Byzantine Alternate History Chapter VIII- A Byzantine Victory at the Battle of Manzikert in 1071 and Its Impact on the Empire

Posted by Powee Celdran

DISCLAIMER: Although this is mostly a work of fiction, it is largely based on true events and characters. It seeks to alter the course of actual events that transpired in the 11th century AD. This story will begin with events that happened in real history but will become fictional as it progresses.

Previous Story: Byzantine Alternate History Chapter VII- 10th Century

The Battle of Manzikert was the most decisive disaster in Byzantine history. The Byzantines themselves had no illusions about it. Again and again, their historians refer to that dreadful day.” -Steven Runciman, English historian

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Welcome to the 8th chapter of the Byzantine Alternate History series by the Byzantium Blogger! Last time, in chapter VII of this 12-part series, I went over the origins story of the Byzantine Renaissance from the 9th to 10th century on how the Byzantine Empire (Eastern Roman Empire) went gradually from a troubled empire fighting to defend itself to the ultimate military and cultural power in the medieval world. Though the last chapter experimented in retelling the rise of the Byzantine Golden Age from the 9th to 10th centuries by only taking out one character being Empress Theophano, therefore her son Emperor Basil II as well, which meant that a lot of the events turned out very much like how they did in real history, so basically nothing had changed although only in the short-term, as in the long-term things may be different for the Byzantines without Emperor Basil II, though that would be a very hard question to answer. Anyway, this chapter will begin like all chapters in this alternate history series, meaning that the altered course of history from the previous chapter will not continue to the next, therefore this chapter will start out with the events of real history taking place, meaning that the ruling dynasty even if it could be true that they were in fact the Amorians would still be called the Macedonian Dynasty here, as it is historically called and Emperor Basil II known as “the Bulgar-Slayer” who is Byzantium’s longest reigning emperor will be in power at the turn of the 11th century, or more importantly the turn of the 2nd millennium AD. It was at the beginning of the 11th century that the Byzantine Empire under Basil II was again since the 6th century at its peak of cultural and military power that Byzantium here had an empire again controlling almost the entire Balkans all the way east into Armenia and Syria and west to Southern Italy while the army was so powerful that all other powers from beyond feared it especially considering how the Byzantine army was able to defeat the Bulgarian Empire itself, the emperor meanwhile became a supreme authority in the medieval world, the sophisticated Byzantine imperial culture was respected and revered by all including their rival western empire the “Holy Roman Empire”, and the state itself was well organized one. However, as is the case with many empires, what follows its peak of power and influence is its decline and the case of Byzantium here in the 11th century was no exception as following the death of the great ruler Basil II in 1025, it would all go downhill gradually for the Byzantine Empire, thus this period would be known as the 11th Century Crisis. In this period known as the 11th Century Crisis, a series of weak and even bad leadership by some emperors, the constant fighting of wars, corruption in the government especially by greedy eunuchs, ambitious and power-hungry generals on the quest to gain the throne, and disastrous reforms in society would create a gradual economic decline in Byzantium and for the first time in Byzantine history the devaluation of their standard gold currency, but the worst part was that when all these setbacks were happening, the Byzantines would encounter new and unheard of enemies for the first time being the Seljuk Turks from the east and the fierce Norman warriors from the west. True enough the history of the Roman Empire, which extends all the way to the Byzantine Empire’s timeline does repeat itself as centuries ago the Roman Empire was the dominant world power in the 2nd century but what followed this time of power and prosperity was an age of decline being the 3rd Century Crisis which in fact was one of the events that led to the division of the Roman Empire, thus the creation of the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire in 330, and centuries later here in the 11th century, the same would happen again to the Eastern Roman Empire wherein after an era of power and prosperity would be an age of political, economic, and military decline the same way it was for the 3rd century old Roman Empire. On the other hand, 4 centuries earlier (the 7th century), if you remember from chapter IV of this series, the Byzantines after defeating their traditional eastern enemy being the Sassanid Persian would unexpectedly face the rise of a new enemy which was here the Arabs from the mysterious Arabian Desert of the south uniting into an empire known as the Caliphate under the faith of Islam and for the past 3 chapters of this series set in the past 3 centuries, the major conflict for the Byzantine Empire was always with these Arab powers but after 3 centuries of conflict, as told in the previous chapter, the Byzantines gained the upper hand and turned the tide of war against the Arab enemies from the east. Now in this chapter, we will say goodbye to the Arabs as the traditional eastern enemy of the Byzantines for 4 centuries as after beating them in battle so many times, the Arabs from being an invincible force of destruction would become severely vulnerable and divided, but even though the Byzantines may be on the winning side after finally weakening the Arabs, a new power from the east is to arise unexpectedly the same way the Arabs did back in the 7th century. Here in the 11th century, from the steppes of the Central Asia, the unexpected power that would rise and within decades already pose a threat to Byzantium are the Seljuk Turks, a band of unknown tribal nomadic Turkic people that had recently united, converted to Islam, and formed an empire with a powerful cavalry army that will be a deadly force even to the superior and disciplined professional Byzantine army.

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Seal of the Seljuk Empire, the new power in the 11th century

The gradual decline of Byzantium in the 11th century after its golden age would culminate at the catastrophic Battle of Manzikert in 1071, the first major battle between the centuries old Byzantine Empire and the new power of the Seljuk Empire which resulted in the most severe and humiliating defeat the powerful Byzantine army faced so far, thus showing that the Byzantine Empire’s army that was thought of as all powerful around the world was indeed not as powerful as it seemed, therefore it is considered the beginning of the end for Byzantium. Now when speaking of the Battle of Manzikert, a lot of people who know Byzantine history see it as a terribly tragic event like it was one battle that all of a sudden turned all of Byzantium’s successes around, but the truth is that even before this fatal battle, things were already going to go terribly for the Byzantines, thus what really led to the defeat of the powerful Byzantine army and the decline of its imperial power and prestige was not this defeat but the greed, corruption, and bad leadership the empire had been going through for the past decades following the death of Basil II in 1025. However, the real event that brought the powerful Byzantine Empire to its knees in the 11th century was in fact not the Battle of Manzikert itself in August of 1071 but its aftermath as following the defeat of the Byzantines here, their emperor Romanos IV Diogenes (r. 1068-1071) after being betrayed by a rival general was captured by the Seljuk Turk’s sultan Alp Arslan and the emperor’s capture thus created panic and chaos in the empire and with this chaos, civil war erupted and so did a number of generals who used the chaos as an opportunity to seize the Byzantine throne for themselves rather than defending the empire against the new Seljuk enemy, thus this led to the weakening of the Byzantine state and the fall of the Byzantine heartland of Asia Minor to the Seljuks as well as the collapse centuries old Thematic System or the Themes. The aftermath of the Battle of Manzikert was so severe that shockwaves reached as far as Western Europe that in 1095, the new Byzantine emperor Alexios I Komnenos who rose to power to save the empire from destruction sent a distress signal to the pope to send armies from Western Europe to help the Byzantines drive the Seljuks away from their heartland, but instead what came out of this was the First Crusade that would start a world-famous movement in the Middle Ages being the Crusades. The aftermath of the Battle of Manzikert meanwhile was so shocking that it became one of the major factors that led to the rise of the Crusades as well as the rise of the Ottoman Turks due to the Seljuks’ occupation of Asia Minor and they would centuries later carry out the ultimate end of Byzantium in 1453, and true enough if the Byzantines won the Battle of Manzikert, then there would possibly be no Crusades and no Ottoman Empire centuries later. The main point of this story however is not altering history by having the Byzantines win a total victory over the Seljuks at Manzikert, thus becoming a world power again and making the Crusades never happen but rather the point of this story will be if the Byzantines won the Battle of Manzikert in 1071, would the empire’s corruption and political instability still cause its decline?

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Note: Since this story is set in the 11th century after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the Byzantine characters will be referred to as Byzantines, not Romans.          

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Painting of the fateful Battle of Manzikert between the Byzantines and Seljuks, 1071
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The Byzantine Empire (red) at its apogee, at Basil II’s death in 1025, in real history
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Map of the expansion of the Seljuk Turks and their empire (yellow), in the 11th century
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The Byzantine Empire (pink) by 1081 after the Battle of Manzikert

 

For this story, I am writing it alone this time, although with my own twists to the well-known catastrophic Battle of Manzikert which due to how well remembered it is in medieval history as a very significantly dreadful event as the quote mentioned above says, it is a very popular what if in Byzantine history that many had in fact made their own alternate history stories and videos regarding Manzikert and its aftermath. My version here however will be my own take on the fatal battle in 1071 and therefore not a usual theory of this popular alternate history scenario as it will not only simply discuss what would happen if things went the other way around with the Byzantines defeating the Seljuk Turks, but rather it will discuss the difficult situation the Byzantine Empire went through after the Battle of Manzikert and if a Byzantine victory over the Turks could actually save the empire from falling apart in this said 11th Century Crisis or not. Basically this chapter will be a lot like the very first one of this series- Byzantine Alternate History Chapter I– except it will have more story than just pure battle scenes. On the other hand, some months ago I came across an article from Medievalists.net by Dr. Georgios Theotokis on the aftermath of the Battle of Manzikert and what really brought Byzantium to its knees (read it here), and true enough the Byzantine defeat at this battle is what ended Byzantium’s power in their heartland Asia Minor and thus the beginning of what would be the “Turkification” of Asia Minor which today is Turkey, but what I discovered from this article I mentioned that is very surprising and unlikely that caused the decline of Byzantine power in Asia Minor was not really the defeat to the Seljuks but the ambitions of the Norman mercenary leader Roussel de Bailleul who using the situation of defeat at Manzikert took for himself some land in Asia Minor declaring himself its ruler in rebellion against the Byzantine emperor and to deal with him the reigning emperor Michael VII Doukas (1071-1078) allied himself with the enemy which were the Seljuks and with their victory over the Norman mercenary, the Seljuks in return were able to take over most of Asia Minor, which was a mistake very difficult for the Byzantines to undo that it would take decades and even the call to start the First Crusade to recover their heartland. Now for this chapter, I will be exploring the era of the 11th century Byzantine Empire and the aftermath of Manzikert by putting more attention to the aftermath of the battle except with the Byzantines winning, therefore no massive Seljuk occupation of Asia Minor following the crucial battle. For its style, this chapter will be very much similar to the style of the previous chapter which is more of a fast-tracked documentary style of this era in which almost everything really is just a retelling of real history except with its own twist and it is only at the latter part in 1071 where the real twist happens wherein also the story will have more depth and detail. Basically, this story will be more like a reverse style of the previous chapter (chapter VII) which had a fast-tracked documentation of the Byzantine golden age of the 10th century and how it came to be, while this one on the other hand will be a reverse of it as it will fast-track document how the decline of Byzantium after its golden age came to be as the 11th century progressed. The story of the entire 11th century history of Byzantium which I find it to be another very interesting period in Byzantine history will be covered here as in order to explain the situation of the empire in 1071 as well as the background of the lead characters of this story and the new military aristocratic families that will rise up in this era such as the Komnenos, Doukas, and Diogenes families, we have to go back to the start of the 11th century in the reign of Emperor Basil II who’s reforms and conquests will shape the course of the 11th century history of Byzantium. This chapter will start in the year 1000 with the great and feared military emperor Basil II as the reigning emperor in order to give a background to this era where the Byzantine Renaissance from the previous century had culminated in together with the ultimate conquest of the Bulgarian Empire in 1018, then we move on to 1025 where the golden age ends with the death of Basil II wherein without ever being married or having children is succeeded by his ineffective brother Constantine VIII who dies just 3 years later. The story will the proceed to the heart of the 11th century when the crisis takes place with Constantine VIII’s daughter Zoe as the kingmaker behind her 3 husbands who were emperors one after the other in which the age of corruption and decline for Byzantium will start taking shape, then in 1056 the long-reigning Macedonian Dynasty that had ruled since 867 will come to an end with the death of Zoe’s sister Empress Theodora, the last Macedonian Dynasty ruler. Following the end of the Macedonian Dynasty, the empire would fall into a dynastic crisis with powerful aristocratic generals taking the throne and becoming emperors including Isaac I Komnenos in 1057, Constantine X Doukas in 1059, and Romanos IV Diogenes in 1068.

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The Chronographia (14 Byzantine Rulers) by Michael Psellos

In this story too, there will be something like a historian’s angle of telling the story as a lot of the events of the 11th century here were told in the point of view of the historian Michael Psellos (1018-1078), a Byzantine monk, writer, philosopher, and politician who witnessed most of the events of this century himself therefore writing it all down in his famous work The Chronographia documenting the reigns of 14 Byzantine emperors from Basil II to Michael VII (976-1079), and in this story Michael Psellos himself will play an important role as he connects the early part of the century under the Macedonian Dynasty to the latter part when the fatal Battle of Manzikert takes place. This story will then be written in a more fast-tracked form until we hit 1071 where the main battle takes place and it is here where it will be more in depth with some insights of my own that I would add to the real story, and here in this chapter the most prominently featured character will be the emperor Romanos IV Diogenes who personally an army of 40,000 soldiers including a large portion of mercenaries from all over the known world against the Seljuks in Manzikert and here there will be a slight fictional angle to his story wherein he will be depicted like in real history as an aristocratic general from a disgraced family who marries the widowed empress Eudokia Makembolitissa, wife of the former emperor Constantine X Doukas in order to become emperor, but in this story Romanos IV has ambitions to take throne in order to put his life back together and gain some credit for his disgraced family’s name by intending to finally defeat the invading Seljuks Turks in battle even if the Seljuks here never really wanted to fully invade Byzantium anyway but just take some land from them in order to pass through in order to carry out their ultimate goal of the conquest of the Arab Fatimid Caliphate of Egypt. Here, like in real history Romanos IV will also decide to confront the Seljuks at the massive Battle of Manzikert but for the sake of altering history, the Byzantines would win with Romanos IV coming out alive, but with this pyrrhic victory here, Byzantium would still go through a difficult situation while Romanos IV like in real history would still be betrayed by the imperial court in Constantinople while he is away.

Watch this to learn more about the Battle of Manzikert (Kings and Generals).

Check this link to see alternate history videos on what if the Byzantines won the Battle of Manzikert, from Ripped Lincoln.


 

Now, a lot of this chapter’s information comes from the very detailed book on this era Streams of Gold, Rivers of Blood by the Byzantinist historian Anthony Kaldellis, so this chapter like the book may be something like a political and economic lesson as the complicated Byzantine politics and economic crisis of the era will have a major role here, but this is to show how complex these times were but also to again give you all a clear example of the word “byzantine” meaning complicated and how it the Byzantine Empire really defined this word.

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Streams of Gold, Rivers of Blood by Anthony Kaldellis

Although this chapter will have a lot of the complex Byzantine politics involved, it would also be a very action packed one with the major battles against the Turks and other powers including the Normans being the real villains of this century, Arabs, Pechenegs, and a lot more including the famous and powerful Varangian Guards fighting for Byzantium, and in addition this chapter too will mention a few side stories most especially on how these new enemies such as the Seljuk Turks in the east and Normans in the west came to be, and also how the Arabs would slowly disappear from the picture as if you take note, this chapter will be the last time the Arabs which appeared so prominently in the last 4 chapters will appear. Now in the bigger picture, the 11th century was not just a very critical period for Byzantium but for the world in general as this century primarily saw the rise of both Seljuk Turks in the east from unknown nomads to a deadly military power and the Normans in the west which would both play an important part in shaping the medieval world in general, and in this century the Normans would go a long way from Viking warriors and adventurers to dominant rulers of Europe as in this century the Norman knights would establish their own state in Italy and not to mention in 1066 the Normans from their base of Normandy in France under William the Conqueror would conquer England and establish what would be the Kingdom of England itself. What would make the 11th century a very eventful one is that it also saw the early Middle Ages transform into the High Middle Ages as most of the powers in Europe began to expand while this century too would end with the rise of a new movement that will define the Middle Ages which were the Crusades that would last for 2 more centuries, and true enough Byzantium did have a part in starting the Crusades which was their defeat to the Seljuks at Manzikert. This story will then end at the end of the 11th century and in one way or another, just like in real history the well-known fan favorite Alexios I Komnenos would still become Byzantine emperor to save the empire, although without the defeat at Manzikert he would have no reason to call for the First Crusade, though the First Crusade would still happen anyway as this story would go with the Seljuks still continuing on heading down south and capturing the important city of Jerusalem as after all, the reason for the Western Europeans or Latins to launch the First Crusade in 1095 was more to avenge the fall of Jerusalem to the Seljuks and take it for themselves rather than to help the Byzantines recover their lands in Asia Minor from the Seljuks. Additionally, this chapter too will not just be all about Manzikert but focusing too on another major issue that happened in the 11th century which was the Great Schism of 1054 that finally split the Byzantine Orthodox Church and Latin Catholic Church for good which therefore shows the “cold war” style conflict between Byzantium and the Western world again still in place, but in fact becoming ever worse. At the same time, the year 1071 was not only fatal to the Byzantines because of their great defeat to the Seljuks at Manzikert but it was also the same year when all of Byzantine Italy was lost as it had been conquered by the expanding Normans, thus this event as the History of Byzantium Podcast by Robin Pierson suggests is what totally and permanently separated Byzantium from the Western world making Byzantium more and more Oriental as the centuries would go by. Before beginning I would have to thank Anthony Kaldellis for his book that I had just mentioned as well as history related Youtube channels like Kings and Generals, Thersites the Historian, and History Time, as well as the History of Byzantium Podcast by Robin Pierson for providing good and accessible information to this era in Byzantine history. Also, I would just like to remind you all that this chapter is more of a retelling of real history with a few alterations such as the personalities and intentions of a few historical characters here told in a rather mocking style not so much to put Byzantium down but to look up at their history.

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Genealogy of the Macedonian Dynasty of the Byzantine Empire which features heavily in this chapter
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Genealogy of the Doukas Dynasty of the Byzantine Empire which features heavily in this chapter

Related Articles from the Byzantium Blogger:

Byzantine Alternate History Chapter VII- A retelling of the 10th century of Byzantium under the Amorian Dynasty

Around the World in the Byzantine Era Part II (1000-1461)

12 Turning Points in Byzantine History

A Guide to the Themes of the Byzantine Empire

Lesser Known and Would be Byzantine Emperors (695-1453)

All Sieges of Constantinople


 

The Leading Characters:

Romanos IV Diogenes- Byzantine emperor (1068-1072)

Constantine X Doukas- Byzantine emperor (1059-1067)

Eudokia Makrembolitissa- Byzantine empress, wife of Constantine X and then of Romanos IV 

Isaac I Komnenos- Byzantine emperor (1057-1059)

Michael Psellos- Byzantine historian and politician

Michael VII Doukas- Byzantine emperor (1071-1078), son of Constantine X and Eudokia 

Maria of Alania- Byzantine empress, wife of Michael VII

Alp Arslan- Sultan of the Seljuk Empire (1063-1072) 

Nikephoros III Botaneiates- Byzantine emperor (1078-1081)

Roussel de Bailleul- Norman mercenary commander and independent leader of Asia Minor lands (1073-1076)

John Doukas Caesar- Imperial Court advisor and brother of Constantine X

Andronikos Doukas- Byzantine general, son of John Doukas

Alexios Komnenos- Byzantine general, future emperor

Nikephoritzes- Byzantine court eunuch advisor of Michael VII

Nikephoros Bryennios- Byzantine general

Robert Guiscard de Hauteville- Norman Duke of Calabria and Apulia (1059-1085) 

Malik-Shah I- Sultan of the Seljuk Empire (1072-1092), son of Alp Arslan

Theodore Alyattes- Byzantine general

Background Guide: Byzantine characters (blue), Seljuks (green), Normans (red) 


 

Part I.

Prologue- The Reign of Basil II the Bulgar-Slayer and the Peak of the Byzantine Renaissance (1000-1028)            

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In the year 1000 as the 2nd millennium AD begins, the Byzantine Empire was at its rise to a time of prosperity and influence as not only did it have a powerful and well-organized professional army that was capable of crushing any enemy army whether Arab, Bulgarian, or nomadic Pecheneg, but it was a cultural power wherein its imperial court culture and state administration was sought after that foreign powers like their rival Holy Roman Empire in Germany even began to adopt Byzantine court customs. On the other hand, Byzantium at the turn of the millennium had also culturally influenced powers far away such as the empire of the Kievan Rus’ (consisting of today’s Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia) as it is through Byzantium that the people of the Kievan Rus’ empire converted to Orthodox Christianity thus falling under the Byzantine sphere of influence. Ruling the Byzantine Empire at its apogee of cultural and military power at the turn of the millennium was Emperor Basil II who had already been ruling the empire alone since 976 and before that had already ruled as a co-emperor since he was only 2-years-old in 960.

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Emperor Basil II the Bulgar-Slayer of Byzantium (r. 976-1025)

In 1000, Basil II was a skilled administrator and soldier but also a tough and ruthless commander as well as a strict micromanager with his army and the state administration, though it is quite hard to believe how Basil II became this kind ruler with this kind of ruthless ruling style especially in war and living life like an ordinary soldier, that it would make you think that he grew up on the battlefield coming from a military family, but true enough he did not. Basil II was in fact a purple-born emperor or Porphyrogennetos born in the palace in 958, he too was the son of the emperor Romanos II (r. 959-963) and the empress Theophano, as well as a grandson of the famous scholarly emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos (r. 913-959) and true enough Constantine VII and his son Romanos II- who had been mentioned in the previous chapter- were not at all tough military men but highly sophisticated palace emperors that never even set foot in a battle. The reason though to why Basil II grew up to be different being a soldier emperor were the difficulties he faced when growing up as when he was only 5 in 963 his father Romanos II died suddenly and his mother Theophano had to marry the rising star general of the time Nikephoros II Phokas who became emperor here after marrying Theophano to rule as young Basil’s protector but in 969 Nikephoros II despite doing so much to strengthen the empire’s military power was killed in his sleep as part of a conspiracy by his nephew who became the next emperor John I Tzimiskes,who would also rule as Basil’s protector and only after John I’s death in 976 did Basil II come to power as the senior ruler as his younger brother Constantine VIII had already been his co-emperor ever since 962. Now a lot of Basil II’s tough personality, capability in commanding and inspiring his troops, and living a simple lifestyle like an ascetic monk was said to be heavily influenced by his stepfather Emperor Nikephoros II Phokas who as emperor did not enjoy luxury but instead was most happy in the battlefield with his soldiers and Basil II was very much the same as his stepfather that way. Though Basil II was the senior emperor in 976, his rule was not secure as the two ambitious generals Bardas Skleros and Bardas Phokas challenged his rule by proclaiming themselves emperors seeing Basil as a palace born ruler was a weak one as true enough Basil up until 985 was under the control of his grand-uncle the eunuch Basil Lekapenos. Basil eventually grew tired of being a puppet of his corrupt eunuch grand-uncle and so in 985, Basil II without any hesitation banished his grand-uncle from the palace under charges of corruption and conspiring with the rebels and in 986, Basil II wanting to show that he was not a weak ruler and that the empire was ruled by a member of the ruling dynasty and not by eunuchs or ambitious generals decided to personally lead the army for the first time against their northern neighbor and enemy the Bulgarian Empire but lacking military experience here, Basil II was defeated in battle by the Bulgarians.

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Bardas Phokas the Younger, Byzantine general, art by Akitku

This defeat in 986 gave Basil II a strong desire for revenge against the Bulgarians and a lifelong goal to defeat them once and for all and absorb the entire Bulgarian state into the Byzantine Empire, although Basil’s defeat to the Bulgarians in 986 also exposed his weakness and created an opportunity for the general Bardas Phokas to rise up against Basil. Basil II however was able to defeat the rebellion of Bardas Phokas in 989 with the assistance of an army of 6,000 warriors from the Kievan Rus’ Empire which would be known as the Varangian Guard and with them, the rebel army of Phokas was swiftly destroyed while Phokas himself died from a stroke. The Varangian Guards then proved to be a successful military unit in the Byzantine army that form here on, they would become the new elite bodyguard force of the emperor and warriors from as far as Scandinavia wherein they knew Constantinople as Miklagard or the “Great City” would come to the emperor’s service as part of the Varangian Guard unit.

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Varangian Guard soldier, introduced to Byzantium in 988

Meanwhile in 991, as Basil II was heading back to Bulgaria in a campaign against them, the other rebel general Bardas Skleros was at this point was an old and broken man who had no more support as a lot of his rebel forces and that of Phokas defected to Basil II’ army and without anyone to turn to anymore, the old Skleros peacefully surrendered to Basil II before dying days later. The defeat and death of Bardas Phokas in 989 and Skleros’ surrender in 991 would show that Basil II had gained more military and political abilities and after 991 Basil II would rule alone as the supreme authority with no one to challenge him. Now if you wonder how all of a sudden Basil II became the supreme and unchallenged authority of the empire, this was not only because he defeated his powerful rivals but because of his new policies, and the kind of policy Basil II would be remembered for was in putting away the old military aristocracy of Asia Minor which included that of the families of Phokas and Skleros and replacing them with new rising families that would be completely loyal to him, and these new aristocrats loyal to Basil would include the Komnenos family as well as the generals Nikephoros Xiphias and Constantine Diogenes. Basil II was also known to have confiscated property and wealth of the powerful landed aristocrats in Asia Minor known as the Dynatoi as a way to limit their power showing that the emperor was the supreme authority and not these landed military families, although Basil II also continued with the laws his predecessors passed which was to stop the powerful landed families from expanding their land by buying land from the small farmers while these laws also made sure that these small farmers would not sell their land as they were to pay taxes and by selling their land, there would be no more taxes for the empire’s revenue and certainly Basil II was the type that relied heavily on taxes for his military campaigns. In the meantime, as Basil II’s authority was ever increasing due to his policies to limit the power of the aristocrats, Basil II was able to continue his campaigns against the Bulgarian Empire in the north without any interruptions between in the first decade of the 1000’s according to the historian John Skylitzes (1040-1101), however the thing is that there are not that much sources that document a large part of Basil II’s reign from the 990s to 1010s, therefore there is a lot of missing information on the history of Byzantium at this point in time. However, what is known in this period is that while the Byzantines were at war with Bulgaria in the north, their recently conquered territories in Syria to the south were threatened by the new Arab power of the Fatimid Caliphate based in Egypt under the caliph Al-Hakim who is usually described as a madman as he was known to brutally persecute Christians, and Basil II here himself rushed all the way from the Bulgarian frontier south to Syria with his army with such great speed to defend it against the advancing Fatimids.

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Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah, Caliph of the Fatimid Caliphate (r. 996-1021)

In 1000, Basil II signed a truce with Caliph Al-Hakim in order for Basil to resume his war with Bulgaria in the north and in the next years, Basil II would launch raids into Bulgarian territory and capture a number of important fortresses and cities as a way a strategy to further weaken the Bulgarian state before carrying out the complete Byzantine conquest. Meanwhile, the Bulgarian Empire to the north of Byzantium had once been a major political and military power in the early 10th century but in the 960s it had been destroyed by the Kievan Rus’ army and in 971, Bulgaria itself was conquered by the Byzantine emperor John I Tzimiskes although not entirely as only the eastern third was conquered while the western 2/3 of Bulgaria still remained independent and resisted against Byzantium with a new dynasty rising being the Cometopuli wherein a member of it being Samuil who was a Bulgarian general soon enough became the ruler or tsar of Bulgaria attempting to restore the old power of the Bulgarian state except that right when Bulgaria was rising again, Basil II put all his attention in finishing them off.

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Samuil of the Cometopuli, Tsar of the Bulgarian Empire (r. 997-1014)

By the 1010s, Samuil was still the Tsar of Bulgaria, though the only major decisive battle between the Byzantine forces of Basil II and Samuil’s Bulgarian forces would only take place in 1014 at the Battle of Kleidion at a mountain pass in what is today’s border of Greece and Bulgaria. Here, Samuil planned to ambush the Byzantine army as they were going to march at this mountain pass but before the battle, Basil’s general Nikephoros Xiphias knew of the plan and so he attacked the Bulgarian forces from behind while Basil II and the main army consisting of the new Varangian Guard unit of massive axe-wielding Norsemen as well attacked the Bulgarian forces directly at the mountain pass. At the end of the day, the Byzantine forces under Basil II and the generals Nikephoros Xiphias and Constantine Diogenes won a decisive victory over Samuil’s forces, although Samuil was able to escape but the Byzantines were able to make 15,000 prisoners of war and to send Samuil a message, Basil had them all blinded except for one man out of every group of 100 which was to lead his group back to the Bulgarian capital of Ohrid.

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Basil II rides into Athens after completing his Bulgarian conquest, 1018

When seeing his men blinded, Samuil suffered a heart attack and died shortly after later in 1014 while Basil for winning a decisive victory over the Bulgarians at the Battle of Kleidion and brutally blinding his Bulgarian prisoners would earn the sobriquet of the “Bulgar-Slayer” or Boulgaroktonos in Greek, and the defeat and Kleidion and death of Samuil would put Bulgaria into chaos and succession crisis which allowed Basil to conquer the rest of Bulgaria with ease for the next 4 years. In 1018, after the murder of the last Bulgarian tsar Ivan Vladislav, the Bulgarian nobles or boyars seeing there was no more chance for Bulgaria to survive unless they were put under the protection of the Byzantine Empire all surrendered to Basil II and so by 1018 the entire Bulgarian state which had been around for more than 300 years since the Bulgars first arrived in the Danube in 680 was wiped off the map, and here the Byzantine Empire extended all the way to the Danube River having almost the entire Balkans under their control. Following the complete annexation of the Bulgarian Empire, Basil II toured his recently conquered lands ending his tour in Athens to give thanks to God in the Parthenon which under the Byzantines became a church, then after this Basil would return to Constantinople celebrating a triumph.

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Emperor Basil II and the Varangian Guards, in real history, art by Amelianvs
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Byzantines under Basil II defeat the Bulgarians at the Battle of Kleidion, 1014
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Bulgarian prisoners of war blinded by Basil II after their defeat at the Battle of Kleidion, 1014
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Emperor Basil II the “Bulgar-Slayer” at the cover of his book The Menologion

      

With the entire Bulgarian Empire that had once been a power in the Balkans wiped off the map and annexed into the Byzantine Empire, the Byzantine army became a feared force by all the powers around them while the blinding of the Bulgarian POWs sent a message to other foreign powers beyond to not mess with Byzantium or else suffer the fate of Bulgaria. In fact, right after the conquest of Bulgaria, the Serbian states that neighbored it also surrendered to Byzantium fearing they would be destroyed like the Bulgarian Empire while to the northwest of it, the Kingdom of Croatia too accepted the authority of Basil II and agreed to be a vassal paying tribute to Byzantium also fearing they would suffer the fate of Bulgaria if they did not pay tribute, thus practically with Croatia vassalized all of the Balkans was under Byzantine control.

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Emperor Basil II in his later years

Basil II on the other hand despite ruthlessly crushing the Bulgarians in battle had managed to deal with the annexation of Bulgaria mercifully by making sure his new Bulgarian subjects were to be treated as equals to the Byzantines, that they would pay less taxes, also that their nobility would still be allowed to keep their land, and the Bulgarian Church was to be semi-independent and this was all to make sure that the Bulgarians would stay loyal to the Byzantines and integrate instead of rebelling against their conquerors, and true enough Basil’s policy regarding the annexation of Bulgaria turned out to be successful. In the meantime as Basil II was busy with the conquest of Bulgaria, he had also concluded an alliance with the rising maritime power of Italy which was the Republic of Venice in order to use Venetian ships in transporting Byzantine troops around Southern Italy as the main Byzantine navy was too busy in the Mediterranean and Aegean Seas, and to be specific what was happening in Byzantine Southern Italy at the same time the Bulgarian campaign was happening was that the local Lombard population rose up in rebellion under the Lombard nobleman Melus of Bari against Byzantine rule in Southern Italy. As for Byzantine Southern Italy, back in the 10th century the 3 Themes (military administered provinces) there of Calabria, Lucania, and Apulia had merged into a larger province known as a Catepanate under the control of a military governor called a Catepan which was more powerful than the standard military governor known as the Strategos, although a major percent of the population in Southern Italy consisted of the Germanic Lombards which had been settling in Italy ever since the late 6th century when conquering Byzantine Italy and because of them being the majority, the Lombards sought to overthrow Byzantine rule. In 1017, the Lombard nobleman Melus came across a group of armed pilgrims in Southern Italy and these pilgrims happened to be a new group of warrior people known as the Normans who came from Northern France. The Normans meanwhile have a very interesting story as at the beginning, they had started out as a band of Viking warriors from Norway which in 911 under their leader Rollo had settled in the Northern coast of France which then was the Kingdom of West Frankia as the King of West Frankia here offered the Viking Rollo here some land in exchange for them to protect West Frankia from other foreign raiders. Over the decades, West Frankia would evolve into the Kingdom of France and these Norsemen becoming known as the Normans settled and assimilated in Northern France which under them became Normandy, while also they had adopted the Frankish culture and language, French names, Latin Catholic Christianity, and a feudal system of governance which was to grant land to knights for their victory, although soon as landed knights kept rising up over the decades, Normandy which was too small ran out of land that a lot of knights became adventurers looking for lands abroad to settle in, thus they came across Southern Italy which they saw as fertile and could make them gain a lot wealth.

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Norman knight, early 11th century

In 1018 meanwhile, the same year Basil II conquered the Bulgarian Empire, these Norman knights in Southern Italy joined forces with the Lombard rebels of Melus of Bari and clashed against the Byzantine imperial army including the fierce Varangian Guards at the Battle of Cannae- ironically the same place the army of Carthage under the general Hannibal defeated the Romans in 216BC- but here the Byzantine army again proved its strength by crushing the Lombard-Norman alliance, thus Melus fled to Germany where he died, but the Byzantines seeing the strength of these Norman mercenaries were impressed and had decided to enlist them to the Byzantine army in Italy as mercenaries even giving them land there. Now back to Basil II, as the emperor he devoted his time to commanding the army that he was hardly present in the Imperial Palace in Constantinople but instead in army camps with his soldiers and instead of wearing the lavish silk robes the palace emperors like his father and grandfather wore, he preferred wearing his purple cloak over his armor and being a soldier emperor, he even ate with his men. Meanwhile, the historian Michael Psellos who did not meet Basil personally as he was still a child in Basil’s reign based on what he heard from Basil’s soldiers that he met describes Basil as someone who was shorter than average in height with a stocky built but looked impressive riding his horse while also Basil was described by Psellos as austere in tastes and not an articulate speaker that was even bad at the grammar of the Greek language and instead spoke in such a boorish and unsophisticated way with foul language.

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Basil II on a horse, art by Oznerol-1516

Basil II now had a reputation of being cold-hearted, cruel, boorish, bad-tempered, and foul-mouthed that he never had any real friends or was never really close to anyone and neither did he want any friends, but he was nevertheless highly respected and feared by his army and subjects and that the children of his fallen soldiers that also enlisted in the army saw him as their father as in fact a lot of the children of Basil’s fallen soldiers themselves were put under the his protection and he had them all raised to be tough and capable soldiers. Also being the disciplinarian micromanager, Basil was someone who noticed everything especially when it came to his soldiers’ behavior in the battlefield especially when it came to staying in formation and if a soldier charged out bravely and broke formation despite killing a number of enemy soldiers, Basil would not reward this soldier for his bravery but instead dismiss him from the army without any question. On the other hand, though being a ruthless conqueror, Basil was at the same time a very skilled diplomat that he was able to annex entire states through diplomacy which was seen in 1001 when he absorbed the entire Georgian principality of Tao found along the eastern border of the Byzantine Empire into the empire itself by making a deal with their prince David III that when he dies, Basil would claim his entire principality for further protection, thus when David III died in 1001 his entire state became a Byzantine Theme.

