Greatest and Worst Byzantine Emperors (330-1453)- Year End Article

Posted by Powee Celdran

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WARNING: THIS WILL BE A LONG ARTICLE!! Also the final article for 2019! 

Welcome back to another article by The Byzantium Blogger and Happy Holidays! This here will be my year-ender article for this year 2019 and like all the other articles I previously did, this will be still long but at least still shorter and more straight to the point than the previous ones I did. This article will basically be on rating some of the best and worst Byzantine emperors in my opinion which means it will more or less focus on what some of Byzantium’s emperors successfully did or failed to do and anymore so much on the background of Byzantine history and their times. Since I cannot really rank who in my opinion are my best and worst emperors, I will do this list in chronological order from the Byzantine Empire’s founding in 330 to its fall in 1453, the first part will be my 15 greatest emperors out of Byzantium’s 90+ emperors and the second part will be my 12 worst emperors out of the 90+ emperors and this article does not have to be read all in one piece, rather you can read it part by part as each part emperor is rather short. The Byzantine Empire was one of history’s longest lasting empires living for more than 1,100 years and within 11 centuries its history had gone such a long way starting out as basically the continuation of the Roman Empire but moved to the east as it was based in Constantinople but overtime, the Byzantines as the successor to the old Roman Empire evolved into a Greek speaking empire and at its final years a small territory only holding the capital Constantinople and a few other areas. The course of the history of Byzantium (Eastern Roman Empire) had changed many times for better or for worse and a lot of these changes were mostly due to its emperor and their decisions. First of all, I will mention 15 of Byzantium’s greatest emperors in my opinion and why I consider them to be the greatest or most successful ones and what makes these emperors great were overall the successes they had in their reigns, how they left behind a great legacy for Byzantium, or how they left behind success for Byzantium. Meanwhile for the 12 worst emperors, I will consider them to the worst ones based on how much disaster and ruin they left Byzantium in and how these disasters brought great change to the empire just as how the great emperors changed the course of history of the empire leaving behind an age of success. On the other hand, talking about the Byzantine emperors and seeing if they were the greatest or worst is not all in all black and white, rather yin and yang as some of the greatest emperors of Byzantium had had a lot failures and some of there worst ones succeeded in some things but a few Byzantine emperors had reigned very badly. Also, some emperors that will be mentioned per part will not all be one emperor entirely but sometimes a couple of them especially for those points in time when there were 2 or 3 consecutive emperors having successful reigns or 3 or more consecutive emperors having terrible and disastrous reigns. Also, I will usually mention 1 emperor per dynasty as the Byzantine Empire had a total of 15 dynasties and to shorten things up, 1 emperor would be enough for 1 dynasty especially if this emperor did the greatest work out of all the rulers of his dynasty. Meanwhile, Byzantine history is quite rather complicated to read as it did not overall go in one straight line of success or decline but shows a history of success turning into decline and back to success again then back to decline and back to success again and lastly into permanent decline till the empire’s fall in 1453 when Constantinople was captured by the Ottoman Empire. Most of my information in this article is from the podcasts 12 Byzantine Rulers by Lars Brownworth and a new book on Byzantine history I’ve finished reading, The History of the Byzantine Empire by Radi Dikici in which I have learned a lot more on the lives, successes, and failures of all the Byzantine emperors. This article is also at the same time a much shortened version to the most recent one I did on the 12 Turning Points in Byzantine History, so if you’re looking for maps and important events in Byzantine history check my previous one as this will focus more on the emperors and which ones I have been very fascinated with and want to write about.

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Byzantine Imperial flag and symbols
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Summary of the personalities of the Byzantine emperors Heraclius, Irene, Michael III, Alexander, Zoe, Manuel I, John VI, and Constantine XI

 

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History of the Byzantine Empire by Radi Dikici

 

Other Related Byzantine articles from The Byzantium Blogger:

12 Turning Points in Byzantine History

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

The 94 Byzantine Emperors

The Complete Genealogy of the Byzantine Emperors

Videos on the Greatest and Worst Byzantine Emperors from Eastern Roman History:

Greatest Byzantine Emperors Part1

Greatest Byzantine Emperors Part2

Worst Byzantine Emperors Part1

Worst Byzantine Emperors Part2

 

15 Greatest Byzantine Emperors According to The Byzantium Blogger

 

 I. Constantine I the Great

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The person to start the first part of this list on Byzantium’s greatest emperors is the founder of Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire itself, Constantine I the Great (r. 306-337). Before being emperor, Constantine I grew up in the confusing and dangerous world of the Roman Tetrarchy founded by the emperor Diocletian (r. 284-305) wherein the Roman Empire was divided into 4 rulers who all fought for complete power of the empire. Constantine I, a successful general later on was first crowned in 306 after his father Constantius I Chlorus died but for the next years he had to fight his way to gain full power over the Western half of the Roman Empire which he did after winning the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312. In 324, Constantine I gained full control of the entire Roman Empire becoming once again the ruler of the united Roman Empire after defeating his imperial rival Licinius. After gaining control of the full empire, Constantine decided to rebuild the Roman capital in the town of Byzantium along the Bosporus Sea and after 6 years it was rebuilt into the new imperial capital Constantinople named after him which became the “New Rome” and in fact this new city had grown powerful enough to rival Rome, the old capital that hadn’t been in use for decades. Constantine the Great’s achievements was not only in founding a new capital for the Roman Empire but in setting up the official belief for Orthodox Christianity in the Council of Nicaea in 325 that would be the religion that would define the Byzantine Empire throughout its existence. In 330, Constantinople was established as the new capital of the Roman Empire and here the Byzantine Empire or Eastern Roman Empire was founded although it would only be until 395 when the Roman Empire would be fully divided between east and west and the eastern empire based in Constantinople would be the Byzantine Empire, Constantine the Great though would die in 337 leaving the succession to the empire unclear. Constantine the Great then happens to be Byzantium’s greatest emperor basically because he founded the empire’s capital and established Orthodox Christianity as its official religion, also shifting the capital to the east had shifted attention to the eastern part of the Roman world which would be the land the Byzantine Empire would control for the next centuries.

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Constantine I the Great, the first Byzantine emperor (324-337), founder of Constantinople
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Division of the Roman Empire in the Tetrarchy (293-324)

Watch this to learn more about the Rise of Constantine the Great and Christianity (from Kings and Generals).

 

II. Julian the Apostate

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When Constantine the Great died in 337, the succession for the empire was unclear so his 3 sons ruled the empire together; the eldest Constantine II (r. 337-340) ruled the westernmost part of the Roman Empire, the youngest Constans I (r. 337-350) ruled Italy, and the middle son Constantius II (r. 337-361) ruled from Constantinople but the 3 brothers were suspicious of each other and when Constantine II tried to invade Italy he was ambushed and killed by Constans I’s army while Constans I later on was assassinated by a usurping general who was defeated by Constantius II who became the sole ruler of the Roman Empire once more but since he would be too busy having to protect the empire’s eastern borders against the Sassanid Persian Empire’s threat, he needed someone to protect the west from barbarian invasions, this person would be his cousin Julian, the last male member of the Constantinian Dynasty. Julian though was not really interested in being emperor but rather on scholarly work and philosophy but in 360 he was crowned by his troops in Paris and when Constantius II died in 361, Julian became the sole ruler of the Roman Empire. Julian though had hated his cousin Constantius II for having Julian’s father Julius Constantius, Constantine the Great’s half-brother killed after being falsely accused of poisoning Constantine Great, although Constantius II had purged many of his rivals systematically to secure his position, Julian was then left to grow up an orphan as his mother died when he was very young. Julian as emperor was however very different as he was a Pagan and would be the last Pagan Roman emperor but he too was a social reformer and despite wanting to undo Constantine the Great’s work of establishing Christianity as the Roman state religion, Julian had good intentions as he wanted to return to Paganism seeing that Christianity had devolved the empire into decadence, and by re-establishing Paganism, he thought that the Roman Empire would return to its old virtues that kept the state stable. Julian for me is considered one of Byzantium’s great emperors as he had great ambitions to return the Roman Empire into what it once was but his end was tragic after only reigning for only 2 years. In 363, when launching a military campaign against Sassanid Persia, he was killed in battle, thus his dreams were never achieved but if he lived much longer he would have been a great emperor if he had once and for all defeated the Persians, meanwhile Christianity would have also not died under his reign as despite being a Pagan, Julian did not plan to make Christians martyrs the way the Roman emperors of the past did. Instead, after Julian’s death, the Roman Empire returned to being a Christian one and 32 years later, the Roman Empire would be fully divided between east and west wherein the east would become the Byzantine Empire.

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Division of the Roman Empire among Constantine I sons Constantine II, Constans I, and Constantius II

Watch this to learn more about Julian the Apostate’s reign (from History Matters).

 

III. Zeno

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In 395, the emperor Theodosius I the Great (r. 379-395) suddenly died as the last full ruler of the Roman Empire and with his death the empire was divided wherein the east becoming the Byzantine Empire would be controlled by his older son Arcadius and the west by his younger son Honorius. The western half would rapidly decline due to barbarian invasions but the east would survive under competent generals and emperor like Theodosius II (r. 408-450). Thing however would not be overall stable for the east especially since at this time barbarian Goth generals had become influential up to the point wherein they controlled emperors and their decisions such as the Goth general Aspar who had influence over the emperors Theodosius II, Marcian (r. 450-457), and Leo I (r. 457-474), however Leo I the Thracian knew he did not want to be controlled so in 471 he had Aspar killed and when removing the Goths from power, he replaced them with another barbarian tribe, the Isaurians, a mountain people from Asia Minor led by their commander Tarasis Kodisa who was renamed Zeno after marrying Leo I’s daughter Ariadne. When Leo I died, his grandson who was Zeno’s son Leo II (r. 474) became emperor but died shortly after being succeeded by his father Zeno. Being of a different race (not Greek or Roman), Zeno had been unpopular with the people of Constantinople especially since his mountain tribe were in charge of the state so 2 months into his reign in 475 he was removed from power by Basiliscus (r. 475-476) spending his reign massacring the remaining Isaurians while Zeno fled back to Isauria but soon enough Zeno returned to power banishing Basiliscus. Though when back in power, Zeno (r. 476-491) faced one problem after the other first was that the Western Roman Empire had fallen in 476 to the barbarian general Odoacer and Zeno had to accept Odoacer’s claim over Italy though Odoacer had not proclaimed himself emperor, then Zeno had to face multiple rebellions against his rule all because he was an Isaurian putting them down one by one, and lastly faced the threat of invasion by the Ostrogoth tribe led by Theodoric in which he settled by paying them off making them take over Odoacer’s Italy instead. Zeno died in 491 leaving the Byzantine Empire stable, safe from being controlled by Goths, and safe from barbarian invasions, massacres, and plotting. For me, what makes Zeno a great emperor was that he managed to one by one take care of all the problems and leave the empire stable to the point that it could grow again and rebuilt the old Roman Empire despite him being a nobody chieftain from the mountains and at the same time unpopular all because of his race and with a story this colourful, looks like an interesting movie or series could be made about the emperor Zeno. Although other than Zeno, another great emperor was his successor Anastasius I Dicorus (r. 491-518) who married Zeno’s widow Ariadne and during his reign, his economic reforms left Byzantium rich at the end of his reign and with a full treasury, the empire could expand and reclaim all the lands the Romans lost to barbarian invasions.

