The Byzantine Imperial Personality through the lives of the Emperors Part2

Posted by Powee Celdran

“The truth is, all barbarians are usually fickle and by nature are unable to keep their pledges.” -Anna Komene, The Alexiad 

Part2- Personalities of the Byzantine emperors from Basil I the Macedonian to Manuel I Komnenos (9th to 12th centuries) 


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

Next: Part3- Personalities of the Byzantine emperors from Andronikos I Komnenos to Constantine XI Palaiologos

Welcome back to another Byzantium Blogger article! Just recently I have discussed the Byzantine Empire’s character through the personalities of the emperors from its first emperor Constantine I the Great (r. 306-337) down to Theophilos (r. 829-842), now I am here with the continuation and 2nd part of this 3-part series, which will be discussing more imperial personalities starting from the mid-point in Byzantine history down to the beginning of its third and final age. In this article I will go through in detail the personalities of the emperors from Basil I the Macedonian (r. 867-886) down to the Byzantine emperor Manuel I Komnenos (r. 1143-1180) and in the middle will discuss more interesting people and turning point events of the Byzantine Empire during the second age of Byzantine history. From part1 of this 3-part series, the biggest thing I learned especially about the Byzantine emperors is that their personalities affect their decisions, thus their decisions affect the empire’s course of history itself whether for bad or for good. This quote I mentioned above by the 12th century Byzantine historian Anna Komnene who will be mentioned later, explains exactly the situation of Byzantium in its second age where barbarians which the Byzantines call the westerners have the personality of being hard to trust as they don’t keep promises, which is what they say of the Byzantines as well. Now as I continue with the emperors from the 9th to 12th centuries, the same principles apply, their personalities still do affect the Byzantine Empire itself. First of all, before going through the characters, here’s a short recap of the last article. The Byzantine Empire itself was basically the Roman Empire continued but no longer based in Rome, instead in the new imperial city “Constantinople” founded by the first Byzantine emperor Constantine the Great, who behind it all is the greatest of the Byzantine emperors as he jump started everything and laid the foundations of Byzantium itself which were both the new city in a new location which was in the east and more importantly establishing Christianity as the empire’s state religion, which would be the force that will define the empire throughout the rest of its existence. When the empire really became the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire was when it as formally divided from the west following the death of Emperor Theodosius I in 395 leaving the western half to decay quickly while the east was nothing more but successful, although to actually keep it stable it needed strong, forceful, and smart rulers like Zeno (r. 474-491) and Anastasius I (r. 491-518) which would enable it to actually become a world power but all it needed for this was the will of one ambitious emperor, Justinian I the Great (r. 527-565). Justinian did make the Byzantine Empire a world power and left behind a great legacy but his dreams too did have its consequences as the borders grew too big and too expensive to defend that the emperor Maurice (r. 582-602) could no longer pay the army leading to his overthrow and the first period of stability under the destructive emperor Phocas (r. 602-610) until he was overthrown by Heraclius (r. 610-641) who returned stability but still, the empire would not be the world power anymore as it was no match to its new enemies, the Arabs. From the 7th century onwards, Byzantium would have to fight their wars on the defensive side as it was under constant invasions on all sides; however, they managed to face it off despite times of instability brought about by delusional rulers like Justinian II (r. 685-695/ 705-711) who thought of making the empire great again but failed to and worse short-lived usurper generals who became emperors failed even more. In its history, Byzantium had 3 ages, the first age from its founding in 330 to the first deposition of Justinian II in 685 was Byzantium’s glory days of empire when the empire was basically still the Roman Empire continued transitioning from Roman to Greek. After 685 on the other hand, Byzantium went through a 22-year anarchy period with a change of emperor 7 times marking the beginning of the second age or the age when the empire now had to fight for its own survival but good for them, they still had able rulers like Leo III (r. 717-741) and Constantine V (r. 741-775) who despite instituting the controversial Iconoclast movement successfully defended the empire against invaders and restored stability. At this time, the empire had a mix of stable and unstable period which of course were changed due to the personalities of its rulers. The second age of Byzantium from 685 all the way to 1204 would be full of ups and downs first from fighting for survival, to a long period of greatness of conquest and a renaissance of culture during the years of the glorious Macedonian Dynasty (867-1056), then another period of decline as the Seljuks being a new and much powerful threat to the empire was born, and then before the empire could descend into total destruction another age of revival came during the Komnenos Dynasty (1081-1185). The new age of greatness for Byzantium in the 10th and 11th centuries were brought by brilliant rulers from the Macedonian Dynasty of complex personalities including great generals and cultured intellectual emperors, unlike in Justinian I’s reign when the the empire became so great and powerful all in one reign of a single brilliant ruler. Byzantium would once again be at its largest extent and at a new golden age of power culminating in the reign of Basil II “the Bulgar-Slayer” (976-1025) but his death in 1025 marked the start of a new age of collapse of the Byzantine Empire due to the succeeding emperors only caring about their position in power leading to the empire falling apart before them as the new threat of the Nomadic Seljuks, Pechenegs, and Normans began raiding into the empire. However, from 1081 onwards, Byzantium would experience another revival of power with the reigns of the emperors of the Komnenos Dynasty, this period would then be known as the “Komnenian Restoration”. Even if Byzantium’s history progresses to the 12th century, it was still after all the Roman Empire except during Byzantium’s second age, its old Roman traditions were already a thing of the distant past and the empire itself became more Greek than ever. However, after 1180 things would start going downhill again and 1204 would mark Byzantium’s temporary end and the beginning of the 3rd age of Byzantine history which would last until the empire’s end in 1453 would be nothing more than the period of the empire’s slow decline in power but only a time of greatness in the arts. Now, let’s move on the continuing on with the next set of emperors and their personalities from Byzantium’s second age once more with fascinating and capable rulers like Basil I the Macedonian, Nikephoros II (r. 963-969), John I (r. 969-976), Basil II, Alexios I (r. 1081-1118), John II (r. 1118-1143), and Manuel I (r. 1143-1180), as well as scholarly emperors like Constantine VII (r. 913-959), troubled ones like Michael VII (r. 1067-1078), and of course a lot more brainless rulers like Constantine VIII (r. 1025-1028), and usurping generals like Romanos I (r. 920-944) and Isaac I (r. 1057-1059). The second age of Byzantium thus would be one with crazier emperors and their stories, more dynastic changes, more usurping generals, more emperors coming from humble origins, more religious conflicts, more powerful female rulers behind the throne, more serious defeats, but also more glories and victories. The second age of Byzantine history for me is even more colourful and exciting than first one especially because of the long-lived Macedonian Dynasty filled with complex personalities and of course its story told through the colourful and detailed Byzantine comics by John Skylitzes. 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. In this second psychological related article on the emperors, things will just get much crazier like it is in the Game of Thrones series, but 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 first with Basil I and the beginning of Byzantium’s new golden age!

Byzantine Imperial flag and symbols
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. 


Other articles from the Byzantium Blogger:

Byzantine Imperial Personalities Part1

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

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

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

Watch this for an intro to Byzantium’s Macedonian Dynasty (867-1057)- from Porphyra


Basil I, Michael III, the Amorian and Macedonian Dynasty


The 9th century began rough for Byzantium as even though Iconoclasm was temporarily put to an end as the empress Irene (r. 797-802) was deposed for agreeing to unite with the new empire of Charlemagne in the west and Byzantium faced more defeat and rebellions as well as the revival of Iconoclasm. In 820, stability resumed when then Amorian Dynasty was founded by Michael II (r. 820-829) while his son and successor Theophilos (r. 829-842) was a capable ruler who innovated the weakened empire. Following Theophilos’ death, his son Michael III was only a child so his mother, the empress Theodora ruled in his place for the meantime and in 843 once and for all put an end to Iconoclasm. Like Irene more than 50 years, ago the empress Theodora ended Iconoclasm while ruling for her underaged son, but like Irene as well, Theodora was exiled to a monastery when Michael grew up and became the effective ruler. Michael III (r. 842-867) was similar to Irene’s son Constantine VI (r. 780-797) as both wanted to get rid of their mothers’ influence, though Constantine VI failed at it and Michael III succeeded. As emperor, Michael III was rather a useless pleasure-loving emperor who only wanted to enjoy life while left running the empire to his favorites that he appointed such as his uncle Bardas, Theodora’s brother. It was said about Michael III that “he was not a great ruler but there was greatness in his time” as luckily the people he appointed to run his empire were able administrators and military commanders, though at this time, Byzantium was still not safe from the threats of the Arabs in the east, the Bulgars in the north and the new enemy, the raiding Rus of Kiev in the far north. In this time, one of the great people of influence in Byzantium was the St. Photios, the patriarch of Constantinople who during Michael III’s reign was an innovative theologian and diplomat who saw the solution to make peace with their enemies, the Rus and Slavs by converting them to Christianity by teaching it in their own native languages. The patriarch Photios undertook this task by sending 2 great missionaries, the Greek brothers St. Cyril (Constantine) and St. Methodios who knew the Slavic languages and to educate them more, Cyril created a new alphabet which would later be the Cyrillic alphabet still used in most Slavic countries today. Rather than Bardas, Photios, and the saints Cyril and Methodius, another great person in Michael III’s reign was a highly unlikely Armenian peasant from the Macedonian Theme named Basil, a man large in size and probably more than 6ft and in profession a horse tamer. Basil was born back in 811 as a peasant born in poverty but this did not stop him from rising to power as rulers before him like Justin I (r. 518-527) and his nephew Justinian I the Great (r. 527-565) and Leo III (r. 717-741) too had humble origins but made their way up to rule the empire. Basil in his early years lived as a captive of the Bulgar khans who invaded Byzantine land, but Basil managed to slip out and go to Constantinople to look for work, though things only happened to him out of luck mainly because it was his height, large build, and strength that impressed Michael III and his court. Basil only came into Constantinople in around 856 and not young anymore but luckily made his way up very quick after he impressed the court in being able to tame an untamable horse and out plain strength took town a man instantly in a wrestling match. Basil however was uneducated and illiterate but he possessed a thirst for power and the skill to be the favorites of people in power, first he became a favorite to the emperor’s uncle, the Caesar Bardas and then of the emperor himself. Once at the court, Basil’s hunger for power already began to grow first by suspecting Bardas was plotting to get rid of his nephew the emperor, which made Basil inform Michael making the emperor execute his uncle using Basil himself. To get even closer to the emperor, Michael married his mistress Eudokia Ingerina, a descendant of the dynasty of Heraclius (r. 610-641) to Basil as a way to keep her close but soon enough, Michael out of his personality of having favorites ended up sidelining Basil and chose another favorite, but Basil wouldn’t stop in his quest for power that he had already plotted Michael’s assassination before he is replaced. On the night of September 23, 867 Basil and conspirators sealed Michael in his bedroom while an assassin inside killed the emperor by cutting off his hands then stabbing him; thus the uneducated but scheming peasant Basil was crowned Emperor Basil I, the first of the Macedonian Dynasty. Michael III died with a negative image of himself being called “the drunkard” as he was mostly the type of emperor who didn’t care about the world but only about his image and used his power to do anything he liked. Basil I on the other hand was whole different person as he began poor but rose up to power from evil actions, although he was the real Machiavellian ruler, he would be a great ruler who knew what was best for the empire even if it meant plotting and killing people like Michael III would bring ruin. As emperor, Basil I though illiterate would be considered “the new Justinian the great” for bringing back the greatness of victory in war against the Arabs, diplomacy with the Holy Roman Empire, and beginning a new codification of Byzantine laws, he too was a respected emperor and unlike his predecessor was a serious Christian who dedicated his rule to Christ. Under Basil I, the great Byzantine age including the patriarch Photios who was deposed in 886 would return in 877 and continue to grow the influence of Byzantium, though Basil after the death of his first son Constantine with his first wife had grown suspicious of plots against his life even going as far as to accusing his son Leo who he hated for possibly being too much of a nerd- and not a warrior like him- on plotting against him resulting in Basil out of his bad temper to put Leo in jail and threatening to blind him, only a few years later he was released. Leo was actually rumored to be the son of Michael III and his mistress Eudokia who married Basil, though this fact remains unsolved and Leo happened to be loved by the people and his teacher, the patriarch Photios persuaded Basil to release him prison and by Basil’s death in 886, Leo succeeded him. 4 years after his wife’s death, Basil died after a fever caused by a hunting accident where a deer dragged him 16 miles across the woods by its antlers grabbing his belt, but when he released by someone, he suspected that his son Leo arranged for his assassination through that person and before Basil died at age 75, he had the person who rescued him executed. Basil I was overall an unusual but inspiring rags to riches story from an illiterate peasant to a great ruler and as emperor he was a champion WWE wrestler, a ruler in the level of Justinian I, a master horseman, and a scheming mafia boss put together in one person that I can easily imagine in appearance. Basil’s story is seen through the Madrid Skylitzes though overall, in his reign he hadn’t accomplished much but it had still started a new long-lasting golden age and dynasty for Byzantium, yet his accomplishments were not bad for someone who began as an obscure peasant and not even a general or an influential court person. His son and successor Leo VI (r. 886-912) was very different from his father as he was an intellectual emperor who wrote many books including continuing his father’s work of codifying the laws, though his parentage is confusing as he when coming into power relocated the tomb of Michael III back into Constantinople, which could really answer the question if Michael was really Leo’s father, meaning could the Macedonian Dynasty not really be the Macedonian Dynasty?

