wife Theodora had been long dead- was doing when the earthquake struck except in response to it afterwards, he went into a period of mourning for the city refusing to wear his crown for 40 days in respect for the people and also he made sure they helped each other. Agathias also mentions there was a short-lived positive effect on the people’s attitude from the earthquake that was very rare in Constantinople in which all the people were caring for each other, the wealthy turned to charity, doubtful people began to pray again, and even the most vicious people turned to virtue all probably as an act of repentance because of the fear of God’s wrath but soon enough, Agathias mentions they returned to their old ways. The major damages caused by this earthquake was the weakening of the dome of the Hagia Sophia which soon fully collapsed in May 558, the capital’s Walls of Theodosius II too were severely damaged that in 559, the Huns raiding into the city were able to pass through the cracks. This was probably the last major disaster in Justinian I’s reign but despite facing so many disasters in his long reign, the Byzantine Empire managed to survive and grow again and Justinian himself never gave up and continued to strongly lead his people in times of disasters as after the earthquake, despite at an old age, Justinian made sure the city and the Hagia Sophia’s dome was rebuilt into the way it once was. Even up to his old age, Justinian never gave up on his imperial ambitions to make Byzantium the world power it should be and despite facing so many natural disasters throughout his reign, Justinian was persistent to make sure everything will go back to normal, he then died in 565 8 years after this major earthquake.

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Artwork of the Earthquake of Constantinople on December 14, 557

 

726- Eruption of Thera

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Fast-forward to 726, the golden age of Byzantium saw under the reign of Justinian I in 6th century which also saw many natural disaster was long over, now the second age of the Byzantine Empire had begun, 22 years of anarchy with a change of emperor 7 times made it grow very exhausted; now Byzantium was no longer controlling the rich provinces of Egypt and Syria as those had fallen to the massive invading Arab armies in the 6th century, and even Constantinople itself became a dangerous position having survived to Arab sieges that almost succeeded. In 726, Byzantium was under the emperor Leo III the Isaurian (r. 717-741), the former Strategos or general of the Anatolic Theme who had brought order back after 22 years of anarchy successfully defeated a major Arab siege of Constantinople in 718 but on July 15, 726, disaster struck as deep beneath the Aegean Sea, a large volcanic eruption coming from the caldera of the island of Thera (now Santorini, Greece) forced boiling lava and stones as big as hills to burst out from under the sea being so strong enough to create the new volcanic island of Nea Kameni between Thera and Therasia. Back in around 1500BC, this same volcano of Thera erupted which caused the destruction of the Minoan civilization in Crete but this way long before Byzantine times, as in the era of the Byzantine Empire, this was the only time the underwater volcano of Thera erupted and in this article this will the first of the second age disasters that took place. The effects of the volcanic eruption lasted for about 45 days with the ashes covering the sky just like the “dust-veil” of 536 except not lasting that long, but when the superstitious emperor Leo III saw the ashes darkening the sky, he thought of it as a warning from God against the use of icons. Leo III was originally a Syrian and being from there, he was exposed to the ideas of the Arabs and their belief in not using any forms of images for worship and as emperor, he wanted to impose this belief on the Byzantines. Seeing that the people’s closeness to icons and veneration of them did not do anything to protect Byzantium against the constant invasions of the Arabs and the ash cloud from the volcano of Thera, Leo III saw it as the right time to ban the veneration of icons and beginning 730, the first Iconoclast movement of the Byzantine Empire began resulting in the destruction of icons all over the empire. After the banning of icons, the Byzantines started winning wars against the Arabs taking back most of the lands they lost, Leo III chose to continue his policy in outlawing the veneration of icons.

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Map of the islands of the Thera Caldera in the Aegean Sea

 

763-764- Extreme Winter Weather Conditions

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Also, within the 8th century, another natural disaster struck the Byzantine Empire, and in fact Constantinople itself, this was the extreme weather conditions of the winter of 763 to 764. During this extremely cold winter, temperatures in the Black Sea area dropped so low that icebergs floated all the way down to the Bosporus and struck the seawalls of Constantinople shaking houses that were built along them. The ice grew so bad that it even grew higher than the walls itself; this is recorded in the Chronicle of the Iconodule St. Theophanes the Confessor who actually witnessed this event himself remembering that at that time when he was a child, he and 30 playmates went out to climb and play on the ice. When this natural disaster struck, the reigning emperor was Constantine V (r. 741-775), the son of Leo III who was an event stronger supporter of Iconoclasm that he event went as far as killing and torturing monks who supported the veneration of icons, although nothing is said about how Constantine V dealt with the ice that struck and froze the Bosporus.

 

927-928- Extreme Winter Weather Conditions

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The next time Constantinople experienced brutal winter weather conditions was at the winter of 927-928, which was mentioned in the Chronicle of Theophanes Continuatus that the winter was so bitter that the ground froze for 120 days killing the crops causing what was known as “the worst famine in Byzantine history”. The famine caused by the winter caused so many deaths that there was more dead than the living could bury and snow fell so heavily in Constantinople itself. Fortunately, the Byzantine Empire at this time had an energetic, creative, and thoughtful but also an unsophisticated and power-hungry emperor who began from nothing which was Romanos I Lekapenos (r. 920-944) from the Macedonian Dynasty and to deal with the harsh winter, he had the porticos of the capital boarded up so that the snow and cold air could not easily reach the homeless and poor living beneath them as the city’s streets were partly protected by porticos made out of the protruding upper floors of houses. The emperor also made charity programs for those affected by the winter by inviting the poor to eat in the palace coming in small groups.

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Extreme winter in Constantinople (Ottoman era)

 

Late 10th century- Floods Outside Constantinople

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According to this History of Leo the Deacon, sometime in the late 10th century, though not giving an exact date but probably during the early reign of Basil II (r. 976-1025) from the Macedonian Dynasty, huge waves caused by gales toppled a seaside column in the Eutropios District south of Chalcedon across the Bosporus from Constantinople. Above the column toppled by the waves lived a stylite saint whose name isn’t mentioned but when the column was knocked down, Leo the Deacon mentions that the saint fell into the waves and died from drowning.

 

1063- Earthquake of Constantinople

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In 1063, during the ineffective reign of the emperor Constantine X Doukas (r. 1059-1067), a powerful earthquake struck Constantinople on September 23 which is recorded by the politician, monk, and philosopher Michael Psellos. Here, Michael Psellos writes about himself showing an example of how he was strong enough to lecture priests and monks that earthquakes have nothing to do with divine wrath. Michael Psellos was a well-educated scholar who believed in science and that divine nature was entirely outside the universe, meaning that what caused the earthquake was the natural movement of the earth’s crust. Psellos though believed that disasters such as earthquakes was a way for God to remind people, they must repent but he warned the monks and priests that the churches seem to draw a greater measure on divine wrath and had offered no protection during the earthquake itself. If Constantinople though was still under Byzantine control in the 16th century, it would face a major devastating earthquake in 1509, which destroyed a lot of Constantinople which was at that time the Ottoman Empire’s capital. On the other hand, other Byzantine authors, especially from the first age of Byzantine history call earthquakes “mysteries of God’s love for mankind” as some earthquakes revealed pregnant women having given birth to healthy babies when removed from the rubble after being trapped beneath it for 20-30 days.

 

1203- Fire of Constantinople

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This now will be the first disaster to be an act of man on this list and also the first one from Byzantium’s third age to be mentioned, which was a massive fire that travelled swiftly through Constantinople when the army of the 4th Crusade launched their attack on the city in 1203. Before 1203, the 4th Crusade was launched in Venice with the young Byzantine price Alexios Angelos asking for the help of Venice and the crusader army to force his uncle, the weak emperor Alexios III Angelos (r. 1195-1203) out of power and to put him in power. When the ships of Venice and the Latin army of the 4th Crusade arrived at Constantinople to attack it, they set fire to the city. In Constantinople, the main paved street was called the Mese which was 25m wide having colonnades, porches, and shops on either side and above it was porticos created by the protruding upper floors of the houses. When the Crusaders burned the city as they attacked it, the Byzantine historian Niketas Choniates records that the flames from the Crusaders’ attack travelled swiftly along the rafters of the porticos resembling “rivers of fire” and since most of Constantinople’s porticos were connected, it was a chain reaction of fire that spread all over city. While the attack was happening, the emperor Alexios III cowardly fled the city and the young Alexios IV was put in the throne together with his blinded and deposed father, the ex-emperor Isaac II Angelos (r. 1185-1195) who was Alexios III’s younger brother. However, Alexios IV was not able to keep his promise to pay the debts he owes to the Crusaders as the empire did not have that much funds, so he melted down icons to create coins, but the people of the city turned against him starting a revolution that deposed and executed him and his father in January of 1204, and since the Byzantines did not yet fully pay of their debt, the Crusaders sacked the city and captured it in April of 1204.

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Top view of the Mese street in Byzantine era Constantinople

 

1347- Black Death Plague

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The next large-scale plague epidemic after the Plague of Justinian from 541-542 was the Black Death from 1347-1351 devasting not only Europe but Central Asia and North Africa as well and at the end killing about 200 million people in every place combined. The scale of disaster of the Black Death was just as large as the Plague of Justinian some 800 years before it but the death toll of the 14th century Black Death was much higher killing millions as it reached farther compared to Justinian’s plague as the Black Death itself spread all across Europe, also it was more devastating than 542 Plague because the Black Death lasted for about 4 years. If the Plague of Justinian which swept across the Mediterranean affecting both the Byzantine and Sassanid Persian Empires originated from fleas in Central Asia, the Black Death had also started somewhere in the same area, although not in the Tian Shan Mountains of Central Asia but in the Eurasian Steppes in today’s Russia and travelled so quick through ships affecting all the ports they pass from the Crimea, to Constantinople, to Greece, to Egypt, to Italy, to France and reaching as far as Spain, Germany, England, Scandinavia, and the Baltics. The cause of the Black Death was the same as Justinian’s Plague, it started from fleas in Central Asia except that in the 14th century, climate changed in Asia making the land more dry causing the fleas to escape through mammals such as rats which ended up travelling the Silk Route and boarding the merchant ships docked at the Crimea which was split between the control of Genoa and the offshoot Byzantine Empire of Trebizond. In 1347, the plague travelled by boat from the Crimea and from there made a landfall into the ports of Europe, first at Constantinople when at that time, the Byzantine Empire thought at least being returned to Constantinople after taking it back from the Latins in 1261, had already been so impoverished, weakened, and reduced in size after a deadly civil war fought from 1341-1347 between the imperial family faction supporting the young emperor John V Palaiologos, the son of the late emperor Andronikos III (r. 1328-1341) and John Kantakouzenos who was a friend and high ranking minister of the late emperor. However, in 1347 John VI Kantakouzenos won the civil war and was crowned senior emperor but his reign began bad as Black Death hit Constantinople and many ports of the Byzantine Empire, although at least it did not affect the rest of the inland parts of the empire as it was the merchants and their goods containing the fleas only got off at the ports. On the other hand, there is not really any much details described on how the Black Death hit the Byzantine Empire except that it heavily affected the major ports of the empire, especially the port of Constantinople and killed many but it is not said how many were killed by the Black Death in Constantinople or the Byzantine Empire itself, except that it was one of the disasters the emperor John VI faced during his reign. The impact of the Black Death epidemic happened to be stronger in Western Europe after the ships arrived in Sicily on October of 1347 rapidly spreading across Southern Italy and on January of 1348, the plague hit Genoa as the ships dock there and from the fleas quickly spread infesting on people bringing the death rate up to the thousands. From Genoa it rapidly spread to France, Germany, and England and only in 1351 did the plague subside. The death rate in Western Europe from the plague was extremely high as 75-80% of the population of France and Spain combined was killed while in Germany and England it was only about 20% but in Egypt which was under the Mamluk Sultanate, 40% of the population too was killed. The symptoms of this plague were the same as the ones during the Plague of Justinian, except that doctors were already familiar with it but the plague’s impact was too strong and as it spread too fast, the death toll was too large that it left Europe depopulated for the next decades. Meanwhile in Byzantium, the Black Death did not seem to affect it much as in the next years things went as usual but disaster struck again in March of 1354 when a powerful earthquake hit the Peninsula of Gallipoli in Thrace which is at the entrance to Europe right across the Dardanelles Strait from Asia Minor and because of this earthquake, almost all villages and towns in this part were destroyed forcing the Byzantine Greeks living there to flee inland giving the perfect opportunity for the Ottomans from Asia Minor to seize the area making their first conquest into Europe. Meanwhile, the emperor John VI tried to pay off the Ottoman sultan Orhan to back away but Orhan refused saying that he deserves it as he helped John VI take the throne back in 1347. By December of 1354, John VI was deposed from power as the young emperor and heir to the Palaiologos Dynasty John V returned to power with the help of Genoese pirates, John VI then retired and became a monk.