 

IV. Justinian I the Great

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Out of all the Byzantine emperors there is no one who has left such an important mark in history or had such an eventful reign than Justinian I the Great (r. 527-565). Justinian I, the most influential Byzantine emperor though was someone unlikely to become emperor as he was born a peasant named Flavius Petrus Sabbatius in Illyria and only by chance he became emperor, particularly because of his uncle the commander of the palace guards who became Emperor Justin I (r. 518-527) after the previous emperor Anastasius I died childless. When Justin I died in 527, he was succeeded by his nephew who despite low origins was very well educated and had the ambition to make the Roman Empire great again. Flavius Petrus Sabbatius became Emperor Justinian I and luckily when coming in as emperor Byzantium was a stable state thanks to the work of the emperor Zeno before him and already rich thanks to Anastasius I. Some of Justinian the Great’s greatest achievements still known up to this day was he codification of the Roman laws into the Corpus Juris Civilis or Codex Justinianus, the construction of the greatest and largest Christian church in the Middle Ages the Hagia Sophia in 537, and of course his hard work in his Renovatio Imperii which was the mission reconquering the lands the Romans lost to barbarian invasions and under Justinian I, the Eastern Roman Empire’s armies commanded by talented generals such as Belisarius and Narses reclaimed North Africa from the Vandals, Italy from the Ostrogoths, and a part of Spain from the Visigoths. Justinian I’s reign also had the most influential people in the empire best in their skill which included the greatest generals in Byzantine history Belisarius and Narses, the greatest legal scholar Tribonian, the greatest and most detailed historian Procopius, the greatest finance person John of Cappadocia, the greatest architects Anthemius of Tralles and Isidore of Miletus who were responsible for building the Hagia Sophia, and of course the empress Theodora, Justinian’s wife was one of the most influential people of that time. Other than achieving so much, Justinian’s reign being the most eventful in Byzantine history was also the one faced with so many natural disasters and tragic events such as the Nika Riot in 532 which almost overthrew him, the Great Plague of 542 wherein he almost died, and in 548 his wife Theodora died ahead of him but he still endured all this difficulty and up till his death in 565 at age 83, Justinian still continued running the empire well and doing ambitious projects including sending explorers to the far parts of Europe, Asia, and Africa no Roman has ever been to before and introducing silk manufacturing to Byzantium in which the technique was stolen from China. It was during his reign that Justinian had achieved a lot and brought a golden age to Byzantium but in his time, the Byzantine Empire was the only dominant power in the Mediterranean as the other world power was the Sassanid Persian Empire; though no matter how much Justinian’s reign had achieved, over-extending the empire’s borders would later make it difficult to run it. Anyway, no matter how much Justinian the Great is the most talked about and remembered when it comes to Byzantine emperors, his reign is still nothing but an epic story and if made in to a movie, it would a high budget epic, the same way his reign was a high budget Byzantine epic.

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Meme on Justinian I’s ambitions and map of his empire by his death in 565

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

Watch this to learn more about Justinian’s final reconquest of Italy (from Kings and Generals).

 

V. Maurice

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The empire Justinian I left behind was large and powerful but his successors, first his nephew Justin II (r. 565-574) and his stepson and successor Tiberius II (r. 574-582) were not that talented in running the empire the way Justinian I was though they tried their best to keep the empire intact despite new barbarian invasions in the north from the Slavs and Lomabrds and the threat of Persia in the east growing stronger. However at the end of the 6th century, Byzantium would have another more competent ruler which was Maurice (r. 582-602), coming to power after marrying Tiberius II’s daughter Constantia. The Cappadocian general Maurice became a great emperor in terms of military matters and his reign began successfully; part of his achievements was establishing the Exarch system where Italy and North Africa would be governed semi-autonomously by their own exarchs acting like a junior-emperor while the emperor who rule from Constantinople but also Maurice brought the war with Persia to a successful end for Byzantium. With Maurice, the Byzantine-Sassanid war came to an end when he made his Sassanid ally Chosroes II the Shah of Persia overthrowing the previous ruler and because of this, the Byzantines after a long time no longer had to pay tribute to the Persians, meanwhile Maurice had also expanded Byzantine territory into the Caucasus. Maurice’s other achievement was in commissioning the war manual Strategikon which is attributed to him which gave the Byzantine army information of the enemy armies and what tactics to use in fighting them, however Maurice’s reign was one with constant warfare especially against the invading Slavs in the Danube borders in the north. Since the army had to constantly fight off at the Danube borders and the empire’s treasury was running low, Maurice decided to cut army pay leading to a military uprising among the troops of the Danube led by the centurion Phocas who overthrew Maurice in 602 executing him and his 6 sons, thus ending Byzantium’s golden age and the Justinian Dynasty. Maurice was a skilled emperor in military matters though his weakness was his inability to judge the mood of his soldiers leading to his downfall but he still had no choice but to not pay his men as the empire’s treasury was running low due to constant war; after Maurice’s death, the Byzantine Empire would descend into a time of trouble and more invasions.

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The Byzantine Empire at the end of the 6th century

 

VI. Heraclius and his Dynasty

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The 6th part of the greatest emperors of Byzantium however will not only focus on one emperor but his dynasty as the dynasty of Heraclius had a couple of great emperors which was not only its founder Heraclius (r. 610-641) but particularly his great-grandson Constantine IV (r. 668-685). After Maurice’s execution in 602, the Byzantine Empire descended into a time of chaos under the sadistic and inexperienced emperor Phocas who’s execution of Maurice provoked Persia to start a war with Byzantium again ending up taking almost all of Byzantium’s territories in the east including Palestine, Syria, Egypt, and even reaching deep into Asia Minor already about to invade Constantinople while the Slavs continued invading from the north. The terrible reign of Phocas (602-610) came to an end when he was overthrown by Heraclius, the son of the Exarch of North Africa and in 610 Heraclius became Byzantine emperor coming into power restoring order and cleaning up all the empire’s problems one by one. The Persians were at the height of their conquests at the beginning of Heraclius’ reign so he had to set out from Constantinople in 622 with a massive army to crush the Persians. With the Byzantines led by the emperor marching deep into Persian territory, the Persian army with the help of the Slavs and Avars attempted to besiege Constantinople in 626 but failed and in 628, Heraclius defeated the Persians ending the long war between them and Byzantium once and for all. Heraclius’ greatest achievement then was putting the war with Persia to an end and returning the territories the Persians took back to Byzantium though once the war was concluded, a new threat rose which was the Arabs and the rise of Islam. Heraclius himself got word from the Prophet Muhammad to convert to Islam but the emperor replied saying he would but his people would not leading to the Arabs to begin their conquest of Byzantium. With the rise of the Arabs, the now weakened Sassanid Persian Empire completely fell to the them while Byzantium was left to stand against the new threat. By the time of Heraclius’ death in 641, the Byzantine Empire had already now permanently become a Greek speaking one and no longer a Latin one and lost Egypt and Syria its richest provinces to the Arabs and what was left of it was Asia Minor and only small parts of Greece, Italy, and North Africa.

Heraclius’ grandson Constans II (r. 641-668) coming into power late in 641 was faced with all these new troubles including a shrunken empire and constant Arab invasions which would go on for centuries. The emperor Constans II was although an innovative ruler who reorganized the empire’s territories in Asia Minor into smaller military zones or Themes, also he sent a Byzantine embassy to the court of the Tang Empire in China but fearing that Constantinople would be lost to the Arabs he decided to leave the capital for good moving to Syracuse in Sicily where rumors came about that he would move the capital there permanently leading to his death in 668 wherein he was assassinated by a slave wielding a soap dish. The greatest emperor in the dynasty of Heraclius in my opinion perhaps is Constans II’s son and successor Constantine IV who came into power in 668 at only 16 but despite young age he was a very capable ruler and military strategist but at the same time a very underrated Byzantine ruler. Constantine IV’s greatest achievement was in successfully defending Constantinople from the deadly Arab siege from 674-678 and this was mainly due to introducing a new and rare weapon to Byzantium, Greek Fire in which its formula was only known to the Byzantines. Constantine IV’s other great achievement was organizing the 6th Church Council at Constantinople in 680-681 which ended the religious controversy of Monothelitism, though one of the not so great aspects of his reign was that he was forced to acknowledge the new Bulgarian State in the Balkans once the Bulgars led by their king Asparukh invaded and settled in the Balkans. For me Constantine IV is one of Byzantium’s greatest emperors because despite his young age, he was a highly intelligent ruler and military strategist who not only saved Constantinople from an Arab invasion but introduced the new deadly weapon, Greek Fire which would save Byzantium many times. Constantine IV may not be remembered too well in history despite his achievements possibly because his young age makes him seem to not qualify for a great ruler; though his end at the same time came too soon as he died in 685 at only 33 from dysentery and he was succeeded by his young son Justinian II (r. 685-695/ 705-711), who’s reign would bring the empire to decline.

