The Byzantine Imperial Personality through the lives of the Emperors Part3

Posted by Powee Celdran

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

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


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

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

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

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

Byzantine Imperial Personalities Part2

7 Reasons to be Interested in Byzantium

Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire

The 94 Emperors of Byzantium

Byzantine Science and Technology

Crime, Punishment, and Medical Practice in the Byzantine World

The Art of War in the Byzantine World

The Complete Genealogy of the Byzantine Emperors

Foreign Lands and People According to the Byzantines Part1

Foreign Lands and People According to the Byzantines Part2

15 Byzantine Related States Outside Byzantium Part1

15 Byzantine Related States Outside Byzantium Part2

A Guide to the Byzantine Empire’s Themes

Videos from Eastern Roman History: 

Every Byzantine Emperor, 306-1453

Top 10 Byzantine Emperors Part1

Top 10 Byzantine Emperors Part2

Top 10 Worst Byzantine Emperors Part1

Top 10 Worst Byzantine Emperors Part2

Important Byzantines

Memes from Brilliant Byzantine Memes

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


John III Doukas Vatatzes and the Emperors of Nicaea


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

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

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

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

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

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


Michael VIII Palaiologos- The Restoration of Byzantium 


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

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

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

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


Andronikos II and III Palaiologos


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

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

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


John VI Kantakouzenos and John V Palaiologos


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

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

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

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


Manuel II and John VIII Palaiologos


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

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

Manuel II Palaiologos and his wife Helena Dragaš with their children including John VIII (left), Byzantine eagles on the robes of the 2 children Theodore and Andronikos (centre)
Florentine portrait of John VIII Palaiologos (r. 1425-1448)
Remains of the Byzantine Empire (purple) surrounded by the Ottomans, 1450

Watch this to know more about the Battle of Ankara between the Mongols and Ottomans in 1402 (from Kings and Generals).

Watch this for more info about the reign of Manuel II Palaiologos (from Eastern Roman History). 


