12 Turning Points in Byzantine History

Posted by Powee Celdran

Ever since our rough crusading forefathers saw Constantinople and met, to their contemptuous disgust, a society where everyone read and wrote, ate food with forks and preferred diplomacy to war, it has been fashionable to pass the Byzantines by with scorn and to use their name as synonymous with decadence.” -Steven Runciman, 20th century historian

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THIS WILL BE MY LONGEST ARTICLE!! To make it easier to read, you skip to one of the 12 sections and read it per day. 

Welcome back again to another article by the Byzantium Blogger! Now here is the article I have been long waiting to write about, the article that will pretty much sum up all the past articles I have written this year, which is now going to be the ultimate article for this year, 2019! This article will be on the 12 Turning Points in the history of the Byzantine Empire from its founding in 330 to its fall in 1453, which means it will cover up and summarize the 1,100 years of history and how things in the Byzantine Empire drastically changed within it. First of all, I have to start of course with giving a quick background on this Byzantine or basically the Eastern Roman Empire and civilization that lasted so long, how it survived this long, and how it changed so much. Basically, this Byzantine Empire is the Roman Empire itself that continued throughout the Middle Ages even without having possession of Rome, the former imperial capital that ruled most of the known world- particularly the Mediterranean- for centuries bringing a long era of stability and technological success. Since the Byzantine Empire had not only been born out of the Roman Empire but was actually the Roman Empire itself continued in the east, Byzantine history then actually dates back to even centuries before when the Roman Empire was founded becoming a powerful republic based in Rome that kept on growing and growing through conquests. As an empire, Rome itself was successful but continuous wars led to an unstable economy as well as unstable succession leading to the Crisis of the 3rd century that turned the course of Roman history around that in 284, the empire was divided that would eventually lead to the eastern half becoming the more powerful one as it controlled the richer eastern provinces while the west fell into decline. Many would think or were taught that the Roman Empire fell in the year 476 and the Dark Ages that happened throughout Europe followed it leaving no mention of an empire as successful and advanced or even more than Rome itself, but it was not all true that the Roman Empire had fallen in 476- although Roman rule only collapsed on the west- as the east survived with a strong empire governed by a metropolis even greater than Rome itself called Constantinople, which is now Istanbul, which has been the main topic of my previous article and this empire lasted all the way up to 1453. The word however used for this Roman Empire in the east that outlasted its predecessor, the actual Roman Empire is “Byzantine” but this name is quite misleading as in the time of the Byzantine Empire ruled at Constantinople from 330-1453, its people did not refer to themselves as Byzantine but as Roman, and this word “Byzantine” or “Byzantium” was used for the empire in the 16th century by western historians, first by the German Hieronymus Wolf in 1555 seeing the Eastern Roman Empire as not the legitimate successor of the Roman Empire but instead the German Holy Roman Empire as its successor and after him, all other western historians referred to the empire as the “Byzantine Empire” and not the “Roman Empire” to avoid confusion with the old Roman Empire, but they to believed that the Roman Empire had died long before their time and the empire in the Eastern Mediterranean that had been around not so long before their time was not considered the Roman Empire in their eyes. The name for the Eastern Roman Empire which is “Byzantium” comes from the first name of its capital Constantinople which was Byzantium, a settlement founded by the Greek colonist Byzas of Megara and his men in 667BC and from him, the original settlement got its name, and in the year 330, Byzantium was inaugurated as the new capital of the Roman Empire by the Roman emperor Constantine I the Great. In this article however, I will do as the western scholars did and refer to the Eastern Roman Empire as the Byzantine Empire or Byzantium to avoid confusion with the old Roman Empire and to begin Byzantine history though, there is no definite start as it could start with the founding of Byzantium in 667BC or some put that Byzantine history begins with the transformation of the Roman Empire into the Tetrarchy by the emperor Diocletian in 284, or with the founding of Constantinople as the new capital by Emperor Constantine the Great in 330, or with the final division between the Eastern and Western Roman Empires in 395 wherein the western empire collapsed in 476 leaving the eastern empire to survive for 977 more years. Meanwhile, western historians and intellectuals primarily from Western Europe from the 16th century onwards such as Voltaire, Edward Gibbon, and 20th century Steven Runciman have disregarded the Byzantine Empire itself with a lot of them saying that it was a failure of a civilization only filled with effeminate, corrupt, and treacherous people, intrigues, and with all this a history of decline but in this article I will prove them wrong as this Byzantine Empire was actually the one that protected medieval Europe from Islamic invasions and was actually a lot more advanced in technology, government, science, and in the military while the rest of Europe was backwards and little do we know that the Byzantines have contributed a lot to our civilization today. In the time of the Byzantine Empire, the people of the west had already not looked inward into the Byzantines only seeing them as a corrupt and treacherous empire full of schemes and poisoning also choosing diplomacy over war despite having to fight constant wars all the time to defend themselves but deep inside they were technologically advanced civilisation, the one where everyone read and wrote, had an organised professional army, ate with forks, and had a superior capital with massive walls, a cathedral that other could match, cisterns, sewers, aqueducts, porticos, and an imperial court with a mechanical throne. The Byzantine people themselves though Greek referred to the themselves as the “Romans” and so did people from the east that had relations with the Byzantines whereas the westerners only referred to them as the “Greeks”.  The history of the Byzantine Empire though would go such a long way having 3 major periods that were so different from each other which is why I am doing this article in order to discuss at what points in history did the Byzantine Empire change both physically and culturally beginning from even before Byzantium was born to its final days in 1453. It is quite confusing on how to place the Byzantine Empire as it is debatable if it was a Greek, Roman, or whatever kind of civilization but to put it short it was a hybrid civilization of Greek, Roman, and eastern cultures and over their history, their empire would change so much both culturally and physically which is why Byzantine history is divided into 3 ages. The first age of the Byzantine Empire goes through the founding of Constantinople in the 4th century ending with the 7th century when the Byzantine Empire changes from the powerful and massive Roman imperial state it started as to a smaller militarized Greek state. The second age of Byzantium goes from the 7th century to the 12th century showing how Byzantium adapted to these changes as their empire downsized and had to fight for their survival for centuries until eventually getting the upper hand and being a dominant power again as a Greek Empire. Lastly, the 3rd age of Byzantium goes from the beginning of the 13th century to the middle of the 15th century (1453) which now shows the period of decline for the Byzantine Empire itself due to a series of disasters and the capture of their capital by the 4th Crusade in 1204 and even though the Byzantines were able to take back their capital 57 later, it was too late to return to their former glory and their decline was inevitable until their empire fully fell in 1453 to the Ottomans, in which this date does mark the actual end of the Roman Empire. Although even up to its last days in the 15th century, the Byzantine Empire still remained the successor of the Roman Empire with its emperors calling themselves “emperor of the Romans” even though they have changed so much culturally that they no longer wore the clothes of the Romans and spoke Greek instead of Latin but their systems were still continued from the Romans. At this day, it is divided on how people see the Byzantines as some see them as an eastern power with eastern traditions and nothing Roman at all but in my observation, people I know from school or elsewhere when hearing about Byzantium or the Byzantines think of them as if it were the Roman Empire. Other than its Greek and Roman legacy, what played the most important part in the life of the Byzantine Empire was the Orthodox Christian faith and a lot of these turning points in its history will also be brought about by religious changes other than political and cultural changes over the centuries. Also, Byzantium has introduced to many lands beyond it, especially Eastern Europe to the faith or Orthodoxy, thus these lands including Bulgaria, the Balkans, and Russia were all descendants of Byzantium culturally. Now it is time to begin with the rest of the article and the point where I will begin with is on the era of the Roman Empire before Byzantium was even born and will have 12 points wherein its history’s course changed together with the stories of their more than 90 emperors and important contributions they brought to the world. This article on turning points too will mention a lot on all the people the Byzantines had encountered, traded with, and fought wars with over the centuries including the Goths, Huns, Vandals, Persians, Slavs, Lombards, Arabs, Bulgars, Russians, Seljuk Turks, Pechenegs, Normans, Venetians, Crusaders, Catalans, and Ottomans which have shaped the history of Byzantium but other than fighting all these external wars, the whole history of Byzantium was spent fighting civil wars amongst themselves, overthrowing emperors, and establishing dynasties having a total of 15 dynasties in their entire history. At the end will be my conclusion on what I think about Byzantium and how to make others see it. Also, I will try my best to make this article concise in history and more straight to the point as it will basically focus more on the happenings within and outside the empire rather than the lives of its emperors; now to know more about Byzantium’s history and its emperors, you can read the previous articles I wrote which will be linked below, and to make it more entertaining I will link videos too from Eastern Roman History and Kings and Generals and include several Byzantine memes. Also, thanks to the podcasts of 12 Byzantine Rulers by Lars Brownworth- in which this article will be patterned on and a new book I have read, the book The History of the Byzantine Empire by Radi Dikici for helping me with the information in this article.

Watch this for an intro to Byzantine history (from Eastern Roman History).

Watch this for the anime intro to the Byzantine Empire (from Remove Dank Memes).

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Byzantine Imperial flag and symbols
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Byzantine Empire evolution map
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The Byzantine Empire personified
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5 major turning points in Byzantine history (except 1)

Note: Names of BYZANTINE emperors will be in BOLD letters.