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Heraclian Dynasty family tree

Watch this to learn more about the Byzantine-Sassanid Wars during the reign of Heraclius (from Kings and Generals).

Watch this to learn more about the rise of the Arabs in the 7th century (from Kings and Generals).

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

Watch this to learn more about Emperor Constantine IV (from Eastern Roman History).

 

VII. Leo III the Isaurian

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The 8th century began chaotic for Byzantium, ever since Justinian II was overthrown for the first time in 695, there has been a change of emperor 7 times within 22 years from 695 to 717, Justinian II the last ruler of the Heraclian dynasty returned to power again from 705 to 711 but was again overthrown and beheaded. In 717, after 3 emperors a former Isaurian shepherd named Konon who at that time was the Strategos (general) of the Anatolic Theme came to power and became emperor renaming himself Leo III (r. 717-741). By the time Leo III became emperor, the Arabs of the Umayyad Caliphate have been amassing a large army attempting to capture Constantinople since they have failed before from 674-78 during the reign of Constantine IV. Leo III’s greatest achievement came in his first year as emperor when he successfully defended Constantinople from the Arab siege of 717-718; although the second time Constantinople was saved from an Arab siege was not all because of Leo III but because of the cold winter that weakened the Arab armies who were not familiar with winter, Greek Fire again, and the assistance of the army of the Bulgarian king Tervel. With Constantinople successfully defended again, the Arabs fully retreated never to attack Constantinople again and Leo III as emperor would have bigger achievements such as reforming Byzantine laws and reorganizing the army and by the end of his reign, he was able to score more victories beginning to push the Arabs out of Byzantine territory. However, despite Leo III’s successes in his reign, he is known for many great controversies particularly the Iconoclast movement which he started in 730 that developed into an empire-wide campaign in destroying religious icons which had resulting in making the empire and its people divided as well as in building more tension between the Eastern and Western Churches. Leo III’s Iconoclast policies had many negative effects too including the rise of the new Republic of Venice which broke away from Byzantine rule after the Iconoclast movement, but at the same time Leo III’s greatest achievement was that he at least brought some success in the Byzantine dark ages and successfully turned away the Arab invasions not only saving Byzantium but the rest of Europe form being invaded.

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Byzantium under the Isaurians, 717

Watch this to learn more about the Arab-Byzantine Wars during the reign of Leo III (from Kings and Generals).

 

VIII. Basil I the Macedonian

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The 8th century was a tough one for Byzantium as it faced constant wars against the Arabs and Bulgars, a deteriorating economy, and the movement of Iconoclasm tearing the empire apart but at the middle of the 9th century, things have changed for the better for the Byzantines. At this point, the Byzantines have been slowly growing more influential and more successful in pushing out the Arabs turning the tide of war against them from the defensive to the offensive. The 2nd half of the 9th century saw the Renaissance of Byzantium both in military and cultural power and the 2 people responsible for the start of a new golden age in the late 9th century were the emperor Basil I the Macedonian (r. 867-886) and the Patriarch of Constantinople Photios. First of all, Photios was responsible for reviving Byzantine art and culture and spreading Orthodox Christianity to Byzantium’s northern neighbors the Slavs and Rus which at the end helped these people become Christians and fall under Byzantium’s influence as a way to come to respect the Byzantines and stop attacking them, meanwhile Photios had also sent the missionaries St. Cyril and St. Methodius to convert the Slavs and introduce them an alphabet based on the ones the Byzantine Greeks used. Meanwhile, Basil I was a person very unlikely to become emperor as he was born a peasant in the Macedonian Theme and was illiterate but his strength and ambition for power helped him rise up; first he became a favorite in the court of Emperor Michael III (r. 842-867) and Basil rose up to power by scheming all the way up to the point of assassinating the weak drunk ruler Michael III in 867, and afterwards Basil became emperor. Basil I’s reign turned out to be nothing but successful both in military and cultural matters as he won many victories against both the Paulician rebels in Asia Minor and the Arabs thus reversing the tide of Byzantine warfare to fighting on the offensive side pushing the Arabs out after centuries of fighting on the defensive. Basil I’s reign also brought in a Renaissance of Byzantine art and architecture and despite being illiterate he reformed the Byzantine laws of Justinian I the Great translating them into Greek as Byzantium had now become a Greek empire and his achievements made Basil I be Byzantium’s “new Justinian the Great”, and other than that his great success was also establishing the Macedonian Dynasty, Byzantium’s most glorious one which would be a long-lived one.

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Macedonian Dynasty Family tree

Watch this to learn more about the rulers of the Macedonian Dynasty of Byzantium (from Porphyra Foundation).

 

IX. Constantine VII and Romanos I

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This part now will not focus on one emperor but rather 2 emperors ruling at one point at the same time with successful reigns. Following the death of Basil I in 886, his successors in the Macedonian Dynasty would continue his military and cultural successes first with his son Leo VI the Wise (r. 886-912) but Leo’s death came too soon and was succeeded by his brother Alexander (r. 912-913) who was a failed emperor but luckily he died after only a year in power before he could ruin everything and was succeeded by his nephew Leo VI’s son Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos (r. 913-959) who was only a boy then and the first 7 years of his reign was marked by chaos among his regents until the admiral Romanos Lekapenos, an Armenian of low birth like Basil I stepped in to take the place not only as regent but as emperor reigning from 920-944 while Constantine VII was brought down to co-emperor for these 24 years. Romanos I became part of the Macedonian Dynasty after marrying his daughter Helena to Constantine VII and he made the rest of his sons co-emperors but despite his greed for power, Romanos I was still a successful ruler especially in military and diplomatic matters. First of all he ended the war with the Bulgarians by making peace with them, then he successfully drove out the Arabs gradually from Asia Minor through his successful general John Kourkouas, and in 941 he defended Constantinople from a naval raid of the Rus fleet in the Bosporus again with the help of the powerful weapon Greek Fire, but Romanos I successful reign ended in tragedy when he was deposed by his power-hungry sons exiling him to a monastery while these 2 sons were overthrown 2 weeks later and Constantine VII returned to power as sole emperor.

Constantine VII reign as senior emperor from 945-959 was a successful one more in cultural than military matters as he was not so much a military strategist but a scholar and artist and these skills made Byzantium now a rich empire into a cultural power that many looked up to for the splendor of the imperial court including an elevated throne and mechanical lions. Constantine VII’s greatest works were the many books he wrote on managing the Byzantine Empire and on dealing with foreigners giving detailed information about their cultures and behaviors; these books including De Administrando Imperio contain valuable information on the Byzantine Empire of the 10th century. Constantine VII died mysteriously in 959 and was succeeded by his son Romanos II (r. 959-963) and the successes of the Macedonian Dynasty would continue.

 

X. Nikephoros II, John I, and Basil II the Bulgar Slayer

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This part now will focus on 3 consecutive emperors with successful reigns, again part of the glorious Macedonian Dynasty. The first of these 3 is Nikephoros II Phokas (r. 963-969), a Cappadocian general who gained success in the reign Romanos II (959-963) particularly by recapturing Crete from the Arab Emirate and re-establishing Byzantine rule there then he moved to the east to fight of the Arabs and reclaim Byzantine territory in Syria including Aleppo and when Romanos II died suddenly like his father in 963, Nikephoros II was crowned emperor by his troops and became senior emperor to Romanos II’s 2 young sons after marrying Romanos II’s widow Theophano. Nikephoros II’s 6 year reign was one mostly of military success reconquering Byzantine territories lost to the Arabs including Cyprus and Cilicia and reconquering parts of Bulgaria but his conquests against the Arabs in Sicily and Southern Italy ended up in failure and his diplomatic policies especially with the west never worked out well. Nikephoros II was rather unpopular as emperor for he was only a tough general and lacked charm and raised the taxes so high for his military campaigns and at the end he was assassinated in his sleep in 969 by his nephew John Tzimiskes in a plot to overthrow him.

John I Tzimiskes (r. 969-976), the second of these 3 great soldier emperors was already a successful general at first and after marrying Romanos II’s sister Theodora he became part of the Macedonian Dynasty and like his uncle Nikephoros II, John I’s reign was marked with more military success and with more charisma he was popular among the people. John I military success included expanding Byzantine territory back into Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine after beating the Arabs in battle as well as restoring Byzantine rule to some in parts of Bulgaria. John I happens to be one of Byzantium’s most underrated rulers as he was not only a successful general but a social reformer who introduced policies ahead of his time in limiting the power of the landed aristocracy as a way to avoid rebellions and civil wars, though this led to his death by poisoning in 976 as it was said that the corrupt court chamberlain Basil Lekapenos had poisoned him for taking away his lands. John I Tzimiskes died without children so the rightful emperor Basil II (r. 976-1025), the son of Romanos II and grandson of Constantine VII came to power but his early years in power before success came was full of challenge.

Basil II successfully defeated all opposition against his rule, campaigned against corruption in the empire, and introduced a new unit of Varangian warriors into the Byzantine army after making an alliance with the Prince of Kiev Vladimir the Great who Basil II married his sister Anna to. Most of Basil II’s reign after 991 then was spent in military campaigns against Byzantium’s mortal enemy then, the Bulgarian Empire in which Basil II was determined to crush. In 1014, Basil II and his army defeated the Bulgarians at the Battle of Kleidion in by 1018 the entire Bulgarian Empire fell under Byzantine rule, thus the whole Balkans returned under Byzantine control and so did most of Georgia and Armenia, and for defeating the Bulgarians he became known as Basil II “the Bulgar-Slayer” but Basil chose to instead respect the Bulgarians he conquered and lowered their taxes. Basil II though was more of a soldier than a scholar that he did not care much for the arts and was well loved by his troops that they saw him as their “father” as he lived their simple lifestyle rather than the luxurious ones previous emperors did that he chose to wear the military uniform rather than imperial robes, he too was never married and had no children, but by his death in 1025 the Byzantine Empire was large again stretching from north to south from Ukraine to the Levant, west to east from Southern Italy to Armenia and the Byzantine Empire became respected and feared all over the known world for their military power but the success Basil II would only last a short time and the decline would begin with Constantine VIII (r. 1025-1028), his brother and successor.

