The Sieges of Constantinople

378, 626, 674, 717, 813, 821, 860, 907, 941, 1047, 1101, 1203, 1204, 1235, 1261, 1376, 1402, 1411, 1422, 1453 

Posted by Powee Celdran

It’s either I take this city, or the city takes me, dead or alive, the city is all I want” -Sultan Mehmed II the Conqueror, Siege of Constantinople, 1453

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Welcome back to another article by the Byzantium Blogger, this new article which will be the second one for this year 2020 is once again going to be another Byzantine topic and something I always wanted to cover, which would be on the many times the Byzantine capital Constantinople was besieged, either by foreign enemy armies or by Byzantines themselves in the many civil wars the empire fought among themselves. Since the Byzantine Empire (Eastern Roman Empire) lasted for more than a thousand years with Constantinople as its capital, the capital has been besieged many times over the centuries but despite being besieged multiple times, no enemy was able to breach into the city, and only twice was the city’s walls breached and the capital captured by the enemy; first by the army of the 4th Crusade in 1204 and finally by the Ottomans in 1453, and one time it was successfully besieged- though by an infiltration and not a siege- by the Byzantines themselves when they recaptured the city in 1261. What saved the city multiple times from enemy armies attacking it were its strong multi-layered walls built in the 5th century during the reign of Emperor Theodosius II (408-450) which protected the city both from the land and sea and went as high as 12m. Since these walls were too strong and were surrounded by many moats as well as having many towers, none of Byzantium’s enemies had the technology to breach these walls except for the Ottomans in 1453, and only by technologically advanced cannons were they able to break through the walls as the Crusaders in 1204 were only able to capture the city as the overwhelmed Byzantine defenders fled due to the Crusaders’ surprise attacks in which they did not fully breach the walls but scaled the sea walls to break into the city. However, before the Crusaders in 1204 and Ottomans in 1453 were able to successfully besiege Constantinople, all other armies before them failed especially when the city’s walls were the most powerful in the world and could not be matched by any other while at the same time these enemies did not have the technology to attack the walls. The armies of the Goths, Persians, Slavs, Avars, Arabs, Bulgars, Kievan Rus, as well as Byzantine rebels failed to attack these walls and instead returned home defeated, thus allowing the Byzantine Empire to live on. In fact, one of the reasons why the Byzantine Empire lived on for so many centuries as a powerful state was because its capital was protected by extra-powerful walls allowing the city inside to grow. What also helped Byzantium win these wars and always successfully defend themselves and their capital was not because of having these powerful walls but because the Byzantines had many advanced means of protection such as powerful siege weapons like Greek Fire and also the diplomatic skills of emperors who were able to persuade other neighboring countries to help them attack the besieging enemy armies, but on the other hand sometimes it was all about luck that saved the Byzantines from enemy sieges, but also at the same time, the courage of the Byzantine soldiers helped defend their empire by their motivation to fight to defend the Christian faith. By However, at the end Byzantine control of Constantinople ended with the city being captured by the enemy in 1453 but this did not end Constantinople completely as the Ottoman conquerors rebuilt the dying Byzantine capital into a cosmopolitan world capital again, though before that the Ottomans too tried and failed many times to besiege the city. Before becoming an imperial capital, Constantinople was once the unimportant port town of Byzantium at the Bosporus Sea between Asia and Europe until the emperor Constantine I the Great, the founder of the Byzantine Empire chose this location as the new capital for the Roman Empire and being in a strategic location controlling trade in the narrow Bosporus Sea, it grew to become the world class imperial city it was known to be. In this article, I will cover all the sieges of Constantinople that were recorded in history as others may have happened but were not record it and together with the dates of the sieges, I will mention a short story behind these sieges, who the enemies were and how they fought, which Byzantine emperors were at the sieges defending the city, and how the Byzantines won or lost these battles. This article will be written in chronological order from the 4th to 15th centuries, although in some centuries, luckily Constantinople had not been besieged. At the end of this article, I will discuss the final siege of Constantinople in 1453 and make a quick review on the new 6 episode Netflix series Rise of Empires: Ottoman which tells the story of the 1453 Siege of Constantinople.

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Byzantine Imperial flag and symbols
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Byzantine Era Constantinople
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Diagram of Theodosius II’s walls of Constantinople
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Byzantine siege weapons
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Meme of the Byzantine Empire’s protection of Europe from Islamic invasions

 

Other Related Byzantine Articles from The Byzantium Blogger:

The Art of War in the Byzantine World 

12 Turning Points in Byzantine History

Ethnic Origins of the Byzantine Emperors

Constantinople, the Queen of Cities and its many Secrets

Byzantine Imperial Personalities Part1

Byzantine Imperial Personalities Part2

Byzantine Imperial Personalities Part3

Natural Disasters in Byzantine History

Crime, Punishment, and Medical Practice in the Byzantine World

Byzantine Science and Technology

The 94 Emperors

7 Reasons to be Interested in Byzantium

Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire

 

Pre-Constantinople Byzantium Sieges (478BC, 340BC, 193-195AD)

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Byzantium before being Constantinople

Before Constantinople became the Roman Empire’s new capital in 330 under Emperor Constantine the Great, it was the small and unimportant but still promising port town of Byzantium which was said to be founded by the Greek colonizer Byzas of Megara in the 7th century BC. The first known date Byzantium was besieged was in 478BC by the combined armies of the Greek city states during the last days of Greek-Persian Wars when the Greeks have already driven out the Achaemenid Persian Empire’s armies from Greece. Though the details of the siege are unknown, it was a naval siege by the Greek navy and at the end it was successful and the Persians were driven back to Asia Minor.

The next recorded date old Byzantium was besieged was in 340BC by the Macedonian Greek army under their king Philip II, though he failed in besieging both coastal cities of Byzantium and Perinthus from the Thracians, though King Philip II despite these failed sieges would begin growing the small kingdom of Macedonia into a military power in which his son and successor Alexander III the Great would built on by swiftly conquering everything in the east including the Achaemenid Persian Empire expanding Macedonia’s empire all the way to India.

The next time Byzantium would be besieged would be centuries later from 193-195AD when it had already been under the control of the Roman Empire, and this time, Byzantium was used as one of the bases of Pescennius Niger, a general and rival emperor of the Roman emperor Septimius Severus (r. 193-211) who was crowned emperor the same year he laid siege on the port town of Byzantium, which lasted 2 years. During the 2-year siege of the Roman civil war, Niger was beheaded in 194 but Byzantium refused to surrender until Severus’ army stormed Byzantium and razed it to the ground. Septimius Severus, who originally was from Roman North Africa having both Roman and North African blood saw that Byzantium had potential so instead of leaving it fully destroyed after he captured it, he decided to rebuilt the city and during his reign, the original Hippodrome of Constantinople was constructed while more than a century after his death in 211, Constantine the Great would transform this port town into the new Roman capital.

 

Goths, 378- The first attack on Constantinople as the new Roman capital took place in 378 with the Goth army attacking, which is commonly known as the Battle of Constantinople. Prior to the attack of the Goths, the Romans and the Goths from beyond the northern Roman borders in Eastern Europe got into conflict with each other during the reign of Emperor Valens (364-378) who ruled the eastern half of the empire from Constantinople now that Constantine the Great had already founded Constantinople as the capital, meanwhile as Valens ruled the east, his older brother Valentinian I (r. 364-375) ruled the west from Milan. The Goths from Eastern Europe sought refuge in the Eastern Roman Empire in fear of Hun attacks from the east but the emperor Valens failed in settling them in his empire and instead of making peace with the Goths, the Goths rose up against Valens and in August 9, 378 the Goth army defeated Valens and his army by surprise attack at the Battle of Adrianopolis in Thrace just near Constantinople. Valens was thus killed in this battle and his body was never to be found, and shortly after the victorious Goth army led by their king Fritigern marched south to Constantinople which had already been fortified. Constantinople’s defending army though was outnumbered and leading the defense of the city from the Goths was Valens’ widow Empress Albia Dominica who reinforced the city’s defense with Arab warriors as the army of the city was outnumbered. The Arabs were recorded to fight excellently against the Goths and it was even said that one Arab warrior charged at the Goth army naked and sucked the blood from the neck of a decapitated Goth. In the end however, the Goths had to abandon the siege as their army was also outnumbered despite previously winning the Battle of Adrianopolis and instead of entering the city, the Goths fled to Thrace, Illyria, and Dacia. At this time, Constantinople did not yet have the powerful walls of Theodosius, yet its already existing fortification built by Constantine the Great was enough to make the Goths retreat, though the Goths too had no means to besiege the new capital. On the other hand, Valens died without any sons to succeed him so for a couple of months, Constantinople had no emperor and instead Valens’ nephew and Valentinian I’s son Gratian ruled over Constantinople until the general Theodosius I came to Constantinople early in 379 to become emperor and would be the last emperor to rule a united Roman Empire as after his death in 395, the empire was fully divided east and west between his sons Arcadius who would rule the east and Honorius who would the west. It would be Theodosius I’s grandson, Arcadius’ son Theodosius II that would have the powerful walls of Constantinople built during his long reign.

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Fullt division of the Roman Empire between east and west, 395

 

Persians, Avars, and Slavs, 626- For almost 3 centuries from 378 to 626, there had been no major siege of Constantinople by enemy armies or during Byzantine civil wars except for a few attacks by rebel Byzantine armies. During this time, Constantinople and Byzantium itself went through a golden age under the reign of Justinian I the Great (527-565) but decades after his death, the Byzantine Empire was too large to control with its borders spanning west to east from Southern Spain to Syria, north to south from Ukraine to Egypt and at the beginning of the 7th century, the emperor Maurice (r. 582-602) no longer had enough funds for the army so he decided to cut army pay leading a usurping centurion named Phocas to overthrow and execute Maurice and his family and become emperor (602-610). Earlier, the emperor Maurice made peace with the Sassanid Persian Empire, the long-time enemy of Byzantium by putting Chosroes II in the Persian throne in 591 but with his friend Maurice dead, Chosroes II declared war on Phocas for killing Maurice and due to the incompetent rule of Phocas, the Persians began quickly capturing all Byzantine provinces in the east going as far as to invading Asia Minor and as Phocas focused on wiping out any political enemy, Byzantium’s northern borders at the Danube too were threatened by new invaders, the Slavs and Avars. To save Byzantium from destruction, a rebellion led by Heraclius the Elder the exarch of Byzantine North Africa and his son Heraclius overthrew and executed Phocas in 610 and the son Heraclius was proclaimed emperor. As emperor, Heraclius (r. 610-641) was determined to end the Persian threat by marching out east to the Persian heartland itself and in 622 after raising an army, he left Constantinople and headed east into Persia. Now that Heraclius set off east to defeat the Persians, the Sassanid Persian shah Chosroes II who was still in power till then decided to weaken Heraclius and his army by having a branch of the Persian army attack Constantinople as the Persians already had control of Asia Minor. In June of 626, the Persian army under the general Shahrbaraz laid siege to Constantinople from the south and east both by land and sea, the Persians too got the Avars and Slavs at the north to ally with them and attack Constantinople from the land on the European side. However, even if the Persians had enough troops to take over the city and were masters of siege warfare, the narrow Bosporus was still controlled by the Byzantine fleet meaning Persian reinforcements could not come from that direction. Meanwhile, the city’s defending troops were outnumbered as the rest of the army headed east with the emperor but the city’s defenders fought with such courage led by the Patriarch Sergios I, the patrician Bonus, and Heraclius’ 14-year-old son and successor Constantine III who despite his young age showed skill in commanding the soldiers. Meanwhile in the east, when Heraclius heard of the attack on the capital, he sent a reinforcement army back to Constantinople led by his brother Theodore to attack the Persians from behind. In the end however, the Persians grew outnumbered and could find no means of attacking the powerful walls from either land or sea and the Avars and Slavs attacking in the land side only went as far as damaging the city’s water supply by cutting down the aqueduct but without any means to besiege to high and strong land walls of Theodosius II, they decided to abandon the siege. The Persians too did not have much of a strong navy to attack the walls and as weeks went by, supplies for the 3 attacking armies ran low leading them to all abandon the siege by July, though inside the city, Patriarch Sergios persuaded the people that they were under the divine protection and true enough people had claimed that they saw the Virgin Mary fighting the Persians, Avars, and Slavs herself with a sword and casting out firebolts. By August, the Persian, Avar, and Slav fleet were completely chased out by the Byzantines and 2 years later in 628, a rebellion within Persia overthrew Chosroes II and executed him and Heraclius ended the war victorious with all the lands the Persians captured returned to Byzantium. However, Byzantium’s victory against Persia did not last long as by the 630s, a new enemy came from the south and were once again fatal to Byzantium, which had already been exhausted from the war with Persia. This new enemy were the Arabs motivated by spreading the new religion of Islam and by 651, the Arabs have completely crushed the Sassanid Persian Empire. Heraclius died in 641 seeing most of his empire which were the rich provinces of Egypt and Syria lost to the Arabs.

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Byzantine Empire during the reign of Justinian I the Great (527-565)
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Fresco of the 626 Siege of Constantinople

Watch this to learn more about the Byzantine-Persian war from 602-628 (from Kings and Generals).