Constantine XI Palaiologos- The Last Emperor 


Constantine XI was the oldest surviving son of Manuel II after his older brother John VIII’s death, the second son Theodore II despot of Morea died in 1448, the third son Andronikos died back in 1429 of his leprosy, and the 2 youngest brothers Demetrios and Thomas were younger and given control over the Morea when Constantine was officially crowned emperor in 1449. Constantine XI Dragases Palaiologos (r. 1449-1453) would be the last of everything, not only the last Roman and Byzantine emperor combined but the last courageous emperor with a strong personality; he was born in 1405 as the 4th son of Manuel II and Helena Dragaš, and ironically as the last emperor he shared the same name as Byzantium’s first emperor, Constantine the Great; though Constantine XI was not named after the empire’s founder, rather he was named after his maternal grandfather the Serbian magnate Konstantin Dragaš, and being close to his mother, Constantine chose to use the name “Dragases” in his imperial title. If the last emperor Constantine XI was a brave soldier and close to his mother like the first emperor Constantine the Great, Constantine XI’s mother Helena Dragas (born 1372) also ironically sharing the same name as Constantine the Great’s mother St. Helena was also as virtuous that in fact after Helena’s death in 1450, she became ironically venerated as St. Hypomone as she lived the rest of her life virtuous and after Manuel II’s death in 1425 became a nun. Before becoming emperor, Constantine became despot of the last other Byzantine territory of the Morea in Southern Greece based in Mystras and was also a student of the famous philosopher Plethon, and a successful general who despite Byzantium being so limited in the army reconstructed the Hexamilion Wall to secure the Peloponnese at the narrow Isthmus of Corinth and recaptured the entire Peloponnese from the Latins including Latin states were vassals of the Ottomans. As a response to Constantine’s conquests, the sultan Murad II sent armies against the Morea not to conquer it but to teach Constantine a lesson to not mess with the Ottoman vassals, though as a successful general, Constantine and his youngest brother Thomas secured Mystras from Ottoman attacks but failed to secure the Hexamilion wall allowing the Ottomans to break in forcing Constantine like all the other states there to be a vassal of the Ottomans. When becoming emperor, Constantine was unmarried and had no children, although previously in 1428 he married Theodora Tocco of Epirus but she died in 1429, then in 1441 he married Caterina Gattilusio of Lesbos who also died in 1442 before he sailed to Lesbos to bring her to the Morea. In 1449, the sultan Murad II decided that Constantine should be John VIII’s successor though Constantine was not crowned emperor in Constantinople as he was for the union with the Western Church and so was the patriarch at that time and this would cause tensions with the people, so he was quietly crowned at Mystras early in 1449 before turning 44 in February and by March he sailed to Constantinople from Greece using a Catalan ship as the Byzantines no longer had money for strong ships. Constantine XI began his reign looking for a possible wife from any foreign kingdom as he was very desperate for an alliance against the Ottomans and to produce an heir, although many declined his request no longer seeing any assets in Byzantium, which would then mean Constantine ruled the rest of his reign without any empress, his mother Helena Dragaš then died in 1450 as the last one to use the title of “Roman empress”. In 1451, the collapse of the Byzantine Empire was inevitable as Sultan Murad II died and his ambitious young son Mehmed II who succeeded him had a lifelong obsession of capturing Constantinople for the Ottomans once and for all as well as crushing all the other states in the Balkans putting them under Ottoman rule. When Constantine attempted to start a civil war in the Ottoman Empire by releasing a captive from Constantinople who was a contender to the Ottoman throne, Mehmed when learning this considered Constantine to have broken the truce with the Ottomans leading Mehmed to gather up forces and make preparations for the siege; meanwhile Constantine started raising money and troops and repaired the old 5th century walls of Theodosius II but he couldn’t finish in doing these tasks as the population of the city had dropped by a lot and the empire was already so poor that Constantine could not afford the super-powered cannon and services of its creator, the Hungarian engineer Orban, instead Orban offered his services to Mehmed who accepted it; if Constantine had actually saved up enough money to accept Orban’s services, then it is possible that Byzantium would survive for much longer. For aid against the Ottomans, Constantine turned to diplomacy in asking the Roman Church to reaffirm the union his brother signed in 1439 to now successfully unite both Churches to fight off the Ottomans, however the people opposed this again and this is when the grand admiral said the famous quote that he’d rather see Byzantium fall to the Ottomans. Constantine was willing to unite both churches too but only because he was desperate to fight off the Turks and save his empire, but in his heart, he was still a true Byzantine true to Orthodoxy. By December of 1452, some support came when the Venetians, Genoese, and other Italians sent troops to defend Constantinople where the Genoese army would be led by the successful general Giovanni Giustiniani Longo. Before the final siege began in April of 1453, Mehmed made an offer that if Constantine surrendered Constantinople to him he would be spared and returned to rule to Morea but here Constantine’s true personality was shown as he declined Mehmed’s offer saying that would rather fight for his people to the death rather than lose the throne and see his people enslaved. About 900 years before this, the empress Theodora told her husband the emperor Justinian I that she would rather die in power than lose it when almost overthrown by the 532 Nika Riot, now Constantine XI said the same as well but not for selfish reasons as when he declined Mehmed’s offer, he proved that he was like no other Byzantine ruler as a