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The Complete Genealogy of the Byzantine Emperors

All the other Byzantine Related Articles from The Byzantium Blogger:

The Byzantine Emperors and their Personalities Part1 (330-867)

The Byzantine Emperors and their Personalities Part2 (867-1180)

The Byzantine Emperors and their Personalities Part3 (1180-1453)

7 Reasons to be Interested in Byzantium

Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire

The 94 Byzantine Emperors

The Complete Genealogy of the Byzantine Emperors

The Ravenna Mosaics and What to Expect 

Constantinople: The Queen of Cities and its Byzantine Secrets

Byzantine Science and Technology

Crime, Punishment, and Medical Practice in the Byzantine Empire

The Art of War in the Byzantine World 

A Guide to the Themes of the Byzantine Empire

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 (1-7)

15 Byzantine Related States outside Byzantium Part2 (8-15)

Natural Disasters in Byzantine History

Memes from Brilliant Byzantine Memes

Byzantine Era epic films from No Budget Films:

The Rise of Phokas

Killing a Byzantine Emperor

Summer of 1261

The Untold Byzantine Epic

 

I. The Roman Empire, 3rd Century Crisis, and the Tetrarchy

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Roman Empire flag

This had been quite a lengthy introduction but it was though necessary to explain what Byzantine history really is how to view it. Now the first of the 12 turning points will be an entire period of history itself beginning with the once powerful Roman Empire and the aftermath of it to give a background to Byzantine history and how the Byzantine Empire formed. Even before the Roman Republic in Italy was founded traditionally in 509BC, the settlement of Byzantium in the narrow strait of the Bosporus between Asia and Europe connecting the Black Sea and the Aegean had been founded back in 667BC by Greek colonists from the large civilized cities of Megara and Athens in Greece led by Byzas, but this settlement had only been a port settlement and nothing more. Meanwhile in Italy, Rome from a small Italian city state grew to be an empire controlling the entire Mediterranean and Gaul (France) being the dominant culture surpassing the Greek one before them, but Greek culture and language still remained strong in the Roman east. In 27BC, the Roman Republic became the Roman Empire with Augustus Caesar (Octavian) as its first emperor and at this point Rome’s history had totally changed as before the Romans would never allow themselves to be ruled by a tyrant but by the death of the first emperor Augustus in 14AD, people had already grown so used to this rule particularly because his reign brought success and stability and after his death, the republic never returned as he was succeeded by Tiberius as emperor. As an empire, the Roman world grew stronger and more stable with a powerful army to defend its borders and roads connecting the empire as well as aqueducts to provide water and technologically advanced cities and between the years 96-180AD, the Roman Empire was ruled by the “5 Good Emperors” namely Nerva (96-98), Trajan (98-117), Hadrian (117-138), Antoninus Pius (138-161), and Marcus Aurelius (161-180). Under the rules of these 5 emperors, peace and stability was kept within the Roman Empire that expanded so large north to south from Britain to Egypt, west to east from Portugal to Iraq but since the empire was so large, emperors like Marcus Aurelius had to spend most of his reign away with the army to protect its borders from foreign invasions; although these 5 emperors thought that adoption was the way for the succession of emperors to make things stable, succession became the major issue that will lead to the decline of the Roman Empire later on. After the death of Marcus Aurelius in 180, the rule of the emperors would not be too strong anymore except for Emperor Septimius Severus (r. 193-211) who’s rule was strong and he too elevated the settlement of Byzantium into something more as he rebuilt it after defeating a rebellion against him and built the Hippodrome which would be later one of the imperial city’s most important features. The 3rd century then would be a bad time for the Roman Empire’s existence due to foreign invasions particularly from the barbarians north of the empire, weak emperors, and constant wars leading to a decline in economy and increase in taxes, but also the lack of a formal succession system and the increased influence of the Praetorian Guard established back in Augustus’ time that would end up having to power and install and depose emperors too would be one of the major causes for the ruin of the Roman state. On the other hand, despite the Roman Empire being the dominant world power with internal stability, it had faced an ongoing conflict for centuries that was never resolved, which was the war with the Persians in the east dating all the way back to 53BC since the Romans lost at the Battle of Carrhae; the first conflict was with the Parthian Persian Empire up to the 3rd century which was replaced with the conflict between Rome and the Sassanid Persian Empire which would last until the 7th century.

From the years 235 to 284, the Roman Empire was in complete chaos in this anarchy period known as the “Crisis of the 3rd Century” having a total of 27 emperors within 49 years beginning with Maximus Thrax and ending with Diocletian and this was all mainly because of succession crisis and the schemes of the praetorian guard for power of the Roman state. Many of these 27 emperors were military men who seized the throne being proclaimed emperor by the army, many of them plotted against their predecessors to take throne, and many of them happened not be ethnically Romans or Italians anymore as most of them were Illyrians (from the Balkans) and primarily soldier emperors known as the “barracks emperors” but none of them were really the skilled and able military rulers the Roman emperors of the glory days were. Also during this crisis period in the 3rd century, the Roman Empire experienced 2 breakaway rebel emperies which were the Gallic Empire (260-264) wherein the provinces of Gaul and Britain fell under it and the Palmyrene Empire (270-273) wherein the eastern provinces fell under it but these empires came to an end when the emperor Aurelian (r. 270-275) from Rome itself reunited the whole empire, thought he crisis had not ended yet. At this point, the Roman emperors being away in military campaigns either against the barbarians across the borders or the Persians in the east had been barely in Rome which also caused several military rebellions by the praetorian guard in Rome that would gain strength in the emperors’ absences to overthrow him; meanwhile due to lack of funds the Roman army too had changed its structure abandoning the classic imperial legions of the past to a new kind of legionary forces of more mobile armies with lighter armor and weapons. However, this long nightmare of anarchy and chaos that ruined the ideals of internal stability the Romans valued so much would come to an end in 284 when an unknown commoner who was also an Illyrian named Diocles who was a cavalry commander in the army plotted his way to gain power by secretly eliminating the emperor Carus’ son and successor Numerian and in the city of Nicomedia in Asia Minor, Diocles was proclaimed emperor changing his named to the Latin name Diocletian. After defeating Carus’ other son and actual successor Carinus in 285, Diocletian became the sole ruler of the empire but he did not intend to keep it his way as it was too difficult for one man to rule the whole empire himself, so in 286 he adopted his friend Maximian who was also an Illyrian officer as co-emperor who would rule the western half of the empire while Diocletian would rule the richer eastern half also to keep a closer eye on their mortal enemy, Persia, this system of 2 emperors then became the Diarchy. Diocletian went such a long way from being someone of no importance to someone who had eventually solved the crisis as emperor but as emperor he did not choose to keep Rome as the capital anymore and instead the capital would be wherever the emperor is, in this case he chose Nicomedia. In 293, Diocletian further divided the empire into 4 parts with 4 rulers where he would rule the east as the senior emperor or Augustus and his son-in-law Galerius would be the junior emperor in the east or Caesar and the same applied in the west as well with Maximian as Augustus and his son-in-law Constantius I as Caesar; this system then would become known as the Tetrarchy and each of the 4 rulers governed a respective part of the empire. Diocletian though would be the most powerful of the 4 and he further strengthened the empire by reforming the army by lessening the power of generals so they could not overthrow the emperors, he too reformed the economy and provincial system, and also reformed the imperial system by making the emperors’ power more absolute thus outlawing assassination and starting the final persecution of the Christians in 303 fearing that they were plotting to assassinate him. Diocletian too solved the succession issue as well by having a junior emperor who would immediately succeed the senior one when he retires and at the end, both Diocletian and Maximian as senior emperors retired in 305 while their junior emperors became the Augusti and they appointed their Caesars too. However, this new system Diocletian created was not at all successful as it led to even more civil war especially since the military men he appointed into his new government were all power hungry men determined to gain full control of the whole empire but at least this reform lead to a physical change in the Roman world as the dominant power shifted eastwards and so did all the attention which would lay the foundation for the power of Rome to be based in the much richer east.

Watch this to know more about the Roman Empire and its 3rd Century (from Kings and Generals).

Watch this more more information of the Tetrarchy from Diocletian to Constantine the Great (from Eastern Roman History).

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The Roman Empire at tis height, 117AD
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The 5 Good Emperors of the Roman Empire- Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius
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The Roman Empire divided during the 3rd Century Crisis (260-273) with the Gallic Empire (green) and the Palmyrene Empire (yellow)
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Byzantine era Nicomedia, capital of Diocletian
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The original Roman Tetrarchy- Maximian, Diocletian, Constantius I Chlorus, and Galerius

 

II. Constantine the Great and Constantinople

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Byzantine flag with the Chi-Rho

The Tetrarchy established by Diocletian meant to end all civil wars and succession crisis did not in any way solve these problems; although after Diocletian’s retirement in 305, in the eastern half which he ruled, things were however more stable but in the west things were chaotic as his partner Maximian did not want to retire and someone new would rise to power, a staff officer named Constantine, the son of Constantius I then the Augustus of the western empire. Constantius I Chlorus, another Illyrian military man only ruled as Augustus for a year from 305 to 306 but was successful in fighting off the Picts beyond the Roman borders of Britain, though he was terminally sick and died in 306 suggesting that his son who was popular with the army should be the next Augustus. Constantius I’s son Constantine I who was an army officer first under Diocletian would end up being proclaimed Augustus by the army in Britain even though he was not is father’s Caesar as the Caesar was the general Valerius Severus (Severus II) who was immediately made Augustus of the west by the eastern Augustus Galerius after Constantine was given the title. With Severus II as the senior emperor, Maximian would return from retirement and overthrow and execute Severus II and at the west Rome was no longer the capital ever since 284 and instead Mediolanum (Milan) in northern Italy was the capital of the west while Constantine remaining as Caesar had Trier in Germania as his capital. In 308 however, Diocletian once again returns and steps out from retirement for once to solve the crisis by establishing a new Tetrarchy where he forces Maximian to remain retired and in the west Licinius would be Augustus and Constantine as Caesar while in the east Galerius would remain Augustus and Maximinus Daia as Caesar. Maximian still plots to return to power by threatening to kill Constantine and his family but Constantine when discovering it from his wife Fausta who was Maximian’s daughter forces Maximian to commit suicide in 310 ending his threat then in 311 Diocletian died in retirement as a farmer living in a massive coastal palace in today’s Split, Croatia then in the east Galerius dies and conflict rises for control of the east between Licinius and Maximinus Daia. Even with Maximian dead, his son Maxentius was still plotting his way to gain control of the western empire but his ambitions were stopped by Constantine at the Battle of Milvian Bridge near Rome on October 28, 312 when Constantine invaded Italy to take it from Maxentius and before the battle, Constantine had a vision of a cross which meant to fight under the protection of Christ in which he had the soldiers’ shields marked with the Chi-Rho, the first two letters of Christ’s name in Greek as it was told to him “on this sign you will gain victory” and true enough he won the battle after Maxentius died falling into the Tiber River by the trap he set for Constantine. Now the Caesar Constantine ended the civil war of the Tetrarchy in the west and a year later, Licinius became full Augustus of the east after defeating Maximinus Daia and at this point both Augusti issued the edict of Milan for the tolerance of all faiths which ended the persecution of Christians beginning the start for Christianity to be the empire’s state religion. However, civil war resumed this time between the Augustus of the west Constantine and Augustus of the east Licinius and in 324 the conflict ended when Licinius was defeated at the naval Battle of the Hellespont and land Battle of Chrysopolis and surrendered but a year later Constantine changed his mind and had Licinius executed thus becoming once again the sole Roman ruler but not ruling in Rome.