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Map of the Black Death’s spread across Europe, 1347-1350

 

Before reaching this article’s conclusion, one more thing I have to mention in Constantinople is the large column at the Forum of Constantine which had a colossal statue of Constantine the Great as the god Apollo above it and the column was regarded as a kind of talisman of the city since it experienced almost every disaster that struck the empire. Out of all the landmarks in Constantinople, the porphyry Column of Constantine survived the whole history of Constantinople even predating the Hagia Sophia as the column was built ever since the city’s inauguration in 330 and till today even if Constantinople has been under the Ottomans for centuries since 1453, the column still survives. This column was burned by the great fires of 464 and the one caused by the Nika Riot in 532, though both fires left the porphyry of the column blackened and in need of reinforcements using ugly iron bands. After the Nika Riot’s damage during Justinian I’s reign, these iron bands were already wrapped around the column and because of an earthquake, though it is not dated, the spear of the statue fell and embedded itself in the forum’s pavement. In 1097 during the reign of Alexios I Komnenos (1081-1118), the column was struck by lightning according to the History of Michael Attaleiates; then in 1106 according to the daughter of Alexios I and historian Anna Komnene, the statue of Constantine the Great was toppled by a powerful gale squashing a number of people in the ground; and afterwards the statue was replaced by a tall cross by the emperor Manuel I Komnenos (r. 1143-1180). The column survived the attack of the 4th Crusade in 1204 where the Crusaders melted the other statues surrounding it, the occupation of the Latins afterwards, the return of the Byzantines from 1261 to 1453, and even under the occupation of the Ottomans up to the 20th century, although when the Ottomans took Constantinople in 1453, the cross was removed from the column. Today, this column still survives even if the forum around it is gone, though the column remains shorter today but still 35m high and still having the metal bands around them. Today the column is best known as the “Burned Column” as it still looks burned but on the other hand still intact, though in Turkish this column is called Çemberlitas meaning “stone with hoops” and today this column is very visible and an easy location to reach as it is in the entrance to Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar.

At the time of the Byzantine Empire, the column was at the center of one of the capital’s major squares, the Forum of Constantine founded by Constantine the Great himself as one of the landmarks he inaugurated when he founded the city in 330. When it was built, the column was 50m tall made up of 7-11 large porphyry blocks and below it was stored important relics both of Christian and Pagan origins such as items used in Christ’s life and important relics from Ancient Greece and Rome, and most importantly above the column, the Nails of the Crucifixion and a piece of wood from the True Cross were held within the orb of Constantine’s statue until it fell in the 12th century. In the 10th century, an apocalyptic vision offers a sad image of the End Times where Constantinople would be flooded except for the tip of Constantine’s Column as it bore the Nails of the Crucifixion, although even with the nails gone this kind of flooding did not take place, or it hadn’t happened yet. Today, the column is one of the few remaining intact Byzantine landmarks in Constantinople (Istanbul) and one of the most important examples of Roman art and architecture in the city, also it is one of the oldest landmarks in the city being older than the Hagia Sophia itself and still stands to this day. The Byzantines too have calculated that the world was created in what we call today 5508BC and believed that the world would end 7000 years after its creation which would be the year 1492. However, the Byzantine Empire fell in 1453 but if it still lived on for 39 more years, their prediction would have been right. The end of the world prediction for the Byzantines may have been the year they believed their empire would end, but their end came earlier than they expected, but if 1492 was marked as the year the world would end, it could have also meant the year when an old era would die and a new one would be born. True enough, 1492 was when the Middle Ages had died out and the Renaissance grew and was also the same year when the Genoese Christopher Columbus sailed across the Atlantic and discovered the New World, making the discovery of a new continent a big moment of change for the world’s history.

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Forum of Constantine, Byzantine Constantinople

 

Alright, so this is about it for this article. Now since the Byzantine Empire’s history spanned such a long time having 3 eras, it was bound to face so many natural disasters, most especially earthquakes. The location of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire itself was in an area of great seismic activity, and for all the greatness of its imperial cities like Constantinople, Antioch, and Alexandria, being in an active earthquake zone was their major flaw. Meanwhile, other than earthquakes floods and fires were common disasters in the Middle Ages and even to this day these are still common. However the big difference between disasters back then in the time of the Byzantines and in this day is the way we see it, back then many saw earthquakes, floods, eruptions, and disease as an omen or even a sign that the world is ending, but now with more scientific evidence behind them, there is not much to be scared of about them anymore. Out of all the 90+ Byzantine emperors, the emperor whose reign was marked by the most natural disasters was Justinian I (r. 527-565), though being Byzantium’s greatest ruler, he knew how to handle these disasters and survived all of it including the mysterious “dust-veil” of 536, the Plague of 542 which even affected him, and the major earthquake of Constantinople in 557. Justinian I did not give up even if being hit by the plague, and yet he survived and lived all the way till old age and was never overthrown; now if this were a weaker emperor like Alexios III (r. 1195-1203), he would have given up and as the Crusaders attacked Constantinople and burned it in 1203, he did nothing to help and instead fled. Also, why many disasters happened during Justinian’s reign was because there was a lot recorded about it by historians like Procopius and Agathias who described them in detail. The next centuries of Byzantine history too faced many natural disasters but historians did not describe them as much as the historians of Justinian’s time did. It so happened that one of the rarest weather events in the past 2000 years which was the 536 “dust-veil” happened during the time of the Byzantine Empire where volcanic ash from far away which was only proven later blocked the sun’s light creating a darkness in the light and the Byzantine empire too faced the greatest plague epidemics in history, which was the Plague of Justinian from 541-542 and the Black Death in 1347 but Byzantium survived them both, although these plagues brought many consequences to the empire; the Plague of Justinian weakened Byzantine control in their newly conquered provinces and the Black Death weakened the Empire by killing off many allowing the Ottomans to start making their move into Europe beginning the conquest of the Byzantine Empire itself. Although, if the Byzantine Empire lived up to the 16th century, Byzantine Constantinople would face yet another great disaster, which was the 1509 earthquake, though at that time Constantinople was still an imperial city but under new management, by the Ottomans. Even if the Byzantine Empire is long gone now, there are at least some structures of it that remain intact which is not only the Hagia Sophia but the Burnt Column of Constantine in Constantinople which has been there ever since the capital was founded by Constantine the Great in 330. Now one thing I learned in writing this article, is that the personalities of the emperors, which I discussed last time also do have an impact on the aftermath of these disasters, such as that skilled rulers like Justinian I would know how to handle these disasters while superstitious ones like Leo III (r. 717-741) would think of it as an omen and a time of repentance. The Byzantine Empire lived for more than a thousand years and has changed so much going from the imperial Roman to a medieval Orthodox Greek state, but no matter how much language, fashion, art, and culture has changed in the empire, the one thing that did not change were natural disasters and its effect. Even today, natural disasters and their effects are no different from back then and yet many of these events remain still unforeseen, and the only difference between that time and ours is the way we see them, especially with science to prove it, there is less to worry about unlike back then when nothing could prove where the ashes came from in 536, which then creates total fear and anxiety among people. Now this concludes my article on natural disasters in Byzantine history and together with my previous articles on the Byzantine emperors and their personalities, this will be one of the articles that will lead up to the ultimate year ender article of this year which are turning points in Byzantine history, and after this I will take a break for a bit on writing articles as for the past 2 months, I have just written a bit too much. Now, this is it… thanks for viewing everyone!

The Byzantine Imperial Personality through the lives of the Emperors Part3

Posted by Powee Celdran

Present your shield, swords, arrows, and spears to them, imagining that you are a hunting party after wild boars, so that the impious may learn that they are dealing not with dumb animals but with their lords and masters, the descendants of the Greeks and the Romans.” -Final Speech of Constantine XI Palaiologos, 1453

Part3- Personalities of the Byzantine emperors from Andronikos I Komnenos to Constantine XI Palaiologos (12th to 15th centuries) 

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Previous: Part1- Personalities of the Byzantine emperors from Constantine the Great to Theophilos

Previous: Part2- Personalities of the Byzantine emperors from Basil I the Macedonian to Manuel I Komnenos