Byzantine emperor of his time having an empire so weakened would choose to surrender to the Ottomans while Constantine XI chose a more honorable end. With an army of at the most 80,000 men, Mehmed II began the ultimate siege of Constantinople while the Byzantines and Latin forces combined only had about 8,000 and since the walls spanned so large, the troops were outnumbered to defend it allowing the Ottomans to easily surround it, although what saved the city was the great chain over the harbor preventing enemy ships from entering it but when Ottomans came up with a solution to roll their ships over land, they successfully attacked the defending navy. Meanwhile, Mehmed used Orban’s cannon to break through the walls, and the 1000 year old walls of Theodosius II which successfully defended the city from enemy sieges over the centuries was no match for the strength of this cannon, though these walls were strong enough to take at least 20 days for the cannon to make a breach through it. The defending commanders Giustiniani and the grand admiral Loukas Notaras still succeeded in defending the city for days but by the Tuesday of May 29, 1453 the Ottomans though having numerous casualties were still no match at all for the defenders and through the hole widened from the cannon’s attack earlier and a gate left unlocked, the Ottomans managed to break in. The night before the Ottomans broke in, the last Christian Mass would be held at the Hagia Sophia and Constantine still brave, made a final inspiring speech wrapping up the entirety of Byzantine history altogether and a last stand charging against the Ottomans never to be seen again. The last moments of Constantine’s life were not recorded, though he most likely died except that his body was never found so legend says an angel took him away from battle and turned him to marble making the surviving generations of Byzantines believe he will come back again to liberate Constantinople from the Ottomans. The end for Byzantium was thus a sad one but at least a heroic one as the last emperor seeing that the end was to come chose not to see what was left of his empire surrender out of shame, instead he wanted to put up a fight to see a dramatic and courageous end to the 1,100 year Byzantine Empire. From May 29, 1453 Constantinople became the new capital of the Ottoman Empire, the Hagia Sophia became a mosque and surprisingly justice came to the Byzantines when the Ottomans threw away the bones of the Venetian Doge Enrico Dandolo buried in the Hagia Sophia who ordered the 1204 sack of Constantinople mistaking him as a saint. But unlike the Latins who conquered Constantinople in 1204 leaving it a dump and improving nothing, surprisingly Mehmed II was amazed with what he saw that he did the opposite choosing to rebuild the city with the churches replaced by mosques but still keeping the architecture the Byzantines had used as this style impressed him and for the next centuries, it seemed like Constantinople even grew larger and grander. The Byzantines though still survived after the fall of the capital as the remaining Despotate of Morea fell to the Ottomans by 1460, the offshoot Empire of Trebizond ruled by the Komnenos family fell in 1461, and the Despotate of Epirus which was not so Byzantine anymore by that time fell by 1479, although a branch of the Palaiologos family continued to rule the small Italian state of Montferrat until the next century but in the imperial family itself, Constantine’s younger brothers Demetrios and Thomas survived after being exiled by the Ottomans following their conquest of the Morea. The 2 brothers however did not help in defending Constantinople in 1453 as their troops and money were depleted from the previous Ottoman attacks but through Thomas, Byzantium’s legacy would move on to Russia as his daughter and Constantine XI’s niece Zoe married the prince of Moscow Ivan III. Constantine XI being the last emperor was the last courageous and energetic ruler who spent his life fighting the Ottomans that by time of the ultimate siege, he knew his enemy well enough that they were no match and his move to choose to sacrifice himself for his empire rather than surrendering proves he was truly a courageous daredevil when at the same time being so desperate and troubled as he knew it would be better to die before he sees defeat or complete surrender to the enemy. Constantine XI’s courageous last stand willing to sacrifice himself shows that he was not like any of the soft rulers of his family, the Palaiologi who would rather accept defeat or like Alexios III who cowardly fled the city in 1203 when the Crusaders arrived, instead he was someone so heroic that no one had seen before since the glorious days of Greece and Rome when rulers were brave enough to make a last stand in battle. Constantine overall had great public speaking skills, was a wise administrator, a successful general but at the same time he was brave, virtuous, prudent, and disciplined, and responsible and because of all his good traits, at least the Byzantine Empire ended well with a good emperor and not a weak one. Constantine XI died not only the last Byzantine emperor since Constantine the Great more than 1,100 years before him but the last Roman emperor since Augustus Caesar who came to power in 27BC. Now the biggest irony was the last Byzantine emperor shared the same name as the first one which was Constantine, his mother and the last empress shared the same name as the first emperor’s mother which was Helena, and the general who fought alongside Constantine XI ironically had the last name Giustiniani which was Italian for Justinian. The story of the fall of Constantinople in 1453 became well known around the world and is one of the few stories people know about the Byzantines while Constantine XI is one of the very few Byzantine emperors who’s named will be remembered as he did something no others would do in choosing to fight to the death and because of his great sacrifice, he is a saint together with both his parents, though his sainthood still remains unofficial as he was not completely a martyr who died for his faith but rather for his empire, but nevertheless he is the type of heroic leader who would make the most out of the worst situations to look up to even at this day.