After defeating Licinius, Constantine who was based in Nicomedia chose the settlement of Byzantium bringing it back to the picture by having it totally reconstructed into the empire’s new capital which would be able to rival or even surpass Rome in grandness and within only 6 years in became a metropolis as Constantine had treasures from all over the empire brought in to decorate it. At this point, in the year 325, Constantine had also organized the first Christian Church council at Nicaea to settle issues against the rising Arian heresy that was threatening the Christian faith and here at this council, Constantine read and approved the first official creed or written belief of the Christian faith, thus establishing Christianity as the empire’s religion replacing Roman Paganism. Constantine however did not stop in killing those necessary including family members as what mattered to him was more of the stability of the state so he had his son Crispus from his first marriage and second wife Fausta executed in 326, but because of the guilt for these actions, it is said he eventually converted to Christianity himself, although it was also because of the death of his mother St. Helena that Constantine became a Christian. In 330, the new capital was inaugurated and renamed Constantinople after the emperor Constantine I, and plans for building the great church began which would become the Hagia Sophia and here is when the Byzantine Empire would really begin as the main capital of the Roman Empire became Constantinople, also Constantine I chose this as the new capital for its strategic location and proximity to their mortal enemy, the Sassanid Persians. Constantine I the Great died in 337 and was baptized only before his death but once again no matter how much stability he restored, he did not leave behind a clear succession so without a proper successor, the army made his 3 sons with Fausta co-rulers of the empire where the eldest Constantine II ruled the western provinces of Britain, Gaul, and Spain; the youngest son Constans I would rule Italy, Central Europe, and North Africa; and the middle son Constantius II would rule the east based in Constantinople. Nevertheless, Constantine the Great’s rule did not only make an impact for Byzantine history but for world history itself as his founding of Constantinople would set the stage for a city that would play such an important role for the next 1,100 years and by adopting Christianity as the state religion, a new driving force that would hold the Byzantine Empire together had started. However these 3 sons did not have their father’s ruling skills but the hunger for power their maternal grandfather Maximian had,  so when the 3 came to power they ordered the army to execute their generals at the spot who the 3 ruling brothers suspected of plotting against them- issuing the Roman-Byzantine version of Order 66 from Star Wars; then the eldest son Constantine II feeling bad he got the most remote provinces asked his youngest brother to exchange places but Constans I disagreed and Constantine II launched an attack on Italy in 340 where he was ambushed by Constans I’s troops but in 350, Constans I was assassinated by orders a rebellious general named Magnentius. Constantius II was left to be sole ruler of the empire but he had to defeat Magnentius first, but as emperor the empire was too large for him that he needed someone to protect the west from barbarian raids into the borders while Constantius II would be busy fighting the Persian threat in the east. For the person responsible in protecting the west, Constantius II appointed his cousin Julian as Caesar in the west in 355, however Julian had hated Constantius II and his brothers for having his father Julius Constantius, the half-brother of Constantine the Great killed as part of the real life Order 66 for being falsely accused of poisoning Constantine the Great. Because Constantine I’s sons were Christians- although Constantius II being an Arian Christian- Julian thought it was their Christian beliefs that made them kill his father and Julian lived most of his life alone as an orphan studying to be a philosopher and admiring the Greek classics without any interest in being emperor but since he was the last male relative, he needed to do his duties as Caesar. While Constantius II was busy fighting the Persian threat which was their king Shapur II, Julian successfully stopped the invasion of the barbarian Germanic Alemanni and Frankish tribes into Gaul and was proclaimed Augustus by his army in today’s Paris in 360. Without wanting to have another civil war, Constantius II named Julian his successor before he died of sickness in 361 and from then Julian became once sole ruler of the entire Roman Empire and as a Pagan, he planned to restore Paganism but not persecute Christians as this would lead to more martyrs and resistance. Julian known as “the Apostate” wanted to end the empire’s decadence which he blamed Christianity for and return to Rome’s old virtues of courage and reason but as emperor he believed he could stop the Persian threat so in 363, only 2 years into his reign he marched into the Persian heartland with a massive army, succeeded at first, but when attacking the Persian capital of Ctesiphon he was forced to retreat and here he was killed in battle by a spear stabbing his liver and upon dying he admitted that Christianity has won saying “thou has conquered Galilean”. Julian could have changed everything by returning to Paganism and undo everything Constantine the Great envisioned but he both died too early and the Roman Empire’s population was already mostly Christian at this time, so whatever Julian had planned would have never really worked out.

Watch this for more information on Constantine the Great’s rise to power in the Tetrarchy (from Kings and Generals).

Watch this for more information on the rise to power of Constantine the Great’s 3 sons and their version of Order 66 (from The Lore Master).

Watch this to learn more about Constantine II and the conflict between Constantine the Great’s sons (from Eastern Roman History).

Watch this for more information on Emperor Julian the Apostate’s reign (from History Matters).

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Division of the Roman Empire in the Tetrarchy (293-324)
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The family tree of the Constantinian Dynasty
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Constantine I the Great, the first Byzantine emperor (324-337), founder of Constantinople
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Constantinople, the “New Rome” founded by Constantine the Great
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Map of the Roman Empire divided between Constantine the Great’s 3 sons- Constantine II, Constans I, and Constantius II

 

III. The Decline of the West and Survival of the East

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The Roman Empire officially divided between east and west, 395

After Julian’s death in 363, the dynasty of Constantine came to end after ruling for much less than a century and the young general Jovian was proclaimed emperor by army as Julian and no heirs but all Jovian did was negotiate with the Persian king Shapur II to allow the Roman army to retreat at a great cause which was to surrender most of their eastern provinces to Persia which he did but at least the conflict with the Persians came to an end and would remain this way for a very long time. On the army’s long return to Constantinople, Jovian once again resumed Christianity as the state religion but died early in 364 before even reaching Constantinople, which meant the army had to find someone new to be emperor so they proclaimed Valentinian as emperor who would then begin a new dynasty. Valentinian I (r. 364-375) would although choose to rule the western half of the empire leaving his younger brother Valens (r. 364-378) to rule the eastern half based in Constantinople. Valentinian I was a strong military commander who was able to put down a large scale rebellion in Roman Britain and fight off barbarian invaders in the northern borders, but his temper was really bad and because of the complains of the barbarian tribe leaders to him, he got so angry at them that he died from a stroke caused by an outburst of anger in 375. Meanwhile Valens who ruled the east was a much weaker ruler if not for building a large aqueduct in Constantinople but in dealing with the Goths from the north of the Danube that had been settling into the Roman Empire, he had mistreated them causing the Goths to strike against him and in 378, Valens marched out into battle but near the city of Adrianople near the eastern capital, the Goths set a trap for Valens and in this battle, he was killed and his body would never be found as the army retreated and year of chaos fell upon the eastern empire in Constantinople as from 378-379, there was no emperor in the east while at the west Valentinian I’s young son Gratian ruled but saw it impossible for him to go all the way to Constantinople so in 379 he solved the issue by appointing the young general from Spain Theodosius as emperor of the east. As emperor, Theodosius I the Great (r. 379-395) ended the Goth threat by making peace with them allowing them to settle in the empire as long as they serve in the army to protect the borders against potential threats such as the Huns, these units of Goths in the Roman army became known as the Foederati. The Goths however could not be trusted as many of them who became generals were too ambitious and hungry for power and most of them too happened to be Arian Christians, so this was another threat for the empire that was Orthodox Christian. Theodosius I too did many great changes in shaping the Byzantine Empire itself which was primarily making the Orthodox Christian religion official while Arian Christianity and Paganism were to be outlawed, then in 391 he banned all forms of Pagan worship including ending the Olympic games in Greece that had gone on for centuries. In 392, the line of Valentinian I completely ended when his younger son Valentinian II who ruled the west since 383 after his older brother Gratian’s assassination suddenly died. With no more western emperor, Theodosius I became the sole ruler of the Roman Empire but he would be the last one as well to rule the full extent of the empire from Britain to Egypt, and Portugal to Syria as 3 years later, in 395 he died formally dividing the empire into 2 parts wherein his older son Arcadius would rule the eastern half with Constantinople as its capital and the younger son Honorius would rule the western half with Milan as its capital.

Now the east would remain rich and strong but the west would not as it would have a rapid decline beginning in 410 when the Visigoths sacked Rome and by 418 they gained control of Spain, then in 435 the Vandals drove out the Romans in North Africa establishing their kingdom there where in 455 they sailed to Rome and sacked it again; meanwhile Britain too had been abandoned by the Romans ever since the beginning of the 5th century and most of Gaul would fall to the Franks and Alemanni, and in the capital which moved from Milan to Ravenna which was also in Italy, the emperors had become puppets of their barbarian generals who were mostly Goths and in 455 the dynasty of Theodosius ended in the west and the next years would be dominated by weak emperors being overthrown one after the other. In the east on the other hand things were more stable even if it began with a weak and absent-minded ruler which was Arcadius but he had capable ministers like the Patriarch of Constantinople St. John Chrysostom and other capable generals behind him and after his early death in 408 he was succeeded by his young son Theodosius II (r. 408-450) who ruled at first with a capable general but when grown up he managed things well and made a lot of reforms to strengthen the eastern empire both militarily and culturally and part of his great works was fortifying Constantinople with the strongest walls ever seen that it managed to defend the city from the invasion of the Hun army of Attila that ended up attempting to invade Italy itself before Attila died in 453 unable to continue the Huns’ campaigns forcing them to retreat back to Central Asia. The only problem though in the eastern empire was that barbarian generals too controlled the emperors behind the scenes particularly the Goth Aspar who was controlling Theodosius II in his later reign before his death in 450 from a hunting accident and his successor Marcian (r. 450-457) who married his sister the empress Pulcheria too was a puppet of Aspar. When Marcian died in 457 without any heir, Aspar himself chose one of his army officers the Thracian named Leo as the next emperor but when becoming emperor, Leo I (r. 457-474) though uneducated knew that it wasn’t right to be under control of a barbarian general so to remove Aspar from power, he chose the Isaurian tribes from the mountains of Asia Minor lead by their chieftain Tarasis Kodisa renamed Zeno to be his loyal army instead of the treacherous Goths and in 471 Leo I fully got rid of the influence of Goths after assassinating Aspar, and the Isaurians then however became the new people to rise to power. Zeno who was the head of the tribe was married to Leo I’s daughter Ariadne and their son Leo II would succeed his grandfather Leo I after his death in 474 but later that year, the 7-year-old Leo II had died too leaving his father Zeno to become emperor of the east. Zeno though was an Isaurian making him another barbarian as well mainly because he was of a different race and not Greek which made him unpopular due to the racism of the people of Constantinople that early in 475, Zeno’s in-laws, his mother-in-law and Leo I’s wife Verina and her brother Basiliscus forced him out of power making him flee to his native Isauria with his wife, but as emperor Basiliscus was incompetent and violent that he had any Isuarian left in the capital massacred and when sending an army to chase down and kill Zeno, they defected to Zeno’s side and returned to Constantinople in 476 overthrowing Basiliscus.