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Byzantine Empire at the time of Basil II’s death, 1025

Watch “The Rise of Phokas” to see the story of Nikephoros II Phokas (from No Budget Films).

Watch “Killing a Byzantine Emperor” to see the story of the death of Nikephoros II (from No Budget Films).

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

 

XI. Alexios I, John II, and Manuel I Komnenos

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Now the next part would again focus on 3 consecutive emperors with successful reigns beginning 56 years after Basil II’s death and within these 56 years Byzantium changed a lot more negatively than positively as corruption that Basil II swore to end returned to the Byzantine court, the Macedonian Dynasty came to an end in 1056, and the Byzantines after a period of success and influence would lose it all when their powerful army was defeated by the new enemy the Seljuk Turks at the Battle of Manzikert in 1071 while at the same year the Byzantines lost Southern Italy to the Normans. 10 years after the year of great defeat, a new the dynasty of the Komnenos would be established when the young 24-year-old general Alexios Komnenos was crowned Emperor Alexios I (r. 1081-1118) and would restore order and the greatness of Byzantium especially in its military power. Alexios I Komnenos came into power with a troubled empire but he would solve everything step by step over the years by driving out Byzantium’s enemies one by one beginning with the Normans who he campaigned against and drove them out of the Balkans by 1085, then afterwards dealing with the Pechenegs by making an alliance with the Pecheneg’s mortal enemy the Cumans and at a battle in 1091 Alexios I wiped out the Pechenegs massacring their race with the help of the Cumans, then the last but deadliest enemy he had to face were the Seljuk Turks who had taken over almost the entire Asia Minor. To deal with the Turks he had to ask for the help of the kingdoms of Western Europe, thus starting the 1st Crusade in 1095 and by 1096 and 1097, the armies marched through Constantinople causing more trouble than relief for the Byzantines and the emperor. At the end, the Crusaders did not fulfil their promises to return the lands they conquered back to Byzantium but instead made their own states out of them but at least it weakened the Seljuks and created a buffer zone for Byzantium as these new Crusader states would be the ones to now fight off the Arabs and Turks leaving Byzantium at a more peaceful position.

When Alexios I died in 1118, he chose his son John II Komnenos (r. 1118-1143) as his successor despite the family being against it but John II who did not seem to be anything useful in his early life actually turned out to be a great emperor and perhaps the greatest of the Komnenos emperors. John II spent most of his reign in the battlefield continuing his father’s successes and he was able to restore Byzantine rule to most of Asia Minor one by one defeating the Seljuk Turks in battle and at the same time trying to make sure Byzantium would maintain its superiority in the region over the new Crusader states of Outremer that he launched a campaign to take over the Crusader state of Antioch for refusing to pay tribute to Byzantium but he died from a hunting accident in 1143 before invading Antioch. John II was succeeded by his youngest son Manuel I Komnenos (r. 1143-1180) who was destined for greatness and his long ambitious reign would bring Byzantium to its last golden age of power as Manuel I focused on making alliances with other powers, fully established Byzantium’s superiority over the new Crusader states of Outremer which had begun to pay tribute to the Byzantines, and continued in fighting off the Seljuks further weakening them. However, Manuel I was just too ambitious that some of his biggest dreams of military conquests failed including the Byzantine reconquests of Italy and Egypt; at the same time Manuel I made many mistakes too including having all the Venetian traders of his empire arrested a banished feeling suspicious of their growing power and in 1176 he lost a terrible defeat to the Turks at the Battle of Myriokephalon. On the other hand, Manuel I had been too pro-western that he introduced western customs to the Byzantine court in Constantinople like jousting which the Byzantines saw as barbaric, he had also married twice and both to western princesses. Although by the time Manuel I died in 1180, Byzantium was large and powerful again having control over the entire Balkans while the Crusader states were part of the Byzantine protectorate too; however his constant spending on warfare left Byzantium bankrupt and his successors would all be weak rulers ruining the empire and by 1204 the greatest tragedy in Byzantine history happened when Constantinople fell to the 4th Crusade.

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Byzantine Empire (purple) by the time of Manuel I’s death, 1180

Watch this to learn more about the reign of Alexios I and the 1st Crusade (from Eastern Roman History).

Watch this to learn more about the reign of John II Komnenos (from Eastern Roman History).

Watch this to learn more about the reign of Manuel I Komnenos and the 2nd Crusade (from Eastern Roman History).

 

XII. John III Doukas Vatatzes

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1204 was a tragic year for the Byzantines as Constantinople fell to the armies of the 4th Crusade, the Byzantine Empire was temporarily destroyed, and the new Latin Empire ruled by the Crusaders was established in Constantinople. Meanwhile, the Byzantine Empire was rebuilt in exile based in the city of Nicaea in Asia Minor and over the years it would rebuilt itself. This part now will focus on a Byzantine Empire who did rule the actual Byzantine Empire in Constantinople itself but rather a Byzantine emperor in exiled which is Emperor John III Doukas Vatatzes (r. 1222-1254), a Byzantine general and son-in-law of the first Nicaean Byzantine emperor Theodore I Laskaris (r. 1204-1222). John III only came into power by marrying into the imperial Laskaris family and the beginning of his reign was met with opposition to him but he defeated all opposition to his rule and began a strong rule over an exiled Byzantine Empire. John III’s reign was one full of military and diplomatic success and his greatest achievements were in defeating the Crusaders that had taken over Byzantium one by one re-establishing Byzantine rule in Northern Greece that his victories had made it possible for the Byzantines to retake Constantinople. In 1235 he made an alliance with the new Bulgarian Empire which had formed in 1185 in order to retake Constantinople but this reconquest failed when it could not be decided on who would take control of Constantinople; though John III further made alliances with the Holy Roman Empire in Germany, the Papacy, and even the Seljuk Turks deep in Asia Minor. John III’s reign was nothing more but successful mainly because he was able to restore Byzantine power after a time of serious defeat and the loss of the capital that he was able to lay down the groundwork for the eventual Byzantine reconquest of Constantinople in 1261. John III was not only a military man but a scholar and modern-minded reformer known for promoting arts and culture as well as free education in the exiled empire of Nicaea as well as promoting self-sufficiency in his empire banning the import of foreign goods showing that the Byzantine even if in exile were able to become rich. John III was very popular among his people but still remains one of Byzantium’s least known but underrated emperors without much attention given to him mainly because there is not much record about his reign; however he suffered chronic epilepsy throughout his life and died in 1254, but if he lived longer it would have been more epic as he would have actually retaken Constantinople and actually become the restored Byzantine emperor with the Laskaris Dynasty in charge of the new empire.

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Remains of the Byzantine Empire after the 1204 4th Crusade
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Portrait, icon, and coin of Byzantine Nicaea emperor St. John III Doukas Vatatzes (r. 1222-1254)

Watch this to learn more about the Wars between the Byzantines of Nicaea and the Latin Empire (from Jabzy).

 

XIII. Michael VIII Palaiologos

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Only 7 years after John III Doukas Vatatzes died, the Byzantines of Nicaea were able to reclaim Constantinople from the Latins and restore the Byzantine Empire after it disappeared for 57 years and the person responsible for the restoration of Byzantium was the emperor Michael VIII Palaiologos (r. 1261-1282). Michael Palaiologos was born to a Byzantine military elite family in the exiled Empire of Nicaea but grew up being raised by his older sister Irene who convinced him since childhood that he was destined to retake Constantinople, and throughout his life Michael had the ambition and motivation to do this. Michael was however a liar and troublemaker in his early life running into a lot of trouble with the Laskaris family; he too was a rival of Theodore II Laskaris (r. 1254-1258), John III’s son and successor and to escape him Michael fled to the court of the Seljuk sultan and served in his army until being called back to Nicaea. However everything would change in 1258 as Theodore II mysteriously died where it was said that Michael could have poisoned him and to secure his position as co-emperor of Nicaea to Theodore II’s 7-year-old son and successor John IV Laskaris (r. 1258-1261), Michael ordered John IV’s initial regent George Mouzalon killed at Theodore II’s funeral and when 1259 began, Michael VIII became the co-emperor of Nicaea and was the one to actually run the show. Within only 2 years in power, Michael proved he was a strong ruler as his armies defeated the Latins in Greece reclaiming most of the country for the Byzantines and by 1261 with the Latins only limited to Constantinople, Michael’s army led by the general Alexios Strategopoulos in a surprise attack with the main Latin army away infiltrated Constantinople late at night and in one night, the Byzantines reclaimed Constantinople forcing the Latins and their emperor Baldwin II to flee. Now with Constantinople and its surroundings back in Byzantine hands, Michael VIII seeing himself as the new Constantine the Great was crowned the restored Byzantine emperor in August 1261 but in Nicaea John IV still remained in power so to secure his claim to the throne and establish his own dynasty the Palaiologos, Michael had John IV Laskaris blinded and sent into house arrest at the end of 1261, though many of Michael doings including John IV’s blinding was done by the urging of his older sister Irene. Michael VIII would spend the rest of his reign trying to restore the Byzantine Empire, rebuilding the mess Constantinople turned into after the Crusaders ruined it in 1204, and restoring the army and navy but it had been too late as the Crusaders in 1204 had brought too much damage and the only way to restore Byzantine glory was to spend a lot of money the Byzantines no longer had. First of all Michael thought running the Byzantine Empire back in Constantinople was as easy as running Nicaea but it wasn’t especially since at this point Byzantium even though back in power was no longer the dominant power it once was but rather at the same level of power as its neighbors Bulgaria and Serbia, and worse the restored Byzantium was faced with the threat of the Latins making plans to retake Constantinople after they lost it in 1261. As a way to make peace with the Latins in the west, Michael VIII agreed to unite both the Byzantine and Latin Churches at the Council of Lyon in 1274 but this act of union which was to save Byzantium from the returning threat of the Latins made Michael VIII unpopular among the people. In 1282, when the French ruler of Sicily Charles of Anjou was making preparations to conquer Constantinople and Byzantium back for the Latins, Michael VIII when hearing of the plot came up with his own plot in paying off the Sicilians to start an uprising against their French rulers, thus saving Byzantium from another Latin invasions by pushing out the French from Sicily and establishing the rule of his ally Aragon over Sicily. Michael VIII died in December of 1282 away from Constantinople and his end was rather shameful as no matter how much he had been a hero before in reclaiming Constantinople in 1261 from the Latins he died hated by his people for actually agreeing to unite Byzantium to the religion of the Latins their enemy that after his death his son and successor Andronikos II Palaiologos (r. 1282-1328) chose to bury his father Michael VIII away from Constantinople so the mob would not desecrate his tomb, thus the hero of the Reconquest of Constantinople was not even buried in the city he fought so hard to reclaim.