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King George I of Georgia (r. 1014-1027)

Now after the conquest of Bulgaria, Basil II having the Georgian state of Tao under his control used it as a platform to launch a full expedition against the main Georgian Kingdom itself to the north and in 1021 again led the army in battle against the Georgians which resulted in victory for the Byzantines whereas the Georgian king George I fled the battle. In the meantime, Basil II was able to annex a number of Armenian states along the border that had been allied with the Georgian Kingdom into the empire in order to further protect them which included the Armenian principality of Vaspurakan which also became a Byzantine Theme, and in 1022 Basil II was able to score another major victory over the Georgians thus conquering a number of Georgian lands. At the same time though, Nikephoros Xiphias the hero of the Bulgarian War who was in Asia Minor here rebelled against the emperor with support from the defeated George I of Georgia, although Basil proving himself to be effective again crushed Xiphias’ revolt and despite Xiphias helping Basil win victory in 1014 against the Bulgarians, he was not shown mercy and forced to become a monk. Now having secured the annexation of the small Armenian and Georgian states along the eastern border into the empire itself, Basil II turned to his other ultimate goal which was the complete Byzantine reconquest of Sicily which had for 2 centuries now been lost to the hands of the Arabs and this full campaign against the Arabs in Sicily was to be carried out in 1026 but before 1026 came, Basil II died in December of 1025 in Constantinople. Now Basil II known as the “Bulgar-Slayer” would be remembered as one of Byzantium’s greatest emperors, in fact the second most influential emperor since the 6th century Justinian I the Great (r. 527-565) and in Basil’s case it was because he was able to achieve the total conquest of Bulgaria while at the same time was able to show the known world that the Byzantine emperor and army was all-powerful, however Basil II still made a very great mistake which was in succession. Basil II as it turned out had never married his entire life therefore never having any children as he wanted to rule and live like an ordinary soldier and ascetic monk that he also had no woman ever close to him his entire life except his mother Theophano who had already died back in the 990s. Fortunately, Basil II had a brother the co-emperor Constantine VIII who had been his co-emperor since the very beginning, although he had no sons but 3 daughters who were even forbidden to marry by their uncle Basil II as Basil thought that if his nieces married then the authority of their Macedonian Dynasty would be threatened.                        

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Map of the Byzantine Empire and all its Themes at its apogee at the death of Basil II, 1025
Watch this to learn more about the life and reign of Basil II (Kings and Generals).

Basil II died on December 15 of 1025 at the age of 67 as Byzantium’s longest reigning emperor and now the new emperor, Basil II’s younger brother Constantine VIII who was named after his grandfather Constantine VII had come to power as the sole ruler of Byzantium at 65 after ruling as a co-emperor with only a ceremonial function for a full 63 years but the problem was that Constantine VIII despite growing up through same difficulties in the dynastic succession his brother did never had any experience in ruling nor training in running an empire and neither was he influenced by the ruling styles of his former protector emperors before which were Nikephoros II Phokas and John I Tzimiskes.

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Emperor Constantine VIII of Byzantium (r. 1025-1028), younger brother of Basil II

Constantine on the other hand was very much like his father Romanos II who lived a life of pleasure without a care for the real world and the whole time when Basil II was fighting wars or reforming the government, Constantine spent his time hunting, feasting, enjoying comedy shows, and playing Polo or Tzykanion, and only once in his life he joined his brother in a military campaign which was in 989 in the war against Bardas Phokas, but that was it for Constantine. Now Constantine unlike Basil who was short and quite unattractive was tall, athletic, and graceful as well as a skilled horseman who even trained his own horses while he too was married although when he came to power in 1025 his wife had already died, but with her he had no sons but 3 daughters in which the eldest one Eudokia was physically deformed therefore she chose to stay away from public affairs and become a nun while his two other daughters Zoe and Theodora were seen as fit except both were unmarried and were already quite old. By the time Constantine VIII came to power in 1025 he had already been suffering from gout but the worst part though was that he had no state experience and so the golden age of Byzantium Basil II and his predecessors worked so hard to attain would all of a sudden fade away in Constantine VIII’s reign, thus his reign is described as an “unmitigated disaster”, “breakup of the system”, and “a collapse of the empire’s military power”.

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Coin of Basil II and his brother Constantine VIII as co-emperors

In his reign, all of Basil II’s reforms regarding the military and cutting down the aristocracy would already become undone so quickly as Constantine having no government experience was easily manipulated by the powerful people of the court and within months, by listening to the advice of some aristocrats the reforms of Basil II to limit their power were already undone and a lot of these military aristocrats had gained their land back. In the imperial court meanwhile, Basil II had gotten rid of the administration run by corrupt eunuchs which he greatly loathed but with Constantine a lot of these corrupt eunuchs returned to power and for the imperial court, he filled up these positions with incompetent administrators loyal to him rather than competent and experienced ones. Though not having the skill and ambitions of Basil II, Constantine VIII had his cruelty which was seen with his persecution of the nobility for the slightest insults against him and when it came to dealing with punishing those who conspired against him whether they really committed a crime or if the crime was just made up, Constantine made blinding his favorite form of punishment. One example of Constantine VIII’s cruelty was in 1027 when he accused the Strategos of the new Theme of Vaspurakan Nikephoros Komnenos of plotting against the emperor and when brought to Constantinople, Nikephoros was blinded in front of the emperor and over in Western Greece when the people rebelled against and killed their oppressive governor, Constantine punished the people so severely and even had their bishop blinded. Constantine though may have been brutal and quick to anger but he was also someone very emotional that he would be extremely remorseful after blinding or executing someone. However, Constantine was not young and healthy and in 1028 he already knew he was dying and so it was time he thought of a successor which was to marry his daughter Zoe despite his brother wanting none of his nieces to marry, but in order to continue the dynasty, Constantine fell for the competent general and Byzantine governor of Antioch Constantine Dalassenos to marry Zoe and succeed him. Dalassenos then set off on a journey to Constantinople to be crowned but midway through it he found out that he was no longer the candidate for succession as the emperor as usual was convinced by the senate that a weaker ruler must succeed him as the senate wanted someone that could easily manipulated as Dalassenos was a strong general that could be too independent, therefore the senate relied on one of their own which was the Prefect or city mayor of Constantinople Romanos Argyros to marry Zoe and succeed Constantine. Romanos however was already happily married though Constantine VIII had Romanos and his wife arrested and brought to the palace where Constantine forced Romanos to divorce his wife and banish her to a nunnery and marry Constantine’s daughter Zoe or else Romanos and his wife would be blinded as usual with Constantine’s punishments. Romanos then chose the first option and married Zoe as he true enough had some ambition to be emperor and only 3 days after the wedding, Constantine VIII at 68 died on November 11, 1028 as the last male ruler carrying the Macedonian Dynasty’s name. 

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Blinding of Nikephoros Komnenos under Constantine VIII’s orders in 1027, Madrid Skylitzes

 

Empress Zoe and the End of the Macedonian Dynasty (1028-1057)          

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The gradual decline of Byzantium’s imperial power had already begun in the 3-year reign of Constantine VIII (1025-1028) right when the empire was it its strongest which meant that there was still some hope for its imperial power to be revived as it had been only 3 years wherein Byzantium’s power deteriorated, but this was not the case here as the new emperor Romanos III Argyros was very much as incompetent as Constantine VIII.

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Emperor Romanos III Argyros of Byzantium (r. 1028-1034)

Coming to power in 1028 after Constantine’s death and marrying his 50-year-old daughter Zoe, Romanos III was already 60 and had a good amount of government experience except that he was more or less an idiot with unrealistic ambitions, but really he was just insecure as for one he was not part of the ruling dynasty but had only married into it and as emperor he had big shoes to fill as he wanted to imitate the rule of Basil II and continue it, though he was very far from Basil II when it came to military and political skills. Romanos III as emperor too wanted to pattern his rule on that of the great Roman emperors of the past including Trajan (98-117) for his military might, Marcus Aurelius (161-180) for being a philosopher-king, and Justinian I the Great in terms of military and construction projects, but the truth was that Romanos was nowhere near these great men in ability. Now back to Zoe, this had been the first time she had married, and even though already 50, she was said to still be very beautiful, looking like she was still in her 30s and as a matter of fact, back in 1002 when she was much younger, she had been arranged to marry the half-Byzantine Greek Holy Roman emperor Otto III except when arriving in Italy, Zoe found out the man she was going to marry had died, then again in 1028 she was arranged to be married to the German prince Henry, son of the current Holy Roman emperor Conrad II, except that Henry was only 10 while Zoe was 50 and true enough the marriage never came to be as she already married Romanos. Zoe however had the looks but not the brains and though she held real power as she was part of the ruling dynasty, the same historian Michael Psellos describes her in an insulting way that she did not care about state affairs or the good of the empire but rather only cared about spending on luxuries that she in fact spent on the most expensive perfumes and silks from as far away as India.

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Empress Zoe Porphyrogenita of Byzantium, daughter of Constantine VIII

Zoe’s marriage to Romanos though at first which was thought to be a happy one turned out to be the opposite as both were already old and passed the age to bear children that Romanos was said to even consult sorcerers on taking potions and even surgery to make him and Zoe sexually younger in order to have children, but at the end none of this worked and neither did their marriage that in only months after their wedding, the couple would no longer share the bed together. Meanwhile, Zoe’s younger sister Theodora who was not as attractive but smarter than her had an affair with the last Bulgarian tsar Ivan Vladislav’s son Presian who was a hostage in Constantinople and together they conspired to assassinate Romanos III but the plot was uncovered and Presian was forced to become a monk while Theodora was banished by Zoe to become a nun. Now with Romanos III’s tax policies, it all seemed like the strong economy was about to fall apart as Romanos wanting to please the landed military aristocracy exempted them from taxes and also allowed them to resume buying off land from small farmers to expand their estates, thus the farmers too losing their land could no longer pay taxes and due to all this, the empire’s revenue would begin to decline. Becoming unpopular with his failed tax policies, Romanos III decided that it was time to prove his popularity by personally leading his troops in battle despite his old age and so in 1030 he led the army himself without realizing that this would be another stupid decision as for the past 5 years since Basil II’s death or even longer, the empire was relatively at peace and now here in 1030 Romanos III for no clear reason would break this streak of peace by declaring war on the Arab Emirate of Aleppo in Syria despite them being allies of the Byzantines. The worst part now was that the area of Syria was a desert and Romanos had decided to attack in July, the hottest summer month and even the Arabs of Aleppo seeing it was not a good idea even asked Romanos to renew their peace agreement with Byzantium to avoid war, but Romanos hard-headed as ever refused these peace terms as well as the advice from his generals to give up the campaign, thus he continued the war. It was not surprising that in August of 1030 Romanos’ army was ambushed by the Arabs at the Battle of Azaz where the Byzantines lost a humiliating defeat, although not a lot of men as a large number including the emperor were able to flee, but the Byzantine camp as well as their supplies ended up looted by the Arabs, thus this battle exposed the vulnerability of the Byzantine army for the first time.

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George Maniakes, Byzantine general

The Byzantines however did not accept their defeat and so luckily for them, a local general in the area which was George Maniakes, a large and intimidating man with a brutal reputation and said to have a voice loud like thunder tricked the Arab army of Aleppo by offering them wine for a dinner feast thus and when getting them all drunk, George was able to destroy every last one of them catching them off guard and mutilating all of the dead Arabs’ noses and ears sending them to the emperor as proof. Now finishing off the war with the Arabs in Syria with some success, Romanos III returned to strengthening his popularity with the people in Constantinople and now knowing he was not that much of a successful commander, he turned to construction projects and here to make a better picture of himself, he put a lot of the state’s money into building a large and lavish church at one of Constantinople’s hills known as the Peribleptos church, meaning “seen from everywhere”. This church however was not so much built as a sign of Romanos’ devotion to God but to glorify himself and show off his wealth, though also by this time, his marriage to Zoe was going from bad to worse that both being away from each other started having their own lovers. As for Zoe due to being away from Romanos, here by 1032 she had fallen in love with a man almost 30 years younger than her which was Michael the Paphlagonian, a native of Paphlagonia from Northern Asia Minor who although not from any noble family was from a family that became wealthy due to their profession as ship builders, although Michael before meeting Zoe was a money changer but was able to come across the empress as Michael’s older brother John known as the Orphanotrophos meaning “director of the orphanage” was the rising court eunuch finance official in Romanos III’s court. Now the eunuch John by 1032 had his first major moment in the imperial court when he arrested Constantine Diogenes, the same general that helped Basil II defeat the Bulgarians in 1014 if you remember for charges of plotting against the emperor. Constantine Diogenes though had been married to a niece of Romanos III but when discovered that he was conspiring against the emperor, he was brought to the Palace of Blachernae along Constantinople’s land walls to be interrogated by the eunuch John but rather than confessing his part in the plot and the names of his co-conspirators due to not wanting a humiliating end of being executed, Constantine instead committed suicide by jumping off the palace’s wall. The Diogenes family thus became disgraced, however Constantine here in fact had a 2-year-old son Romanos Diogenes who would remain unharmed back in their family estate in Cappadocia, though he would true enough be a general and even the emperor one day. Romanos III’s health meanwhile began to worsen by 1033 that he was said to have turned into a “walking skeleton” losing a lot of weight and hair while his skin also began to turn pale, and this was possibly due to cancer, and Zoe did not give a care about her husband’s failing health but instead thought of ways to poison him to quickly finish him off, though Romanos still survived many poisoning attempts by Zoe and Michael who were lovers and to get Michael closer, Zoe had him become a servant in the palace who was in charge of cleaning Romanos’ feet and helping Zoe dress up, and it is here where their affair would grow ever more passionate despite their large age gap. Now in April of 1034, Romanos III finally died in his bath, a fate similar to that of the Byzantine emperor Constans II in 668- if you remember from chapter IV of this series- and Romanos’ death was not due to natural causes as when he was soaking in his tub, the servant sent by Zoe carefully drowned his head in the water and being already sick, Romanos quickly died without it looking like he was assassinated even if he was. The Patriarch of Constantinople Alexios I was shocked hearing of the emperor’s death but more shocked seeing Michael and Zoe in their purple imperial robes sitting on the throne, though after being bribed, the patriarch crowned both Zoe and Michael while Romanos III would be buried ironically in the Church of Peribleptos which he had built.         

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Romanos III in his 1030 Syrian military campaign, art by Ancient City Lullaby
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Defeat of the Byzantines to the Arabs at the Battle of Azaz in 1030, Madrid Skylitzes
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Assassination of Romanos III in his bath in 1034, Madrid Skylitzes
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Wedding of Empress Zoe and Michael the Paphlagonian in 1034, Madrid Skylitzes

Watch this to learn more about Empress Zoe (Jack Rackam).

Michael IV the Paphlagonian in 1034 was now another emperor that came to power despite having humble origins, though he would be the last of these emperors and only in his 20s, Michael was handsome and energetic possessing a lot of intelligence despite not being that educated, however Michael on the other hand was not all perfect as even though he was young, he was already known to be suffering from epilepsy which was very obvious to everyone. Zoe then thought that Michael would be a much more devoted husband unlike Romanos III before him but again it turned out to be the opposite as when coming to power, Michael IV had Zoe confined to the women’s quarters of the palace forbidding her to have the slightest say in his rule and instead Michael not having much political skills relied heavily on his older brother the eunuch John in the state’s finances and administration, despite John being extremely corrupt and greedy.

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Emperor Michael IV of Byzantium (r. 1034-1041), art by Grayjoy15

As emperor, Michael would intend to sideline the ruling Macedonian Dynasty which was basically Zoe and instead put his family members, the Paphlagonians in high-ranking positions in the government as he was here actually planning on replacing the ruling dynasty with his own. Michael IV’s reign began badly with famine and a locust plague in 1035 while at the same time the Nomadic Pecheneg tribes from the north of the Danube attacked Byzantine territory in the Balkans and the Serbs too declared independence from Byzantium when a Serb prince refused to return the money he found in a shipwreck to Byzantium, and considering his condition of epilepsy he would be prone to ambitious generals wanting to seize the throne in their name, but being a decisive thinker Michael was able to put down a number of them. Though being an epileptic, Michael IV wanted to still show he was capable in carrying out full scale military expeditions and so in 1038 he decided to finish what Basil II failed to do before his death in 1025 which was the complete Byzantine reconquest of Sicily from the Arabs and with the fleet already assembled by Basil II years earlier, Michael ordered the postponed expedition to resume putting the empire’s rising star general George Maniakes in charge of it while Michael’s brother-in-law Stephen the admiral was in charge of the navy and at the same time this large expedition would also include a multinational force consisting of the elite Varangian Guard unit led by the exiled Norwegian prince Harald Sigurdsson– known as Araltes in Greek- who would be the future King of Norway Harald III Hardrada as well as Lombard and Norman mercenaries from Italy. Not to mention, George Maniakes back in 1037 being in command of the eastern armies since Romanos III’s reign had successfully recaptured the city of Edessa in Syria for the empire from the Arabs which meant that this expedition to Sicily would not be too hard now that he had a lot of experience in fighting Arabs. The expedition to reclaim Sicily thus was mostly successful that in only 2 years between 1038 and 1040, the Byzantines and their allies were able to successfully take back almost the entire island after the recapture of Syracuse, though right before completely driving off the Arabs from the island, George lost support from his Lombard allies while the Normans unhappy with their pay abandoned the Byzantines and returned to mainland Italy and rebelled. The admiral Stephen meanwhile after being mistreated by the hot-tempered George wrote a letter to the eunuch John and Michael IV accusing George of conspiring to overthrow Michael IV and so John recalled him to Constantinople to be imprisoned, thus the expedition to recapture Sicily ended in tragedy right before it could completely succeed.

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Harald III Sigurdsson “Harald Hardrada”, King of Norway (r. 1046-1066), former Varangian Guard commander in the service of Byzantium

This expedition then was the last Byzantine attempt in taking back Sicily, although there was some reason too for why the troops had to be recalled as at the same time, Bulgaria once again erupted in rebellion. On the other hand, Harald Hardrada was recorded in the Viking sagas that he had campaigned and fought bravely in all corners of the empire during Michael IV’s reign and after the Sicilian expedition, he battled the uprising of the Lombards and Normans in Italy but lost, but then Harald and his men were immediately recalled to join the Byzantine forces in Bulgaria when the uprising broke out there. As it turned out, the policy of Basil II to keep the taxes for the Bulgarians low was violated as the eunuch John began to impose heavier taxes on the empire’s Bulgarian Themes for his own personal use thus triggering a revolt among the Bulgarian population there, although their uprising in 1040 was also for nationalistic purposes as the Bulgarians even after being conquered by Basil II still felt a sense national identity thus wanting independence from Byzantium, and so the Bulgarians rallied under a man named Delyan, a Bulgarian hostage who escaped Constantinople and returned to Bulgaria where he claimed that he was a grandson of the former tsar Samuil.

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Peter II Delyan, Bulgarian Uprising leader and tsar (1040-1041)

The Bulgarian rebels under Delyan then seized the city of Belgrade in the Balkans and here Delyan was proclaimed by the rebels as their tsar being renamed Peter II in opposition to the Byzantine emperor and within months the rebellion grew stronger as it swept across the Balkans by 1041. With the situation in Bulgaria becoming worse, Michael IV here despite his health already becoming worse due to epilepsy and a new condition of swelling legs, he decided to lead the army himself and put down the Bulgarian uprising of Delyan once and for all. The Byzantines here assisted by the Varangian Guards under Harald Hardrada fought a difficult war against the Bulgarian rebels but at the end still managed to succeed while Delyan himself was captured. Now there are two stories regarding Delyan’s fall and death in which one was that his cousin Alusian who was a Byzantine double-agent tricked and blinded him then sent him over to Constantinople to be executed and the other one was recorded in the Viking sagas wherein Harald Hardrada himself cut down Delyan in battle, and this story would go for the version in the Viking sagas and so Delyan here in 1041 was killed by the Viking Harald Hardrada who would become known as the “Bulgar-Burner” the same way Basil II before was remembered as the “Bulgar-Slayer”. The cities and areas that had fallen to the Bulgarian rebellion then returned back to the empire’s control but Michael IV soon enough was that sick that he was near death wherein a seizure could happen at any time. By December of 1041 as Michael IV was close to death, he named his nephew also named Michael, the son of the admiral Stephen and already made a Caesar as his successor, and Michael IV too had made his older wife Empress Zoe adopt his nephew too. Before his death on December 10 of 1041, Michael IV retired to a monastery and even when Zoe begged to see him before his death he still refused, thus he died without seeing his wife for the last time.            

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The 1038-1040 Byzantine Expedition to reclaim Sicily from the Arabs, Madrid Skylitzes
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George Maniakes, Byzantine general in charge of the Sicilian Expedition, art by Amelianvs
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George Maniakes sent back to Constantinople in humiliation in 1040, Madrid Skylitzes
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Michael IV leads his army against the Bulgarian Uprising in 1041, Madrid Skylitzes
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Death of Michael IV as a monk in 1041, Madrid Skylitzes

The rise of the Paphlagonian family of Michael IV thus definitely showed that the age-old Byzantium had wherein nobodies when having connections to the imperial court could even rise up to become emperor whether they were to do it for the good of the empire or if they were just gold diggers. Michael IV however due to the strong influence his family began to have over the imperial court was able to continue his Paphlagonian Dynasty as his nephew Michael V succeeded him.

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Empress Zoe, art by Grayjoy15

As the present day historian Anthony Kaldellis put it, the rise of the Paphlagonian family of Michael IV shows that the republican systems of Ancient Rome still lived on to the 11th century and true enough Byzantium did not have any laws saying that their emperor had divine rights wherein they could only be succeeded by their eldest sons, therefore this is what allowed either ambitious generals or opportunistic gold diggers like Michael IV to grab the opportunity and take the throne, though in this case the long-time Macedonian Dynasty was still in power through Zoe even if her role was only ceremonial but true enough the people too had a say in the imperial government and here Zoe despite not really doing anything was popular with the common people for the reason of being part of the legitimate dynasty as it was usual for the common people to prefer someone legitimate rather than a usurper. Now for an emperor to be able to consolidate his rule without being challenged, he had to both be able to please his people but also be feared by them otherwise if he was too soft, he would be an easy target, though the emperor too should not be too terrifying as this could make seen as very unpopular for being too tyrannical, and the perfect example who had a balance of being loved and feared was Basil II.

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Emperor Michael V of Byzantium (r. 1041-1042), nephew of Michael IV, art by Ancient City Lullaby

In the case of the new young emperor here which was Michael V, he did not have any of the qualities of a strong ruler being both loved and feared, instead he appeared too harsh to his subjects on the outside but on the inside was very weak and emotional and as a matter of fact not independent as his uncle the eunuch John was still the power behind him. At the beginning of 1042 with Michael V in power, he released a number of political prisoners his uncle Michael IV imprisoned including the general George Maniakes who was returned to his position as the Catepan of the Themes of Southern Italy, but the fatal mistake Michael V made here was in banishing his stepmother Zoe from the palace and sending her to a nunnery in the Princes’ Islands outside Constantinople in the Marmara Sea. The people of the capital had apparently loved Zoe and looked down on their rulers the Paphlagonians who they all saw as nobodies that just grabbed the throne for no good reason and when finding out Zoe was banished, thousands of people marched in the street demanding that Michael V to return her to power. The young Michael V having no popular support due to his low birth then agreed to return Zoe to the palace but when returning, Zoe however released her younger sister Theodora from the nunnery where she was sent to years ago and by popular demand declared her co-empress against Michael V in order to please the people. Michael V then with his other uncle fled the palace to the Monastery of Stoudion in Constantinople although the mob followed them there where they seized and blinded both of them. Now the historian of this period Michael Psellos first appears in the picture here as a secretary in the imperial court wherein he had witnessed Michael V and his uncle seized and blinded in which he says that the young Michael childish as usual screamed and kicked as he was being blinded, and in this story’s case we will again go with the version from the Viking sagas wherein it was again Harald Hardrada that had blinded Michael V.

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The empresses Zoe (left) and Theodora (right) in their join rule, 1042

Now in April of 1042, the sisters Zoe and Theodora would rule the empire together as co-rulers while Michael V would die 4 months later as a monk from the injury caused by his blinding, and although Zoe was the higher authority in name as she was the older sister, Theodora was the power behind Zoe as she had more intelligence. For 2 months, both Zoe and Theodora ruled together but soon enough the Byzantine Senate objected to their rule as they saw that women could not rule for a longer time, therefore a man was needed to run the show while on the other hand, the joint rule too was becoming a bit too unbearable as both sisters were eventually competing with each other on who had more favorites while Theodora grew jealous of Zoe for having more public support. A man was thus needed to run the empire and it was up to Zoe to choose her 3rd husband even if 3rd marriages were seen as unacceptable by the Orthodox Church- if you remember from the previous chapter- and this time the 64-year-old Zoe who was still attractive would have to choose her husband among 3 candidates and the person she chose was her old lover from before who was here the 42-year-old Constantine Monomachos, a senator and civil aristocrat from the capital.

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Emperor Constantine IX Monomachos of Byzantium (r. 1042-1055), 3rd husband of Zoe, art by Skamandros

The new emperor Constantine IX was generally a pleasure- and peace-loving person due to his origins as a city and not landed military aristocrat from the provinces and although is he described by Psellos as somewhat neglectful towards state affairs and hated stress therefore only wanting to be emperor to enjoy life’s pleasures to the fullest, he was still someone who would act on issues when needed and for Constantine IX in his reign, he would face more difficulty than time to enjoy life. As someone who only fought wars when necessary, Constantine IX put a lot of money into funding universities, learning centers, and churches in Constantinople and it was also in his reign when this era’s primary source Michael Psellos would rise to prominence as Constantine IX would be Psellos’ patron despite Psellos slandering him. As with Zoe, Constantine IX as the 3rd husband finally allowed her to freely spend on luxuries as he enjoyed spending on them too, though at the beginning of his reign what both he and Zoe would put their attention to is in getting rid of the regime of the troublemaking Paphlagonians by banishing the family members of Michael IV which included the corrupt eunuch John, and not to mention it was also around this time when Harald Hardrada ended his service in the Varangian Guard returning home to Norway rich with the wealth he made serving the empire. Now the emperor on the other hand was someone who was easily paranoid by conspiracies especially by powerful generals even if they did not make their imperial ambitions known and these ambitious generals included George Maniakes in Southern Italy who Constantine IX fearing an uprising by him ordered him to be recalled to Constantinople. In Italy, George was furious about this and when hearing from the emperor that he was going to be replaced, he declared himself emperor and rebelled against Constantine IX as he had grown tired of going back and forth from military service. George and his army then crossed over to the Balkans in 1043 where he faced off the emperor’s army but right before he could win the battle, he was wounded thus later dying from his wound and in the panic his army switched sides back to the emperor while George’s head was paraded back in the capital. Soon after George Maniakes’ rebellion was defeated, Constantine IX met a surprise invasion by the fleet of the Kievan Rus’ from the north as apparently some time ago, some Rus merchants had been killed by an angry mob of Constantinople’s locals triggering the Grand Prince of Kiev Yaroslav I the Wise to attack Byzantium despite the Byzantines and the Rus having concluded an alliance back in Basil II’s reign.

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Yaroslav I the Wise, Grand Prince of the Kievan Rus’ (r. 1019-1054)

The Byzantine fleet however won the naval battle against the Kievan Rus’ fleet near Constantinople while the emperor and Psellos who records this event watched it from above a hill and with the defeat of the Rus, both Constantine IX and Grand Prince Yaroslav settled peace wherein Constantine married off his daughter from a previous marriage to Yaroslav’s son the future Grand Prince Vsevolod I while their son, the future Grand Prince Vladimir II born in 1053 used the name Monomakh which was the Rus’ translation of his grandfather Constantine IX’s last name Monomachos. Following this short conflict with the Rus, Constantine IX marched an army further east into Armenia in 1045 wherein he captured the far-flung small Kingdom of Ani in what is now modern Armenia after its ruler refused to submit as a vassal to the empire, thus Constantine IX expanded even further east than Basil II did before him but this expansion would soon enough further expose Byzantium to more enemies from the east. As part of wanting to avoid ambitious generals from rising up in order to rule in peace, Constantine IX suspecting his nephew the general Leo Tornikios of having imperial ambitions had Leo fired from command and forced to retire as monk, however this action backfired as Leo was popular with his army that in 1047, they rose up against Constantine IX proclaiming Leo as their emperor thus marching to Constantinople to besiege it. Now Byzantium had not had any major civil wars for almost 60 years since the one between Basil II and Bardas Phokas and it was only here in the reign of Constantine IX when civil wars would return first with George Manikaes in 1043 which was not that large but this one in 1047 against Leo Tornikios was a much more serious one as the rebel army actually managed to attack the walls of Constantinople. The emperor in fact almost lost his throne and life when defending the capital from the rebels due to his lack of military experience but by having some political experience and public support, the people themselves volunteered to fight on his side while he managed to win by bribing off Leo’s men to abandon him and switch sides to the emperor. Leo after being defeated fled but was captured and blinded by the emperor’s men, and although Constantine IX was victorious, this civil war weakened military presence in the Balkans by the time a mass migration of the wild and unruly Pecheneg people from the north of the Danube arrived in 1048 which eventually led to a devastating war between the Byzantines and rebellious Pecheneg settlers.           

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Michael V arrested by the mob at the Stoudion Monastery before his blinding in 1042, art by Ediacar
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Empresses Zoe (left) and Theodora (right) in the palace, art by Eldr-Fire
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Crown with Emperor Constantine IX (center), Empress Zoe (left), and Empress Theodora (right)
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Top view of the Armenian capital of Ani, annexed into the Byzantine Empire by Constantine IX in 1045
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Byzantine Civil War of 1047 between Constantine IX and Leo Tornikios, Madrid Skylitzes

Now over in the east, the expansion of Byzantine territory further east wherein no Byzantines had set foot in for over 4 centuries would turn out to be more of a liability than an achievement for the Byzantines as this conquest exposed them to new and unheard enemies from the east and in this case, it was the sudden but rapidly growing empire of the Seljuk Turks. The origins of these Turkic people known as the Seljuks meanwhile remain to be shrouded in mystery, although they were named after their nation’s founder Seljuq, a warlord from the Oghuz Turkic people of the Central Asian steppes that had served the former Khazar Khanate of Southern Russia along the Caspian Sea as a military leader but when the Khazar state was destroyed in the 960s by the Grand Prince of the Kievan Rus’ then which was Sviatoslav I, Seljuq led his men east wherein they arrived deep in the steppes of Central Asia (today’s Kazakhstan) wherein they encountered Arab traders and converted to Islam. With their conversion to Islam, the people of Seljuq became united but at the same time this also attracted hundreds of nomadic people from the area to join their cause and the moment their movement grew, they began to expand and build a nation in the steppes. Their first leader Seljuq died by 1009 and his descendants would be the one to carry out his bloodline ruling their people; thus, their empire took its name from its ruling dynasty named after its founder.

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Seljuk Turks ride from the steppes into Asia Minor

The difficult situation these Seljuk people went through when living in the steppes made them hardline Muslims thus making them not only Jihads but more specifically Ghazi meaning Muslims fighting other Muslims and being part of the Sunni sect of Islam, the Seljuk Turks made it their mission to fight the Fatimid Caliphate of Egypt which belonged to their rival Islamic sect of Shia, while their purpose for expanding to and conquering what is Iran, Iraq, and Eastern Asia Minor was to find more land for their sheep to graze as it was too dangerous in the Central Asian steppes with all the other nomadic invaders coming in. At the beginning, the Seljuks started out as mercenaries serving their more powerful neighboring states, then in 1035 their people when gaining more military experience would establish their own state in the region of Khorasan north of Iran and from there, they would continue expanding westwards. The Seljuk people too had expanded their lands by taking advantage of the weakness of other states such as the still surviving but out of function Arab Abbasid Caliphate in Iraq, and now forming their own state, the Seljuks adopted the Islamic culture and religion but still kept their nomadic ways of fighting such as horse archery and the lifestyle of moving their tents around.

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Seljuk Turk warrior, 11th-12th century

In 1046 due to the Byzantines expanding too far into the east by capturing Ani, they would encounter these Seljuk warriors for the first time and in 1048 their forces would clash for the same time at the Battle of Kapetron, which resulted however in victory for the Byzantines as the Seljuks did not yet come in large numbers. Over in Italy meanwhile, the Norman mercenaries had the same kind of expansion story the way the Seljuks did in the east and just like the Seljuks who expanded by taking advantage of the weakness of their neighboring states, the Norman mercenaries in Italy did the same as after the failed Byzantine reconquest of Sicily in 1040, the Norman mercenaries with them began seizing land in Italy for themselves. The power behind the ambitious expansion of the Normans in Italy was the noble Hauteville family of knights from Normandy which consisted of 12 brothers and following their victory over the Byzantines in 1041, the Hauteville brother William known as the “Iron Arm” would establish the Norman County of Melfi in Southern Italy together with his other brothers. Present day historian Anthony Kaldellis now says that these Normans expanded their power through acts of piracy and terrorism in which they created trouble in Southern Italy by attacking locals in order to force them to pay them money in exchange for protection which led to them to annex their lands in Southern Italy to their control.

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Normans in Southern Italy, 11th century

The Normans despite their courage in battle were more or less just greedy and bloodthirsty conquerors that took pleasure in pressuring weaker people in order to rule over them, which is why in this story’s case the Normans are the true villains of the 11th century more than the Seljuks. In very little time, the Normans would capture the Lombard Principality of Benevento thus making their holdings in Southern Italy much larger that the pope here which was the German Leo IX would already become threatened by the expansion of the Normans fearing that they would soon attack Rome. In 1053, the pope himself led an expedition with allied forces consisting of Lombards, German mercenaries, and even the Byzantine forces from the still surviving Byzantine Catepanate in the south against the Normans and would clash at the Battle of Civitate which resulted in a decisive victory for the Normans commanded by the late William’s brother Robert Guiscard whose sobriquet Guiscard was French for “the Cunning” as he was cunning in battle.

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Robert Guiscard de Hauteville, Norman leader in Southern Italy, later Duke of Calabria and Apulia

The pope was then taken as a prisoner by the Normans although treated well as the Normans too were devout Catholics while over in Byzantium, Constantine IX was in a difficult situation as he had to face conflicts with the Seljuks in the east, Pechenegs in the Balkans, and Normans in Italy all at the same time. The constant spending on these wars which too included the civil war against Leo Tornikios in 1047 and all his wasteful spending on construction projects and luxuries as well as money he handed out to please his people as he was known to be a generous spender, the economy of the empire would fall so severely that it was in Constantine IX’s reign wherein for the first time in the 700 years of Byzantine history that their standard currency which was the gold coin known as the Solidus would be devalued and so the standard gold coin would no longer be purely made of gold, which was indeed very embarrassing for the prestige of Byzantium as the world power. In order to keep the empire’s tax revenue flowing, Constantine had to push for a new kind of political system across the empire known as the Pronoia System which would be Byzantium’s feudal system replacing the centuries old Thematic System, and in this new governing system land would be granted to particular individuals in exchange for military service and those who are granted the land are required to collect taxes from it which would fund the imperial treasury.