The court of Emperor Basil I the Macedonian (r. 867-886)


Constantine VII, Leo VI, Alexander, and the Lekpenos Family


Basil I’ successor Leo VI known as “the Wise” was not at all the strong and scheming man his father was, he was an intellectual philosopher who spent his years reading and writing several books and as the second ruler of the Macedonian Dynasty (despite his unclear parentage whether Michael III was his father or not?), he began the Byzantine Renaissance of words, which had already started with his father before despite his illiteracy, meanwhile as Leo succeeded his father emperor, his younger brother Stephen was appointed patriarch of Constantinople by their father, Basil I. Not only because of his intense intellectual personality, is he called “the wise” but because of making the right decisions for the good of the empire and the succession of the dynasty which included having to be married 4 times in order to produce an heir. Leo VI was actually unlucky with his marriages, the first wife Theophano who his father married him too only for connections was hated by him but she died in 897, the second one died in 899, and the third one died in 901 and none of them produced a male heir; Leo VI’s marriage story is similar to that of Henry VIII of England (r. 1509-1547) in producing an heir and with Leo VI, marrying for a fourth time was seen as controversial, but for the good of the empire he saw that he had to marry his mistress Zoe Karbonopsina which made the patriarch Nikolaos Mystikos go as far as excommunicating Leo though Leo fired him and replaced with his friend Euthymios I, which enabled his 4th marriage. As emperor, Leo continued in updating the laws of Byzantium including the Codex Justinianus of Justinian I and creating new law codes known as novelsand despite not being a skilled military commander himself, he wrote a book on battle strategies named Tactica but other than this he was also a poet and as part of his laws, Leo encouraged everyone to own a bow for protection. Leo VI though succeeded in bribing the Magyars to win his war against the Bulgars though his wars against the Bulgar tsar Simeon I (r. 893-927) ended unsuccessfully with loss of Byzantine land and in 904 the Arab fleet sacked Thessalonica; nevertheless Leo VI was a wise and practical ruler who was more renowned for his erudition rather than military and political success. Leo VI died in 912 finally having a son and heir, Constantine VII born in 905, but since his son was too young to rule, Leo’s younger brother Alexander came to power following Leo’s death.

Alexander who only ruled for a year (912-913) as the 3rd of the Macedonian Dynasty happened to be one of the worst though most obscure emperors; he was however considered a fully legitimate son of Basil I as he was born after Michael III’s death but all his life he had hated his older brother Leo especially for being sidelined during Leo’s reign so when coming in to power, the first thing Alexander did was to have revenge on his dead brother by firing the people Leo appointed including the patriarch Euthymios I once again putting the deposed patriarch Nikolaos Mystikos back in power as way to ruin Leo’s legacy, meanwhile the empress Zoe and her and Leo’s son Constantine were put in a nunnery. Alexander as a vengeful ruler was very much like Claudius in Hamlet and Scar in The Lion King who hated his brother and as ruler he was nothing better than a lazy drunk who even planned to castrate or execute the young Constantine VII to prevent him from the succession, ignored the conflicts created by the Arabs, provoked a new war with Bulgaria by refusing to pay tribute to Tsar Simeon, and was even said to make Pagan sacrifices to a statue of a boar in the Hippodrome. In 913, only 1 year into power, Alexander died from exhaustion after playing Polo which he loved playing and since he had no children, he had no choice but to name Constantine VII the rightful heir to the empire. Surprisingly, the quite obscure emperor Alexander who only ruled for a year has a full mosaic of himself in the Hagia Sophia. Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos meaning “the purple born” was the only emperor to use this title even if many others were born in the purple room of the palace but his title was used to legitimize his claim to the throne, however he was only a boy when becoming full time emperor in 913 so he reigned with his mother the empress Zoe and the patriarch Nikolaos Mystikos as his regents and in 919, the admiral Romanos Lekapenos stepped in as his regent after Constantine married his daughter Helena Lekapene. As a way to protect the young Constantine VII from being deposed by the general Leo Phokas the elder, Romanos Lekapenos crowned himself the senior emperor in 920 putting Constantine VII down in rank to co-emperor.

Now Romanos I Lekapenos (r. 920-944) is another puzzling figure as like Basil I he was an Armenian of humble origins but rose up to power by being an admiral and by marrying his daughter to the emperor, he became part of the imperial family and emperor himself, however coming from a humble background his ways were unsophisticated, he lacked education, and did care about being proper that he did not know how the imperial system worked that thinking he could put all his family members in power, he did just that. Romanos I would have ended the Macedonian Dynasty which just began as he had made his sons Christopher, Constantine, and Stephanos co-emperors over Constantine VII and named his eldest son Christopher his successor, though in 931 he died and Constantine VII now had more chance to come back as the others sons Constantine and Stephanos were unfit, meanwhile Romanos I’s other son Theophylact was appointed patriarch despite being only 16 but as patriarch, he did not care about his duties and religious matters and only cared about horses that he even missed the Easter Mass when one of his horses gave birth. Despite Romanos I being a usurper lacking in manners and using his reign as his “family’s business”, he was the type of successful military leader Byzantium had not seen in a long time and a diplomatic emperor who in 927 he ended the war with the First Bulgarian Empire and in campaigning against the Arab Caliphate in the east, Romanos I appointed the brilliant general John Kourkouas who after winning several victories starting pushing the Arabs out of Asia Minor, thus starting the new age of conquest. Romanos I despite having success in his reign met a tragic end as his sons Constantine and Stephanos overthrew him and sent him to a monastery in December of 944 as they feared he would not make them his successor and instead return Constantine VII to power. Surprisingly, shortly after in January of the next year, the brothers were deposed by a revolution in favor of Constantine VII after only a few weeks in power, the brothers were then sent to become monks in the same monastery as their father and Constantine VII who was rumored to be dead came back to power as sole emperor at 39; the ruling Lekapenos brothers had opposed Constantine VII but other members of the Lekapenos family including Romanos I’s daughter and wife of Constantine Helena, the patriarch Theophylact, and the chamberlain Basil who was Romanos’ illegitimate son backed Constantine VII.