 

Umayyad Caliphate Arabs Part1, 674-678- After the death of Emperor Heraclius in 641, the Arabs from the desserts of Arabia began expanding their territory quickly with nothing stopping them, even the Byzantine fleet proved no match for them many times. Heraclius grandson Constans II (r. 641-668) reigned in fear of the Arabs invading Constantinople so he permanently abandoned the capital in 663 deciding to move the capital to Syracuse in Sicily but before doing that, he was assassinated in his bath in Syracuse by a slave wielding a soap dish by orders of a rival general named Mizizios. Following Constans II’s death, Mizizios was executed by orders of Constans II’s supporters and Constans II’s young son Constantine IV (r. 668-685) was proclaimed emperor. By the time Constantine IV came to power, the Arabs have declared a new empire, the Umayyad Caliphate founded by the general Muawiyah I in 661 after defeating the previous Arab Rashidun Caliphate, the first Arab empire founded by Abu Bakr after the death of the Prophet Muhammad. The new Umayyad Caliphate under the caliph Muawiyah I was determined to fight and end Byzantium and capture Constantinople for Islam and Caliph Muawiyah I spent his reign warring first with Constans II and next with Constantine IV. The first Arab siege of Constantinople took place beginning 674, 6 years after Constantine IV came to power and at this point, he had already grown wise in warfare despite his young age. According to the Theophanes the Confessor, who chronicles the siege, the Umayyad Caliphate attacked methodically by first securing their fleet along the Marmara coast of Asia Minor and sending fleets one by one to attack the sea walls of Constantinople. Within the 4 years from 674 to 678, the Arabs would rest during winter and send their fleets to attack at springtime but each time the Arab fleet tried to attack, there was no progress as they had no idea on how to besiege the walls by sea as the entire seaside of Constantinople was protected by walls. During the times when the Arabs were gathering their fleet and strength, the Byzantines used it to develop a new weapon that was unheard of back then, an ancient flamethrower that could pump out liquid fire to burn down ships while its flames could even burn in water. This new weapon would be known as Greek Fire and although it is said how this weapon worked, the formula remains unknown but the emperor Constantine IV approved of this invention by the engineer Kallinikos. Thanks a lot to the invention of Greek Fire and both Constantine IV’s leadership and approval of this weapon’s invention, Constantinople was saved from the endless attack of the Arab fleet. With Greek Fire put into action by the Byzantine navy, the Arab fleet attempting to besiege Constantinople was fled in terror of liquid fire blown at their ships and by 678, the Arab fleet turned away from Constantinople being overwhelmed by the Byzantine fleet and Constantinople was saved again. Also, it is said that in this siege, the now aged Abu Ayyub, the standard bearer of the Prophet Muhammad led the Arab army in the land attack of Constantinople but because of illness he died when the city was under siege and he was buried outside the city, though after the siege Constantine IV who threatened to destroy the tomb decided not to or else the Umayyad caliph would kill make Christians under his rule suffer, instead the tomb was left untouched until it was uncovered by the Ottomans after they captured Constantinople in 1453. The victory of the Byzantines against the Arab army was in fact even mentioned in Chinese sources of that time including the Old and New Book of Tang. The Umayyad Arabs on the other hand would have to wait decades to attack Constantinople again once they have regained their army, but during the meantime, they instead made their way into Europe through the long way by conquering North Africa first before invading Spain in 711.

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The Arab Umayyad Caliphate (661-750)

Watch this to learn more about Constantine IV and the defence of Constantinople (from Eastern Roman History).

 

Umayyad Caliphate Arabs Part2, 717-718-Almost 40 years after the Arabs last besieged Constantinople but failed in 678, the same Umayyad Caliphate would return in 717 again and try to take Constantinople now with a much larger fleet and army. In the years between both major Arab sieges, Byzantium rapidly declined as Constantine IV’s son and successor Justinian II spent his first reign (685-695) fighting wars against the Arabs and spending all the empire’s money on it until he was overthrown in 695 and the general Leontios replaced him as emperor but when Byzantine Carthage fell to the Arabs in 698, Leontios was overthrown by the army and replaced by Tiberius III who ruled until 705 when Justinian II returned to power with the help of the Bulgar army infiltrating Constantinople by passing through the aqueduct. Justinian II’s 2nd reign was in fact worse than his first one as in his second one he endlessly had his revenge on all those who wrong him in his first reign by executing them being oblivious to the external Arab threat, so in 711 Justinian II was overthrown again and this time beheaded and Philippikos Bardanes replaced him as emperor but in 713 was overthrown and replaced by his secretary Anastasius II (r. 713-715) who in his short reign discovered the Arabs’ plan in planning a new siege of Constantinople which made Anastasius II do all he could he stocking up Constantinople’s food and weapon supply in case of a sige but in 715 he was overthrown by the army and replaced by the reluctant Theodosius III (r. 715-717). Theodosius III did not care to be emperor so when the Isaurian general Konon rose up against him, Theodosius III abdicated and Konon became Emperor Leo III (r. 717-741). Now within the 22 years from 695 to 717, Byzantium had a change of emperor 7 times which led to the weakening of the Byzantine state as a whole and increased vulnerability for Constantinople to actually fall to the Arabs, thus ending Byzantium, but the end still did not come for the Byzantines. In 717, a few months after Leo III became emperor, the Umayyad army and fleet now amassed and headed for Constantinople and within these years, the Arabs were able to amass an army and fleet much larger than the one they had when the previously attacked Constantinople. It is said that the attacking Arabs had an army of 120,000 to 200,000 men and 1,800 to 5,000 ships, though it is unclear how much men and ships the Arabs had, they still outnumbered the defending Byzantine army. This siege however despite the Arabs having more men and ships than the last time lasted quicker and at the end, the Byzantines won once again through the same means as they did, defending against the Arabs the last time. First of all, Constantinople’s walls were still intact and the Arabs still had no means to breach them, second the Byzantine fleet defending the city once again used Greek Fire, and third the strength of the walls delayed the attack of the Arabs by months until winter came and the food supply of the Arabs ran out. The Arabs on the other hand were unfamiliar with winter and this winter was particularly a harsh one and by the time winter came, the Arabs’ food supply ran out and their army died of cold and starvation. The rest of the Arabs and their fleet chose to abandon the siege when all hope was lost for them and as they were retreating, Leo III used diplomacy to help the Byzantines win by asking his ally, the Bulgarian khan Tervel in the north- the same Bulgarian ruler who helped Justinian II come back to power in 705- to lead his cavalry army and attack the besieging Arabs. In 718, Khan Tervel and his army chased the remaining Arab army away forcing them to escape Constantinople by ships and at the end only 5 out of the 1,800 ships were able to escape the winter storms and Greek Fire at Constantinople making it back to the Umayyad lands in the south. Meanwhile, Emperor Leo III too knew the Arab mind and could speak Arabic as he grew up in Byzantine Syria having contact with the Arabs so he was able to help Byzantium win the war as he knew the tactics of the Arabs as well as their culture. Afterwards, Leo III began his long reign and his reign turned out to be successful in fighting off Arab invasions several times despite introducing the Iconoclast movement years later thinking it would save Byzantium from the Arabs as after 718, the Umayyads and in fact the Arabs in general would never attack Constantinople again.

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The Byzantine Empire in 717, after the 20-year-Anarchy period
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Khan Tervel and his Bulgarian army save Constantinople from an Arab invasion, 717-718

Watch this to learn more about the 2nd Arab Siege of Constantinople from 717-718 (from Kings and Generals).

 

Bulgars, 813-814- For the rest of the century after Leo III came to power in 717, Byzantium after successfully defending their capital against the Arabs continued winning more wars against the Arabs in Asia Minor. At the end of the 8th century, with the Arabs becoming less a threat, the new threat came from the Bulgars in the north. The Bulgars began as Nomadic Turkic people from Central Asia originally coming from what is now Russia and by the late 7th century, they migrated to the Balkans defeating the local Slavic and Thracian people and in 681 with the Byzantines failing to chase out the powerful Bulgar invaders, the emperor at that time Constantine IV- who successfully defended Constantinople against the Arabs from 674-78- had instead gave up the fight and recognized the foundation of the First Bulgarian Empire in the Balkans surrendering his territories there in what is now Bulgaria to the first Bulgar khan Asparukh. From then on, the Bulgarians would be both an ally and a threat to Byzantium; although the Bulgarians helped Justinian II return to power in 705 and helped the Byzantines defeat the besieging Arabs in 718 but many times the Byzantines and Bulgarians were at war with each other especially during the reign of Leo III’s son Constantine V (741-775) who spent most of reign warring against the Bulgarians. In 811, the Byzantine emperor Nikephoros I (r. 802-811), who had come to power after deposing Empress Irene (r. 797-802), was determined to fight the Bulgars in the north and end the Bulgarian Empire for good so the emperor marched into Bulgaria with a large army. The Bulgarian ruler at that time, Krum (r. 803-814) at first wanted to persuade Emperor Nikephoros I to stop attacking but the emperor did not listen and continued to fight the Bulgars but at the Battle of Pliska on July 26, 811, the army of Nikephoros I was trapped and the Bulgars won a great victory over the Byzantines and the emperors himself was killed in battle while his head was given to Krum who used Nikephoros’ skull as his drinking cup. This battle would be one of Byzantium’s greatest defeats as heavy as the Battle of Adrianopolis in 378, but unlike in 378 when the Goths just fled after defeating the Byzantines, the Bulgars this time would just continue growing strong enough to end Byzantium for good. Nikephoros I’s son Staurakios (r. 811) succeeded his father but abdicated after 2 months due to being paralyzed from the battle that killed his father, Staurakios was then replaced by his brother-in-law Michael I Rangabe (r. 811-813) who also refused to make peace with Krum so instead Krum marched south with his army ready to capture Constantinople for the Bulgars. On June 22, 813, at the Battle of Versinikia the Byzantines were again defeated by Krum’s Bulgar army and Michael I fled the battle only to be overthrown by his general Leo the Armenian who became crowned Emperor Leo V (r. 813-820) that year. As Leo V became emperor, Khan Krum already made preparations to attack Byzantium but he still persuaded Leo V to make peace and Leo at first seemed to agree to it but his real intention was to kill Krum and end the Bulgarian conflict and as Leo ordered his men to fire arrows at the Bulgarian delegation, Krum fled and returned with a massive army with several siege engines to force Constantinople to surrender to him. Krum was able to capture 10,000 Byzantines but the walls of Constantinople proved to be too strong for his siege engines so in the winter of 813, Krum returned to Bulgaria to gather more men and siege weapons for the final attack. However, on April 13, 814 right when Krum was in the middle of preparing to finally besiege Constantinople successfully, he suddenly dropped dead from high blood pressure with blood bursting out of his eyes, ears, and nose. With Krum dead, his son Omurtag (r. 814-831) succeeded him as Khan of Bulgaria but the siege of Constantinople was abandoned by him and afterwards until the fall of the First Bulgarian Empire with their defeat by Byzantine emperor Basil II in 1018, the Bulgars would never attack Constantinople again.

Watch this to learn more about the Byzantine Bulgarian Wars in 813 (from Kings and Generals).

 

Rebel Army of Thomas the Slav, 821-822- After Khan Krum died in 814 and the Bulgar siege was abandoned, Leo V continued to rule the Byzantine Empire for 6 more years until he was suddenly assassinated during the Christmas Mass of 820 by orders of his trusted general Michael of Amorion who he fell out with. As soon as Leo V was assassinated, Michael’s men freed Michael from prison and proclaimed him Emperor Michael II (r. 820-829) but the throne was still not safe for him. Previously, Michael II as a general helped Leo V come to power in 813 by overthrowing Michael I, but aside from Michael II, another general named Thomas the Slav too helped Leo V come to power and in 820 with Michael II as the new emperor, Thomas the Slav felt he had the right to be emperor and not Michael II. In 821, Thomas in order to claim the throne amassed a massive army and launched a civil war against Michael II going as far as to attacking Constantinople. The civil war from 821-822 was one of Byzantium’s longest and deadliest civil wars and it had had gone as far as to the rebels actually besieging Constantinople itself. Thomas the Slav’s army was said to number up to 80,000 men while the imperial army of Michael II only had up to 35,000 men and the rebel army attacked both by land and sea, and in fact Thomas knew where the weak point of Constantinople’s walls was. Although it took some time for the imperial army to drive away the besieging rebel army, the imperial army of Michael II still managed to win by the help of Michael II’s diplomacy as well as with the advantage of the imperial navy having Greek Fire that was able to force Thomas’ fleet to flee. To fight off the besieging land army, Michael II called for help from the armies of the Byzantine Themes in Greece as well as from the army of the Bulgar khan Omurtag as at this point, Byzantium had already made peace with the Bulgars after the siege of 814. Thomas the Slav then fled north to Arcadiopolis and in 832, his men surrendered to the imperial army and in exchange, the imperial army executed Thomas the Slav.

 

The Rus Part1, 860- Later on in the 9th century, Byzantium had already been growing back into a world power that would be influential in Eastern Europe but a new mysterious enemy would come from the north and pose as a threat to the Byzantines. These new people from the north were the Rus, originally from Scandinavia but settled in what is today Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine and before they established their state in 862, 2 years before it they raided the Black Sea and the Byzantine ports there able to sail all the way down to the Bosporus and appear right outside the sea walls of Constantinople. This attack of the Rus in 860 wasn’t overall a siege of Constantinople as they did not lay siege to the walls of the city but instead their fleet passed through the Bosporus while their men got off the ships and pillaged the suburbs of Constantinople particularly the Asian side of the Bosporus and the Princes’ Islands in the Marmara Sea. The Rus here did not intend to capture Constantinople and takeover it, rather they were interested in looting monasteries as they already knew Byzantium possessed a lot wealth. The Rus raided the Bosporus with about 200 ships and as they looted the monasteries in the city’s suburbs, they killed many people but did not attack the city and kill anyone in side. The Byzantines on the other hand were not prepared for the siege and out of nowhere saw the ships coming into the Bosporus; this had been the first time the Byzantines of Constantinople had encountered Rus raiders, which is why they had called the Rus back then invaders from an unknown state. The Byzantines of Constantinople though not being directly attacked were in fear that they would be since they hadn’t known what the Rus were up to, but a few weeks later, luckily Constantinople was saved as the Rus turned back north as they were only interested in looting Byzantium’s wealth and relics. The Byzantine emperor at this time was Michael III (r. 842-867), the grandson of Michael II but the person who took a large part in defending the city was its patriarch St. Photios I who could not do anything physical to repel the invaders so instead he encouraged the people to pray convincing them they were under the protection of the Theotokos or Virgin Mary. According to one legend, Patriarch Photios dipped the relic of the veil of the Theotokos into the Bosporus and by doing it, it unleashed a power that caused a great wave to destroy the Rus ships. After this, Patriarch Photios thought it would be best to convert the Rus and the Slavs to Eastern Christianity to make them allies instead of enemies to the Byzantines.