When Zeno returned to power, all wasn’t well especially since the western empire came to its end when the barbarian general Odoacer overthrew the boy emperor Romulus Augustus at the Battle of Ravenna in 476 thus capturing Ravenna ending the long line of emperors. The last western emperor, Romulus though was also a puppet of a barbarian general which was his father Orestes but when Odoacer demanded he get land in Italy and Orestes refused, Odoacer attacked and overthrew the young emperor who completely disappeared from the picture, though Odoacer did not want to pose any threat to the east so instead he just congratulated Zeno for returning to power and instead of making himself, emperor Odoacer just chose to make himself king of Italy. Zeno on the other hand had was so unsecure of his power that he had to make every effort to secure his throne by getting rid of any of the generals who were plotting against him and he even exiled his mother-in-law Verina who had always been plotting to remove him. The much bigger threat Zeno faced was the Ostrogoths led by Theodoric who were set to invade the eastern empire now the Byzantine Empire but to avoid this, Zeno simply convinced and paid off Theodoric to turn west and attack Italy instead which he did in 489 and after besieging Ravenna for such a long time, the city surrendered to him in 493 and Odoacer was killed by Theodoric himself. Meanwhile, peace was achieved in Byzantium under Zeno’s reign and Zeno continued ruling till he died in 491 of his sickness which was epilepsy and once he died the people demanded for an emperor who was Orthodox and Roman as they were tired of barbarians ruling them as well as tired of all the internal conflicts, plotting, and violence like massacres. The people then got their wish as the empress Ariadne married again, this time to the aged Illyrian finance minister Anastasius Dicorus- known for his mismatched eyes which were a different color from each other- who was the complete opposite of Zeno and his predecessors Basiliscus and Leo I as Anastasius was an educated economist skilled in money and knew how to resolve issues with peace. Zeno though had helped the east survive and not end up like the west which had fallen to the barbarians all because their influence over the state was so strong but as emperor, Anastasius I (r. 491-518) first had to get rid of the Isaurians and their influence by banishing them from the capital and from then on, the rule of the east was restored to the Romans once again. Anastasius I did a lot in his reign and many of the great projects he did were economic reforms that helped make Byzantium rich enough to fight the Persians in the east and retake Italy from the Ostrogoths, and during his reign Anastasius managed to solve many issues peacefully though he was very old and in 518 he died at 87 without having a proper successor, thus the dynasty of Leo I came to an end but a golden age for Byzantium was about to come. The real turning point now is that Byzantium had actually survived and stayed strong while west collapsed in 476 but now that there was no more west and only the east, this is when the Roman Empire really becomes the Byzantine Empire.

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The family tree of the Valentinian-Theodosian Dynasty
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Emperor Theodosius I (center) with sons Arcadius (left) and Honorius (right)
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Theodosius I divides the Roman Empire between sons Arcadius (east) and Honorius (west)
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Meme of Theodosius I reign and aftermath caused by his family
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476- Western Empire (purple), Eastern Empire (red)
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Map of the Barbarian invasions into the Roman Empire
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Meme of the Eastern/ Western Empires

 

IV. The Reign of Justinian the Great

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The Byzantine Empire under Justinian I the Great

With the Western Roman Empire all gone with Italy falling to the Ostrogoths under King Theodoric the Great, Spain to the Visigoths, North Africa to the Vandals, Britain to abandonment, and Gaul to the Franks thus becoming the Kingdom of France under King Clovis I while the Eastern Roman Empire which then became the Byzantine Empire still managed to survive as it remained in control of the rich eastern and southern provinces of Egypt and Syria, and with a strong economy it could reconquer all these places the Romans had lost, and all it would take to do this and increase the power and prestige of the eastern empire was the will of a single man with a dream to make the Roman Empire great again, this would be the emperor Justinian I the Great (r. 527-565). It was however unlikely that Justinian, born Flavius Petrus Sabbatius in 482 during the reign of Zeno to an ordinary peasant family in Illyria (part of today’s Republic of Macedonia) would become emperor but in 518, the emperor Anastasius I died without a direct heir so the army elected Justinian’s maternal uncle Justin, who was soldier that rose up the ranks to becoming the commander of the palace guards as the new emperor, although Justin had bribed the guards to elect him. From 518 to his death in 527, Justin I though already very old ruled as emperor despite being illiterate as he was born a peasant and to escape poverty he moved to Constantinople at a young age and joined the army; Justin I though ruled carefully by not spending much on projects so when he died in 527, he was succeeded by his 44-year-old nephew Justinian inheriting a large treasury brought about by the previous emperors his uncle and Anastasius I before him. Even before being emperor Justinian I, Flavius Petrus Sabbatius already had big dreams, was well educated in Constantinople, and had a colorful life being both a legal scholar and soldier serving in the palace guards, which meant he had both great experience in government and military matters, but his greatest skill was ability to organize things and appoint people who were best at their skill rather than appointing them because of their high social standing. When becoming emperor, Justinian I’s first major project was to reform the law by codifying the entire laws of the Roman Empire and updating it and for this he appointed the highly skilled jurist Tribonian in 529 and in 6 years, the code of laws known as the Codex Justinianus or Corpus Juris Civilis was compiled which would then be the legal system the Byzantine Empire would use until it fell in 1453 and would be the basis for the legal systems of many countries today. Justinian I too had to reform the tax system and for the job he appointed John the Cappadocian who was however sadistic while the jurist Tribonian was corrupt and because of appointing these people, Justinian became unpopular among the people that in January of 532, a large scale riot broke out in the Hippodrome after the races when the rival blue and green factions united with the Greek word “nika” meaning conquer directed against the emperor forcing him to fire these 2 hated people in his court, however he refused and the crowds of the riot known as the Nika Riot started burning most of Constantinople up to the point of trying to overthrow Justinian and replacing him with Hypatius, a nephew of Anastasius I who was already old and unwilling to be emperor. The emperor did not want to end the conflict in blood so he chose to flee the city but his wife the empress Theodora refused saying it would be better to stay and die in power than lose it so Justinian ordered his troops led by the generals Narses, Mundus, and the young Belisarius to massacre the 30,000 protesters in the Hippodrome and after it was done, Hypatius too was executed. The empress Theodora was one of the most influential people of this time as she was also born a commoner and lived a hard life as a circus performer and then actress before marrying Justinian before he became emperor wherein Theodora became sort of the power behind him as she made quick decisions when he was indecisive. Other than Theodora, the 2 other most influential people’s in Justinian’s administration was the old Armenian eunuch general Narses and the young general Belisarius who was naturally talented in commanding his men and a skilled strategist and with these 2 generals, Justinian did not ever have to set foot in battle and lead campaigns himself as he trusted they would do a good job and would not rebel against him making one of the very few Byzantine emperors to never be present at military campaigns.

From 533 to 534, Justinian sent Belisarius on a mission to reconquer North Africa from the Vandal Kingdom to test their strength to reconquer Italy, and it the end Belisarius successfully destroyed the Vandal Kingdom based in Carthage and returned North Africa to Roman control coming back with a triumph where the Vandal king Gelimer was brought before Justinian. Thus, after this successful reconquest, Justinian grew strongly popular among the people compared to how he was some years back but back in Constantinople, the emperor had an even grander project which was to build the greatest church ever and in only 5 years from 532 to 537, this massive cathedral with the world’s largest dome then was finished mainly because he appointed the best architects Anthemius of Tralles and Isidore of Miletus for the job and had 5000 workers in 2 shifts working 24/7 to construct the cathedral, and when it was done it was further decorated with treasures from all over the empire and when completed in 537, Justinian I entered for the first time saying “Solomon I have outdone thee”. Starting 535, Justinian launched a massive military campaign to retake Italy from the Ostrogoths which was to be led mostly by Belisarius again but this reconquest proved to be harder than the one previously done in North Africa as the Ostrogoths were a harder enemy, though only in 540 was Ravenna, then the capital of the Ostrogoths in Italy captured by Belisarius and the Ostrogoths forced to flee all over Italy. However, it did not go all well as disaster struck for the Byzantines first the Ostrogoth king asked the Persian king Chosroes I to restart the war with the Byzantines to get their forces away from Italy, and being jealous of Belisarius’ successes, the empress Theodora recalled him back to Constantinople to be under house arrest. Worse than this, in 536 an ash cloud covered the sky for the whole year blocking out the sun causing famine and worse leading to an large scale epidemic in 542, which then turned out to be the catastrophic Plague of Justinian that wiped out a large percent of the Byzantine population not only in Constantinople but all over the empire, it ruined the hard work of the Byzantines in reconquering Italy, and Justinian too was affected by the plague falling into a coma that almost killed him while Theodora ran the state in these months, but fortunately he survived. On the positive side, the plague’s effect on the Sassanid Persian Empire was worse that the war between them and Byzantium never continued for now, and back in health, Justinian called Belisarius back to restart their campaign in retaking Italy. The continued reconquest was much longer and more tiring now that the Ostrogoths had a skilled and charismatic king, which was Totila and in 548, Theodora dies as Belisarius despite not being given enough funds by Justinian finishes the reconquest but Justinian fell into a depression from then for the rest of his life. The reconquest of Italy was only finished in 552 by the older Byzantine general Narses following the death of Totila at the Battle of Taginae and later that year the death of the last Ostrogoth king Teia, then by 554, the Ostrogoth Kingdom had fallen and Justinian’s mission to end the rule of the Arian kingdoms had come true and Orthodoxy was restored as the religion, but the Byzantines would not hold Italy for long. Meanwhile in the 550s, Justinian’s character in empire building had changed compared to the 530s where he was hopeful of his projects but since disaster struck in the 540s like the plague of 542, Theodora’s death in 548, and the deterioration of Byzantine military command in Italy, in the 550s Justinian was much more tired as most of his dreams were crushed but still, he managed to not give and finish what he started. In 555, success came again when the Byzantines were able to annex the southern coast of Spain into their empire, though they would not be able to conquer the rest of Spain from the Visigoths but this conquest was met with little resistance. The last battle of Justinian’s reign would take place in 559 when Belisarius would lead the veteran soldiers one last time, this time against the Kutrigur Huns that were planning to invade Constantinople and Asia Minor and this ended in success for the Byzantines as the Huns fled across the Danube. Belisarius had died in 565 and later that year Justinian I had died too at the age of 83 leaving behind the Byzantine Empire at its greatest extent as the Romans once again covered the entire Mediterranean from Spain to Syria and from north to south their empire stretched from Ukraine in the north of the Black Sea to Egypt, but a lot of the old provinces of the Roman Empire like Gaul, Germania, and Britain could be taken back anymore. Justinian I’s reign was a major turning point in the history of Byzantium as this was when the empire’s golden age took place and in the single reign of Justinian I, Byzantium had the best of everything; its greatest emperor and empress, greatest general which was Belisarius, its greatest architects, its greatest jurist, greatest financer, and greatest historian which was Procopius the secretary of Belisarius who recorded almost every detail of Justinian I’s reign. Though Justinian I’s long reign faced so many natural disasters like the plague and many earthquakes, his reign was the most eventful of all the Byzantine emperors, at the same time the zenith of Byzantine power and it was time when Byzantium had influenced the world a lot by creating a strong legal system and the world’s largest church then, the Hagia Sophia and it was also when the Byzantines conquered the most lands while at the same time, Justinian had sent explorers on missions to explore the far parts of Northern Europe, Africa, and Asia that no Roman has been to before, and part of these exploration missions, Justinian had also introduced the manufacturing of silk to Byzantium after sending monks to smuggle silkworms from China in 552. However, this golden age would be short lived as Justinian’s successors would not be as great as him.