Now Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos is a lovable figure, though a shy introverted person who during the 24 years his father-in-law ran the show successfully, he had a quiet youth as the complete nerd with an unpleasant appearance but still very sophisticated spending it studying, reading, and writing books as he was sidelined to the bottom of the co-emperors while Romanos I’s sons ranked higher than him. When becoming senior emperor in 945, he was not like a lot of other emperors, he never really had a greed for power, his only greed was for knowledge, and like his father Leo VI both were the first scholarly emperors in a long time to sit on the Byzantine throne. Though being an intellectual, Constantine VII was also arrogant in his views resenting his father-in-law and predecessor Romanos I and his sons in the book he wrote as illiterate and unsophisticated people who don’t deserve to run the empire, this mostly because Constantine VII was put aside by them and his character was opposite of the Lekapenos men. Most of his reign was spent with more diplomacy than conquest that he made relations with the Caliph of Cordoba in Spain and with the court of the Holy Roman emperor in Germany; the Holy Roman emperor even sent the bishop Liutprand of Cremona to make a report on the Byzantine court where he saw Constantine VII on this throne rise up from a sort of mechanism and a gold tree that produced music. More importantly Constantine VII was a brilliant emperor who wrote several volumes of works including his most famous De Administrando Imperio which focuses on dealing with foreigners and their traits in both war and peace, it also describes the cultures of other people outside the empire as well as about the Themes of the empire; surprisingly he knew all this information he wrote despite not having gone to those faraway places himself, but probably he ordered his diplomats to report their discoveries in great detail; these works he made were instruction manuals for running the empire dedicated to his son and successor Romanos II. Constantine VII, the renaissance man was a writer, historian, geographer, anthropologist, painter, and sculptor who brought in the golden age of learning but he mostly dedicated his reign to knowledge while it was his energetic wife Helena Lekapene that was the power behind him who dealt with the court and generals; she was very the same as what Theodora was to Justinian I but Constantine VII was not energetic and forceful like Justinian as he was more of a deep thinker like Julian (r. 361-363) except Constantine VII had no intention to revolutionize the empire and its ideas the way Julian did; more or less Constantine VII was the Byzantine version of the scholarly Roman emperor Claudius I (r. 41-54AD) who dedicated his life to scholarly interests. Later in his reign, Constantine encountered Olga, the queen regent of the Kievan Rus who was baptized in Constantinople, though Constantine fell in love with her, Olga said she couldn’t marry him as he made him her godfather saying that a goddaughter and cannot marry her godfather, although from this visit, Olga returned to Kiev as a Christian and began Christianizing the people there. Constantine VII died suddenly in 959 allegedly being poisoned by his daughter-in-law Theophano, the wife of his son Romanos but Constantine VII died leaving behind a legacy of a golden age of art literature being a patron of the arts and learning and will be best remembered for his soft but extremely intelligent personality that had marked his reign’s successes. When his son Romanos II became sole emperor in 959 while still young, he inherited an organized court, a detailed imperial instruction manual, and a stable empire ready for conquest which his father left behind, although the problem only was that Romanos II lacked his father’s wisdom and intellect and was rather a fun-loving young man who spent his time at parties, but the bigger problem was his wife Theophano, a woman of low birth, and a daughter of the innkeeper Krateros in Laconia; Romanos met her there and took this innkeeper as his wife against his father’s wishes. It was said that Theophano who had poisoned Constantine VII later poisoned her husband Romanos II in 963. Romanos II’s reign was spent mostly having fun while his advisor the eunuch Joseph Bringas ran court affairs, but his reign despite him being idle was a successful one as there had been no disasters but instead victories, such as the reconquest of Crete from the Arabs in 961 by the general Nikephoros Phokas.

Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos writing DAI


Nikephoros II Phokas, John I Tzimiskes, and Theophano


Starting with the reign of Romanos I Lekapenos (920-944), the Byzantine Empire’s tide of war changed from fighting to defend themselves which they did for centuries to now fighting to conquer new lands, most which had been lost to the Arabs and Bulgars. One general who became emperor to bring the glorious age of conquest back to Byzantium- like how it was in the time of Justinian I in the 6th century- was the general Nikephoros Phokas, born in 912 in Cappadocia to the powerful Phokas military family; Nikephoros’ father Bardas was a successful of general who was still energetic in leading the army when already in his 80’s. Nikephoros Phokas would be the greatest general Byzantium saw in the 10th century and the greatest general Byzantium had ever since Justinian I’s general Belisarius in the 6th century, Nikephoros too would be Byzantium’s version of the Roman general Germanicus in skill but not in charm. Nikephoros’ greatest success as a general was the Reconquest of Crete in 961 from the Arab Emirate based in it while Romanos II was the Byzantine emperor; here Nikephoros succeeded where many had failed which was in capturing the capital, Chandax that has been the capital of the Emirate based there. Nikephoros in recapturing Crete used both his strategies in war and brutal tactics such as catapulting heads of the people’s dead relatives to scare those inside, but here out of fun, he also catapulted a donkey into the city. Following the conquest of Crete, Nikephoros and his brother Leo successfully crushed the Arabs in the east going as far as to conquer Aleppo in Syria from the Emirate of Sayf al-Dawla in 962; for his victories against the Arabs and his brutality in killing them, Nikephoros was given the title “the white death of the Saracens”. In March of 963, when Aleppo had already been taken by the Byzantines, the emperor Romanos II unexpectedly died at only 26 probably from excessive drinking but it was said his wife Theophano poisoned him; Theophano who originally the Laconian Greek innkeeper’s daughter was already known to be scheming and ambitious and would do anything for her own gain. Since Theophano could not rule alone, their sons Basil and Constantine were still too young, and the most powerful person in the court, Joseph Bringas was a eunuch, a strong man needed to rule the empire and the right person for the job was Nikephoros. In August 963, Nikephoros II Phokas was crowned emperor after beating the eunuch Bringas in a street fight, Nikephoros then married Theophano becoming the senior emperor and the second person since Romanos I from outside the Macedonian imperial family to become emperor, but his marriage to Theophano made him a family member as well, and being part of the family he made an oath to protect the young co-emperors Basil and Constantine. As emperor, Nikephoros II was a great one only because of his military ability but other than his personality as a soldier, strategist, and brilliant general, he lacked charm, was negative in thinking, cold to people, was unattractive, and as I could imagine had a unsophisticated country accent. Nikephoros II when marrying Theophano was already over 50 but surprisingly his father was still alive and made a Caesar, Theophano however was much younger only in her 20’s but despite coming from humble origins, she was skilled at scheming. During his reign, Nikephoros II failed in defending Sicily from the Arab conquest but still successfully took back Cyprus from the Arabs in 965 but in the north, things went worse as the war with the Bulgars returned. Nikephoros II had also failed at diplomacy especially with the Holy Roman emperor Otto I; Otto I sent the bishop Liutprand of Cremona back to Constantinople giving a negative image of the emperor calling him only the “emperor of the Greeks” and not of “the Romans”, however Nikephoros replied calling Otto only “king” and not “emperor”, Liutprand also described Nikephoros as a deformed and disgusting monster, probably as a racial slur to the Byzantines; in return, Nikephoros had Liutprand’s silks he was going to take back confiscated when he left Constantinople. Nikephoros was however a religious man who established the monasteries of Mt. Athos with his friend the monk Athanasios of Trebizond but when it came to dealing with the Church, Nikephoros had never really been at friendly terms as he made laws limiting the Church from owning properties thinking that the Church should not possess wealth. Surprisingly because of helping found the monastic community of Mt. Athos, Nikephoros II is considered a saint there, also he was seriously Christian that he chose to live his life in a more ascetic than lavish way and he honoured his oath to protect the young co-emperors and not usurp them. As emperor, despite his great victories, Nikephoros remained unpopular with the people who even threw stones at him as he passed Constantinople’s main street, this was because he made taxes so high only for the war effort. In fact he even fell out with his nephew the general John Tzimiskes and other generals and in December of 969, John led the conspiracy to assassinate the emperor also with the support of the empress Theophano, who became John’s lover. On the night of December 10/11, 969 while the emperor was asleep, John and his assassins sneaked into his bedroom and finished off Nikephoros II and right after, John I Tzimiskes was crowned. Nikephoros II Phokas died miserably and violently the way he lived his life, though despite being a successful general, his personality was only that of a soldier lacking the charm and reason a good emperor needs, although because of Nikephoros’ life of war, the Muslim Arabs were once and for all driven away and no longer a threat to the Byzantines. Nikephoros in his life lived up to his name which in Greek meant “bringer of victory” but overall, the military and war was his only strength though at the end, but despite his conflicted personality, he still brought glory back to Byzantium in fully bringing back successful reconquests.

John I Tzimiskes (r. 969-976), the nephew of Nikephoros shared many traits with his uncle as a successful general but ruled much better as emperor. John I had after killing his uncle personally who he fell out with came to power just like in Macbeth where Macbeth kills the king and becomes king, though with John I as he came to power, he had to do what needed to be done and acting on the advice of the patriarch, he banished his lover and the ex-emperor’s widow Theophano while he still kept the oat of Nikephoros and Theophano’s sons still stayed and ruled as co-emperors; John then had to marry Theodora, the sister of Romanos II and daughter of Constantine VII to become part of the imperial family. As emperor, John I was still very much like his predecessor except much younger, had more charms, and listened to the people more that he made laws that protected the poor against the landowners, yet John I was also a strong and skilled horseman despite his short height who could jump from horse to horse while at a full-speed gallop. John I had also continued Byzantium’s successes in war by capturing Antioch being the first Byzantine emperor since Heraclius in the 7th century to go that far east while being emperor and in the north he was able to start the Byzantine conquest of Bulgaria by allying with the Rus’ prince Sviatoslav I in fighting against the Bulgars. With the west, John’s diplomacy was better than that of his uncle that he pushed through with the marriage alliance his uncle rejected of his relative also named Theophano to the new emperor Otto II of the Holy Roman Empire; this marriage then introduced the fork to the west. In his short reign from 969-976, John I spent most of it in battle both with the Bulgarians and again in the east against the Arabs and coming back to Constantinople in 976 he suddenly died from a sickness, though it was said his chamberlain the eunuch Basil Lekapenos, the illegitimate son of Romanos I poisoned him. John I Tzimiskes however died having a short but fulfilling reign with a personality of a skilled commander and popular politician combined; upon his death, John’s personal wealth was distributed among the sick and poor, the main street of Thessaloniki in Greece today called Tsimiski is named after him.

Watch this to know more about Nikephoros II Phokas (from History Time).

Watch “The Rise of Phokas” to know more about Nikephoros II’s story in Lego (from No Budget Films).

Watch “Killing a Byzantine Emperor” to see the death of Nikephoros II and rise of John I in Lego (from No Budget Films).

Meme of the “white death” Nikephoros II
Drawings of 10th century Byzantine figures: Bardas Skleros, John Tzimiskes, Constantine VII, Romanos II, Theophano, and Basil II

Watch this for the story of the encounter between Liutprand of Cremona and Nikephoros II Phokas (from Voices of the Past).