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Pecheneg warrior

In the meantime, Zoe had died quietly in 1050 at the age of 72 and in 1053 the Pecheneg rebellion in the Balkans came to an end despite the Byzantines losing in battle against them, although the general that led the Byzantine troops here Nikephoros Botaneiates who had shown great skill and bravery in fighting was promoted to the high rank of Magistros, although to conclude the issue, the emperor had to settle a deal with the Pechenegs allowing them settle within the empire’s borders. The most significant event in Constantine IX’s reign however happened in 1054 and it was not a very pleasant one as it had to do once more with the differences of the Byzantine Orthodox Church and Latin Catholic Church which had had already been separate and usually at odds with each other ever since the 8th century- back in chapter V of this series if you remember- when the Byzantines at that time had the policy of breaking icons known as “Iconoclasm” which then made the Church of Rome led by the pope grow independent from the Church of Constantinople and even though the Byzantines gave up breaking icons in the mid 9th century, the damage was too much that both Churches could no longer reunite and here in 1054 was the final separation between both Churches of Rome and Constantinople. In 1054, the issue regarding the two Churches mostly had to with the supremacy of the pope or Patriarch of Rome over the Christian world while the theological issues here were mostly minimal as it was just whether the use of unleavened bread the Latin Catholics of the west use for Mass or the leavened bread the Byzantines of the east use was correct, though there was one major theological issue that had to be settled here in 1054 and this had to do with term Filioque whether the Holy Spirit proceeded and was thus equal to the Father and Son and believed by the Western Catholics or if the Holy Spirit just proceeded from God the Father as believed by the Byzantines.

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The Filioque Controversy explained, difference between the Byzantine Orthodox Church and Latin Catholic Church

This issue however had some political reasons too as back in Southern Italy in the lands the Normans had conquered which had been Byzantine lands, the Norman occupiers by order of Pope Leo IX who now sided with them after he was captured by them the previous year (1053) ordered that these Byzantine Orthodox churches in Southern Italy be converted to Catholic churches wherein Latin and not Greek rites would be practiced. The emperor Constantine IX was willing to comply with the pope’s orders as he did not want any conflict, but the troublemaker here was the current Patriarch of Constantinople Michael I Keroularios who was greatly furious about the pope’s orders as a lot of people in Southern Italy which were Byzantine Greeks were still Orthodox in faith and in retaliation to the pope’s threatening to shut down the Orthodox churches in southern Italy if they did not convert, Patriarch Michael had all Latin Catholic churches in Constantinople shut down without giving any conditions. The pope however before his death in 1054 decided to settle things peacefully with the patriarch by sending the French cardinal Humbert of Silva Candida and other papal legates to Constantinople but when arriving at the Hagia Sophia, it was a trick as instead of negotiating, Cardinal Humbert laid the pope’s excommunication order on Patriarch Michael who was so insulted from this that in return he excommunicated Humbert and his delegation, thus this was the final split between both Churches known as the “Great Schism” as after this there is no going back to unity for both if not for a few unsuccessful attempts to reunite in the following centuries of Byzantine history. This event was then a very shameful one especially for Constantine IX who had to shamefully watch it happen although this was also the end for him as just a few days into the next year 1055, Constantine died peacefully at age 55. A fun fact here is that even up to this day in the Hagia Sophia of Constantinople, there is a mosaic depicting Empress Zoe on the right with her husband on the left offering gifts to Christ, and as it turns out the husband in the mosaic up to this day is Constantine IX, her 3rd and final husband though back in the time of this story, the left mosaic’s face had been changed twice when Zoe had a new husband which means that before Constantine IX’s face was in place there it was Michael IV’s, and before him Romanos III’s.           

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Mosaic of Emperor Constantine IX (left) and Empress Zoe (right) offering gifts to Christ; the image of Constantine IX before his face used the faces of Zoe’s previous husbands Romanos III and Michael IV when they were alive
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Norman victory at the Battle of Civitate in Southern Italy, 1053
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The Great Schism of 1054, Patriarch Michael I Keroularios and Cardinal Humbert of Silva Candida, Madrid Skylitzes
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Map of the final divide between the Orthodox and Catholic worlds after the Great Schism of 1054

Watch this to learn more about the Great Schism (Kings and Generals).

At his death in 1055, Constantine IX Monomachos however had no male heirs although luckily the last remaining member of the Macedonian Dynasty was still alive and this was Zoe’s younger sister Theodora who had been Zoe’s co-ruler ever since both came to power in 1042 and the whole time Constantine IX was in power, Theodora still kept her position. Theodora now in her 70s was at least still agile as she would have to rule the empire alone now, thus making her the second woman to rule Byzantium alone with Empress Irene of Athens (797-802)- the lead character of chapter VI of this series if you remember- being the first sole female ruler of Byzantium. Theodora due to her old age and being a woman was not really taken seriously as a ruler that she would become a target for plots by ambitious generals, and this was already seen right when she came to rule the empire alone in early 1055 as Constantine IX before his death named the governor of the Theme of Bulgaria Nikephoros Proteuon as his heir, however Theodora had already beat Proteuon to the throne and so Proteuon was arrested and forced to become a monk.

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Empress Theodora Porphyrogenita of Byzantium, sole empress (1055-1056)

In her reign, despite Theodora not being seen as fit, she still did all she could to run the empire well although her style of ruling was not very effective as her rule was mostly influenced by her eunuchs. In addition, Theodora removed a number of highly skilled generals from their positions and replaced them with her loyal eunuchs while she did the same too with Church officials which offended Patriarch Michael Keroularios. At this time, Michael Psellos had retired as a monk in a monastery ever since 1054 but in 1056 he was recalled to Constantinople by Theodora but shortly after, Theodora suddenly fell ill coming close to death yet not even having named a successor. It was now certain that the Macedonian Dynasty that had been in power ever since its founding by Emperor Basil I the Macedonian in 867 without any interruptions despite a number of other families marrying into it and ruling through them would come to an end, and without having been married her entire life as well having no children, Theodora had to name her successor at the last minute. Before her death on August 31 of 1056, Theodora named her elderly finance minister and court secretary Michael Bringas as her successor and thus Theodora died as the last ruler of the Macedonian Dynasty.

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Emperor Michael VI Bringas of Byzantium (r. 1056-1057), former court secretary of Theodora

The new emperor Michael VI Bringas known as Gerontas or “the old” in Greek now was not entirely chosen by Theodora but since she was too weak to say something, she just agreed with her eunuchs’ choice and Michael VI was for them the perfect choice as he was an old man who was both weak and unambitious that he could be easily manipulated by them or that he could easily grant them favors. The military aristocrats of the Themes in Asia Minor meanwhile saw that the new emperor was someone they could take advantage of in terms of easily rewarding them but when meeting him they were proven wrong as Michael VI told them “deeds first, rewards later”. Michael VI too being a civil aristocrat from the city was a snob towards the military aristocracy of the provinces who he saw as backwards and unsophisticated and so he did not reward them as much as he did with the city’s aristocrats, though he underestimated the military as they were still a lot more powerful than he thought and among the military aristocrats, the one who felt most insulted by the emperor looking down on them was Isaac Komnenos, a general who had been in the Byzantine army ever since the days of Basil II, yet he too was one of the many young orphaned soldiers placed under Basil II’s care long ago as Isaac’s father Manuel had died a long before while his uncle was the same Nikephoros Komnenos Constantine VIII blinded back in 1027. As it turned out, Isaac was one of the generals dismissed by Theodora earlier but he had a strong support base that included his childhood friends who were now in their 50s and already powerful generals which included his younger brother John Komnenos and friends Constantine Doukas, Katakalon Kekaumenos, and the same Nikephoros Botaneiates that fought against the Pechenegs in 1053. Having had enough of the empire run by eunuchs, empresses, civil aristocrats, and weak emperors, Isaac felt this was time to put the empire under the rule of strong military men again like it was under Basil II and thus bring back the glory days of the empire and so in June of 1057, Isaac declared himself Emperor Isaac I Komnenos with the support of his military cronies, while the Varangian Guard too shifted to Isaac’s cause and in August he and his rebel army clashed with Michael VI’s imperial troops at the Battle of Hades in Asia Minor where Isaac and his rebels won, thus they headed straight to Constantinople where the emperor Michael VI did not want to accept his defeat that he even agreed to settle peace with Isaac adopting him his as his son and making him a Caesar. Michael Psellos was the one sent to Isaac’s camp across the Bosporus to negotiate with him but the emperor’s proposals were rejected although Isaac only agreed to it if he were made co-emperor of Michael VI but back in the capital, the people broke out in a massive riot in favor of Isaac. Michael VI was now hopeless and so here it was the patriarch Michael Keroularios who happened to be the kingmaker that convinced Michael VI to abdicate as the empire was in need of a stronger emperor like Isaac and so Michael VI retired to be a monk allowing Isaac to take the throne and be crowned by the patriarch.

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The Byzantine Empire at Basil II’s death in 1025 (white) with new annexed territories by 1055 (red)

 

 The New Regime and the Road to Manzikert (1057-1070)      

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Once again, the common people of the empire had a say when they all backed the military man Isaac I Komnenos as their new emperor in opposition to the useless Michael VI and once Michael VI abdicated and retired to a monastery, Isaac I was emperor being the first of the Komnenos line which will later on rule the empire.

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Mosaic of Emperor Isaac I Komnenos of Byzantium (r. 1057-1059)

When coming into power in 1057, Isaac I was 50 and in appearance was tall and intimidating with a loud voice, though what made his position a powerful one despite having no legitimate ties to the previous Macedonian Dynasty was that he both had powerful friends who were all high ranking generals and he belonged to the Komnenos family, a crony family of Basil II that rose to prominence under him and as emperor, Isaac was clear about his intentions to restore the glory days of the Byzantine army under Basil II that had been neglected by the past weak civilian emperors. The people and most especially the army tired of being ruled by palace emperors like Romanos III and Constantine IX that only cared to spend on churches and luxuries were now satisfied with their new soldier emperor although Isaac was a bit too rough around the edges despite being highly educated. Isaac’s first acts were to appoint his conspirators against Michael VI to the highest court positions such as his brother John who was made the Kouropalates or head of the palace as well as the empire’s top commander or Domestikos of the western armies based in the Balkans while Michael Psellos who despite serving the previous regimes was still kept in a high court position for switching his support to Isaac and it was here during Isaac’s reign where Psellos would get all the information about Basil II despite Psellos never meeting Basil in person, although Isaac when he was younger did and it was through Isaac where Psellos would get to known what Basil II the Bulgar-Slayer was like. Now ruling the empire, Isaac I’s top priority was to restore the army and its pay and when it came to taxes, Isaac was a strict tax collector that did not go with second chances while at the same time he was also not a lavish spender like the previous emperors but rather he only spent on the most necessary things which for him was the army and the soldiers’ pay. Isaac I’s major reform in terms of the state’s economy was in cutting off bonuses for court officials and the land grants to certain people which Constantine IX introduced as Isaac’s main goal here by doing this was to reverse the devaluing of the standard gold currency that took place under Constantine IX. Isaac I too had made it clear to everyone that he was to rule as a strongman emperor and something like a military dictator by minting coins with his image holding a sword instead of a scepter or orb like the previous emperors, although Isaac soon enough over did his image as a strong emperor that he would start becoming unpopular for issuing his reforms too soon such as his strict policies in taxation and cancelling bonuses, and the group of Byzantine society that he became most unpopular with was the Church as he cancelled donations given to them by the nobility while he imposed taxes on the Church was well. Once again, the troublemaker was the same patriarch Michael Keroularios who even went as far as threatening to remove Isaac from power as he after all put Isaac in power therefore, he could take him down and he believed he could as he also successfully put down Michael VI. Isaac in 1058 however grew tired of the patriarch’s arrogance which was already made very clear when the patriarch wore the purple boots reserved only for the emperor but before Patriarch Michael could organize a plot, Isaac immediately acted on this and had the Varangian Guard arrest the patriarch and send him to an island in the Marmara Sea. The patriarch despite being sent to exile still refused to resign and so back in Constantinople, Isaac held a council with the objective to legally depose Patriarch Michael but before the council was concluded in early 1059, the patriarch had died in exile.

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Coat of Arms of the Kingdom of Hungary, est. 1000

Meanwhile, the situation with the new enemy being the Seljuk Turks in the east grew more severe during Isaac I’s reign that they began penetrating deep into Byzantine Armenia already but without much success while in the Balkans, the Pechenegs continued their raids and so did the Magyars who at this point had already transformed into the Kingdom of Hungary since the beginning of the century. Isaac would however only personally lead the army once in his reign which was in the summer of 1059 in the Balkans where he battled both the Hungarians and Pechenegs, although there are not that much sources recording this 1059 campaign, but what is known is that Isaac here concluded a peace treaty with the Hungarians in the city of Serdica in Bulgaria while with the Pechenegs, he was successful in crushing them. On his return trip to Constantinople, Isaac was caught in a storm and almost killed that a rumor was spread that he died, although Isaac still returned to the capital becoming more paranoid of everyone due the rumor according to Psellos who was present here. Later in 1059, Isaac as a hunting enthusiast went out on a hunting trip outside Constantinople but during the hunt, he fell ill with a fever which lasted for days that he would soon start fearing he would die any time soon and so it was time he named a successor. Isaac meanwhile had been married to the Bulgarian princess Ekaterina, the daughter of the last Bulgarian tsar Ivan Vladislav and sister of Presian who if you remember was the lover of Theodora who plotted to kill Romanos III before, and following the annexation of the Bulgarian Empire in 1014 by Basil II, Ekaterina was taken to Constantinople as an important hostage wherein later on she would marry Isaac due to his connections with the emperor Basil II then, although Isaac and Ekaterina had only one daughter and no sons.

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Michael Psellos, advisor and historian in Isaac I’s court

Though having no sons, Isaac had a younger brother the Kouropalates and Domestikos John who was in all ways fit to succeed him but Isaac’s daughter Maria and Psellos convinced him that he must not choose a family member but a man loyal to him to succeed him and this man was the general Constantine Doukas who was however closer to Psellos than to Isaac. Now Isaac agreed to abdicate and pass the throne peacefully to Constantine Doukas, although some weeks later Isaac recovered and felt like he had no need to abdicate but it was too late as Constantine Doukas had already been crowned as Emperor Constantine X with Michael Psellos, now the new kingmaker even placing the purple sandals on his feet. Seeing nothing could be done anymore, Isaac retired for good as a simple monk in the Monastery of Stoudion in Constantinople’s suburbs wherein he grew up and was educated in and now in retirement, he was reduced to performing the simplest tasks such as being the doorman, while not to mention it was also in 1059 when the ex-emperor Michael VI died as a monk somewhere else while Isaac unfortunately died later on in the next year 1060 here in the Stoudion Monastery at 53 when he was the kind of strongman emperor necessary for this time.        

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Coin of Isaac I Komnenos portrayed holding a drawn sword (right)
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Stoudion Monastery, Constantinople, retirement place of Isaac I after 1059

The new emperor Constantine X Doukas was by career a general though he never really had any military experience as compared to his predecessor Isaac I, and the only reason why Constantine was a general was because he was from the nobility, as in fact the Doukas family wherein he came from had turned out to be one of the original families in the Byzantine Senate ever since Constantinople and the Eastern Roman Empire was founded in 330 by the first Byzantine emperor Constantine I the Great (r. 306-337), and because of his family’s status, Constantine Doukas was able to attain the rank of general without really deserving it.

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Emperor Constantine X Doukas of Byzantium (r. 1059-1067)

Though not having much military experience, Constantine though had once served as the governor of the Theme of Moesia in Northern Bulgaria but nothing much else is said about his earlier years until helping Isaac I take the throne in 1057 and then now in 1059 succeeding Isaac at the age of 53. The more interesting part though about Constantine X is that before he assisted in Isaac’s rebellion in 1057, he had been married to Eudokia Makrembolitissa, a woman 25 years younger than him who was not really anyone important except that she was only the niece of the former patriarch Michael Keroularios, though they would seem to be an odd couple as Constantine struck everyone as nothing much but a boring and negative old man while Eudokia was much younger, attractive, and flashy therefore her main reason to marry Constantine in this story’s case was because of his wealth and influence, although another reason to why they were married was because both enjoyed debating about religion and philosophy and Constantine was known to be an addict in debating about these topics which he happened to be more interested in than running the empire.

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Doukas family crest

Now as for Constantine X, there are not that much sources that discuss his reign in detail, so rather we only know the important events of his reign, as well as the people of his regime and speaking about the people he appointed, right at the beginning of 1060 when Constantine X had newly occupied the throne as the senior emperor, he already made his eldest son with Eudokia Michael Doukas who was 10-years-old here as his co-emperor as well as their newly born son Constantius, although they also had a middle child named Andronikos but he was left out from the succession for now for unclear reasons, but in this story’s case it would be because being the middle child he was neglected as Constantine too did not need another co-emperor, although Constantine’s younger brother John Doukas here was appointed as a Caesar. Constantine as the emperor lived well while his sons were to be educated by no other than Psellos who was the finest scholar of this time, but while things seemed to be going pretty well in Constantinople, there was more happening around the empire in Constantine X’s reign.

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Coat of Arms of the Norman Duchy of Apulia and Calabria in Southern Italy under the Hauteville family

In 1059 over in Italy, the Normans under the same Robert Guiscard had practically conquered all of Calabria and Apulia from the Byzantines and Lombards leaving only the very tip of Apulia where the city of Bari is under Byzantine control, and by expanding his territory to such a great extent, the pope in 1059 recognized Robert Guiscard as a duke and his territory as the Duchy of Calabria and Apulia. In 1061, the Normans armies of Southern Italy now set off to finally conquer Sicily from the divided Arabs that still held it and in charge of the campaign was Robert’s younger brother Roger, and though the expedition began with failure when battling the Arab fleet near Messina, things would go in favor for the Normans in 1062.

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Roger de Hauteville, brother of Robert Guiscard, later Count of Sicily

By 1063, the Normans would practically conquer almost all of Sicily after defeating the Arab forces at the Battle of Cerami, and here one brave but at the same time, the henchman of the Hauteville brothers Robert and Roger would prove his skill and bravery in battle and this was Roussel de Bailleul, who would later serve as a mercenary for the Byzantines. Back in Constantinople, Constantine X proved that he wasn’t a very competent emperor although on the positive side he was neither idiotic nor wasteful in spending but what made him unpopular with his subjects was because he was basically boring, unattractive, negative, bigoted, and demanded heavy taxes especially since Isaac I before him ruled too short to fill up the empire’s treasury again and restore the original value of the gold solidus coin. Not having any of his predecessor Isaac I’s skills as a strongman running the empire, Constantine decided to discontinue Isaac’s military reforms which turned Isaac’s supporters against him seeing Constantine as a traitor to their movement that in 1061, they plotted to assassinate him in his ship, however they got into the wrong ship as Constantine already set sail in another one and so to punish these conspirators, Constantine only exiled them and confiscated their property rather than doing something harsh like blinding or executing as Constantine was not really a brutal punisher despite being generally hateful towards people and intolerant towards non-Orthodox Armenian Christians who he persecuted. When it came to raising funds, Constantine X resorted to going as far as selling off court positions and for the army, just like Constantine IX before him, he was very much neglectful that he simply decided to disband 50,000 soldiers in the Armenian army as there was no longer that much state funds to pay them, therefore replacing them with mercenaries from all over including Pechenegs, Turks, Normans, and more as they did not need to be paid in a regular basis like the regular army was.

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Alp Arslan, Sultan of the Seljuk Empire (r. 1063-1072), art by Hatem Art

The decision to disband the army however came at the worst time possible as right here, the Seljuks continued their raids into Byzantine territory and what was even worse for the Byzantines was that in 1063, the Seljuks got a new leader or sultan which was Alp Arslan which meant “Great Lion” in their language- although his real name was Muhammad Chaghri– a great-grandson of their founder Seljuq who was a very ambitious ruler compared to his predecessors. In 1064, the Seljuks led by Alp Arslan were able to capture the strategic Armenian capital of Ani from the Byzantines, the same city Constantine IX’s conquered almost 20 years earlier as well as the surrounding areas, and when capturing Ani, the Seljuks carried out such brutal atrocities including massacres on the locals that it sent shockwaves across the empire thus showing for the first the time how capable and deadly the Seljuks were when it came to war. In 1065, the Byzantines faced another disaster which was the loss of their Danube frontier city of Belgrade to the expansion of the Hungarians while at the same time, the Oghuz Turks that were now settling north of the Danube raided imperial territory in the Balkans but their attacks did not last long as a plague broke out there killing many and forcing the remaining ones to retreat. In the meantime, the Normans were not only succeeding in Italy but in other parts as well as in 1066, the Normans had their most famous conquest which was their successful invasion of Anglo-Saxon England under the Duke of mainland Normandy in France William the Conqueror who seeing that England being weakened was able to conquer it with success after the fateful Battle of Hastings, thus he became the first King of England. It also happened in 1066 that the same old Viking Harald Hardrada that served Byzantium under Michael IV before but now became the King of Norway died at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in England when trying to invade Anglo-Saxon England, but despite the Saxons’ victory their state became too weak that it fell to the Normans later that year. Back in Byzantium, the situation regarding the invasions had already proved too much for the aging Constantine X to handle and so he did not do anything at all and by the time 1067 came, his health had grown worse as already when coming to power in 1059, Constantine X was already unhealthy and overweight and in May of 1067, he died at 61 while on his deathbed he demanded his wife Eudokia to take a vow never to remarry as Constantine wanted to be succeeded by no one else but his sons which is why he already made them co-emperors.         

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Oghuz Turks
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Battle of Stamford Bridge and the death of the King of Norway Harald III Hardrada, 1066 England
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Battle of Hastings, Norman Conquest of Anglo-Saxon England, 1066

Though Constantine X’s eldest son with Eudokia Makrembolitissa which was Michael was already 17 here, thus being of legal age to rule alone, he was just as passive as his father and lacked the full training to be sole ruler, so instead his mother Eudokia had to be confirmed as both the regent for her co-emperor sons Michael and Constantius and the ruling empress or Augusta. The state administration for now however was not really under Eudokia’s management but rather by Constantine X’s brother the Caesar John Doukas and Michael Psellos who still remained serving the imperial court. This time however was a bad one in particular for the empire to have no senior male emperor running it as the Seljuks under Alp Arslan following their capture of Ani had expanded to a much larger extent that their territory had stretched across the entire eastern border of Byzantium, thus completely cutting off Byzantium’s border with the Arab powers of Syria and Mesopotamia, and so it was at this point when the Byzantine and Arab worlds that had bordered each other for the past 4 centuries would no longer border each other anymore due to the expansion of the new power of the Seljuk Empire. Despite the dire situation the empire was in wherein it needed a strong emperor in charge, Eudokia still kept her promise to her late husband to never remarry and wait until her sons are capable enough, although this power vacuum true enough caused ambitious generals to grab the opportunity and take the throne by marrying the widowed empress and among them was the same old Nikephoros Botaneiates who by this point resigned from his position as the governor of Antioch and the young Cappadocian Romanos Diogenes- the son of the late Constantine Diogenes who committed suicide back in Romanos III’s reign in 1032 when accused of conspiracy- now finally coming into the picture. Romanos Diogenes who was in the Balkans was much closer to Constantinople and after Constantine X’s death in 1067, Romanos was accused of planning to usurp the throne and so he was arrested in the Balkans and locked up in prison in Constantinople.

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Empress Eudokia Makrembolitissa oversees Romanos Diogenes in prison, 1067, art by Ancient City Lullaby

The thing here for Eudokia was that not only did she need a husband as an emperor but someone to be a father for her children as aside from her 3 sons with Constantine X, they had 3 additional daughters Anna, Theodora, and Zoe and when seeing Romanos for the first time in prison, Eudokia immediately fell in love with him as Romanos unlike her late husband Constantine X who was old and unattractive was handsome, energetic, and charismatic with green eyes and long brown hair and Romanos too was only a year older than Eudokia being 37 while Constantine before him was a full 25 years older. Between the 65-year-old Nikephoros Botaneiates and 37-year-old Romanos Diogenes, Eudokia definitely fell for Romanos and with the approval of the Byzantine Senate, the Caesar John Doukas, Michael Psellos, and the current Patriarch of Constantinople John VIII Xiphilinos, Romanos and Empress Eudokia married on the first day of 1068 whereas Romanos too was crowned as the senior emperor Romanos IV Diogenes and finally Eudokia and Constantine’s middle son Andronikos was crowned as co-emperor together with his two brothers Michael and Constantius.

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Emperor Romanos IV Diogenes of Byzantium (r. 1068-1072), 2nd husband of Empress Eudokia

The leading people of the administration like the Caesar John Doukas and his son Andronikos Doukas who was a general in training, as well as Michael Psellos disliked the new senior emperor Romanos IV who they now saw as the new gold digger who only married Eudokia for wealth the same way how they viewed Eudokia marrying Constantine X before, though they also saw Romanos as a far from capable opportunist as for one he came from a disgraced family as his father in 1032 killed himself rather than confessing his crime and the army Romanos commanded was not the kind of feared and disciplined professional Byzantine army but an undisciplined and disorganized band of mostly foreign mercenaries including Slavs, Armenians, Bulgarians, and Franks, but Romanos at the same time was also a strict disciplinarian and so he was able to quickly discipline his unruly troops. In the meantime, the Seljuk Turks who now had gained allies among the nearby Arab powers and other Turkic nomads mindlessly raided deep into Byzantine Syria, Cilicia, and Cappadocia, even sacking Caesarea, the capital of the Theme of Cappadocia. Alp Arslan however never really intended to invade Asia Minor but only the eastern parts of the Byzantine Empire such as Armenia and Syria in order to gain access to march into the Levant and Egypt held by the Fatimid Caliphate, although at the same time he had been threatening the Kingdom of Georgia northeast of Byzantium in order to get some access to the Black Sea. The problem however was that most of Alp Arslan’s army was disorganized and so they mindlessly penetrated Byzantine Asia Minor without Alp Arslan’s orders, although Romanos knew very little and so he began his reign immediately campaigning in Asia Minor. Romanos IV was the kind of military emperor that disliked being in the capital and having to be involved in court politics and just a she was crowned emperor in early 1068, he immediately gathered his army and campaigned all over Asia Minor with successful results. The Seljuks and their other Turkic allies though proved to be an easy enemy to kill in battle as they travelled light, were barely armored, and primarily only used their bow but the problem with them was that they moved too fast, therefore it was too difficult to be able to contain their raids that here when Romanos was campaigning in Cilicia against a group of Turkic raiders, he got news that another group had breached into the region of Pontus to north, thus he had to rush there and later when being able to capture a band of raiding Turks near the mountain city of Tephrike in Eastern Asia Minor, a large number of them escaped. Another example of how these Turks moved so fast and were able to escape so quickly was later in 1068 when they reached as far as the Anatolic Theme in Western Asia Minor even sacking its capital Amorion and by the time Romanos rushed to Amorion’s defense, it was too late as the Turks escaped back to their base in Eastern Asia Minor. Romanos IV then again spent the next year (1069) once more campaigning in Asia Minor against the uncontrollable Turkic raiders that now resumed attacking the cities of Melitene and Iconium, and hoping he could contain them this time Romanos once again attacked with some success that he was able to pursue the Turk raiders across the Euphrates River.

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Ivory carving of Emperor Romanos IV (left) and Empress Eudokia (right)

Romanos then decided to march further east to capture the fort of Ahlat along Lake Van in Armenia to build a permanent defense there against the Turks, but at the same time, the Turks attacked in the south raiding into Cilicia where the Byzantine army there at least drove them away. Alp Arslan in the meantime was not around to control his people’s mindless raiding into Byzantine territory as he was too busy in the south battling his primary enemy, the Fatimid Caliphate while Romanos waiting for a response from Alp Arslan, returned to Constantinople in 1070 where he would spend most of the year in while he appointed his general Manuel Komnenos, nephew of Isaac I and son of the late John Komnenos (died in 1067) to be in charge of the eastern armies. Empress Eudokia meanwhile being 39 was still able to bear children with Romanos and so in 1070, she had given birth to her twin sons with Romanos which were Leo and Nikephoros Diogenes, which was something positive for the couple but for the rest of the imperial Doukas family such as Eudokia’s children with Constantine X and the Church, the birth of these twins was seen as trouble as one day it could create a major succession crisis on whether Eudokia’s children with Constantine would rule the empire or her sons with Romanos. On the other hand, Romanos too from his previous marriage already had a son named Constantine who was estranged from him so therefore Constantine would never enter the imperial palace and join the imperial family but rather live quietly away from the politics of Constantinople. Another person that was now in the picture of the politics in Constantinople was the Georgian princess Maria of Alania, the daughter of the King of Georgia Bagrat IV who since 1065 had married the co-emperor Michael Doukas as part of Michael’s father Constantine’s alliance with Georgia back then when he was still alive. Maria earlier on in 1056 as a very young girl was brought to Constantinople to be educated under the patronage of Empress Theodora but after Theodora’s death that same year, Maria had to return to Georgia only to return to Constantinople in 1065 to marry the co-emperor Michael and now 1070 she was 17 and in appearance was skinny with reddish-brown hair and pale skin, but despite her somewhat weak appearance, she possessed a lot more ambition compared to her bookish and passive husband. Back to Romanos IV, in the capital he resumed the unpopular economic measures of Isaac I years earlier by doing the same in cancelling bonuses and cutting the budget for beautifying the capital and for spending on court ceremonies and chariot racing in the Hippodrome and instead diverting the budget for the army which made him highly unpopular in the capital. Romanos however saw that it was necessary he cut the budget on these things which he saw as unnecessary as it was obvious that the situation was dire not only in Asia Minor with the Seljuk raids but in Southern Italy where Byzantine control was only limited to the city of Bari which now was already under siege by the Normans.

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Seljuk Turkish army of Alp Arslan, 11th century

 

Part II.

The Climax Part I- The Battle of Manzikert (1071)         

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The year 1071 would indeed be a fatal one for Byzantium as at first in April, the Byzantines had completely lost control of Italy after 500 years of rule when their last city of Bari finally surrendered to the Norman brothers Robert Guiscard and Roger who had been besieging it for the past 3 years, thus these events would according to Robin Pierson of the History of Byzantium Podcast would be the one that would forever make Byzantium culturally and physically distant from the west as Italy was their last holding in the Western world which they held onto since Justinian I’s time in the 6th century. The complete loss of Italy to the Normans was shocking to the emperor Romanos IV but his priority was still Asia Minor as for the past year being back in Constantinople, Romanos had been preparing his army and raising up to 40,000 which as usual of this time due to the disbanding of most of the professional eastern army by Constantine X included a large portion of mercenaries except this time it was very multinational with Armenians, Georgians, Arabs, Hungarians, Bulgarians, Oghuz Turks, Russians, Khazars, Slavs, Pechenegs, Franks (Germans), and Normans which were under the command of the same Roussel de Bailleul of the Battle of Cerami in 1063, while the elite Varangian Guard was to be at his side as they battle Seljuks. Romanos IV true enough used the budget he cut for the capital’s buildings and chariot races to build up this massive army and to pay for their supplies and new superior weapons which he invested heavily on. No matter how much the people booed at him for being no fun or no matter how much he was seen as the kind of military dictator like Isaac I, Romanos did not care as he was doing all of this to defend the empire against a serious threat which was that of the Seljuks which were actually not that serious as again their sultan Alp Arslan was more intent to just take over Byzantine land to gain access to fight the Fatimids of Egypt.

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Byzantine Cataphract cavalry soldier in Romanos IV’s army, art by myself

Romanos however was another emperor who wanted to restore Byzantium and its army which had deteriorated over the past years of rule by the weak civilian emperors that neglected it to the glory days of Basil II where the Byzantine army was the most well-organized force in the known world that was feared by everyone, so therefore he wanted to show the Seljuks that they were not dealing with a disorganized force but the world’s most powerful army. On the other hand, Romanos wanted to live up to the name of his father who had helped Basil II ultimately defeat the Bulgarian Empire at the Battle of Kleidion in 1014 and also bring honor to his family that had been disgraced with his father’s suicide in 1032. Alp Arslan however had previously captured the Byzantine fortresses of Manzikert and Archesh along Lake Van though only for strategic purposes as these fortresses controlled the trade routes in the area, but in Constantinople Romanos saw this as a declaration of war, although he did not immediately declare war but instead sent word to Alp Arslan over there that he wanted to conclude a treaty with him. The real purpose for this agreement however was to trick Alp Arslan into attacking him while Alp Arslan was unprepared and once he settled the agreement, Romanos marched out of Constantinople back to Asia Minor but what here would be Romanos’ downfall was his impatience and arrogance as he was intent on a full-scale war with the Seljuks even if they were not really intending to fully conquer Byzantium. In this campaign, Romanos took along with him the Caesar John Doukas’ son Andronikos as a back-up general but also part of Andronikos’ military training, though Romanos’ real reason was to keep him close being paranoid that Andronikos would steal the throne from Romanos while he is away. The march however began out terribly when Romanos’ Norman mercenaries under Roussel pillaged some villages in Asia Minor without orders, though Romanos was able to discipline them by firing a number of Roussel’s men. The army of Romanos eventually reached the area of Lake Van by July wherein they were able to recapture a number of fortresses from the Seljuks, although here Alp Arslan who was over in Syria rushed west to Asia Minor seeing this as an act of violation by Romanos of their treaty. Romanos and his forces meanwhile were able to recapture the important fortress of Manzikert from the Seljuks although they found no signs of Alp Arslan around and so Romanos sent a division of his army to encircle Lake Van in search for Alp Arslan but also to capture the other strategic fortress of Ahlat along Lake Van which was also fell under the Seljuks.

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Elite Seljuk cavalry soldier

After a few days, Romanos believing the men he sent were able to capture Ahlat sent word to them asking them to return to him at his camp near Manzikert, however this division never returned as they were true enough ambushed by Alp Arslan’s forces at the dead of night as it turned out the Turk horsemen having lived in the steppes for generations had the ability to ride and fight even in pitch darkness thus they left the survivors to retreat south to Byzantine Mesopotamia while their commander too did not think about returning as he was never really loyal to Romanos anyway. The next worst thing that happened following the loss of large number of troops was that Romanos’ Oghuz Turk mercenaries deserted and joined the Seljuks as they’d rather fight with their Seljuk Turk cousins than against them. On August 25 of 1071, Alp Arslan here sent envoys to Romanos again to conclude peace as Alp Arslan believed Romanos’ attack could have been a misunderstanding but Romanos having raised up to 40,000 troops and putting all the empire’s money into it was intent on a decisive victory in battle and so he immediately declined the peace terms and sent the envoys away. Romanos here saw it was only the right thing to attack the Seljuks and drive them away once and for all as they had invaded the lands of the Byzantine Empire the heroes of the previous century such as Nikephoros Phokas and John Tzimiskes worked so hard and sacrificed so much to fight for in order to put them back into imperial control from the Arabs, therefore he did not want their hard work to be all lost to the new enemy and so here Romanos declined the envoys’ offers, although he still negotiated smartly sending word to Alp Arslan that he would only agree to peace if it were in Ray, the Seljuk’s newly established capital in Iran.