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Reconquest of Constantinople by the Byzantines, 1261
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The Byzantine Empire restored in 1261 (yellow)

Watch “Summer of 1261” to see the story of Michael VIII’s Reconquest of Constantinople (from No Budget Films).

 

XIV. Andronikos III Palaiologos

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Michael VIII Palaiologos despite dying shamefully at least reconquered Constantinople established the Palaiologos Dynasty, the longest ruling dynasty in Byzantine history and the last one as well which would rule Byzantium till its fall in 1453. Michael VIII’s son Andronikos II when becoming emperor undid his father’s work and cancelled the union with the Latin Catholic Church and returned Byzantium to Orthodoxy but his long reign was one marked with a series of military failures, reduction of the army, the failed experiment of hiring Catalan mercenaries, and the rise of the new inevitable enemy, the Ottomans. In 1321, people were sick of the rule of the old Andronikos II and the high taxes he introduced wherein no one could afford food anymore so his grandson Andronikos III rose up and started a civil war against his grandfather intended to overthrow him and reform the failed state Byzantium turned into back into a powerful one. The young Andronikos III however even if an intelligent and cultured person at first did not seem as the rightful emperor for he lived a life of drunk and decadent young man addicted to gambling and fights that one day in 1320 he owed a lot debts to his lover’s family and for not paying off his debts, his lover’s family ordered archers to kill him but instead the young Andronikos escaped and instead they shot his younger brother Manuel killing him mistaking him for Andronikos (though in another story it is said that Andronikos had the archers kill Manuel mistaking him for the man his lover was cheating on). When young Andronikos’ father the co-emperor Michael IX Palaiologos heard about the death of his younger son he died of grief and worse the grandfather who was the old emperor Andronikos II reacted in rage to the death of his son and grandson blaming his grandson Andronikos for causing their deaths that the young Andronikos was removed from succession thus starting a civil war. When hearing of being removed from succession by his grandfather, Andronikos III raised an army of Byzantium’s young gangs in Adrianopolis in 1321 and many especially Byzantium’s young population fell to his cause now that they were tired of the weak rule of his grandfather and with more support young Andronikos’ side was winning the civil war that his grandfather fearing being deposed made his grandson co-emperor but the conflict was not even far from over as both rulers got suspicious of each other that the grandfather got an alliance from Serbia and the grandson from Bulgaria and at the end in 1328, Andronikos III wont eh civil war became the sole ruler of the Byzantine Empire and sent his grandfather into exile as a monk where he died in 1332.

As emperor, Andronikos III Palaiologos (r. 1328-1341) had completely changed his lifestyle going from the drunk and selfish young man he was into a responsible ruler committed to restoring Byzantium to its old glory and as a Balkan power again. Andronikos III’s reign was successful with many judicial reforms and military successes which were mostly due not only to the emperor but to his friend and advisor the general John Kantakouzenos who helped him come to power in the civil war against his grandfather and would later be Byzantine emperor. The military successes of Andronikos III were in taking back many Greek islands from the Latins and more importantly defeating the breakaway Byzantine state of Epirus and adding it back to Byzantium but against the new powerful enemy, the Ottomans Andronikos III never succeeded in battle against them allowing them to take most of Asia Minor while Byzantium had lost it, thus Byzantium’s power would now be mostly focused in Greece and Thrace. Andronikos III thought his reign would last long but when getting malaria, he suddenly died in 1341 without even naming his 9-year-old son John his heir, thus beginning another civil war between the side of his son John and John Kantakouzenos from 1341-1347. Andronikos III’s story is one of true character development like those seen in many books and movies going from a selfish decadent young man to a responsible, energetic, and committed ruler and perhaps he was the last great Byzantine emperor with great ambitions to restore Byzantium to its former glory as after him, the whole story of Byzantium would be a story of decline, although his unknown success makes him something like a Byzantine “fan-favourite”. At the same time Andronikos III was Byzantium’s millennial emperor since he reigned at the year 1330, 1000 since Constantine the Great founded Byzantium and Constantinople.

 

XV. Constantine XI Palaiologos

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The Last Byzantine emperor ironically had the same name as the first, Constantine and even more ironically the last emperor’s mother was also named Helena like the mother of the first emperor, though the last emperor was the son of Emperor Manuel II Palaiologos (r. 1391-1425) a son of John V Palaiologos (r. 1341-1391) who was a son of Andronikos III Palaiologos (r. 1328-1341). After the death of Andronikos III in 1341, Byzantium’s decline would go on and on beginning with a deadly civil war from 1341-47 fought between his sons supporters and John VI Kantakouzenos, then the rise of the Ottomans once again who would already march into Europe making the Byzantine Empire their vassal and by the beginning of the 15th century, what was left of the Byzantine Empire was surrounded by Ottoman territory. In 1391, Manuel II came to power after his father died and refused to pay tribute to the Ottomans and instead asked the kingdoms of Europe for aid against the threat, though during his reign the Ottomans would besiege Constantinople twice but would fail as in the first siege the Ottomans were defeated by the Mongol army of Tamerlane leading to a temporary collapse of the Ottoman Empire but after 10 years would regain strength but would still not be able to successfully take Constantinople. After Manuel II’s death in 1425, he was succeeded by his son John VIII Palaiologos (r. 1425-1448) who would continue to seek aid from Europe but the Ottomans would now be unstoppable but Byzantine general was able to hold on Byzantine controlled Southern Greece (the Peloponnese) against the Ottomans, this was John VIII’s younger brother Constantine and when John VIII died in 1448, he chose Constantine to succeeded him and early in 1449 he was crowned.

Constantine XI Palaiologos Dragases (r. 1449-1453), the last Byzantine emperor had preferred to use his mother’s Serbian last name Dragases; and he was not like the many soft minded emperors of his time, he did not care much for intellectual matters but was a warrior and military strategist and even at the most desperate times he would make the most out of it and would choose to fight rather than surrender, a rare trait for a Byzantine emperor. Constantine XI knew the Ottomans would besiege Constantinople so did all he could to prepare for the defense including desperately getting the west to their aid again even if it meant the controversial unity of the Orthodox and Catholic Churches, but Constantine XI even when having the chance to pay for the super-powered cannon of the architect Orban did not pay for it basically because he had no money, so too bad for Byzantium as the new Ottoman sultan Mehmed II paid for it and would use to besiege Constantinople marking the end of Byzantium’s history. The young Ottoman sultan Mehmed II had a singular objective of ending the Byzantine Empire once and for all no matter how small and insignificant they have become to rid the Ottomans of their constant danger of always starting up movements to crush Ottoman power and slowly Mehmed made his way to finally take Constantinople. Mehmed who first of all wanted Constantinople to surrender offered to Constantine that he could surrender Constantinople but Constantine, a true Byzantine at heart did not want to see his city shamefully surrender to the Ottomans and his people be taken as slaves, he instead chose to fight to the death even with very limited troops as his empire now only consisted of Constantinople and Southern Greece so the remaining 7,000 troops left to defend the city were only 5,000 Byzantines and 2,000 Italian mercenaries while the Ottomans had over 100,000 men. The final siege brought by the Ottomans began on April 6, 1453 and would go on for 54 days until the empire fell but within these days the Byzantines and their Italian allies no matter how outnumbered they were, were not an easy enemy they fought the hardest and smartest they could almost to the point of forcing the Ottomans to retreat and Constantine XI himself who knew the military power of the Ottomans from before led the defense himself. The Ottomans may have had a larger army and stronger firepower including the massive cannon of Orban, siege towers, and a navy brought by surprise through land to attack the Byzantine fleet but the Byzantine had smart tactics in rebuilding the damage on the walls the cannon made, blowing up Ottoman siege towers, and almost burning down the Ottoman fleet. At the end however, the Byzantines were too outnumbered for such great city walls and in the last day of the siege, on May 29 through a weak point of the walls with a gate left slightly open the Ottomans stormed in and it was too late for the Byzantines to defend as their morale dropped when the Genoese general Giustiniani was injured and later on the Ottomans have broken in and the city was lost, Constantine XI now without hope keeping his city and empire sacrificed himself running to the thickest part of battle where he died fighting. Constantine XI, the last emperor is truly one of the greatest Byzantine emperors as he chose to stay in his city and die fighting to the last man to defend it rather than a shameful surrender; his decision may have been not practical if a bit quite stupid but at least he chose to give Byzantium and epic and meaningful ending and not a shameful surrender where he would just leave and fade out of the picture, but the Byzantine people would have also rather end up falling under the Ottomans than the Western Latins for they knew how bad the damage the Latins brought about in the 4th Crusade back in 1204. In 1453, the Byzantine Empire may have died but Constantinople lived on as when Sultan Mehmed II took over, he decided to rebuilt now into the great imperial city Constantinople hadn’t been for a long time for the Ottomans who keept the great architecture the Byzantines left behind. By 1460, the Ottomans took over the remaining Byzantine territory in Southern Greece under Constantine XI’s brothers and by 1461 the Byzantine Empire completely reaches its end when the breakaway Byzantine Empire of Trebizond fell to the Ottomans. Constantine XI’s story especially at the defence of Constantinople in 1453 is something to make an epic war movie about.