Constantine XI Palaiologos’ choice to stay behind and defend the capital
Map of the Final Siege of Constantinople, 1453 including the units of the Latins, Byzantines, and Ottomans and their generals
Constantine XI leads the final charge in Constantinople, 1453
Constantine XI (right) in a Greek independence poster, 1830’s
In memory of Constantine XI Palaiologos
Farewell to 11 centuries of Byzantine emperors and personalities (330-1453)

Watch this to know more about the last Byzantine emperor, Constantine XI (from Eastern Roman History).

Watch this for the full final speech of Constantine XI Palaiologos in 1453 (from Eastern Roman History).

Watch this for more info about the final siege of Constantinople in 1453 (from Kings and Generals).


Well, this is it, 2 weeks of writing this 3 part series on the personalities of the Byzantine emperors is all over! Now, Constantine XI’s final speech before the fall of the city truly did wrap up Byzantine history as whole as when he said by heart, he did not forget to mention how powerful Byzantium once was and how even up to the 15th century they still stayed true to their Greek and Roman roots. At the final siege, the Byzantine army even with the support of their Latin allies were outnumbered and exhausted but at least still put up a good fight showing that they still not easy enemies. The walls of Constantinople have successfully protected the city over the centuries from the attacks of the Avars and Sassanid Persians in 626, against the Arabs in 678 and 718, against the Rus in 941, and against the Ottomans in 1402 and 1422 and the only time the city was successfully breached other than the final siege in 1453 was by the 4th Crusade in 1204 and if you count it, the Reconquest by the Byzantines in 1261. But in 1453, there was no other way Byzantium could have survived unless they had enough money to afford the massive cannon. However, like all things, the Byzantine Empire, in fact Roman Empire itself had to end somewhere but still, it fortunately survived all the way to the end of the Middle Ages in the 15th century. The Byzantine Empire beginning in the days of the old Roman Empire as I could say lived too long, had too many emperors, and has seen so many things that it had lived through the entirety of the Middle Ages from the last years of the Roman Empire all the way to the passing of the Middle Ages into the age of the Renaissance and of discovery. In the Middle Ages while Europe was left behind in culture and civilisation, Byzantium stood as the superior European and Mediterranean civilisation and Constantinople as the grand ecumenopolis of the medieval world- the way the planet Coruscant is in Star Wars– but by the 14th and 15th centuries, Byzantium and Constantinople’s time as the leading civilisation came to pass as nothing can remain the world power that long. With the power of Byzantine civilisation dying by the late Middle Ages, it was time for the the rest of Europe to emerge especially since the Renaissance in the arts and sciences was slowly growing and a couple of decades after the fall of Constantinople, the new age of discovery was born and new sea routes and oceans would be discovered, and so to were the American continents. It was during the first age of Byzantium from the founding of Constantinople by Constantine the Great in 330, to its zenith during the reign of Justinian I in the 6th century, up until the rise of the Arabs in the 7th and 8th centuries when Byzantium had been the dominant cultural and political power. However by the 9th century as Byzantium’s second age had already begun, it was time for Western Europe to start emerging with the formation of the Holy Roman Empire under Charlemagne in 800 and the rise of many kingdoms. However, the 2nd age of Byzantium was still a great time for them with the successful reigns of the Macedonian emperors from 867 to 1057 as it was the time when the Byzantine army grew invincible and were able to defeat their long time enemies, the Arabs and Bulgars. However, the second age saw many defeats as well with the quick rise but also quick fall fo the Seljuk Empire in Asia Minor and the rise of the Normans in the west, but the second age still ended well for Byzantium when it remained a dominant power again with the reigns of the Komnenos emperors. Although after 1180, this is when things would completely go downhill for Byzantium and all it would take to trigger this was the sadistic and totalitarian 2 year reign of Andronikos I (1183-1185), the weak and corrupt reign of Isaac II (1185-1195), the brainless and destructive reign of Alexios III (1195-1203), and lastly the extreme promises made by the emperor Alexios IV to the Crusaders which weren’t fulfilled. This whole chain reaction of tragic events for Byzantium would lead to one big tragedy, the betrayal to the 4th Crusade and the capture of Constantinople by the 4th Crusade of 1204. Though, Constantinople temporarily fell in 1204, Byzantine civilisation survived and when Constantinople was taken back in 1261, Byzantium would still try at times to once again be powerful but it would never have another golden age again. After 1261, the Byzantine Empire having been so reduced would not become a dominant power anymore except a regional one in the Balkans but at least there were still some emperors like Michael VIII Palaiologos (r. 1261-1282) and Andronikos III Palaiologos (r. 1328-1341) who at least made the effort to try making Byzantium powerful again for the last time. Now it was during the long and intermittent reign of John V Palaiologos between 1341 and 1391 when Byzantium suffered the most as this was when the Black Death plague struck and the power of the Ottomans from Asia Minor quickly expanded leading Byzantium to once and for all be fully reduced to Constantinople itself and few other parts not connected by land to the capital. Now during the reigns of the last emperors Manuel II, John VIII, and Constantine XI between 1391 and 1453, Byzantium was nothing else but desperate especially since both Serbia and Bulgaria which could be a great help to them fell to the Ottomans, and for defence the Byzantines had no other choice but to turn to the Latins or Westerners in which the hatred from the 4th Crusade was still strong, their old enemies for help even if it would mean submitting to the Church of Rome. At the end, both Latins and Byzantines united against a common enemy, the Ottomans but the Ottomans still won.