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Route of Romanos IV (purple) and of Alp Arslan (green) to the battle site of Manzikert, 1071
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Fortress of Ahlat along Lake Van today
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Emperor Romanos IV receiving Seljuk envoys from Alp Arslan before the battle, 1071

          

On the night of August 25, Romanos IV’s camp was harassed by the Seljuk horse archers who as mentioned earlier had the ability to ride and attack at the pitch darkness of night constantly fired arrows at the camp killing even a few Byzantines, however Romanos ordered his men not to fight back as he wanted everyone to all fight together during daytime. The next day (Friday, August 26), both Byzantine and Seljuk forces met formally in the battlefield outside the fortress of Manzikert while Alp Arslan too was present and had been awake before the sun rose dressing himself in white which he did seeing it as a sign that he would die in battle knowing how great Romanos’ army was in number, and here Alp Arslan also summoned his son Malik-Shah to the battlefield announcing to everyone that he will succeed him if Alp Arslan would die here. As Alp Arslan saw this battle only as something that he had to get over with as he never saw it coming, Romanos was already seeing a great victory and a triumphal parade in Constantinople ahead wherein Alp Arslan and his son would be paraded as prisoners and so right after waking up, Romanos ordered his army to assemble into organized formations.

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Battle map of the Battle of Manzikert, 1071

Here, Romanos positioned himself at the center with 5,000 men from the professional Byzantine army of Asia Minor and 500 of the Varangian Guards, while on the right flank were 5,000 Byzantine Cataphract cavalry soldiers and a large number of foreign mercenaries under the command of the general Nikephoros Bryennios who was a loyalist of Romanos, on the right flank were another 5,000 professional Byzantine soldiers and foreign mercenaries under the command of Romanos’ other loyalist general Theodore Alyattes, while the division behind consisted of the reserve troops under Andronikos Doukas. The one missing however was the Norman Roussel de Bailleul and his 500 Norman mercenaries as apparently during the night, he and his men escaped as they being the stereotypical Normans and mercenaries were only in it for money and not loyalty and so they went away never to be found again. Romanos lost some hope when Roussel’s Normans deserted as well as his Oghuz mercenaries but not wanting to show any signs of fear or unease which could cause panic among his soldiers, Romanos ordered everyone to charge at the same time in formation, the same old tactic the Byzantine armies have been using ever since. The advance of the Byzantine forces and their allies in organized formations however proved to be ineffective to the loose hit-and-run fighting style of the Seljuks who here formed into a loose crescent formation in order to surround the Byzantines with Alp Arslan and his son at the center of it. The Seljuks with their ability to fire arrows when riding at full speed overwhelmed the heavy armored Byzantines and their allies but the Byzantines still resisted and despite the extreme heat of this day considering it was a summer day in August, the Byzantines still continued fighting even if no side was gaining any advantage.

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Byzantine (left) and Seljuk (right) cavalrymen clash at the Battle of Manzikert

The battle would continue to last until the sun was going down and this where everything in this story’s case would change, as in real history Romanos ordered his men to retreat to their camp as the sky started to go dark, but in this story’ case, Romanos not giving up no matter what in order to come out victorious at the end ordered his men to all continue fighting even though it was getting dark as he saw they were coming close to cornering the Seljuk cavalry. The Seljuks however like in real history would also pretend to flee here to set a trap for the Byzantines before they could return and ambush the Byzantines but in this story’s case as Romanos would see the Seljuk horse archers escaping, he would have the Cataphracts under Bryennios and Alyattes pursue them with full speed while Romanos would also order his Varangian Guards to perform their special ability to charge out in a frenzy while screaming at the same time as their large size and voice was true enough a powerful weapon to intimidate the enemy.

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Varangian Guard with his Dane-axe, 1071

The Varangians here would now attack the Seljuk cavalry cutting down hundreds of horses with their large Dane-axes while Andronikos Doukas on the other hand would here like in real history show his intention to betray Romanos who he hated. In real history though, Andronikos would only spread a rumor to his division that Romanos had been killed in battle only when Romanos retreated to the camp and so rather than sending Romanos reinforcements, Andronikos escaped the battlefield with them. For this story however, Andronikos would break out of formation and attack the Seljuks from the other side as he would want to be the one to score the victory rather than making Romanos take the credit and so Andronikos would attack Alp Arslan’s division directly. Now in this story since Andronikos Doukas did not abandon the emperor like in real history, the Byzantines would start gaining the upper hand by the time night fell and here in this story’s case, one young soldier which would be the 15-year-old Alexios Komnenos, nephew of the former emperor Isaac I and 6th son of the late John Komnenos that would fight bravely by the emperor’s side and would even lead Romanos into safety when his division came under the attack of Alp Arslan’s best cavalry as the Varangians went elsewhere fighting the rest of the Seljuks. Now in this story’s case, the battle would come to an end when a Varangian spots Alp Arslan and kills his horse by swinging his axe at his horse, thus tossing the sultan to the ground wherein he would surrender and minutes later, his entire army would pause and panic as they would see their sultan on the ground. Romanos would then retreat to his camp while Alp Arslan would later be brought to him there by Nikephoros Bryennios in chains.          

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The Battle of Manzikert in 1071, art by FaisalHashemi
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Varangian Guards (on the ground) battle the Seljuk cavalry at Manzikert
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Byzantines and Seljuks at the Battle of Manzikert in meme form

In real history, after Andronikos Doukas’ betrayal, Romanos and his Varangians were surrounded by the Seljuks and after the Varangians fought bravely to the last man, Romanos after falling off his horse that had been killed and getting shot by an arrow in the hand, was captured by a common Seljuk soldier who mistook him for an ordinary soldier as well as he did not wear his crown while Alp Arslan chased away the remaining Byzantines the next day (August 27).

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Defeat and capture of Romanos IV by the Seljuks, in real history

Romanos in real history was then brought in chains to Alp Arslan’s tent where Alp Arslan mistook Romanos for a common soldier, therefore he placed his foot on Romanos’ neck but when finding out he was the emperor, Alp Arslan began to treat Romanos well. In this story however, when Alp Arslan was brought to Romanos’ camp, Romanos would be the one to step on Alp Arslan’s neck just as a sign of saying he conquered him, but would also treat him well afterwards. In real history, the terms Romanos had to agree to in order to be released were surprisingly not very demanding as Alp Arslan only requested that the Syrian cities of Antioch, Edessa, Hierapolis, and also the fortress of Manzikert be surrendered to the Seljuks to make way for their invasion of Fatimid territories in the south while Romanos was to also pay Alp Arslan 360,000 gold coins annually and to agree for marriage between Alp Arslan’s son and Romanos’ daughter from his previous marriage.

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Alp Arslan humiliates Romanos IV by stepping on his neck after Romanos IV’s capture, in real history

Here however, Alp Arslan and Romanos like in real history would end up becoming friends while Alp Arslan would be the one here that would have to agree on not so demanding terms which would just include paying tribute to the Byzantines as well as returning Manzikert and Ahlat in exchange for taking these Syrian cities mentioned earlier in order to fully carry out his conquest of Egypt, but the most demanding thing Alp Arslan would have to face here was to turn over his son Malik-Shah to Romanos as a hostage. In real history, after Romanos agreed to Alp Arslan’s terms, he was released, given gifts, and even escorted halfway into Asia Minor by Alp Arslan himself though here, Romanos would be the one to release Alp Arslan some days later and have his general Theodore Alyattes and the young Alexios Komnenos escort Alp Arslan to Syria wherein they would be the ones to personally hand over to Alp Arslan the keys to Antioch, Edessa, and Hierapolis. Romanos together with Bryennios, Andronikos, and their hostage which was the sultan’s son Malik-Shah would return to Constantinople but before arriving back in the city, Romanos would have both Andronikos and Bryennios search around Asia Minor for the renegade Roussel de Bailleul. Back in Constantinople, Romanos having lost 10% of his army in the battle and coming back extremely tired from it decided to not celebrate a triumph but would instead return to the palace being awaited with a shocking surprise. Like in real history, the Caesar John Doukas and Michael Psellos due to the absence of Romanos would plot against him behind his back thus they bullied the empress Eudokia by forcing her to retire to a monastery while the co-emperor Michael Doukas was proclaimed as the senior emperor Michael VII in October in opposition to Romanos who they declared deposed. In this case, Romanos would be denied entry into the palace by the newly appointed eunuch administrator Nikephoritzes– who’s name literally meant “little Nikephoros”- and he had been in the imperial court ever since Constantine IX’s reign in the 1050s as a secretary but had been exiled due to him spreading lies but John Doukas who was basically calling the shots for the past months with Romanos away recalled Nikephoritzes to the palace as John believed he was a competent administrator despite being a corrupt schemer, while in real history, Michael VII under his uncle John Doukas’ influence also refused to recognize the treaty between Alp Arslan and Romanos. Romanos IV was now left all alone and not even allowed to see his twin sons despite winning the Battle of Manzikert, therefore even if the Byzantines won over the Seljuks over Manzikert, the same political instability and greed would still continue to reign, so it is sad to say that even with a Byzantine victory in Manzikert, the same situation in the empire’s politics would still live on.

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Defeat of the Byzantines to the Seljuks at the Battle of Manzikert, in real history
Watch this for additional info on the Battle of Manzikert (Eastern Roman History).

 

The Climax Part II- The Aftermath of Manzikert (1072-1078)          

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The Battle of Manzikert in real history at first was not such an extreme loss for the Byzantines as the terms Romanos IV had to agree with Alp Arslan in order to be kept alive were not as harsh as he had thought it would be while only 10% of the Byzantine army was wiped out. The real disaster however was to come gradually after the battle as after the Seljuks had won, they were allowed to roam freely into the Byzantine heartland of Asia Minor thus changing its geography so significantly as after the Byzantine defeat at Manzikert, Asia Minor became something like a donut bitten on one side where all 3 sides along the coast were still under Byzantine hands while the center fell under the Seljuks with the donut’s bite as the area the Seljuks penetrated through to get to the center. The eventual loss of the central regions of Asia Minor including Cappadocia and Armenia to the Seljuks thus led to the collapse of the Thematic System or the Themes as most of the Themes were in Asia Minor but with Seljuk occupation they had collapsed, though the real downfall of Byzantium was not so much the loss of Asia Minor to the Seljuks but the greed of the current powerful officials of the time such as John Doukas, Michael Psellos, and Nikephoritzes who mostly neglected the collapse of the Themes in Asia Minor and instead used the defeat of Romanos IV to increase their power. In this story however, the only difference would be that the Byzantines won at Manzikert, therefore the Seljuks under Alp Arslan would have to turn the other way thus not being able to roam freely in Asia Minor anymore, while at the same time, the same Themes of Asia Minor that had been around for centuries would still stand with the situation Byzantine Asia Minor turning into a donut as I mentioned not happening, but the rest will be the same which would be the increasing greed of the imperial court and the obliviousness of the new emperor Michael VII. In this story, the same would happen like in real history when Michael VII under the influence of his uncle John Doukas would turn against his stepfather Romanos IV, except in real history since Romanos was captured by Alp Arslan, he only learned he was betrayed before he returned to Constantinople, but here even if he won the battle, Romanos would still learn he had been betrayed but already when back in Constantinople, and so when being banned from entering the palace, Romanos here for this story would just get his hostage Malik-Shah, the son of Alp Arslan into the palace while Romanos would afterwards return to Asia Minor in search for the renegade traitor Norman Roussel de Bailleul. The other difference in real history being that Romanos lost to the Seljuks was that all his credibility had disappeared therefore this gave a perfect reason for Michael VII and his court to turn on him, while also in real history the traitor Andronikos Doukas who returned to Constantinople convinced everyone Romanos had died but as soon as Romanos was discovered to be alive, they all turned on him. In this story however, Romanos would also suffer the same fate as when heading back to Asia Minor in search for the escaped Roussel, he would be ambushed by Andronikos Doukas who in this story was sent by Romanos to track Roussel. In the meantime, Romanos’ trusted general Theodore Alyattes who like in real history had also survived the Battle of Manzikert in this story, and Alyattes who in this story’s case returned to Central Asia Minor from Antioch with his troops that survived Manzikert would like in real history confront the forces of Andronikos Doukas. Alyattes being too tired after the Battle of Manzikert and travelling for kilometers would lose to the Doukas brothers and like real history get blinded with the use of tent pegs, thus with such a painful blinding, Alyattes would die a few weeks later from his injuries. Romanos then like in real history after his army’s defeat would first retreat south to his homeland of Cappadocia and then to the coastal city of Adana in Cilicia, although Andronikos like in real history would still be able to track Romanos to Adana and force the local garrison to surrender to him. Romanos was then brought before Andronikos who at least agreed to spare Romanos if he gave up his crown and the imperial purple and retire to be a monk, thus Romanos was loaded into a cart headed for Constantinople by road but before reaching the capital, John Doukas would send word to his son Andronikos that he did not agree with the terms and so here while stopping over at the city of Kotyaion in Western Asia Minor, Romanos like in real history would be betrayed and brutally blinded in June of 1072.

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Blinding of Romanos IV by Andronikos Doukas in 1072, art by Ancient City Lullaby

The blinding of Romanos was allegedly said to be done by an inexperienced Jew- which is true for this story’s case- who took 3 attempts to successfully blind Romanos and due to how bloody and slow the blinding was carried out, the injury inflicted on Romanos was so severe that within only a few weeks, Romanos like in real history who would receive no medical care after his blinding would die so shamefully exiled in one of the Princes’ Islands in the Marmara Sea outside Constantinople, though at least he would be allowed a proper burial by his wife the exiled empress Eudokia like in real history. Now Romanos IV Diogenes is one Byzantine emperor with a mixed reputation depending on who wrote him as Michael Psellos who in reality just like in this story hated Romanos described him as just a power hungry glory seeker who deserved his defeat at Manzikert in real history as well as his blinding in 1072, while the other historian of Romanos’ time Michael Attaleiates (1022-1080) who knew Romanos well was more sympathetic to Romanos portraying him as a tragic hero who only wanted to do what was best to save the empire from the immediate threat of the Seljuks. Now I would say that a more unbiased way to see Romanos IV was that he was he was someone who would do whatever he thought was right in order to drive away the Seljuks and save his empire but his major flaw though was his arrogance and impatience especially when brashly marching out to battle the Seljuks in Manzikert even if the Seljuk sultan Alp Arslan never wanted a full war with Byzantium anyway. And though having to end up with such a tragic fate, Romanos in this story would be the one to thank for saving Asia Minor from collapse through constant Seljuk raids that would take place in reality. On the other hand, Sultan Alp Arslan too would meet his end in 1072 just like in real history, and here as Alp Arslan was preparing to invade his people’s ancestral lands in Central Asia known as Turkestan, he captured a local governor who he had sentenced to death, but before being executed, the governor pulled out his dagger and stabbed Alp Arslan in the chest killing him. Alp Arslan would then be succeeded by his son Malik-Shah I who in this story will be leave Constantinople and return to the Seljuk capital of Ray, although as a ruler he would not be as ambitious as his father and in this story’s case at least, Byzantium and the Seljuks would not be in much conflict with each other anymore.            

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Sultan Alp Arslan of the Seljuk Empire and his court
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Sultan Malik-Shah I (r. 1072-1092), son of Alp Arslan, and his court
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Michael Psellos (left) and Emperor Michael VII Doukas (right)

In this story’s case, the reign of Emperor Michael VII Doukas as senior emperor following the Battle of Manzikert and the absence of Romanos IV in 1071 would not turn out to be as disastrous as it was in real history, mainly because the expansion of the Seljuks deep into Asia Minor would not happen due to losing to the Byzantines at Manzikert and following the death of Alp Aslan in late 1072, the Seljuk Empire would weaken in power. Though as he is usually described in real history, Michael VII in this story will be the same kind of incompetent emperor oblivious to the chaos growing in the empire around him, except that with the absence of the continued Seljuk raids in this story, the empire would not be in so much chaos, though Michael’s weakness would surely be an advantage for ambitious generals all over Asia Minor to rebel and put a claim on the throne.

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Emperor Michael VII Doukas of Byzantium (r. 1071-1078), son of Constantine X and Eudokia

Though Michael VII looked strong and tall in appearance with thick curly hair, big eyes, and a large chest, he was weak on the inside being more interested in studying ancient verses thus people complained about him saying that he was more fit to be a bishop than an emperor, and truly he was the wrong kind of emperor in this time of crisis. The major inconvenience of Michael VII’s reign however was that there were so many people in his court with high positions of power as for instance his two other brothers Andronikos and Constantius as well as his half-brothers the twins Leo and Nikephoros Diogenes which were the sons of Romanos IV and Michael’s mother Eudokia were all co-emperors, while Michael’s wife Maria of Alania was now the senior empress or Augusta and his uncle John Doukas still held the title of Caesar, although here one of Michael VII’s sisters which was Theodora had already married Domenico Selvo, the leader or Doge of the rising Republic of Venice in Italy. Michael VII however being a weak ruler was someone easily influenced and here in 1073, he had been completely under the influence of his new eunuch advisor Nikephoritzes and acting under the bad advice of Nikephoritzes, Michael had sidelined his uncle John Doukas forcing him to retire to his estates in Asia Minor while Michael Psellos too would start feeling neglected as his former student the emperor started favoring Nikephoritzes over him and so Psellos here would retire to a monastery once again like he did back in the last years of Constantine IX’s reign before Psellos returned to the court under Empress Theodora (1055-1056). Now retiring to a monastery for good like in real history, Psellos would peacefully finish his Chronographia which is the primary although mostly biased source of this 11th century story.

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Coin of Michael VII (center) with his brothers co-emperors Constantius and Andronikos Doukas beside him

In this story however, since the Byzantines came out victorious over the Seljuks at Manzikert, they unlike in real history would not have to pay annual tribute to the Seljuks, instead the Seljuks would pay tribute to the Byzantines, therefore the economic instability and collapse in Michael VII’s reign would not happen in this story as it did in real history where the economy was so severely ruined with the standard gold solidus again devalued but this time by an entire quarter, thus Michael VII earned the nickname Parapinakes meaning “minus a quarter” as he devalued the gold currency by a full quarter. Though despite not devaluing the currency here in this story due to the income the empire received from the tribute collected from the Seljuks, the standard gold solidus would still not regain its former full gold value it had before Constantine IX’s reign in the 1040s-50s but again like in real history, the main reason for Michael’s downfall was his corrupt eunuch advisor Nikephoritzes. Like in real history, Nikephoritzes would do the same in this story in further causing starvation in the empire by banning free grain trade and putting himself in complete control of it, thus the prices for grain would begin to rise. The economic policies of Nikephoritzes here would like in real history cause the soldiers in Asia Minor and the Balkans to mutiny due to lack of pay while in the Balkans as well, the same will happen like in real history in 1073 when the Bulgarians would rise up once again against Byzantine imperial authorities being the second Bulgarian rebellion since 1040 against Michael IV and again it would be against the corrupt taxations of a eunuch official whereas in the last time it was against the eunuch John and this time against Nikephoritzes. This Bulgarian uprising here too would also be one not only regarding imperial taxation but about Bulgarian national identity, therefore the need to declare independence from Byzantium and again like in 1040 when the Bulgarian uprising’s leader Delyan was said to be a descendant of the last great Bulgarian tsar Samuil, the leader here in 1073 which here though was the Serbian nobleman and ruler of Duklja Constantine Bodin also claimed to be a descendant of Tsar Samuil.

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Constantine Bodin, Ruler of Duklja (Serbia) and leader of the Bulgarian Uprising of 1073

The rebellion in Bulgaria would soon enough prove to be too difficult for the imperial army in the Balkans to contain that it would spread across the region, although at the end the uprising would fully be crushed by the same general from Manzikert Nikephoros Bryennios who in this story after returning west with Romanos IV would be assigned by Michael VII to the Balkans whereas Bodin was captured and the cities taken by the rebels returned to Byzantine rule. Meanwhile, Michael VII seeing all of Byzantine Italy had fallen to the Norman duke Robert Guiscard did not care to take it back anymore as he was already facing many problems and even though in this story’s case due to the Byzantines winning in Manzikert and most of Asia Minor not falling into the hands of the Seljuks therefore there would be no ambitious generals all setting up their own independent lands, the problem in Asia Minor would again come from a Norman which is no other than the escaped Roussel de Bailleul. In real history though, Roussel and his Norman mercenaries joined the forces of the young Alexios Komnenos who accompanied his older brother Isaac in a campaign to drive the Seljuks away from Asia Minor where Isaac ended up captured, therefore Roussel and his 400 Normans saw this as an opportunity to escape and establish their own state in Asia Minor. In this story, though the Seljuks would not penetrate into Asia Minor due to losing to the Byzantines at Manzikert, Asia Minor due to losing 10% of its army at Manzikert would still be weakened in terms of defense, giving the Norman Roussel de Bailleul who comes back into the picture after disappearing for some 2 years, the right opportunity to do as his Norman people did in Italy by attacking the locals in order to demand pay from them in order to stop their attacks and put them under their protection, thus by doing these acts of terrorism, Roussel like in real history would be able to create his own small independent Norman state in Asia Minor with only 400 men.

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Roussel de Bailleul, Independent Norman leader in Asia Minor (1073-1076)

Now the Byzantine historians of this time often portray the Normans as treacherous, greedy, and violent which is actually very much true about them and no matter how the Normans would see themselves as cultured French people and devout Catholics, they were still stuck in the violent and greedy ways of their Viking ancestors, and now that the Normans by the 1070s had an empire ruled by different dynasties that now had control of England, Normandy, and Southern Italy, Roussel being in Asia Minor wanted to add it too into the wider Norman Empire. Michael VII however would not be oblivious to Roussel’s rebellion as by 1074, Roussel had already gained some significant control of Asia Minor making the city of Ancyra (today’s Anakara) as his capital, and so Michael VII would call his uncle John Doukas out of retirement and together with his son Andronikos, who returns to the picture after he last appeared when blinding Romanos IV in 1072, they would head into Roussel’s territory together with a unit of Varangian Guards and an army under the now aged general Nikephoros Botaneiates who would come back into the picture after many years of retirement, but at the end the Byzantines would suffer a defeat in battle due to the strength of Roussel’s famous Norman heavy cavalry and Botaneiates deserting John and Andronikos Doukas seeing he was too old to fight. With his victory, Roussel would further grow his lands in Asia Minor taking over a number of Byzantine Themes before reaching the Asian shore of the Bosporus right across Constantinople. Wanting to legalize his holdings in Asia Minor, Roussel like in real history here would proclaim John Doukas who became his captive as his puppet emperor against his nephew Michael VII. In real history, Michael VII growing nervous of Roussel’s ambitions in 1075 had made an alliance with the raiding Seljuks in Asia Minor agreeing to give them all the lands in Eastern and Central Asia Minor they had been raiding in exchange for defeating Roussel, and even though the Seljuk raiders in real history were able to successfully battle Roussel’s forces, Roussel still escaped east while only John and Andronikos Doukas were captured by the Seljuks. This event and not Manzikert in real history was then what led to the ultimate loss of Asia Minor to the Seljuks as after their success in battling Roussel’s forces, the Seljuks successfully gained control over most of Asia Minor. In real history though, both John and Andronikos Doukas were released when Michael VII paid their ransom to the Seljuks, though for agreeing to be made as Roussel’s puppet emperor, Michael VII forced his uncle John to renounce all his ambitions and titles given to him in exchange for not being blinded, thus John had retired as a monk while his son Andronikos would still survive although he would have to retire from public service due to being badly beaten by both his Norman and Seljuk captors. In this story however, Michael VII would not consider an alliance with the Seljuks as they were not present raiding Asia Minor, therefore a large portion of Byzantium’s heartland would not fall under their control, however Michael would still pay his uncle and cousin’s ransom though this time to Roussel and not the Seljuks and the same fate in real history would happen to John and Andronikos whereas John would be forced to retire as a monk and Andronikos from public service due to injuries.

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Alexios Komnenos, Byzantine general, art by AlexiosI

Instead of relying on the Seljuk Turks to deal with Roussel like in real history, Michael VII here would still rely on his army, and so in 1075 like in real history, Michael VII would send the young general Nikephoros Palaiologos and his army of 6,000 to deal with Roussel but due to not being paid on time, Palaiologos’ troops deserted him, therefore Michael would have to rely on another general and this would be the young Alexios Komnenos returning to the picture once again and despite being only 20 here in 1076, he possessed a lot of military skill. In 1076, Alexios’ forces like in real history would finally manage to capture Roussel in the Armeniac Theme where Alexios himself would drag Roussel in chains to Constantinople where a blindfold was placed over Roussel’s eyes to pretend he was blinded as Alexios here had been thinking that the emperor would want his prisoner brought in one piece. In this story however, Alexios when reaching Constantinople immediately executed Roussel by beheading him in the Hippodrome for everyone to see and Michael VII did not care any less as Roussel was indeed a troublemaker and thus his threat had finally ended and the lands he captured returned to Byzantine control. In real history though, Roussel would be imprisoned for a year but released this time swearing loyalty to Michael VII against a rebel general, but Roussel still switched sides but was later executed, except here with Roussel already executed in 1076 none of this would happen for now.        

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Byzantine territories in Asia Minor by 1075 (purple, bitten donut shaped), new Seljuk territories in Asia Minor in real history (green), Norman lands under Roussel de Bailleul (blue)
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Coin of Roussel de Bailleul
Watch this to learn more about Roussel de Bailleul and the Normans in Asia Minor (History Time).

In the meantime, Michael VII was growing ever more unpopular despite defeating Roussel de Bailleuil, and the main reason here was his chief finance minister the eunuch Nikephoritzes that in 1076 as well, the Byzantine garrison along the Danube in northern Bulgaria rebelled under their commander the Serb Nestor, a former slave of Michael VII’s father Constantine X who was freed and made a governor, though a lot of his wealth and property were confiscated by Nikephoritzes. The troops here demanded that the corrupt Nikephoritzes be removed from office while Nestor allied himself with the Pecheneg people beyond the Danube to gain a larger army in order to march to Constantinople. In 1077, another military rebellion broke out as well and this one was in the Balkans led by Nikephoros Bryennios, the same general that fought at Manzikert in 1071 and crushed the Bulgarian uprising in 1073 and again his rebellion had something to do with Nikephoritzes as Bryennios discovered that he was part of Nikephoritzes’ list of people to assassinate but also growing tired of the emperor Michael VII’s incompetence, he rebelled and marched to his home city of Adrianople in Thrace where he proclaimed himself emperor. Other than Nestor in the Danube and Nikephoros Bryennios in Adrianople, there would be a third general that would rise up against Michael VII and this here was the same old man Nikephoros Botaneiates in Asia Minor, although in real history Botaneiates only rebelled and proclaimed himself emperor after writing a letter to Michael VII asking him to act on the situation in Asia Minor as the Seljuks were already about to take over all of it, but in this story with the Seljuks not going as far as Central Asia Minor, Botaneiates would only rebel as he too was tired of Michael VII’s weak rule and in fear that his weak rule would later allow the Seljuks to one day penetrate deep into Asia Minor. On January 7 of 1078 meanwhile, a number of bishops gathered in the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople where they all declared their opposition against Michael VII and proclaiming that Nikephoros Botaneiates should be emperor and here, Michael VII would start losing hope.

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Constantine Doukas, son of Michael VII and Maria of Alania

In the meantime, Michael and his wife Empress Maria of Alania already had a child which was their son Constantine Doukas born in 1074 and already made co-emperor together with Michael’s brothers Andronikos and Constantius who were still around, although since 1077, Michael’s cousin and John Doukas’ son Andronikos had died due to the injuries he received when captured by Roussel, though his father John was still alive and even though he was made a monk, in early 1078 after the bishops turned on Michael, John too advised his nephew that he must abdicate as throne was no longer safe for him. Alexios Komnenos on the other hand also in early 1078 arrived in the Danube garrison right in time to defeat the rebel forces of Nestor, although Nestor who allied himself with the Pechenegs escaped with them never to return again.

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Flag of the Chinese Empire under the Song Dynasty (960-1279)

At around this time as well, Michael VII would make one achievement and this was in being another one of the Byzantine emperors to send ambassadors to China which now was under the Song Dynasty, thus making him the first Byzantine emperor in more than 4 centuries since Constans II (r. 641-668)- if you remember from chapter IV of this series- to send a diplomatic mission to China as it is recorded in this History of Song that in 1081, ambassadors from Byzantine emperor Michael VII visited China, although this mission unlike the one of Constans II if you remember which resulted in something had not and by the time the ambassadors reached China, Michael VII had already been ousted from power for already 3 years as right here in March of 1078, Michael VII like in real history finally decided to abdicate in favor of Nikephoros Botaneiates and retire peacefully to a monastery.

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Younger looking Emperor Nikephoros III Botaneiates (left) and Empress Maria of Alania (right)

Like in real history, Nikephoros Botaneiates here would gather a few Seljuk allies to help him take Constantinople and by the time he reached the capital, the nobility including the empress Maria of Alania all switched sides to Nikephoros and so Michael VII after he abdicated was forced to retire to the same Stoudion Monastery where Isaac I retired to some 20 years earlier to also become a monk. Michael’s brothers Andronikos and Constantius too were forced into monasteries in the Princes’ Islands in the Marmara Sea while Romanos IV and Eudokia’s twin sons Nikephoros and Leo Diogenes would still be allowed to remain in the palace, but Nikephoritzes in this story’s case would also flee and like in real history, he would also be tortured to death by the local commander in the Princes’ Islands under Nikephoros’ orders. The empress Maria of Alania on the other hand did not retire with her husband, instead she agreed to marrying the old Nikephoros Botaneiates who was over 50 years older than her as Maria was true enough ambitious therefore wanting to keep her power and secure her son Constantine’s succession as Nikephoros had no children anyway. The marriage between the 76-year-old Nikephoros Botaneiates and 25-year-old Maria of Alania thus seemed so outrageous as Maria was young and attractive while Nikephoros looked like he could be her grandfather, but Maria was only marrying him for political reasons as she still wanted to stay in power while Nikephoros too never really cared much about her except again for political reasons to legitimize his claim as being an old man, Nikephoros saw that Maria was too young and beautiful for him that Nikephoros even considered again marrying the former empress which was Michael’s mother Eudokia like he did 10 years earlier as she was much older, but having retired as a nun for many years already, Eudokia refused and so Nikephoros was left to marry the much younger Maria. Nikephoros Botaneiates then ironically came into the power the same way Isaac I Komnenos did in 1057 in the same kind of military revolution and thus he was crowned as Emperor Nikephoros III at 76, the oldest emperor ever so far to be crowned in Byzantine history and though in real history, Nikephoros III began his reign with the Seljuks already occupying most Asia Minor due to Michael VII’s previous alliance with them as well as his own, here his Seljuk allies being only a few in number would not gain much but being so old already when coming into power, Nikephoros III’s reign would be another unstable one.      

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The loss of Byzantine Asia Minor from 1071-1078 in real history

 

Epilogue and Conclusion   

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The new emperor Nikephoros III Botaneiates may have been a better emperor if he was much younger and if the empire were not in so much chaos as here in this story, despite Asia Minor not being so devastated by Seljuk Turkish raids, the Balkans would be the one chaotic as not only was Nikephoros Bryennios still left there rebelling but the Pechenegs continued their raids too. The situation of the empire in real history under Nikephoros III though would be worse as due to getting the Seljuks and their other Turkish allies to support him, Nikephoros III gave them almost all of Asia Minor including the city of Nicaea very close to Constantinople which then became the Seljuks’ new capital, thus almost all of Byzantine Asia Minor was lost. In real history however, the main Seljuk Empire of Alp Arslan had already more or less dissolved following his death in 1072 thus never making their ultimate goal of conquering Egypt, but this still scattered his Turks around Asia Minor dividing into two major groups with one being the main Seljuk Empire’s successor state which was the Sultanate of Rum and the other one in North-Central Asia Minor being the Danishmend Turks, while in the region of Cilicia in Southern Asia Minor the Armenian people from Eastern Asia Minor fleeing from the expansion of the Seljuk and Danishmend Turks would end up there and establish their own state there in 1080 known as the Principality of Cilician Armenia.

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Flag of the Principality of Armenia in Cilicia, founded by Armenian refugees following the Seljuk conquest of Asia Minor in real history

In this story however, none of these would happen in Asia Minor, as the Seljuks would go another way heading down south into the Levant but Nikephoros III’s rule here just like in real history would be the same as he too seeing that the economy had already been damaged under Michael VII would not bother to fix it and just like Constantine X he was another boring old man that would be too old to save the empire and so he would devalue the currency again even more than it was under Michael VII as in fact under Nikephoros III, the standard gold solidus would be devalued by a full third. Though without Asia Minor being completely almost lost to the Turks here, Nikephoros III would have to suffer a number of military uprisings by a number of generals who all saw he was too old and unfit to rule and to deal with them, Nikephoros III would appoint the young Alexios Komnenos to specifically do that job.

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Emperor Nikephoros III Botaneiates of Byzantium (r. 1078-1081) and his court behind

The first general to rebel against Nikephoros III would be no other than Nikephoros Bryennios in the Balkans although later in 1078, Alexios Komnenos would be able to defeat Bryennios in battle afterwards blinding Bryennios who would however still continue to live. The next general to rebel had the same name as the emperor and the previous usurper and this was Nikephoros Basilakes in the Balkans who in 1079 was easily defeated thus blinded by the young Alexios but in Constantinople, the emperor would almost get assassinated by his own Varangian Guard, though to punish them he only sent them way to a fortress in Asia Minor. In the meantime, since Nikephoros III took the throne, he had cancelled the existing marriage proposal between Michael VII and Maria of Alania’s young son Constantine and the Norman duke of Southern Italy Robert Guiscard’s daughter and because of this, Robert Guiscard grew furious that like in real history, he would begin to prepare his forces to invade Byzantium. In 1080, the empress Maria of Alania had happened to adopt Alexios Komnenos despite him being only 3 years younger than her, although the reason for this was that she fell in love with Alexios behind the emperor’s back. In 1080 as well like in real history, another general again named Nikephoros from the powerful Melissenos family rose up against the emperor in Asia Minor and so Alexios was sent to crush this rebellion but on the way, he was persuaded by no other than the retired Caesar John Doukas who became a monk to instead turn on the old emperor and take the throne and soon enough, a large number of the empire’s aristocracy all backed young Alexios as he was seen as more capable to rule in a hard time like this while he too had support as he was a nephew of the former emperor Isaac I Komnenos, and so Alexios would also give up his affair with the empress as he had married Irene Doukaina, the granddaughter of John Doukas and daughter of the late general Andronikos Doukas. Like in real history here, Nikephoros III when finding out Alexios turned on him would try to ally himself with the Seljuks and attempt to make peace with the rebel general Melissenos but without success.