Welcome back to another article from the Byzantium Blogger! Now I have arrived in the third a final part of this 3-part series on the lives and personalities of the Byzantine emperors from the founding of the empire in 330 to its end in 1453. Since there are so many emperors, each having interesting stories and personalities, I have decided to make a total of 3 articles, otherwise it would take days to read all 90+ emperors. It was also very fitting to make 3 articles on the emperors in chronological orders since the 1,100 year history of the Byzantine Empire is divided into 3 periods, the first being its time of greatness as it succeeded the Roman Empire but slowly transitioned into a medieval Greek state, then the second age where Byzantium was weakened but once again grew to be a world power but collapsed and was revived again, then finally the third and last age of Byzantium shows a time when Byzantium would no longer be as powerful as it once was anymore. After all, even all the way to its last days in the 15th century, the Byzantine Empire was still the Roman Empire continued, except that it hadn’t had Rome in centuries, and could hardly be seen as the Roman Empire anymore as the Byzantine state had evolved to become so Greek. This quote I mentioned above from the final speech of the last emperor Constantine XI at the final siege shows how the Byzantines all the way in the 15th century had not forgotten their Greek and Roman past. In the first article, I have discussed Byzantium in its first age when it began as Constantinople was founded by the first Byzantine emperor Constantine I the Great in 330 and from then on it faced nothing but success for a long period of time. The first age of Byzantium also saw it as the short-lived global power of the 6th century under the reign of Emperor Justinian I (r. 527-565), but after his death the overly large borders from Spain to Armenia and Ukraine to Egypt became too hard to manage and vulnerable to rise of new enemy threats, most especially the Arabs. Now in Byzantium’s second age which began in late 7th century, the empire had evolved so much as the Latin and language and Roman customs were replaced with Greek and was no longer the power it was as it had to constantly fight to protect itself but as time passed, it managed to turn away the Arab threat and begin expanding again, thus starting a new age of greatness under the Macedonian Dynasty (867-1057). The era of the Macedonian Dynasty had a complete set of emperors from cultured intellectuals to tough warriors who’s reigns made Byzantium grow both in military and cultural power and during the reign of Basil II the Bulgar-Slayer (976-1025), the Byzantine Empire was once again in its fullest territorial extent having complete control of the Balkans after the defeat of the Bulgarian Empire which had troubled the Byzantines for a few centuries, but Basil II’s empire was still not as large as the empire of Justinian I. Thanks to all the efforts of the previous emperors of the Macedonian Dynasty, Byzantium grew to be the dominant medieval power both militarily and culturally, that after defeating the Bulgarian Empire, other kingdoms chose not to fight Byzantium anymore in fear that they will be crushed too, meanwhile the glory of Byzantium became well known around the known world all the way as far as to Scandinavia. However, after the death of Basil II, the empire once again plunged into a time of collapse with the rule of weak and useless emperors only either caring about keeping themselves in power or scholarly interests when it was a bad time for that especially since a new deadly threat arose, the nomadic Seljuk Turks coming in from the east already taking most of Asia Minor. The 11th century was the most eventful one in Byzantine history first starting with an age of imperial prestige after Basil II annexed the empire to a great extent thus its culture spread all over Europe, then it went through a period of internal instability under his successors, the final separation between the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches in 1054, the severe defeat of the Byzantines at Manzikert in 1071 which ended the power of the once feared Byzantine army, then the rise of the Normans and loss of Byzantine control of Italy, and finally another age of restored greatness under the emperor Alexios I Komnenos beginning 1081, and by the end of the 11th century the beginning of the Crusades and the rise of the Crusader States in the Middle East. From 1081 to 1180, the Byzantine Empire was ruled by 3 consecutive great emperors all from the Komnenos family, Alexios I (r. 1081-1118), John II (r. 1118-1143), and Manuel I (r. 1143-1180) and their reigns together put an end to the Seljuk, Pecheneg, and Norman threat, reestablished diplomacy with the west, and saved Byzantium from near collapse making it again the dominant power in the Eastern Mediterranean. However, after Manuel I’s death in 1180, due to his ambitious rule and constant spending on campaigns, the empire was again bankrupt but still large in size, though all it would take are a few not only idiotic but idiotic and evil emperors combined to bring Byzantium into a nightmare. The third age of Byzantium officially begins when Constantinople fell to the 4th Crusade in 1204 but the events in the prior to that since the death of Manuel I would begin a chain reaction leading to the third age and decline of Byzantium. Following Manuel I’s death, all it took to ruin the state was the despotic rule of the sadistic emperor Andronikos I (1183-1185), followed by the corrupt and mismanaged rule of Isaac II Angelos (1185-1195) who was overthrown by his brother Alexios III (1195-1203) only making things worse, then followed by the takeover by Isaac II’s son Alexios IV who did even worse coming to power with the help of the 4th Crusade and by promising them so much, he could not pay them off that he too was overthrown and without the payment they needed, then the Crusaders turned to sacking the city which the army and emperor’s court abandoned when hope was lost. Now all it took was a bunch of emperors lacking in courage and political skill for the capital to fall in 1204, then the empire broke up into many states, though the worst would be over as the legitimate one exiled at Nicaea would grow to be the most powerful of the successor states and in 1261 would be able to recapture Constantinople and reestablish the Byzantine Empire. For about 2 centuries, the Byzantine Empire would live on ruled by the Palaiologos Dynasty, its last dynasty but it would not see much greatness and success anymore the way it used to, instead only a greatness in art and culture. The last few centuries of Byzantium would have only a few great and ambitious emperors like John III Vatatzes (r. 1222-1254), Michael VIII Palaiologos (r. 1261-1382), and Andronikos III Palaiologos (r. 1328-1341), as well more interesting figures including the last emperor Constantine XI Palaiologos (r. 1449-1453), and fascinating stories of emperors going around Europe themselves to ask for alliances but mostly failing in them, but also crazier stories of sons overthrowing their fathers for selfish reasons. Now in Byzantium’s third age, the story of Byzantium’s medieval empire continues and gets even crazier, but still it lasted all the way up to the Renaissance in the 15th century. The third age of Byzantine history still continues many things that were present in the 2nd age such as the fashion, Greek language, Themes, and Varangian Guards but also at the third age, the Normans, Crusaders, and Turks would still be there in and off being enemies and allies of the Byzantines. Much worse at the third age, the Byzantine Empire itself even back in Constantinople would continue to even decrease in its economy and power by fighting chronic civil wars allowing their neighbours Serbia and a new Bulgarian Empire to expand, but other than this, the new inevitable power would be the Ottomans starting small in Asia Minor but growing large very quickly. The last few centuries for Byzantium would see things even get crazier but for the worse as a new threat, the Ottomans would rise and would be inevitable for the Byzantines. At the end however with Constantinople completely surrounded by the Ottomans and Byzantium still ended tragically in 1453 but at least not shamefully as the last emperor Constantine XI chose the suicide mission of fighting to the death no matter how great the odds were.This article will be another very long one as there is just so much information about the Byzantine emperors, but to make it fun I would include a lot of memes and many pop culture references on the emperors and their personalities. The third age of Byzantine history would then turn out to be the most devastating one defeats as it did not see a golden age anymore like during Justinian I’s reign in the first age and Basil II’s reign in the second, instead the third age would see Constantinople fall twice, first to the Crusaders in 1204 temporarily and finally to the Ottomans in 1453. In this third psychological related article on the emperors, things will get even crazier and the empire even more unstable due to the weak rule of many emperors. Though here I will also more focus on the emperors and decisions based on personality rather than the happenings of their time and it too will be a rather personal one as its information is subjective and based on my thoughts about these emperors. This will be more again of a narrative article and won’t explain too much on family relations as that was already done in the Complete Genealogy of the Emperors article while basic facts on the emperors were in one on The 94 Emperors. Now let’s begin with the last of the 3 part series with the last emperors of Byzantium in its third age from Andronikos I Komnenos to the last emperor, Constantine XI and the fall of Constantinople!

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Byzantine Imperial flag and symbols
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Byzantine emperors personalities alignment- left to right, top to bottom: Alexios I, Theodosius II, Constantine XI, Constantine I, Constantine VII, John II, Justinian I, Nikephoros II, Basil II

Recap The 11 Personalities of the Byzantine Emperors: The Visionary, The Practical and Strategic Ruler, The Soldier, The Morally Good Ruler, The Scholar, The Fun-Loving Ruler, The Religious Ruler, The Troubled Ruler, The Usurper, The Evil or Scheming Ruler, The Useless Ruler

Note: This article’s information is mostly opinionated based on my opinions of these emperors. Names of BYZANTINE EMPERORS including previous ones from the last article will be in BOLD letters.

Warning: THIS IS A VERY LONG ARTICLE!!

Other articles from the Byzantium Blogger:

Byzantine Imperial Personalities Part1

Byzantine Imperial Personalities Part2

7 Reasons to be Interested in Byzantium

Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire

The 94 Emperors of Byzantium

Byzantine Science and Technology

Crime, Punishment, and Medical Practice in the Byzantine World

The Art of War in the Byzantine World

The Complete Genealogy of the Byzantine Emperors

Foreign Lands and People According to the Byzantines Part1

Foreign Lands and People According to the Byzantines Part2

15 Byzantine Related States Outside Byzantium Part1

15 Byzantine Related States Outside Byzantium Part2

A Guide to the Byzantine Empire’s Themes

Videos from Eastern Roman History: 

Every Byzantine Emperor, 306-1453

Top 10 Byzantine Emperors Part1

Top 10 Byzantine Emperors Part2

Top 10 Worst Byzantine Emperors Part1

Top 10 Worst Byzantine Emperors Part2

Important Byzantines

Memes from Brilliant Byzantine Memes

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How to evaluate the Byzantine emperors
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Byzantium personified
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Personalities of the 6 emperors Justinian I, Basil II, Constantine XI, Manuel I, Alexios IV, and Nikephoros II simplified

 

Andronikos I Komnenos, Isaac II and the Angelos Dynasty- The Start of the Decline

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In the last article, I have left of with the years of the Komnenos emperors beginning with Alexios I in 1081 saw Byzantium rise up to greatness again, defeating the Seljuk threat and making alliances with other powers. Byzantium though had still been large in borders when Alexios I came to power in 1081, but with the Seljuks rising, it was on the verge of destruction but thanks to the efforts of the 3 Komnenos emperors, the Seljuks were subdued and Byzantium’s borders and stability grew again, even if the Crusaders appeared and formed their own states in the Middle East. This greatness even continued more during the reign of Alexios I’s grandson Manuel I (r. 1143-1180) but his 37 years in power spent with ambitious and sometimes unrealistic campaigns began to dry out the empire’s economy, but Byzantium was still recognized by the Crusader states, the Seljuks, and Hungary as superior to them. When Manuel I died in 1180, the empire was inherited by his 11-year old only son Alexios II (r. 1180-1183) under the regency of his mother, the Norman princess Maria of Antioch. The empire the young emperor inherited was still quite large, though no longer having control of Italy, but still strong control of Asia Minor and the entire Balkans but since he was too young, he couldn’t manage it himself, neither could his mother, so in 1182 Manuel’s cousin Andronikos returning from exile seized the throne and made himself co-emperor. The empress Maria of Antioch was unpopular among the people as she was a westerner and they suspected her of being a spy, so when Andronikos came in to power, his goal was to rid of all the western influences in the empire Manuel brought about. Andronikos, a man of about 6ft 5 in height was a skilled politician and general but also a decadent womanizer and in 1153 after he was discovered to plot against the emperor his cousin, he was imprisoned though he managed to escape in 1165 fleeing to various courts in Europe and the Middle East. In his time in exile, Andronikos faced many dangers including being a captive of the Vlachs and in Antioch seducing a princess, though his bad behavior would get him kicked out again. In 1182, after living a life of an adventurous con-man and rogue, Andronikos returned to Constantinople already in his 60’s but still very tall, fit, and looking like he hadn’t aged and he turned out to be popular among the nationalistic people as he was a true Byzantine and openly anti-western. The moment he arrived, he did what he was good at, which was violence and masterminded the massacre of Constantinople’s Latin inhabitants resulting in killing thousands of Italian merchants to finish them off from controlling the empire’s economy, though this proved worse for the westerners leading to more tensions with Venice. Andronikos’ streak of violence did not end here and when determined to get rid of his cousin’s legacy, he moved to wipe out any trace of western culture in the empire which included forcing the young emperor to sign the order for his mother, the empress’ execution. Shortly after the empress Maria of Antioch was executed in prison, Andronikos ordered the death of the 14-year-old emperor himself in 1183, the young emperor Alexios II was then strangled by a bowstring and his body dumped into the Bosporus. Andronikos I Komnenos was then crowned emperor in 1183 and even though in his 60’s, he married the late emperor’s 12-year-old wife Agnes of France, but Andronikos continued being worse in his official reign officiating a totalitarian reign where he was suspicious of anyone who said thing against him, and with anyone he was suspicious of, he sadistically tortured them himself. The people began to hate him for not fulfilling the promised he made and the nobility hated him more as he tried to destroy their power over the land. 1185 would be a terrible year for the Byzantines as the Normans of Sicily carried out a sacking of its second city, Thessalonike in revenge for the emperors massacre of the Latins in 1182 and back in Constantinople things were even worse as the nobles already came up with a conspiracy to overthrow the emperor and replace him with one of the nobles, Andronikos’ relative Isaac Angelos. When the emperor knew of the plot, he had one of his agents arrest Isaac Angelos but Isaac in response to it escaped his house and killed the agent himself by decapitating him with one blow of his sword. Isaac hid inside the Hagia Sophia but convinced the people that Andronikos was the real enemy and he needed to be overthrown, and in only a matter of time, the people rallied to the cause of the young Isaac Angelos who was crowned Emperor Isaac II Angelos on the night of September 11, 1185 and Andronikos I was declared deposed. When Andronikos heard of the news, he lost all hope and attempted to flee to Cyprus with his 12-year-old wife and a mistress but failed as he ran into the mob who then handed him over to Isaac who then refused to let him go and turned him back to the mob who continuously beat the old emperor to death. Andronikos died the way he lived his sadistic life as he was slowly tortured to death by the mob who cut off his hands, gouged an eye out, threw hot water on his face, and beat him to the point where his face was no longer noticeable, at the end he was stabbed to death by 2 Latin soldiers as an act of revenge. Andronikos I being a mentally unstable person from years of exile was not sure on who his policies favored as he hated the rich and did nothing to help people, really, he was just anti-western and totalitarian, and his reign started the crack down of the Byzantine state and a series of corrupt and idiotic emperors as his successor Isaac II was no better in any way; Andronikos’ grandsons though would continue the rule of the Komnenos family in Byzantine Trebizond.