 

The Rus Part2, 907- The second time the Rus from the north would attack Constantinople was in 907 by sea again, although details of this siege were unknown as it is only recorded in Rus tradition wherein the story was passed down through generations while Byzantine sources do not at all record this siege. What is known about this Rus attack was that it took place during the reign of the Byzantine emperor Leo VI the Wise (r. 886-912) and the leader of the Rus fleet was their prince Oleg of Kiev (r. 879-912), and that it had been the most successful of the 3 naval sieges of the Rus on Constantinople. The Rus however did not succeed in breaching into Constantinople as the gate was locked but the men of Oleg got of their ships and threatened to attack the city. The Byzantines defending the city were shocked that they were invaded so instead they surrendered to the Rus agreeing to pay tribute to them, and because of this the Rus decided to abandon the siege and leave Constantinople with the tribute the Byzantines paid them.

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Map of the greatest extent of the Kievan Rus Empire (blue) next to Byzantine Empire (green)

 

The Rus Part3, 941- In 941, the Rus under the command of their ruler Prince Igor I of Kiev (r. 914-945) set off from the north to attack Constantinople again, and again they attacked Constantinople by sea. Out of all the 3 attacks, this one was the most brutal of the Rus attacks as here the Rus crucified many of their Byzantine captives even by hammering nails to their heads, the Rus too had drowned many of their Byzantine captives. The Byzantines were unprepared for a Rus attack in 941 as most of the Byzantine fleet was out in the Mediterranean fighting the Arabs but the Byzantine emperor at this time, Romanos I Lekapenos (r. 920-944) came up with a plan to save the city. As the Rus were attacking from the sea, Romanos I had the 15 ships left at the city fitted with the Greek Fire machines and as the ships departed the city, they burned the Rus fleet together. The chronicler Liutprand of Cremona here writes that when the Rus saw the Greek Fire emitted from the Byzantine ships, the Rus soldiers either fled in fear but with the power of the flames, the ships had no time to escape so many Rus soldiers jumped off into the sea with their heavy armor on and many Rus soldiers died not by the fire but by drowning due to their heavy armor. Once again, Greek Fire saved the Byzantines from a naval invasion and the surviving Rus stranded outside Constantinople were beheaded. This war with the Rus would end in 945; the generals at that time John Kourkouas and Bardas Phokas the Elder, father of the future emperor Nikephoros II Phokas (r. 963-969) were responsible for helping Byzantium win this war. The emperor Romanos I on the other hand despite his military successes against the Rus and Arabs did not meet a happy end as in 944 he was overthrown by his sons and exiled to a monastery in the Princes Islands where he died 4 years later.

 

Rebel Army of Leo Tornikios, 1047- For more than a century since the attack of the Rus in 941, with Byzantium under the Macedonian dynasty, Constantinople would never see a siege until a rebel army attacked in September 1047. At this time, Emperor Constantine IX Monomachos (r. 1042-1055) was in charge of the empire and was a weak and corrupt ruler that generals including his nephew Leo Tornikios wanted to overthrow. In September of 1047, the general Leo Tornikios arrived with an army ready to take Constantinople and be crowned emperor overthrowing Constantine IX and as the army defending Constantinople saw the rebel army attempting to attack the city, they began to panic while only the Saracen mercenaries of the emperor kept their cool and focused on defending the city. The rebel army almost won but instead of breaking into the city, their general Leo hesitated wanting to enter the city in a triumphal procession. The next day however, the emperor actually managed to be active in defending the city by organizing the soldiers in place when in fact he had no military skill and was suffering arthritis and gout. Leo did not expect the emperor to show some courage, though the emperor eventually sent his agents to the camps of the rebels bribing them to lift the siege, the rebels then accepted the bribes and left. Meanwhile Leo did not easily accept defeat so he went up to the defenders himself but instead the defenders began firing arrows at him forcing him to flee. By the end of the year 1047, Leo Tornikios was captured and suffered the traditional punishment for rebels in the Byzantine Empire, which was blinding.

 

Crusaders, 1101- By the end of the 11th century, the Crusades had already begun when the Byzantine emperor Alexios I Komnenos (r. 1081-1118) asked for an army from Western Europe to help Byzantium get rid of a dangerous enemy, the Seljuk Turks that had defeated the Byzantines heavily at the Battle of Manzikert in 1071 almost destroying the empire. The Crusader army from Western Europe set off to the east not really to help the Byzantines but to fight the Turks and Saracens out of religious zeal and to establish their kingdoms in the east, particularly the Holy Land. The Crusaders at the end did not return many territories the Byzantines lost over the centuries back to Byzantium but instead made kingdoms out of them, but it had helped Byzantium in a way that there were other kingdoms out there that the enemy, the Turks and Saracens would have to fight off as well so that Byzantium would not be directly threatened, though the Crusaders too at times would be a threat to Byzantium with their unruly attitude. By 1099, the Crusaders that had previously passed through the Byzantine Empire and Constantinople had achieved their objective by capturing Jerusalem but after that, more Crusader armies kept passing Byzantium and Constantinople itself from Western Europe to reinforce the Crusaders in the Holy Land. One particular Crusader army that showed bad behavior when passing Byzantium happened in 1101 which were made up of a disorganized group of uneducated peasant soldiers from Lombardy in Northern Italy led by the bishop of Milan Anselm IV. When the Lombard Crusader army arrived near Constantinople in 1101, they were starving and instead of asking for food, they instead pillaged the countryside surrounding Constantinople until the emperor Alexios I had the Crusaders escorted to a camp outside the city where they would be fed. The Crusaders though were probably not satisfied with the food given to them so a group of them decided to attack the walls of the city where the imperial Blachernae Palace was. As the group attempted to break open the walls of the palace, Alexios I ordered that a gate be opened in order to release his wild pets which were 3 lions and 7 leopards. The lions and leopards injured and killed a few Crusaders and scared away the rest, though the Crusaders had no experience fighting wild animals they killed a few with javelins including the lions and managed to break into the palace going as far as to killing the emperor’s pet lion inside and probably eating it after as they were starving. The emperor however did not want any trouble so he quickly got rid of these Crusaders by carrying out the plan and ferrying them quickly across the Bosporus to Asia Minor, and after that these, disorganized Lombard peasants would no longer be a problem. This quick siege though in 1101 was nothing significant but is rather something more comedic, but also it proved that the walls of Constantinople at this point were no longer as powerful as they once were and that an army of Crusaders could break into it, and about a hundred years later, the Crusaders would actually manage to breach it.

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Route of the 1st Crusade from Western Europe to the Holy Land

 

The 4th Crusade, 1203-1204- By the end of the 12th century, Byzantium would reach an age of rapid decline with one incompetent emperor after another beginning with Andronikos I Komnenos (r. 1183-1185) who would be deposed and executed by Isaac II Angelos (r. 1185-1195) another incompetent ruler who’s reign saw Byzantium lose Bulgaria again while many rebellions rose up against him and in 1195, his older brother blinded and imprisoned him and took over as Emperor Alexios III Angelos (r. 1195-1203) and was even worse than his younger brother. With Isaac II and his son Alexios in prison, young Alexios managed to escape and fled to Venice where he asked for the help of the Venetians and the new 4th Crusade which had been launched there to help him depose his uncle and put his father back in power together with him as Byzantine emperor. The Venetians too out of revenge wanted to attack Constantinople as the Byzantines had earlier chased them out years ago from their capital and instead of shipping the Crusader army from Western Europe to Egypt, the Crusaders were instead shipped to Constantinople. The rest of the story of the 4th Crusade and their attack on Constantinople from 1203 to 1204 had been covered in many of my other articles before, so here I will just go straight to the point in the story. Anyway, as the Crusaders arrived with their massive fleet of 210 ships overall containing an army of 20,000 men led by the old doge of Venice Enrico Dandolo, the emperor Alexios III at first managed to defend the city but as the Crusaders started to attack from both land and sea with the Dandolo himself inspiring them to attack, the Crusaders ended up capturing some towers and started launching flaming arrows, payloads, and bolts into the city burning the streets. With the Crusader army overpowering the defending Byzantine army, Alexios III instead of managing to continue defending the city, fled on July 18, 1203 to Thrace. Shortly after Alexios III fled, the siege was stopped and the young Alexios was brought into the city and crowned Emperor Alexios IV Angelos while his father Isaac II was released from prison and even if blind, he returned to being emperor. Now with Alexios IV ruling as the effective emperor while his father as co-emperor, the Crusaders did not leave and for months camped outside the city waiting for Alexios IV to return the favor by paying them 200,000 silver coins as he had promised to Dandolo. Alexios IV turned out to not have that much in his treasury as his uncle fled with the money so instead, he ordered many religious icons and precious objects to be melted down to create gold and make coins, though this turned the people of the city against him. By December of 1203, people began rioting against the young emperor demanding he cut ties with the Crusaders but Alexios IV still thought he needed to pay them off otherwise the Crusaders would kill him.

By the beginning of 1204, the court official Alexios Doukas Mourtzouphlos had deposed Alexios IV and his father Isaac II and put the 2 back in prison and shortly after Alexios IV was executed by being strangled by a bowstring and after hearing about the death of his son, Isaac II died from a heart attack. Now with both Isaac II and Alexios IV dead, Alexios V was crowned emperor but he would not rule long as the Crusaders were still outside the city still demanding that their debts be paid as Alexios IV had only paid half of what he promised. Alexios V tried to persuade the Crusaders and Dandolo himself to abandon the siege but finding out that Alexios V had executed Alexios IV, Dandolo ordered his men to chase Alexios V by horse so the negotiations failed and by April of 1204, Dandolo and the Crusader generals ordered their men to resume the siege of Constantinople. Alexios V in a short matter of time had the walls rebuilt from the damage caused by the attack in 1203 but the Crusader army came too soon, so Alexios V instead of choosing to give up instead rallied the people and the outnumbered army to his cause but none of it worked. The Crusader army were too much in number and with so much anger scaled the shorter sea walls of the city along the Golden Horn and began capturing the towers while the overwhelmed Byzantine forces inside did not know what to do anymore. Alexios V too had fled when nothing could be done anymore to prevent the Crusaders and in only a few days, there was no more resistance against the Crusaders and the city was now theirs. Now what caused the Byzantines to loose here was not so much that they were weaker than the Crusader army but they were outnumbered as in the years before the 4th Crusade, under the emperors Isaac II and Alexios III, the Byzantine army had been cut down but also a large number of the army was away in Asia Minor fighting the Turks. Whatever the case was, the actions of Isaac II and Alexios III in downsizing the army was done at the worst time possible especially since the 4th Crusade was launched wherein the west strongly wanted revenge on Byzantium blaming them for the failure of the 2nd and 3rd Crusades. On the other hand, Alexios IV was largely at fault here since he asked the Crusaders in the first place to put him in power and promised to pay them so much when he didn’t have that much leading to a massive attack by the Crusaders. After Alexios V fled and the city was left in chaos, the Crusaders who stormed the city burned and looted it for days even desecrating churches and killing anyone they saw, but Alexios V at the end did no live long enough as by the end of 1204, he was found and captured by the Crusaders and executed by being thrown off the column of Theodosius in Constantinople. However, there was still hope for Byzantium as the night when the Crusaders were breaking into the walls, the army secretly proclaimed another Byzantine noble named Theodore Laskaris as emperor and a year later when fleeing to Nicaea, he re-stablished the Byzantine Empire there. The 4th Crusade would be one of the worst attack on Constantinople, in fact it was said to be even worse than the final siege of Constantinople later on in 1453 as after it, the Byzantines had lost Constantinople for 57 years and even though returning in 1261, the damage the Crusaders had caused would be too much that Byzantium would never recover again.

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Route of the 4th Crusade (1202-1204), Venice to Constantinople

Watch this for the complete story of the 1203-1204 4th Crusade (from Kings and Generals).

 

Bulgarians and Nicaean Byzantines, 1235- The years following 1204 would turn the Balkans and Asia Minor into a constant battle ground between 4 forces, the exiled Byzantine Empire of Nicaea, the break-away Byzantine state of Epirus, the Latin Empire of Constantinople founded by the Crusaders, and the new 2nd Bulgarian Empire that would begin to grow now that the Byzantines had lost Constantinople. The Latin Empire that had ruled Constantinople would only get weaker and weaker after taking Constantinople as they would be attacked on all sides either by Epirus, Nicaea, and the Bulgarians. By 1235, the Latin Empire was ruled by the young Baldwin II of Courtenay under the regency of John of Brienne (r. 1229-1237) while the Byzantines exiled in Nicaea were ruled by a successful soldier emperor, John III Doukas Vatatzes (r. 1222-1254), son-in-law of the first emperor of Nicaea Theodore I Laskaris (r. 1205-1222), and the 2nd Bulgarian Empire on the other hand was ruled by Tsar Ivan Asen II (r. 1218-1241). Nicaea at this point had already grown to be a strong military power and with the strength of their army could already take back Constantinople for the Byzantines, but at the same time the Bulgarians were also making plans to take Constantinople from the Latins. Since both Bulgarians and Nicaea wanted Constantinople, John III and Ivan II decided to make an alliance and together both Byzantine and Bulgarian armies laid siege to Constantinople in 1235. To seal the alliance, Ivan Asen II married his daughter Elena Asenina to John III’s son and eventual successor Theodore II Laskaris (r. 1254-1258), although originally it was arranged for Elena to marry the young Latin emperor Baldwin II but instead, she was married to young Theodore II despite being only 11 while Theodore only 13. The siege however turned out to be unsuccessful not because the Byzantines and Bulgarians had no means to attack the city but both allies began to grow suspicious of each other and both Byzantines and Bulgarians could not decide on which of them would take Constantinople, so instead the siege was lifted. John III was suspicious Ivan II would take Constantinople for Bulgaria while Ivan II felt John III would take back Constantinople for himself. If this siege was successful and Bulgaria turned out to be the ones to take Constantinople, then history would turn out very differently now that Bulgaria would be the rulers of Constantinople and Byzantine rule would instead never be restored to Constantinople. However, both Nicaea and the Bulgarians were not greatly affected by this siege as by 1247, the Byzantines of Nicaea had already been able to surround Constantinople and all it would take would be another siege to return Constantinople to Byzantium.