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Emperor Alexios I Komnenos of Byzantium (r. 1081-1118)

Alexios Komnenos and his forces would arrive outside Constantinople in April of 1081 wherein due to the lack of soldiers defending the walls, Alexios and his army stormed the capital and sacked it while Nikephoros III having no other options abdicated and retired again as a monk although he named Nikephoros Melissenos his successor, but when Alexios Komnenos took the throne, Melissenos surrendered his claim to Alexios. Now Nikephoros III’s name ironically meant “bringer of victory” but he was not able to score any and thus he abdicated as the last emperor in Byzantine history to have that name and in the next year, he would die as a monk at the age of 80. The new emperor Alexios I Komnenos would come to power the same way he did in real history in 1081 ready to save the empire, except without having to face the dire situation of Asia Minor almost lost to the Seljuks but the major threat he would face was the upcoming Norman invasion. First of all, Alexios would adopt Michael VII and Maria of Alania’s son Constantine as his own as well as Romanos IV and Eudokia’s twins Leo and Nikephoros Diogenes in order to secure his legitimacy and despite Alexios being married, he would still allow the empress Maria to remain in the palace while Michael VII’s younger brother Constantius would be released from the monastery and be made one of Alexios’ generals in his upcoming campaign against the Normans.

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Exiled Anglo-Saxon Varangian Guard

Like in real history, the Norman invasion of Byzantium led by their duke Robert Guiscard himself and would take place in October of 1081 and Alexios I and his forces which would include Anglo-Saxons from England exiled by their Norman conquerors in the Varangian Guard unit would march to confront the Normans. The forces of Alexios I and Robert Guiscard’s Normans would like in real history clash at the Battle of Dyrrhachion in today’s Albania in which the Anglo-Saxon Varangians would meet again with their enemy, their Norman conquerors but in a different place and desiring revenge for conquering their homeland and sending them away, the Anglo-Saxons would charge at the Normans without orders thus creating chaos in the Byzantine army which would later lead to their defeat to the Normans. In this story, the Byzantines like in real history would suffer a humiliating defeat to the Normans whereas Constantius Doukas would be killed in battle and the new emperor Alexios barely escaping from it. Alexios however like in real history would still not accept defeat and so he would find a way to bribe Robert Guiscard’s subjects in Italy to rebel against their Norman overlords, thus this had made Robert rush back to Italy to crush their rebellion while at the same time, Alexios would seal what would be a permanent naval alliance with the Republic of Venice against the Normans. Though Robert returned to Italy, his son Bohemond was still left behind to carry out the Norman conquest of Greece but in 1083 his forces would lose to Alexios I’s Byzantine army at the Battle of Larissa in Greece and in 1084, Robert Guiscard would return to Byzantine Greece attempting to carry out a full invasion this time but before being able to, he would die in 1085 like in real history when his army got hit by a local plague in Greece, thus the Norman invasion would be cut short as Bohemond would have to return to Italy to consolidate his rule as its new duke.

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Cumans, allies of Alexios I against the Pechenegs

With everything settled down, the next time Alexios I would come back into action here just like in real history is in 1091 when the Pechenegs in the thousands invade the Byzantine Balkans all the way down to Thrace in such a mindless manner and here Alexios would ally himself with the Pechenegs’ mortal enemy which were the other Turkic nomadic people known as the Cumans. Alexios I here like in real history would defeat the Pechenegs at the Battle of Levounion in 1091 where under the request of the Cumans, the Byzantines would carry out a brutal genocide on the Pechenegs wiping out every last one of them, thus the Pecheneg threat would be settled once and for all. What would not happen here which did in real history was Alexios I’s campaign against the renegade Seljuk general Tzachas who both made for himself an independent state and declared himself a Byzantine emperor using the Byzantine city of Smyrna in Asia Minor as his base, but in this story, with there being no Turks in Asia Minor due to their defeat at Manzikert, there would be no Tzachas to pose a threat to Byzantium. In real history though, Alexios I was able to defeat Tzachas only by tricking the Seljuk Sultan of Rum Kilij Arslan I who was Tzachas’ son-in-law that hated him into killing his father-in-law at a dinner which succeeded, but in this story again with no Turks in Asia Minor, none of this would happen.      

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All territories under the Seljuks in their entire history (orange)
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All territories under the Normans in their history (red)
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Battle of Dyrrhachion, Byzantine defeat to the Normans in Albania, 1081, art by FaisalHashemi
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Alexios Komnenos and Maria of Alania, art by Minahboh24
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Alexios I Komnenos, art by Diogos_tales

Watch this to learn more about the Battle of Dyrrhachion, 1081 (Kings and Generals). 

  

For this story, the rest of Alexios I Komnenos’ reign would be fast-tracked, but I would still describe how the situation in the empire would be like in the 1090s considering that the Seljuks lost at Manzikert and therefore did not end up taking almost all of Asia Minor like in real history. On the other hand, the previous emperor Michael VII Doukas who had retired in 1078 to become a monk in this story like in real history would end up becoming the Bishop of Ephesus during Alexios I’s reign and would die sometime in the 1090s, although in real history Ephesus which was in Asia Minor would still be one of the few remaining territories under Byzantine hands while the rest had already fallen to the divided Seljuk powers, but in this case most of Asia Minor would still be Byzantine except for the far east where Armenia is which in this story would have already fallen to the Seljuks.

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Emperor Alexios I Komnenos

In real history, the collapse of Asia Minor to the rule of the Turks was so dire that even the Byzantine army which was still strong considering now that the empire had a strongman emperor again running it which was Alexios I, they still could not do anything themselves to recover all of Asia Minor from the Turks and so this meant that the emperor needed to seek military aid from Western Europe and this would come in the form of the First Crusade. Now in this story without almost all of Asia Minor lost to the Seljuks and other Turkish powers, Alexios I would have no reason to ask for military assistance from the west as Constantinople itself was not threatened anyway but I would still say that the First Crusade happened as after all the Council of Clermont in France organized in 1095 by Pope Urban II was called not really to help Byzantium fight against the Turkish invaders but to capture the holy city of Jerusalem from the Turks that had recently captured it. Now Jerusalem for over 4 centuries since the 630s- mentioned back in chapter IV of this series- had been under Muslim hands although the previous Muslim rulers of Jerusalem which were the Arab Caliphates still allowed Christian pilgrims from Europe to travel freely into the city, but with the new Muslim power of the Seljuk Turks seizing Jerusalem- which like in real history would also happen in this story- it had become too dangerous for Christian pilgrims to travel there as along the way they would be ambushed by Seljuk Turk raiders who were more fanatical Muslims than their Arab predecessors.

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Council of Clermont, Beginning of the First Crusade, 1095

When the First Crusade to recapture Jerusalem from the Turks was called in 1095, a large number of knights and nobles from Europe willingly agreed to it to defend their faith but a lot of them also did it in search of land and riches and true enough the Normans of Italy led by no other than Bohemond, the son of Robert Guiscard was willing to fight in the Crusades for his own personal glory, especially to add more lands this time in the Middle East into the empire of the Normans. The first wave of Crusaders to march from Europe to the Middle East by land were however not a group of organized knights but an unruly pack of peasants led by a certain Peter the Hermit, and this movement was known as the People’s Crusade which in 1096 arrived in Byzantine lands pillaging it that Alexios I had to act on it quickly and so he had these unorganized Western European peasants quickly transported across the Bosporus into Asia Minor where they would be defeated, dispersed, and captured by the Seljuks never even making it anywhere near their main objective in the Levant.

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Knights of the First Crusade

The army Alexios I asked for however came in 1097 and part of it was his old nemesis the Norman Bohemond, and this army consisting of knights and noblemen despite being organized were however also troublesome as they never really wanted to help Byzantium regain their lands but take these lands for themselves and so to put them under control, Alexios I brought them to Constantinople to make sure they all swore loyalty to him or else they would not be allowed to continue their march. Most of the Crusader leaders however swore their loyalty but some of them still did not and even though some did, they still never remained loyal. As the Crusaders continued their march, most of Asia Minor was still returned to Byzantium as the Byzantine army had escorted them to make sure Byzantine lands were restored to the empire and true enough the city of Nicaea was returned to Byzantium in 1097 only because the Byzantine army took it back from the Seljuks by surprise behind the Crusaders’ backs, although after this the Crusaders managed to win a decisive victory over the Seljuks at the Battle of Dorylaeum in Asia Minor which then opened for them the way to march south into the Middle East.

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Bohemond, Prince of Crusader Antioch (r. 1098-1111), son of Robert Guiscard

The Crusaders had soon enough been able to reach Syria with much difficulty and in 1098, the Norman forces under Bohemond were able to capture the city of Antioch from the Seljuks thus Bohemond had claimed it for himself establishing the Norman Principality of Antioch with him as its prince. The rest of the Crusaders then proceed south and in 1099, before the next century had begun, the Crusades’ division of the Frenchman Godfrey of Bouillon were able to achieve their ultimate goal which was capturing Jerusalem and what followed the Crusaders’ capture of Jerusalem was a complete massacre of the city’s Muslim and Jewish population by the Crusaders out of revenge. In this story however, since the Byzantines again would not suffer the loss of almost all of their heartland Asia Minor to the Seljuk Turks, none of these events would happen as Alexios I would not have to ask for military assistance from the west which would in real history come in the form of the First Crusade that would be both a benefit and problem for the Byzantines, although without having to ask for military assistance from the west, the First Crusade would surely still happen as Jerusalem would still fall to the Turks, therefore the pope would still have to gather the people of Europe to fight back, but thing here is that without Byzantium asking for their assistance, these Crusaders would have no way to get to the Middle East as the only way was through Byzantium itself, and so without the Byzantine emperor asking for them, the Crusaders would have to find another way to get to Jerusalem but that would be a totally different story that you would have to decide for yourselves how that would go. Anyway, I would have to end the story right here where the eventful and challenging 11th century ends and where a new era begins, and this new era being the era of the Crusades would be a story for another time. Now, what a Byzantine victory at Manzikert in 1071 would result in would simply be that the situation of Asia Minor being overrun by the Turks would not be so devastating like it was in real history, therefore no need for the Byzantine emperor to call for Western military assistance, although a lot of things would still be the same and this would be that Byzantium even though winning a victory over the Seljuks would still have to face the disaster of civil wars and rebellions as well as a damaged economy while even though Byzantium would not ask for Western military assistance against the Seljuks, the First Crusade would still more or less come to happen as their main objective was Jerusalem anyway and not to help Byzantium.

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Map of the First Crusade’s Route (1096-1099)
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Map of Asia Minor at the time of the First Crusade
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People’s Crusade led by Peter the Hermit
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Crusader forces of Bohemond capture Antioch from the Seljuks, 1098
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Crusaders capture Jerusalem from the Seljuks, End of the First Crusade, 1099

Our story will end right here where this roller-coaster 11th century ends, and like many centuries in the history of Byzantium, the 11th century beginning with Basil II and ending with the First Crusade was one that had only featured so many events happening as it saw Byzantium go from a world power when the century began with the reign of Basil II to an empire weakened by new enemies they never have never heard of until they came. The 11th century started off with Byzantium as the dominant power of the Eastern Mediterranean and Eastern Europe that everyone looked up to for its culture and feared the power of its army especially considering how one entire nation being the Bulgarian Empire was wiped off the map and absorbed into the Byzantine Empire. However, this age of greatness did not really continue but the power of Byzantium as an empire, as the century progressed still remained no matter how many economic and political setbacks the empire had gone through. Byzantium reaching its apogee of power and influence under Basil II also meant that it would decline after it as it usually happens that the decline of an empire usually happens after its peak and for Byzantium, the empire may have not suffered so much if Basil II were succeeded by more competent emperors but instead the rulers that followed included his good for nothing brother Constantine VIII who may have only ruled for 3 years (1025-1028), but having a weak and worthless ruler like him meant that the empire was no longer in good hands, but the worst part was to come after him and this was through his daughter the empress Zoe who wastefully spend the full treasury her uncle Basil II worked so hard to fill while her 3 husbands more or less did the same as she did. Another reason how Byzantium’s power and influence had declined was the weakening of its economy especially by corrupt eunuchs and the 11th century here had featured two notable ones first being Emperor Michael IV’s (r. 1034-1041) brother John and the other being Nikephoritzes, the advisor of the emperor Michael VII (r. 1071-1078). Fortunately, the institutions in the empire including the state bureaucracy and the well-organzied structure of the army with additional assistance such as the powerful Varangian Guards kept Byzantium strong at this challenging time and despite there being many weak, corrupt, or even idiotic rulers at this period, there were also a few strong and capable ones needed in difficult times like this that were still intent to return the empire to its old glory when there was still a chance to and these emperors included Isaac I Komnenos (1057-1059), Romanos IV Diogenes (1068-1071), and Alexios I Komnenos where this century ends and though the first two mentioned here never got the chance to fulfil their mission to save the empire from decline, the 3rd one did and under the reign of Alexios I, Byzantium would again return to being the dominant power in the Mediterranean by the time the next century begins. What I now have to say about the 11th century was that for the Byzantine Empire it was a merry-go-around as one moment there would be a weak emperor and a corrupt court then there would be a strong one willing to restore the empire’s power, then again, another weak emperor and so on, but it was still one very action-packed century with just so many stories especially about battles to tell. On the other hand, there were also some things for the empire that they could not do about as for one, having such a large empire in which the empire did after Basil II’s death in 1025 meant that there would need to be so much spending for the army and structures for the empire to keep running while the other thing that could not be controlled were the rise of new foreign enemies and the Byzantines true enough never saw the Normans in Italy or the Seljuks coming from the far east becoming a major threat so quickly. The 11th century was then a major turning point for Byzantine history as it was when a foreign power being the Seljuks for the first time invaded and would settle permanently in its heartland Asia Minor, thus the beginning of the end of Byzantium, but also a turning point in Turkish history too as the 11th century was the start of the Turkish settlement in Asia Minor which would lead to the collapse of the centuries old Byzantine Thematic System, the separation of Byzantium with the Arab world after 4 centuries of being beside each other, and later to the foundation of the Ottoman Empire and what is today Turkey. The 11th century was also a major turning point for Byzantium as in 1071 Byzantine control over Italy would permanently disappear with the Normans capturing the last Byzantine city of Bari, thus this event would forever separate Byzantium from the western world, though the other big crucial moment was the Great Schism of 1054 which forever divided the Byzantine world from the western world in terms of spirituality, and from here the west would no longer trust Byzantium and vice-versa which would be the what the next few chapters of this series will focus on. On the other hand, the 11th century was also very eventful for the larger world as this century saw the Kingdom of France rise to influence, the establishment of the Kingdom of England following the Norman conquest of 1066, the rise of the Kingdom of Hungary, the expansion of Christian Spain when tide of war had turned against their Arab Muslim occupiers with the conquests of the general El Cid, while Egypt under the Fatimid Caliphate grew in influence in this century and so did the Song Empire of China, while distant Japan too underwent the golden age of the Heian Period in this century, and another significant event too was that when this century began the Viking Leif Ericsson first discovered and settled in North America. Back to Byzantium, the Battle of Manzikert in 1071 was really the major turning point if there would have to be an event that would mark the beginning of Byzantium’s decline, but what I am really trying to prove here in this alternate history story is that even if the Byzantines won over the Seljuks at the Battle of Manzikert, the empire would pretty much go through the same story of the emperor Romanos IV being betrayed, uprisings everywhere, and corruption and incompetence in government with the only difference being no major Seljuk Turkish invasion and occupation of Byzantine Asia Minor. Perhaps if Romanos IV were not betrayed and thus he took back the throne successfully, then maybe things would turn out to be different for Byzantium, but for this story I did not want to go with that possibility in order to be more realistic. Now, no matter if the Byzantines won or lost to the Seljuks at the Battle of Manzikert, the empire had already lost a lot of its power and prestige it had at the beginning of the century over the many years leading up to 1071 and even if the Byzantines won, the empire as I said would still suffer the same kind of internal instability while the Normans from the west would still be a threat anyway. However, a Byzantine victory over the Seljuks at Manzikert would have a significant difference for Byzantium in the long term as for one there would be no massive Seljuk Turkish occupation of Asia Minor, therefore no rise of the Ottomans centuries later that would bring in Byzantium’s end in 1453, while no major Seljuk occupation of Asia Minor would also mean no need for Byzantium to ask for Western military aid, but as I said I said even if there would be no Seljuk occupation of Asia Minor, the First Crusade may still be a thing as their objective was as mentioned not to aid Byzantium but to take Jerusalem back from the Seljuks that captured it. To put simply, the Battle of Manzikert was not really a major turning point that brought Byzantium down but more like a wakeup call that shocked the empire proving that they were not as invincible as they had thought, and even if the Byzantines defeated the Seljuks here, Byzantium would still fall to its internal fighting and political instability sooner or later which is then the whole point of this alternate history story.

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Coat of Arms of Byzantium under the Komnenos Dynasty

In real history, even if the Byzantines suffered a heavy defeat to the Seljuks at Manzikert in 1071, their empire would still have another 4 centuries of story to tell with more ups and downs and the next chapter of this series will go through Byzantium’s new golden age under the Komnenos Dynasty founded by Alexios I in 1081 just like in this story and how this new golden age would as usual come to an end but this time by the new force of the Crusaders, but this series’ next chapter too would explore what events in the 12th century could prevent the tragic event of 1204 when Constantinople would for the first time be invaded which here was by the Crusaders which then would be the event that would mark the permanent decline of Byzantium, but that is going to have to be a story for another time. Now, before I finish, I have to say this particular story was a challenging one to write as the scenario of what if the Byzantines defeated the Seljuks at Manzikert is already a very popular what if story in Byzantine history, but for this I just chose to basically follow my thoughts and feelings on how the 11th century would turn out if things went the other way with Byzantium winning at Manzikert in order to make it a more authentic story. Well, this is all for Chapter VIII of Byzantine Alternate History, this is Powee Celdran, the Byzantine Time Traveller… thank you for your time!     

Byzantine Alternate History Chapter VII- A Retelling of the Bizarre Byzantine Renaissance and the Macedonian (Amorian) Dynasty

Posted by Powee Celdran

DISCLAIMER: Although this is mostly a work of fiction, it is largely based on true events and characters. It seeks to alter the course of actual events that transpired in the 9th and 10th centuries AD. This story will begin with events that happened in real history but will become fictional as it progresses.

Previous Story: Byzantine Alternate History Chapter VI- 9th Century

Look, I’m giving you these rules, so that you will not leave the best advices and the public interest in the light of past experiments and filtered information.” -Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos, De Administrando Imperio

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Welcome to the 7th chapter of the Byzantine Alternate History series by the Byzantium Blogger! Now before I begin this very lengthy article that will span more than a hundred years, I just have to say that I can’t believe I now reached this far in my series basically being more than halfway through the 1,100-year history of Byzantium, thus a milestone indeed! Last time, in chapter VI of this 12-part series, I discussed a possible and highly popular what if scenario of the Byzantine empress Irene of Athens actually marrying the rising star of the time, the Frankish emperor Charlemagne in 802 which could have happened but never did. The previous story too talked about one large united Frankish-Roman Empire as a result of this said marriage that would be a European superpower like the Roman Empire of old and would be powerful enough to turn the tide against the Byzantine Empire’s two mortal enemies and greatest threats being the Arab Abbasid Caliphate in the east and the Bulgarian Empire in the north. Though this marriage would been necessary only in reversing all of the Byzantine economic and military setbacks in the short-term but in the long-term this union of both Byzantine (Eastern Roman) and Carolingian Frankish Empires would only be rather confusing as both halves of the empire (eastern and western) were of different cultures and religions to put it short, and the succession system would be even more complicated. Now since the alternate history scenarios featured per chapter in this series do not continue with each other, the said fictional marriage from the last chapter and the union of the two empires would not continue here, and again as each story in this series is a stand-alone, this chapter would again begin discussing real historical events which will have a twist as it progresses. True enough, this marriage between Irene and Charlemagne was not that necessary in order to reverse all of Byzantium’s setbacks as about a century after this marriage was supposed to happen, Byzantium was long done with its dystopian-like Dark Ages period that the past 3 chapters were set in, and was now in its second golden age- the first one being in the 6th century under Emperor Justinian I the Great (r. 527-565)- and now here out of Dark Ages, the Byzantine Empire as the 9th century ends became a cultural and military power in Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean and together with the Frankish and Bulgarian Empires, one of the 3 major powers of early medieval Europe as a whole. For almost 3 centuries, the Byzantine Empire plunged into a dark age where the empire rapidly lost a great amount of territory and was under attack by enemies on all sides forcing them to fight for centuries on the defensive whether against the Arab powers from the east or the Bulgars from the north, but in the second half of the 9th century, things would all of a sudden change for the Byzantines. The turn of the tide for the Byzantines in the latter 9th century however did not come out of the blue, rather it mostly happened because of the luck of having good geography as in the east, the powerful Abbasid Caliphate being too large to govern started dissolving with its authority becoming decentralized into smaller states or Emirates and, in the west, the same thing too happened to the powerful Carolingian Frankish Empire of Charlemagne as part of Frankish tradition was to divide the empire among a ruler’s successors, thus these situations would give an advantage for Byzantium in the middle to rise again. The 9th century would see the Byzantine Empire slowly rise again into a dominant world power while the 10th century which would be this story’s main focus would see the Byzantine Empire literally in its second golden age of cultural and military power that other powers would grow to respect and fear it, but despite the great power and influence the Byzantines would gain here, they were still far from being an undefeatable force, as they would still face some military defeats to the Arabs and Bulgars while their imperial authority would still be challenged by the western world again in a “Cold War” like situation. Now since this series features one chapter per century, this one would primarily be set in the 10th century with Byzantium again reaching its peak of power and influence but between the previous chapter and this one, there will be a massive time jump as the last chapter was set in the very early part of the 9th century. Despite the massive time jump here of over 100 years, there will still be a lot mentioned about the 9th century in this story’s background as the 9th century had a very crucial role in Byzantine history especially in shaping the second golden age in the 10th century as the 9th century saw the Dark Ages of the Byzantine Empire end, as well as the pointless issue of Iconoclasm or the breaking of icons, the dissolution of the Abbasid Caliphate in the east which allowed the Byzantines to turn the tide of war to the offensive against them, the spread of Orthodox Christianity from Byzantium to the Balkans wherein the Bulgars would finally become Christian, and the rise of the most colorful dynasty in Byzantine history, the Macedonian Dynasty which was founded by Basil I the Macedonian in 867 in a rather violent away, and again Basil I was another of the Byzantine emperors who came from humble origins who would go from a peasant, to a stable boy and wrestler, to a bodyguard, and finally become the sole emperor founding a dynasty that would last for over 200 years till the mid 11th century, but the big question is if this Macedonian Dynasty really existed as Basil I’s son and successor was Leo VI who continued the dynasty through his descendants was believed to not be his son but the son of the last emperor of the Amorian Dynasty Michael III who Basil killed, and this story now will exactly do that in discussing the possibility of the Macedonian Dynasty not really existing but in fact still being the Amorian Dynasty of the 9th century. This dynasty whether you would stick to it being the Macedonian or go with the possibility of it being the Amorian Dynasty continued would feature colorful rulers whether they were from the bloodline of Basil I or were powerful generals from the wealthy landed aristocracy that married into it, and these colorful characters of this powerful dynasty from the 9th to 10th centuries in chronological order would include its founder being a wrestler of low birth who became emperor, a serious scholar, a vengeful drunk, an unlikely admiral with a great ability in ruling, an intellectual snob obsessed with court rituals, a fun-loving party-boy, a highly skilled but ruthless general without much political and diplomatic skills, and an overall perfect mix of a soldier and diplomat emperor. The 10th century then would be forever remembered for these characters but also because it was very action-packed and featured a lot of the political struggles and extravagance Byzantium would be remembered for and henceforth the word “byzantine” meaning complicated. At the same time, I also have to admit that the 10th century under the Macedonian Dynasty is my favorite period in Byzantine history and was the particular period that got me so into Byzantine history. This period too is one of the most popular- next of course to Justinian I’s reign in the 6th century- in the history of Byzantium that recently, a graphic novel Theophano: Byzantine Tale, which I also made an article about before, was set in this era with the lead character being Empress Theophano who shares the story’s title name, and Theophano too was one of the major players of the 10th century Byzantine golden age who comes in the middle and latter part of the century being as the novel suggested a woman of low birth who married into the imperial family first to the fun-loving party-boy emperor mentioned above which was Romanos II (r. 959-963) who was from the direct bloodline of the Macedonian (Amorian) Dynasty and afterwards following his death she would be married to the highly skilled but ruthless general mentioned above which was Nikephoros II Phokas (r. 963-969) who after marrying Theophano would become emperor. Basically, no matter how small Theophano’s part in the bigger picture would look like, she did indeed play a major role in continuing the Macedonian Dynasty by giving birth to two sons who would be emperors later on being Basil II (r. 976-1025) and Constantine VIII (r. 1025-1028), and it was Theophano who also served as a link between all the influential people of this era, while at the same time being an ambitious woman which was something quite unheard of then, she also gets some bad reputation as a seductress and murderer that the poisoning and death of her father-in-law Constantine VII in 959 and of her husband Romanos II in 963 and also for plotting the successful assassination of her second husband Nikephoros II in 969. The big twist for this story then would be in its latter half, where if Theophano who in real history only came into the imperial family by chance never got the chance to do so, how different would the history of Byzantium in the 10th century be if Theophano simply did not come into the picture and just lived a simple life away from the politics of the imperial family?     

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Note: Since this story is set in the 9th and 10th centuries after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the Byzantine characters will be referred to as Byzantines, not Romans.  

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Map of the 10th century Byzantine Empire (purple), from Byzantine Tales

For this story, I am back again to basically writing it alone except that the major inspiration for this story’s alternate history plot is from the recent Byzantine era graphic novel Theophano: A Byzantine Tale (Instagram: @byzantine_tales) by Spyros Theocharis (Instagram: @spyrosem) which I read very early this year and highly enjoyed that I even made an article reviewing the novel which included a fan casting for the Byzantine era characters for a potential film and a historical analysis of it made before I even began doing this Byzantine Alternate History series.

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Theophano: A Byzantine Tale graphic novel

Now don’t get me wrong here as I did indeed totally enjoy the graphic novel and its plot and because I enjoyed it and it has intrigued me a lot, I ended up involving its plot into my fan fiction series except without its lead character Theophano for the sake of experimenting which I usually do in this series, and for me this was also what I thought would be the best alternate history topic to feature for the 10th century. For those who do not know about this novel and want to know more about the real history of 10th century Byzantium, you can check their website linked here and order a copy of it, but for those who already know the story and want to see a different side of it without its lead character, this story here being chapter VII of my Byzantine Alternate History series will be exactly that. As I mentioned earlier, the Macedonian Dynasty era or Byzantine Renaissance from 867 to the end of the 10th century is my favorite era in all of Byzantine history as it was also the first era in Byzantine history that I read about 2 years ago which then suddenly got me so passionate about Byzantium, and although I already knew about Byzantium before by learning about Justinian I’s era in school, it was this particular period of Byzantium’s second golden age which I discovered by myself that got me so into Byzantine history, therefore this story that I am writing here will be an extra special one for me. The Theophano graphic novel too was a very great story basically because it was set in my favorite timeline in Byzantine history featuring some of Byzantium’s most colorful historical figures and intrigues coming to life, though despite Theophano taken out the picture thus altering the course of the said graphic novel’s plot, the well-made illustrations for the novel by Chrysa Sakel (Instagram: @chrysasakel) would still appear here as a visual guide to 10th century Byzantium and so would be the valuable primary visual source of this era the Madrid Skylitzes in which these illustrations would frequently appear here as well as its counterpart the Russian Primary Chronicle, and so would the artworks from various artists I know online that create Byzantine fan art including Ediacar, Amelianvs, Spatharokandidatos, Akitku, HistoryGold777, Ancientcitylullaby, and Justinianusthegreat. Now back to this story’s style, it will be very much like chapter III of this series which focused on Justinian I’s reign in terms of storytelling as like chapter III, this one will go with the flow of real history meaning that there would not be so much side stories, or more personal touches, or entirely fictional or highly embellished scenarios as the other chapters did, rather this chapter would be straight to the point sticking to historical events going in the same flow as they did in reality for the sake of conveniency as this chapter will cover more than a hundred years of story, but along the way, there will be a number of changes to the narrative and the most significant one first being the Macedonian Dynasty actually being the Amorian Dynasty continued and in latter half of this story when the character of Theophano herself is removed from the plot. In real history, Theophano came into the imperial family by chance when Romanos II as the imperial heir to his father Constantine VII chose her to be his wife, though it is still speculated whether Theophano (originally Anastaso) was simply a commoner from Greece and a daughter of an innkeeper who was rumored for her exceptional beauty that imperial heir Romanos chose her to be his wife or that she came from a minor noble family, but the graphic novel goes with the first theory, and when married she gets herself involved in the toxic schemes of the imperial court. This story however will have a different take on Theophano by making it seem like she did not exist at all and so the big plot here would be that Romanos II simply never heard about her, therefore he would never marry but the rest of the story will simply follow the events of real history which means Romanos II like in reality would die in 963 very young after only 4 years in power and would be succeeded by the Nikephoros II Phokas as emperor except here he would not marry Theophano as she wouldn’t even be around and like in real history would still be assassinated in 969 by his general John Tzimiskes wherein this story would end. At first, it may seem like Theophano did not really have any significant role but later on she would as her son Basil II would become the sole emperor of Byzantium following the death of John I Tzimiskes in 976 and as emperor, Basil II would begin with a rough start but at the end would achieve the impossible of conquering the entire Bulgarian Empire thus becoming one of Byzantium’s greatest conquering emperors known as “Basil II the Bulgar-Slayer” making the Byzantine Empire be once again at its greatest extent of territory, but this would only be achieved in the next century. Since this story’s main plotline is only limited to the 10th century while it was only in the early 11th century in real history when Byzantium reached its peak of power and influence covering a vast amount of territory again after the conquest of the entire Balkans, this story will squeeze in the full Byzantine conquest of the Bulgarian Empire into the 10th century before it ends as a way to give this chapter a dramatic conclusion, and therefore this means that Basil II was not really necessary for the conquest of Bulgaria as any other competent soldier emperor could have done it too, therefore, I would also say Theophano’s part was not really of any significance considering her being Basil II’s mother. On the other hand, there was a lot of research put into this story and rewriting the course of Byzantine history and I would have to thank the Youtube channels that feature Byzantine history in detail which are as usual Kings and Generals, Eastern Roman History, and Thersites the Historian, and of course my ultimate source the highly comprehensive History of Byzantium Podcast by Robin Pierson, and at the same time my Lego films from my channel No Budget Films set in this era will be featured here as well.  

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Map of the Byzantine Empire (purple) at its medieval apogee, beginning of the 11th century

Watch this video below to learn more about the Byzantine emperors from the Macedonian Dynasty (from Hellenic History Series).


 

Before beginning the main part of the story itself, there is still some more I have to say about why the 10th century under the Macedonian Dynasty is my favorite period in the history of Byzantium and this is not only because it is fascinating with colorful characters and it was the first part of Byzantine history that I fully read about which got me into it, but it is rather also because it was the century of the Byzantine Empire. Now what I meant about the 10th century being “the century” of Byzantium is that it was the century Byzantium would be remembered for or basically its golden age the same way the Renaissance in the 15th century was for Italy, the 16th century for Spain, the era of Napoleon in the late 18th and early 19th centuries for France, and the Victorian Era and Industrial Revolution in the 19th century for England which means for Byzantium it was its most eventful era not necessarily meaning everything went their way but rather so much had happened with so many colorful characters and events, therefore making this era known as the “Byzantine Renaissance”, though on the other hand this era too happens to be quite insider being mostly only known to Byzantine history enthusiasts. For Byzantium, the 6th century under Justinian I the Great could also be considered Byzantium’s great moment but then it did not last that long and it was also only under one emperor, and on the other hand, Byzantium was still a Roman superpower unlike here in this chapter set in the 10th century, the eventful era for the empire was not under just one emperor but a whole dynasty of colorful rulers and here too Byzantium was growing into its height of power and influence as a culturally and linguistically Greek empire in the Middle Ages but of course still the Roman Empire (Basileia ton Rhomaion in Greek)in name. This chapter will exactly show how Byzantium was the cultural and military power of the 10th century as the extensive military conquests would feature heavily here wherein the powerful Byzantine army did not just fight to defend their borders anymore but gain the upper hand to launch attacks deep into Arab territory in the Middle East where the Byzantines had not ventured to in the past 3 centuries therefore regaining a large amount of lands they lost in the past, while at the same time Constantinople as the imperial capital was the “desire of the world” with advanced technology and imperial extravagance in art and architecture while the empire itself had a very organized ruling system despite all the civil wars, ambitious aristocratic generals, court intrigues, scheming eunuchs, and corruption behind it, though all of this combined whether good or bad would still make Byzantium what it really is. Of course, what also made the 10th century a very interesting time were the colorful yet checkered rulers of Byzantium including the usurping and not so well-educated admiral Romanos I Lekapenos (r. 920-944), the highly cultured intellectual Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos (r. 945-959), the tough and ruthless military emperor Nikephoros II Phokas (r. 963-969), and the more or less perfect soldier-diplomat emperor John I Tzimiskes (r. 969-976) who all had a part in shaping the golden age of the Byzantine Empire, thus all these characters will be featured heavily here. Now the word “Renaissance” means a “rebirth of something” and for Byzantium the 10th century would see its rebirth or rather revival as a superpower after almost 3 centuries of being in the dark having to fight for its survival, and to set the stage for the main storyline of the 10th century, this chapter will go back to Byzantium in the 9th century under the Amorian Dynasty (820-867) where the dystopian-like Byzantine Dark Ages ended and its Renaissance began. The Amorian era would be discussed in this story’s background to discuss how the Byzantine Renaissance began with the turning of the tide of war against the Arabs to the offensive as well as to give a background to the bloody politics of the Byzantine court. It was also in the time of the Amorian Dynasty particularly in the reign of its last emperor Michael III (842-867) when the unlikely founder of the Macedonian Dynasty Basil I rose to power and it was he who killed Michael III and began the Macedonian Dynasty but as mention earlier, when looking into the matter carefully, it seems like the Macedonian Dynasty never really happened except for Basil I’s reign (867-886) as his son and successor Leo VI (r. 886-912) is said to have been the illegitimate son of Michael III the Amorian, and true enough even historians sometimes agree to this meaning that the well-known Macedonian Dynasty that ruled for almost 2 centuries until 1056 was actually not the Macedonian Dynasty but the Amorian Dynasty continued. For the sake conveniency however, historians still refer to Leo VI as Basil I’s son and part of the Macedonian Dynasty and so are his descendants, but this story for the sake of creating a plot twist will go with the speculation of Leo VI being actually Michael III’s son and not Basil I’s so the Dynasty here despite being known as the Macedonian Dynasty is actually the Amorian Dynasty continued, therefore this story will refer to Leo VI not as Basil I’s son as well as not a Macedonian but an Amorian and so would his descendants. In this chapter, the story of Byzantium will get even more exciting yet crazy as it will cover a lot of interesting events including a long war against the Bulgarian Empire under its tsar Simeon (r. 893-897), the continued war against the Arabs except this time with the Byzantines finally gaining the upper hand, religious debates and controversies still continuing, the spread of Orthodox Christianity from Byzantium to the Balkans, endless court politics and rivalries with the eunuchs involved, ambitious generals setting their eyes on the throne, and the tensions with Western Europe again brewing in the same old “Cold War” situation as before and here despite Charlemagne from the previous chapter gone, there will be a new Frankish ruler like him to challenge the authority of Byzantium which would be the first Holy Roman emperor Otto I the Great (r. 962-973). On the other hand, this chapter will also cover Byzantium’s northern neighbor the Bulgarian Empire a lot, as well as new people from the north coming in to the picture either to help or harm the Byzantines and these will include the nomadic Magyars and Pechenegs, as well as the Rus or Norsemen that would establish the Kievan Rus’ State in what would be medieval Russia. Now since this chapter will cover a long amount of time spanning more than a hundred years, it would be told in a fast-paced action-packed documentary style which at some points would be something like a mockumentary in tone as this chapter would somewhat be a parody to the Theophano graphic novel, therefore would have in some parts a sarcastic tone as we skim through the years and events.