Basil II the “Bulgar-Slayer”


The consecutive reigns of the emperors Nikephoros II Phokas (963-969) and John I Tzimiskes (969-976) and Romanos I before them (920-944) saw the Macedonian Dynasty of the Byzantine Empire become only ceremonial as the empire became ruled by usurping generals not from the family but when Basil II now old enough came to power in 976 as senior emperor following the death of his regent John I, the rule of a member of the Macedonian Dynasty founded by Basil I (r. 867-886) returned and the Byzantine Empire and thanks to the efforts of the previous emperors since Basil I, had become once again a powerful state in both militarily and culturally. Basil II (r. 976-1025), the eldest son of Emperor Romanos II and Theophano born in 958, named after his great-great grandfather and the founder of the dynasty on the other hand as emperor would not only keep it this way but expand it even more making Byzantium reach its height of power in its second age, at the same time making Byzantium once again the leading power of Medieval Europe. He too would be Byzantium’s longest reigning emperor, and if not the longest reigning Roman emperor. After such a long time, another visionary like Justinian I in the 6th century would come back to the Byzantine throne, and this emperor was Basil II who once again dreamed of making Byzantium a world power but when he inherited the empire, it was left in a mess which he had to solve. The first thing he had to do was to banish the influential and scheming eunuch chamberlain Basil Lekapenos who had been in power for 42 years then Basil’s authority remained challenged by the rebel general Bardas Phokas who had a claim to throne and was already starting a civil war to claim the empire for himself. Even earlier in his reign, Basil knew diplomacy and could bend foreign rulers to his will first by making peace with the Fatimid Arabs as he saw no need to fight them anymore then Vladimir I, grand prince of Kiev who was seen as a threat to the Byzantines but for an alliance to put down the rebellion of Bardas Phokas, Basil II married his younger sister Anna Porphyrogenita to Vladimir in 988 and in return the Kievan Rus sent Basil II an army of 6,000 large and strong men which then became known as the Varangian Guards. It was said that Grand Prince Vladimir only converted to Christianity to marry Anna as it was considered a great achievement to marry a Byzantine but she at first did not want to marry Vladimir and travel all the way to the unknown north but they still married and this marriage both benefited the empires of the Byzantines and Kievan Rus, for the Byzantines the Varangian Guard unit came in to solve its conflicts and for Kiev, this marriage began the people’s conversion to Christianity falling under the Byzantine sphere of influence. With the arrival of the strong and loyal Rus and Scandinavian Varangian units, Basil was able to crush the rebellion of Bardas Phokas against him in 989; it was even said that when seeing the massive number of these massive guardsmen wielding large axes, Bardas Phokas died of a heart attack during the battle. 2 years later, the other rebel general Bardas Skleros was submitted to Basil and from this point, Basil’s life and personality changed from being a young pleasure loving person like his father Romanos II to becoming a strategic warrior emperor as when seeing these victories, he knew more awaited him in life but it meant constantly having to be there all the time with his army, seldom being in the imperial palace in Constantinople, and not marrying anyone his entire life. In the next years of his reign beginning the 990’s, Basil II worked continuously on his conquests of the Bulgarian Empire which at first failed but due to years of experience in leading his troops as he began with not much skill in warfare compared to his 2 predecessors, he started to succeed in the battlefield. Basil II’s greatest military success came in 1014 when he with the help of the Varangian Guards again defeated the Bulgar army at the Battle of Kleidion which ended decades of constant conflict between the Byzantines and Bulgarians and when winning the battle, Basil had the 15,000 Bulgarian prisoners of war blinded leaving 1 out of every 100 with one eye to lead his group back home. When the Bulgarian tsar Samuil in Ohrid saw his men return blinded, he died of a heart attack, just like Bardas Skleros and by 1018, the entire Bulgarian Empire fell under Byzantine control, thus Basil II was given the title “the Bulgar-Slayer” or Boulgaroktonos in Greek for once and for all ending Byzantium’s almost 4 century conflicts with the Bulgarians that began during the reign of Constantine IV in 681 when parts of the Byzantine Balkans were ceded to the first Bulgarian ruler Asparukh. Basil II when conquering the entire Bulgarian Empire toured the new lands he reconquered and promised to keep the taxes for the Bulgarians low so they would remain loyal to Byzantium; Basil II then made the Balkan kingdoms of Croatia and Serbia client kingdoms of Byzantium, used diplomacy to cede many Armenian and Georgian states to Byzantium for protection by making their rulers adopt him as their successor, and Byzantine hold of Southern Italy was strengthened. Basil II died in 1025 leaving Byzantium once again another strong and stable empire once again large in size spanning west to east from Italy to Armenia, north to south from the Danube River and Cherson in the Crimea to Syria, and having the entire Balkans, although Basil II’s empire would not be as large as Justinian I’s 500 years before him, it was still left a rich one with a full treasury due to Basil’s apparent skill in money, and meanwhile others would choose to no longer attack Byzantium again after seeing what happened to Bulgaria, instead other powers ended up recognising Byzantine supremacy. Basil II’s appearance and very complex personality in a nutshell is described by the Byzantine historian Michael Psellos (1017-1078) describing Basil as short and wide in stature but despite his height, he had a powerful personality as a disciplinarian and commander who although not being an articulate speaker, he was respected and feared by his troops and in battle he had to ability to notice everything around him including soldiers who would charge out heroically and for these kinds of soldiers, Basil did not reward them but instead punish them by kicking them out of the army as for him, the most important thing for his soldiers was to always stay in formation. Overall, Basil II was at most the ambitious military and visionary emperor but only with the singular goal of making his empire great through military conquests as he had the gift of commanding men but as a person he was quite lonely not only because he never married but spent most of his life in the battlefield not knowing what the good life was. Basil though began life living in pleasure but as emperor, but when finishing the civil war with Bardas Phokas in 989, he quickly saw that he had a singular goal and devotion, which was to make the Byzantine Empire great again as it was already on an upswing of greatness; Basil II as emperor was also another odd one for not living the life most emperors did in their palaces with good food, parties, and expensive clothes but instead, Basil chose to most of the time wear military gear to be seen as an equal with his soldiers, eat ordinary food just like the soldiers did, and as emperor he cared more for the interests of the poor and limited the power of the rich and powerful landowners. On the other hand, Basil II was quite an uncultured man who did not care much about literature, art, and the intellectuals for someone in his time, the Macedonian Renaissance of Byzantine culture but since culture has already been promoted by his grandfather Constantine VII before him, Basil saw that the need was to make Byzantium more of a military power. To put it short, Basil II was similar to his predecessors Nikephoros II and John I for being a great commander in war but was nothing like his fun-loving father and intellectual grandfather but was definitely Byzantium’s “new Justinian” for his big dreams of expanding the empire and for his victories in battle though Basil’s dreams were only in military strength unlike Justinian who dreamt of making Byzantium great in everything; Basil too was Byzantium’s version of Alexander the Great of Macedonia in the 4th century BC. Like Justinian I who left behind a large empire at his death, Basil II at his death on December 15, 1025 in Constantinople left behind another large empire which would shortly after become too problematic to manage that Byzantium’s new age of greatness would only be short-lived. Long after his death, Basil II would still be one of the most famous Byzantine, if not medieval rulers especially since in Greece he is still remembered as a Great War hero while in Bulgaria he is a total villain, but for me he is a character that showed a lot of character development and a surprisingly effective rule during his long reign as emperor. Basil II though did live up to the first Basil and in fact did much even living up to the level of Justinian the Great himself; Basil II too had no direct heir so the only successor he had to the throne was his younger brother Constantine VIII (r. 1025-1028), but his reign did not have the greatness of his brother. Basil II died the longest ruler in Byzantine history ruling for 49 years but if included his 16 years as co-emperor, his reign had a total of 65 years. Basil II’s reign saw the culmination of the entire cultural and military revival brought by the previous emperors of the Macedonian Dynasty since Basil I and by the time of Basil II’s death in 1025, the influence of Byzantium was so strong again that it’s greatness was talked about all the way in Scandinavia by members of the Varangian Guard that returned home.

Watch this for more details on Byzantium’s expansion under Basil II (from Hallen01).

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The Byzantine Empire at the beginning of Basil II’s reign, 976
Fullest extent of Basil II’s Byzantine Empire, 1025

Watch this to know more about Basil II’s life and reign (from Tooky History).


Constantine VIII, Zoe, Romanos III, Theodora, the Paphlagonians, and Constantine IX


Basil II’s death in 1025 did not start the continuation of a new golden age he left behind but the start of the empire’s decline in the 11th century beginning right after Basil’s death and the ascension of his younger brother Constantine VIII as emperor as Basil had no children of his own just like Justinian 5 centuries before. Constantine, born in 960 spent most of his life living in pleasure and entertainment enjoying hunting and riding but had been co-emperor almost his entirely life ever since he was crowned by his father Romanos II in 962, then he had remained co-emperor during the reigns of Nikephoros II, John I, and his brother Basil II and only in 1025 when Constantine was already old dying, he became the sole ruler of the empire. As emperor however, Constantine remained his old lazy and debauched self, his personality was overall inherited from his father and he none of his brother’s great military and administrative skills, the only trait he shared with his brother was his cruelty, as Basil blinded his Bulgarian prisoners of war, Constantine blinded anyone who he thought was challenging him. The greatness Basil II left behind was ruined the moment Constantine VIII came into power the same way the empire was left behind in 565 after Justinian I’s death to his nephew Justin II (r. 565-574), except that Justin II still tried to keep the large empire stable but it drove him mad at the end, Constantine VIII however did not care to leave his brother’s great work of the new large empire he built in decay. While having an empire so large but stable and rich to govern, Constantine VIII did not care and remained feasting and partying, and at the end his uselessness and cruelty to those who opposed made him lose friends, thus only ruling for 3 years, Constantine VIII died in 1028 an unpopular ruler who undid his brother’s great legacy. Basil II died a popular ruler who made the empire large and great again with the entire Balkans under their control and Byzantium once again superior to other powers but his brother Constantine VIII’s short reign had begun undoing all this greatness that was so hard to achieve. Before his death, Constantine VIII who had no sons forced the nobleman Romanos Argyros to marry his daughter Zoe, Romanos was given the ultimatum to divorce his wife and marry Zoe or be blinded which was the common punishment for anyone the emperor didn’t like, Romanos then chose the first option, married Zoe and after Constantine’s death on November 11, 1028, Romanos III became emperor.