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Division of Byzantium after the 4th Crusade of 1204

 

Nicaean Byzantines, 1261- After the unsuccessful siege of 1235, the Byzantines of Nicaea were still more or less able to be strong enough to take back Constantinople by another siege although they attempted to besiege the city twice but failed. It was mentioned that in 1248 that John III Doukas Vatatzes attempted to besiege the city again but failed although details of this siege are unknown. John III died in 1254 and was succeeded by his only son Theodore II but 4 years later he also died and circumstances for his unexpected death could be that a rival general of his, Michael Palaiologos poisoned him to takeover especially since Theodore II’s son John IV Laskaris was only 7 when his father died in 1258. After allegedly poisoning Theodore II, Michael Palaiologos had Theodore II’s fried and John IV’s regent George Mouzalon killed at Theodore II’s funeral and by the beginning of 1259, Michael came to power as John IV’s co-emperor. It was basically Michael doing all the work in one by one finishing off the Latins and ending their control in Greece when his army won the Battle of Pelagonia before he could actually take back Constantinople. In 1260, Constantinople still under the Latins ruled by Baldwin II would encounter another siege by the exiled Byzantines at Nicaea, this time the army that was to besiege Constantinople was led by Michael himself and from Nicaea Michael quickly headed across the Bosporus and camped outside Constantinople’s north district known as Galata. At the end however, Michael did not really lay siege to the city as he found out he had no means to break through the walls even at the Galata district as he also did not have much of an army so he lifted the siege. The next year, which was 1261, Michael resumed his plans to take back Constantinople so instead of going himself, he assembled a small army led by his trusted general Alexios Strategopoulos and sent them off from Nicaea across the Marmara to Thrace to gather information from Byzantine spies there on another way they could besiege the city. In the town of Selymbria in the European coast of the Marmara, Alexios and his team discovered from spies that the Latin emperor Baldwin II sent his main army out of the city to raid an island belonging to Nicaea in the Black Sea, and using the moment to their advantage, Alexios and his men quickly headed to the land walls of Constantinople while the spies told them they could pass beneath them through the sewers and Alexios and a few of his men passed through the sewers and came into Constantinople for the first time in their lives, afterwards quickly killing the few Latin soldiers left in the city and opening the gate for their army to come in. In a single night, from July 24-25, 1261, the Byzantine army stormed Constantinople forcing the remaining Latin troops there to flee the city in fear, the emperor Baldwin II too escaped the city with his life boarding a Venetian ship back to France leaving behind his crown and sword, which would be surrendered to Michael.

Now that the Latins were forced to abandon Constantinople, the army sent away to the Black Sea could not return and had to take the long way back to Europe and Michael at his military camp thought it was a joke that his army took back Constantinople when hearing the news especially since Alexios’ army was only made up of 800 men. When Michael received Baldwin II’s crown and sword, he now believed it and in August of 1261, he came to Constantinople seeing the city for the first time in his life and was crowned the restored Byzantine emperor Michael VIII Palaiologos (r. 1261-1282). With Constantinople now restored to Byzantine control, the city’s population over the 57 years of Latin occupation dropped to only 35,000 and the ruin the Crusaders left was still visible including the rubble from the buildings they destroyed were left in the ground and never cleaned up. Michael VIII began his reign cleaning up all the mess the Crusaders brought all the way back in 1204, also he proclaimed his 2-year-old son Andronikos as his co-emperor, but John IV was still left in Nicaea ruling it until the end of 1261 when Michael VIII ordered 11-year-old John IV blinded and imprisoned. Now the story of the Byzantine reconquest of 1261 has been covered a lot in many of my articles, and in fact I even did the 2019 Lego film “Summer of 1261” on this story, which is both factual but at some points exaggerated. The Lego film remains factual in showing that the Byzantines took back the city from Latins by surprise, that Baldwin II fled, and that Michael VIII was crowned shortly after but what was made up in the Lego film and not historically accurate were some scenes such as when Michael actually took part in the attack himself when in reality he wasn’t actually in the city but in his camp when his army took it back, and the part where Michael and Baldwin fight where Michael wins and injures Baldwin was also not factual but made just to exaggerate the story, and also the part of the movie where Michael exiled the empress Elena Asenina, John IV’s mother was not factual cause nothing much is really recorded about Elena except for being from Bulgaria and being Theodore II’s wife and John IV’s mother, although in real history she was most likely already dead by 1261 as some sources say she had died probably by 1255. After 1261, Constantinople returned to being the Byzantine capital but Byzantium’s days would be numbered as less than 200 years later, Constantinople would once again fall and this time for good.

Watch “Summer of 1261” (2019) here to see the story of the 1261 Reconquest of Constantinople by the Byzantines visualised in Lego (from No Budget Films).

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Reconquest of Constantinople by the Byzantines, 1261

 

Rebel Army of Andronikos IV, 1376- Shortly after Constantinople war returned to Byzantine rule, and the threat from the west was dealt with, the new threat, which were the Ottomans which would be a threat till the end of Byzantium had arisen by the end of the 13th century. Now the 14th century was one of Byzantium’s most turbulent times and was more or less the age of Byzantium’s decline being a century full of civil wars and the Ottoman threat growing larger and larger. The emperor John V Palaiologos (r. 1341-1391) ruled a long but disastrous reign being overthrown 3 times as well as returning to power 3 times; he first began his reign in a civil war with his regent John Kantakouzenos and lost it as John Kantakouzenos won the war in 1347 being supported by the Ottomans and when becoming Emperor John VI he allowed the Ottomans to take over parts of Europe for supporting him. In 1354 however, another civil war was ongoing and between John VI and John V and the young John V won it forcing John VI out of power but coming into power, John V saw that his empire had been weakened already by so much fighting so he chose to make Byzantium an Ottoman vassal. Because of agreeing to be an Ottoman vassal, John V’s grown up son Andronikos in 1373 rebelled against his father the emperor while at the same time, Savci Bey, son of the Ottoman sultan Murad I (r. 1362-1389) too rebelled against his father. Both sons however lost in their rebellions and Murad I had his son Savci Bey blinded and executed and since John V was his vassal, he ordered John V to blind and imprison Andronikos. John V followed the sultan’s orders and blinded Andronikos in one eye and imprisoned him and afterwards excluding Andronikos from succession as John V made his 2nd son Manuel heir to the empire. Andronikos remained in prison with his wife the Bulgarian Keratsa-Maria and young son John for 3 years until in 1376 when the Genoese from the Galata district of Constantinople freed the 3 from prison. John V meanwhile sold the island of Tenedos in the Aegean to Venice and by that time Venice and Genoa were at war with each other and with civil war in Byzantium getting in the way, both Venice and Genoa to their opportunities used this civil war between John V and his son Andronikos as a proxy war. Here, Genoa supported Andronikos and if he won the Genoese would put him in power while his father John V was supported by Venice and the Ottomans. Andronikos, being released from prison laid a 32-day siege on Constantinople in 1376 with the help of the Genoese and the rebel Ottoman army and won the siege taking over Constantinople. Now Andronikos would be crowned Emperor Andronikos IV Palaiologos and when taking over the capital, he had his father John V and 2 younger brothers Manuel and Theodore imprisoned, meanwhile Andronikos IV also gave Tenedos to the Genoese driving out the Venetians and gave Gallipoli to the Ottomans. Andronikos IV however would be nothing more than a puppet emperor of the Genoese and 3 years later, in 1379 with the help of the Venetian navy and Ottoman imperial army, John V was released from prison and he returned to power overthrowing his son. Andronikos IV meanwhile fled to the Genoese colony of Galata in Constantinople and held his mother Helena and her father- his grandfather the former emperor John VI- and afterwards would be moved by his father to Selymbria where Andronikos would still plot to take back the throne but in 1385 he suddenly died. The war between Venice and Genoa soon ended and the island of Tenedos was depopulated and its structures razed to the ground, while Byzantium was left even more vulnerable and surrounded by the Ottomans for good.

 

Ottomans, 1390-1402- The rest of John V’s reign after he returned to power in 1379 would be nothing but disastrous as the Ottomans were already surrounding Constantinople. Worse than this, Byzantium now surrounded had no more aid from their neighbor empires in the Balkans as the Second Bulgarian Empire had already been weakened by the Ottomans and Serbia which for a short time was a powerful Balkan empire fell to the Ottomans in 1389 when the Serbian army was defeated at the Battle of Kosovo. With Serbia defeated, the remaining 6 Serbian feudal states all became vassals of the Ottomans and even though the sultan Murad I was assassinated in the Battle of Kosovo by a Serb, this still did not stop the Ottomans from growing. Murad I was succeeded by his son Bayezid I (r. 1389-1402) and as sultan he was determined to besiege Constantinople and get rid of the one last problem to the growing power of the Ottomans, which was Byzantium. Meanwhile in what was left of Byzantium in 1390, John V was overthrown again and this time by his grandson John VII (r. 1390), the son of Andronikos IV supported by the Ottomans but 5 months later John V returned to power and John VII fled to the Ottoman court of Bayezid I. John V on the other hand did not want to fight the Ottomans so he had previously sent his son Manuel to be a hostage in the Ottoman court where he would have to go at least once a year and pay tribute to the sultan. With John V back in power in 1390, he had begun repairing the damaged walls of Constantinople but when Sultan Bayezid I heard of this, he ordered John V to raze down the walls he just rebuilt or else Manuel would be blinded and John V still behaving as an Ottoman vassal razed but this action humiliated him so much that he died early in 1391 from it at 58. When John V died, Manuel travelled from the Ottoman court to Constantinople where he was crowned Emperor Manuel II Palaiologos (r. 1391-1425) and it was only at this point in life when Manuel had married which he did shortly after becoming emperor. Unlike his father John V, Manuel strongly chose not to be a vassal of the Ottomans believing Byzantium could still grow but Bayezid I had already blockaded Constantinople and when hearing that Manuel II chose not to be a vassal, Bayezid I quickly responded by making preparations to besiege Constantinople. Beginning 1390, the Ottomans had already blockaded Constantinople which means the Byzantines would have to be contained and cannot escape and not help could come for them too and for 12 years it would remain this way. During this time, the Ottomans would at times already begin attacking the walls of Constantinople but would always end up failing to breach the walls of the city which still remained strong after nearly a thousand years, meanwhile the people of Constantinople too had begun to get used to being besieged for so many years. However, the Ottoman siege too would be interrupted which at first would be by the Crusader army launched by the Hungarians and in 1396 at the Battle of Nicopolis in Bulgaria, the European Crusaders and Ottomans would clash but at the end the Ottomans still won and continued surrounding Constantinople. In the middle of the Ottoman blockade of the city, the emperor Manuel II in 1399 quietly slipped out of Constantinople by ship to travel around Europe and ask for help against the Ottomans while appointing his nephew, the former emperor John VII in charge of the capital while he was away for the next 3 years. Between 1399 and 1403, Manuel II travelled to the courts of King Henry IV in England, King Charles VI of France, Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund, Queen Margaret I of Denmark, and King Martin of Aragon and this whole time he was worried on what will happen to Constantinople, and in fact Manuel II thought he would never return instead thinking he’d stay the rest of his life in either England or France. Luckily, Byzantium was saved in 1402 when the Turco-Mongol army of the Timurid army led by their emperor Tamerlane (Timur) himself launched an attack against the Ottomans. In 1402, the Ottomans were forced to abandon the siege of Constantinople now that Tamerlane had marched into Asia Minor with his army and at the Battle of Ankara, the Ottoman army was heavily defeated and Sultan Bayezid I too was captured and said to be put in a cage where he was taken all the way to the Mongol capital of Samarkand where he would die the next year. With Sultan Bayezid I gone, the Ottomans after ruling an empire for about a hundred year were more or less destroyed now that Bayezid I’s sons would end up fighting in each other for control of the empire giving Byzantium enough time to recover again. Manuel II returned to Constantinople in 1403 seeing the Ottoman siege gone and seeing more time to rebuilt his empire. Tamerlane on the other hand would not continue helping Byzantium as his main objective was to invade China and fight everyone in his way including the Ottomans.

Watch this to learn more about the Battle of Ankara in 1402 and how Byzantium was saved (from Kings and Generals).

 

Ottomans, 1411- Following the defeat of the Ottomans in 1402 at the Battle of Ankara by the Turco-Mongol army of Tamerlane, the Ottoman Empire was shattered and for 11 years from 1402 to 1413, the Ottoman Empire was shattered as chaos reigned over it now that Bayezid I’s sons Mehmed, Isa, Musa, Suleiman, and Mustafa would fight a bloody civil war against each other with each of them claiming the Ottoman throne for themselves. Although Tamerlane (Timur) confirmed that Bayezid I’s son Mehmed was the real claimant to the Ottoman throne, Byzantine emperor Manuel II backed Suleiman as claimant to the throne. Suleiman who was supported by Manuel II battled his brother Musa in 1410 and won but Suleiman’s supporters would end up defecting to Musa’s side and early in 1411, Suleiman was captured and killed by Musa’s orders. As part of having revenge on Suleiman, Musa retaliated by attacking anyone who supported Suleiman which meant even going as far as laying siege to Constantinople as Manuel II had backed Suleiman. In 1411, the Ottoman price Musa Celebi had laid siege to Constantinople for months all because Constantinople backed his dead brother, however Musa never came close to actually breaching into the walls as here Manuel II did not really use force to fight Musa but rather, he used diplomacy. Manuel II instead supported Musa’s rival brother the Ottoman price Mehmed Celebi and asked Mehmed to head over to Constantinople and attack Musa’s army. Later in 1411 or early in 1412, Mehmed and his army defeated Musa in battle and in 1413, Musa was killed and Mehmed I (r. 1413-1421) became sultan ending the long civil war and reviving the Ottoman Empire.