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The Byzantine Empire in 1450 (purple)

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

 

12 Worst Byzantine Emperors According to The Byzantium Blogger

 

 I. Arcadius

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The first ruler of the actual Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire after the full division of the Roman Empire in 395 was Arcadius (r. 395-408), son of Roman emperor Theodosius I the Great. Arcadius who inherited the eastern empire did not have the strength and discipline of running an empire the way his father, the last emperor of the united Roman Empire did and instead of being a skilled general and politician like his father, Arcadius was a weak-minded and absent-minded daydreaming young emperor with a sluggish and half-dead appearance. Arcadius was basically oblivious to the intrigues of the court which his wife Empress Aelia Eudoxia was involved in, the ambitions of his scheming courtiers such as Eutropius and Rufinus, the rising influence of his Goth generals like Gainas, the rising influence of the Patriarch of Constantinople St. John Chrysostom who the empress later banished, and worse he did not even pay much attention the growing threat of the Goths under Alaric invading Greece. The emperor did not seem to care at all, instead Arcadius’ mind was more focused on theological matters rather than the well-being of the state. Arcadius for all his absent-mindedness to the current situations in the empire at least did not have any consequences for the empire caused by his reign for he was not an evil or corrupt ruler but rather someone with a lack of mental ability and awareness, although he also had some achievements but very minor ones including a forum in Constantinople he constructed named after him. Arcadius’ reign however was not a long one as he died in 408 at only 31 and was succeeded by his young son Theodosius II (r. 408-450) who would end proving to be a capable ruler in his later years known for constructing the formidable walls of Constantinople known as the Theodosian Walls; meanwhile if Arcadius was at the worst weak-minded, his younger brother Honorius (r. 395-423) who inherited the Western Roman Empire after their father’s death was worse for he did not care at all for the situation of his declining empire or the barbarian invasions, rather he was mostly concerned about his appearance and focused on a life of pleasure.

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Roman Empire divided between east and west in 395

 

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II. Basiliscus

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Byzantium in its first 2 centuries had not really suffered that much of the tragedy of having many weak emperors except for a few such as Arcadius and less than a century after his death, Byzantium would have another weak but short reigned usurping emperor named Basiliscus (r. 475-476). First of all, in 457 a Thracian military commander was crowned Emperor Leo I (r. 457-474) by the help of the ambitious Goth general Aspar, then Leo I got rid of Aspar’s influence killing him off and the Isaurian Zeno his son-in-law as the new commander, however because of his Isaurian race that the Byzantines saw as primitive, they came to hate Zeno especially when he became emperor in 474 and only 2 months into power, Zeno was overthrown and banished from Constantinople in January of 475, and one of those responsible for leading the take-over in government was Basiliscus, Leo I’s brother-in-law, the brother of his wife Empress Verina. Even before becoming emperor, Basiliscus who originates from the Balkans was already an incompetent general who during the reign of Leo I led an unsuccessful campaign to take back Carthage and North Africa from the Vandals despite leading a large and well-equipped army, but at the end his army was mostly destroyed. Basilicus short reign beginning in 475 already began disastrous, first he raised up the taxes so high to fill up the treasury and worse a great fire broke out destroying a lot of Constantinople. Worse, Basiliscus undid the work of the Church Council of Chalcedon in 451 and supported the heretical Miaphysite Christians and since the people were angry Zeno and the Isaurians who were in charge of the state, Basiliscus allowed the people to carry out a bloody massacre on the remaining Isaurians in the capital. Zeno meanwhile escaped back to his native Isauria in the mountains of Asia Minor and Basiliscus sent an army to chase and capture Zeno, however the general Illus who was in charge of the army defected to Zeno’s side and with Zeno marched back to Constantinople overthrowing Basiliscus in 476. Zeno then returned as emperor and banished Basiliscus and his family to Cappadocia where they were locked inside a cistern and there they died later that year.

 

III. Phocas

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One of Byzantium’s worst emperors who’s reign had such terrible consequences was Phocas (r. 602-610), a centurion in the army of low birth who only rose up to become emperor after leading a military rebellion against the emperor Maurice (r. 582-602) for cutting the army pay. In November of 602, Maurice, the last representative of the Justinian Dynasty and the last emperor of the golden age was overthrown while he and his 6 sons were executed by Phocas who usurped the throne becoming emperor. Phocas’ rise to power immediately created tension with the king of Sassanid Persia Chosroes II an ally of Maurice who came to power in Persia through Maurice’s help. Phocas rather was busy spending his reign sadistically killing off anyone related to Maurice or any supporter of his and appointing anyone loyal Phocas in power as for Phocas loyalty mattered and not skill, also he carried out sadistic executions of anyone who did the littlest thing against him without paying attention to the growing threats including the continuous Persian invasions in the east, the Slavs at the north, and the Lombards in Italy. At the end, the people have grown tired of Phocas’ sadistic rule and the Exarch of North Africa Heraclius the Elder rebelled against him by cutting off the grain supply to Constantinople and in 610, Heraclius’ son also named Heraclius sailed to Constantinople and overthrew the usurper Phocas in October thus becoming Emperor Heraclius (r. 610-641) who would bring the Persian threat to an end. Phocas’ 8-year-reign had brought so much economic and military disaster to Byzantium that the Byzantines after his death were left to face off the dreaded threat of the war with Persia and at the end all the disaster brought by Phocas in executing Maurice and rising to power could never be undone in centuries especially since the war with Persia greatly weakened Byzantium’s military and economic power.

 

IV. Justinian II

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Less than a century after Phocas came to power, Byzantium would have another emperor that would ruin everything although not in being useless but in being too ambitious especially in a time where it was impossible for Byzantium to once again rise and become the powerful empire it had been in the 6th century. The Dynasty of Heraclius beginning with Heraclius in 610 had competent and innovative rulers including Heraclius’ grandson Constans II (r. 641-668) and great-grandson Constantine IV (r. 668-685) but the last ruler of this dynasty Justinian II (r. 685-695/ 705-711) did not have any of the practical skills of his father Constantine IV and grandfather Constans II, instead his reign was driven by his ambitions to restore Byzantium into the world power it was in Justinian I’s time all because his name was Justinian being named after Justinian the Great but in Justinian II’s time, Byzantium was troubled being surrounded by enemies including the Arabs, Bulgars, and Lombards. Justinian II did have Justinian I’s ambitions but the empire of the late 7th century had limited resources, though the young Justinian II was a religious fanatic and was determined to finish off the Arabs once and for all and he spent his first reign constantly campaigning against the Arabs while his constant was against them bankrupted the empire. Justinian II too had bad diplomatic relations with the west going as far as to attempting to arrest the pope for not agreeing with his religious policy and back in Constantinople, his reign was corrupt as despite the low treasury of the empire, Justinian II spent the rest of the money in building lavish palaces that in 695 the army, the patriarch, and the people of Constantinople rose up against him, overthrew him, and cut his nose off banishing him to the far Byzantine colony of Cherson in today’s Ukraine for the next 10 years. Following Justinian II’s overthrow in 695, the anarchy period of Byzantium began where there would be 7 emperors in 22 years beginning with Leontios in 695 who was overthrown by Tiberius III in 698 who would be overthrown in 705 when Justinian II despite not having a nose returned to power with the help of the new Bulgarian kingdom. Justinian II’s 2nd reign from 705-711 then would be much worse than his first one as he turned into a super villain having revenge on anyone who had previously removed him from power. Turning into a sadistic tyrant, Justinian II executed almost everyone including bishops who opposed him and still did not learn from his mistakes still thinking himself as the new Justinian the Great even though the Byzantine Empire had grown even weaker. Finally in 711, a rebellion in Cherson rose up against him and at the end of the year deposed and beheaded him wherein the general Philippikos Bardanes came to power for only 2 years and order would only return when Leo III became emperor in 717; Justinian II’s 2nd reign then left Byzantium in a point of serious decline and massive reduction in territory that it could already possibly fall to an Arab invasion but from 717-718 under Leo III, Byzantium was saved from a large scale Arab invasion.

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Byzantine Empire at the death of Justinian II, 711

Watch this to learn more about Justinian II’s first reign (from Eastern Roman History).

Watch this to learn more about Justinian II’s second reign (from Eastern Roman History).

 

V. Constantine VI and Irene

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From 718 onwards after Byzantium won over the Arabs, order would be restored to the empire that was near collapse under the reigns of Leo III (r. 717-741) and his son Constantine V (r. 741-775), although both were fanatically Iconoclast emperors who campaigned continuously in destroying religious icons but had a lot of military successes especially against the Arabs thus stabilizing Byzantium again. However after Constantine V died in 775 he was succeeded by his son Leo IV (r. 775-780) who was a weak ruler suffering from tuberculosis and by the time he died in 780, a mother and son would fight over control of the empire these were Leo IV’s wife Irene of Athens and son Constantine VI (r. 780-797). Constantine VI was only a boy when coming into power so his mother Irene took control over the empire beginning successful at first as she ended the Iconoclast movement at the Council of Nicaea in 787 but when young Constantine VI grew up in 790 he wanted full control of the empire but his mother who had not trained him to run the empire disapproved of it for she wanted to be the one running it. Constantine VI would eventually get rid of his mother and run the empire himself but he was not at all a competent one but rather a failure in leading the army as when he launched an attack against the Bulgars he was defeated and forced to flee making everyone in the capital see him as a coward. He had grown unpopular with the army so they thought of replacing him with one his uncles, a half-brother of Leo IV and in response Constantine VI ordered that uncle blinded and the other 4 uncles’ tongues cut off. His mother Irene meanwhile would stop at nothing to gain power so in 797 she led a conspiracy against her son, arrested and blinded him, thus becoming the first female ruler of Byzantium.

Empress Irene (r. 797-802) despite being the first woman in Byzantium to be emperor turned out to be nothing of a capable ruler, rather she had made poor decisions especially in economic matters that by the time she was ruling, the Byzantine economy was already weak and she still agreed to pay tribute to the Arabs, also she had grown unpopular with the people for blinding her son. Meanwhile things had grown even worse for Byzantium as in Western Europe, the Frankish king Charlemagne was crowned “Roman Emperor” by the pope insulting the status of the Byzantine Empire since now there was no longer a single remaining Christian Roman Empire but 2 and the one in the west was not ruled by anyone Roman but a barbarian. Worse for Byzantium than having a new Roman Empire established in the west was the empress Irene actually willing to marry the emperor Charlemagne, though this could have actually united both empires and reform the old Roman Empire but the people could not at all see this coming for they did not want a barbarian to rule over them so the people came together and in 802 declared Irene deposed; she was therefore replaced by the finance minister Nikephoros I (r. 802-811) who would be a more capable ruler and economist and Irene died a year later exiled in Lesbos. Irene’s failure was basically her weak ability in managing the empire’s economy and weak decision making especially in agreeing to marry Charlemagne and make Byzantium fall under him, though at least she would be succeeded by a skilled emperor in military and economic matters.