Isaac II Angelos who came into power in 1185 was not any better as he failed to deliver the promises he made to people to restore a stable rule as he really had no ambitions to make Byzantium great, instead he failed to use his power as the only thing in his mind to resolve problems was to increase the tax, which then made him unpopular shortly after he came in. In the same disastrous year of 1185, Isaac II broke the promise made by Basil II centuries earlier in keeping tax for Bulgaria low as Isaac put up the tax for the Bulgarians and their produce in order to raise money for his upcoming wedding with the Hungarian princess Margaret; although the Bulgarian nobles particularly the Asen brothers Theodor and Ivan opposed this useless tax and led a massive uprising from the city of Tarnovo deep within Bulgaria, and at the end of 1185 Bulgaria once again after almost 2 centuries separated from Byzantium undoing Basil II’s great work, becoming their own empire once again. The second Bulgarian Empire wouldn’t be as large as the first one was, but back in Byzantium Isaac faced a new problem as even though he drove away the Normans from Greece, the 3rd Crusade was launched after Jerusalem fell again to the Muslims in 1187, and because of this, European armies would have to pass through the empire. Fortunately, the king of France Philippe II Auguste and the king of England Richard I the Lionheart passed the sea route to get to the Holy Land but the German Holy Roman emperor Frederick I Barbarossa took the land route passing through Byzantium, in which made Isaac suspect the Germans would invade Byzantium. Isaac, who was suspicious of westerners the way Andronikos I was made things worse for the Crusaders as he made Byzantium ally with the Saracen sultan Saladin which didn’t result in anything good, instead it made people especially the west give a negative image of him as a Saracen-phile and a suspicious coward.  Isaac also chose to not aid the German crusaders, and in 1190 the Holy Roman emperor Frederick Barbarossa drowned and died at a river in Asia Minor making the west blame Isaac for causing Frederick’s death. With the 3rd Crusade no longer a problem, Isaac II spent the 1190’s once again focusing on retaking Bulgaria for the Byzantines but who preparing for a large attack, Isaac went out hunting with his son and during his absence, his older brother Alexios took advantage of situation and had the army crown him emperor. When Isaac returned from his hunt, the soldiers arrested him and his son, blinded Isaac and both him and his son were put in prison while his older brother was crowned Emperor Alexios III Angelos. In his first reign from 1185 to 1195, to make it short, Isaac II was nothing better for all he did was increase taxes that led the Bulgarians to declare their independence, mismanaged the economy by spending on these useless projects, failed to improve the army thus making it weak allowing the Normans to take many parts of Greece, and to anyone else he didn’t like, he felt suspicious towards them that he even threw Frederick Barbarossa’s German diplomats into prison. Other than that, Isaac II did not end the totalitarian rule Andronikos I brought, instead he continued it and while the empire already started suffering, he lived a lavish life surrounded by mistresses and slaves. History though may have an unfair treatment to him calling him the worst Byzantine emperor, but he was still a wicked one who did not deserve the Byzantine throne.

From 1195 to 1203, Alexios III ruled Byzantium turning out to be much worse than his already corrupt younger brother as Alexios did not care to execute his duties as he was plainly the jealous older brother who thought he had the right to be emperor, which was probably the only reason he had his younger brother blinded. Isaac II had already spent his reign in decadence being surrounded by entertainment and slaves, selling off positions at the court, putting the tax so high in order to build new palaces for him and to enjoy feasts at his court but Alexios III was worse as he did not give a damn to improve the army, he cut down the number of ships in the navy without even bothering to repair the existing ships, and worse he discontinued his brother’s attack on Bulgaria allowing them to start raiding into the empire while Alexios III spent money on lavish buildings and parties, neglecting the army to uselessness, and letting the navy to rot. In the Christmas of 1196, the new German Holy Roman emperor Heinrich VI, the son of Frederick Barbarossa forced Alexios to pay a tribute of 5,000 gold coins or else face invasion so to actually pay it, Alexios did not care to loot the gold from the tombs of previous emperors and melt away the valuables of the church to pay off the Germans but fortunately Heinrich VI died and the money didn’t need to be paid off anymore. Though beginning as a tough warlike man, Alexios III at his reign became soft, continued to mismanage the economy and the state, continued selling off offices to people so easily, and as the historian Niketas Choniates wrties, Alexios III did not carry to read the documents he signed even if it would mean moving the mountains to the sea. At least Isaac II had some political skill and awareness to threats whereas his older brother Alexios III had none and much worse, he was a coward as when the army of the 4th Crusade supporting his nephew also named Alexios arrived at Constantinople in 1203, Alexios III did nothing to help the defense of the city, instead he fled abandoning the throne, though he would still not give up to gain it back as he went around seeking alliances.

Now the next emperor Alexios IV Angelos would be very much similar to his father Isaac II and uncle Alexios III still having the same political ineptness, little care for the Byzantine people, and only the interest in being emperor. The young Alexios IV was imprisoned with his father in 1195 but managed to escape in 1201 with the help of Pisan merchants fleeing to the west to get the help of its kingdoms to put him in power by attacking Constantinople and deposing his uncle. In his personality, the young Alexios IV was not the nationalist Byzantine his father and uncle were, rather he did not care much about the imperial traditions instead identifying with the west as an ally of the Crusaders. However, the 4th Crusade was already launched in Venice by the vengeful doge Enrico Dandolo, an old enemy of the Byzantines who was blinded back in 1171 when Manuel I declared war on Venice, now Dandolo wanted his revenge on the Byzantines ignoring the pope’s reason to start the Crusade which was to retake Jerusalem once more. Alexios IV while at the court of Swabia in Germany urged the Crusader leaders to sail to Constantinople to put him in power and without thinking and realizing his empire had been so weakened, the young Alexios over-promised the Crusader armies with the unification of the Eastern and Western Churches, 200,000 silver marks, and military aid for the Crusaders in their wars in the east. In 1203, Alexios IV Angelos gained the throne with the help of the Crusaders after ousting his uncle while his father the blind Isaac II was released from prison and made co-emperor with his son, though 8 years in prison deformed Isaac disabling him from running the empire, so the son did much of the work. Coming in to the city, Alexios IV was resented by the people who threw stones at him and ruling, he was still much worse as he promised the Crusaders too much and could not pay them off resulting in him melting down church relics again to pay them as he did not care about their value. Because of his pro-western ideas, melting down important icons and relics to pay off his debts, submitting to the Crusaders’ wishes, and even allowing the Orthodox and Catholic Churches to unite with the Orthodox submitting to Rome, Alexios IV was more unpopular than ever for he did not give a damn at all for Byzantium’s proud traditions instead only for his claim to throne, and because he was so unpopular, the people now loyal to the finance minister Alexios Doukas Mourtzouphlos turned against him. Only some months after Alexios IV came into power, a massive revolution was led by Mourtzouplos who was loyal to Alexios III who previously persuaded the young emperor to no longer pay back the Crusaders; meanwhile even Alexios IV’s Crusader allies started to go against him too for not paying off his debts yet, then Alexios IV and his father became so unpopular that they had to barricade themselves in the palace but in January of 1204, Alexios Doukas now leading the palace coup deposed the 2 rulers, threw them back in prison, and had the young Alexios IV executed once again using a bowstring, meanwhile when hearing of his son’s death, the blind Isaac II died of grief and shock. The rebel leader was crowned Alexios V and he refused to honor the agreement to pay the Crusaders but at least he tried better to repair the walls and lead the already weakened army and the last remaining Varangian Guards to fight off the invading Crusader army, though when lacking the funds to pay off the Varangian units, they fled. The Crusades had then resolved to sack Constantinople as their overdue to pay the Doge of Venice Enrico Dandolo for using his ships had increased over the months and in April of 1204, the Crusaders managed to break into Constantinople and sack the city for days, burning churches, killing almost half the population, and looting almost everything including the tomb of Justinian I. Before Constantinople was asked by the Crusaders, the emperor Alexios V fled once again like a coward leaving the city defenceless fleeing to be aided by the deposed Alexios III, Alexios V however married the former emperor’s daughter but when falling out with Alexios III, Alexios V was blinded, captured by the Crusaders, and in December of 1204 by Dandolo’s orders was thrown off the Column of Theodosius in Constantinople which had already been taken by the Latins as their new capital. The 19 years from 1185 to 1204 of Byzantium ruled by the incompetent Angelos emperors saw the hard work of the Komnenian Restoration undone, the greatness of Justinian I and Basil II a long time ago disappear, and worse their short-term plans resulted in betraying Byzantium to the 4th Crusade which sacked Constantinople temporarily destroying the Byzantine Empire. The 3 Angelos emperors Isaac II, Alexios III, and Alexios IV with Andronikos I before them are probably the worst emperors Byzantium had together with Phocas (r. 602-610) as they did not really care much about making the empire a strong one but if they did, they only cared about being in power even if it meant unpopular moves done without thinking things through such as high taxes, over-promising the Crusaders, and throwing away money without thinking. The total disaster Byzantium faced at the 4th Crusade all begins with Andronikos I’s rise to power and his massacre of the capital’s Latin inhabitants leading to a chain reaction of disasters with Isaac II already wicked and corrupt to begin with as emperor doing nothing better but failing to manage the army and economy, while his older brother was even worse that he did not care to blind his brother Isaac II and son-in-law Alexios V all in the name of power. Meanwhile the short reigned Alexios IV is a tragic story, but he deserved his tragic end as without even thinking about how weak and in debt his empire was, he promised the Crusaders so much without knowing it would create such hated from the people only to put him self in power, therefore Alexios IV is the synonym for someone who out of desperation promises so much but cannot keep up to his promises. On the other hand, the Crusaders too cannot be trusted for they expected Alexios IV to actually pay off the amount he said, but surely these Western Crusaders were greedy and overall wanted their hold on Byzantine lands. Now mostly because of the brutality of Andronikos I’s massacre of the Latins and the weak minded rules of the Angelos emperors, the 4th Crusade justified their attack on Constantinople while Alexios IV with his failed promises betrayed Byzantium to the 4th Crusade to sack Constantinople, then they established their newly formed Latin Empire in there while the Byzantines fleeing in exile built their own states, thus Alexios V would have been the last Byzantine emperor if the Byzantines of Nicaea had not taken Constantinople back 57 years later.

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The Byzantine Empire of Manuel I Komnenos, 1180
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Byzantine Empire under the Angelos Dynasty before the 4th Crusade (1185-1204)
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Route of the 4th Crusade, Venice to Constantinople
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Summary of Alexios III Angelos’ reign
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Summary of Alexios IV Angelos’ reign
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Summary of Alexios V’s reign

Watch this to know more about the story of the 3rd Crusade (from Kings and Generals).

Watch this for more info about Alexios III Angelos according to Niketas Choniates (from Eastern Roman History).

Watch this to know more about the story of the 4th Crusade (from Kings and Generals).