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Guide to the Thematic System of the Byzantine army (from Wikipedia); this article contains a lot of terms of Byzantine army units
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Genealogy of the Macedonian (Amorian) Dynasty of the Byzantine Empire (867-1056), without Theophano and her descendants (crossed out in red) in this story’s case

Related Articles from The Byzantium Blogger:

Byzantine Alternate History Chapter VI- What if Charlemagne and Irene Married and United their Empires?

A Review/ Analysis/ and Fan-Casting for Theophano: A Byzantine Tale

Byzantine Alternate History Chapter III: Justinian I the Great Saves his Empire from the Plague and Joins his Campaigns

Around the World in the Byzantine Era Part I (300-1000AD)

12 Turning Points in Byzantine History

A Guide to the Themes of the Byzantine Empire

Lesser Known and Would be Byzantine Emperors (695-1453)

All Sieges of Constantinople

Ethnic Origins of the Byzantine Emperors


The Major Players of this Story’s Byzantine Renaissance Epic:

Emperor Leo VI “the Wise”- Byzantine emperor (886-912); image found in the main story itself

Zoe Karbonopsina- Byzantine empress and empress-regent, wife of Leo VI; image found in the main story itself

Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos– Byzantine emperor (913-959), son of Leo VI and Zoe; image found below

Alexander- Byzantine emperor (912-913), half-brother of Leo VI

Nikolaos Mystikos- Patriarch of Constantinople (901-907/ 912-925)

Simeon the Great- Tsar of the Bulgarian Empire (893-927)

Romanos I Lekapenos- Byzantine admiral turned emperor (920-944), father-in-law of Constantine VII

John Kourkouas- Byzantine general, supreme commander of the eastern forces under Romanos I

Helena Lekapene- Byzantine empress, Daughter of Romanos I, wife of Constantine VII

Bardas Phokas the Elder- Byzantine general of the powerful Phokas clan

Romanos II- Byzantine emperor (959-963), son of Constantine VII and Helena

Joseph Bringas- Palace eunuch and advisor of Romanos II

Basil Lekapenos- Palace eunuch and advisor, son of Romanos I

Nikephoros II Phokas- Byzantine general and emperor (963-969), son of Bardas Phokas the Elder, “Pale Death of the Saracens”

Leo Phokas the Younger- Byzantine general, younger brother of Nikephoros II, son of Bardas Phokas the Elder

John I Tzimiskes- Byzantine general and emperor (969-976), nephew of Nikephoros and Leo

Sayf al-Dawla- Arab Emir of Aleppo (945-967)

Polyeuctus- Patriarch of Constantinople (956-970)

Otto I the Great- King of East Frankia and Holy Roman Emperor (936-973)

Zoe Porphyrogenita- Daughter of Constantine VII and Helena, Byzantine empress and wife of Nikephoros II and John I in this story

Sviatoslav I “the Brave”- Grand Prince of the Kievan Rus’ (945-972)

Bardas Skleros- Byzantine general, and eventual emperor in this story

Bardas Phokas the Younger- Byzantine general, son of Leo Phokas the Younger

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Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos of Byzantium (r. 913-959), art by Powee Celdran

Background Guide: Byzantine characters (blue), Bulgarians (dark orange), Arabs (green), Franks (gold), Rus (dark red)


Part I.

Prologue- The Amorian Dynasty and the Rise of Basil the Macedonian, the wrestler turned emperor (811-886)        

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At some time in 811 was born the future emperor Basil the Macedonian to peasant parents in the Byzantine Theme of Macedonia near the city of Adrianople, though its name can be misleading as this Theme was not in Macedonia itself but in Thrace. Though Basil was born a peasant and known as the Macedonian, he was in fact not a Macedonian but in his father’s side an Armenian descended from the Arsacid Dynasty that ruled Armenia (12-428AD) as well as a descendant of the first Byzantine emperor Constantine I the Great (r. 306-337), if you would believe the fabrication made about Basil’s lineage during his reign later on, but in this story’s case his noble lineage would be true. In his mother’s side, Basil was either of Slavic or Greek descent which would still remain unclear but the known fact is that Basil’s father from Byzantine Armenia before Basil was born was resettled into the Theme of Macedonia which was part of the imperial policy to balance ethnic groups across the empire and integrating them with others to prevent a strong sense of unity that could lead to ethnic rebellions. Basil’s early life is not known but it is said, which would be true in this story was that his mother once had a dream wherein a saint told her that her son Basil would one day become emperor no matter how impossible that seemed as they were from a very simple family, but Basil took this prophecy very seriously believing it was his destiny. Some sources though put Basil’s birth around the 830s but also in the Theme of Macedonia hence his nickname “the Macedonian” while other sources say as a child, he was taken into the Bulgarian Empire up north as captive returning to Byzantine Macedonia in the 830s, but this story would simply stick to nothing eventful happening in Basil’s early life except for the prophecy of him becoming emperor. Now let us have a recap of the events in the 9th century which the previous chapter mentioned as well and here let’s begin with 811, the year of Basil I’s birth which was also the same year the Byzantine emperor Nikephoros I the Logothete who overthrew Empress Irene in 802 died in the Battle of Pliska against the Bulgarian forces of the Bulgarian ruler or khan Krum leading to a severe defeat for the Byzantine forces whereas the dead emperor’s skull was turned into Krum’s drinking cup. Nikephoros I though had a son named Staurakios who fought in this battle and survived but badly injured from it that in only 2 months he abdicated as becoming paralyzed, he could not rule properly therefore he retired as a monk dying the next year and had passed the throne to his brother-in-law Michael I Rangabe (r. 811-813) who as emperor had no military experience that in 813, he lost against the Bulgar forces of Krum when his forces deserted him.

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Emperor Leo V the Armenian, Byzantine emperor (r. 813-820)

Not wanting a bloody end, Michael I abdicated and again retired to become a monk and would live up to 844 while the throne was passed to Leo V the Armenian (r. 813-82) the same general that deserted him, who as emperor brought back the old policy of Iconoclasm or the breaking of religious icons which was thought to have ended back in 787 if you remember from the previous chapter, though Leo V was not entirely serious about it but rather only used returning the policy for political reasons to please his soldiers that supported him as they were still hardcore Iconoclasts. Under Leo V though, the Bulgarian threat to Byzantium disappeared when Khan Krum died in 814, however Leo V did not rule long enough and establish a dynasty as in Christmas of 820 an unlikely coup happened when his friend and trusted general Michael the Amorian turned on him and killed him during the Christmas Mass, thus Michael II the Amorian was proclaimed emperor.

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Michael II the Amorian, Byzantine emperor (r. 820-829)

Michael II to justify usurping the throne tried to pretend like he had nothing to do with Leo V’s murder and as emperor he was an able ruler except he lacked education and class, but so did he lack legitimacy that his other general friend together with Leo V which was Thomas the Slav in 821 rose up against him starting a full scale civil war that was as damaging to Byzantium the same way a foreign war would be and this civil war lasted for 2 years until Thomas was defeated and had surrendered in 823 but despite winning a victory, it was a very costly one for Michael II as he ended up burning a big portion of the Byzantine fleet which Thomas controlled and losing a major part of the fleet opened up some regions of the empire to foreign invasion. In 824, the entire island of Crete fell to Arab pirates from Spain who were exiled from the Umayyad Arab Muslim state that controlled most of Spain known as Al-Andalus or rather the Emirate of Cordoba as this group rebelled against the authorities there but failed thus turning to piracy in the Mediterranean, and without a Byzantine fleet to stop them Crete fell to these pirates thus creating the Emirate of Crete which would be a major thorn for the Byzantines’ commercial activities in the Mediterranean from here on as Crete was a very strategic area in the Mediterranean. However, not only Crete had fallen as in 827 Byzantine control of Sicily would begin to slip out when the army of a new Arab power in North Africa known as the Aghlabids first invaded Sicily and here would start the Arab conquest of Byzantine Sicily. Michael II who founded the Amorian Dynasty then died in 829 and would be succeeded by his 24-year-old son Theophilos who unlike his father was very educated and cultured and despite being a Byzantine, he greatly admired the arts, sciences, and general culture of the Islamic Arab world, most especially that of the Abbasid Caliphate based in Baghdad as Theophilos’ idol was the sophisticated and powerful Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid (r. 786-809) who had been mentioned significantly in the previous chapter.

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Emperor Theophilos, Byzantine emperor (r. 829-842), son of Michael II

Though Theophilos greatly admired the Abbasid Caliphate in cultural aspects, he was also threatened by them therefore he was committed to fight them in battle which he spent most of his reign doing and had ended either winning some victories but losing great defeats as well such as in 838 wherein Theophilos led the army himself but ended up losing leading to the Abbasid forces penetrating deep into Byzantine Asia Minor and sacking the city of Amorion, the capital of the Anatolic Theme, the empire’s most powerful Theme or military province, but surprisingly this would be Byzantium’s last major defeat to the Arab caliphate. Back in Constantinople, Theophilos was a great patron of the arts and sciences doing just as his idol Harun al-Rashid did with his capital Baghdad by using public funds to construct several luxurious palaces and learning centers, and his patronage of art science would kick-start the Byzantine cultural Renaissance, but at the same time he was also a supporter of Iconoclasm like his father Michael II and Leo V before him though not an extreme one as Theophilos only did it to please his powerful Iconoclast allies in the army, and little would he know that he would be the last Iconoclast emperor whereas his wife the empress Theodora was a strong Iconophile or supporter of religious icons and their veneration.

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Empress Theodora, wife of Emperor Theophilos, empress-regent 842-855

Meanwhile, the threat of the Arabs was still at large as in 841 the Abbasid caliph Al-Mu’tasim launched a massive naval expedition intended to attack Constantinople but it failed as Al-Mu’tasim died in early 842 and so did Theophilos from dysentery and here he would be succeeded by his son Michael III who was only 2-year-old therefore ruling at first under the regency of his mother Empress Theodora, the powerful eunuch Theoktistos, and his uncles Bardas and Petronas who were his mother’s brothers. The first act of Michael III as emperor, although carried out by his mother was finally ending the issue of Iconoclasm wherein a Church Council in Constantinople was held in 843 which then declared Iconoclasm a heresy while the Iconoclast Patriarch of Constantinople John VII Grammatikos was removed from office by force and replaced by the Iconophile Methodios I who would also serve as the young emperor’s regent. This kind of regency council would only be the first one mentioned in this story as it is about to become a standard in Byzantine politics and so would be eunuchs running the government, but another standard that would be set following the end of Iconoclasm was a rebirth in the arts as after all those years of icons being destroyed making art look plain, the art scene of the Byzantine Empire especially in religious paintings found in churches would be ever more impressive than before as a way to make up for all those years these images were being destroyed for no useful reason.

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Byzantine forces defeated by the Bulgars at the Battle of Pliska in 811
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Khan Krum of Bulgaria uses Emperor Nikephoros I’s skull as his drinking cup
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Assassination of Emperor Leo V, Christmas of 820
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Rebellion of Thomas the Slav and civil war 821-823, from the Madrid Skylitzes
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Invasion of Byzantine Crete by the exiled Arabs from Spain, 824
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Invasion of Sicily by the Aghlabid Arabs of North Africa, 827
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The court of Emperor Theophilos, Madrid Skylitzes
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Byzantine army under Theophilos defeated by the Abbasid Arabs at the Battle of Anzen, 838
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End of Iconoclasm and the Restoration of Icons under Empress Theodora and her son the young emperor Michael III, 843

    

With the issue of Iconoclasm done for good and the power of the Abbasid Caliphate in the east suddenly no longer a threat following the decentralization of their state, as well as the with the same kind of dissolution of the powerful Frankish Empire in the west to smaller kingdoms, it seemed like all was well for the Byzantines to kick-start their Renaissance or golden age thus ending the dystopian like Byzantine Dark Ages. Though Iconoclasm had finally come to an end, it was not really the end as soon enough new religious debates and controversies would emerge with one being now the issue over whether the Church should be run by highly spiritual officials or secular ones and another one being the rise of a heretical Christian sect known as the Paulicians in Asia Minor, which although had been around in Eastern Asia Minor and Armenia since the 7th century. As a heretical sect of Christianity, the Paulicians rejected some books of the Old and New Testament and preached against private property and at first, they seemed to be harmless until they had grown to become a political movement in the 9th century.

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Massacre of the Paulicians under Empress Theodora

Theodora as the empress-regent and a strongly Orthodox Christian was heavy on persecuting the heretical Paulicians by force that in less than 2 years into her reign as her son’s regent, about 100,000 Paulicians were brutally put to death under her when they refused to acknowledge their errors and convert to Orthodoxy. The surviving Paulicians fled east to Armenia and to the Arabs and later their leader Karbeas would establish the independent Principality of Tephrike (today’s Divrigi, Turkey) in Eastern Asia Minor with the help of Umar al-Aqta, the Arab Emir of Melitene which was one of the semi-independent states or emirates formed in the border between Byzantium and Abbasid Caliphate as a result of the Abbasids’ decentralization in recent years, and now this new Paulician state would pose a threat to Byzantium. At the same time as the Principality of Tephrike rose, the eunuch Theoktistos who was basically in charge of the empire here made the first attempt to recapture Crete from the Arab pirates there which although failed and in 847, the Patriarch of Constantinople Methodios I died and here the eunuch Ignatios, son of the former emperor Michael I Rangabe thus a grandson of Emperor Nikephoros I who was his mother’s father became the new patriarch, although Ignatios was a highly spiritual person who was against the Church being involved in secular matters, thus here begins the ongoing debate over Church leaders being spiritual or secular which would play a big role in this story.

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Mosaic of Ignatios, Patriarch of Constantinople (847-858/ 867-877)

Now under Theodora and the eunuch Theoktistos, the empire seemed to operating well especially since it suddenly acquired a lot of wealth some time back in Theophilos’ reign when a large source of gold was discovered in the empire’s Armeniac Theme in Asia Minor and it so happened too during the regency of Theoktistos that the Byzantine fleet went as far as sailing to Egypt- which the Byzantines had not done in over 2 centuries- and attacking the Arab held port of Damietta there in 853 to punish the Arabs for their naval raids on the empire. By 855, Michael III had now come of age being 15 and he distrusted both his mother and Theoktistos relying a lot more on his uncles Bardas and Petronas, and a lot of Michael’s issues with his mother and eunuch regent had to do with the usual case of being forced to marry someone he did not like rather than his beloved mistress Eudokia Ingerina.

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Emperor Michael III of Byzantium (r. 842-867), son of Theophilos and Theodora

Michael III however supported by his uncle Bardas succeeded here and Theoktistos was then arrested and executed while the empress Theodora was banished to a monastery for life, which here would be the first of many incidents like these. From 855 onwards Bardas was the effective ruler of the empire as Michael III was still young and at the same time not really a responsible ruler as he prioritized entertainment, partying, horse riding, and drinking with friends over the empire and it was around this time in 857 when the young Michael III would meet the future emperor Basil the Macedonian who had apparently come to Constantinople some time back. A lot of the information about Basil the Macedonian coming into Constantinople and making a name for himself remains to be of legend but would be true in this story’s case as an alternate history story, which means that here Michael III would first meet Basil in the palace’s horse stables with Basil nothing more but a stable boy.

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Basil the Macedonian, peasant turned stable boy, turned wrestler, turned bodyguard of Michael III

Here in 857, the massive 46-year-old Basil would out of the blue impress the emperor when being able to tame a horse nobody could tame but him as he had an ability to communicate with horses and again sometime later Basil would prove his strength as a wrestler when the emperor himself saw Basil wrestling against and defeating the undefeatable Bulgarian champion in a wrestling match with ease, and because of his great strength and unusual abilities, Basil would soon grow to become a favorite of Michael III who would immediately make Basil his bodyguard or personal protector and chamberlain known as the Parakoimomenos in Greek, which although was a position assigned for eunuchs. On the other hand, the emperor’s uncle Bardas would do quite a pretty good job in actually managing the empire and it was under him that the Renaissance of learning and culture would rise as he invested heavily on constructing learning centers, palaces, and richly decorated churches, though he was also a strongly secular person who in 858 forced the reigning patriarch Ignatios to resign wherein Bardas would replace him with his friend the scholar Photios who was a secular person with no religious background as Bardas saw that a politician was needed to be in charge of the Church of Constantinople.

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St. Photios, Patriarch of Constantinople (858-867/ 877-886)

After becoming a priest in only a week, Photios quickly became patriarch though his appointment would cause a lot of tensions and again with the Patriarch of Rome or the pope in the west Nicholas I who had also just been elected as pope in 858 and apparently had backed Ignatios, thus here begins the Photian Schism which dealt with the issue of whether the emperor was to appoint or fire the Patriarch of Constantinople or if it was the job of the pope to do it, thus again making it another heated situation in the rivalry between the Orthodox Church in east and Catholic Church in the west where again it had to do with the pope wanting to assert his supremacy over the Church of Constantinople and the other Churches which included Antioch, Jerusalem, and Alexandria whereas all the heads of these Churches were in fact intended to be equal. Now it would seem that a lot of the reasons for the Byzantine Renaissance to kick-start was due to Bardas’ administration and investments to grow Byzantine culture and literacy but the rising Byzantine Renaissance was also due to military victories and as Bardas was basically responsible for the cultural revival, his brother Petronas was responsible for the military resurgence as in 856 in his campaign against the Paulicians of Tephrike, he happened to go as far east even crossing the Euphrates River in Eastern Asia Minor striking deep into Arab territory being the first to do so in more than 200 years, thus returning to Constantinople with many Arab prisoners of war.

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Tephrike, stronghold of the Paulicians (today’s Divrigi, Eastern Turkey)

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Basil the Macedonian (far left) defeats the Bulgarian wrestler in a wrestling match, Madrid Skylitzes

           

Though things seemed to be going in favor for the Byzantines when it came to expelling Arab raiders from their eastern frontiers more so with the power of the Abbasid Caliphate in decline thus creating smaller Arab emirates and small Georgian and Armenian Christian principalities along the border of Byzantium and the Caliphate, there happened to be a new unknown enemy that would attack Constantinople directly for the first time in 860 while Michael III himself was away in the east battling the Arabs.

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The Kievan Rus’ (Varangians) sail down to Constantinople from Russia, 860

Here in 860, this unknown enemy that attacked Constantinople or at least its suburbs with their longships was the newly forming state of the Kievan Rus’ or basically the predecessor state of Russia and these back people back then were basically Norsemen from the eastern part of Scandinavia (modern day Sweden) better known as Varangians rather than Vikings as Vikings refer more to the Scandinavians from the west (Norway and Denmark) that would come to attack Western Europe while the Varangians from Sweden led by a chief named Rurik would be the ones to sail into Russia and Eastern Europe. As you may all know that the 9th century over here was the era of the Vikings and this included the Varangians who like the Vikings in the west seeing their native land was too cold and overpopulated to farm in, they searched out for land to colonize, and here the Varangians sailed across the Baltic Sea into the rivers of Russia where they would establish trading colonies like Novgorod and Kiev and integrate with the local Slavic population there before establishing their own state there and then sailing out into the Black Sea to Constantinople. The Varangian warriors here better known as the Rus however did not really intend to besiege Constantinople but just lay waste to its suburbs and loot treasure in typical Viking fashion and after they carried out their raid, they simply left the area when Michael III came back.

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Fresco of the Rus’ attack on Constantinople, 860

The Byzantine people however would never forget the fear caused by these warriors as their large sizes, messy hair and beards, and drunken behavior greatly intimidated them though Patriarch Photios claims that the Rus departed because of divine intervention. When doing an investigation on the Rus’ attack, it turned out that it was indirectly caused by the Byzantines as back in Theophilos’ reign, he helped the still remaining Khazar Khanate in Southern Russia and a long-time Byzantine ally construct the Fortress of Sarkel along the Don River which later blocked the Rus’ fleet from coming out to the Black Sea to trade and in revenge for the Byzantines for helping build this fort, they chose to attack Constantinople just to teach Byzantium a lesson. With this attack by the Rus, Photios decided that it was time to make a firm stance in converting the people up north to Christianity as a way to create allies rather than enemies, although Photios was actually doing this as part of the ongoing competition with the Church of Rome, and just like in the 20th century Cold War between the USA and Soviet Union where both were at race to beat each other into blasting off to space, here the Byzantine Empire and Papacy had their own Cold War in a race with each other on which of them would be first to convert the still Pagan Slavs and the still Pagan Bulgarian Empire up north, and apparently the Byzantines won it being first to convert the Slavs as Photios sent two missionaries deep into Central and Eastern Europe.

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Sts. Cyril (left) with the Cyrillic Alphabet and Methodius (right), Byzantine missionaries sent to convert the Slavs by Patriarch Photios

These two Byzantine missionaries Photios sent were the Greek brothers Constantine (renamed Cyril) and Methodius who had known the Slavic language therefore making it easier to spread Orthodox Christianity by preaching it in their native Slavic languages and these brothers would end up spreading Orthodoxy to what is now Serbia, Croatia, Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Ukraine, and Russia and despite the political agenda of Photios in converting the people of these distant lands just to beat the Church of Rome in doing so, these brothers would be forever remembered as saints and their greatest legacy was in leading to the creation of the Cyrillic Alphabet named after the younger brother St. Cyril which would be the alphabet of many Slavic countries up to this day including Russia, though this would be more of a different story altogether. Back in the empire, Michael III would happen to be too trusting of the people that worked with him like his uncle Bardas who in 859 was promoted to the rank of Kouropalates or Head of the Palace and even Caesar in 862, though in 863 Michael himself led a military campaign together with his other uncle Petronas against an invading army of Abbasid Arabs and forces of their satellite Emirate of Melitene allied with the Paulician forces of Tephrike under Karbeas and here at the Battle of Lalakaon in Paphlagonia (Northern Asia Minor), the Byzantine forces led by Petronas won a decisive victory over the Abbasids and their allies while the Paulicians’ leader Karbeas too was killed here. This victory thus happened to be the turning point wherein the tide of war against the Arabs truly switched to the offensive for the Byzantines and this would be the reality for the Byzantines from here on yet in the following year (864) something else went in favor for the Byzantines and this was with their northern neighbor, the Bulgarian Empire as their ruler Boris I finally chose to convert to Orthodox Christianity thus making Bulgaria fall under the Church of Constantinople and true enough under the Byzantine sphere of influence.

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Boris I, aka. Boris-Michael, 1st Christian ruler of the Bulgarian Empire (852-889)

The reason for Boris I to accept Orthodox Christianity was most certainly because he was pressured to do so according to the History of Byzantium Podcast, and I would agree with it too as Bulgaria here was surrounded by two powerful Christian Empires pressuring them to convert which were the Orthodox Byzantines in the south and the Catholic Carolingian Franks in the west and between both, Boris chose Byzantine Orthodox basically because Constantinople was closer to him and when being baptized as a Christian in the Bulgarians capita of Pliska, he changed his name to Boris-Michael using the name of his godfather, the Byzantine emperor Michael III who although was not at his baptism. As for Michael III, despite so much successes happening in his reign, he really had nothing to do with it but no matter how irresponsible he was as a ruler who did not really give a care about anything, he had competent people behind him such as his uncles Bardas and Petronas as well as Patriarch Photios while Michael was busy partying with his friends that one time according again to the History of Byzantium Podcast, he participated in the chariot race in the Hippodrome himself and once played around with his friends dressing up in stolen clerical outfits dancing around in the streets of Constantinople as if he was mocking the clergy. Michael had also grown closer to his bodyguard Basil as the years passed which also helped Basil rise up the ranks that soon enough Michael as an act to keep his longtime mistress Eudokia Ingerina closer to him as he was still married to his wife he did not love, he had Basil divorce his first wife Maria despite them already having a son named Constantine, thus having Basil marry Eudokia as Michael wanted to still keep her closer to him, and Basil was in fact the closest person to him.

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Eudokia Ingerina, mistress of Michael III, wife of Basil the Macedonian

Unfortunately, the people in the government that Michael put all his trust to would not going to last long enough as in 865 his uncle Petronas had died and in 866 when Bardas was preparing for another the second attempt to retake Crete from the Arab pirates, Basil would show his true ambitions and here he falsely accused Bardas of plotting against Michael to take the throne from him and Michael as usual easily fell for this lie and had Basil execute Bardas which Basil successfully did, thus Basil replaced Bardas as Caesar and then even as co-emperor, though this the expedition to retake Crete never happened. In 866 as well, Eudokia would give birth to her first son named Leo and his birth was celebrated with races in the Hippodrome but it was unclear on who his father actually was whether it was her husband Basil or her lover Michael III, but this story would go with Michael III the Amorian as Leo’s father as Michael was closer to Eudokia more than Basil was and being unable to have children with his first wife, he thought that he could use Eudokia to continue his dynasty by having sons with her. Basil on the other hand was still ever more eager to rise up to power as already getting a taste of it, he could not stop and this meant him wanting to be able to achieve the most powerful position of the empire, which was that of emperor. One night in 867 as Michael III with Basil and Eudokia were at a dinner in a palace in the Galata District of Constantinople found across the harbor of the Golden Horn, with Michael as usual drinking to get wasted, hence his nickname “Michael the Drunkard”, Basil used Michael’s drunkenness to his advantage and so he went to Michael’s bedroom and broke the locks of the door and escaped to the Imperial Palace in the main part of the city. Michael being so wasted was carried to his bed but some hours later as the door’s lock was broken by Basil, assassins sent by Basil rushed into the room and stabbed Michael to death. Now because of this, it can be said that Michael III’s personality of being too trusting of others too much led to his downfall especially when putting trust in someone like Basil who happened to be a murderer with his own imperial ambitions. Following his assassination, Michael was quickly buried in a small church across the Bosporus wherein only his mother Theodora and sisters were allowed to attend his funeral, though later this year (867), Theodora too would die.         

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Kievan Rus’ (Varangian) longships in the Russian river systems
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Byzantine forces under Petronas and Michael III defeat the Arabs and Paulicians at the Battle of Lalakaon, 863
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Execution of Bardas Caesar, 866
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Michael III (right, in blue) makes Basil the Macedonian (left, in red) his co-emperor, Madrid Skylitzes
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Map of the Byzantine Empire (purple) in 867 at the rise of Basil I the Macedonian

   

Here in 867 following the assassination of Michael III, Basil I the Macedonian at age 56 after just 10 years of knowing the previous emperor was now the sole emperor of the Byzantine Empire. The situation happened to be quite embarrassing here as a simple peasant turned horse tamer and wrestler who not only had no formal education but in fact was an illiterate person became the sole ruler of the empire but despite being illiterate and uneducated, he was very intelligent and this was how he was able to find the right moment to usurp power and kill off Michael III, though everyone really just saw Basil as a man of great size, height, and physical strength and nothing more.

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

In order to justify killing Michael III, Basil told everyone he was just doing this to save the empire as Michael III true enough was an irresponsible drunk who could not trusted as if he continued ruling alone with his uncles Bardas and Petronas gone, then all the hard work that was previously done to improve the empire would easily be wasted away. However, Basil was not the first to take the throne this way as just 47 years earlier in 820 Michael III’s grandfather Michael II did just that by killing off Leo V in the Christmas Mass, therefore Basil I’s murder of Michael III seemed justifiable and nothing new to the people of Constantinople and the army, but also Basil’s usurping of power would also be justifiable as he was getting rid of the corrupt Amorian Dynasty which is what Basil’s biography written by his grandson, who will appear later would say about him. On the other hand, Basil also wanted to show that he did not really kill off the Amorian Dynasty by telling everyone basically that his son with Eudokia which was Leo was actually Michael III’s which in this story would be true making Leo an Amorian. Now just after becoming the sole emperor or Basileus of the empire, Basil I despite knowing very little about Church politics would show his hidden ability in politics when suddenly firing Photios from his position as patriarch and replacing him with the former now 70-year-old patriarch Ignatios who back in 858 was fired by Bardas and by firing Photios, Basil was actually doing this as an act be in good terms with the new pope in Rome Hadrian II who was just elected in 867 too and with Photios who was at odds with the Papacy removed, the pope in Rome and Byzantium would be in good terms again, and now with Photios ends the Photian Schism. Now when it came to ruling, Basil I wanted to show his subjects he was a devout Christian unlike his predecessor Michael III who was the opposite being quite disrespectful to his faith and debauched in lifestyle which shocked his subjects, but also to show that he was a just usurper rather than a bloody killer, Basil acted as a strong protector of the poor and lower classes from corrupt eunuchs and tax officials considering that he came from it, though a lot of Basil’s reputation as this was mostly exaggerated in his biography by his grandson.

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Emperor Justinian I the Great of Byzantium (r. 527-565)

On the other hand, Basil was also trying to make an image of himself as the new Emperor Justinian I the Great (r. 527-565), the greatest Byzantine emperor so far and to imitate Justinian I he carried out the ambitious project of recodifying Justinian I’s Corpus Juris Civilis itself or Code of Laws for the empire, and although Basil was illiterate all he could do was commission the recodification of Justinian’s laws and its translation into Greek and this new edition of Justinian’s code of laws would be known as the Basilika, though not named after him as its title actually means “Royal Laws” in Greek, and this would be the code of laws the Byzantines would use till the end of their empire. Like Justinian I, Basil also carried out ambitious construction projects although a lot of others before including the Magnaura school which taught astronomy, geometry, and philosophy was already established by Bardas previously so basically what Basil would do was to build a church that would rival Justinian’s 6th century Hagia Sophia cathedral in grandeur and this church built by Basil I was the Nea Ekklesia in the Imperial Palace Complex which although was not as large as the Hagia Sophia near it but had the innovation of having 4 domes surrounding a higher inner dome, thus the first Byzantine church in this new style and inside it would have some of the finest frescos and mosaics in a new style that emerged in this era following the end of the Iconoclast period. Like Justinian I as well, Basil I also came from humble origins except Justinian was highly educated while Basil still remained illiterate even deep into his reign that he would only use a mark rather than his signature in signing documents. Just like emperor Justinian I again, Basil I would also have some interest in restoring Byzantine rule to the west in which no emperor prior to him did since Constans II (r. 641-668) 200 years earlier- the lead character of chapter IV of this series. Basil I would show his interest in wanting to restore the Byzantine west in 870 when he allied himself with the current Carolingian Frankish emperor Louis II, the grandson of the Frankish Empire’s founder Charlemagne (r. 768-814) in fighting off Arab attacks in Southern Italy which happened to be successful as in 870 the Byzantine fleet in the Adriatic Sea was able to defeat an Arab fleet and afterwards annex the Dalmatian Coast (in today’s Croatia) as part of the Byzantine Empire in order to protect it thus making Dalmatia a Theme while the city of Bari in Southern Italy which previously fell to the Arabs in 871 fell under Louis II though after his death in 875 the Byzantines would take back Bari, and meanwhile the successful general who would be responsible for these victories in Italy was the Cappadocian Greek noble Nikephoros Phokas the Elder, though it would be his grandson mentioned later who would be the more famous person with the same name. At the same time as Basil II busied himself fighting wars in the west, the Paulicians of Tephrike in Eastern Asia Minor again came back into the picture and this time a bigger threat under a strong leader named Chrysocheir who succeeded Karbeas as the Paulician’s leader, and in 872 Basil himself personally led the army determined to crush the Paulician heretics in battle once and for all. When confronting the Paulicians in Eastern Asia Minor at the Battle of Bathys Ryax, Basil himself almost lost his life if not for one of his soldiers being the Armenian peasant Theophylact Lekapenos saving his life here, but at the end of the day the Byzantine forces still won the battle and Chrysocheir himself was killed while the entire Principality of Tephrike would be annexed into the empire, though the city itself would only be fully conquered and destroyed in 878. Back in Constantinople, Theophylact would be promoted to be a member of the emperor’s elite guard or Tagmata but he would have no so such ambitions, although his son who later appear would. Now with the Paulicians fully removed as a political power, the remaining Paulician believers would be forced to settle in other parts of the empire to prevent them from starting another rebellion and many Paulicians would end up fleeing north into the Balkan heartlands.

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Church of Nea Ekklesia in Constantinople’s Imperial Palace Complex, built under Basil I
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Basil I’s Byzantine army defeat the Paulician forces at the Battle of Bathys Ryax, 872

On the other hand, it seemed like Byzantine missionary activities were successful in Christianizing the Balkans that Photios being a politician needed to be restored as patriarch and so when the 80-year-old Patriarch Ignatios died in 877, Basil reappointed Photios as patriarch who at the same time would also be the teacher of Basil’s sons. The rest of the events however would turn out disappointed and even sad for Basil in the next years as first in 878 Syracuse which was the main city of Byzantine Sicily would fall to the Arabs and in 879 Basil’s son and co-emperor Constantine with his first wife Maria suddenly dropped dead therefore he had to make his youngest son with Eudokia Ingerina which was Alexander co-emperor and Alexander certainly was Basil’s son with Eudokia as he was born in 870 long after Michael III died which is why Basil favored Alexander more than Leo who was actually Michael III’s son, but on the other hand Basil saw Constantine’s death as divine punishment for killing Michael III.

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Emperor Basil I on his horse

In 880, there would at least be some success for the Byzantines as Nikephoros Phokas the Elder was able to recapture much of Southern Italy from the Arabs but in 882, Basil would be depressed again as his wife Eudokia had died and by being more depressed, Basil would become even more paranoid as the years would go by especially with Leo who he never believed was his son anyway that Basil would in some occasions physically beat Leo basically for no clear reason except that Leo was nothing like Basil who being very manly enjoyed hunting and sports while Leo was a serious scholar who enjoyed books and true enough Leo too did not see Basil as his real father and obviously- in this story’s case- Leo looked nothing like Basil who was large in size with a rough face but rather Leo looked more like Michael III being thinner and shorter with a finer face. At one point, Basil even suspected Leo of trying to kill him to avenge his father Michael III’s death when Leo was discovered holding a knife even if he had no harmful intention with it, though Basil being paranoid had Leo put in prison for this though it caused public rioting as Leo was actually loved by the public.

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Emperor Basil I in the Imperial Palace

Basil however thought of blinding Leo but was persuaded to not do it by Patriarch Photios while one story which would be true here says that a parrot sang to Basil telling him to spare Leo but Basil not listening killed the parrot by breaking its neck, although feeling guilty for killing the parrot, he still released Leo from prison here in 886 after a 3-year sentence and restored him as co-emperor. Now in the summer of 886 after getting some relief, the now 75-year-old Basil spent some leisure time going hunting in the woods in the Asian side of Bosporus but when hunting he ended up losing his hunting party getting stranded in the woods alone when a stag all of a sudden grabbed Basil’s belt with its antlers thus pulling him off his horse and dragging him for 16 miles through the woods as the story goes. Some hours later, the injured Basil was found by a man who cut him loose but still paranoid, Basil had the man killed for holding a knife in front of him and 9 days later, Basil would die on August 29 of 886 in his hunting lodge from the injury caused by the stag after a 19-year reign. Here, he died at least going such a long way from peasant to emperor who left behind many extravagant palaces and churches in Constantinople and more importantly a full treasury, but little did he know that he was the first and last of his Macedonian Dynasty.