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

 

Ottomans, 1422- When Mehmed I became Ottoman sultan in 1413, the civil war and years of chaos the Ottoman Empire went through were over but at the same time Byzantium was given time to recover again and even with Mehmed I in power, Byzantium was left untouched as Mehmed I and Manuel II were allies, since it was Manuel II that supported Mehmed I’s claim as sultan. However, Mehmed I did not rule long as in 1421 he died and was succeeded by his son Murad II (r. 1421-1451) who on the other hand was determined to attack Constantinople and end Byzantium for good. In 1422, Murad II set off to Constantinople with an army ready to attack and capture it once more. The Byzantines meanwhile did not have much means to defend themselves this time but Manuel II who was still in power at this time acted quick to save Constantinople and this time he did as he had done 11 years earlier by supporting a rebel in the Ottoman Empire and here, he paid off a rival in the Ottoman Empire, Sultan Murad II’s younger 14-year-old brother Mustafa. After being bribed by Manuel II, Mustafa started a rebellion against his older brother the sultan, forcing Murad II to abandon the siege to battle his brother’s forces, though Murad II won and Mustafa was executed. With the Ottoman siege lifted, the people of Constantinople believed that the Theotokos (Virgin Mary) had saved them by firing firebolts on the Ottomans, the same way Constantinople was saved in 626 from the Persian siege. 3 years later though, in 1425 Manuel II who had reigned protecting Byzantium died and was succeeded by his son John VIII Palaiologos (r. 1425-1448).

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Byzantine Empire in the 1420s (pink) surrounded by the Ottoman Empire
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1422 Ottoman Siege of Constantinople

 

Ottomans, 1453- The next time the Ottomans would attack Constantinople again would be 3 decades after 1422 and this time, they would finally be able to capture Constantinople, though with such difficulty. Now the Ottoman siege of Constantinople in 1453 ending with the fall of Constantinople is a well-known story and one of the most well-known stories in Byzantine and Ottoman history. I have written about the final siege of Constantinople of 1453 many times in previous articles, yet there is just so much to write about this ultimate siege that in this part of the article I will shorten the story of it and basically give out only the important details. To get to know more about the final siege of 1453, the book I read entitled The History of the Byzantine Empire by Radi Dikici in its final chapter focused on the last Byzantine emperor Constantine XI describes in detail all 53 days of the final siege. To see it actually visualized, the new Netflix series Rise of the Empires: Ottomans tells the whole story of the 1453 siege of Constantinople through 6 episodes, and although it centers more on the story of the conquering Ottoman sultan Mehmed II, it also shows how the Byzantines bravely defended their city but at the end were still outnumbered and had lost. Constantine XI Palaiologos (r. 1449-1453), son of Manuel II came to the Byzantine throne as the last emperor in 1449, 3 months after his older brother Emperor John VIII died in 1448, and it was through the decision of the Ottoman sultan Murad II that Constantine XI was crowned. In 1451 though, Murad II who attacked Constantinople back in 1422 died and was succeeded by his young son Mehmed II (r. 1451-1481) who since early childhood had the determination to capture Constantinople for the Ottomans and end the Byzantine Empire for good. The Netflix series shows in detail Mehmed II growing up believing he would take over the Byzantine Empire one day but he too was a cultured and highly educated man and by the time he became sultan in 1451 he was set to lead an epic campaign to capture Constantinople, although Mehmed II also had the option to capture Constantinople by forcing its emperor Constantine XI to easily surrender to him so that Mehmed will have Constantinople, but Constantine XI chose not to surrender, instead he chose to fight back Mehmed’s army even if he would die defending the city. Constantine XI barely had an army and resources to defend the capital, while at the same time he had failed to get a Crusader army from Europe to join him but instead was left with only an army of 7,000 including only 26 ships as well as 700 Genoese mercenary soldiers commanded by their general Giovanni Giustiniani Longo. At the same time, Constantine XI could have still chased out the Ottoman invaders if he could afford the massive cannon of the Hungarian cannon maker Orban but without much money to pay for Orban and his cannon, Orban instead offered it to Mehmed II who eventually paid for it and used the cannon to besiege Constantinople.

The epic siege began on April 6, 1453 with Ottoman army numbering up to 100,000 with a fleet of 106 ships arrived before the land and sea walls of Constantinople while the Byzantines had only less than 8,000 defenders including Genoese mercenaries and only 26 ships although the Byzantine and Latin navy had the advantage for they had larger ships and were better sailors than the Ottomans. However, the Ottomans still had much more of an advantage as they had cannons including the massive one of Orban, and although cannons kept firing at the 1,000 year old land walls of Theodosius II, the defenders late at night while the Ottomans were sleeping managed to repair the walls with the rubble while each night the walls were damaged. The cannon of Orban however did not last as it blew up a few days later from overheating but it had still created such damage on the walls killing many defenders as well. Another strategy to break into Constantinople in which Mehmed II came up with was to have his men dig under the walls in order to shatter it, but this plan had failed too as the Scottish mercenaries defending this part of the walls knew something was happening beneath so to fight back, they flooded the tunnels the Ottomans dug. In the 3rd week of the siege, Mehmed II came up with another plan, which was to move his ships over land to bypass the chain protecting the Golden Horn and at the end, this plan was successful as he rolled his ships from the Bosporus over land passing behind the Galata district of the city over wooden logs; the ships then fell into the Golden Horn shocking the Byzantines. The Byzantines though launched a counter attack late one night to destroy the Ottoman fleet that landed in the Golden Horn but the Byzantines were caught by surprise as the Ottomans fired cannons and flaming arrows at the attack ships as the Genoese governor at Galata betrayed the Byzantines to Mehmed telling of the plan Constantine XI came up to secretly attack the Ottoman fleet. After this the Ottomans were sure to be winning and the only hope left for the Byzantines was a reinforcement Venetian fleet sent by the pope and every day the people of Constantinople kept waiting it but it never came. In the last days of the siege, the defenders were still full of enthusiasm with the Genoese general Giustiniani still leading brave attacks on the attackers and Constantine XI still wouldn’t surrender. On May 29, 1453, the final day of the siege, the walls have already been weakened and the defenders outnumbered, but still, Constantine XI still not choosing to give up rallied his men with a powerful speech recalling the glorious past of Byzantium and its emperors reminding the defenders that would die fighting for the legacy of the Byzantine Empire. The defenders now were no match for the Janissaries, the elite soldiers of the Ottomans and as the Janissaries stormed the walls which had now been cracked open by the cannons, the defenders fled in shock while many were killed as well as Giustiniani himself was shot and injured by an Ottoman crossbow bolt. Constantine XI’s last moments also took place at this point as when he saw that all hope was lost, he chose to run straight into battle in a suicidal charge running to the thickest part of the battle where he vanished. The Venetian fleet that promised to reinforce the city too never arrived, so nothing could save Byzantium anymore. Later that day, the Ottomans came in victorious and Mehmed II marched in becoming ruler of Constantinople, thus Constantinople became the Ottoman capital and would remain the capital until the Ottoman Empire fell in 1922. Byzantium at least lived on for about 200 after Michael VIII took back Constantinople from the Latins in 1261 but with the city’s once powerful walls being too outdated, it was no match for the modern gunpowder, also the once powerful weapon of Greek Fire the Byzantines had used before had also proved to be no match to the guns and cannons of the Renaissance era. At the end however, it was not overall courage that led the Ottomans to victory but rather it was skill and persistence and being defeated many times and yet choosing not to give up despite loosing so much. For the Byzantines on the other hand, it was truly courageous especially for Constantine XI to stand up against the Ottomans and fight them off despite having so little men and resources as he did not want to see the thousand-year empire of Byzantium end shamefully. Unlike his father Manuel II and brother John VIII, Constantine XI was more of a warrior than a diplomat but at the end he still lost, though his courage was surely outstanding.

Now, I would say that the 6 episode Netflix series on the fall of Constantinople in 1453 was overall interesting and puts a lot of meaning to both the Ottomans and Byzantines rather than just showing the Byzantines as villains and the Ottomans as heroes, but no, the series shows the Byzantines as courageous despite the moments they fought each other especially with the Grand Duke Loukas Notaras and the Genoese Giovanni Giustiniani almost killing each other over small disagreements, but at least the series shows Constantine XI as courageous and would make the most out of the worst situation. Meanwhile the series too shows Mehmed II as an interesting character being overall dedicated to war and capturing Constantinople but at the same time very cultured and strategic while the Ottomans too were shown as very advanced in military skills. What was however missing in the series was that it did not establish too much on the backgrounds of the 2 empires, the Ottomans and Byzantines making its name misleading as even though it is called Rise of Empires, it already shows the Ottoman Empire as a fully risen empire and not the empire that was about to rise in 1299 with its first sultan Osman. Although it was a good thing it was accurate that the Byzantines were showed as already desperate and poor at that time, the series failed to give hints that Byzantium was once powerful. Also, the series would have been better if it had included more of Mehmed’s attacks on other territories that happened also in 1453 or much better if the series had shown Constantine XI’s younger brothers Demetrios and Thomas who were in charge of Southern Greece and how they would have dealt with the Ottomans. At the end however, I would say that this series was still a good one as it brings so much life to historical figures in the Ottoman and Byzantine empires.

Watch this for the complete story of the 1453 Siege of Constantinople (from Kings and Generals).

Watch this to see the trailer for the new Netflix series, “Rise of Empires: Ottoman”.

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Map of the 1453 Siege of Constantinople

 

Well, once again I conclude another article, but still even by writing one I still learned so much. It is interesting to know and hard to believe that Constantinople in its more than a thousand years of being the Byzantine capital underwent numerous sieges and yet survived many whether it was an attack by foreign invaders or by rebel Byzantines during civil wars. It is said many times, that Byzantium and particularly the walls of Constantinople is what protected Europe for centuries from the rapid conquests of Islam but for the Byzantines, it was in fact not all about courage or the intense might of their capital’s walls that stopped the powerful armies from invading but their skills in diplomacy and readiness to innovate in warfare. Courage was not always key for the Byzantines winning all these wars and defending themselves but rather it was at most times developing new strategies and weapons like Greek Fire which they kept to themselves all this time, and thanks a lot to the Byzantines for keeping the formula of Greek Fire a secret, they were able to use this powerful weapon to their advantage making it their secret to winning wars. In many of these sieges though, it was all about the might of the capital’s walls both in land and sea that was key to their victory especially in winning against the 626 siege by the Persians, the Rus sieges, civil war sieges, and the Ottoman sieges before the final one in 1453. Meanwhile, the siege by the Crusaders in 1204 wherein they were able to take the capital was another story as here the Byzantines were just too overwhelmed and the Crusaders took the easy way into the city by using the sea walls and not the land walls, also if the Byzantines were not too overwhelmed and were more organised here, they could have actually repelled the invasion of the Crusaders. If not for the powerful cannons and gunpowder the Ottomans used in 1453, only the Byzantines would be the only ones to know how to besiege their city by knowing its secrets, which is is how the Nicaean reconquest army in 1261 was able to retake Constantinople. The final siege of 1453 however was ironic since all these centuries, Constantinople stood as the protection force against Islam but in 1453, the city ironically fell to an Islamic army. With whatever the Byzantines had in the final siege, they would still not be able to win as Mehmed II not only had a powerful army but his strategies were too brilliant yet unpredictable. The defending Byzantine under Constantine XI though proved themselves to still be courageous till the end as they did all they could to defend their city, but at the end still lost. If only Constantine XI was more of a diplomat than a warrior, he would still be able to successfully persuade the more powerful kingdoms of Europe to help them and with a combined effort, they would defeat the Ottomans, although Byzantium would still never recover again. The 4th Crusade was surely a very major turning point for the Byzantines as the damage it had done was already so much that nothing would enable Byzantium to be as powerful as it was under Justinian I, the Macedonian, or Komnenos emperors. Now before I finish, another thing I’d like to say is that it was not also all about weapons and advanced warfare skills that helped Byzantium win many times but knowing how to get around things, which was basically by diplomacy. Many times, the sieges on Constantinople were stopped when the emperors thought of a better solution to start a civil war on the attacker’s empire or get a neighbouring kingdom to attack the attackers, and many times this was the best solution to save Byzantium. Anyway, this is it for this article, and just as I had made a Byzantine era Lego movie last year on the 1261 Reconquest of Constantinople, I am now in the process of making one again, this time set in 1282, 21 years after the reconquest where the Latins are set to take back Byzantium again but again because of diplomacy, the Byzantines were able to preempt a Latin invasion and save their empire once again. So stay tuned and subscribe to my Youtube channel No Budget Films to see this movie “War of the Sicilian Vespers” soon come out. Anyway, this is all for this article on The Byzantium Blogger… thanks for viewing!

The Ethnic Origins of the Byzantine Emperors

Posted by Powee Celdran

Surprising Facts on the Mixed DNA of all the Byzantine Emperors

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WARNING: THIS IS A VERY LONG ARTICLE 

Welcome back to another Byzantium Blogger article! It’s been a long time since I last wrote about and posted something, and now I’m back with my first article for this year 2020. Now I have finished off 2019 with an article of who I think are the best and worst Byzantine emperors, and now I will begin 2020 with another article on all the Byzantine emperors, but not on their lives, stories, achievements, failures, and personalities but on their ethnic origins that a lot of don’t know of. It is quite interesting to know the Byzantine emperors over 1,100 years from 330-1453 had a lot of mixed DNA especially since throughout Byzantine history, the imperial families had married many times into various royal families across Europe and the Near East making the emperors of the Byzantine Empire (the Eastern Roman Empire) a large mix of races. First of all, the Byzantine Empire itself was the Roman Empire continued in name and in origin but as its capital moved east to Constantinople, many of its people became Greek and spoke Greek and over the years eastern cultures influenced the empire’s culture itself but the ethnicities of not only its emperors but its people were mixed as the empire consisted of Greeks, Illyrians, Thracians, Slavs, Armenians, Isaurians, Bulgars, and more. Now in this article I will categorize it per dynasty of the emperors and discuss what ethnicities the emperors had based on where their parents came from and in some cases, where the emperors who started the dynasty came from. This article will then go through all the emperors of Byzantium from tis founder Constantine I the Great in the 4th century to the last emperor Constantine XI in the 15th century and as the history progresses, you will notice that the emperors of Byzantium’s later years have more mixed blood than those of the ones in the earlier years, this is also because as Byzantium’s history progressed, more kingdoms and empires had formed all over Europe compared to the earlier centuries when Byzantium as the Eastern Roman Empire was the world power. Many Byzantine emperors though were of Greek ethnicity as the Greeks were the majority race of the empire but many were not Greeks too despite being inhabitants of the empire but they found their way to becoming emperors mostly by being in the army, and here you will also come to notice that many of Byzantium’s emperors were military men and from military families too. Here in this article, you will be surprised to find out that some Byzantine emperors came from a mountain tribe race, which were the emperors of Isaurian ethnicity and you will also be surprised to see that one of the emperors came all the way from Spain in the far west, that one was of German descent, that one was of Arab descent, that many were Armenians, that the most influential emperor of Byzantium originated from an Illyrian peasant family, that the emperors of the last dynasty or the Palaiologos Dynasty had a mix of Greek, Hungarian, Armenian, Bulgarian, Italian, and Serbian blood, and the biggest mystery of all that the renowned Macedonian Dynasty of Byzantium may not have existed if not for 2 of its emperors if the rumours were true that its second emperor was the illegitimate son of the last emperor of the previous dynasty. Also, in this article I will give a quick introduction to the places some emperors originated in and its people, particularly the Illyrians, Thracians, Isaurians, Iberians, Ghassanids, Bulgarians, and Serbians; though the introduction to each race will only be mentioned once and another emperor of the same race as the previous will no longer have the ethnic introduction as it had already been mentioned. On the other hand, I have also made articles in the past that relate to this including the one of the genealogy of the Byzantine emperors which will help you understand the lineages and ethnicities of the different emperors as well as the other articles I’ve made too on foreign lands and people in the Byzantine times. Before starting off, this article may be a bit long as it covers all the emperors but not too long and also it will be an easy read as it only covers the ethnic origins and nothing more about their stories except only if their reputation as emperor had to do with their races. Now, let us begin!