 

John III Doukas Vatatzes and the Emperors of Nicaea

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The chain reaction of the reigns of violent, brainless, uncreative, and corrupt emperors from the death of Manuel I in 1180 to the fall of Constantinople to the 4th Crusade in 1204 would at one point eventually come to an end not with the fall of the capital but with Byzantium starting over again. The Byzantine Empire however ever since 1204 was divided, the 4th Crusade captured Constantinople and established the Latin Empire there while most of Greece fell to Latin rule, though some parts of the old empire including Epirus, Nicaea, and Trebizond would still be ruled by Byzantines. First of all, Alexios and David Komnenos, the grandsons of the former emperor Andronikos I who was killed by the mob in 1185 established a separate Byzantine Empire at Trebizond along the Black Sea in 1204. On the other hand in Western Greece, a new Byzantine power would arise formed by Michael Angelos, a cousin of the emperors Isaac II and Alexios III and like his cousins, he was equally as brutal and anti-western as he crucified Latin priests to scare of his Latin enemies but at least he had more political skill than his cousins. It then seems like political weakness and greed for power was part of the traits of the Byzantine Angelos family as a whole, thus making them the worst dynasty in Byzantine history, but the dynasty that ruled the newly established Byzantine Empire at Nicaea since 1204, which was the Laskaris Dynasty was the complete opposite of the Angelos. The Angelos emperors with their greed for power ended up in betraying Byzantium to the Crusaders, though because the imperial family was so large, the empire survived as the Laskaris family ruling Nicaea was still related to the Angelos family as the first exiled emperor Theodore I was married to a daughter of Alexios III. When Constantinople was under siege in 1204, the army proclaimed Theodore Laskaris or possibly his brother Constantine as the new emperor but fearing Constantinople was no longer safe, the Laskaris family along with many Byzantine people fled to the nearby city of Nicaea in Asia Minor establishing an exiled empire there in 1204, though whatever happened to Constantine was unclear as is brother Theodore from then on became the official emperor. The reign of Theodore I from 1204 to 1222 would once again see Byzantium be saved and start rebuilding itself again in exile, though most of his reign was spent fighting off the Latin Empire in preventing them from attacking Nicaea and also at war with the successor of the Seljuks, the Sultanate of Rum deep in Asia Minor. Theodore I began his reign recalling the Byzantine army scattered in the east who were not present in the city at the time of the 4th Crusade back to Nicaea to defend themselves against the Latins but fortunately, the Latins were defeated by the Bulgarians in 1205 allowing Byzantine rule to grow again even if away from the capital as weak as allowing them to be strong enough against the Seljuks of Rum. Theodore I Laskaris was once again a savior emperor for the Byzantines who began to put things back together from the mess the Angelos emperors and the 4th Crusade brought, though he also exiled the former emperor Alexios III to a monastery where he died in 1211 after taking sides with the Seljuks in battle against Nicaea to claim the Nicaean throne but was defeated. In 1222 Theodore I died after once again a much longer reign spent constantly fighting for Byzantium to still exist after a period of ruin.

Now Theodore I’s successor, his son-in-law John III Doukas Vatatzes (r. 1222-1254) would be once again another great ruler to return to the Byzantine throne ever since Manuel I Komnenos some 40 years before, and as emperor, John III’s reign would bring nothing but success all the way to the point of being able to take back Constantinople. With John III, the Byzantines even if in exile would have another brilliant, energetic, ambitious economist, diplomat, and soldier emperor who was at the same time a just and merciful ruler with a modern mind giving him the nickname “John the Merciful”, he had also been the last virtuous and charitable emperor since John II Komnenos a hundred years earlier. John became Theodore I’s successor after marrying his daughter Irene Laskarina but to the Laskaris family, John was seen as nothing more than an opportunistic general who coveted the throne, although Theodore I saw that his brothers would be unfit so instead John inherited the throne and his reign already began with success as Theodore spent his reign to make Nicaea stable and able to match the Latins. John however still had to fight his uncles-in-law who opposed him by allying with the Latins but at the Battle of Poimonenon in 1224, the Latins were defeated by the forces of Nicaea and there was no more opposition to John’s rule, which meant from there on Nicaea would slowly start weakening the rule of the Latins over former Byzantine lands. John had been already a successful general before being emperor but other than that, he was a skilled diplomat who in 1235 concluded an alliance with the 2nd Bulgarian Empire by marrying his only son and successor Theodore II to the Elena, the daughter of the Bulgarian tsar Ivan Asen II, this alliance was made to gain support to retake Constantinople, but due to strength of the same walls, John III and the Bulgarians failed to retake Constantinople from the Latins in 1235 as both leaders couldn’t decide who the city would fall to among them. John III had also successfully taken back Thessalonike for the Byzantines but during his reign the biggest threat would come from far away, this was the Mongols but thanks to this, the sultan of Turks in Asia Minor sought help from Nicaea against the Mongols; though John prepared the army of Nicaea to fight off the Mongols, the Mongols, turned out to never attack the Byzantines instead weakening the Turks. As an economist, John III strengthened Nicaea’s agriculture as it was located in fertile land along a lake, in fact John even grew his own produce to set an example for the people, and he too banned Nicaea from importing foreign goods proving that even the Byzantines had been in exile, they were still able to make themselves rich. Lastly, as a merciful and charismatic ruler, he sponsored the building of schools and literary centers as well as scholars, was charitable to the poor, and in person was a gentleman scholar who loved reading. John III however only had one child, his son and successor Theodore II as his wife Irene Laskarina who was also as virtuous as her husband died in 1239 from injuries caused by falling off her horse, John III would later marry the German princess Anna of Hohenstaufen, the daughter of the Holy Roman emperor Frederick II but together they had no children, and in 1254 John’s death in the town of Nymphaion was sudden but already possible as he lived his life suffering from epilepsy. John III died having fulfilled a reign of constant success for the exiled Byzantines even if not taking back Constantinople, had already taken back Thrace and Macedonia surrounding Constantinople and if John lived a bit longer, he would see it taken back for the Byzantines. Another achievement of John III was that he was the first emperor to recognize Byzantium as a Greek empire and no longer a Roman one, he was then given many titles for his successful rule such as “the Father of the Greeks”, “the Eagle of Nicaea”, and for his victories he was even compared to the 4th century BC Alexander the Great of Macedonia. John III would however be the last of this kind of over-achieving emperor who was all in all a brilliant general, a skilled economist and farmer emperor, charismatic politician, and a modern minded advocate of justice and charity who was merciful to people he condemned for crimes, and a successful diplomat who made peaceful relations with Bulgaria, the Papacy, the Holy Roman Empire, and the Seljuk Sultanate of Rum. Because of his victories, merciful rule, and public works he did for his people, John III was very popular to many and even decades after his death, the Byzantines remained loyalists to the Laskaris family even if they had disappeared, in fact John III Vatatzes is even recognised as a saint in his hometown of Didymoteichon in Thracian Greece. However, among all the Byzantine rulers John III may be forgotten but he is surely the underrated but successful ruler no one knows about.

John III’s only son and successor Theodore II Laskaris (r. 1254-1258) though ruling short was also popular among the people though wasn’t as over achieving as his father as he wasn’t much of a skilled general, instead he was a scholarly and philosophical emperor. Theodore as the only son of John III growing up in Nicaea was educated in the most scholarly of ways by George Akropolites and Nikephoros Blemmydes, who were both scholars sponsored by John III. Theodore was said to be born the same day his father came to power in 1222 and in 1235 the young Theodore was married to Elena Asenina of Bulgaria and when Theodore II came to power in 1254, he already had 5 children but only one son, his successor John IV. Theodore II’s reign was mostly spent continuing his father’s successes even going as far as to take back parts of Albania but he wasn’t able to achieve much as he was more of an introverted scholar and like his father, he also suffered epilepsy. Part of Theodore II’s character was appointing commoners like his childhood friend George Mouzalon into powerful positions at the court, though this policy caused opposition to him from the nobility, especially the powerful Michael Palaiologos. Theodore II had died unexpectedly in 1258 only 4 years after his father died, most probably from the epilepsy that ran through his family or possibly from poisoning. The last Laskaris emperor would be Theodore II’s son John IV Laskaris (r. 1258-1261) who was only a child, though the Laskaris Dynasty that ruled Nicaea would possibly be the only one in Byzantine history to be one of constant success and little corruption, possibly because they ruled an empire that was much smaller and easier to manage.

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Map of the partition of the Byzantine Empire after the 4th Crusade of 1204, includes the Latin Empire, Empire of Nicaea, Empire of Trebizond, Seljuk Sultanates of Rum, Despotate of Epirus, and Latin States of Greece
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Portrait, Icon, and Coin of Emperor John III Doukas Vatatzes of Nicaea (r. 1222-1254)

Watch this to know more about the conflicts between the Byzantines of Nicaea and the Latin Empire from 1204 to 1261 (from Jabzy).

Watch this for more info about John III’s successful rule in the Empire of Nicaea (from Byzantine Real History).

 

Michael VIII Palaiologos- The Restoration of Byzantium 

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The Laskaris Dynasty that ruled an exiled Byzantium did nothing more but increase the power of the exiled Byzantine Empire at Nicaea up to the point when they were able to be a power in the Balkans in Asia Minor able to completely surround the weak Latin Empire to Constantinople alone. By 1258, even if the Empire of Nicaea was a stable and successful state, the death of Theodore II brought in an unstable succession as his son John IV Laskaris was still a child and initially was supposed to rule under the regency of Theodore II’s friend, a commoner named George Mouzalon, but this was opposed by the nobility so during the funeral of Theodore II in August of 1258 at the same church his father John III was buried in, George Mouzalon entered to pay respects but when he arrived everyone was forced to evacuate as a mob was on the rise outside. However, the mob never came in and George was trapped inside surrounded by soldiers who killed him as he tried to hide behind the late emperor’s tomb, now who could have been behind this murder? The only person that was powerful and scheming enough was the noble Michael Palaiologos who could have even poisoned Theodore II; Michael came from the military aristocratic Palaiologos family, and in 1259 he stepped in as regent for the young John IV, not really to protect the boy but to increase his own interests in order to take back Constantinople and be the real emperor himself. Like John III before him, Michael VIII Palaiologos (r. 1261-1282) would be another over-achieving ambitious emperor except Michael had none of John III’s charismatic, popular, and virtuous personality, instead Michael was cold and ruthlessly ambitious like Basil I the Macedonian 400 years before him (r. 867-886) and if anything, Michael Palaiologos was the original mafia lord, very much like Michael Corleone from the Godfather movies who he even shares the same name with. Michael Palaiologos did not really have a good childhood though, he father who was a general died when Michael was young and his mother was never really there, so he and his younger brother John were brought up by their older sister. Early in life, Michael already showed some signs of his ambitions when he plotted against John III to take the throne and when caught he had to prove his innocence to the emperor by holding a red-hot iron though between 1256 and 1258 Michael disappeared from Nicaea to command the Christian mercenaries fighting for the Seljuk sultan of Rum Kykaus II. Now back in 1259, Michael became John IV’s co-emperor and since John IV being too young was too useless to run the show, Michael did everything and planned every move for his complete rise to power, and first he sent an army commanded by his brother John and his general Alexios Strategopoulos to fight off the Latins in Greece at the Battle of Pelagonia in which the Latins were defeated and most of Greece was returned to the Byzantines, this had also been the last appearance of the Varangian Guards. Michael’s next move was to make an alliance with the Italian maritime Republic of Genoa to provide them ships and in 1260, he attempted to take back Constantinople but just like John III 25 years ago, he failed. However, he would try again in 1261 and thanks to the efforts of the general Alexios Strategopoulos, the Byzantines were able to once again reclaim the imperial city on July 25, 1261. Before Alexios broke into the city only with a small army of a few Byzantines but mostly with Cuman and Armenian mercenaries, Michael ordered him to go to the village of Selymbria to obtain information on Latins and fortunately, the main Latin army left the city to raid an island belonging to Nicaea at the Black Sea and using the moment to his advantage, Alexios was able to infiltrate the walls at night by passing underneath defeat the weak remaining soldiers of the Latins within the city and before the sun rose up, the weak and broke Latin emperor Baldwin II fled the city with the help of the Venetians. In August of 1261, Michael entered Constantinople for the first time in his life and was crowned the restored emperor of Byzantium, but of course Michael’s successes would mostly not be possible if not for his general Alexios Strategopoulos who he made a Caesar. Now with Michael as the restored Byzantine emperor in Constantinople, his next move was to remove John IV Laskaris in Nicaea who posed a threat to him, so in John’s 11th birthday on Christmas Day of 1261, he had one of his agents pretend to give the young John IV a gift but when John fell for it, he was blinded and sent away to monastery in order to not be a threat to Michael’s power. Michael had once again done one of the most ruthless acts but he tried to keep the blinding of John Laskaris a secret but when discovered by the patriarch of Constantinople in 1262, Michael was excommunicated until this patriarch died and was replaced in 1268 by another one. Meanwhile, Michael VIII still brought success by restoring the Byzantines to their old capital after 57 years since the city fell to the 4th Crusade; in fact, within these 57 years of being exiled in Nicaea, 2 generations of Byzantines including the emperor and Alexios had never seen the city itself. However, when the Byzantines returned there, it was left in ruin so Michael’s first project was to rebuilt the ruined city back into the great it was before the 4th Crusade partially destroyed it and killed half of its inhabitants. However, the Byzantine Empire Michael VIII recovered was no longer as large as it once was under Basil II or the Komnenian emperors as it no longer had most of the Balkans as that had already fallen to Bulgaria, the army was lesser in number and power, and the navy decreased to only 80 ships, so instead Michael focused his attention to make Byzantium powerful in art and culture. Michael VIII was also practical as emperor and did not see the need to fight wars for conquest anymore so instead he turned to diplomacy with both the Turks and the western kingdoms and his greatest success too was sealing a permanent trade alliance with Genoa allowing them to own ports in Constantinople and all over the empire, although not having to fight wars so much anymore, whatever happened to Alexios after the reconquest of 1261 is unknown except that he was sent to fight off the Byzantines of Epirus and Turks in Asia Minor afterwards. In 1274, Michael VIII attempted to unite the Churches of Byzantium and Rome at the Council of Lyon but this was opposed especially by the Byzantine people and Michael’s efforts here failed so now Michael’s next move was to stop the plot of the Latins led by the French king of Sicily, Charles I of Anjou, the brother of St. Louis IX the king of France in reclaiming the Latin Empire by invading the Balkans. Through his skills in diplomacy, Michael VIII was able to ally with the king of Hungary, the sultan of Egypt, King Peter III of Aragon, and even the Mongols of Iran to stop Charles I of Anjou’s invasion backed by the pope, the exiled Baldwin II, Serbia, and Bulgaria. Later on, in 1281, Michael further indirectly weakened Charles I’s rule in Sicily by spending vast amounts of money to make the people of Sicily rise up against Charles and with the help of Aragon, the rule of Charles was ended in Sicily, thus the Latins would no longer pose a threat to Byzantium. The reasons for Michael VIII’s death in December of 1282 in a village in Thrace remain unknown but because of him, Byzantine rule was restored in Constantinople and his family, the Palaiologi would remain the one to rule Byzantium till its fall in 1453, thus his family was the last one to rule the Byzantine Empire. By the time the Byzantine was restored in 1261, it was no longer the great empire it was under Basil II and the Komnenos emperors but only in equal in power to its neighbors, Serbia and Bulgaria and Michael VIII himself did not see the need to conquer anymore so instead he used diplomacy as the best solution and to keep the empire still significant, he focused his attention on building monasteries and churches decorated with the finest art of his day, thus this period of a growth in Byzantine art and culture was known as the “Palaiologan Renaissance”. However, Michael VIII as emperor focused the attention of the Byzantine army on defending Europe and the Balkans too much as his army was left with limited resources that he left the frontiers in Asia Minor neglected and slowly abandoned by the army that before his death, the Turks started raiding into Byzantine Asia Minor again, but at least Michael VIII did his best in restore Byzantium’s power again for the last time, repopulating and rebuilding the capital, and starting a long dynasty of emperors. Michael VIII’s reputation would however be a mixed one as he was ruthlessly scheming emperor part of the smart and evil emperors as he would do anything no matter how vicious his deeds were such as when he blinded John Laskaris to gain full control of the throne and how he paid off people to start a rebellion, but at the same time he was not all that evil as he did what was best for Byzantium and not just for himself. After Michael’s death, he would be succeeded by his son Andronikos II who’s rule would turn to be much worse and useless, although the blind adult monk John IV Laskaris comes back to the picture in 1290 when Andronikos II as emperor visits him in the monastery he was sent to. Michael VIII for me is the perfect example of what the Byzantine personality is, all in all cold, scheming, ruthless, would do anything to achieve their goals but at the same time smart and ambitious, a skilled diplomat, a reformer, and someone who knows what is best for the people, although Michael VIII would never become the popular emperor John III was as the loyalties of the people were still with the ever popular Laskaris emperors that once ruled Nicaea. And no matter how brutal the deeds of Michael VIII were, he still restored Byzantium, drove away the Latins’ presence, and brought in a new age of art and culture.