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Basil I and Leo holding out a knife, Madrid Skylitzes
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Basil I and the parrot, Madrid Skylitzes
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Coin of Basil I (left) with his son Constantine and wife Eudokia (right)

Watch this to learn more about Basil I’s life and reign (Jabzy).


Leo VI the Wise, A Serious Scholar but a not so Successful Ruler (886-912)         

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After Basil I’s death, Leo VI known as “the Wise” came to the throne before turning 20 and despite him not actually being Basil’s biological son, he still became emperor as he was Basil’s legal son and the eldest surviving one. Basil I’s death caused by a hunting accident on the other sounded very suspicious and it may have seemed Leo was involved in it as at Basil’s deathbed, one of Leo’s closest advisors was present which was Stylianos Zaoutzes and it could have been him that poisoned Basil, but this cannot be entirely proven.

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Emperor Leo VI the Wise (r. 886-912) in his study

As for Leo, another reason for him to hate Basil aside from knowing that he killed his actual father which was Michael III, was that Basil forced him to marry a woman he did not like which was a pious and boring woman named Theophano Martinakia– and no, she is not the same Theophano that will be removed from this story- while Leo himself was already had a beloved mistress which was Stylianos’ daughter Zoe Zaoutzaina and when still alive, Basil banished Zoe in order for Leo to marry Theophano who he had no feelings for, again history repeats itself as Leo’s actual father Michael III had the same situation when forced to marry someone he did not love while actually had a lover which was Leo’s late mother that married Basil. Just right after becoming emperor, there is one historical evidence that shows Michael III was actually Leo’s father and this was when Leo in act of getting back at Basil ordered that Michael III’s body buried across the Bosporus in Asian side be reburied at the Church of the Holy Apostles, the imperial mausoleum with a funeral ceremony fit for an emperor. Leo though was not the sole emperor as his younger brothers Stephen who was also rumored to be Michael III’s son and Alexander who was actually his half-brother being without question Basil’s son were his co-emperors, although Leo at the end of 886 removed Stephen from his position as co-emperor and appointed him as Patriarch of Constantinople despite his young age, thus this would be the first of many inexperienced young family members being appointed as patriarch.

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Leo VI and his first wife Theophano Martinakia

With Stephen appointed as patriarch, the old Photios on the other hand was fired from his position as patriarch as Leo distrusted him despite Photios being the one that actually educated Leo but Leo turned on Photios for supporting Basil and the decision for Leo to marry Theophano who he hated, though Leo also wanted to be in good terms with the Papacy that distrusted Photios, though Photios would still live on until 893. Being the emperor, Leo was a dutiful ruler that attended every event that needed him whether it was chariot races or Church services and as a serious scholar he devoted a lot of his time as well as money and energy into intellectual matters and passing new laws. In 892 Leo completed the Book of Royal Laws or Basilika which Basil commissioned to update Justinian I’s law code, and although Leo hated Basil he still saw it was his duty to update Byzantine law, and being a learned scholar unlike Basil before him who was illiterate, Leo personally recodified the law by putting a few of his insights into it, but the biggest revision of the Basilika was that it had finally translated the laws made by Justinian I which were in Latin into Greek so that everyone could understand it as here Greek was already the official and majority language of the empire while Latin was only used for specific court purposes. Leo too had made a reform which was to centralize the power of the emperor and limit the power of the Byzantine Senate which was at this point very much useless, as due to the rise of the Thematic System and the powerful landed military magnates in the countryside, the senate became nothing more than a club of old and rich aristocrats advising the emperor, although Leo could not fully get rid of the senate as it was an ancient institution dating back to even before the Roman Empire was established. Leo had also been vocal about loose women and adultery in his laws but true enough he was a hypocrite as he himself had a mistress while he was already married, although Leo’s marriage to Theophano never worked out, not even very little and being tired of her marriage to a husband that did not care, Theophano in 893 decided to leave the palace and become a nun while Leo went back to his mistress Zoe.

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Simeon the Great, Tsar of the Bulgarian Empire (r. 893-927), son of Boris I, art by HistoryGold777

It also happened in 893 that Bulgarian Empire up north had a new ruler being Simeon better known as “Simeon the Great” who had been educated in Constantinople by Photios being Leo’s classmate too and was the son of the same Boris I who previously converted Bulgaria to Christianity back in 864, though here by 893 Boris was still alive except that since 889 he abdicated from power and retired to a monastery being succeeded by his eldest son Vladimir who attempted to restore Bulgaria to its old Pagan religion of Tengriism though failed greatly and in 893 was blinded by his father Boris coming out of the monastery but not wanting to return to power, Boris made his younger son Simeon who been back in Bulgaria since 888 as Bulgaria’s new ruler. Things at first seemed to be going well between Leo VI’s Byzantium and Simeon’s Bulgaria until Leo’s highest minister Stylianos Zaoutzes who was his lover Zoe’s father as previously mentioned schemed to have the Bulgarian merchants kicked out of Constantinople and moved to the empire’s second city of Thessaloniki where they would have to pay higher taxes to sell their goods which was part of Stylianos’ corrupt motives to make himself richer and Leo relying too much on Stylianos agreed to it in 894 which on the other hand backfired at him as the Bulgarians felt insulted, thus Simeon declared war on Byzantium. Simeon in 894 led his armies from Bulgaria into Byzantine Thrace in the south where the Byzantine forces were defeated but in response Leo not wanting to give him recalled Nikephoros Phokas the Elder, the empire’s most talented general from Italy to Thrace where he would crush the Bulgarians in battle but most of the success for the Byzantines here in 895 was mostly due to an alliance Leo made with a new steppe people that migrated from Russia to the north of the Danube known as the Magyars.

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Magyar warrior, late 9th century

The Magyar leader Arpad accepted the bribe money offered to him by Leo and attacked the Bulgarian Empire from the north successfully making Simeon abandon his invasion of Byzantium in the south as he had to deal with the Magyars north of Danube although shortly after Simeon was able to defeat the Magyars by allying himself with another group of nomadic horse people north of the Danube known as the Pechenegs, which were a much more difficult and ruthlessly warlike people. With the Magyars defeated in 895 by the Bulgarians, they were forced to flee further west until they came across the Pannonian plain which was once Roman territory wherein they finally settled down forming what would be Hungary whereas Arpad became its first ruler while for the Byzantines in 896, after losing their Magyar allies, they were severely defeated by the Bulgarians with the strength of their cavalry at the Battle of Boulgarophygon in Thrace, which at the end forced Leo to agree to paying a heavy annual tribute to Simeon to avoid war.           

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Leo VI reburies his father Michael III in the Church of the Holy Apostles in 886, Madrid Skylitzes
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Bulgarian cavalry defeat the Byzantine army at the Battle of Boulgarophygon in 896, Madrid Skylitzes
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Magyar people, end of the 9th century

In the meantime, in 897 Leo VI’s first wife Theophano who he never loved died in the monastery she retired to which for Leo gave him such joy and following Theophano’s death he immediately married his longtime mistress Zoe and proclaimed her the empress or Augusta and they would have two children together although both were daughters. Unfortunately, Leo’s happy marriage to Zoe would not last as just 2 years later (899) Zoe had died from illness and so did her father Stylianos but in the following year (900), as the 10th century opened, the Byzantine army scored a major success when defeating the army of the Arab Emirate of Tarsus in Cilicia- another breakaway emirate of the Abbasids- and even capturing the Emir of Tarsus but in 902 however, another great tragedy would happen for the Byzantines when Taormina, the last Byzantine city in Sicily fell to the Arab forces in a siege, thus all of Sicily would fall under the newly formed Arab Emirate of Sicily. While all the wars against the Arabs were happening, Leo in 900 chose to marry for the 3rd time despite 3rd marriages being considered illegal in Orthodoxy but Leo did it anyway just because he desperately needed a son to succeed him and his 3rd wife Eudokia Baiana was chosen by him in a bride show he organized, which here would be the last one recorded in Byzantine history and fortunately the 3rd wife Eudokia was able to give birth to a son in 901 thus Leo thought this would be his final marriage except that after giving birth, Eudokia dropped dead and so did their newborn son a few days later, now Leo would be greatly heartbroken.

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Emperor Leo VI of Byzantium (r. 886-912), art by Spatharokandidatos

Leo would suffer another misfortune again in 904 when he was almost killed in an assassination attempt carried out by a wrestler and when investigating it, it so happened that his younger and co-emperor half-brother Alexander was involved in it, therefore Alexander was removed from his position as co-emperor which would make him start holding a lifelong grudge on Leo as you will see but worse than this was that also in 904, Byzantium’s second city of Thessaloniki was besieged and brutally sacked by Arab pirates led by the notorious Leo of Tripoli, a Byzantine Greek taken as a captive to Tripoli (in today’s Lebanon) as a child wherein he was raised to become a fearsome pirate. Thessaloniki however was just raided but had not fallen to the pirates, but it was so severely damaged that Leo VI decided to avenge its sacking by doing the same to Tarsus in the southern coast of Asia Minor where this pirate fleet came from. The Byzantine raid on Tarsus in 906 was a successful one with many Arab prisoners taken except that the general sent to lead the mission Andronikos Doukas out of nowhere abandoned the mission as being from the distinguished aristocratic Doukas clan that had been in the Byzantine Senate since Emperor Constantine the Great established it in 330, he did not want his aristocratic pride hurt by taking orders from the fleet’s admiral Himerios who was lower than him in status, therefore Andronikos fled to the Abbasid’s capital to Baghdad itself where he would die in 910.

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Mosaic of Empress Zoe Karbonopsina, 4th wife of Leo VI

As for Leo after losing 3 wives, by 904 he took in a new mistress which was Himerios’ niece Zoe Karbonopsina, a woman with dark curly hair who was most famous for her distinct black eyes, hence her nickname Karbonopsina meaning “black eyes” in Greek and apparently in 905 they had a son which Leo named Constantine better known as Constantine Porphyrogennetos as he was born in the purple room of the imperial palace, the place only imperial family members had access to in order to give birth to imperial heirs to secure their legitimacy, thus imperial children born here had the title of Porphyrogennetos if they were males or Porphyrogenita for females, literally meaning “purple born” in Greek, and though many would use this title, only Constantine who will rule later on and play a major role in this story would be the only Byzantine emperor to use this title officially. Leo and Zoe were already planning to marry long before Constantine was born, but of course this not only being a 3rd but a 4th marriage was totally outrageous to the Orthodox Church that the current Patriarch of Constantinople here Nikolaos Mystikos, an imperial secretary and Leo’s former classmate who had been patriarch since 901 following Leo’s brother Stephen’s death totally objected to it, so instead Leo and Zoe were secretly married at the dead of night by a priest loyal to Leo but when Patriarch Nikolaos heard of it, Leo was banned from entering the Hagia Sophia despite being the emperor. Nikolaos however still reluctantly baptized Constantine in 906 but at the same time, Leo decided to return his half-brother Alexander as co-emperor for safety measures in case something happened to Constantine and in 907, Leo was able to get away with his illegal marriage to Zoe by firing the patriarch Nikolaos under suspicion of him siding with the rebel Andronikos Doukas, thus replacing him with the deeply spiritual monk Euthymios, who was Leo’s teacher in theology and spirituality when he was still young. On the other hand, Leo’s other motive in appointing Euthymios as patriarch was to again be in good terms with the pope Sergius III in Rome as Nikolaos being an outspoken politician was not trusted by the pope whereas a more spiritual leader like Euthymios was more favorable to the pope, again making this another situation in the Church rivalry between Constantinople and Rome, but at the same time the pope also needed Leo’s Byzantine military assistance in defending Southern Italy from the Arabs which is why Sergius III accepted Leo’s 4th marriage too. In 907 as well, Leo just like his actual father Michael III in 860 faced the same situation of the same Kievan Rus’ fleet of longships attacking Constantinople, except now the Rus were an official organized state in Eastern Europe but just like in 860 here, the Rus did not attack Constantinople itself, rather they just raided the riches in the churches and monasteries in the suburbs in typical Viking fashion and retreated back north to the Black Sea after receiving some bribe money from Leo.

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Handheld Greek Fire

Leo on the other hand after suffering so many military defeats despite not ever personally joining his armies himself in military campaigns learned from his mistakes and in 908 wrote and published a military manual himself based on reports by generals in which he carefully studied and came up with new tactics basing them on where his armies had failed and this new military manual is better known as the Taktika, though on the other hand Leo had some success in commissioning the invention of a portable version of the empire’s secret superweapon of Greek Fire which was to be hand held during sieges. In 910, Leo’s admiral Himerios would end up succeeding in attacking the Arab pirate fleet in the Mediterranean that he even went as far as attacking an Arab port in Syria and with this success Leo in 911 sent Himerios with 177 ships on another attempt to retake the island of Crete from the Arab Emirate of pirates there but before being able to finish off his siege of the emirate’s capital Chandax, he received word from the capital that the emperor fell ill and was close to death making him abandon the siege and rush back, thus another failed attempt to recapture Crete. On the return trip to Constantinople in 912, Himerios’ navy in the Aegean was surrounded and annihilated again by the same pirate Leo of Tripoli, although Himerios narrowly escaped, and when the news of the defeat of Himerios to the Arab pirates reached Leo VI in Constantinople the same day he died which was May 11 of 912. Leo VI the Wise died at only 45 due to a fatal illness that could not be cured, possibly cancer while his son Constantine was only 7 but at least Leo left behind a great cultural impact for Byzantium especially in the military manual and code laws he made which would play a vital role in Byzantine politics and warfare from here onwards, but otherwise if Leo had not published these books, he would just be remembered as a mediocre emperor that tried so hard to win battles but failed.

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Emperor Leo VI and his 4 wives, art by Powee Celdran
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Byzantine Taormina, Sicily falls to the Arabs in 902, Madrid Skylitzes
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Sack of Thessaloniki in 904 by Leo of Tripoli, Madrid Skylitzes
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Baptism of Leo VI’s son Constantine in 906, Madrid Skylitzes
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Euthymios appointed as Patriarch of Constantinople in 907, Madrid Skylitzes
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Kievan Rus’ 907 attack of Constantinople, from the Primary Chronicle
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Mosaic of Emperor Leo VI (kneeling down) in the Hagia Sophia’s door recreated

The Chaotic Regency and Romanos I Lekapenos (912-944)    

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On May 11 of 912 as Leo VI was on his deathbed, his half-brother and co-emperor Alexander was present and before dying Leo told him some prophecy saying “13 months and the devil’s time” although Alexander had no idea what it meant but true enough, he succeeded Leo as senior emperor as he was already co-emperor first since 879 long before young Constantine was. Now Alexander definitely had no parentage issues as Basil I was certainly his father with Alexander was born in 870, 3 years after Michael III’s death and a possible reason why Alexander hated Leo was surely because he was Basil’s legitimate son while Leo was not, thus the Macedonian Dynasty here would only consist of Basil I and Alexander whereas Leo VI and his successors who will appear afterwards were in fact from Michael III’s bloodline, the Amorians.

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Coin of Emperor Alexander

Alexander as Basil’s son resembled Basil in appearance a lot being tall and large in size with light colored hair and a beard which was opposite to Leo’s appearance and just like his father, Alexander was greatly passionate about hunting and sports though like Michael III, Alexander was a lazy drunk. This story now will go with the usual historical portrayal of Alexander as a lazy, debauched, childish, and incompetent ruler who’s only purpose to rule was to get revenge on his older half-brother for no good reason except that Alexander was co-emperor for 33 years never getting the chance to be a senior emperor and also because he was angry at Leo for removing him from his rank of co-emperor for just 2 years (904-906). Becoming emperor at 41 but already in bad health with bad teeth due to heavy drinking, Alexander thinking he would rule for long was the first emperor in the history of Byzantium to use the title of Autokrator or “self-ruling ruler” celebrating his end of 33 years only as co-emperor forgetting he actually had a co-emperor which was his 7-year-old nephew Constantine who Leo made co-emperor before his death, although Alexander here in 912 decided to castrate young Constantine to remove him from the succession but his advisors told Alexander to not do it as he had remained unmarried his entire life having not a single child and so young Constantine was instead locked up in a nunnery with his mother Zoe Karbonopsina who Alexander hated too for being Leo’s wife. Just a few months after coming into power, Alexander already showed how uninterested he was in ruling the empire and only ruling to damage Leo’s legacy which was seen when he fired all the competent ministers that were loyal to Leo such as the admiral Himerios and Patriarch Euthymios as well as discontinuing all of Leo’s policies just to get back at him. Now when it came to firing Patriarch Euthymios, Alexander restored the previous patriarch Nikolaos Mystikos who opposed Leo’s 4th marriage and Nikolaos too was driven with revenge for being removed from his position that in the trial organized to depose Euthymios, Nikolaos hired a giant wrestler to beat up Euthymios in public while the trial was happening, and at the end Euthymios was sent into exile as Nikolaos returned to his position.

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Nikolaos Mystikos, Patriarch of Constantinople (901-907/ 912-925)

Another rumor about Alexander in his reign was that some nights he would perform Pagan sacrifices in the Hippodrome as if he was asking the old gods for fertility as apparently, he was unable to produce children. As an incompetent ruler, Alexander did not pay attention to the frontiers that the main forces of the Abbasid Caliphate from Baghdad itself attacked Asia Minor and when Bulgarian ambassadors from Simeon came to Constantinople to collect the annual tribue Leo promised, Alexander in his usual drunken rage shouted at the Bulgarian ambassadors kicking them out of his presence and refusing to pay tribute, again as act of discontinuing Leo’s policies out of revenge. Over in Bulgaria when their ruler Simeon heard of Alexander refusing to pay tribute, Simeon feeling so insulted resumed war with Byzantium knowing he could easily defeat them considering Alexander’s incompetence. In June of 913 while Simeon was making preparations to attack Byzantium, Alexander was enjoying himself in the Polo field or Tzykanisterion of the Imperial Palace playing a game of polo or Tzykanion after some drinks of expensive Greek wine from Lesbos, but Alexander after playing a game of polo fell off his horse when suffering a heart attack and hours later, he had died. Apparently the 13-month prophecy Leo had told Alexander was true as after ruling alone for only 13 months, Alexander had died, thus here would die the last ruler of the Macedonian bloodline of Basil whereas the rule of the Amorians would continue with Leo’s son Constantine VII, and it was fortunate enough for the empire that Alexander died right here as if he ruled longer, the empire may have suffered more with his incompetence.          

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Mosaic of Emperor Alexander (r. 912-913) in the Hagia Sophia
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Patriarch Euthymios removed from office by Alexander in 912, Madrid Skylitzes
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Tzykanion, Byzantine polo (art by Amelianvs)

Right after Alexander’s death in June of 913, young Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos was crowned as the sole ruler empire as willed by Alexander, except being only 8-years-old meant that a regency council had to now rule for him led by Patriarch Nikolaos Mystikos while Constantine’s mother Zoe Karbonopsina was to stay out of it, again as willed by Alexander. The patriarch however hated the empress and did not see Constantine as a legitimate emperor as Nikolaos still did not approve of Leo and Zoe’s marriage and in this story’s case, he also did not see Constantine as legitimate because his father Leo was not a legitimate son of an emperor but an illegitimate son of a murdered emperor, therefore his successors were illegitimate so only a few days after the council was set up, Nikolaos banished empress Zoe back to the nunnery she was in. Patriarch Nikolaos and most of the Byzantine Senate too could not accept Constantine VII as their ruler and so they supported a rebel general who was putting his claim on the throne refusing to accept a child as his ruler, and this general was Constantine Doukas, son of the same general Andronikos Doukas that fled to Baghdad and died there 3 years earlier. Just a few days after Constantine VII was crowned emperor, Constantine Doukas and his army who had a lot of support arrived outside the walls of Constantinople ready to storm the city but just as he arrived, the city garrison loyal to young emperor charged at the rebel forces in open battle. Constantine Doukas seeing his side was about lose tried to escape but, in the process, he slipped off his horse and fell to the ground wherein the city garrison soldiers killed him by hacking him with their swords, thus his rebellion failed, though he was not the last of the Doukas clan as they will be featured heavily in the next chapter of this series. Patriarch Nikolaos in an act of protecting himself denied that he had any part in the conspiracy of Constantine Doukas that he even had anyone knew involved in the conspiracy executed and their bodies impaled on spikes outside Constantinople’s walls that he would gain such a brutal reputation for it.

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Tsar Simeon the Great of Bulgaria

Just 2 months after the failed plot of Constantine Doukas, it was Simeon and his Bulgarian army’s turn to arrive outside the Theodosian land walls of Constantinople but seeing the strength of the walls, he instead decided to attack and burn the farms outside it that Patriarch Nikolaos had to come out to negotiate peace with Simeon and here Nikolaos agreed to resume paying the annual tribute of Leo VI but also for young Constantine VII to marry one of Simeon’s daughters, although Simeon saw this as an opportunity to take over Constantine VII’s regency and rule both Byzantium and Bulgaria himself. The senate meanwhile disapproved of the patriarch’s deal with Simeon as none of them wanted a Bulgarian foreigner who they still saw as a barbarian- despite adopting Byzantine customs and religion- ruling the empire and so Simeon packed off and left as he got his tribute anyway but most of the senate was also displeased with Nikolaos’ brutality that in 914, they returned Empress Zoe back to the regency council getting her out of the nunnery although Nikolaos still stayed as patriarch when being threatened by Zoe to recognize her authority. In 915 when the Byzantines won a major victory over the invading Arabs in Southern Italy, Empress Zoe’s popularity grew but at the same time she also disapproved of her son Constantine marrying Simeon’s daughter as this deal was made by Patriarch Nikolaos who she hated and also because in her Byzantine arrogance Simeon was nothing more but a filthy barbarian. Simeon hearing of the empress turning down his offer in 915 resumed war with Byzantium that Simeon’s Bulgarian forces even briefly took the city of Adrianople until Zoe’s forces quickly took it back forcing Simeon to flee, thus Zoe again became more popular. Simeon on the other hand still continued his raids by going as far south as Byzantine Thessaly and Epirus in Greece between 915 and 916 then by 917 he returned to Thrace whereas Zoe was prepared to crush his forces by amassing a massive army led by the best generals of the empire which included John Bogas, the commanding general or Strategos of the Theme of Cherson, which was the remote Byzantine colony in the Crimea north of the Black Sea, the Cappadocian brothers Leo Phokas the Elder and Bardas Phokas the Elder who were the sons of the late and great general Nikephoros Phokas the Elder who had died back in 900, and Himerios’ replacement as the grand Droungarios or admiral the Armenian Romanos Lekapenos, son of the same Armenian peasant soldier Theophylact Lekapenos who saved Basil I back in 872. Now you may ask why all the empire’s top commanders were either Armenians or Cappadocians, and this is because by being raised in these parts being in the empire’s frontiers, these people had grown up to be tough soldiers.

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Pecheneg warrior, 10th century

Now the plan here was that the army led by the Phokas brothers would march north from Constantinople while Romanos with his fleet was to ferry both John Bogas and his troops from Cherson as well the Byzantines’ new Pecheneg allies from across the Danube to Thrace but John Bogas and Romanos would end up arguing, as again as usual Bogas being of high birth refused to take orders from Romanos who was of lower status and Romanos would only agree to ferry Bogas and his troops if Bogas were to bow down to his authority, though Bogas refused and the Pecheneg mercenaries as usual being difficult to handle were tired of waiting and not yet receiving their pay gave up and abandoned the Byzantines. Meanwhile, only the Phokas brothers and their army were left to confront Simeon’s Bulgar forces but while camping out near the port of Anchialos in Thrace along the Black Sea, Simeon and his forces caught them by surprise and charged right their camp and what resulted was a total massacre as barely any Byzantine soldiers survived it while many panicked and retreated as well believing Leo Phokas to be dead when seeing his horse gallop away without him, though it was unclear on what happened to Bardas here.

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Bulgarians defeat the Byzantines at the Battle of Anchialos, 917

Back in Constantinople, Zoe being so enraged blamed all the failures on the admiral Romanos Lekapenos who she even threatened to blind but Romanos’ powerful friends prevented her from doing so. Leo Phokas and his brother Bardas meanwhile survived the attack and fled to the Black Sea port of Mesembria where they took a ship back to Constantinople where Leo would meet up with Zoe who however saw no fault in Leo even if he was responsible for the massacre of his men as he was taking bath while Simeon charged at them. Instead of punishing Leo, Zoe even gave him an additional two armies to command and strike back at Simeon again but when facing Simeon’s forces again outside Constantinople, Leo was severely defeated but to protect his reputation and save her own as it had been damaged due to this defeat, Zoe decided to marry him and make him young Constantine’s regent but Constantine’s teacher Theodore disagreed to it believing this would remove Constantine from the succession, therefore Theodore wrote to Romanos to take over the regency and protect Constantine.

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Leo Phokas the Elder, Byzantine general

Zoe on the other hand asked the regency council to meet again only to find out that they all lost faith in her because of the defeat to the Bulgars at Anchialos and outside Constantinople that Patriarch Nikolaos had to return to running the regency from here on. Romanos however had turned out to have his own imperial ambitions which is why he was at odds with Leo Phokas and in 919, Romanos suddenly docked his fleet outside the Boukoleon Palace along the sea walls of Constantinople wherein he declared he was going to take over the regency while Zoe was asked to resign from it and retire and here the 14-year-old Constantine VII was married to Romanos’ young daughter Helena Lekapene to secure Romanos’ claim to the throne. Leo Phokas on the other hand who was across the Bosporus put his claim on the throne as well in rebellion against Romanos claiming that he was to save Constantine VII but before he was able to cross the Bosporus to Constantinople, Romanos sent him a letter denouncing Leo’s actions which made Leo’s men desert and as Leo tried to flee south into Asia Minor, Romanos’ men caught him and blinded him wherein he was paraded in Constantinople’s streets though his fate afterwards is unknown. In 920 then, Romanos made a deal with Patriarch Nikolaos to keep Constantine VII in power as long as Zoe was to be banished for good in which she did by retiring to the same nunnery she was kept in before for good this time. Later in 920, young Constantine VII was forced to crown his father-in-law Romanos as his co-emperor and just a few months later, Romanos I Lekapenos assumed the full duty of the empire’s senior emperor although Constantine VII was still kept in power but only in name whereas Romanos was to effectively run the empire claiming he was doing it for young Constantine’s protection.         

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The land walls of Constantinople (Theodosian Land Walls), art by Powee Celdran
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Coronation of young Constantine VII in 913, Madrid Skylitzes
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Byzantine army at the night before the disastrous Battle of Anchialos in 917, Madrid Skylitzes
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Capture and blinding of Leo Phokas the Elder by Romanos Lekapenos in 919, Madrid Skylitzes

When Romanos I Lekapenos took over the imperial administration in 920 not only as a regent or protector but as emperor, it was suspected that he would one day murder young Constantine VII except that he didn’t, rather he had more subtle ways of sidelining Constantine VII and making himself the supreme authority and this was by removing Constantine’s imperial authority even as he aged, thus it turned out the poorly educated admiral of low birth was actually an intelligent and cunning ruler. For the next years, Constantine VII would live in the shadows though still in the imperial palace keeping his title as emperor, except basically he was a political prisoner of his father-in-law Romanos I who had to keep watching his back being never really permitted him leave without Romanos’ approval, but Constantine would in fact enjoy his time by not having to perform his duties as emperor but instead doing what he grew up to love most, which were scholarly interests such as reading, writing, as well as painting and sculpting, basically Constantine was his father the scholarly Leo VI’s son.

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Emperor Romanos I Lekapenos of Byzantium (r. 920-944)

For Romanos, to make it seem like Constantine would be powerless, Romanos made his eldest son Christopher his co-emperor in 921 who was intended to be his actual successor and in 924 Romanos I made his 2 younger sons Stephen and Constantine co-emperors too, thus Constantine VII the rightful emperor became the least powerful of the 5 emperors with his name placed at the bottom of the coins issued by the 5 rulers. The threat of Simeon of Bulgaria however was still at large and not to mention at this time, the Bulgarian Empire here under Simeon was no longer the primitive warrior state of Bulgaria 2 centuries earlier that posed a threat to Byzantium, but a highly civilized major Orthodox Christian cultural and military power in its golden age the same way Byzantium was, and in terms of size, Bulgaria was the largest empire in Eastern Europe spanning from the west to east from the Black Sea to the Ionian Sea and north to south from the Carpathian Mountains in Central Europe to Central Greece, and its ruler Simeon was no longer like the Bulgarian khans of old but a full emperor in authority known as tsar in their language, literally meaning “Caesar” being the first Bulgarian ruler to call himself that. Simeon in 924 made another attempt to besiege Constantinople both by land and sea except this time getting himself allied forces from the Arab powers in the Middle East, Sicily, and North Africa which Simeon believed was enough to fully take over Constantinople. The Arabs however were intercepted first by Romanos before they could reach Simeon and Romanos won them over by even agreeing to pay tribute to them and when finding out his Arab allies never made it, Simeon was upset. Simeon however still made it to Constantinople but when arriving, Romanos chose to resolve the issue with diplomacy and here Patriarch Nikolaos who was still alive arranged for both rulers to meet up at a dock along Constantinople’s Golden Horn harbor. When seeing Simeon up close, Romanos I did not see a Bulgarian ruler in the traditional Bulgarian fur cloaks and fur hats but an emperor dressed in the same silks as the Byzantines did, although when they met face to face, there apparently was no violent tension brewing between them, rather it ended peacefully with Romanos agreeing to resume paying tribute to Bulgaria, also handing over to Simeon 100 silk robes as a gift. Afterwards, Simeon would never return as a physical threat except that in 925 he had the audacity to call himself not only tsar but “Basileus of both Bulgars and Romans”, literally emperor of both empires, though Romanos did not take it as an insult and instead he even joked about it saying that if he can, he would call himself “Caliph of Baghdad” without the Abbasid caliph’s approval. Simeon again not physically threatening Byzantium in 926 declared the Bulgarian Church independent from Constantinople, therefore creating a separate Patriarchate of Bulgaria though no matter how powerful Simeon was as tsar, his rule was still challenged first by his western neighbors being the Serbs (from present day Serbia) who Simeon defeated in 926, but the bigger threat to Simeon was his other more powerful western neighbor which was the Kingdom of Croatia ruled by its new king Tomislav who happened to be an ally of the Byzantines.

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Tomislav, King of Croatia (r. 925-928)

Though seemingly undefeatable, Simeon’s forces lost a severe defeat to the Croatian forces of Tomislav in 926 in what is now Bosnia, thus Bulgaria was forced to pay a heavy humiliating tribute to Croatia and in 927, the very much humiliated Simeon died from a heart attack in his palace in the new Bulgarian capital of Preslav and would be succeeded by his son Peter I as tsar who would happen to be a much weaker and less warlike ruler compared to his father. Peter I when becoming Bulgaria’s new tsar was also still young and wanting to rule in peace, he personally went to Constantinople to negotiate with Romanos I which was successful and as part of the deal, Peter married Romanos’ young granddaughter Maria, daughter of his eldest son Christopher with the new Patriarch of Constantinople Stephen II– who had succeeded Nikolaos after his death back in 925- marrying them and following this, a long 42-year period would last between Byzantium and Bulgaria, allowing the Byzantines to continue fighting their other deadly enemy, the Arabs.          

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Coin of Romanos I with his and his sons Christopher, Stephen, Constantine, and son-in-law Constantine VII’s (at the very bottom) names
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Court of Tsar Simeon in Bulgaria
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Map of the Bulgarian Empire (yellow) under Tsar Simeon, Byzantine Empire (pink)

As the effective emperor, despite the rightful Constantine VII still having the title, Romanos I Lekapenos may have completely seemed to everyone as a tough military man being quite uncultured, uneducated, and rough around the edges which is what his rather intellectually and artistically snobbish son-in-law Constantine VII would say about him seeing him every day in the palace, although Constantine as I would say never felt respected by his father-in-law as Romanos felt his son-in-law was not tough enough being a an artist and scholar and not a soldier and politician the way Romanos was. However, despite Romanos’ tough exterior, he was also someone with a big heart as when a brutal winter struck Constantinople from 927-928, Romanos I spent a lot of the imperial treasury in building porticos for Constantinople’s streets so that homeless would not die of the cold and also to make sure the people had enough food to last the winter. Following this winter when seeing how much damage it inflicted on the people, especially the small farmers, Romanos I decided to pass a law that was to forbid the wealthy and powerful landed aristocracy or the Dynatoi to buy land from these farmers thus taking it away from them but also for these farmers to not sell their land to their richer neighbors, though this was also part of an act to limit the landed aristocracy’s power as they produced the most troublemaking generals like the Phokas clan. In 931 on the other hand, Romanos I would suffer a great loss when his co-emperor son and intended heir Christopher died from an illness which Romanos mourned deeply most especially because there would be no one competent enough to succeed him when he dies as his other sons Stephen and Constantine despite them being co-emperors were rather good for nothing, therefore the only capable one was the rightful emperor Constantine VII, which was something Romanos could not accept.

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Theophylact Lekapenos, Patriarch of Constantinople (933-956) playing Tzykanion, art by Byzantine Tales

In 933, Romanos I as usual as the master of nepotism successfully schemed to make his 16-year-old son Theophylact, named after Romanos’ father be appointed as Patriarch of Constantinople which had happened to be a total embarrassment as for one Theophylact was a child who had no knowledge in theology, spirituality, and Church politics and second, his major concern was horses and playing Byzantine Polo that in one Easter he forgot to perform his duty as patriarch in celebrating the Eucharist as he had to be in the stables to watch his favorite horse give birth. Now when it came to military matters, this was where Romanos I was most successful at, although he did not personally lead the armies himself, rather the job was left to his close friend the general John Kourkouas who was from a lesser known aristocratic family, which Romanos preferred more thus making him the commander in chief or Domestikos ton Scholon of the eastern armies who back in 923 finally defeated the notorious pirate Leo of Tripoli in the Aegean Sea in which Leo would afterwards disappear from the historical record and in 932, John went as far as Lake Van in the border of Byzantium and Armenia capturing the trading town of Manzikert, thus giving the empire control of trade routes into Armenia and Central Asia. John Kourkouas however would score his greatest victory in 934 when finally achieving the Byzantine dream of capturing the city of Melitene (today’s Malatya, Turkey) in Eastern Asia Minor which then had been the seat of the breakaway Arab Emirate of Melitene that was a vassal of the Abbasids in Baghdad, though what would be very significant about this capture of Melitene was that it was the first time the Byzantine conquered an entire Arab Emirate and absorb it to their empire. Following the conquest of Melitene, the Byzantines immediately resettled Greeks and Armenians in the area into it before the Arabs could take it back but the capture of Melitene also sent great shockwaves to the Muslim world that the Emirates of Mosul and Aleppo both ruled by members of the Hamdanid clan would counter-attack and challenge John Kourkouas although by 940, the Arab Hamdanid general Sayf al-Dawla better known as the “Sword of Islam” and John would be recalled to their capitals but in 941, John returned to campaigning in the east although he had to immediately rush back, for he heard Constantinople was under attack again. Now in 941, Constantinople was for the 3rd time attacked by the army and fleet of the Kievan Rus’ coming from today’s Ukraine sailing down the Black Sea with their fleet of longships, except this time the Rus’ force was much larger and deadlier with 1,000 ships and 40,000 men with their Grand Prince Igor himself leading them.