 

VI. Alexander

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Byzantium would achieve an age of stability and a birth of a new golden age in the 2nd half of the 9th century under Emperor Basil I the Macedonian (r. 867-886) and his son Leo VI (r. 886-912) continued this success but Basil I’s other son who Alexander (r. 912-913) who succeeded his older brother Leo VI would in a way ruin the success his father and brother brought but luckily he only reigned for a year without running the empire so much. Leo VI the Wise died in 912 and his son Constantine VII was still too young, so the person to succeed him was his younger brother Alexander who was already co-emperor but Alexander had hated Leo ever since and before dying Leo told Alexander a prophecy that in 13 months his time will come. Alexander had hated Leo ever since due to his father’s influence as Leo was believed to not be Basil I’s legitimate son but the illegitimate son of the former emperor Michael III (r. 842-867) who was Leo’s mother Empress Eudokia’s lover, and Basil I had come to power by murdering Michael III; Alexander however who was born after Leo was by all chance Basil I’s son in which he bragged about. When Alexander came to power in 912, he could not think of doing anything better but getting rid of the legacy of his brother Leo VI so he fired the patriarch Leo put in power putting the previous patriarch Nikolaos Mystikos back in power, he also exiled the empress Leo’s wife Zoe Karbonopsina and her son Constantine VII. Alexander who at most times a drunk did not stop in his quest of vengeance against his dead brother so in a drunken rage when the Bulgarian ambassadors arrived to congratulate his rise to the throne he replied to them by telling them “get the hell out of here” thus refusing to pay the tribute to Bulgaria that Leo promised to pay to avoid war, and by doing this, Alexander restarted the war with Bulgaria making their king Simeon to make preparations to attack Byzantium. Alexander who was a pleasure loving emperor did care about the issues the empire faced and the Bulgarians began attacking while he on the other had was said to make Pagan sacrifices to a statue of a bull in Constantinople’s Hippodrome on the advice of soothsayers. On a hot summer day in 913, Alexander drank a whole bottle of expensive wine himself and afterwards played a game of polo wherein he died of a heatstroke caused by both the wine and heat, thus the prophecy of his brother of 13 months was fulfilled. Alexander may be one of Byzantium’s most obscure emperors but his short 13 month reign was too short to cause so much disaster but the only bad thing that basically happened was that the war with Bulgaria resumed and would continue for not so long until the later emperor Romanos I (r. 920-944) ended the war by making peace.

 

VII. Zoe Porphyrogenita and her Husbands

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The Macedonian Dynasty was a successful one in Byzantine history and by the time of the death of this dynasty’s greatest ruler Basil II (r. 976-1025), Byzantium was again at its greatest extent from Italy to Armenia, Ukraine to the Levant and was renowned as a cultural power all over the known world but his successors would ruin all the greatness he brought, beginning with his brother Constantine VIII (r. 1025-1028) and since he had no sons he had to marry off his daughter Zoe to his successor the senator Romanos III Argyros (r. 1028-1034) who would turn out to be nothing more but a failed emperor with great dreams as he aspired to be like Justinian the Great again so he focused on bringing the war to crush the Arabs again and also to build new churches at such a grand scale but at the end Romanos III failed in military conquests and did not rule long enough. His wife the empress Zoe from the Macedonian Dynasty had never married until marrying him when she was 50 but she had grown tired of the marriage and fell in love with the young courtier Michael the Paphlagonian and together they had Romanos III killed in his bath in 1034, then they married and Michael IV (r. 1034-1041) was crowned emperor. The marriage between Zoe and Michael IV was never successful though but Michael was a skilled military emperor and administrator in this period of weak emperors though he died too soon from his epilepsy in 1041 to be succeeded by his incompetent nephew Michael V (r. 1041-1042). Michael V was perhaps the worst emperor in this time after Basil II as he was nothing more but a young power hungry ruler who desired to get rid of the empress Zoe and rule the empire himself and when attempting to banish Zoe, the people rose up against him and in 1042 he was overthrown by the mob and Zoe returned for a time as co-ruler with her sister Theodora until Zoe married the Byzantine noble Constantine Monomachos who became Emperor Constantine IX (r. 1042-1055). As emperor, Constantine IX would be one of the worst for he was already not committed to run the empire instead, his desire to be emperor was to live in pleasure and he ruled this way as he wanted to and the worst had happened as many rebellions rose up against him though they had failed. Zoe however died in 1050 while Constantine IX died in 1055, and after his death Zoe’s sister Theodora (r. 1055-1056) came to power as the last ruler of the Macedonian Dynasty and the 2nd female ruler of the empire since Irene but she did not live long enough to return the glory to the empire as she died a year later. Zoe was possibly one of the worst rulers of Byzantium because her excessive spending and court intrigues ruined the great work her uncle Basil II left behind and beginning an age of economic decline for the empire.

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Mosaic of Empress Zoe (right) and Emperor Constantine IX Monomachos (left)

Watch this to learn more about the 11th century Crisis of Byzantium (from Eastern Roman History).

 

VIII. Constantine X and the Doukas Dynasty

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After 1056, the long-lived Macedonian Dynasty ended and a period of decline began, though the emperor Isaac I Komnenos (r. 1057-1059) tried his best to revive Byzantine power but due to sickness he had to abdicate in 1059 passing the throne to his friend, the general Constantine X Doukas (r. 1059-1067), who was more or less only a general in title but turned out to have no military skill and only interested in endless debates on philosophy and theology. Constantine X only came to power after Isaac I’s daughter convinced her father to appoint the man most loyal to him as emperor, and this choice was a total disaster. Seeing that the Byzantine Empire’s economy was already weak, Constantine X decided it would be best to disband most of the army to save up but he had turned out to make a very bad decision as the Hungarians had invaded the northern parts of the Byzantine Balkans and in the east the worse came when the Seljuk Turks under their sultan Alp Arslan began invading in Asia Minor while the Normans began invading Italy. Constantine X no matter how obscure he was, was one emperor who made one of Byzantium’s biggest mistakes in disbanding the army at such a wrong time and when he died in 1067, his son Michael VII Doukas was old enough but interested so Constantine X’s wife Empress Eudokia married the general Romanos Diogenes as Byzantium’s senate and people were seeking a strong military leader in a time of invasion so Romanos IV Diogenes (r. 1068-1071) became emperor and was determined to crush the invading Seljuk Turks. The Seljuks meanwhile never really had the intention to invade Byzantium but to invade Egypt instead but Romanos IV wanted to finish the Seljuks once and for all so the now undisciplined Byzantine army and surprisingly powerful army of the Seljuks met at the Battle of Manzikert in 1071 where the Byzantines were heavily defeated and the emperor Romanos IV captured. The emperor however made peace with the Seljuk Turk sultan Alp Arslan but when returning to Byzantine territory he was declared deposed by his stepson, now Emperor Michael VII Doukas (r. 1071-1078) who had Romanos IV blinded causing his death. Michael VII then would be another disastrous weak emperor making the worst decisions as during his reign, Byzantine currency devalued by a quarter and a rogue Norman mercenary proclaimed himself emperor making Michael VII ask their enemy the Seljuks for their help in dealing with this mercenary, though the Seljuks failed to capture him but in return for their services, Michael VII still had to surrender them most of Asia Minor. Court intrigues and corruption took place in Michael VII’s court mostly by his corrupt court official Nikephoritzes and rebellions rose up against him and in 1078, the general Nikephoros III Botaneiates (r. 1078-1081) overthrew him and became emperor but in 1081 Nikephoros III was overthrown and the young general Alexios I Komnenos (r. 1081-1118) who had previously succeeded in capturing the mercenary became emperor restoring Byzantium’s glory for a time.

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Meme of 11th century Byzantine emperor Constantine X Doukas

Watch this to learn more about the period of Byzantine decline in the 11th century and the Battle of Manzikert (from Kings and Generals).

 

IX. Andronikos I Komnenos

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For 99 years from when Alexios I Komnenos came to power in 1081 to the death of his grandson Manuel I in 1180, Byzantium was at a time of stability and in its last of what can be called a “golden age” as the rulers right after Emperor Manuel I Komnenos’ death in 1180 would be a bunch of sadistic, inept, corrupt, and weak rulers beginning with his young son Alexios II (r. 1180-1183) ruling under the regency of his mother the Norman princess Maria of Antioch who was terrible at running the state and worse, she was unpopular as she was a westerner. The Byzantines wanted a true-blooded Byzantine to run the empire so by 1182, Manuel’s cousin, Andronikos who was now over 60 but still very fit and tall had been banished for a long time entered Constantinople with little resistance and joy among the people. The cousins were very different from each other; first Manuel as mentioned earlier was a skilled diplomatic emperor but very western minded turning off his own people while Andronikos was a true Byzantine both a man of intellect and violence, and when he came to power as co-emperor, his supporters massacred the Latin particularly Italian population in Constantinople. Now to gain full power, Andronikos ordered the execution of the empress Maria and later had the boy emperor Alexios II killed himself and Andronikos I Komnenos (r. 1183-1185) became full emperor and despite being in the great Komnenos family and a grandson of the notable emperor Alexios I, Andronikos reign ended up in failure. Andronikos I at first swore to end corruption but he took extreme measures in doing this making the aristocracy hate him and since he started growing suspicious of everyone, he began a reign of terror torturing and executing anyone who opposed him personally. Meanwhile, due to the massacre of the Latins in 1182, the Normans in Sicily had every reason to avenge their people so in 1185 they sailed to the Byzantine city of Thessaloniki in Greece, sacked it, and invaded it and soon enough they were only a few kilometers from Constantinople. People in the capital too started rising up against Andronikos and the nobles chose the young Isaac Angelos as their emperor, though when Andronikos heard of this, he had Isaac arrested but Isaac fled and in the Hagia Sophia was proclaimed emperor. Andronikos I did not get far as he was captured by the mob, handed over to Isaac who had him imprisoned and beaten to death by the mob in 1185, afterwards Isaac II Angelos became emperor. Andronikos I’s short bloody reign brought so much trouble to Byzantium that the Normans had invaded, Cyprus became independent, but on the positive side his grandsons would establish a new Byzantine Empire in Trebizond by 1204.