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Byzantine Imperial flag and symbols
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Byzantine Emperors variants
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Different looks of the Byzantine rulers
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The Complete Genealogy of Byzantine Emperors

Other Related Byzantine Articles by The Byzantium Blogger:

The Complete Genealogy of the Byzantine Emperors

Greatest and Worst Byzantine Emperors

12 Turning Points in Byzantine History

The Byzantine Emperors and their Personalities Part1

The Byzantine Emperors and their Personalities Part2

The Byzantine Emperors and their Personalities Part3

A Guide to the Byzantine Empire’s Themes

15 Related States Outside Byzantium Part 1 (1-7)

15 Related States Outside Byzantium Part2 (8-15)

Foreign Lands and People According to the Byzantines Part1

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The Roman Imperial Family Tree (by Useful Charts)

The Byzantine Imperial Family Tree (by Useful Charts)

Note: Names of Byzantine Emperors will be in BOLD letters

 

The Constantinian Dynasty (305-363) 

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The first dynasty to rule the Byzantine Empire was the Constantinian Dynasty, which was also one of the many dynasties that ruled the Roman Empire but was a short-lived one too. Its founder was not Constantine I the Great, the founder of the Byzantine Empire but his father Constantius I Chlorus, a Roman emperor of the Roman Tetrarchy ruling the western half of the empire as Caesar or junior emperor from 293-305 with Maximian as the Augustus or senior emperor, and from 305 to his death in 306, Constantius I was the Augustus of the western half of the Roman Empire. Constantius I though a Roman emperor was ethnically an Illyrian but considered Roman as he lived within the empire and was a citizen. Now the Illyrians were the people that lived in the Balkans or Southeastern Europe- particularly Albania, Kosovo, Montenegro, Bosnia, and Croatia in the ancient days of the Greeks and Romans, being the northwestern neighbors of the Greeks before the Slavs arrived in the 7th century; the people here though not entirely Greek in ethnicity were civilized and not barbarians, had been both Hellenized and Romanized by Greek and Roman culture and many of its people in the age of the Roman Empire rose up to become successful generals in the Roman army especially against the Goths in the northern borders as the Illyrian people knew the borders of the Roman Empire in that part well and were needed to protect it from Goth invasions. Constantius I was born in the province of Dardania (today’s Southern Serbia), which was part of the region known as Illyria said to be born to a Roman noble family there of its local Illyrian ethnicity. When still a general before becoming ruler of the western part of the empire, Constantius I married Helena, a Greek woman from the province of Bithynia in northwestern Asia Minor making their son, the first Byzantine Emperor Constantine I the Great (r. 306-337) half-Greek, half-Illyrian but since living in the Roman Empire, a Roman whose real name was Gaius Flavius Valerius Aurelius Constantinus but born in today’s Niš, Serbia in 272. Constantine I succeeded his father as emperor of the west after his father’s death in 306, in 312 he became sole ruler of the western empire after defeating all rivals, and in 324 gained control of the whole Roman Empire both east and west, and in 330 he established Constantinople, a new city in the narrow Bosporus sea between Thrace and Asia Minor as the new capital of the Roman Empire, now the Byzantine Empire. Constantine I’s 3 sons and successors Constantine II (r. 337-340) who ruled the westernmost third, Constans I (r. 337-350) who ruled the central third, and Constantius II (r. 337-361) who ruled the eastern third including Constantinople were his sons with his 2nd wife Fausta, the daughter of Constantine I’s former rival emperor in the west Maximian (r. 285-310) and his wife Eutropia. Fausta’s father Maximian was one of the 4 original Tetrarch rulers of the empire aside from Diocletian, Galerius, and Constantius I but he stayed in power on and off after he retired in 305 as he never wanted to retire but stay as emperor until he forced to commit suicide by his son-in-law Constantine I in 310. Like Constantius I, Maximian too was an Illyrian, born in Sirmium in today’s Serbia and rose up to power by being in the Roman army being a close friend and ruling partner of the Tetrarchy’s founder Diocletian (r. 284-305), another Roman Illyrian too who was born in today’s Croatia; however Maximian’s wife Eutropia’s ethnic origins are unknown, but their daughter Fausta and son Emperor Maxentius (r. 306-312)- another western rival of Constantine I- had Illyrian blood and Fausta’s 3 sons with Constantine I who all became emperors had a mix of Illyrian and Greek blood. The 3 sons of Constantine I though never succeeded in ruling as the eldest one Constantine II (real name: Flavius Claudius Constantinus Augustus) was ambushed in battle by his youngest brother Constans I (real name: Flavius Julius Constans) in 340 for trying to invade Italy which Constans I held and Constans I was assassinated by one of his generals who had plotted to take over, and in 350 the middle son Constantius II (real name: Flavius Julius Constantius) was the sole ruler of the empire until his death in 361 leaving behind no heirs, instead he was succeeded by Julian (r. 361-363) his first cousin also from Constantine’s family. Julian known as “the Apostate” for renouncing Christianity was the son of Constantine I’s half-brother Julius Constantius and his wife Basilina a Greek woman in ethnicity but the daughter of Julius Julianus, the Roman governor of Egypt who was ethnically Greek. Julius Constantius was the son of Constantine the Great’s father Constantius I with his 2nd wife Flavia Maximiana Theodora whose ethnicity is unknown as well as her parentage as she could either be the emperor Maximian’s daughter with his first wife of the daughter of Maximian’s 2nd wife Eutropia with her first husband. Anyway the emperor Julian (real name: Flavius Claudius Julianus) had a mix of Illyrian blood from his father’s side and Greek blood from his mother’s side but his Greek blood could be seen more in his philosophical and intellectual personality; although he was one person of a tragic story since his mother died after giving birth to him and his father was murdered when he was only 5 in 337 being falsely accused by Constantine the Great’s sons the 3 emperors for poisoning their father. Julian grew up an orphan hating his cousins especially Constantius II, although he also married Constantius II’s sister Helena who died in 360 and Julian ruled alone as emperor until his death in 363 in battle against Sassanid Persia; he then died as the last male member of the Constantinian Dynasty and last grandson of Constantius I Chlorus at only 31, he was then succeeded by his bodyguard commander Flavius Jovianus Augustus who became Emperor Jovian (r. 363-364) after being elected by the army. The new emperor Jovian who was a military man of no dynasty was also another Roman Illyrian, born in 331 in today’s Belgrade, Serbia, which was then Singidunum, although on the return trip from Persia to Constantinople, Jovian died in February of 364 before in Asia Minor before reaching the capital at only 33.

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Constantinian Dynasty family tree
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The original Roman Tetrarchy- Maximian, Diocletian, Constantius I Chlorus, and Galerius
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Map of the Illyrian lands in the Balkans
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The Roman Empire divided among Constantine I’s sons Constantine II, Constans I, and Constantius II

 

The Valentinian Dynasty (364-379)

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After Jovian mysteriously died in his tent in 364 before arriving back in the capital at only 33, the army elected another of their commanders to be emperor, and the person they elected was Flavius Valentinianus Augustus or Valentinian I (r. 364-375), also another Roman Illyrian. In this age of the Roman Empire, it turns out many of its emperors were no longer from the ancient patrician families of Rome like the Julio-Claudians of the 1st century where the emperors Augustus (r. 27BC-14AD) and Claudius (r. 41-54AD) came from but were from military families from the provinces, particularly Illyrians as many army men of the Roman Empire came from this part. Valentinian I’s family too were Roman citizens of Illyria coming from a prominent military family there although his father Gratian the Elder was an Illyrian of humble origins who gained wealth from years of serving in the Roman army and rising up the ranks. Valentinian I born in 321 and his brother Valens born in 328 were born rich in their family estate in today’s northern Croatia near the town of Vinkovci today and growing up they were well educated and not only trained in war but in painting and sculpture, later on both brothers became commanders in the army under the emperors Constantius II, Julian, and Jovian. From February to March of 364, Valentinian I ruled the whole Roman Empire from Constantinople but by the end of March of 364 he decided to rule the western half from Milan leaving his younger brother Valens (real name: Flavius Julius Valens Augustus) as emperor of the east based in Constantinople. Valentinian I’s first wife was Marina Severa, who’s ethnicity is not clear but is possibly Illyrian too like him and their son together was Gratian born in 359 in Sirmium in what is today Serbia. Gratian became co-emperor with his father in the west in 367 and became senior emperor after his father’s death from a stroke caused by his own anger due to annoyance from barbarian tribes negotiating with him in 375. Valens meanwhile ruled the east till his death in 378 being killed in battle against the Goths in Adrianople wherein his body was never found and from his death in August of 378 Gratian was sole ruler of both east west until January of the next year when he appointed the general Theodosius from Spain as ruler of the east who will be discussed later. Gratian ruled as senior emperor of the west with his younger half-brother Valentinian II born in 371, son of Valentinian I and his 2nd wife Justina, whose ethnic origin is unknown too except that she was the daughter of Justus, the Roman governor of Picenum in Italy which makes him probably a Roman Italian, so Valentinian II and his sister Flavia Galla the children of Valentinian I could have had Italian blood mixed with Illyrian. Valentinian I’s elder son Gratian however was assassinated in 383 and Valentinian II ruled as sole ruler of the west with Theodosius I as ruler of the east until Valentinian II mysteriously died in 392 leaving Theodosius I as sole ruler of the empire till his death in 395.

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Emperor Valentinian I (left) and wife Empress Marina Severa (right), Roman-Illyrians

 

The Theodosian Dynasty (379-457)  

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In the eastern part of the Roman Empire, the Valentinian Dynasty ruled for only 15 years as a new person from a different family was put in charge of the east in 379 and he ruled successfully, this person was Theodosius I the Great (real name: Flavius Theodosius Augustus), a Roman of Iberian Spanish descent ruling the empire miles away from his native land from 379 to his death in 395. Theodosius I was a Roman of Iberian ethnicity, a native of Roman Spain born in 347 in Coca in what is today Segovia in Central Spain, his father the successful general Theodosius the Elder who was executed in 376 and mother Thermantia too were Roman Iberians, and in his father’s side the emperor Theodosius I though being mostly of Iberian descent, traces his ancestry to Sextus Julius Caesar, a Roman general based in Spain in the last days of the Roman Republic, a relative of Julius Caesar and possibly even his brother. Before going onto Theodosius I and his family, the Iberian people were what can be called the native inhabitants of Spain and Portugal in Roman times and earlier which were people descended from both Celts that settled in the Iberian Peninsula and Phoenicians or Carthaginian people from North Africa and when settled in the Iberian Peninsula mostly became agricultural people and not so much of warriors, at the same time many historians and writers all the way back to Herodotus from Ancient Greece to the Byzantine emperor Constantine VII in 10th century who will be discusses later document about the Iberian people and their native land, which is today’s Spain as well as Portugal. Meanwhile, the family of Theodosius I was a rich and powerful military family in the Iberian Peninsula being mostly of Iberian descent but Roman citizens too who lived in a large estate which happens to be in the farthest reaches of Spain which is in today’s Galicia, located in north-west Spain north of Portugal and along the Atlantic Ocean. Theodosius I was already a successful commander at a young age serving under his father but when his father was executed in 376, he retired at a young age to manage his family’s large estate in the far reaches of Spain, at this point he had married Aelia Flaccilla, also an Roman Iberian woman and in 377 they had their first child who would be the future emperor Arcadius.

In 379, Theodosius was invited to be emperor of the east by Gratian, who ruled at the west and was a close friend but he couldn’t rule the empire alone so Theodosius travelled thousands of kilometers across the empire from his native Spain to Constantinople where he would rule for the next 16 years and during this time in 384, his 2nd son Honorius was born also to him and Aelia Flaccilla though she would eventually die and Theodosius would be married again to Valentinian I and Justina’s daughter Flavia Galla making Theodosius part of the Valentinian Dynasty as well. After the death of Theodosius I’s brother-in-law Valentinian II in 392, he became the sole ruler of the whole Roman Empire but the last one to do it too as he died in 395, permanently dividing the empire between his 2 sons with Aelia Flaccilla, Arcadius (r. 395-408) who would rule the east from Constantinople and Honorius (r. 395-423) would rule the west from Milan later moving the capital to Ravenna in 402. From what I read in the History of the Byzantine Empire by Radi Dikici, Arcadius’ (real name: Flavius Arcadius Augustus) physical appearance was described as being short, dark-skinned, and curly haired before the arrival of the Visigoths and Moors in Spain must have looked like, which means his younger brother Honorius (real name: Flavius Honorius Augustus) who was also of Iberian descent must have looked like this as well and so was their mother and father; anyway, other than Arcadius’ and Honorius’ unique physical appearance and distinct Iberian genes, they were overall ineffective rulers who almost led both eastern and western empires to collapse due to the start of the barbarian invasions of the Roman Empire particularly, the Visigoths who would eventually settle into Spain, where their family came from. Honorius’ half sister on the other hand was the empress Galla Placidia of the Western Roman Empire, the daughter of Theodosius I and Flavia Galla, the daughter of Valentinian I and Justina making the empress Galla Placidia a mix of Illyrian blood from her maternal grandfather, Italian blood from her maternal grandmother, and Iberian blood from her father’s family; Galla Placidia was then first married to Ataulf the king of the Visigoths and later to the Roman Illyrian general Constantius III (r. 421) as Honorius’ co-emperor, and with Constantius III, Galla Placidia’s son was Emperor Valentinian III (r. 423-455) as the last ruler of the Theodosian Dynasty in the Western Roman Empire, though he was a mix of Illyrian blood from his father’s side and Illyrian, Italian, and Iberian blood from his mother’s side.