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Map of the Restored Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empire, 1261
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Byzantine Reconquest of Constantinople, 1261
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Coronation of Michael VIII in the Hagia Sophia, August 1261

Watch “Summer of 1261: A Byzantine Epic” to see the Lego version of the Recapture of Constantinople (from No Budget Films).

Watch this to see more scenes of 13th century Byzantium and Michael VIII Palaiologos in Lego (from No Budget Films).

 

Andronikos II and III Palaiologos

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The Byzantine Empire still managed to return in the 2nd half of the 13th century but it was no longer the power in the Mediterranean it once was, instead a second-rate power in Europe equal to that of the 2nd Bulgarian Empire and Serbia. At least by the late 13th century, the age of the Crusades and their states have passed but Byzantium wasn’t anywhere far from danger as the Latin states were still around in Greece, the Turks in Asia Minor were getting more powerful, and hatred between the Latins and Byzantines and vice-versa was still strong. Michael VIII Palaiologos was at least able to restore Byzantium to some significance but by his death in 1282, Byzantine control mostly existed in Balkan Europe while Asia Minor, once the heartland of the empire was left in decay and forsaken by the Byzantines, even the former capital of Nicaea where the Byzantines based themselves while exiled was left to rot. Meanwhile, the break-away Byzantine Empire all the way in Trebizond along the southeast corner of the Black Sea flourished and so did the Despotate of Epirus in Greece. The gradual decline of the newly restored Byzantine Empire would begin right when Michael VIII’s son and successor Andronikos II Palaiologos (r. 1282-1328) came into power. Andronikos, born when the Byzantines were still at Nicaea in 1259 was the first son of Michael VIII and his wife Theodora, the grandniece of the emperor John III Doukas Vatatzes and at only 2 years old, Andronikos was named co-emperor by his father when Constantinople was retaken in 1261. The young Andronikos’ claim to the throne was possibly one of the reasons Michael VIII had the young emperor John IV blinded so that Andronikos won’t have any rival, as well as for the Palaiologos family to establish a dynasty; although in 1290 Andronikos having become emperor visited the blinded adult John IV at the monastery he was sent to in Nicomedia to apologize for what his late father did. Early in his reign, Andronikos II was already a weak ruler as when faced with economic difficulty, the only solution he had to solve this problem was to dissolve his father’s successful fleet of 80 ships to 20 ships selling off or dismantling the rest to make money which meant from then on, the Byzantines had to pay Genoa or even Venice for naval assistance. Andronikos II did not really inherit his father’s talent in politics or diplomacy although he still also thought of using diplomacy of resolving many issues with the west and other powers but for him this meant marrying off almost all his relatives to western and other foreign rulers including the Mongols, but this did not make Byzantium stronger in any way. In fairness to Andronikos II, he was a pious Christian ruler and continued the artistic and cultural legacy of his father by promoting the arts, the same way the Medici rulers exercised their power in Florence a century later, but Andronikos turned to have too many children including illegitimate ones and took patronizing the arts, monks, and intellectuals too much that the army was neglected and worse, Byzantine control in Asia Minor slipped out as Osman, the sultan of Seljuk Rum united the Turkic tribes that had settled there in 1299 creating the a new and inevitable threat to the Byzantines. This new power that arose in Asia Minor would later be the Ottoman Empire named after, Osman their founder and when Andronikos II knew of this new threat, he did not respond by once again improving the Byzantine army, re-assembling the Cataphracts, or calling back the Varangian Guards, instead he did what a weak ruler would do, he hired a large group of mercenaries known as the Great Catalan Company in 1302 made up of undisciplined and poorly armed Aragonese mercenaries led by the Italian general Roger de Flor. This plan although being successful to weaken an invasion of the Ottoman Turks ended up being a failure for the Byzantines as these mercenaries demanded more pay than the emperor was able to pay for continued services so the discontent mercenaries turned to pillaging and burning villages in Thrace and Macedonia. The emperor however still managed to put an end to the rebellious Catalans- who were even worse than their Turkish enemies- by sending his son and co-emperor Michael IX and his Alan mercenaries to assassinate Roger de Flor and in 1205, the troublemaking Italian general was killed, though the Catalans would still not go home and in 1308 they captured Athens from the existing Latin duchy there and made it their own, and following Roger de Flor’s assassinations the Catalans had revenge and battled Michael IX and his forces defeating and almost killing him, and much worse a Catalan soldier even whipped and slashed his face as he lay dying. One of Andronikos II’s other few successes was establishing the rule of the Palaiologos family in the small Italian state of Montferrat by appointing his son Theodore as its ruler, although the Palaiologos family all the way there would soon enough lose touch with their Byzantine Greek roots and Andronikos’ 2nd wife and mother of Theodore, Irene of Montferrat grew estranged with her husband probably because of his poor decisions as emperor making her live alone in Thessalonike. Andronikos II had at least saw the last flowering of Byzantine art, architecture, and learning during his reign but it was the wrong time to care about these as the Turks, Serbia, and Bulgaria could have threatened the empire at any time; Andronikos II’s reign was very much useless and only focused on cultural matters like that of Arcadius (r. 395-408) except Arcadius’ reign had no consequences. Andronikos II’s real personality remains unclear except that his rule was a weak one politically and economically while his son with his first wife Michael IX was only co-emperor as he died in 1320 before his father did being the only co-emperor in the Palaiologos line to predecease their father. Michael IX meanwhile would be one of the last tough warriors in Byzantine history as he bravely chose to fight off the traitorous Catalans even if it meant making personal sacrifices; although a brave soldier with high endurance Michael IX died of a broken heart in 1320 at Thessalonike after learning that his daughter died and younger son was murdered possibly by orders of his older son also named Andronikos.

Now the grandson also named Andronikos was born on March 25, 1297 the same day his grandfather Andronikos II was born 38 years earlier but when growing up, the young Andronikos lived a dissolute life with his friends, the young nobles of Constantinople and their gangs. Basically, the young half-Byzantine half-Armenian Andronikos Palaiologos, son of Michael IX and Rita of Cilician Armenia was the stereotypical young selfish jerk and womanizer, and someone who cared less for others, even his family. One night in 1320, he suspected one of his mistresses in having an affair so he ordered guards armed with bows to fire at any man who visits that house and as it turned out, it was Andronikos’ younger brother Manuel that was shot and killed, this accidental murder then caused their father Michael IX to die of grief when hearing of it and when the emperor, the old Andronikos heard of it, he excluded his grandson from succession. The young Andronikos as it seems did not feel sad for causing his brother and father’s deaths and instead when hearing that he was excluded, on Easter of 1321 he gathered the young nobles and assembled an army of young gangs in Thrace- like how it was in Renaissance Italy- and rose up against the old emperor beginning a civil war that would last until 1328. As it turned out, the young Andronikos was popular and many backed him especially since the young population had grown tired of the old emperor’s weakness in running the empire seeing the young Andronikos as a savior who would end the misery and make the empire great again. When the emperor saw how popular his grandson was, he declared him co-emperor in 1322 as an attempt to make peace but this did not last as both rulers were suspicious of each other leading to the old Andronikos seeking an alliance with Serbia and the young one seeking an alliance with Bulgaria. The young Andronikos who had more support especially with the help of his military genius friend John Kantakouzenos won the war in 1328 resulting in deposing the old Andronikos II who retired to a monastery where he died in 1332. Andronikos II, after a long reign years marked by disaster after disaster and a life of pleasure died miserably as a monk in 1332, with first wife dead, his second wife leaving him, a son grandson, and granddaughter dead, a son who set off to rule another land never to come back, and a grandson who declared war on him. Now with the young Andronikos III Palaiologos coming into power in 1328, the future for what was left of Byzantium looked bright again with another military man with great ambitions of conquest on the throne willing to retake lands that were lost to the Latins and Turks. Andronikos III however failed to recapture Nicaea from the Ottomans but was able to regain Chios, Phocaea, and Lesbos from the Latins and in 1333 he was able to restore Byzantine control to Thessaly in Greece, then in 1338 his greatest success came when he was able to seize the Despotate of Epirus from Nikephoros II Orsini, Byzantine control of it would remain until the new Serbian emperor Stefan IV Dušan annexed it in 1347. Andronikos III however due to his active, impatient, and sometimes insensitive personality was more of a man of war spending his reign fighting wars to make Byzantium great and stable again, making him 14th century Byzantium’s Emperor Nikephoros II Phokas (r. 963-969), but in his free time Andronikos enjoyed hunting leaving behind the administration of the state to the scholarly John Kantakouzenos who was skilled politician and general as well. As emperor, Andronikos III would however change in personality from his younger selfish character to a responsible ruler who brought reform to the Roman judicial system of the empire and other than that he was caring to his Italian wife Anna of Savoy and for his children with her. The reign of Andronikos III at the end proved out be effective for the Byzantines as they once again established themselves as a dominant force in the Balkans but Andronikos’ death came too soon as later in his life as he suffered chronic malaria and on June of 1341 he died at Constantinople at only 44 without naming his successor as his eldest son John was still too young. Andronikos III died as the last emperor with great military ambitions able to make Byzantium something quite strong again in a time of decline, he too was an active ruler compared to his weak-minded grandfather, and his court had able administrators. Andronikos III’s active reign in fact was one cause for Byzantium to still survive for another century as he left the dying empire his grandfather left behind a more stable one with an army reformed, and in some ways, if Andronikos III did not take the throne, Byzantium would have fallen earlier. For me, Andronikos III is an underrated ruler of Byzantium who deserves more attention to as he was the last emperor who attempted in making a powerful Byzantine state but his actions could have also caused the decline of the empire by spending too much on war. At first, Andronikos III may be an unlikable, selfish, and arrogant character who caused his brother and father’s death and you wished he would die off earlier but becoming emperor, his character changed becoming an active, responsible, and just ruler that you will come to like. Therefore Andronikos III is a Byzantine fan favourite and one of my favourites as well and his story shows a great example of character development that deserves a Netflix series on.