Watch this to learn more about the Nika Riot of 532 (from Invicta).

Watch this to learn more about Justinian I’s reign and reconquest of Africa (from Kings and Generals).

Watch this to learn more about the Plague of Justinian and the final Byzantine reconquest of Italy (from Kings and Generals).

Watch this to learn more about Justinian and the silk production stolen from China (from  Kings and Generals).

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The remains of the Western Roman Empire in the 6th century, Byzantine Empire (orange)
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Mosaic of Emperor Justinian I (center) and his court
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Meme of Justinian I’s goal
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The Hagia Sophia, built under Justinian I, completed 537
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Spread of the Plague of Justinian, 542
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The Byzantine Empire at its greatest extent under Justinian I

 

V. End of the Golden Age, Heraclius, the Persian War ends, and the Arab Threat

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The Byzantine Empire (green) at the end of the 6th century 

After Justinian I’s death in 565, there would be no more ruler as skilled as him in managing an empire so large and eventually, everything Justinian worked so hard on during his especially the reconquests would all fall apart. Justinian I was succeeded by his nephew Justin II (r. 565-574) and he inherited an empire so large he could not manage it alone and soon enough, Byzantine rule in Italy would come to ruin as a new enemy, the Lombards from the north began invading. Under Justin II, the war with the Sassanid Persians resumed as he refused to pay tribute to them the way his uncle did and most of Italy except the major cities fell to the Lombards and since everything was just becoming too hard to manage, Justin II went insane that in 574 he abdicated adopting the guard commander Tiberius as his successor. The reign of Tiberius II Constantine first as regent for the insane Justin II from 574 to his death in 578 was marked with intrigue between him and Justin II’s wife Sophia who was plotting to take the empire for herself, but Tiberius disagreed and in 579 as the full emperor, Tiberius banished Sophia from power. As emperor, Tiberius II (r. 578-582) was highly popular with the people and he tried his best to manage the empire and its economy that was declining as well as in dealing with the war with Persia but he was not as skilled as Justinian I in running empire, then in 582 he died naming his son-in-law the Cappadocian general Maurice who was married to his daughter Constantia as his successor. Maurice (r. 582-602) had then proven to be a skilled ruler, a great military commander who led the troops in battle himself, and a diplomat as in 591 he ended the war with Sassanid Persia by making his ally Chosroes II king of Persia after overthrowing the rival king Shah Bahram and from then Maurice and Chosroes II became great allies. Before ending the war, Maurice as a skilled ruler established 2 semi-autonomous minor empires under the main empire or Exarchates in 584; one in Italy based in Ravenna and one in North Africa based in Carthage as a way to make it easier for the empire to run things and focus on the threat in the east. However, Maurice’s reign was not all that successful as the empire was in financial trouble and enemies raided from everywhere especially the Slavs and Avars that were constantly raiding the Danube borders. To further protect the Danube border, Maurice in 602 ordered the army to stay beyond the Danube for the winter while also cutting the pay for army as money ran out do to constant war and very massive borders to protect. However, the army was not pleased with this and a dissatisfied centurion or low ranking officer named Phocas staged a military rebellion against Maurice by marching south to Constantinople abandoning their mission wherein the emperor fled but when caught he surrendered to the rebels and Phocas having usurped the throne first executed Maurice’s 6 sons in front of him before having the emperor himself beheaded on November 27, 602, thus ending the Golden Age of Byzantium and the Justinian Dynasty and marking a turning point as after Maurice’s execution, the Byzantine empire would undergo a period of disaster.

Now the sadistic and inexperienced Phocas, who was relatively nothing before that came to power in 602 and his reign was nothing but disastrous as when finding out about Maurice’s unjust execution, the Persian king Chosroes II decided to resume the war between Persian and Byzantium and since the Byzantine army had been weakened and with Phocas not doing anything about it, the Persians began raiding into eastern Byzantine territory while in the north Byzantium continuously lost territory to Slavs while Italy slowly being taken by the Lombards. For Phocas, all that mattered was loyalty to him so during his tyrannical reign he executed all those loyal to Maurice including his family members as well as all those who defected in battle. The people had already grown tired of Phocas’ tyrannical rule that in 608, the Exarch of North Africa the Armenian Heraclius the Elder staged a rebellion against the emperor by cutting off the grain supply to Constantinople and in 609, the exarch sent his son also named Heraclius to sail to Constantinople to overthrow Phocas with his army. In October of 610, Heraclius invaded Constantinople and overthrew Phocas saying “is this how you governed wretch” and Phocas replied “and will you do any better”, then Phocas was executed and the younger Heraclius was proclaimed emperor beginning the Heraclian Dynasty. When becoming emperor, Heraclius (r. 610-641) first brought back order to the capital and to the crumbling empire but at this point things seemed to impossible to control as the armies of the Sassanid Persians one by one seized the rich eastern provinces of the Byzantines including capturing Jerusalem in 614, sacking it, and stealing the true cross itself while Egypt too fell to them in 619 cutting of the grain supply to feed the empire. For Heraclius on the other hand, he only struck against the Persian threat 12 years after coming into power as he needed more time to gain military experience in fighting an empire so powerful and in 622, he set out against Sassanid Persia. Heraclius would be the first Byzantine emperor to set foot deep into the Persian heartland going even further than Julian did almost 3 centuries before but when Heraclius was away campaigning in Persia, a Persian army with the help of the Avars and Slavs besieged Constantinople together in 626 almost succeeding but with limited resources, the strength of the city’s walls, a reinforcement Byzantine army from the emperor, and some divine intervention, the siege did not succeed and Constantinople was saved. Also, with the help of the Turkic Caspian tribes Heraclius bribed, they succeeded in defeating the Persians in Persia itself and in 627, the Persians suffered a crushing defeat at the Battle of Nineveh, followed by the overthrow and execution of the mentally unstable Persian shah Chosroes II in 628. Meanwhile, the Persian general Shahrbaraz asked Heraclius to put him power and in exchange the Persian would return the lands they conquered back to the Byzantines which they did together with returning the stolen relics such as the true cross Shahrbaraz was put in power, and in 629 the emperor himself returned the true cross to Jerusalem. The long war with the Persians since 602 had come to an end and so did the more than 600 year conflict between the Romans and Persians since 53BC at the Battle of Carrhae.

Returning to Constantinople in victory, Heraclius would suddenly hear news of a new force rising out of nowhere from the desserts of the south, this new force would be the Arab armies united under the Prophet Muhammad to spread the new religion of Islam; when getting word from a messenger of the Prophet to convert to Islam in order for both empires to be at peace, Heraclius agreed but said his people would not, although he and his people never converted, thus the centuries long conflict between Byzantium and Islam would begin. The armies of Islam from Arabia in the 630s then began raiding into Byzantine territory in the east that had just been taken back from the Persians and before the Byzantines suffered a heavy defeat to the Arabs which later resulted in losing Jerusalem once again, Heraclius went back to take the true cross for safekeeping in Constantinople and in 637, Jerusalem was besieged and fell to the Arabs, Antioch in Syria too would fall that same year, and soon enough Egypt would fall too. Heraclius did not have much longer to live and in 641 he died with a quick succession crisis following his death despite the threat of the newly risen Arab Rashidun Caliphate. In this succession crisis, there would be 4 emperors in the year 641 as Heraclius was succeeded by his eldest son Constantine III who died only after 3 months said to be poisoned by his step-mother Martina the 2nd wife and niece of Heraclius who then ruled for the next few months as regent for hers’ and Heraclius’ son Heraklonas, but in September of 641, the army loyal to Constantine III overthrew Martina and Heraklonas putting Constantine III’s 11-year-old son Constans II in power and here under the rule of young Constans II with the regency of the senate, things would change very drastically. Now the reign of Heraclius saw probably the biggest and most significant turning point in Byzantine history as the long war with the Persians that had been there ever since the Byzantine Empire was founded in the 4th century came to an end, but this war ended tragically not only for the Persians who lost but for the victors, the Byzantines as well as this war had totally weakened their army and resources that when the Arab threat had newly arisen out of nowhere, the Byzantines no longer had the means to fight a force this strong, so it was decided by Heraclius before he died that the Byzantines would have to abandon the rich eastern provinces for they would have to keep constantly defending with the limited resources they have. On the other hand, since the Persians lost heavily, their empire completely fell to the Arabs in 641 while Byzantium would once again survive no matter what but to survive, they had to adapt to the changes of losing so much that they had to restructure their army and provincial system into the Thematic System wherein Asia Minor (Turkey) would be divided into smaller provinces that would control their own armies due to future constant raids of the Arabs. Despite the Byzantines being a strong organised army, the Arabs despite being lighter and less armed than the Byzantines moved quicker and shocked the Byzantines with the speed and harassing tactics of their armies from then on. In 645, the Byzantines had completely lost Egypt to the Arabs and their capital there which was Alexandria would be razed and Cairo would rise as the Arabs’ new capital there. By the middle of the 7th century, the Byzantine Empire had drastically changed not only having a shrunken empire consisting of Asia Minor, Greece, some parts of the Balkans, parts of Italy, and parts of North Africa but their culture too had totally changed as at this point, they had given up their Latin past and everything including language and culture for the Byzantines would be totally Greek and it would remain this way till the end.