As emperor, Romanos III (r. 1028-1034) was already quite old, had good intentions though but failed to execute them, but had no military commanding experience at all as he was overall a noble who’s only profession before was a judge. Romanos III as emperor intended to live up to the Roman emperors Marcus Aurelius in being a philosopher king and Trajan in being a warrior but in a military campaign the emperor launched against the Arab Mirdasids east of Aleppo in 1030, he failed very bad and worse than this, he spend the empire’s money on useless projects in repairing churches and monasteries. Zoe, the emperor’s wife and co-ruler was in fact never married until she was 50 to Romanos III, although back in 1002 she was chosen by the Holy Roman emperor Otto III as his wife and with the approval of her uncle Basil II, she departed for Germany but when the ship reached Bari in Italy, she found out Otto III had died forcing her to return and wait till 1028 to be married. The marriage of Zoe and Romanos III did not last though as Zoe fell in love with a Paphlagonian court servant named Michael and on the same day Romanos III died, April 11, 1034, Michael and Zoe were married. Romanos III was found dying in his bath, most probably being poisoned by Zoe and Michael, though the chronicler Michael Psellos says the people who found the dying emperor strangled him but the drawings of John Skylitzes shows that Romanos was drowned on Michael’s orders. Despite their large age gap where Zoe was over 50 and Michael in his 20’s, they were still married and Michael who began out as a peasant later becoming a money changer before he gained a job at the imperial court was crowned Emperor Michael IV in 1034 but his marriage to Zoe was still an unsuccessful one as Michael excluded her from running the empire confining her to the palace while the energetic and ambitious Michael ran the show. Michael IV had many ambitions especially in reforming the army and was a skillful planner which was not bad for someone uneducated and of low birth, however the only thing that hindered him from fulfilling his ambitions was his sickness, epilepsy and to continue his work, Michael left running the empire to his brother the court eunuch John. The only success of Michael IV’s reign was putting down a Bulgarian revolt in 1041 once again using the Varangian Guard mercenaries including the future king of Norway Harald Hardrada who was one of them but shortly after this victory, Michael’s epilepsy grew worse and on December of that year he died as a monk naming his nephew also named Michael who was only 5 years younger than him as his successor. In his reign, Michael IV was another nobody who came to power out of luck and falling in love but when in power despite ruling quite well, he was another person who used his power to appoint people of his lower-class family to positions of power such as his nephew. The nephew, Michael V came to power in 1041 while his father Stephanos who originally a caulker was made an admiral by Michael IV and at this point, power from the Macedonian Dynasty shifted to a Paphlagonian family that came from nothing. Michael V had been adopted by Zoe as her step-son but in 1042 wanting to rule alone, the power-hungry young man Michael V banished Zoe to a nunnery but a day later, a mob rose up against him demanding Zoe to be put back as turns Zoe happened to be popular. Zoe was in fact put back into power on April 20, 1042 and Michael V fled to a monastery where later he was arrested and blinded later dying on August 24, 1042. The Paphlagonians Michael IV and V were then the last Byzantine rulers to rise to power coming from humble origins.

For the next 2 months, from April to June of 1042, Zoe and her sister Theodora, the last survivors of the Macedonian Dynasty ran the empire, though Theodora would remain the power behind Zoe until Zoe married her former lover, the much younger nobleman Constantine Monomachos who in June was then crowned the official emperor while Zoe and Theodora were co-rulers. Constantine IX (r. 1042-1055) as it turns out was another competent ruler but still not a member of the ruling dynasty; however during his reign, he was more of an intellectual who favored scholars over the army but while living a life of pleasure, the empire was once again threatened externally, in the east by the Seljuks raiding from Central Asia and the Balkans raided by the Pechenegs while 2 generals rebelled against him. Constantine IX had then turned out to be a troubled ruler who faced countless problems and his greatest failures were wasting the imperial treasury by paying off an Arab commander 500,000 gold coins but worse than this, the Great Schism between the Byzantine and Roman Churches took place in 1054 marking the final separation of both churches, thus the pope in Rome refused to aid Constantine in fighting the invading Normans in Italy. Zoe had died back in 1050 and 5 years later in 1055, Constantine IX himself died leaving Zoe’s sister Theodora as the last of the Macedonian Dynasty therefore becoming the sole ruler of the empire for 1 year from 1055 to her death the next year. After Zoe’s death in 1050, Theodora retired until Constantine IX’s death in 1055 when she had to return to power though opposed by the army; for the 1 year she reigned, Theodora was the 2nd woman to rule Byzantium alone since Irene (r. 797-802), though being opposed by many, Theodora despite being already 76 tried to rule strong but on August 31, 1056, she unexpectedly died without any heir, thus the Macedonian Dynasty ended but at least its last ruler was from the family. Nothing much can be said about Theodora’s short reign but before dying, she appointed the finance minister as her successor who was then crowned Michael VI Bringas in 1056 but as it turns out, this non-dynastic emperor was a weak one who could barely hold his power when the military aristocracy who opposed him and Theodora before him rose up, and seeing no chance to hold the throne, Michael VI was convinced to abdicate by the patriarch Michael Keroularios only a year later in 1057; the throne was then taken by the rebel general Isaac I Komnenos. To put it short, the rulers who came after Basil II’s death in 1025 were all mostly weak and power-hungry ones who did not care to continue Basil II’s legacy of a maginificent empire but only to fight among themselves. Only Constantine VIII, Zoe, and Theodora were the remaining members of the Macedonian Dynasty founded by Basil I left running the empire while those ruling with Zoe: Romanos III, Michael IV, Michael V, and Constantine IX were another set of outsiders that joined into the ruling family. The Macedonian Dynasty ending in 1056 turned out to be the 2nd longest dynasty in the Byzantine Empire and the end of this dynasty saw the empire beginning its decline.

Mosaic of Emperor Constantine IX Monomachos (left) and Empress Zoe (right) surrounding Christ, Hagia Sophia

Watch this to know more about the decline of the Byzantine Empire in the 11th century following the successes of Basil II (from Eastern Roman History).


Isaac I Komnenos, Romanos IV, and the Doukas Dynasty


The long-lived Macedonian Dynasty ended in 1056 and Byzantium was left in a state of near collapse as the previous emperors did not care much to preserve the borders of the large empire Basil II left behind at his death in 1025. However, one man came to the rescue to return effectiveness to the empire, he was Isaac I Komnenos who was proclaimed emperor by his army in June of 1057 and with the abdication of the defenseless non-dynastic emperor Michael VI Bringas who only ruled for a year, Isaac I was crowned in Constantinople as the first member of the military Komnenos family to rule the empire. Isaac was the son of the general Manuel Erotikos Komnenos, a general of Emperor Basil II, though he died when Isaac was still young, so Isaac was raised under the care of Basil II and grew up to be a powerful general commanding the armies in the east during the from 1042 to 1057. After coming to power by leading a massive military uprising, he proved to be another capable ruler who resolved the empire’s problems by practical means and not ambitious conquests and projects. The more practical problems he did to restore the empire’s financial stability ruined by his predecessor Constantine IX (r. 1042-1055) were however met with opposition especially by the Church as Isaac I planned to tax the Church and confiscate their property to fill the empire’s treasury. The person who put him in power, the patriarch Michael Keroularios turned out to be the one to oppose him and in 1058, the patriarch then was arrested and exiled but before a synod was made to depose him, he died. In terms of war and diplomacy, Isaac I was more successful especially in making a treaty with the Hungarians to not attack the northern border and in the summer of 1059, the Pecheneg threat was put down, meanwhile the eastern borders remained unthreatened. Isaac I too was a hunting enthusiast but during a hunt in 1059, he suddenly fell ill with a fever lasting for days which made him fear his near death, the chronicler Michael Psellos who was still at court then convinced Isaac to abdicate due to his health, which he did. Once Isaac abdicated in November of 1059, he passed the throne not to any of his sons but to his friend, the general Constantine Doukas while Isaac retired to a monastery living his life until his death only a year later as a simple monk. The history of Byzantium under weak minded emperor under the influence of powerful eunuchs from Basil II’s death in 1025 to the ascension of Isaac I in 1057 is recorded by the chronicler Michael Psellos who ends with Isaac I’s reign saying he brought an end to the weak inept rules and brought back a strong rule but due to his condition, thus strong rule couldn’t continue and weak emperors returned once more. 

Isaac I’s successor Constantine X was one of the generals who helped Isaac take the throne in 1057 but Constantine X was nothing like the practical military man his predecessor was, although a general Constantine was more interested in and addicted to endless debates of philosophy and theology and as emperor he was another scholar type but unlike Constantine VII more than a century earlier, he did not rule well. As emperor all Constantine X did was appoint his 2 sons and brother as co-emperors, undo Isaac I’s policy returning property and wealth back to the Church as his interests in theology made him favor the Church, and when coming to defending the empire, Constantine did not care much and seeing the empire’s eastern borders in a hopeless situation, he disbanded an army of 50,000 Armenian troops right when the Seljuks from Central Asia led by Alp Arslan began raiding Byzantine territory, thus Constantine X became unpopular among the army including those who supported him and Isaac I. Constantine X who already old and bad in health when coming into power in 1059 died in 1067 remaining one of Byzantium’s worst and most useless rulers not because he didn’t have a brain but because his brain was elsewhere constantly debating on theology, and the worst part was that he was a successful general earlier on but when he became emperor it seemed like he stopped caring anymore and his ignorance in running the empire led not just the Seljuks to raid into Asia Minor but most of Southern Italy except for Bari to fall to the Normans led by Robert Guiscard. Upon his death, Constantine X’s son Michael VII Doukas was already old enough but being not interested in politics, he was seen as unfit; meanwhile Constantine X’s wife Eudokia pledged to her dying husband that she would not marry anyone again but since the empire was in a dire situation, it needed a strong ruler and that person happened to be the general Romanos Diogenes who Eudokia put in prison for aspiring to take the throne. At the beginning of 1068, Eudokia married Romanos who was immediately crowned Emperor Romanos IV Diogenes but his rise to power was heavily opposed by the Doukas family, particularly by Constantine X’s brother John. Romanos IV (r. 1068-1071) was overall just another usurping general who aspired to take the throne but to prove he was up no good he declared his intentions of becoming emperor to put an end to the new Seljuk threat in Asia Minor. Romanos IV however despite being a successful general before was not a military strategist and did not care to restore the army Constantine X disbanded, instead he relied too much on foreign mercenaries and did not care to discipline his troops; rather he was an impatient commander who only wanted to crush the Seljuks thinking they weren’t as much of a threat. Meanwhile, Romanos IV still remained unpopular at Constantinople for refusing to do projects in improving the city as he rather dedicated his reign as a military man like Nikephoros II a century earlier in dealing with the enemy. In 1071, Romanos having raised a large but undisciplined army marched east to Eastern Anatolia to battle Alp Arslan’s army, though thinking the Seljuks would advance from the west bank of Lake Van, he placed a division there but the Seljuks came from the north, wiped out that division and soon enough he confronted the large Seljuk army of Alp Arslan in Manzikert on August 25, 1071. Although Alp Arslan proposed peace with the Byzantines, Romanos wanting a victory refused the offer, thus the large decisive battle began lasting the whole day. At the end, Romanos was wrong, the Seljuks were in fact no match for the no longer feared Byzantine army despite it still having the Varangian Guards, and Romanos still continued to fight on even with his horse being killed but with an injured hand disabling him from wielding a sword, he was then captured by the Seljuk Turks and brought before their leader, Alp Arslan. At first Alp Arslan only thought the person brought to him was only one of the soldiers so he stepped on his neck but when finding out he was the emperor, Alp Arslan being mistaken started treating him like a king. The battle ended with a heavy defeat for the Byzantines but the emperor Romanos and Alp Arslan strangely became friends and made a peace treaty which made Romanos surrender most of the eastern provinces and a large amount of gold coins to the Seljuk Turks while the Byzantines will be left unharmed. Back in Byzantine Italy, things were even worse as Bari itself fell to the Normans making the Byzantines lose total control over Italy and back in Constantinople, the ruling Doukas family thinking Romanos was dead restored Michael VII to power. Early in 1072 however, the Doukas family found out Romanos IV had survived the Battle of Manzikert and was on his way to take back the throne but when the forces of Romanos Diogenes and the Doukas family met at battle, Romanos was defeated having to surrender the imperial purple, and when promised to be spared, the emperor Michael VII’s uncle John Doukas broke the promise and blinded Romanos who died a few days later from his wounds as he had no medical assistance. Romanos IV died shamefully, first he was defeated by the Seljuks who he aimed to crush, then again defeated by his own people. Despite Romanos IV’s lack of thinking and discipline in his army, he was heroic and courageous but clearly only desired victory for fame but at the end he failed it dying unpopular as he lived, his own impatient personality in running the empire especially at war would have shamed Basil II.