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Arrival of the Grand Catalan Company in Constantinople, 1303
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Byzantine Empire (purple) under Andronikos II, 1307
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Andronikos III Palaiologos, Byzantine Emperor (1328-1341)

 

John VI Kantakouzenos and John V Palaiologos

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The Byzantine Empire did see some stability and success restored in some ways with the reign of the rather complex emperor Andronikos III Palaiologos (1328-1341) but his death in 1341 came too soon, he in fact hadn’t named an official successor. The most possible person to succeed Andronikos if not his 9-year-old son John was his close friend and closest advisor, John Kantakouzenos who was a man of great political and scholarly ability; the emperor’s son was possibly even named after the older John. John Kantakouzenos, who has a very lengthy last name was born to Byzantine nobility in 1292 but was raised as an only child as his father died before his birth but when grown up, he became the sort of lackey but also close friend of the young Andronikos III helping him usurp the throne by fighting and winning the civil war against the latter’s grandfather, the emperor Andronikos II (r. 1282-1328). Andronikos III’s son also named John meanwhile was born in 1332 at the city of Didymoteichon in Thrace which at that time was his father’s base of operations in his campaigns against the Bulgarians. When Andronikos III suddenly died in June 1341, the Grand Domestic (Megas Domestikos in Greek) John Kantakouzenos who took care most of the empire’s administration for the emperor had in fact no ambitions to become emperor and before that was offered by Andronikos III the title of co-emperor which he refused many times, and on the emperor’s death, Kantakouzenos still remained loyal as always to the young John and his mother, the emperor’s widow the Italian Anna of Savoy. Despite being not named his father’s heir, the young John V Palaiologos was made emperor in 1341 while Kantakouzenos as the Grand Domestic remained his regent, but the boy’s mother and empress Anna of Savoy together with the patriarch of Constantinople John Kalekas, and the general Alexios Apokaukos suspected Kantakouzenos of treason and hiding the fact that the late emperor chose him as his successor. A month after the emperor’s death, John Kantakouzenos left the capital to deal with a Serbian invasion and using this as an advantage, the empress and her supporters legitimized the young John’s claim to throne, thus Kantakouzenos was declared a public enemy, though in October of 1341 Kantakouzenos’ supporters proclaimed him emperor, thus another civil war broke out lasting for 6 more years undoing the progress Andronikos III made. In this civil war, the aristocrats of the Greek countryside backed Kantakouzenos’ claim while the people of the cities together with naval aid from the Italians backed the young John V and his Italian mother. John Kantakouzenos thought his side in the war would be the one to win but the governor of Thessalonike, a powerful ally of his was deposed by the anti-aristocratic revolution of the Zealots led by a relative of the imperial Palaiologos family that seized the city for themselves in 1342 supporting the young emperor. With no strong ally left, Kantakouzenos asked for the support of the Serbian king and later emperor Stefan IV Dušan in exchange for large amounts of land in Greece though Kantakouzenos broke his word and Dušan gained nothing making him switch sides with the Byzantine imperial family and their supporters, Bulgaria too eventually took sides with the imperial family. However, the war would end in the favor of Kantakouzenos after making an alliance with the 2nd Ottoman sultan Orhan, the son of Osman allowing the Ottomans to take Byzantine Greeks as hostages for their army of Janissaries, and in 1347 Kantakouzenos entered Constantinople in victory being crowned Emperor John VI Kantakouzenos. The civil war between 1341 and 1347 was much worse than the first one from 1321 to 1328 as the second one brought more destruction to the empire from its enemies who took sides in the conflict and began the arrival of the Ottomans in Europe, at the end however, John VI became the first emperor in the Palaiologos Dynasty to come from outside though he married his daughter Helena to John V to be part of the ruling family, just how Romanos I Lekapenos, Nikephoros II Phokas, and John I Tzimiskes did back in the days of the 10th century Macedonian Dynasty. The tide went worse for the side of John V when Stefan IV Dušan backed out seeing the alliance useless and the rather unpopular general Alexios Apokaukos was killed and decapitated by prisoners in the new prison he built for them. John VI however made peace with the young John V but John VI would rule as senior emperor while John V was brought down to the rank of co-emperor but the empress still ruled as regent and would plot slowly to remove John VI from power. John VI’s reign from 1347 to 1354 although was one marked by disasters, an economy weakened from the civil war of the 1340’s and from Andronikos III’s campaigns, the plague of Black Death which affected many ports of the empire in 1347 except for Constantinople, and the loss of Epirus, most of Greece, and Albania to Stefan Dušan’s Serbia, and even if John VI was overall an adept politician and capable administrator, the problems the empire faced were beyond his power. Though a usurper, John VI was a reluctant emperor who wasn’t really selfish or power hungry after all, he was if not a ruler, a great scholar of political and theological fields; in his life John VI wrote a 4-volume history of his family and the imperial family, and was a supporter of the mystical tradition of Hesychasm that his success was making Hesychasm part of Orthodox doctrine at a council in 1351. John VI although would meet a tragic end when the young co-emperor John V who at many times got into fight’s with John VI’s son Matthew was supported by Genoese pirates led by Francesco Gattilusio stormed Constantinople in December of 1254, ousting John VI out of power and making John V the legitimate senior emperor again.

John VI was then exiled by John V to a monastery to live his life as a monk until his death in 1383; on the other hand, it is quite unclear if John V was the same ambitious ruler his father was or if he had no idea of what to do when in power but in one way or another, John V was one of Byzantium’s weakest rulers who stayed in power on and off for 39 years of total disaster ever since he came in to power in 1341. John V would have ruled a total of 50 years from 1341 to his death in 1391 but because of John VI’s victory in the civil war, John V lost the throne for 7 years until 1354 then would lose it again for 3 years from 1376 to 1379 and finally would lose it for 5 months in 1390. John V’s second official reign in 1354 began with the Ottomans gaining their first territory in Europe at Gallipoli and would advance more quickly than expected so fearing the threat of the Ottomans, John V had to seek alliance from Byzantium’s old enemy, the Latins or western kingdoms of Europe, meanwhile John V also married his sister to Francesco Gattilusio as well as giving him Lesbos for his service in putting him back in power. John first travelled to Hungary to ask for the alliance of their king Louis I the Great but when John remained seated on his horse out of carelessness when first meeting Louis I, the Hungarian king refused to give alliance to the Byzantines unless they converted to Catholicism, which John refused. This incident when John V met King Louis I of Hungary shows that Byzantium had already started being recognized as an inferior and insignificant power to European kingdoms, though Louis I probably misinterpreted John’s action as arrogance as John probably forgot he was supposed to get off his horse. Still desperate for an alliance, John V even went to Rome himself proposing an alliance to unite the Roman and Byzantine Churches again where the Byzantines would submit to the pope and already willing to do it, John V when meeting Pope Urban V in 1369 converted to Catholicism himself, but still the move to end the Schism since 1054 failed. Worse for John V, he was held under arrest in Venice on the way back to Constantinople for not paying his debts to them, so to be released his mother Anna of Savoy stepped into action once more selling off the empire’s crowned jewels to fully pay off the debts. Seeing that there was no more solution to stop the Ottoman threat, John V only returning to the capital in 1371 was forced to surrender the Byzantine Empire itself as a vassal of the Ottomans recognizing suzerainty of the sultan Murad I and would from then on have to pay tribute to them or else be attacked. Now with John V paying off almost the entire empire’s treasury to Venice and ceding islands to them for his return home from Italy and afterwards accepting the Ottomans as overlords, his eldest son and co-emperor also named Andronikos, named after his grandfather rose up against his father with the support of Genoa in 1373 but failed. As the Ottoman sultan Murad I and his powerful army backed the emperor, John V under the sultan’s orders was forced to partially blind his rebellious son who’s rebellion failed; Andronikos with his wife Keratsa of Bulgaria and young son also named John were then put in prison until the Genoese freed them in 1376 and with the help of Genoa, Andronikos IV took Constantinople therefore imprisoning his father and younger brothers Manuel and Theodore. John V lost the throne for a second time and this time worse as he and his sons were imprisoned for the next 3 years; even worse, the mentally unstable Andronikos IV moved to imprison his mother Helena Kantakouzene and his already aged grandfather, the former emperor John Kantakouzenos. Andronikos IV however did not do better as emperor as he was plainly an usurper who despised his father for his weakness thinking he would rule better but instead, all he did was be a puppet of the Genoese and in 1379 when John V escaped prison with the help of Venice, Andronikos IV was overthrown and his father put back in power. In 1381, John V would reconcile with his rebellious son giving him a second chance and making him co-emperor again, though in 1385 before Andronikos IV could rebel against his father again, he died in Selymbria. There is not much detail though about John V’s 3rd reign except that after Andronikos IV’s death in 1385, he named his second son Manuel as his heir but as part of the alliance with the Ottomans, Manuel was forced to be a hostage to them and in 1390, John V’s grandson, Andronikos’ only son also named John briefly usurped the throne from his grandfather- like what his great-grandfather Andronikos III did earlier that century- for a few months forcing the old emperor to flee to the court of Murad I’s son, the new Ottoman sultan Bayezid I. The grandson became Emperor John VII for 5 months in 1390 usurping the throne possibly as a way to avenge his deceased father blaming his grandfather who he hated for causing his death. John V was however restored to power for the 4th time late in 1390 with the help of the Ottomans though he still had to continue in obeying all of the sultan’s orders one of them was to raze down the Golden Gate of Constantinople’s walls which he had just repaired or else his son Manuel would be blinded. John however fulfilled the sultan’s orders but because of this humiliation as well as living an entire life seeing nothing but constant disaster, John V gave up and lost the will to live dying of shame in February of 1391 at age 58, being in power on and off since he was 9. John V beat the record of being the only Byzantine emperor to be kicked out of power 3 times and rule for 4 terms as Zeno (r. 474-475/ 476-491), Constantine V (r. 741-742/ 743-775), and Constantine VII (r. 913-920/ 945-959) were only deposed once and were in power for 2 terms only while Justinian II (r. 685-695/ 705-711) and Isaac II (r. 1185-1195/ 1203-1204) were deposed twice but at their second deposition were executed whereas John V at least died naturally at the end of his 4th and last reign. John V’s 4 terms in power were at the most all disastrous, his reign beginning with the devastating 1341-47 Civil War saw the beginning of Byzantium’s collapse and by the end of it, the Byzantine Empire was reduced to Constantinople completely surrounded by the Ottomans while the only other parts still held by the Byzantines were the Peloponnese in Southern Greece and some Aegean islands, the economy too had grown very weak, and Byzantine prestige was gone as Europe now saw them as an inferior backwater in the Balkans. In personality, John V was a weak ruler lacking his father, Andronikos III’s forcefulness instead easily submitting himself and his empire to anyone who could be of help including the pope, Hungary, Venice, Genoa, and the Ottomans even if it would cost him and his empire so much. However, despite having a weak mind leading to a soft rule allowing himself to be pushed around by others, John V was still a good person without any bad intentions and on the positive side he was able to negotiate with Venice and the pope as he probably was fluent in Italian for being half-Italian because of his mother. Overall John V did not really care for the interests of his people as he was willing to convert the empire to Catholicism and follow the orders of the Ottoman sultan, really he was more interested in keeping himself in power as his weak decisions in making Byzantium a vassal of the Ottomans caused a lot of suffering for the people when taxes had to be paid as tribute to them. John V began his reign as a child as a promising one with the support of his mother in the civil war but as he grew old, he was bad at decision making and could not even protect himself from being usurped by his son and grandson. For me, the long-haired and big-bearded John V is the best example of the weak and troubled Byzantine emperor who however a good person was mentally unstable and made bad decisions that forever weakened the empire and in about 60 years after his death, the Byzantine Empire would fall. John V lived a lifetime of disaster followed by disaster leaving him to die broken and humiliated but his son and successor Manuel II was in many ways better and more competent.