 

X. Isaac II, Alexios III, and Alexios IV Angelos

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This part will now focus on an entire dynasty of failed emperors, the Angelos Dynasty beginning with Isaac II Angelos (r. 1185-1195/ 1203-1204) who came to power after Andronikos I’s execution and at the beginning he seemed to do well as he drove out the Norman invaders from Byzantine territory but the rest of his reign afterwards was all failure. Isaac II thought of running the empire like his private property, he allowed corruption in the government to return, sold government offices to anyone, and increased the taxes so high for useless construction projects and his wedding to the Hungarian king’s daughter that these taxes caused the Bulgarians to rebel and declare independence from Byzantium. Isaac II failed to stop the Bulgarians from re-establishing their empire that had disappeared almost 2 centuries ago and was forced to recognize their independence. Also in Isaac II’s reign, the 3rd Crusade was launched and the German army of Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa passed through Byzantine territory while Isaac refused to give aid and instead allied with the Crusaders’ enemy the Ayyubid sultan Saladin causing more tensions between Byzantium and the Crusaders; later Emperor Frederick died drowning in Byzantine territory and the west blamed Isaac for this.

In 1195, Isaac’s older brother deposed, blinded, and imprisoned him and became Emperor Alexios III Angelos (r. 1195-1203) and if Isaac II’s reign was already corrupt and disastrous for Byzantium, Alexios III’s was even worse for he did not seem to care about the issues of the Bulgarians growing, instead he was only focused on the pleasures of being emperor and that he held the title of it, worse he let the Byzantine army and navy decay to uselessness. The historian Niketas Choniates even wrote that Alexios III would sign any document no matter how stupid the terms were and when the Holy Roman emperor Heinrich VI threatened to invade Byzantium unless Alexios paid the tax, Alexios simply responded by robbing the wealth of the previous emperors’ tombs but luckily Heinrich VI died before he could invade. In 1203, Alexios III was overthrown after he escaped the capital when the army of the 4th Crusade from Venice arrived. During Alexios III’s reign, Isaac II’s son also named Alexios asked help from the 4th Crusade army in Venice to put him in power and deposed his uncle and Venice’s leader Doge Enrico Dandolo agreed as long as young Alexios paid his debts to them of 200,000 silver marks, thus the 4th Crusade army was diverted from the Holy Land into Constantinople. Alexios IV became emperor in 1203 after Alexios III fled and Isaac II was released from prison ruling together with his son but since he was blind his son did most of the work but as emperor all Alexios IV could do was to find ways to pay off that much money as the uncle fled with the treasury. Alexios IV’s solution was to melt down precious icons to produce silver but this made the people hate him and rise up against him and his father so early in 1204, Alexios IV and Isaac II were overthrown by the mob and senate, imprisoned, while Alexios IV was executed and Isaac II died after from a heart attack. 2 months later with Byzantium still unable to pay the debts to Dandolo and the Crusaders, the 4th Crusade army decided they could not waste time anymore and broke into Constantinople burning and looting it, thus the Byzantines lost Constantinople to the Crusaders and the Latin Empire was established there but would fall 57 years later when the Byzantines return.

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Byzantine Empire under Isaac II Angelos (r. 1185-1195)
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Alexios III’s reign summarised
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Alexios IV’s reign summarised

Watch this to learn more about Byzantium in the 4th Crusade (from Kings and Generals).

 

XI. Andronikos II Palaiologos

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After 57 years of Latin occupation, the Byzantines took back Constantinople in 1261 and the emperor responsible for the restoration was Michael VIII Palaiologos (r. 1261-1282) though he died unpopular for agreeing to unite the Byzantine and Latin churches. Michael VIII’s son Andronikos II Palaiologos (r. 1282-1328) succeeded his father and chose to bury his father away from Constantinople so the crowds would not desecrate his tomb, then he cancelled his father’s union with the Latin Church making the Byzantine Orthodox Church independent again as he was a true Orthodox. Andronikos II seemed to do well early in his reign but when seeing that the Byzantine economy had already been ruined from his father’s ambitious plans to rebuilt the army and navy, Andronikos II decided to reduce the army and fleet but it came at such a wrong time for him to do that as a new inevitable power rose in Asia Minor, the Ottoman Turks under their leader Osman. Now with a reduced army, Andronikos II had no choice but to go through desperate measures to hire the troublemaking Catalan mercenaries from the Kingdom of Aragon in Spain led by the untrustworthy Italian general Roger de Flor who asked for so much including pay and titles for his services. The Grand Catalan Company despite being so undisciplined and poorly equipped were able to crush the Ottomans and take care of them but when waiting too long to get paid by the emperor, the rebelled and made their own states in Byzantine territory, burned the farms of Thrace, and massacred people along the way. The emperor needed to take care of the Catalan issue so he had his son co-emperor Michael IX and his army assassinate the Catalan’s general Roger de Flor but this also turned out to be a disaster as the Catalans fought back against the Byzantines for revenge starting the Byzantine-Catalan War ending up with the Byzantines at least winning but the Catalans taking over Athens. Andronikos II at least established the rule of the Palaiologos Dynasty in the small state of Montferrat in Northern Italy through his other son Theodore though in 1320 Michael IX and Andronikos II’s grandson Manuel died, which made the emperor blame his eldest grandson also named Andronikos for their deaths. The young Andronikos rebelled against his grandfather, started a civil war in 1321, and in 1328 old Andronikos II abdicated from power while his grandson Andronikos III came in, old Andronikos later died in 1332 as a monk. Andronikos II’s greatest failure was in making a stupid decision to reduce Byzantium’s own army and hire troublemaking mercenaries that ended up pillaging the Byzantine countryside further weakening the economy.

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The Byzantine Empire in the 14th century (purple)

 

XII. John VI Kantakouzenos

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In 1328, Andronikos III came to power after overthrowing his grandfather Andronikos II and the person who helped Andronikos III was his long-time friend John Kantakouzenos, who like Andronikos III began out as a selfish and pleasure loving young man but in later years changed his personality becoming more responsible. Andronikos III’s reign was successful in military matters and a lot of the successes were due to John Kantakouzenos as the empire’s prime-minister though Andronikos III would die suddenly in 1341 and the succession was unclear as Andronikos’ wife Anna of Savoy schemed to rule the state as the regent for her young son John V Palaiologos while the aristocrats backed Kantakouzenos and 7 years the civil war raged until John Kantakouzenos won in 1347 becoming crowned Emperor John VI (r. 1347-1354) as over the years he got the aid of the powerful Serbian king Stefan IV Dušan and later by the Ottoman sultan Orhan. John VI at first had no intention of being emperor but when coming to power he would end up doing all he could to secure his place but also he had joined the Palaiologos Dynasty by marrying his daughter Helena to John V. John VI meanwhile tried the best he could to rebuilt Byzantium after years of civil war but disaster struck heavy in his reign as from 1347-48, the plague of Black Death struck the Byzantine Empire and the Ottomans were growing ever stronger. What makes John VI possibly one of the worst emperors was his decision in asking the Ottomans for their help in claiming the throne in return for marrying his other daughter Theodora to Sultan Orhan who brought no Byzantine influence to the Ottoman court, agreed to pay tribute by sending Byzantine Greek boys to serve in the sultan’s army as Janissaries, and worse handing over Gallipoli in Thrace to the Ottomans beginning the Ottomans’ conquest of Europe to eventually surround Constantinople. In 1354, John VI would lose the throne when his son-in-law John V fought to return back to power; John VI lived the rest of his life till his death in 1383. John VI’s time in power was possibly the worst time for Byzantium with the plague, civil wars, and swiftly growing Ottoman threat but a lot of this misfortune was also brought by the emperor John VI himself for actually allowing the Ottomans to help which in return allowed them to enter Europe that by the next years under John V, Byzantium would end up surrounded by the Ottomans and forced to become a vasal to them. It’s quite a shame that John VI began as a skilled general and administrator under Andronikos III but his greed for power would turn the course of Byzantium’s history the wrong way and less than a century after John VI lost the throne, the Byzantine Empire fell to the Ottomans.

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Meme of Byzantium’s lowest point in 1350, time of John Kantakouzenos

 

Alright, so this concludes this article and all my articles for the year. Before the year ends, I always wanted to write something about who I think are the best and worst emperors of the Byzantine Empire and after reading so much about the Byzantine Empire and their emperors, I can see for myself who I can consider the best and worst of them. All of this is mostly based on my opinion but when reading about them, I just came to realise that a lot of the best Byzantine emperors not matter how much greatness they brought to the their empire, they have also left behind a negative effect such as Justinian I the Great who may have done so much success in his reign but his endless spending caused the empire to be so large and loose money leading to disaster in the future and some of the worst rulers like Irene who may have bankrupted the state may have done good things too such as restoring the veneration of icons after a long period of Iconoclasm. Now if I could choose who my top favourites are for Byzantine emperors I would choose Zeno basically because he has interesting story and even if he was a barbarian from the mountains and an outsider in his capital despite being emperor he brought stability to the empire, then there’s Justinian the great of course because no other emperor in Byzantine history has had such an eventful reign, then there’s Constantine VII because he shows that a great emperor does not have to be a successful military leader but someone also who can outdo everyone in cultural splendour, then another favourite of mine despite being quite obscure is Andronikos III mostly because he shows a lot of character development from a decadent selfish person to an energetic and responsible ruler in a time when the empire was crumbling, and of course there’s the last emperor Constantine XI all because he showed a lot of courage and chose to fight to the death for the empire, giving Byzantium an epic and meaningful conclusion and not a shameful end. The Byzantine’s history had been a very long one and with a history this long, it was bound to have so many colourful characters and most them were its emperors. So anyway, this article is done and the year is vanishing; overall it has been a successful year in writing countless Byzantine articles. So thank you all for reading and hope to see you all again next year as I have more article on Byzantine history and other topics including Russia and the successors of Byzantium planned. Happy New Year and thank you for viewing!

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