If Romanos IV was unpopular among the Byzantines, his co-emperor and successor Michael VII Doukas (r. 1071-1078) was much worse; first of all, he became senior emperor in 1071 when his step-father Romanos was thought to be dead. Michael VII as emperor was very much like his father Constantine X who cared only about academic pursuits and theological matters not giving a damn at all about finance that army continued to be poorly financed, and worse the Nomadic Seljuks after the death of Alp Arslan continued overrunning Byzantine territory in Asia Minor. Michael VII, though an intellectual person, his mind was always absent focusing on his studies while his uncle John, the chronicler Michael Psellos who was still alive, and the financer Nikephoritzes basically ran the empire for him. Michael VII was plainly blind to the empire collapsing around him being oblivious to the growing Seljuk and Norman threat, usurpers rebelling against him, and the currency being devalued by a quarter which gave Michael the nickname Parapinakes meaning “minus a quarter in Greek”. The worst thing about him was that he allowed the Seljuks to take most of Asia Minor after he asked them for their help to fight off a rebellious mercenary. Although despite being ignorant as emperor, Michael VII had one achievement which was sending an embassy to the Song Empire of China in 1078 which arrived all the way in 1081 being the last emperor since Constans II in 643 to send a Byzantine embassy all the way to China. Although in the same year Michael VII sent the embassy, the generals Nikephoros Bryennios and Nikephoros Botaneiates revolted against him, thus Michael VII resigned the throne in order to not be deposed, then afterwards Botaneiates took Michael’s wife Maria of Alania, married her, and was crowned Emperor Nikephoros III in 1078. Michael VII who was never really interested in being emperor retired to monastery and it was said that his ignorance and inexperience only made him fit to be a bishop, a true enough he later became the bishop of Ephesus. Nikephoros III, the general who took over was already 76 when crowned emperor- despite looking young in the manuscripts- and when ruling the empire, he was another useless one who faced several rebellions against him and ironically his reign ended the same way Michael VII’s did as Nikephoros resigned from power in 1081 retiring to a monastery where he died later the same year. Nikephoros III was successfully overthrown by the young general Alexios Komnenos, a nephew of the former emperor Isaac I Komnenos. Now these 24 years between the ascension of Isaac I Komnenos and Alexios I Komnenos were one of the most eventful for Byzantium by first having a capable ruler who suddenly resigned due to sickness passing the throne to a weak incompetent ruler who was succeeded by an aspiring general who failed to achieve his goals, then to another weak emperor not interested to rule, then to another old and weak minded ruler, and finally to another young and brilliant general. These 24 years had also seen Byzantium’s rapid decline with the Nomadic Seljuk Turks who had just recently converted to Islam quickly gain control over Asia Minor with force while the Normans kicked the Byzantines completely out of Italy. With Byzantium now really on the verge of collapse, this young general Alexios Komnenos who came to power in 1081 would once again be another savior of the empire from complete collapse who would not just save it but bring back another golden age.

Battle of Manzikert, 1071

Watch this to known more about Emperor Romanos IV and the defeat at Manzikert (from  Eastern Roman History).

Watch this to know more about Emperor Nikephoros III (from Eastern Roman History).


Alexios I Komnenos and Anna Komnene


In the second half of the 11th century, the Byzantine Empire was already in total decline; the empire enlarged and stabilized by Basil II earlier that century was overrun by the Seljuk Turks in the east, the Normans completely took control of Italy and the Balkans were constantly raided by the Nomadic Pechenegs, meanwhile many emperors after Basil II’s death in 1025 onwards were weak rulers leaving the once feared and invincible army of the Byzantine Empire in a state of decay and the economy reduced, now all it would take to save Byzantium, though still large but already at the point of suddenly collapsing was the general turned emperor Alexios I Komnenos (r. 1081-1118). An energetic, hyperactive, innovative, and courageous ruler, the young Alexios Komnenos came into power in 1081 after leading the final rebellion in a series of rebellions to overthrow the old emperor Nikephoros III who Alexios served before as general. Alexios was not the first of the Komnenos emperors, his uncle Isaac I (r. 1057-1059) was the first of the dynasty but Alexios brought his family back to power, continued to do what his uncle failed to do, and started its dynastic succession which would rule Byzantium for a hundred years and for the next 2 centuries, it would rule the extension of the Byzantine Empire at Trebizond. Alexios before becoming emperor was born in 1056, the 6th of 8 children of Isaac I’s younger brother John Komnenos and Anna Dalassene and a successful soldier who subdued the rebellious western mercenaries and captured its leader in 1074 then in 1081, Alexios led a massive rebellion against Nikephoros III surprisingly supported by Nikephoros III’s wife Maria of Alania and on April 1, 1081 Alexios I came into power. Alexios’ mission was then clear when he took the throne, he intended to once again bring back the old glory of the empire of Basil II’s time and to restore stability in the system from its weak previous rulers who left the empire in ruin. To restore Byzantium’s old glory, Alexios I had to do it step by step first by fighting off the Normans who began invading the Western Balkans or Albania, then the Pechenegs in the north, and finally the more serious threat the Seljuks in Asia Minor then he would move on the reform the state’s economy itself, though having to spend most of his early reign campaigning against the empire’s enemies, Alexios left running court in Constantinople to his mother, Anna Dalassene. Alexios was at most a military man and strategist while court matters wasn’t his strength, and with came to running the court, his mother was the dominant force behind his rule the same way the empress Livia of the 1st century Roman Empire was the power behind her son the emperor Tiberius, although Alexios would never try to get rid of his mother’s influence but in fact give her and not his wife the title of Augusta, in fact it was Alexios’ influential mother that helped him take the throne in 1081. The same year he became emperor, once all internal threats were put down, Alexios I marched to Dyrrachion in today’s Albania to fight off the Norman invaders led by Robert Guiscard but at his battle despite having the Varangian Guards mostly Anglo-Saxons from England desiring revenge against their Norman conquerors lost the battle, Alexios when escaping the battle fought the Normans himself for his life. The Normans would be defeated and driven away from the Balkans a fee years later but Alexios at this point learned from his mistake that leading an offensive would no longer be the perfect solution for a Byzantine victory, so instead he resorted to making alliances or bribing others to fight off his enemies which was put into action in the war against the Pechenegs in 1091 where Alexios bribed the Cumans to ally with the Byzantines and at the end they won against the Pechenegs in the Balkans. Now with the Normans and Pechenegs subdued, Alexios was ready to face the Seljuks, the bigger threat and the Byzantine army he was left with was no match against the massive numbers of the Seljuks that they were only able to reclaim the coastal areas of Asia Minor, Alexios then had a brilliant but risky solution in mind in order to fight the Seljuks, this was to ask the kingdoms of Western Europe for mercenaries even though the Byzantium and the west were no longer in friendly terms ever since the Church Schism of 1054. When Alexios I sought aid from the west in 1095, Pope Urban II upon receiving the emperor’s report called for the First Crusade at the Council of Clermont, here the first group crusaders mostly made up of peasants from all over Europe led by a monk named Peter the Hermit began to march east and when arriving at Constantinople, Alexios was shocked to see the army that came before him as he plainly asked for mercenaries and not hordes of armed peasants. For the west, their intention for starting this crusade movement was not to help Alexios I recover lost territory from the Seljuks but to take back Jerusalem for the Christians which had fallen to the Muslim Seljuks cutting of Christian pilgrimage. With the arrival of Peter the Hermit and the People’s Crusade at Constantinople, Alexios who expected an army of knights just ordered Peter and his peasant army to go onto Asia Minor and fight the Seljuks at their own risk, and true enough they were heavily defeated. In 1096, the arrival of the real Crusade led by the princes of Europe arrived and one by one met the emperor who also sent them off one by one to Asia Minor together with his own army to make sure they return the lands they recaptured back to the Byzantines. The leaders here included Godfrey of Bouillon, Raymond IV of Toulouse, and Bohemond of Taranto the son of Alexios’ old enemy, the Norman Robert Guiscard although for the sake of fighting the Seljuks, the Norman Bohemond forgot about their old hatred, and at the end many of the lands of Asia Minor were brought back to Byzantium but as the Crusaders progressed further south and east, they claimed the lands they captured from the Seljuks for themselves including Antioch which Bohemond made as his own state and later in 1099, Jerusalem was taken with Godfrey of Bouillon making it his kingdom. Despite Alexios’ failure in bringing back many lost lands to the Byzantines which instead fell to the greedy Crusaders, he succeeded in weakening the once powerful Seljuk threat allowing Byzantium to prosper once again. For his ability in regaining old territories and driving away the enemies that threatened the empire and reforming the army that had been in decay, Alexios I was a popular ruler and also a pious Christian but in his later years, his persecution of Paulician and Bogomil heretics which made him even burn the Bogomil heretic leader on a stake even though sparing the rest made him unpopular. Although, aside from his conquests, Alexios succeeded in diplomacy, both in bribing others to his cause and once again restoring friendly relations with the west, which even included giving Venice an important trade position in Constantinople. Overall, Alexios I was someone who could have had ADHD for he was so active during his reign working 24/7 in restoring the empire’s old greatness, he too was courageous in battle, smart in diplomacy, but more importantly an innovator who knew the best solutions to adapt to especially in a time of being seriously challenged, he knew how to count on people even if they were enemies but he knew that he could use his enemies against his other enemies. The courageous and brilliant personality of Alexios I however is not very accurate as he was portrayed this way in the 500 page book, The Alexiad written by his daughter Anna Komnene who despite writing every single detail about her father and his reign gave him the opinionated impression of him as a heroic character, though under the personalities of the emperors, Alexios I falls under the practical soldier emperor, and not so much the visionary one. The way he wanted to appear in his daughter’s works on him shows his rather arrogant personality wanting to his image to look as good as possible but other than that, Alexios’ pride can be seen in creating new non-existing titles for members of family thinking the best solution for stability was to have many children and an extended family that would run the empire. Alexios I died in 1118 after going through a long sickness which made him weak while he had to watch his wife Irene Doukaina and daughter Anna Komnene argue on who should take the throne as Anna planned to put her and her husband Nikephoros Bryennios the Younger in power. True enough, Alexios I wasn’t much of a great court administrator as he left that job to his mother earlier in his reign, but Alexios I succeeded more in managing the army and fighting wars and he was never happier than in the battlefield with his army due to his upbringing as a soldier. Alexios I’s military and diplomatic successes brought in a new age called the “Komnenian Restoration” saving Byzantium from near collapse and making it the power in Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean once again but as a great capable emperor, Alexios I was more like Basil II for his military abilities and not so much like Justinian as he did not really succeed in promoting art and culture. At Alexios I’s death, the empire though being stable again no longer had control of Italy but its hold on the Balkans was still large as well as still holding onto Bulgaria, the Crimea, though their hold on Asia Minor was reduced compared to before as the deeper parts were never recovered from the Seljuks, although his successors would still focus on taking them back. His legacy is seen not only in The Alexiad but in how he made the imperial family so large that it ended conflicts among the nobility for a time, but more than that since his children and grandchildren would marry other members of the nobility, the Byzantine imperial dynasties from him onwards would be related to each other, with Alexios I as the progenitor of almost all the succeeding emperors till the final days of Byzantium.