Watch this to learn more about the Byzantine-Sassanid conflict in Heraclius’ reign (from Kings and Generals).

Watch this to learn more about the rise of the Arabs and Islam in Heraclius’ reign (from Kings and Generals).

Watch this to learn more about the creation of the new Byzantine Theme System (from Eastern Roman History).

The Byzantine Emperor Maurice about to be executed by the usurper Phocas, having seen his five children killed in front of him, 602
Execution of Maurice and his sons under Phocas, 602
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The family tree of the Heraclian Dynasty

 

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Remains of the Byzantine Empire in 641, after the reign of Heraclius

 

VI. The Byzantine Dark Ages, Iconoclasm, and Arab Wars

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The first Themes of Byzantine Empire, 7th century

Beginning in the 7th century during the reign of Heraclius, the Arabs had started being a perpetual threat to the borders of the Byzantine Empire and would remain so for the next 3 centuries, so from then on Byzantium had begun to fight always on the defensive side while at the same time, their culture had already become very Greek and so was their language. Heraclius grandson Constans II (r. 641-668) inherited an already shrunken empire in constant threat of Arab invasions and it was during his reign that the Arabs would start getting closer to taking Constantinople which was part of their mission in Islam. In 654, the Byzantine army of Constans II was heavily defeated in the naval Battle of the Masts but after this, the threat of the Arabs would subside for a while, although soon enough the Arabs grew even stronger by establishing a new empire in 661, the Umayyad Caliphate founded by Caliph Muawiyah I which would rule almost the entire Middle East and Mediterranean. To strengthen the empire’s defenses against the Arabs, Constans II had fully organized the first 4 Themes or military controlled provinces in Asia Minor in 659 which would continuously develop into more and more Themes for further protection. Although fearing that Constantinople was in a dangerous position that would be an easy target for the Arabs, Constans II left the capital with his wife and sons in it in 663 never to return again as he was making plans to move the Byzantine capital to Syracuse in Sicily thinking it was a safer location but there in 668, he was assassinated in his bath by a slave wielding a soap dish possibly by orders of the rebel general Mizizios who would eventually be executed by the soldiers loyal to the emperor and at the same year, Constans II was succeeded by his young son Constantine IV (r. 668-685) who would then prove to be an intelligent and capable ruler like his great-grandfather Heraclius. As emperor, Constantine IV faced the first Arab invasion of Constantinople by the Umayyad caliph’s army from 674-678 but with his strategic thinking, he had a new powerful weapon, which was Greek Fire put into use for the first time and at the end, this weapon saved the city by burning off the invading fleet of the Arabs forcing them to retreat. Constantine IV too had experienced a new enemy coming into Byzantine territory, the Bulgars from Central Asia and after defeating the Byzantines in 681, Constantine IV had no choice but to cede parts of the Balkans which would then be what is now Bulgaria to the first ruler of Bulgaria, Asparukh and within Byzantine territory the First Bulgarian Empire was formed. When Constantine IV died at only 33 in 685, he was succeeded by his 16-year-old son Justinian II who was already an impulsive ruler and religious fanatic who vowed to crush the Arabs completely despite Byzantium not having enough armies and resources to do it. Justinian II as emperor tried to live up to his namesake and idol, the emperor Justinian I the Great but the second Justinian was not anything like the original as he had a weak empire and no practical thinking but this did not stop him from ambitious plans of conquests and construction projects of grand palaces, which at the end made him very unpopular for his crushing taxes that in 695 the people, patriarch, senate, and army led by the general Leontios overthrew the emperor cutting his nose off and exiling him to the remote Cherson in the Crimea (Ukraine). Now the 22 years of anarchy in Byzantium had begun and so officially the second age of Byzantine history beginning with a depressing age of decline first with Leontios who was emperor for only 3 years from 695 to 698 until he was overthrown by Tiberius III after the Byzantines lost Carthage in 698 to the Umayyad Caliphate, this the Byzantines had lost Africa for good and Tiberius III’s rule had ended in 705 when Justinian II returned from exiled with the help of the Bulgars becoming emperor again by executing both Leontios and Tiberius III. Justinian II’s second reign (705-711) would then be much worse and much more tyrannical than his first one that he spent his second reign killing and mutilating all those who have opposed him in his first reign until the Byzantine Empire was at the verge of collapse as Justinian II had even executed the empire’s most capable generals. In December of 711, Justinian II was overthrown once again and this time beheaded and his whole family killed too ending the Heraclian Dynasty and the rebel general Philippikos Bardanes from Cherson who overthrew Justinian II came to power only ruling quickly from 711 till he was deposed by the army in 713 being replaced by his secretary Anastasius II as emperor who at least repaired Constantinople’s walls and restocked the food supply in preparation for an upcoming massive Arab Siege but in 715, Anastasius II was deposed by the army and replaced by the reluctant tax collector Theodosius III who ruled only until 717 when he abdicated in favor of Konon, the rebel general of the Anatolic Theme who was originally an ordinary shepherd from Isauria (Byzantine Syria) who rose to power under Justinian II as a spy sent to spy on the Arabs to know their plans. In the 22 years Byzantium underwent anarchy, the Arab Umayyad Caliphate was able to gain strength advancing into Europe passing North Africa into Spain.

The general Konon then became Leo III (r. 717-741) in March of 717 and ended the 22 years of anarchy that had 7 emperors by establishing the Isaurian Dynasty but when coming into power, the first thing he faced was the second Arab siege of Constantinople, again by the Umayyad Caliphate but this siege was even bigger than the first as the Arabs had an army of 150,000 and a fleet while the Byzantines only had 80,000. Due to 22 years of anarchy, Byzantium was on the verge of collapse and would have already fallen if the Arabs took Constantinople in the siege of 717-718 but again due to strength of the walls and Greek Fire, the new chain built at the harbor, the siege kept on being extended and the Arab army ran out of food supply when winter came causing them to starve and freeze to death, then with the help of the Bulgar khan Tervel and his army, the Arab forces were chased out from Constantinople abandoning the siege, thus Byzantium was saved again and the Umayyad Caliphate had been weakened. Leo III would later continue in military success in chasing the Arab armies away from Asia Minor but he too would be one of Byzantium’s most controversial rulers as in 726, he issued the first Iconoclast policy which was against the veneration of icons, and this would to massive internal conflict within the empire. Since Leo III was eastern and due to the influences of Islam, he did not agree with images of Christ or the saints so during his reign, even with the help of the Orthodox Church in 730, he launched an empire-wide campaign against icons known as the first period of Iconoclasm. The Byzantine Empire would now be torn as many especially those from the east agreed with the emperor’s policies but the those in the west did not, particularly those in what was left of Byzantine Italy including the pope based in Rome. Because of Leo III’s Iconoclast policies, the rift between the Eastern (Orthodox) and Western (Catholic) Churches would begin and grow deeper and will from then on remain this way. The pope and the Western Church had then saw the Byzantines as arrogant and not trustworthy anymore for turning against icons which had already played an important role in Christianity but also since they had not also helped Italy against the Lombard invasions due to their wars with the Arabs and in the 730s, opposition to the Iconoclast policies of Leo III would lead the settlement on the Venetian Lagoon in northern Italy to declare independence from Byzantium and beginning the Republic of Venice that would later be both a great ally and enemy of the Byzantines. Since Christianity did not make it clear if icon veneration was correct or not, Leo III thought it would be best to outlaw icon veneration as he believed that destroying icons which he saw as both useless and an act of idolatry was the only salvation for the empire as success was already going his way. When Leo III died in 741, his son and successor Constantine V began his reign fighting for power against his father’s trusted general Artavasdos who was promised the throne and in 742 while Constantine V set out for battle, Artavasdos who was also his brother-in-law usurped the throne as a means to bring back the veneration of icons but in 743, Constantine V defeated Artavasdos in a quick but violent civil war, had him and his sons blinded and returned to power ruling for the next 32 years being even more Iconoclast than his father in policies that he had almost every church ripped out of its icons and even went as far as torturing and killing monks who supported icon veneration. Despite Constantine V being the evil monster who sought out to destroy icons for good, he was a skilled military commander who spent most of his reign in war against the Bulgars in the north and Arabs in the east and had won many battles against them thus subduing the Arab threat for a long time, however during his reign relations with the western Church were quickly failing and Byzantine control of Ravenna and Northern Italy was lost to the Lombards without the emperor sending reinforcements. Constantine V died in 775 before returning to Constantinople on a campaign against the Bulgars and was succeeded by his eldest son with his first wife the Khazar princess Tzitzak, Leo IV (r. 775-780) who would die eventually due to his tuberculosis. Leo IV was married to Irene of Athens, who would eventually be the ruler to put an end to Iconoclasm and ironically the most Iconoclast emperor Constantine V married her to his son. Leo IV and Irene’s son Constantine VI (r. 780-797) became emperor at only 9 in 780 but under the regency of his mother Irene who in 787 organized the 2nd Council of Nicaea-despite opposition of the army loyal to the dead Constantine V and his Iconoclast policies- and here the veneration of icons was restored and the first period of Iconoclasm since 730 under Leo III had ended while Iconoclasm became heretical. In 790 however, Irene’s son Constantine VI had grown up and wanted to rule alone against his mother’s opposition so Irene was banished and Constantine VI became sole ruler but he was a weak and inexperienced one who always proved he could be strong one but was in reality a coward who once fled from battle against the Bulgars leading him to become unpopular with the army that revolts rose up against him making his mother co-ruler again in 792. However, Irene would still continue scheming to gain ultimate power for herself that in 797 she hatched a plot with the imperial court that succeeded in capturing her son that he was brought to the room where he was born in 27 years ago and blinded thus removed from power while some say he even died from the blinding. Irene then became the sole ruler of the empire and the first woman to rule it not as regent or empress but using the title “emperor” which was an act that shocked the west more than it did the Byzantines. For Western Europe which had not been under Roman control for nearly 4 centuries, they did not see Irene’s position as Roman emperor so the Frankish king (King of France) Charlemagne became the pope’s greatest ally against the Lombards in Italy and no longer the Byzantines who the west now saw as arrogant and in Christmas of 800, the pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne as the restored Roman emperor in the west or “Holy Roman Emperor”. The coronation of Charlemagne shocked Byzantium even more as they were at this point no longer the only surviving Roman Empire or empire on earth as the west had already crowned their emperor, and worse the Byzantines could not accept a barbarian like Charlemagne as emperor. Even worse, the empress Irene agreed for a marriage with Charlemagne that would unite both empires, though this move would have been an even more epic turning point as with both empires untied, the actual Roman Empire would have been restored but the Byzantine people were against this union as they could not accept a Barbarian Frank as emperor so with a major palace conspiracy was hatched and at the end it successfully deposed Irene in 802 replacing her with her finance minister Nikephoros I (r. 802-811)- who was of Ghassanid Arab descent- thus ending the Isaurian Dynasty since 717 and beginning the short-lived Nikephorian Dynasty, Irene then died a year later exiled in Lesbos.