In the east on the other hand, the emperor Arcadius was married to Aelia Eudoxia, a woman who was half-Roman and half-barbarian as her father was a Romanized Frank named Flavius Bauto who was by blood from the Germanic tribe of the Franks east of the Roman borders in Germany and her mother was a Roman woman probably an Italian, however Aelia Eudoxia died in 404 before her husband Arcadius died in 408. Arcadius was succeeded by his 7-year-old son Theodosius II (r. 408-450), who would rule the eastern empire successfully for a long time until his death in 450; Theodosius II was married to Aelia Eudocia who was a Greek while Theodosius II and his influential sister Pulcheria were of Iberian descent from their father’s side and Frankish and Roman descent from their mother’s side giving them quite an interesting mix of genes, however Theodosius II died without an heir so his older sister Pulcheria ruled as empress for a short time in 450 until marrying the military officer Marcian (real name: Flavius Marcianus Augustus), another Roman Illyrian and military man born in 392 most likely in Illyria. Marcian (r. 450-457) however was more or less a puppet emperor to Aspar, a powerful Goth general and when Marcian died in 457 4 years after Pulcheria, Aspar placed the Thracian officer Leo as emperor.

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Emperor Theodosius I (center) with Arcadius (left) and Honorius (right)
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Roman Hispania (Iberia/ Spain), homeland of Theodosius I’ family
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Emperor Theodosius I (left) and wife Empress Aelia Flaccilla (right), both of Roman Iberian descent
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Division of the Roman Empire at the death of Theodosius I in 395 between his sons Arcadius (east) and Honorius (west)
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Family tree of the Valentinian and Theodosian Dynasties

 

The Leonid Dynasty (457-518)

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Following the death of Marcian in 457, the Eastern Roman Empire now becoming the Byzantine Empire independent and stronger than the Western Roman Empire would be ruled by another dynasty founded by Leo I the Thracian, which would become a very ethnically diverse dynasty. The dynasty’s founder Leo Marcellus was a Roman citizen of Thrace, the land northeast of Greece where Constantinople is located, although Leo’s family was said to be of Dacian origin coming from the people of Dacia, the barbarians tribes of today’s Romania the Romans conquered centuries before, though it is more believed that Leo was of Bessian stock, coming from the Bessi people, which were the Thracian tribes that lived in the Rhodope mountains that border today’s Bulgaria and Greece. Leo though being a successful commander grew up uneducated but as emperor reigning Byzantium from 457 to his death in 474 was a successful emperor, meanwhile his wife Verina and her brother Basiliscus who would later become emperor (475-476) have unclear origins but have most likely come from the Balkans and are either ethnically Thracian or Illyrian. Leo I as emperor got the title Leo I the Thracian form his Thracian origins; the Thracians on the other hand were the people who lived in today’s Bulgaria, northeast Greece and European Turkey and although they were neighbors with the Greeks, the Greeks and later the Romans saw them as barbarians due to their more unsophisticated clothing, fighting styles, and living conditions but these people over the years adopted Greek culture and language and even intermarried with the Greeks making many Thracians have Greek ancestry as well. Under the Romans, many Thracians had become gladiators but some had also become powerful soldiers and even emperors like Leo I and in the next centuries, these Thracian people would evolve to become Greek speaking as many Greeks of Thracian origins would become Byzantine emperors. By the late 7th century however, Bulgaria, which was back, then Thrace would be settled by the Asiatic Bulgar people who would also intermarry with the native Thracians. On the other hand, Leo I did not want to be controlled by powerful Goths like Aspar who made him emperor and instead he got rid of the Goths, had Aspar assassinated, and replaced the Goths with the Isaurian mountain tribes as his trusted warriors and his and Verina’s daughter Ariadne who was mostly of Thracian descent would be married to the Isaurian tribal chief and general Zeno who would take Aspar’s place in controlling the army.

Now with Isaurians coming in, Leo’s dynasty became more ethnically diverse as these Isaurian people were totally foreign and backward mountain people from the wild region of Isauria in the Taurus Mountains of Southern Asia Minor, in today’s border of Turkey and Syria. The Isaurian tribes of the Tuarus Mountains were described by many historians as rough, uncivilized, and barbaric marauders, living in backwards unsophisticated mountain ways having unsophisticated and crude clothing and weapons but were skilled and vicious warriors known for banditry that it was said that in history they had attacked many Romans that had passed their region by surprise which gave the Isaurians a bad name by the Romans throughout history. Leo I died in 474 succeeded by his grandson Leo II, the son of his daughter Ariadne and the Isaurian Zeno but by the end of the year, 7-year-old Leo II died and his father Zeno succeeded him beginning his reign already unpopular because of his Isaurian ethnicity. Though being seen by everyone especially Greeks and Roman of Byzantium as a savage, Zeno whose extremely long real name Tarasis Kodisa Rousombladadiotes was already the chief of the Isaurian mountain tribe when he came to Constantinople and married Ariadne and he was of royal birth being the son of the former tribal leader Kodisa, except that when he went to Constantinople to serve under Leo I he changed his name to the Greek Zeno to make him more acceptable to the population, but even when changing his name, the Byzantine people who were mostly Greek at this point could not accept being ruled by someone of the savage people they have hated over history, also at the same time, Zeno’s Isaurian tribesmen who came to serve the empire to became very arrogant. Only a few months into Zeno’s reign, he was banished from power early in 475 and fled to his native Isauria while Basiliscus, brother of Leo I’s wife Verina took over the empire allowing the people to kill any Isaurian they see, though later on in 476 Zeno returned to power and banished the incompetent Basiliscus. Zeno in his 2nd reign from 476-491 still remained highly unpopular not only because of his race but because in 476 the Western Roman Empire was completely dissolved but Zeno fought hard to stay in power and make the eastern empire stable even though by violent means and when he died in 491 of epilepsy, the Isaurian Zeno actually managed to remain in power without being overthrown again. With Zeno dead, the people now wanted a real Roman emperor and not an uneducated barbarian foreigner like Zeno but also the people were tired of violent men like Leo I, Basiliscus, and Zeno running their empire, also tired of massacres and barbaric Isaurians running the state, so the people demanded for someone more civilized and educated to be emperor, which then made Zeno’s widow Ariadne marry the finance minister Flavius Anastasius who then became Emperor Anastasius I Dicorus (r. 491-518), an old man who was not a soldier but a rich Roman Illyrian as well born in Dyrrhachium in today’s Albania; the Illyrian Anastasius I was known for his mismatched eyes where one pupil was black and the other blue giving him the nickname Dicorus but he was a successful economist emperor who made the empire rich and avoided violent conflicts as much as possible, he had also outlived his wife Ariadne by 3 years dying in 518 without an heir.

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476- Western Empire (purple), Eastern Empire (red) right before the fall of the west

 

The Justinian Dynasty (518-602)

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The 6th century be a golden age for the Byzantine Empire after the emperors Zeno and Anastasius I left the empire stable and rich, though after old Anastasius I died in 518, he did not exactly have any heir but he couldn’t decide on which nephew would succeed him, so instead the army elected Justin, an illiterate man of low birth as emperor, although Justin had also bribed his colleagues, the palace guards to elect him as emperor. Justin I (r. 518-527) was born to peasant family in Dardania in around 450, which is today’s North Macedonia and Southern Serbia back then under the Eastern Roman Empire; Justin I (real name: Flavius Iustinus Augustus) was of Illyrian and Thracian descent but grew up poor despite speaking Latin as his first language and knowing very little Greek, and to escape poverty in his native Illyria, he travelled to Constantinople to find work eventually become part of the army under Emperor Anastasius I and later on becoming a member of the emperor’s palace guard or Excubitors and eventually becoming its captain, and basically out of luck he became emperor after Anastasius I died. Justin I though was old and had no sons, so instead he adopted his nephew Flavius Petrus Sabbatius Iustinianus as his heir and when Justin I died in 518, his nephew succeeded him as Emperor Justinian I the Great (r. 527-565), being Byzantium’s most influential ruler. Flavius Petrus Sabbatius was the son of Justin I’s sister Vigilantia and a former Byzantine soldier named Sabbatius, born in around 482 during the reign of Zeno in the same area in Dardania where his uncle was born and like his uncle he was of low birth as well but at an early age, he already left his native homeland for Constantinople where he grew up well educated as his uncle now in the palace guard paid for his education. By the time Justin I died in 518 and his nephew succeeded him as Justinian I, the nephew was already a genius at many subjects, fluent in both Latin Greek, and a critical thinker. Like his uncle, Justinian I was also a native of the Balkans and of Thracian and Illyrian Roman descent but despite coming from humble origins, he had great dreams for his empire, probably since childhood he already had these dreams and particularly his mission was to rebuild the power of the Roman Empire again by the re-conquest of Italy from the Ostrogoths, North Africa from the Vandals, and Spain from the Visigoths as well as codifying the laws, reforming the finance system, and having great construction projects including the great church of the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. At the end Justinian I achieved these dreams of his but it was difficult as his empire which was on its way to success faced a deadly plague in 542 but Justinian I still managed to put everything back together and when he died in 565, the Byzantine Empire was at its greatest territorial extent stretching west to east from Spain to Syria, north to south from Ukraine to Egypt.

The influential person too behind the spectacular reign of Justinian I was his wife Theodora, a woman of Greek Cypriot descent born in 500 in Cyprus, although her Cypriot origins had made her unpopular as Cyprus was a far away land seen as backwards by the Greeks of Constantinople, but also she had been unpopular for coming from a poor background beginning as a circus performer. Theodora and Justinian I however had no children and Theodora died in 548, 17 years before Justinian I died, and Justinian never remarried afterwards, and when he died at 83 in 565 he was succeeded by his nephew Justin II (r. 565-578), born in 520 also in their family’s home in Dardania, he was the son of Justinian I’s sister also named Vigilantia and Dulcidio. Justin II or Iustinus Iunior together with uncle Justinian I and grand-uncle Justin I were the last of the Latin speaking Roman emperors and like the rest of his family was also of Illyrian and Thracian Roman descent, although like his uncle Justin II and his wife Empress Sophia had no sons and some years into his reign, Justin II descended into madness becoming unfit to run the large empire his uncle left behind so in 574, Justin II retired and adopted his friend and palace guard commander Tiberius Constantinus who was the same age as him as his heir. From 574-578, Justin II though insane and retired still held the title of emperor but Tiberius actually ran the empire as Caesar, Tiberius on the other hand was Thracian Roman born in Thrace in 520 and was the first of the Byzantine emperors to speak Greek as his native language instead of Latin. Tiberius II Constantine ruled as Augustus or sole emperor from 578 to his sudden death in 582 and having no sons, he was succeeded by his son in law, the Cappadocian Greek Maurice who would marry Tiberius II’s daughter Constantia. With Tiberius II Constantine as emperor, the bloodline of Justin I may have disappeared but it remained in name, as Tiberius II was adopted; on the other hand his wife, the empress Ino Anastasia was a Greek from a Black Sea island in Bithynia, the region of Northwest Asia Minor across the Bosporus from Constantinople and their daughter, the next empress Constantia was of Greek and Thracian descent. Tiberius II’s successor Maurice (r. 582-602) was a Greek from Cappadocia in inland Asia Minor born there in 539, though a provincial, he came from an important family as his father named Paul was the head of the Byzantine senate for a time and when Maurice became emperor in 582, his brother Peter was in charge of managing the palace. With Constantia, Maurice had 6 sons and 4 daughters, he too was a successful military emperor but ended tragically all because the army ran out of funds and he could no longer pay his soldiers in the Balkan frontiers, so these soldiers rebelled, deposed him in 602 making a low birth centurion named Flavius Phocas as emperor. Maurice and his 6 sons were executed by Phocas’ orders in 582, Peter too was executed later on and the empress Constantia and daughters too were executed in 605. The Justinian Dynasty by name ends with death of Maurice in 602 and he was succeeded by the sadistic emperor Phocas (r. 602-610), who only originated as a Centurion or low-ranking army officer of low birth, who by origin was most likely Thracian, though he was born in 547, his place of birth is unknown.

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Family Tree of the Justinian Dynasty
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Byzantine Empire at its height (555) under Emperor Justinian I
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Byzantine Empire in 602 (green) after Maurice’s death

 

The Heraclian Dynasty (610-711)

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The usurping emperor Phocas could have started a new dynasty but in 610, several rebellions raised up against him, especially the one in North Africa by the Exarch Heraclius the Elder. In October of 610, Heraclius the Elder’s son also named Heraclius sailed to Constantinople and overthrew Phocas executing him and was proclaimed Emperor Heraclius (r. 610-641), the emperor who turned Roman Byzantium into a Greek speaking empire. Flavius Heraclius was also born in Cappadocia in 575, his father Heraclius the Elder was a Byzantine of Armenian origin while his mother Epiphania was of Cappadocian Greek origin like Maurice making the emperor Heraclius considered half-Greek half-Armenian, it was also described that Heraclius at the time he became emperor in 610 as tall and muscular with curly light colored hair. Heraclius ruled long defeating the Persians and ending the Byzantine-Sassanid Persian war in 628 but ruled long enough to see the rise of Islam and the Arabs start raiding into Byzantine territory in the Middle East, but Heraclius had also left behind a large family being married twice first to Fabia Eudokia, a Byzantine Greek woman from Carthage where Heraclius grew up in and together they had two children one of which was Constantine III (r. 641) also known as Heraclius Constantine born in around 612, Heraclius’ successor who was mostly of Greek blood and 25% Armenian from his paternal grandfather Heraclius the Elder. Fabia Eudokia died too early also in 612 possibly from epilepsy, so Heraclius married again but out of everyone he married his niece Martina, the daughter of his sister Maria and marrying his niece, Heraclius had 9 children, one of which was Constantine III’s half brother and successor Heraklonas also known as Constantine Heraclius or Heraclius II (r. 641) who ruled with his mother Martina as his regent for a few months after allegedly poisoning Constantine III but in September of 641, Heraklonas and Martina were removed from power by Constantine III’s supporters putting Constantine III’s young son Constans II as emperor.