Map of the Byzantine Empire under Alexios I Komnenos during the Komnenian Restoration, 1081


Emperor Alexios I Komnenos (r. 1081-1118)
Summary of Alexios I Komnenos
Meme of Anna Komnene writing The Alexiad

Watch this to know more about the life and reign of Alexios I Komnenos (from Eastern Roman History).


John II KomnenosPalaiologos_Dynasty_emblem1

Following the death of Alexios I Komnenos in 1118, the era of stability known as the “Komnenian Restoration” was continued through his son and successor John II Komnenos (r. 1118-1143); this emperor can be described as nothing more than the “perfect human” for he was a skilled politician and general, a virtuous, pious and just ruler, and overall the perfect example of the rare morally good emperor especially in the Byzantine Empire where many emperors were power-hungry and violent. John II’s rise to power however was not anything virtuous for he by the urging of his supporters broke into his father’s room and stole his signet ring as he lay dying, afterwards John was proclaimed emperor. John II was born in 1087 in the purple room of the palace, named after his paternal grandfather, he was born his father was at the early part of his reign and in 1092 was crowned co-emperor, although before Alexios I’s death, his eldest child and John’s older sister Anna Komnene backed herself to claim the throne as she was the eldest but John had more supporters and without his father naming him his successor, he was made emperor. John then ruled as a virtuous and charitable ruler even if he stole his father’s signet ring but when it came to dealing with his sister Anna who plotted against him, he tried to banish her and confiscate her property and give it to his friend who refused, so instead John just decided to reconcile with her but Anna from then on retired from public life and spent the rest of her life writing her famous 500 page work The Alexiad on the ruler of her father. Anna was overall plainly the scholarly Byzantine person who had extensive knowledge in Classical Greek, Roman, and Byzantine philosophy and literature, her husband the general Nikephoros Bryennios had the same character too, but Anna was more dedicated to scholarly interests that she dedicated her life till her death in 1153 to it. John on the other hand spent his reign continuing his father’s military success against the Seljuk Turks in Asia Minor and was able to conquer more lost Byzantine lands from them to the point of forcing the Seljuks to fight on the defensive side but other than that John was a pious Christian, even more than his already pious parents were setting himself an example of the perfect Christian ruler as he tried to live his life at court as simply as possible eating simple food and lecturing the people of his court living lavish lives to start living simply to set themselves a better example for the people. For his setting an example of good morals, he was called “John the Good” as well as “John the Beautiful”, although his second title is quite misleading as he was described looking quite unattractive, short with eyes, hair, and skin complexion so dark that he would be called “the Moor”; he was married to the Hungarian Piroska renamed Irene from the royal house of Arpad and daughter of the king of Hungary St. Ladislaus I, together they had 8 children, the eldest Alexios was his co-emperor. As emperor, John II had also continued the practice of Justinian I in appointing people to powerful positions at court not because of connections or being related to the imperial family but because of loyalty and skill. The rest of John II’s reign from the 1120’s onwards was mostly spent away from Constantinople campaigning first against the Pechenegs in the Balkans and finishing off their threat completely in 1122 then moving north he was able to keep the Hungarians in check from invading the Byzantine borders, and afterwards moving to the east to campaign against the Seljuks in which he succeeded in taking back more lands from them but also used the fight against them as an example of what a Christian ruler would do, which was to fight for their faith against their Muslim enemies. John II tried to get the new Crusader Kingdoms established in the Middle East to join him in his fight but they refused and instead when John was besieging the city of Shaizar, he did all the work as his Crusader allies backed out and stayed at their camp being lazy. John however took the city but at the end, he planned his attack on the newly formed principality of Antioch to reclaim it from the Crusaders who’s alliance with him was broken, but before he launched an offensive in 1143, he died a few days after he accidentally stabbed himself with poisoned arrows while on a hunt in Cilicia in Asia Minor. In his reign, John II succeeded in diplomatic relations with the Holy Roman Empire, strengthening Byzantine rule in Serbia, but failed in keeping close ties with Venice as he cut most of the trade privileges his father gave Venice but still, John II’s greatest success was continuing his father’s legacy of restoring the empire’s greatness especially in once again making the army once again a feared, disciplined, and invincible force. John II despite being more obscure than his father Alexios I and son and successor Manuel I, happens to be the greatest of Komnenos emperors as his father only started the period of greatness, but John II with his good moral character continued the greatness his father brought. As a person, John II was one of the very few moral Byzantine emperors who at the same time a successful general being the Byzantine version of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius (r. 161-180), never really mutilated any of his enemies, was loyal to his wife, a frugal spender but overall a strict disciplinarian who was conscious of his people especially the army’s morals and would punish those who charged out in battle heroically by flogging including his son Manuel. His frugality in spending left the empire’s treasury rich at his death and his reign was nothing more but successful because his goals of conquest were realistic and were wisely planned by him, thus making him live and die a popular ruler. Before John II’s unexpected but slow death in 1143, his eldest son and co-emperor Alexios died a year before, thus he named his youngest son Manuel his successor as he was both a good soldier and close to the army.

Mosaic of Emperor John II Komnenos (left) and Empress Irene of Hungary (right) surrounding Mary and Christ, Hagia Sophia
Byzantine Empire at John II’s death, 1143

Watch this to know more about John II Komnenos and his reign (from Eastern Roman History).