As emperor, Nikephoros I was however supportive of Irene’s Iconodule policies in keeping icon veneration but more importantly he reformed the economy which Irene had ruined and at this point Charlemagne had come to the point of asking Byzantium for their approval of him as emperor as many foreign kings of the past asked for the approval of the Byzantine emperors for their claim to the throne, but Nikephoros did not accept it and in fact did not ever want to hear of Charlemagne’s name. Instead, Nikephoros prepared a massive campaign determined to crush the Bulgarian Empire that had been a pain to Byzantium and in 811 he almost succeeded in wiping out the Bulgarians although in July 26, 811 he fell into a trap causing a heavy defeat of his army to the Bulgar khan Krum, and Nikephoros himself was killed and his skull turned into Khan Krum’s drinking cup. Nikephoros I’s son Staurakios only succeeded his father as emperor for 3 months as that battle that killed his father left him paralyzed so he had to abdicate being replaced by his brother-in-law Michael I Rangabe (r. 811-813)- who was of Jewish descent- as emperor and in 812 he finally acknowledged Charlemagne’s claim to the throne but as “king” only and not “emperor” but Michael I’s reign was faced by the Bulgar threat of the khan Krum and in 813, the general Leo the Armenian revolted against him while Michael I abdicated in favor of Leo. Now this period from the middle of the 7th to the middle of the 9th centuries was a dark turning point for Byzantium as this was when the empire was possibly at its most challenged point in history having Arab invasions every now and then that almost ended the Byzantine Empire, countless civil wars and rebellions, the rise of Iconoclasm, and worst of all, Byzantium wasn’t alone anymore as the only remnant of the Roman Empire as Western Europe formed its own Roman Empire by crowning Charlemagne as emperor, giving a direct threat to the prestige of Byzantium. Other than that, at this point Byzantium now had to live surrounded by 2 threats that would not seem to end, first the Arabs and next the Bulgars who had built their own empire within Byzantine territory and in its position in Europe, Byzantium would now no longer be the only strong empire left due to the rise of the Carolingian Frankish Empire of Charlemagne in the west and the Bulgarian Empire in the north which had rapidly been growing its power. As the 9th century began, both Byzantium and Charlemagne’s Carolingian Empire would be the 2 Christian empires on earth and with Leo V (r. 813-820) as emperor, Iconoclasm would resume but not intense as the first stage of it from 730-787 but on the positive side, success would be in favor of the Byzantines in battle now that the Bulgarian problem was dealt with in 814 after their siege of Constantinople was lifted.

Watch this to learn more about the underrated and successful reign of Constantine IV (from Eastern Roman History).

Watch this to learn more about the Byzantine-Arab wars and the Siege of Constantinople from 717-718 (from Kings and Generals).

Watch this to learn more about the Byzantine-Bulgar wars of the 8th and 9th centuries (from Kings and Generals).

Watch this to learn more about the continuation of the Byzantine-Bulgar wars in the 9th century (from Kings and Generals).

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Mosaic of Emperor Constantine IV (center left) with brothers Heraclius (2nd left), Tiberius (3rd left), and son Justinian II (leftmost) in Ravenna
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The Byzantine Empire in 717 (orange)
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Tervel and his army save Constantinople from an Arab invasion, 717-718
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Expansion of the Lombard kingdom of Italy in 751 (blue) and Byzantine territories left (orange)
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Map of Charlemagne’s Frankish Empire based in Aachen (Aix-la-Chapelle)

 

VII. The Macedonian Dynasty and the 2nd Byzantine Golden Age

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The Byzantine Empire in 842 (purple)

The non-dynastic emperor Leo V the Armenian in 815 would resume Iconoclasm but not to very great extent, basically only within Constantinople and areas around it but Leo V did not rule long as a conspiracy by his friend and trusted general Michael of Amorion assassinated Leo V in Christmas of 820 and afterwards proclaiming Michael of Amorion Emperor Michael II (r. 820-829) who would begin the short-lived but successful Amorian Dynasty. Michael II’s reign faced the threat of the Arabs rising again as the Arabs of Andalusia in Spain took Crete in 824 and the ones from North Africa began taking Sicily in 827; Michael II, though uneducated and an Iconoclast ruled well restoring stability to the empire and after his death in 829, he was succeeded by his only son Theophilos (r. 829-842). Theophilos turned out to be a successful intellectual emperor who began the Renaissance of Byzantine art, science, and academics being inspired by the court of the Arab Abbasid Caliph of Baghdad. Though fearing the Caliph of Baghdad would invade Byzantium, Theophilos spent a lot of his reign at war against the Arabs but lost many times and in 842 he suddenly died as the last Iconoclast emperor and was succeeded by his only 2-year-old son Michael III (r. 842-867) who at first ruled under the regency of his mother, the empress Theodora. In 843, the empress Theodora from Paphlagonia who was a strong Iconodule like Empress Irene decades ago organized a council that fully restored the veneration of icons but like Irene, when Theodora’s son Michael III was old enough, he banished her from power to be in charge. Michael III however was a weak ruler with little experience but the people behind his rule were skilled administrators such as his maternal uncle the Caesar Bardas and Photios who appointed Patriarch of Constantinople in 858. During Michael III’s rule, Byzantium encountered a new mysterious enemy for the first time, the Rus or Varangians from Kiev which would be the predecessor of Russia when they tried to invade Constantinople in 860 but to respond to this threat, the patriarch Photios had a more innovative solution which was to convert these people to Christianity in order to make them allies and because of Photios, Byzantine culture would begin spreading around Eastern Europe by converting the Slavs including the Bulgars to Christianity and most of this work was done by the Greek missionary brothers St. Cyril and St. Methodius. Meanwhile, a new and promising but very unlikely person had come into the picture in 862, an Armenian peasant from the Macedonian Theme named Basil who first met the emperor when taming his uncontrollable horse. The emperor Michael III and Basil then became very close but now in a powerful position, Basil though illiterate could not stop in his greed for power that in 866 he convinced the emperor that his uncle Bardas was plotting against him which led the emperor to have Basil kill Bardas, thus Basil was made co-emperor but Basil did not stop yet as in 867, he assassinated the emperor himself and afterwards became Emperor Basil I the Macedonian (r. 867-886) beginning a new golden age for Byzantium under the Macedonian Dynasty.

Basil I though being illiterate promoted learning in the empire and so did he reform the laws of the empire from the time of Justinian I and launch successful campaigns against the Arabs in Asia Minor. As emperor Basil I had become Byzantium’s “New Justinian” as like Justinian I, Basil I came from humble origins but rose up to be a great emperor as Basil I at his reign changed the tide of war for the Byzantines beginning to fight on the offensive against the Arabs after centuries of fighting on the defensive side and also under Basil I, Byzantine influence began to spread all over Europe as its people started adopting Orthodox Christianity, while Basil himself was a strong Orthodox Christian ruler. However, near the end of his life Basil I suffered depression after his eldest son Constantine died and he did not like his next son Leo from his second marriage thinking Leo would end up killing him to avenge Michael III as Leo believed he was Michael III’s son as Basil’s wife Eudokia was Michael’ mistress earlier. At the end however, Basil forgave Leo but not fully as after a hunting mission alone, Basil was stabbed by a stag’s antlers and from his wounds, he died days later still believing Leo to be poisoning him. Leo however still succeeded Basil I as Emperor Leo VI “the Wise” (r. 886-912) and his first act as emperor was to properly bury Michael III still believing him to be his father but as emperor, Leo VI was very much different from his father Basil I as Leo was a highly intellectual person and not very much a battle strategist, though ironically he wrote the military manual Tactica and his reign began the glorious 10th century for the Byzantines. Leo VI’s greatest achievements were in reforming the Byzantine laws Basil I started on which would be the Byzantine legal system till the end of the empire in 1453 but as the war resumed with Bulgaria, despite Leo using diplomacy to bribe the Magyars, Byzantium suffered heavy defeats and Leo was forced to pay tribute to the Bulgar ruler, Tsar Simeon. Leo VI also had a troubled marriage life that he married 4 times in order to produce a son and heir and it was only his 4th one which happened to be an illegal marriage that actually produced a son in 905 but in 912, Leo VI died of sickness and was succeeded by his youngest brother Alexander as he was made co-emperor by their father Basil I. Alexander (r. 912-913) was however certainly Basil I’s son and not disputed between Basil I and Michael III but as emperor, Alexander would be one of the worst as a lazy, drunk, and ineffective ruler who out of drunkenness refused to pay tribute to Tsar Simeon of the Bulgars thus resuming the war between Byzantium and Bulgaria; he too also got rid of any traces of Leo VI’s government out of hatred for his dead older brother and after only 13 months in power as prophesied by Leo VI, Alexander died of a heat stroke after a game of polo. Alexander died without any heir, so his nephew and Leo VI’s only son Constantine VII who Alexander had banished succeeded him at only age 8 and Constantine VII ruled the first part of his long reign from 913-920 under an unstable regency between his mother the empress Zoe Karbonopsina and the patriarch Nikolaos Mystikos and his council. Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos whose nickname was taken from the purple room he was born in to legitimize his claim to the throne and would be the only Byzantine emperor to officially use this name would be the first Byzantine emperor to live such a hard life till his death since Julian in the 4th century as his regency was never stable that at one point after a failed Byzantine invasion of Bulgaria, he was about to be given up until the admiral Romanos Lekapenos, another Armenian of low birth who rose up through the ranks rose up to protect the young emperor by making himself emperor in 920 while Constantine VII was taken out of the picture and made only co-emperor. Romanos I Lekapenos (r. 920-944) eventually became the senior emperor and the one running the empire himself after he joined his family to the imperial family by marrying his daughter Helena to Constantine VII but Romanos I was rather an unsophisticated and uneducated person who thought of running the empire like a family business so he appointed his sons Christopher, Stephen, and Constantine as co-emperors putting Constantine VII in the background as the least powerful of the 5 emperors, while Romanos I’ other son Theophylact was appointed Patriarch of Constantinople despite being only 16 in age. Romanos I however was successful diplomat and military emperor that in 927 he finally put an end to the Bulgarian War by making peace with Tsar Simeon’s son Peter I who had recently become the ruler of Bulgaria after his father died and in the east Romanos I led Byzantium in consecutive victories against the Arabs through the skilled general John Kourkouas who pushed Byzantine territory further east driving the Arabs away; meanwhile Romanos I had also driven the navy of the Rus again that tried to invade Constantinople in 941. Romanos I’s end though came tragically due to depression after the death of his eldest son Christopher in 931 and in December of 944, his sons Stephen and Constantine overthrew him and sent him to a monastery but 2 weeks at the start of 945, the sons were overthrown too and sent to the same monastery as their father, thus Constantine VII returned as the sole emperor after 24 years in the background. Constantine VII was however not a very skilled military commander like his father-in-law Romanos I but rather a highly intellectual scholar and artist who in those 24 years in the background spent it studying a writing 4 books which he would continue writing as emperor; the most famous of the 4 is De Administrando Imperio which would be the essential guide to running the Byzantine Empire and knowing about its lands and peoples. Though not being successful in military matters which included a failure in retaking Crete from the Arab Emirate based there, Constantine VII’s reign saw Byzantium at its height of prestige that foreign diplomats including Liutprand of Cremona from the Holy Roman Empire and Princess Olga of Kiev saw how sophisticated the Byzantine imperial court was. Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos though met a sudden death in 959 and was succeeded by his only son Romanos II (r. 959-963) as the other children were all daughters and Romanos II had been married to a Greek innkeeper’s daughter named Theophano; as emperor the young Romanos II would not be very effective spending most of life in pleasure but those who ran the court for him were skilled administrators like the eunuch Joseph Bringas. In Romanos II’s reign, one of Byzantium’s greatest successes came which was the long-awaited capture of Crete in 961 by the general Nikephoros Phokas and after 137 years of Arab control, Crete was returned to Byzantine control. After Nikephoros Phokas returned to Constantinople in triumph, the emperor ordered him to march out to the east to stop the constant raids of Sayf-al-Dawla, the Emir of Aleppo and in 962, Nikephoros and his younger brother Leo Phokas were able to crush the Arab armies of Say-al-Dawla and take back Aleppo from them. Though after the recapture of Aleppo, Romanos II had died in March of 963 at only 25 rumored to be poisoned by his wife Theophano who was said to poison his father too and on the return to the capital, Nikephoros was made emperor by the army but faced opposition by Bringas when returning to the capital.