After doing these 3 articles, there was a lot I have learned about the Byzantine emperors and their personalities and the most important thing I learned is that it is not easy to judge a Byzantine emperor as they are complex people who may have done terrible things or made terrible decisions but at the end, many of them became effectual rulers. First of all the first Byzantine emperor Constantine I the Great (r. 306-337) may have systematically killed so many political enemies including family members during his reign but at the end he left behind an orderly new Roman Empire out of the chaotic world he had to overcome but more than that he established the presence of Christianity over the empire and Constantinople as the new capital. With an emperor like Zeno (r. 474-491), you can tell that race does not matter as even though he was a nobody chieftain from the mountains, he became an effective emperor keeping Byzantium alive even if the western half of the Roman world collapsed and fell to Barbarians. With an emperor like Justinian I (r. 527-565), it shows that someone who came from humble origins can dream so big and at the end his dreams succeeded and the Byzantine Empire was more powerful than ever but only for a short time. After Justinian I, many emperors’ names have faded out but a lot of these emperors like Heraclius (r. 610-641), Constans II (r. 641-668), and Constantine IV (r. 668-685) are underrated rulers who were great and successful strategists who’s thinking eventually saved the empire from an early collapse. Now with  Iconoclast emperors like Constantine V (r. 741-775) are people who remain to be judged too much for bad things they did but behind all Constantine V’s ruthless campaigns against icons, he was at least a great strategist and general who kept the Byzantine Empire stable after long periods of disaster. Meanwhile rulers like Irene (r. 797-802) may have been great achievements as she was Byzantium’s first full female ruler and restored the veneration of icons but other than that, she once again brought great disaster to the empire. Now onto the Macedonian emperors in Byzantium’s second age which I wrote in my last article, and from them this is where I truly see how complicated the Byzantine personality is especially since many of these emperors were usurping generals who come out as power hungry and insensitive at first but at the end they ruled effectively bringing greatness to Byzantium again. Another thing interesting about Byzantine emperors is that some of them came from humble origins being uneducated, but despite this a lot of these emperors turned out to be effective rulers. However from the 11th century onwards, no more emperors would come from nothing, instead they would all come from the military aristocracy including the Komnenos, Doukas, Angelos, Laskaris, and Palaiologos emperors but many ruled effectively. But in Byzantium’s third age from 1180 up to the 4th Crusade in 1204, these rulers would be the worst kinds history with more bad than good about them but at least the reigns of these weak and corrupt emperors did not last long enough, and once Constantinople fell in 1204, Byzantium was reborn and given a strong and wise ruler who would put things back together again, this one was John III Doukas Vatatzes (r. 1222-1254). This successful ruler of Nicaea even though not ruling the actual Byzantine Empire himself was one of Byzantium’s and in fact medieval history’s forgotten great rulers as John III was a kind of merciful dictator who was although a strict disciplinarian, he was just and well loved by his people. After him, the rule of the Palaiologos emperors would begin when Constantinople was taken back in 1261 and the first ruler of this dynasty, Michael VIII Palaiologos for me is the the true example of what the Byzantine personality really is as he was a smart and strategic emperor who was so ruthlessly ambitious that he blinded his 11-year old rival emperor John IV Laskaris to gain power for himself but at the end, Michael VIII’s intentions were overall good for the empire and its people as wanted to see Byzantium once again be the dominant power in the Balkans. The successors of Michael VIII would however be either too soft like his son Andronikos II (r. 1282-1328) or John V (r. 1341-1391) or too energetic like Andronikos III (r. 1328-1341). However out of the Palaiologos emperors, Andronikos III remains to be my favourite as he still saw the potential for Byzantium to rise again for the last time but also because he is an underrated Byzantine fan favourite and an excellent example of character development from a selfish usurper to a successful military emperor. The next emperors like John V is a true example of a weak and troubled ruler who though had no bad intentions but was faced with the worst events though his successor Manuel II (r. 1391-1425) shows a good example of someone who could still solve problems in the most straightened times, while John VIII (r. 1425-1448) shows someone who was so desperate that he would do anything to keep his empire saved. Constantine XI meanwhile for me is a true hero and his role in the final siege is an inspirational one even up to this day. In 1453, Constantine XI when given the choice to surrender chose to fight to the death and this shows that Byzantium deserved a heroic ending. Now with Constantine XI, at least Byzantium ended with a courageous ruler and not a coward meaning the Byzantine Empire which had to at one point end, ended well. Constantine XI died with his empire so weakened and everyone gone, but at the final battle, all of Byzantium’s rulers since Constantine the Great and centuries of history were with him in spirit and even if he remains quite obscure today, Constantine XI deserves his place as one of history’s greatest heroes. And now I complete this extremely long article with both sadness that the Byzantine Empire had come to an end but with relief as I am done after weeks of writing. Up next, I will teak a break from long articles as I will write a more trivial one on natural disasters in Byzantine history. After all, this 3 part article series was made to be a prelude to the ultimate one for this year, which are the Turning Points of Byzantine history. Anyway, this is it… 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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