Constans II (r. 641-668) also known, as Heraclius Constantinus was the son of Heraclius’ first son Constantine III and Gregoria who was also a Byzantine Greek with Armenian ancestry and was the daughter of Niketas, a first cousin of Heraclius. Constans II was mostly of Byzantine Greek blood with Armenian ancestry as well from his great-grandfathers in his mother and father’s sides; Constans II on the other hand was born in 630 and surprisingly he had a twin brother named Theodosius, though at 11-years-old Constans II was appointed emperor by his father’s supporters and not his twin brother, though his twin brother would plot against him later on but would end up being sent to a monastery and executed. Constans II’s reign was faced with advancing armies of the Arabs quickly downsizing the Byzantine Empire forcing Constans II to reorganize the imperial governing system into Themes and to flee Constantinople in 663 in fear attempting to make Syracuse in Sicily as the new Byzantine capital but before that could happen, he was assassinated in his bath in 668 by a slave wielding a soap dish by orders of a rival general named Mizizios, described as a handsome man of Armenian origin who usurped the empire 668-669 until Constans II’s 16-year-old son Constantine IV (r. 668-641) overthrew Mizizios in 669 becoming the rightful emperor. Constantine IV was born in 652 in Constantinople as the eldest son of Constans II and his wife Fausta, the daughter of the general Valentinus who was mostly of Armenian origins, making Constantine IV and his 2 brothers Tiberius and Heraclius have strong Byzantine Greek and Armenian blood as well. From an early age, Constantine IV was already skilled at governing the empire as he was left in charge of Constantinople when his father fled in 663 and in his years as emperor, Constantine IV successfully defended Constantinople from an Arab siege with the use of Greek Fire for the first time, managed to negotiate with the Bulgarian invaders from Central Asia resulting in the establishment of the 1st Bulgarian Empire in 681, and resolve doctrinal conflict, but he died at only 33 in 685 from dysentery; meanwhile the image of the successful emperor Constantine IV can be seen at a church in Ravenna next to his co-emperor brothers Tiberius and Heraclius and his co-emperor son and successor Justinian II. After Constantine IV died young in 685, he was succeeded by his eldest son Justinian II (r. 685-695), born in 669 to Constantine IV and his wife Anastasia whose origins are unknown but most likely she was Byzantine Greek too making Justinian II have more Byzantine Greek than Armenian blood. Due to his tyrannical rule and delusions in conquests against the Arabs and Bulgars, Justinian II was overthrown by the people, senate, army, and Church in 695, his nose was cut off and he was exiled to Cherson where he would marry a Khazar or semi-Nomadic Turkic princess who he renamed Theodora as Justinian II saw himself as the new Justinian the Great but failed to be.

While Justinian II was in exile, these 10 years from 695 to 705 witnessed 3 changes of emperor, first the Isaurian descended general Leontios took over from Justinian II in 695 and he was the next Isaurian to rule Byzantium since Zeno but 3 years later in 698, Leontios was overthrown and replaced by Tiberius III Apsimar (r. 698-705), who was an unusual character as he was blond and of Germanic descent having strong German blood, most probably his family were Germanic mercenaries in the Byzantine army. However in 705, Justinian II returned from Cherson in today’s Ukraine coast of the Black Sea with his new Khazar wife and already with their newborn son and heir Tiberius who was half-Greek, half-Khazar, although Justinian II now known as Rhinotmetos in his 2nd reign for having his nose cut off became more brutal than ever executing anyone who wronged him in the past leading to more uprisings against him and in 711, he was overthrown again and this time executed by the rebel general, the Armenian Bardanes who first had Justinian II’s young son and co-emperor Tiberius killed before killing the emperor, and as emperor Bardanes or Vardan in Armenian changed his name to the Greek Philippikos and only reigned for 2 years from 711-713 as he was overthrown and replaced with his secretary, a Byzantine Greek named Artemios who as emperor became Anastasius II (r. 713-715) but was overthrown in 715 and replaced by a random tax collector of Byzantine Greek origin as well who as emperor became Theodosius III (r. 715-717) but had no interest in ruling so rebellion rose up against him by the general Konon in which Theodosius III abdicated in favor of.

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Family Tree of the Heraclian Dynasty
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Remains of Byzantium by 717

 

The Isaurian Dynasty (717-802)

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In 717, the 22 years of anarchy Byzantium went through since the first overthrow of Justinian II in 695 had come to an end, and so did Byzantium’s first age, now Byzantium enters its second age where the empire has already become fully Greek and no longer Roman in language and identity, and only Roman in its imperial legacy. In 717, an Isaurian once again took the Byzantine throne, though it has been almost 300 years since the Isaurian Zeno had become emperor, so in the 8th century compared to the 5th, the Isaurians from the Taurus Mountains of Southern Asia Minor must have already become more civilized people. The new Isaurian who came to the Byzantine throne in 717 was Emperor Leo III the Isaurian or Syrian (r. 717-741), originally he was an Isaurian named Konon born in Isauria which was then Byzantine Syria in around 685 and at a young age his Isaurian family was relocated by Emperor Justinian II to Thrace where Konon lived his life as a shepherd without ever thinking he would be emperor one day. In 705, when Justinian II was on his way back to Constantinople passing through Thrace, he encountered the young shepherd Konon and noticed that Konon had a special gift which included speaking Arabic so Justinian II made Konon serve him as a spy and later he became the general or Strategos in charge of the Anatolian Theme in 715 under Anastasius II. In 717, Konon and his Theme’s army with the help of the Armenian Theme Strategos Artavasdos led a rebellion to take the throne and after forcing Theodosius III to abdicate, Konon became Emperor Leo III who ruled long and was best known for defending Constantinople for a second time against the Arab Umayyad Caliphate from 717-718, beginning the Iconoclast movement that shook the empire apart and led to Venice declaring independence from Byzantium, but was also know for once again reviving the power of Byzantium that had fallen over the years. Leo III’s wife Maria was probably a Thracian and with her his known children were his son and successor Constantine V (r. 741-775) and Anna who were half-Isaurian half-Thracian, although it is unclear if they were of Thracian descent too as it is not said where their mother came from. Leo III died in 741 and was succeeded by his son Constantine V nicknamed Kopronymos or shit-named and a year into his reign he was overthrown by his brother-in-law; the same Artavasdos who helped Leo III take the throne. Artavasdos (r. 742-743), was Armenian by origin with the Armenian name Artavazd and with Leo III as emperor, Artavasdos was his closest friend and advisor, was married to Leo III’s daughter Anna who he had children with, and was promised to succeed Leo when he died, however Leo III had a son so it was natural the son succeeded. In 743, however Constantine V returned to power after defeating and blinding Artavasdos and his sons sending them to a monastery and as emperor for the next many years Constantine V ruled successfully fighting off the Arab and Bulgar invaders but was a controversial figure for zealously leading the campaign against icons. Constantine V was first married at only 14 to the Khazar princess Tzitzak, daughter of the Khazar ruler Bihar who when married converted to Christianity and changed her name to Irene for an alliance with the Khazars. The Khazars meanwhile were a semi-nomadic but powerful Turkic tribe that converted to Judaism and formed their kingdom called Khazaria north of the Black Sea in what is today Southern Russia and Ukraine as well as parts of the Caucasus and the Caspian Sea area, they too were a powerful buffer state fro the Byzantines against the Huns and Arabs with a strong army of nomadic cavalry and Byzantium saw them as a powerful ally; the Khazar kingdom meanwhile existed from 650-969. With the Khazar Tzitzak renamed Irene, Constantine V had only one son named Leo after his grandfather who succeeded him after his death in 775 as Emperor Leo IV (r. 775-780) nicknamed “the Khazar” as he was half-Khazar from his mother while on his father’s side he had Isaurian and Thracian blood; the empress Tzitzak though was never recorded after giving birth to Leo IV as she probably died after giving birth to him in 750, although her name is the Greek translation of the Turkic word çiçek meaning flower. With his other wife Eudokia, a Byzantine Greek Constantine V had 5 sons named Christopher, Nikephoros, Niketas, Eudokimos, Anthimos and one daughter Anthousa, although it was still the eldest Leo IV that succeeded but he died 5 years into his reign in 780 from tuberculosis. Constantine V though had arranged for his son and successor Leo IV to be married to Irene Sarantapechaina, a Byzantine Greek noblewoman from Byzantine Athens born in 752 in the Athens that was no longer the powerful metropolis it was in Greek times but a quiet intellectual center; Irene though was orphaned but Irene was an ambitious one who plotted to make herself empress to end the Iconoclast movement. Leo IV and Irene’s son Constantine VI (r. 780-797) who by blood was Greek, Khazar, Thracian, and Isaurian became emperor in 780 at only 9-years-old so Irene was his regent for the longest time wherein she organized the council to end Iconoclasm but she and her son would constantly fight for power while Constantine VI’s half-uncles (Leo IV’s 5 half-brothers) plotted to take the throne as well. At the end however, the plot of the uncles was stopped and in 797 Irene took the throne as the first woman to be empress after blinding her son and exiling him but her actions had a lot of consequences and it had been a bad time for the empire. In the year 800, a Roman emperor returned to the west when the Frankish king Charlemagne was crowned Holy Roman Emperor by the pope, though Irene thought of making an alliance with him to unite their empires but once again the Byzantine people of Constantinople did not want another barbarian like Zeno to rule them so in 802, Irene was declared deposed and exiled replaced by a man again, the finance minister Nikephoros who founded a new dynasty.

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Genealogy of the Isaurian, Nikephorian, and Amorian Dynasties

Watch this to learn more about the Khazars (from Kings and Generals).

 

The Nikephorian Dynasty (802-813)

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Following the overthrow of Irene in 802, the Isaurian Dynasty ended and the Byzantine throne was passed into the hands of a man once again, this man was the finance minister Nikephoros I (r. 802-811), though his birthplace is unknown, he was born in around 750 and many sources which were Byzantine, Syrian, and Arabic say he is of Ghassanid Arab origin. It is not clear if Nikephoros I was fully ethnically Ghassanid or was had a small percentage of Ghassanid blood, but Nikephoros claimed not to be a mere Ghassanid descendant but a descendant of the last Ghassanid king Jabalah VI in the 7th century, though it is unclear how he was related to the last Ghassanid king. Now the Ghassanids have a very interesting story coming all the way as far south as Yemen and immigrating to the Levant region in today’s Jordan, which was Roman Empire’s eastern border sometime in the 3rd century and over the years they have settled down, became Christians, merged with Greek community, and formed a kingdom that would be a Roman and Byzantine vassal. These Ghassanids who had settled in the eastern Levant were pre-Islamic Christian Arabs that had formed their own client kingdom beginning in around 220 with Jafnah I Ibn ‘Amir as their first king and they have ruled the area paying tribute to Byzantium until the first Islamic Arab conquest of the 7th century. The Ghassanid kingdom fell in 638 with the first wave of Arab conquests by the Rashidun Caliphate, the first of the Islamic Caliphates forcing their last king Jabalah VI refusing to convert to Islam to flee into Byzantium to make a government in exile, which explains how Nikephoros I almost 2 centuries later could have been a descendant of the last Ghassanid king. It is believable that Nikephoros I is descended from the last Ghassanid king as the Ghassanids were still around only a bit more than a century before Nikephoros’ birth, meanwhile Nikephoros’ parents are unknown so it is unclear how much Ghassanid or Byzantine blood he had, his wife and her ethnicity too are unknown but with his wife Nikephoros I had at least 2 children, his son and successor Staurakios (r. 811) and daughter Prokopia. Nikephoros I ruling for 9 years tried to improve the weakened economy of the empire but had refused to accept Charlemagne’s position as emperor, also Nikephoros was determined to defeat the Bulgarians in battle but in 811 he was ambushed and killed by the Bulgarians in battle and his skull turned into the Bulgar khan Krum’s drinking cup, after his death he was succeeded by his son Staurakios who only ruled for 2 months as the injuries he got from that battle against the Bulgars left him paralyzed. Staurakios’ brother-in-law Michael Rangabe married to Staurakios’ sister Prokopia replaced him as emperor becoming Michael I (r. 811-813) and he was the first Byzantine emperor who’s last name was not Latin or Greek; Staurakios meanwhile retired to become a monk and died the next year. Michael I’s last name Rangabe was of Hebrew origin so that means in his father’s side he was of Jewish descent, though he was a Christian and it is not clear how much Jewish blood he had but it was known that Michael I’s father Theophylact Rangabe was a Byzantine admiral and Michael I was born in 770. With Prokopia, Michael I had 5 children but Michael I’s reign did not last long as 2 years later in 813 he had to abdicate in favor of the Armenian general Leo before Leo could overthrow him, Michael then retired as a monk and died 31 years later in 844. The next emperor was Leo V (r. 813-820), born in 775 known as “the Armenian” because of his Armenian descent as his father Bardas was an Armenian Byzantine, although Leo the Armenian was said to not only have Armenian blood but Syrian blood as well possibly from his mother, Leo’s wife Theodosia too was of Armenian origins. The Armenians meanwhile were one of the largest ethnic populations of the Byzantine Empire usually living in the eastern reaches of the empire in the east of Asia Minor where their homeland is. When Leo V took the Byzantine throne in 813, he was the general in charge of the Anatolic Theme and as emperor he ended the long war between Byzantium and the Bulgars, established the 2nd period of Iconoclasm that ended with Irene, but at the end despite having sons did not establish a dynasty as Leo V was assassinated in the Christmas Mass of 820 ordered by his trusted general Michael of Amorion who helped him gain power in 813.