Manuel I KomnenosPalaiologos_Dynasty_emblem1

The third and last of the 3 consecutive great emperors of the Komnenian Restoration was Manuel I Komnenos (r. 1143-1180), the son and successor of John II who would be the last Byzantine emperor to dream at large imperial scale of conquest. Manuel, born in 1118 the same year his father became emperor, was the youngest of John II and Irene of Hungary’s 8 children meaning it was unlikely for him to succeed his father but since his oldest brother Alexios the co-emperor died before their father did in 1143 and so did the other brother Andronikos, while the other brother wasn’t seen as fit to rule by their father and as John II was dying from the poisoned arrow he accidentally stabbed himself with, he named Manuel his successor as he was with him most of the time in his campaigns and had proven to be a skilled soldier. Once Manuel I was made emperor all the way in the wilds of Cilicia, he returned to Constantinople to fully gain the title and he began his reign seeing himself as the new Basil II who ruled a hundred years earlier and possibly even the new Justinian I who ruled 600 years before. To make himself the new Basil II and Justinian I, Manuel focused his reign on continuing his father’s conquests in the east not only on the Seljuks but on the Crusader kingdoms itself known as Outremer, and first he made the Norman principality of Antioch submit to his protection against their Muslim enemies then in 1147 he moved on to his reconquest of Southern Italy from the Normans who had taken it in 1071. Manuel I was only able to recapture the city of Bari in Southern Italy for only a short time but he still proposed an alliance with the pope in Rome possible for union between the 2 Churches which however failed. It was during the earlier part of Manuel I’s reign (the 1140’s) that the Second Crusade was launched to take back Edessa from the Muslims but failed but also at this time the new kingdom of Portugal was officially established once the same Second Crusade captured Lisbon from the Moors in 1147. Although losing at Italy, Manuel’s ambitions for military victories did not end, so first he continued in preserving Byzantine rule in the Balkans- which Basil II strongly established a century before- by making the Serbian state of Rascia a vassal of Byzantium and then moving on to making war with Hungary which ended in success partially with the help of the Russian principalities Manuel made an alliance with. Hungary did not fully fall to Byzantium, instead it just ceded most of its possessions in the Balkans including Bosnia and Transylvania; Hungary then made peace with Byzantium no longer become a threat again. With Hungary taken care of, Manuel moved on to do something no Byzantine emperor since the 7th century dreamt of doing, which was conquering Egypt that had not been held by the Byzantines since the 7th century and together with the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem who also dreamt of conquering Egypt, Manuel launched a daring invasion of Egypt held by the Arab Fatimid Caliphate. This invasion of Egypt lasted for 15 years (1154-1169) and ended in failure for both the Byzantines and Crusaders leaving Manuel to abandon this great dream of his and once again focus on fighting off the Seljuks in Asia Minor in which he partially succeeded but at the end his arrogance led him to not fully end the Seljuk presence in Asia Minor. In his foreign policy with Italy, Manuel I started to favor the newly risen maritime republics of Genoa and Pisa over Venice, the old ally of Byzantium thus leading to the war with Venice in 1171 which started with Manuel confiscating Venetian property all over the empire, burning Venetian ships and warehouses, and arresting thousands of Venetians all over the empire in a single day, from then on Byzantium and Venice became enemies. As emperor, Manuel I was an odd one, though being popular among the army and a gifted general, his reputation among the Byzantine people was mixed as he was pro-western, married a western wife the Norman princess Maria of Antioch, and was fond of western court culture that he introduced jousting as a sport in Constantinople which even participated in himself turning off the Byzantine people. Manuel I ruled a long reign of 37 years dying in 1180 at the age of 61 still leaving behind a large and stable empire, although when he came into power in 1143 the empire was already strong and ready to fight for conquest thanks to the efforts of his grandfather Alexios I and father John II but when Manuel inherited it, he thought of nothing better but to keep expanding which at end heavily drained the empire’s treasury. Otherwise, Manuel I had his father’s ability in commanding the army and drive for conquests but lacked some of his father’s virtue as Manuel was a rather arrogant and overconfident ruler like Justinian I thinking he could conquer anyone he wished, yet at the same time Manuel lacked his father’s practical thinking by having unrealistic goals such as his failed conquest of Egypt which he did not carefully plan. Nevertheless, Manuel I was mostly a highly energetic, ambitious, and passionate ruler not a delusional one like Justinian II (r. 685-695/ 705-711) as he still planned his moves and his empire was stable enough for an age of conquest unlike in Justinian II’s time when Byzantium was weak, Manuel was then overall just like his father and grandfather who’s mission was to make the empire great except that Manuel dreamt much bigger than them. By the time Manuel I died in 1180, Byzantium was once again the power in the Eastern Mediterranean recognized as superior by the Crusader Kingdoms of Outremer, Hungary, and the Seljuks while Byzantium still had full control of the Balkans, though his endless campaigns still led the empire’s treasury to be dry. True enough, he deserves his title “Manuel I the Great” as he achieved so much despite doing it unrealistically but more than that, he was the last of Byzantium’s visionary emperors to dream very big especially in conquests and alliances the way Justinian I did centuries ago. To me, I am quite confused between Manuel I and his father John II possibly because of their similar appearances, but still both father and son would be the last emperors of Byzantium to be able to successfully run an empire this large and powerful as after Manuel’s death, the revived age of Byzantine glory would once again fade away once again returning to an age of anarchy and constant threats from all sides. The destruction after Manuel I’s death was primarily caused by his cousin Andronikos I who took the throne in 1185 and the following weak ruled Angelos Dynasty, and if Manuel could have thought better, he could have just assassinated his cousin and exiled the whole trouble making Angelos family, therefore Byzantium would have still remained strong. The successors of Manuel I and the aftermath of his reign will be featured in the next article.

Emperor Manuel I Komnenos and his wife Empress Maria of Antioch
The Crusader States (Outremer) before the 2nd Crusade
Map of the Routes of the 2nd Crusade, 1147-1149
The Byzantine Empire of Manuel I (purple), in 1180

Watch this to see a live action Manuel I Komnenos (from Remove Dankmemes).


Now it is time I conclude this very long part 2 of the personalities of the Byzantine emperors. Part 1 of this 3-part series has taught me so much that all it takes to change the history of the empire was the personality of its emperors such as Justinian I and his big dreams which did make Byzantium a world power and Justinian II’s delusions which led to a weakened empire. Now in part2, the same principles apply in Byzantium’s second age and many Byzantine emperors had the same personalities as they did in part either resulting in making the empire great again or turning it into a ruined state. First of all, when Byzantium was again on the verge of collapse at the beginning of the 9th century, it had out of the blue been saved by the strong rules of Michael II and Theophilos of the Amorian Dynasty but its 3rd ruler Michael III was a weak one who did not care, though he appointed capable people who did focus on once again expanding Byzantine territory and influence. Things would change for the better when Basil I who came from nothing became emperor in 867 despite coming to power through murder as he started a new age of expansion allowing the empire to prosper which allowed emperors like Leo VI and Constantine VII to continue with their scholarly pursuits. Now, the second age of Byzantine history shows a completely different story from the first age, although even at the 9th century, Byzantium was still more or less the Roman Empire that still lived on but it has changed so much from the days of Constantine and Justinian the Great when it was still the imperial power the Roman Empire was. At the beginning of the 2nd, age by the late 7th century, the Byzantine Empire became more Greek and more Orthodox, Latin was no longer in use, customs became Greek, and so did the empire get so reduced in size. The first age of Byzantium has shown a lot of capable, active, and innovative rulers like Constantine the Great, Theodosius I and II, Zeno, Justinian I, Maurice, and Heraclius which is why Byzantium’s longest existing golden age was at their first age. Meanwhile the second age wasn’t all too bad for Byzantium as it had a mix of the same kind of capable and energetic rulers like Basil I, Romanos I, Nikephoros II, John I, Basil II, Alexios I, John II, and Manuel I but it also had a lot more weak rulers like Alexander, Constantine VIII, Romanos III, Constantine X, and Michael VII. If the first age of Byzantium was full of interesting figures with a mix of great and crazy emperors, the second age has shown more complex emperors from extremely scholarly ones like Constantine VII and Leo VI to tough military men like Nikephoros II, John I, Basil II, Isaac I, Romanos IV, and Alexios I, to fun and pleasure loving emperors like Alexander, Romanos II, and Constantine VIII, to absent minded ones like Constantine X and Michael VII, and not mentions others who came started out from nothing and made it to becoming emperor like Basil I, Romanos I, and Michael IV and V, although after the Paphlagonians Michael IV and V in the 11th century, there would be no more Byzantine emperors coming from humble origins as all those after this point came from specific dynasties originating as landed nobles already. For me the second age of Byzantium is one with the most interesting events whereas the first age only had a lot of happening within the empire such as the conquests of Justinian I and the start of the long bitter wars with Arabs and Bulgars while Byzantium’s second age from the 8th century onwards had a lot more happening inside and out. The second age was one full of ups and downs, challenges and successes, interesting emperors, a new age of reconquest and rebirth of culture, enemies coming from all sides, and of course the creation of the Themes, new military units, the Varangian Guards, and of course crazy happenings such as simple people all of sudden rising to great ranks of power which can only happen in Byzantium. It was in Byzantium’s second age when the Byzantine Empire itself became one of many other powers as the Holy Roman Empire rose up with the coronation of Charlemagne in 800, the Bulgarian Empire grew stronger but was eventually crushed, the Seljuk Turk Empire grew very quick, and by the end of the 11th century the Crusades came and formed their own states. From the second age, I could say my favourite emperors are Constantine VII (r. 913-959) as he was for me the ultimate scholarly and cultured emperor, Nikephoros II (r. 963-969) even if reigning quick was able to start bringing victories again for Byzantium, Basil II (r. 976-1025) as he once again made Byzantium the powerful empire it once was after his stunning and unthinkable conquest of Bulgaria but also because he beat the record for being the longest ruling Byzantine if not Roman ruler, and Manuel I Komnenos (r. 1143-1180) as he would be once again another visionary who Byzantium had not seen in a long time dreaming of conquests the way Justinian I did before. Now the second age too has some underrated but surprisingly great emperors like the virtuous military man John II Komnenos (r. 1118-1143) and Romanos I Lekapenos (r. 920-944) who though started out as a nobody and with all his lack of manners and decency turned out to start the path in making the empire great again. In the second age, Byzantium did once again become a world power recognised as the superior power by other states once it conquered and absorbed the entire Bulgarian Empire which was during the reign of Basil II early in the 11th century. It was during the long reign of Basil II when all the works of the Macedonian emperors came together making the Byzantine Empire recognised as the medieval superpower but unfortunately, this prestige lasted short as all it took were incompetent and useless rulers like Constantine VIII and the last Macedonian emperors to undo all the work of Basil II and his predecessors. Now the 11th century was definitely the most significant and eventful century for the Byzantines as it began with an age of greatness with the Byzantine Empire so large after the conquest of Bulgaria in 1018, then all of a sudden this century saw the start of a period of collapse when weak rulers started ruling the empire only interested in power while court eunuchs ran the empire itself, then the final separation of the Eastern and Western Churches in 1054, the start of the new and powerful Seljuk threat, the ultimate turning point and the end of the Byzantine army’s power after the crushing defeat at Manzikert in 1071, and finally once again the greatness of the empire restored at the end of the century with the coming of the Komnenian Dynasty but also the start of a new growing power, the Crusades. As the 11th century ended, Byzantium which had still remained large in size became stable and the dominant Eastern Mediterranean power again but with the arrival of the Crusades, it’s position won’t be so safe anymore but at least the Seljuk threat was quickly subdued and with the Crusaders, new alliances could be formed but they weren’t all so effective. Of course, Byzantium had only been a world power once which was in the 6th century during Justinian I’s reign and after that it would still be a dominant power from Basil II’s to Manuel I’s time but would no longer be equivalent to that of the Roman Empire power from which Byzantium came from. Now after the death of Manuel I in 1180, things will change by so much again for Byzantium, though after all it still remains the extension of the Roman Empire even after all these centuries. Shortly after 1180, things go totally downhill again with another set of not just weak but evil and idiotic rulers leading to the quick collapse of the Byzantine state, the rise of the new enemies, and the ultimate turning point, the fall of Constantinople to the 4th Crusade. The third age then begins at the time of the 4th Crusade when the age of decline of the Byzantine Empire begins having once again more weak but at least still some strong rulers but of course, it’s end would already be imminent. Alright, so this is all for the second age of Byzantium and its rulers, the story will now continue in part 3 of this article, where I will discuss more about Byzantium in its third and final age, the age of decline. This has definitely been such a long read, but at least it’s over… until next time, thanks for viewing!

Published by The Byzantium Blogger

Powee Celdran, currently majors in Entrepreneurial Management, a Byzantine scholar and enthusiast, historical military sketch and bathroom mural artist, aspiring historical art restorer, Lego filmmaker creating Byzantine era films and videos, and a possible Renaissance man living in modern times but Byzantine at heart. Currently manages the Instagram account byzantine_time_traveller posting Byzantine history related content.

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