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John VI Kantakouzenos over the Hesychasm Council, 1351
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John V Palaiologos, Byzantine Emperor (r. 1341-1347/ 1354-1376/ 1379-1391)
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Byzantine Empire (blue) and the Balkans, 1350

Watch this to know more about the 1341-1347 Byzantine Civil War, its background and aftermath (from Jabzy).

 

Manuel II and John VIII Palaiologos

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By the end of the 14th century, John V Palaiologos’ long disastrous reign left the Byzantine Empire completely weak and a vassal of the Ottomans and by the time of John’s death in 1391 the Ottomans had already defeated the once powerful Empire of Serbia at the Battle of Kosovo in 1389, and had already completely surrounded Constantinople on all sides. John V’s eldest son Andronikos IV was rebellious overthrowing his father from 1376 to 1379, he was exiled to Selymbria but still remaining co-emperor, but in 1385 he suddenly died. Now the person who would be left to succeed John V was his second and more competent son Manuel who had been made co-emperor by his father since 1373 after Andronikos first rebelled. Manuel, born in 1350 grew up to be a well-educated politician inheriting the skills of both his capable grandfathers Andronikos III and John VI Kantakouzenos but because the Ottomans helped put John V back in power in 1379 after being imprisoned by Andronikos, he had to return the favor by sending Manuel who had also been released as a hostage to the sultan’s court. Being in the service of the Ottomans, Manuel had no choice but to help them successfully seize Philadelphia, the last Byzantine possession in Asia Minor but in 1391 when hearing of his father’s death from a nervous breakdown, Manuel fled the Ottoman court and rushed back to Constantinople to secure his position on the throne. Now Manuel II Palaiologos (r. 1391-1425) was crowned Byzantine emperor but the empire he gained was reduced and defenseless and no match at all to the Ottoman threat. Even at a desperate time like this, Manuel chose not to continue his father’s weak leadership and decided that Byzantium would no longer be a vassal of the Ottomans. As emperor, Manuel remained true to the Byzantine people and its beliefs, refused to be pushed around, and still saw some obtainable solutions to drive away the inevitably powerful Ottomans by asking for an alliance with Western Europe possibly to once again bring back the Crusades, just like what Alexios I did 3 centuries earlier. Because Manuel II refused to pay tribute to the Ottomans, the sultan Bayezid I did what had to be done and laid siege to Constantinople beginning in 1394 and in around this time, the west woke up as the king of Hungary Sigismund launched once again a massive Crusade of various European powers against the Ottomans but this failed when the Crusade was defeated at the Battle of Nicopolis in 1396, afterwards the 2nd Bulgarian Empire that had existed for about 2 centuries completely fell to the Ottomans while the remaining Serbian states became Ottoman vassals. By 1399, the Ottomans still continued in besieging the city so in a daring act, Manuel left the city on a diplomatic mission around Europe leaving his nephew, the former emperor John VII Palaiologos (r. 1390) to take care of the city, at this time Manuel and his nephew were already at peace as Manuel entrusted him with the responsibility as the acting emperor. Instead of submitting to the Ottomans the way his father did, Manuel did what his father failed to do so with 40 men, he travelled all the way to England making his the only Byzantine emperor to ever set foot in England; the last Roman emperor to have ever set foot that far was Constantine I the Great as he was proclaimed emperor there in 306. In Christmas of 1400, Manuel was welcomed in the court of King Henry IV at Eltham Palace and a joust took place in honor of his visit, though Manuel spent more time at the court of the king of France Charles VI in the Louvre; the English however saw the fashion and the hairstyles of Manuel and his Byzantine men as something so old school for the 15th century when Europe was beginning to modernize as the once advanced Byzantine civilization had become so left behind in time. The other courts Manuel visited to strengthen Byzantine relations with were that of the King of Germany Sigismund, Queen Margaret I of Denmark, and King Martin of Aragon and while travelling for about 4 years across Europe, the Ottomans besieging Constantinople worried Manuel while he was gone, and worse France and England did not care to aid him as both were fighting the Hundred-Years’-War with each other. Although Manuel returned home empty-handed in 1403, Henry IV of England at least gave him money to upgrade Constantinople’s defences, however Constantinople fortunately was saved as in 1402 when the powerful Mongol army of Timur (Tamerlane), the ruler of Samarkand defeated the Ottomans at the Battle of Ankara keeping the sultan Bayezid imprisoned in a cage thus giving the time to allow Constantinople to recover enough for another attack in the future. John VII surrendered imperial power back to his uncle and during the time Ottoman power was weakened following 1402, Manuel used the time to strengthen the defenses across Greece, also made peace with the new Ottoman sultan Mehmed I, and later on Manuel again weakened the Ottomans by supporting the rebel Mustafa against the new sultan Murad II, although when Murad was able to put down the revolt he unsuccessfully besieged Constantinople again in 1422. The last years of Manuel’s reign was shared with his eldest son and co-emperor John and at this time Manuel travelled to Hungary to ask for an alliance again but the same king Sigismund who Manuel met before disagreed to it thinking it was useless as the Ottomans defeated the crusade he set up in 1396. Manuel II died on July 21, 1425 at 75, 2 days after he abdicated from power retiring as a monk with the name Matthew, in fact to some this emperor is considered a saint. Manuel II however shows an example of a practical and optimistic problem-solving emperor in the time when Byzantium was already in a hopeless situation as he chose to make great sacrifices in making alliances with far away kingdoms rather than shamefully submitting to the will of the Ottomans, although some luck saved him and his reign allowing Byzantium to survive to the 15th century. Manuel was also a learned scholar and theologian who wrote down many works including theological books and religious poetry, although he is also a controversial figure as in 1391 he argued with a Persian scholar saying that the teachings of Islam and the Prophet Muhammad are only evil and inhuman, this quote from the emperor was quote by Pope Benedict XVI in 2006 at Regensburg saying he quoted it from Manuel II himself. Other than being anti-Muslim, particularly anti-Ottoman and a true Byzantine Christian, Manuel II was as skilled diplomat and statesman though he married his much younger Serbian wife Helena Dragaš later in life and they had 10 children though only his 6 sons were named, his eldest son John succeeded him as emperor while his 4th son Constantine would be the last Byzantine emperor.

Manuel II was succeeded by his eldest son and co-emperor John VIII Palaiologos (r. 1425-1448), born in 1392 who beginning 1416 was already the more effective ruler of the empire as his father started growing old and weak and in 1424, John together with his father the emperor without any choice had shamefully to sign a peace treaty with the Ottomans to once again make Byzantium pay tribute to them as the west being so focused in fighting each other could not aid Byzantium. Before becoming emperor in 1425, John VIII had supervised the Byzantine defense of Constantinople against to failed Ottoman siege of 1422 but also had to acknowledge the loss of Thessalonike which his younger brother Andronikos, its ruler no longer able to handle it surrendered it to Venice and by 1430 the Ottomans took control of it. John VIII’s reign as the second to the last Byzantine emperor was however in some ways useless as he did not have his father’s forceful personality but rather the weak personality of his grandfather John V of whom he was named after, John VIII was willing to actually submit the empire and the Byzantine Church to the Roman Catholic Church to gain the support of the west against the Ottomans. However, John VIII was not overall useless and weak as he really had no choice in saving his empire as the west had powerful armies while Byzantium was so reduced and their neighbors Serbia and Bulgaria had already fallen to the Ottomans. While Western Europe was at conflict with each other including a rivalry in the Papacy, a Church council in the 1430’s was called for in Italy to resolve these problems, and John VIII desperate for the help of the west travelled to Italy to attend the Council of Florence in 1439 with a delegation of 700 Byzantines including the patriarch of Constantinople Joseph II and the philosopher George Gemistos Plethon. At the end, the council resolved in uniting the Churches but as John returned to Constantinople, the union he signed with the west created such opposition to the people that riots broke out and John himself became an unpopular ruler. The people of Constantinople still have not gotten over their old hated for the Western Latins since the time of 4th Crusade 2 centuries ago and they would in fact rather allow themselves to fall the Ottomans rather than submit to the pope, which is why the grand admiral of this time Loukas Notaras quote “I would rather see a Turkish turban in the midst of the city than the Latin mitre”. John VIII’s legacy is seen through his depictions as a figure in paintings of early Renaissance Italian art as during the time he visited Italy for the Church Council, he was included in the artworks of Gozzoli, Pierro della Francesca, Pisanello a figure in their painting posing in as a character in the painting’s story. During his visit to Italy, John VIII probably met the powerful Medici family of Florence, at this time Byzantine scholars like Plethon also introduced Byzantine knowledge of Greek philosophy to Italy with the support of the ruler of Florence Cosimo de Medici enabling the start of the Florentine Renaissance of learning. The remaining years of John VIII’s rule were spent at least upgrading the defenses of Constantinople though when he died in 1448 at 55 an unpopular ruler, the Byzantine Empire at least still survived though he would be the last emperor to die of natural causes. John VIII though being weak, desperate, and lacking in patriotism at least did his all he could do to gain support as he was aware of the Ottoman threat and wanted to wake up the rest of Europe to it making him still a responsible and not a cowardly ruler as he cared for Byzantium’s future even if it meant destroying its culture and Orthodoxy. Overall John VIII made some sense as emperor but unlike his father he was pro-Western and not a true Byzantine as he willed to submit the Orthodox Church to Rome for more protection making him in more ways like his grandfather John V who he was named after, except John VIII did not fail as hard as his grandfather did. John VIII died without producing any children despite being married 3 times, he was then the last Roman emperor to have an empress consort and as he outlived all 3 wives by his death in 1448, he named his younger brother Constantine as his successor, though his other younger and inept brother Demetrios opposed this and tried to claim the throne for himself. John VIII’s younger brother would not be crowned until early in 1449, so in the meantime between his death and the coronation of Constantine, their aged mother Helena Dragaš acted as regent taking control of the capital before she was able to secure Constantine’s claim to the throne with the intervention of Murad II.

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Manuel II Palaiologos and his wife Helena Dragaš with their children including John VIII (left), Byzantine eagles on the robes of the 2 children Theodore and Andronikos (centre)