After winning a fight against Bringas, Nikephoros II Phokas (r. 963-969) became senior emperor of the Byzantine Empire while Romanos II’s 2 young sons Basil and Constantine remained co-emperors but Nikephoros vowed to protect them after marrying Theophano and becoming part of the imperial family. Nikephoros II however was not a very popular emperor among the people as he was overall only a tough an unsophisticated, was unattractive, lacked charm, was in some ways too religious, and put the taxes so high to fund military campaigns but overall, he was the successful military commander the Byzantines never saw since the general Belisarius in the 6th century. Nikephoros II’s intentions for fighting continuous wars against the Muslim Arabs though was more to conquer in the name of Christianity and for his brutal murders of the Arabs in battle he was given the nickname “the white death of the Saracens”, and during his reign he continued in more victories by taking back the entire Cyprus in 965 after 3 centuries of shared rule between Byzantium and the Arabs and afterwards he recaptured Cilicia too. Nikephoros II however failed in defending Byzantine Italy that Sicily completely fell to the Arabs and the northern borders of Byzantium were threatened by the Bulgarians again, and only by bribing the Rus prince Sviatoslav I of Kiev were the Bulgarians taken care of. On the other hand, a plot led by the emperor’s nephew the general John Tzimiskes who was banished by his uncle rose against the emperor and on midnight of December 11, 969 the emperor was killed in his sleep at the palace in Constantinople by John Tzimiskes and conspirators wherein the empress Theophano took part in planning it. Following the assassination, John I Tzimiskes (r. 969-976) became emperor on the condition by the patriarch to banish Theophano and marry Romanos II’s sister Theodora to be part of the family, thus the Macedonian Dynasty had its 3rd ruler from outside the family. John I Tzimiskes though as emperor would be even more successful than his uncle Nikephoros II as John I was not only a successful commander but a skilled statesman who was increasingly popular with the people as he had charm, was skilled in diplomacy, donated a lot to charity, and made laws to protect the poor against powerful land owners. John I succeeded in diplomacy with Prince Sviatoslav I of Kiev then in conquests by beginning the Byzantine reconquest of Bulgaria in 971 and I 972 he returned to the far eastern parts of the empire to drive away the armies of the Arab Abbasid Empire based in Baghdad. John I would be the first Byzantine emperor since Heraclius in the 7th century to go that far east and in his campaign, John I was able to retake Antioch and afterwards succeed in taking almost all of the Levant, though not successful in taking back Jerusalem. In 976, John I died mysteriously when returning to Constantinople said to be poisoned by the eunuch and imperial chamberlain Basil Lekapenos, the youngest son of Romanos I. John I would be one of Byzantium’s most underrated emperors as during his reign, the Byzantines were once again able to take back lands farther to the east and north that they had lost 3 centuries ago and during his reign, Byzantine influence further spread across Europe including the Holy Roman Empire based in Germany after John I married his niece Theophano to the Holy Roman Emperor Otto II, and this marriage introduced the fork to Western Europe. With John I dead, the Macedonian Dynasty would resume under rule of one of its own family members itself and no longer ceremonial as the young co-emperors and sons of Romanos II Basil and Constantine were old enough and the older brother Basil II (r. 976-1025) became senior emperor but the first part of his reign would be challenged for a very long time. First of all, Basil II’s reign was first dominated by the chamberlain Basil Lekapenos and the rebel general Bardas Skleros challenged his rule but first Lekapenos would be dealt with until 2 rebel generals rose against Basil II even declaring themselves emperor; the 2 were Bardas Skleros and the other was Nikephoros II’s nephew Bardas Phokas but Basil II and his brother and co-emperor Constantine VIII still held Constantinople. Basil II knew that diplomacy would be the best solution to solve the conflict so he married off his sister Anna to Rus Prince of Kiev Vladimir I, son of Sviatoslav I in exchange for an army of 6,000 large and strong men which would then be the famous Varangian Guard unit that would protect the emperor, also because of the marriage between Vladimir and Anna, the Rus had converted to Christianity beginning the Christianization of Russia which would become one of the countries under the influence of Byzantium. With the help of the 6,000 Varangians Bardas Phokas’ army was defeated in 989 while the general himself died too and 2 years later, the other rebel general Bardas Skelros was dealt with but spared wherein Basil got advice to strengthen the army and government by not spoiling commanders and government officials. Basil II would be very much different from all his intellectual and cultured family members that ruled the dynasty as he was overall a soldier without any care for intellectual matters and he spent most of his reign away from the capital in military campaigns living and eating like the rest of the army even choosing to wear military uniform instead of imperial robes. In the early part of Basil II reign, Byzantium faced the constant threat of the Bulgarians trying to restore their rule to the parts the Byzantines under Nikephoros II and John I reconquered and Basil II at first failed at battle against the Bulgars as the Bulgar tsar Samuil had restored the power of the Bulgarian Empire and was determined to crush the Byzantines, though after facing defeat, Basil II too was determined to crush the Bulgarians. By 1000, Basil II finished off the Byzantines’ war with the Arab Fatimid Caliphate based in Egypt through diplomacy to resume fighting the Bulgarians at the north and in 1014, a major victory came for the Byzantines when Basil II and his army together with the Varangians crushed the Bulgarian army at the Battle of Kleidion and the 15,000 Bulgarian prisoners of war were blinded with 1 person out of every group of 100 left with 1 eye to lead them back to their tsar Samuil in their capital, Ohrid. When Samuil saw his men defeated and blinded, he collapsed and soon enough died of a heart attack and 4 years later, the whole Bulgarian Empire was defeated and the entire Balkans were added to the Byzantine Empire. After more than 3 centuries, the Bulgarian Empire and its threat formed out of Byzantine territory in 681 came to an end and by having Bulgaria, Basil II now called “the Bulgar-Slayer” after his conquest of Bulgaria thought it better to understand the people more and tax them less to keep them in peaceful terms and this plans worked, so next thing Basil II did was again successfully campaign against Georgia and the east and here, most of Georgia and Armenia were annexed to the empire as well. Before starting a Byzantine reconquest of Sicily, Basil II the Bulgar-Slayer died in 1025 leaving the empire large, rich, stable, and influential as longest reigning Byzantine emperor ruling for almost 50 years and if included his reign as co-emperor it would be 65 years but Basil II never married and had no children, so the empire was left to his younger brother Constantine VIII. By the end of Basil II’s reign, Byzantium had once again another massive empire having the entire Balkans and Asia Minor stretching west to east from Southern Italy to Armenia, north to south from the Crimea in Ukraine to Syria and the second golden age of Byzantium would be at its climax during the reign of Basil II. Unlike the golden age during the reign of Justinian I in the 6th century, the second golden age happened under a series of emperors culminating with Basil II but in its second golden age under the Macedonians, Byzantium was not however a global Roman power controlling the entire Mediterranean, rather it was its golden age as a Greek empire and not a global power but only the dominant power in Eastern Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean, but still the influence of Byzantium had spread all over eastern Europe, cultural prestige of the Byzantine Empire would now be acknowledged by the Holy Roman Empire, and the greatness of the Byzantium would be heard off all the way as far north as Scandinavia where they referred to Constantinople as “the great city”. The 10th century was a glorious one for Byzantium and a major turning point due to the fact of winning countless victories and spreading their influence and Orthodox Christianity all over Eastern Europe and in the empire itself, this century surprisingly had only 8 emperors and one dynasty which meant despite some rebellions, there was real stability but this golden age the Macedonian Dynasty brought that increased the power and of the Byzantine Empire again after 4 centuries would however not last very long.

Watch this for more information about the emperors of the Macedonian Dynasty (from Porphyra Foundation).

Watch this to learn more about Nikephoros II Phokas and his encounter with Bishop Liutprand of Cremona from the Holy Roman Empire (from Voices of the Past).

Watch this to learn about the reign of Emperor Basil II the Bulgar-Slayer (from Tooky History).

Watch this to learn more about the Varangian Guard elite forces (from Kings and Generals).

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The family tree of the Macedonian Dynasty
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Characters of the Macedonian Dynasty
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The Byzantine Empire at the beginning of Basil II’s reign, 976