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Igor, Grand Prince of Kiev (r. 914-945)

Having only 15 old ships in the capital, Romanos I patched them all up with the imperial secret superweapon of Greek Fire and charged them all out to attack the Rus’ longships with the eunuch admiral Theophanes in command of the 15 ships, and with the Rus thinking they could easily crush these 15 ships, they were proven wrong when all 15 of them blew out the powerful liquid fire which burned a number of the Rus’ ships and the Rus soldiers in fear of the sight of the fire jumped into the sea wherein many died from drowning due to the weight of their armor. After fleeing from the Greek Fire, the remaining Rus army escaped to the Asian shore of the Marmara where they committed great atrocities towards the Byzantine locals including crucifying them with nails hammered to their heads while as usual, the Rus nonstop pillaged the land. Soon enough hope would come for the Byzantines when their armies led by John Kourkouas and the same old Bardas Phokas the Elder, the younger brother of Leo Phokas who was blinded back in 919 rushed back to counter-attack the Rus, and at the end of the day the Byzantines were victorious as Theophanes with his navy also destroyed the rest of the fleet, thus the remaining Rus including their prince Igor returned home to Kiev. Now this major conflict between the Rus and Byzantines in 941 is where the graphic novel Theophano opened with the same admiral Theophanes defending Constantinople from the Rus, except here in this story the family of Theophano from Laconia in Greece would not come, thus the story returns to John Kourkouas who would resume his campaigns against the Arabs in the east where in 942 he would attack Aleppo in Syria, the seat of the Arab Emirate though would not be able to conquer it, but John would later on achieve what no Byzantine armies did for the past 3 centuries since all of Byzantine Syria and Mesopotamia was lost to the first wave of Arab invasions in the 630s during the reign of Heraclius (610-641), if you remember from chapter IV of this series. John here would go as far as capturing the important fortress of Dara, the same military fort both Byzantines and Sassanid Persians fought over countless times back in the old days almost 400 years earlier. Though while John Kourkouas seemed to be scoring a lot of victories in the east, Romanos I’s time as emperor was nearing its end, thus he was growing more depressed as the days went by.

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Map of the small states at the Caucasus border between Byzantium and the Abbasid Caliphate in the 10th century
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Byzantine forces under John Kourkouas capture Melitene from the Arabs in 934, Madrid Skylitzes
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Rus-Byzantine War of 941, Byzantine fleet uses Greek Fire against the Rus’ fleet, Madrid Skylitzes
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Rus-Byzantine War of 941, Byzantine fleet defeats the Rus’ fleet at the Sea of Marmara, Madrid Skylitzes
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Byzantine navy using Greek Fire against the Rus outside Constantinople’s Walls, 941

Part II.

Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos, and Intellectual Snob but Surprisingly Skilled Emperor (944-959)          

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For more than 20 years, the rightful emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos had been in the shadows although this whole time he had been busy with intellectual pursuits all while having a rather happy marriage to Romanos I’s daughter Helena who being her father’s only daughter when all his other children were sons did not have a lot in common with her father and brothers’ more manly interests, but rather like her husband, she also enjoyed the more sophisticated things.

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Emperor Constantine VII and Empress Helena Lekapene

Helena had turned to out to be the empire’s senior empress as well despite her only being the senior emperor’s daughter as this was due to the fact that her mother had already died a long time ago just 2 years after her father became emperor (922) and being the most powerful woman in the family as her father’s only daughter, she became the highest-ranking woman in the empire. Helena’s marriage to Constantine VII was indeed a very successful one that they were able to produce 6 children and unlike her father who had 5 sons and only one daughter, Helena with Constantine had 5 daughters and only one son named Romanos born in 938 as a Porphyrogennetos in the purple room too andnamed after his maternal grandfather the reigning emperor, and surprisingly Romanos was born with a twin sister named Zoe after her grandmother, Constantine VII’s mother Empress Zoe Karbonopsina who had died as a nun a long time ago. Now back to Romanos I, by the 940s he had grown increasingly depressed especially since his son and intended heir Christopher died despite it happening 10 years earlier and in his depression, Romanos I became most concerned with what we would all be worried about when reaching old age, which is about the afterlife and Romanos here was deeply bothered about it especially about the salvation of his soul and like Basil I mentioned earlier on as he was in his final years, Romanos I felt the same way in feeling he had been punished by God for what he did in the past which was taking over power from the rightful emperor. In 944 the Rus’ prince Igor I returned once again with his fleet except in the mouth of Danube River to the Black Sea this time threatening to have war with the Byzantines again, but Romanos this time was able to turn them away through diplomacy by sending them gifts. Back in the east, the general John Kourkouas continued his successful campaigns deep into Northern Mesopotamia, although he was still unable to capture the city of Edessa in 942 but instead the Arab authorities gave John a very important relic which had been in the city of Edessa’s possession since the 1st century AD and this was the Holy Mandylion which was a piece of cloth believed to have been used by Jesus Christ himself to wipe his face, therefore leaving an imprint of his features, and this was a relic of high value that the Byzantines always wanted to acquire.

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Image of Christ in the Mandylion

In 944, the Mandylion was sent over to Constantinople wherein a grand ceremony was held to enshrine it in the Hagia Sophia, though Romanos I was too ill and depressed to attend it so instead his sons and co-emperors Stephen and Constantine attended it and so did his son-in-law Constantine VII but when the ceremony happened, the brothers Stephen and Constantine could not see the face on the cloth but Constantine VII did, therefore he gained a vast amount of public support as everyone believed that by being able to see Christ’s face, he was destined to take back the throne. Romanos I later on true enough announced that his time was almost near as he was already 74, therefore he named his son-in-law Constantine VII his successor as senior emperor and not his sons Stephen and Constantine but when these two sons heard of this, they were greatly enraged and so in December of 944 to save their positions, both sons launched a coup against their father in which they broke into his bedroom while he was sleeping and here, both sons put him under arrest, dragged him to a boat, and sent him away to the Princes’ Islands in the Marmara to be a monk in a monastery there. For the next 2 or 3 weeks, both brothers Stephen and Constantine were basically in charge of the empire and now they turned to arrest their brother-in-law Constantine VII but failed as Constantine VII already had great public support and so being convinced by his wife Helena, Constantine VII in January of 945 struck back and arrested his brothers-in-law. The people of Constantinople meanwhile started hearing some rumors that Constantine VII had been killed by the brothers until Constantine VII himself came out to greet them saying he was all alive and well and that the brothers had been banished to no other than the monastery where they sent their father to. Both Stephen and Constantine Lekapenos ended up becoming monks too joining their father in monastery arrest and while Romanos I spent his last years thinking about his soul, his sons were still thinking of ways to return to power but at the end they never would, and Constantine VII now at 39 finally got his chance to rule alone after 32 years of being in the shadows despite keeping his title.

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Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos of Byzantium (r. 913-959), sole emperor (945-959)

At 39, Constantine VII was tall but stocky with a long black beard and brown hair, though quite overweight as for the past 32 years he barely left the palace and instead remained in his study reading and writing as well as drawing and painting and in those years he had been kept away, he became most interested in court ceremonies and now as the sole emperor, he put a lot of attention into it as a way to make it seem like he was all-powerful to make up for all those years where he seemed powerless. Not surprisingly, Constantine VII held a strong grudge against his in-laws, the Lekapenos family especially towards his father-in-law Romanos I and his brothers-in-law seeing them as nothing more but uncultured and improper people or basically just trash despite being married to one, except that Helena as I said was nothing like her father and older brothers, although there were also some members of the Lekapenos family that Constantine VII still trusted as they were much like him in personality and interests and these were Helena’s younger brother the patriarch Theophylact Lekapenos who was still patriarch and Basil Lekapenos, the youngest though illegitimate son of Romanos I born 925 who now as an adult was castrated and turned into a eunuch by Constantine VII’s orders as a way to make Basil unquestionably loyal and unable to usurp power as he was to be Constantine VII’s personal chamberlain and bodyguard.

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Woodcarving of Christ crowning Emperor Constantine VII

As usual of emperors coming to power in this period in Byzantine history, Constantine VII began his sole rule by firing all those loyal to Romanos I including the highly successful general John Kourkouas who in 945 was dismissed from command as Constantine feared he would one day take the throne in the name of his friend Romanos I, and in return Constantine VII replaced all of Romanos I’s loyalists with people loyal to him such as the same old Bardas Phokas the Elder who in 945 replaced John Kourkouas as the supreme commander of the eastern armies and serving him would be his sons Nikephoros Phokas the Younger and Leo Phokas the Younger as well as their 30-year-old nephew John Kourkouas Tzimiskes, who was the son of their older sister and a grand-nephew of the same John Kourkouas who had been fired; and now this Nikephoros Phokas mentioned here who was named after his grandfather Nikephoros Phokas the Elder that was mentioned earlier, would be the more famous Nikephoros Phokas. The other loyal officials Constantine VII had appointed to run the government on the other hand were mostly eunuchs which included of course Basil Lekapenos but also other highly capable eunuch administrators like Joseph Bringas and Constantine Gongyles. Romanos I meanwhile had not died yet and in 947, his son Theophylact who was still patriarch here together with the eunuch admiral Theophanes who was still in command plotted to restore Romanos to the throne but the plot was quickly uncovered by Constantine VII who when hearing about it dismissed Theophanes from command for good, while Theophylact on the other hand was still kept as patriarch as he was entirely useless being nothing more but literally a clown who even performed theatrical acts when performing the liturgy which was very scandalous, and as mentioned earlier he was lacking in brains and cared more about horses than his religious duties. Romanos I on the other hand did not live long enough and in 948 he died as a monk in the monastery he was sent to.           

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The Mandylion brought to Constantinople in 944, Madrid Skylitzes
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Constantine VII (center) in ceremonial armor
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Map of the Byzantine Empire’s Themes (military districts) in Asia Minor, 10th century

Constantine VII as emperor could have been a really disastrous ruler as when the empire was still being pressured by Arab forces in the east as well as the seas by the Arab pirates of Crete and Cilicia while the administration at the same time was being dominated by corrupt eunuchs, Constantine VII had been preoccupied with his scholarly works which is how historians like John Skylitzes (10410-1101) portray him as, but at the same time this was not true of him as Constantine VII cared deeply about the administration, invested heavily on the army, dutifully read all documents given to him, and investigated all cases of injustices against the poor which is how historical records like Theophanes Continuatus portray him as, which is in fact the more reliable source.

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Constantine VII in his study, art by Spatharokandidatos

What is more true about Constantine VII was that he was simply the personification of this era, the Byzantine Renaissance as out of all the emperors of this time, he was the one who put the most attention into funding and promoting art, culture, and literacy as well as court ceremonies and true enough his own intellectual pursuits in writing books and compiling other works would totally show he was this era’s embodiment in cultural terms whereas Romanos I before him was somewhat the embodiment of this era’s military resurgence. Constantine VII now may have excelled in artistic and literary matters but in military matters he was not as you will see which makes him very much like his father Leo VI and just like his father, Constantine VII in 949 made another attempt to reconquer all of Crete from the Arab Emirate of pirates there, and here he planned a larger scale invasion even allying himself with Otto I, the King of the Frankish Empire’s successor Kingdom of East Frankia better known as Germany and the Emirate of Cordoba or Al-Andalus in Spain which were after all the mortal enemies of the Emirate of Crete as these pirates in Crete were after all exiles that tried to overthrow the ruling authority of Cordoba. The proposed military alliance with Otto I’s Germany and the Emirate of Cordoba never came to happen as both rulers had their own problems, so at the end it was only Constantine VII’s Byzantine forces under the eunuch Constantine Gongyles that were left alone to retake Crete and like Leo VI’s attempted reconquest of 911-912, this expedition in 949 was a disaster and failure not only because of Gongyles’ inexperience in military command that the Byzantine forces were massacred by the Arabs while they were sleeping but because the island of Crete had a rough terrain that made it difficult to conquer it, but either way the expedition was abandoned and Gongyles after barely escaping with his life retired from imperial service for good. Constantine VII on the other hand would not see this failed expedition of 949 to reconquer Crete as a great loss, rather he would still continue to do what he loved most which was writing books that by 950 he had already written and published 3 major literary works by himself and as a highly learned scholar, he was fluent in both Latin and Greek. Now before his reign as sole emperor in 945, Constantine VII already completed and published a biography on Basil I (Vita Basilii in Latin), which I have mentioned earlier and believing Basil I was his grandfather who he greatly idolized, Constantine VII portrays him as a heroic figure and defender of the poor from corrupt eunuch that demanded tax from them while Michael III who Basil killed was portrayed as the embodiment of all that is evil and corrupt, therefore Basil’s usurping of power was seen as necessary. Little did Constantine know on the other hand that Basil who he idolized so much was actually not his grandfather and that the evil Michael III he writes about was actually his grandfather and this was mainly because Constantine was too young to remember his father Leo being alive, but if Leo lived longer, Constantine would have known the whole truth- in this story’s case- that Michael was indeed his grandfather. However, much like his actual grandfather Michael III who he labelled as “the Drunkard”, Constantine VII was also a heavy drinker and heavy eater although he was still very respectful to others, took matters seriously, and was on time in attending court ceremonies unlike Michael III who was mostly neglectful.

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De Ceremoniis by Constantine VII

The other work Constantine VII wrote and published included a complete encyclopedia of the Byzantine court rituals and protocols which he was so obsessed known as De Ceremoniis in Latin which discusses in great detail the proper behavior for court ceremonies, coronations, baptisms, weddings, funerals, etc. and also about the proper attire to wear for such events and even about how to behave in church and in feasts, and this would be a very valuable source on Byzantine court rituals which would serve as a manual for all Byzantine emperors after him and for us today as our greatest source for information on Byzantine court life. Constantine’s other literary work De Thematibus meanwhile would be a very valuable guide to the geography and history of all of the Byzantine Empire’s provinces or Themes and this is believed to be the only work composed and compiled by Constantine himself as the rest were just commissioned by him, although for this story Constantine did in fact write all of these himself. The most important work of Constantine VII however is the De Administrando Imperio (DAI) which was literally a guide book to running the very complicated Byzantine Empire with all its politics while at the same time it was a diplomatic guide to all of Byzantium’s foreign neighbors such as the Arabs, Franks, Magyars, Serbs, Bulgarians, Pechenegs, and a lot more based on reports by imperial diplomats and in 952, this guide to the empire and beyond was published and presented to Constantine’s son and heir Romanos who was now co-emperor.

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Constantine VII’s De Administrando Imperio (DAI)

The DAI now was made to advise young Romanos and his successors after him on how to run the empire properly and part of the advice in this book was that Greek Fire was to be kept as a deep state secret as it had saved Byzantium countless times, and also that Byzantine imperial princes were discouraged from marrying any princesses from foreign powers unless they were from the Franks as this was part of Constantine VII maintaining friendly relations with the rising Frankish king Otto I. As part of Constantine VII’s foreign policy in impressing the Franks was that one time possibly in 949 when the bishop of Cremona in Italy Liutprand came to Constantinople being sent by Otto I, Constantine VII greatly impressed him with the grandeur of the imperial court as here Liutprand said he was greatly impressed seeing Constantine VII on his throne being lifted up by a mechanism that elevated the throne itself while the bronze lions that flanked the throne both roared like a real lion would and beside it, the golden birds in the artificial golden tree beside the throne sang.         

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Constantine VII on his throne with the mechanical lions and singing tree, art by Byzantine Tales

Back in the eastern frontier, things were doing well for the Byzantine armies under the supreme commander of the eastern forces Bardas Phokas the Elder but in 953 when battling the forces of the same Sayf al-Dawla who battled John Kourkouas earlier who now was the Emir of Aleppo since 945, Bardas who was now an old man was severely injured in battle while at the end of the day, Sayf’s Arab forces won and even retook the city of Germanikeia in Syria from the Byzantines. Following his injury and being too old to fight anyway being already in his 70s, Bardas retired from command in 955 and would be succeeded as the supreme commander or Domestikos of the eastern forces by his older son Nikephoros Phokas the Younger who was prior to that the Strategos of the Anatolic Theme, and Nikephoros now was a far more capable and ruthless general compared to his father who spent his entire life together with his younger brother Leo learning the art of war.

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General Nikephoros Phokas the Younger, art by Ancient City Lullaby

Nikephoros meanwhile was born in 912 in Cappadocia, the same year Leo VI died, and being part of the wealthy and powerful military clan of Phokas (plural: Phokades), he was destined to have a military career and Nikephoros would true enough be no exception to this as he trained all his life to be a soldier but what made him stand out was his purpose which was not only to fight for the empire or for territory and wealth but to defend the Orthodox Christian faith, and this is why throughout his entire military life, Nikephoros had an intense hatred towards Islam which makes him somewhat of a holy warrior or proto-Crusader as the actual Crusades would happen long after his time. All these years in military service made Nikephoros into a bloody killer especially towards Byzantium’s Muslim enemies that they would all fear his presence, but at the same time he was also a very disciplined holy man that lived life like an ascetic monk even being vegetarian in diet and before every battle would gather up his soldiers for prayer, therefore making him what would be a holy warrior, while brother Leo who was 3 years younger than him would very much just follow his older brother’s example except Leo was married.

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Sayf al-Dawla, Emir of Aleppo (945-967) and his court

As Nikephoros was the top commander in the east, he made his younger brother Leo and nephew John Tzimiskes his subordinate generals and while Nikephoros and Leo based themselves in the eastern border with the Arabs in Cilicia and Syria, John was assigned up north in the Armenian border defending it against the Arabs though in 956 when Sayf’s Arab forces struck John’s army, John being still young and not so experienced yet was defeated and therefore had to flee but later that year, Nikephoros and Leo struck back and won a victory over Sayf’s forces and in 957 Nikephoros would campaign deeper east into Syria and capture the city of Hadath while John on the other hand in 958 would manage actually to succeed not only in crushing Arab forces in battle but by actually recovering the city of Samosata in Mesopotamia from the Arabs while at the same time off the coast of Cilicia, an Arab fleet was destroyed by the Byzantines’ Greek Fire. It was also at around this time in real history when Theophano would come into the picture marrying Constantine VII’s son Romanos as was seen in the graphic novel, but in this story’s case it would not happen. In real history, Romanos as a child was married to Bertha, the daughter of the Frankish king of Italy Hugh (r. 926-947) although Bertha died soon after and so in around 957 with Romanos now grown up, he was free to choose his new wife and rather than choosing a powerful foreign princess or a daughter of a noble Byzantine family, he chose the young daughter of an innkeeper from the region of Laconia (the Peloponnese) in Southern Greece named Anastaso who despite being of low status was famous for her beauty and when hearing rumors about her, Romanos had her sent to Constantinople where she was renamed Theophano after marrying Romanos, although other sources say Theophano actually came from a noble family but of little importance, while her origins as an innkeeper’s daughter was just to malign her.

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Location of Laconia in Greece (red)

For this story however, let’s just say Romanos never heard of these rumors about this young woman in Greece, therefore Anastaso would not be become Theophano but rather would live a simple life as an innkeeper’s daughter in Laconia, never to be heard from again, therefore this would be the story’s greatest plot-twist. Other significant events that happened later on in the 950s with Byzantium under Constantine VII was that in 956 the mostly irresponsible patriarch Theophylact Lekapenos died from ironically falling off his horse as for his whole life he was dedicated to horses and following his sudden death at 39, he was replaced as Patriarch of Constantinople by Polyeuctus, a man who began out as a simple monk and when becoming patriarch he was the complete opposite of the fun-loving Theophylact as Polyeuctus was a serious scholar and man of strict morals except he was also very rude and arrogant as he would constantly challenge the emperor Constantine VII’s authority especially since he was the son of a controversial 4th marriage that Polyeuctus as strictly Orthodox never agreed to but also in knowledge of philosophy and religion knowing the emperor knew them well, while Constantine was not happy being challenged by the patriarch, except that he did not show it.

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Olga, Princess of the Kievan Rus’

In 957, the ruling princess of the Kieven Rus’ state Olga, wife of their former ruler Igor I who attacked Constantinople back in 941 but died in 945 came over to Constantinople though not to attack but to be baptized as a Christian by Patriarch Polyeuctus, thus would mark the beginning of the Christianization of the Rus’ state who like Bulgaria before also chose Orthodox Christianity. In Constantinople, Olga was seen as an exotic beauty with blonde hair, blue eyes, and pale skin and because of her beauty, the emperor Constantine even briefly fell in love with her but Olga prevented him from doing so by making Constantine her godfather at her baptism as a godfather and goddaughter could not be in a relationship and before returning north to Kiev, Olga as a Christian now took the name of Helena after the empress. Constantine VII on the other hand did not have much longer to live and in November of 959, right when was about to plan another campaign to reconquer Crete from the Arabs, he died in his bed at only 54 under mysterious circumstances that it was rumored that his daughter-in-law Theophano poisoned him thus giving her a bad reputation, however in this story with Theophano never coming into the picture, Constantine VII would still die here in 959 as it was surely most possible that he did not die from poisoning but rather from heart failure as Constantine was already unhealthy due to being overweight spending most of his life in his study and throne room barely moving while also eating and drinking very heavily and at only 54 he already looked like he was in his late 60s after living a life of stress especially back when Romanos I was his protector who any time could decide whether Constantine was to live or die. In real history, Constantine in 959 died at least having one grandson which was Basil, the son of Romanos and Theophano but here without Theophano around, Constantine would still die ruling the empire very competently leaving the empire with its cultural Renaissance and military might at a full swing.

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Emperor Constantine VII hosting a feast, art by Byzantine Tales
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Polyeuctus appointed as patriarch in 956, Madrid Skylitzes
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Princess Olga of Kiev in the Hagia Sophia, Constantinople, 957

 

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Death of Constantine VII in 959, Madrid Skylitzes

The Climax Part I- Romanos II, the End of the Amorian Dynasty (959-963)          

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In 959, Romanos II at only 21 succeeded his father Constantine VII following his death and continuing the Amorian Dynasty despite not knowing the whole truth and still thinking he was from the line of Basil the Macedonian and not Michael III. Romanos II was very well trained by his father to succeed him as ever since 945 when Constantine VII became sole emperor, Romanos was already associated with his father on the throne as co-emperor and in addition, Constantine VII left behind to Romanos a complete manual in running the empire and its government which was the DAI.

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Emperor Romanos II of Byzantium (r. 959-963), son of Constantine VII, art by Byzantine Tales

The question now is if Romanos actually took his father’s advice in running the empire to heart or just wasted it away, and the answer is that he just wasted it away as he did indeed have capable advisors like the eunuch Joseph Bringas who put all his trust to in running the empire and more capable generals like Nikephoros and Leo Phokas as well as John Tzimiskes that he could put all his trust to, thus allowing Romanos to live the life of pleasure he so loved. Now Romanos being the pleasure-loving party-boy that partied all night and neglected his duties in running the empire but at the same time still having capable ministers running the government for him was exactly like his actual great-grandfather Michael III although unlike Michael III, Romanos would not get rid of his mother and sisters and lock them up in a convent. In real history however due to the influence of his wife Theophano, Romanos banished all of his 5 sisters from the palace including his mother Empress Helena and sent them all to a convent to become nuns as they were seen as threats, or if you go with the Theophano graphic novel, Romanos’ top advisor Joseph Bringas had accused Helena of poisoning her husband the late emperor therefore forcing her to commit suicide by having her poison herself when in fact Theophano poisoned Constantine VII being manipulated by Joseph, but in this story with Theophano not coming into the picture Romanos would not do anything to his mother and sisters and since he was unmarried he still needed an empress (Augusta) at side, therefore his mother would still keep her position as the Augusta until Romanos was to be married, and not to mention too Romanos inherited a lot from his mother especially his good looks and grace, though Romanos’ stocky figure was inherited from his father.

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Coin of Constantine VII and his son and co-emperor Romanos II

On the other hand, Romanos’ reasons for being hands off in the administration and neglecting mostly everything his father taught him in running the empire was not so much because he did not care and just wanted to party and sleep with other women but because he did in fact have some personal issues with his father and a lot of this had to do with how his father looked down on Romanos’ mother’s side, the Lekapenos family and his maternal grandfather Romanos I who Constantine VII saw as trash while Romanos was indeed close to his mother’s side especially to his late fun-loving uncle Patriarch Theophylact who did in fact influence Romanos’ pleasure-loving lifestyle, and as an act of rebelling against his father’s memory, Romanos chose to not take his advice and let Joseph the eunuch do everything as he was highly skilled at it despite being greedy and corrupt at the same time. Romanos having grown up practically raised by Joseph Bringas chose to have Joseph as his top advisor while his uncle Basil Lekapenos was put aside although he still maintained his position in the imperial court. Now Romanos II was not all neglectful and resentful towards his father as you may think as in 960 less than a year after becoming emperor, he decided to continue what his father failed to do before he died which was to recapture the entire island of Crete and so here, Romanos planned out a massive campaign to retake the island himself though with Joseph’s advice too, but Romanos having no military experience would not lead the campaign himself, instead he selected the empire’s rising star and most capable general Nikephoros Phokas to lead it, and true enough Nikephoros had been Byzantium’s most brilliant strategist general since Justinian I’s general Belisarius in the 6th century (who played a major part in chapter III). Romanos II then had to recall Nikephoros from the eastern front to Constantinople where the fleet of 1,000 warships or Dromons including 50,000 soldiers and 27,000 sailors would take off. Nikephoros then left behind his younger brother Leo and nephew John Tzimiskes to fight off the Arabs in the east as he was to face another Arab army which were the pirates of Crete and Nikephoros living his life to fight Arabs accepted the offer to lead the perilous Cretan expedition of 960 which would then last for about 8 months, although Nikephoros spending months on campaign already expected this.

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Byzantine Cataphract cavalry unload in Crete’s shore using ramps, 960

The entire fleet then arrived outside the city of Chandax which was the island emirate’s capital and when seeing the strength of its land and sea walls, Nikephoros had his men carefully inspect it and here he immediately came up with his strategy which was to not lift the siege no matter how much time went by. For months, the Byzantine forces kept firing arrows and weights from their catapults into the city, though it never succeeded and at one point just out of fun and as an insult, Nikephoros had a live donkey catapulted high up into the air and into the city, though to mention, another tactic Nikephoros used here was to catapult in to the city heads of its people relatives from outside the walls that had been killed, as a way to bring feat to them. The siege lasted until the winter where Nikephoros ordered his men to not lift the siege but use the winter to starve off the population inside and it was also here when ships from Constantinople arrived to restock the supplies for the army, but it was only when March of 961 came when the Byzantines would totally gain the upper hand. The emir of Crete Abd al-Aziz meanwhile was tired of being blockaded for months that he even wrote to Romanos II to order his men to abandon the siege though it did not work as Nikephoros was already so close to taking it. The next trick Nikephoros did was to have his men dig beneath the walls to make it collapse and with explosives planted beneath the walls’ foundations, the walls collapsed allowing the Byzantine army to pour in. After months of endlessly waiting to take the city, the Byzantine army lost all their patience and once they broke the walls of Chandax, they carried out a merciless sack of the city massacring anyone they found while the survivors were taken as slaves, mosques were destroyed out of revenge, and a lot of loot hoarded by the pirates over the years were recovered. By March of 961, not only Chandax but all of the Island of Crete fell once again back under Byzantine hands after 137 years of Arab control and numerous attempts to recapture it, thus the threat of these Arab pirates in the Mediterranean was done with for good and trade allowed to continue uninterrupted once again, while at the same time the emir Abd al-Aziz was taken as a prisoner and brought to Constantinople where he was paraded at the triumphal procession for Nikephoros Phokas and his army. The triumph in Constantinople meanwhile was not entirely held for the victorious general Nikephoros Phokas but for Romanos II who masterminded the whole expedition as he did not want Nikephoros getting all the credit, and here Abd al-Aziz was forced to bow down to Romanos II but was still allowed to live and retire peacefully despite not converting to Christianity, though he would never to come back to the picture again.

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Byzantine Dromon (warship)
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Territories of the Arab pirate Emirate of Crete (red), before 961
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960-961 Byzantine Siege of Arab held Chandax, Madrid Skylitzes
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Nikephoros Phokas’ Byzantine forces storm Chandax in 961, Madrid Skylitzes
Watch this to learn more about the life and career of Nikephoros Phokas (History Time)

By achieving the impossible in finally taking over Crete from the Arab pirates, Nikephoros Phokas would be forever remembered as the terror of the Arabs or simply the “Pale Death of the Saracens” referring to his brutal massacre of the Arab Muslim population of Chandax, although Romanos II too would gain a lot of popularity for achieving the reconquest of Crete. Nikephoros however right after celebrating his triumph was immediately sent back to the eastern frontier to continue the war against the more serious Arab threat of the Emir of Aleppo Sayf al-Dawla who like Nikephoros was striking back at Arabs was his counterpart striking back against the Byzantines for their successes, although Romanos too saw that Nikephoros may pose a threat to his power if he was to stay in Constantinople longer as Nikephoros had grown even more popular than the emperor for his recent victory.

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Lego Nikephoros Phokas (right) and his brother Leo Phokas (left)

In the meantime over in the eastern frontier, Sayf al-Dawla continued making his annual raids into Byzantine Asia Minor even winning a few victories in minor battles, although Leo Phokas who was left in charge there had managed to set a trap for Sayf in the Taurus Mountains where Sayf was going to pass when returning to Syria and there as his army marched through, the Byzantine forces under Leo ambushed them which was successful leaving only Sayf with 300 of his cavalry soldiers alive, although Sayf barely escaped the ambush with his prized Arabian horse he was riding killed in it. Sayf then escaped using one of his dead soldier’s horse and had even scattered his gold coins to allow his escape as Leo’s soldiers were busy picking them up. Nikephoros later on in 961 was back in Cilicia to continue his campaigns, although here was not intending to fully invade it but to make raids as his tactic in order to weaken the state for a full Byzantine invasion later on, though it was also in 961 when Romanos II’s mother Empress Helena died like in real history from natural causes. In early 962, Nikephoros and his army was able to capture the border between Cilicia and Syria where Nikephoros had the land burned to create a dead zone as a way to make it more difficult for Sayf to invade, although Sayf still managed to cross over to Cilicia but this allowed John Tzimiskes to attack Sayf’s capital of Aleppo in Syria directly while Sayf was not there to guard it. Sayf when hearing that the Byzantine forces reached his capital returned to defend it but when returning he was chased by John Tzimiskes and his forces to the Euphrates River wherein Sayf crossed into Mesopotamia whereas Nikephoros and Leo with their forces all surrounded Aleppo itself. For several months the Byzantine forces had besieged Aleppo and with Sayf absent from his capital, public order there collapsed that by December of 962 the city garrison had to surrender to the Byzantines. Just as they did in Chandax a year earlier, the Byzantine forces did the same to Aleppo looting the city and carrying out a brutal massacre on its Muslim Arab population and when seeing Sayf’s magnificent library there, the Byzantines knew that Sayf was not just a warrior but a highly cultured intellectual, although the Byzantine soldiers acting on Nikephoros’ orders did not spare the library out of respect, instead they burned it to the ground as part of Nikephoros’ strong grudge against Islam. The Byzantines then would only stop their brutal pillaging of Aleppo when they grew tired of it and at the end, they were able to capture over 390,000 silver dinars, 2,000 camels, and 1,400 mules thus the forces under the 3 generals Nikephoros, Leo, and John would head back west, while for the Arab world, the sack of Aleppo would forever ruin their power and prestige. Meanwhile over in the Balkans, another Byzantine general would rise to prominence the way Nikephoros Phokas did and this was Marianos Argyros who had previously gained success in Southern Italy winning many victories against the Arabs and in 962 he had defeated a major invasion of the Magyars into Thrace making him instantly a favorite and part of Romanos’ inner circle which was also because Romanos under Joseph’s influence soon grew to mistrust Nikephoros seeing him as a direct threat. In March of 963, as Nikephoros and his generals were in Cappadocia, news reached them that Romanos II had died and everyone was shocked as the emperor was only 25, therefore they suspected his scheming eunuch advisor Joseph Bringas of poisoning him. Now in real history, it is rumored that it was his wife Theophano that poisoned him like she did to his father as she had gotten tired of Romanos, although in this story with Theophano not being around, we will go with the other possible theory of Romanos’ death which was caused by an accident in a hunting trip whereas Romanos being drunk fell off his horse and down a ditch inuring himself, and when lying down back in Constantinople being badly injured, I would say Joseph Bringas poisoned him to finish him off, although as a eunuch Joseph could not be emperor so it was up for him to put another puppet on the throne except he did not know who, as for one he was someone who totally hated Nikephoros Phokas seeing his popularity as a threat, so here I would go with Joseph selecting John Tzimiskes as his new puppet emperor who Joseph believed could be easily manipulated, and true enough this could be why Joseph sent a letter to John in real history asking him to turn on his uncle Nikephoros and bring him in chains to Constantinople.

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Byzantine imperial shield coronation of Nikephoros II Phokas, 963

In real history however, Theophano having 2 young sons with Romanos, Basil and Constantine who were both already co-emperors needed a protector for them as she distrusted Joseph, therefore she sent word to the popular Nikephoros Phokas to make himself emperor to protect her sons, although here again with Theophano not being in the picture and Romanos II remaining unmarried and without children at his death, Nikephoros Phokas would set his eyes on the throne anyway using his popularity as an opportunity. The same would happen here too with Joseph Bringas sending John Tzimiskes a letter asking him to turn on his uncle Nikephoros and arrest him but like in real history, instead of turning on his uncle John would end up having their troops proclaim his uncle Nikephoros as emperor raising him on a large round shield, thus here ends the rule of the Amorian Dynasty that had ruled since 820 and only briefly interrupted with the reign of Basil I (867-886) and his legitimate son Alexander (912-913), and here begins the rule of the Phokas clan over Byzantium.   

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Leo Phokas’ army defeats Sayf al-Dawla in 962, Madrid Skylitzes
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Byzantine forces capture Aleppo in 962, Madrid Skylitzes
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Death of Romanos II in 963, Madrid Skylitzes

Watch this video below to see Nikephoros Phokas’ life in Lego (from my channel No Budget Films).


The Climax Part II- Nikephoros II Phokas (963-969), From Hero to Zero          

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Here in August of 963 begins the highly eventful and action-packed 6-year reign of Nikephoros II Phokas, but before he could be officially crowned as emperor by the patriarch Polyeuctus, he had to make his way into Constantinople as Joseph Bringas had already taken control of the city refusing him entry. As Nikephoros and his army were camped outside the Bosporus at night, he sent his brother Leo to cross it in a small boat dressed as a port worker which he did and when reaching the docks of the European side of Constantinople, he gathered a large number of boats which he had sailed across the Bosporus to ferry the rest of the army and Nikephoros right across it again. At the same night as Nikephoros’ and Leo’s armies were crossing the Bosporus, their very old father Bardas who was still alive was inside the Hagia Sophia seeking refuge although here the people inside all rallied under him against Joseph Bringas who they all came to hate due to his corruption, although Joseph already sent Marianos Argyros who was in charge of the city’s defense to arrest Bardas as Joseph planned to get rid of the entire Phokas clan except for John Tzimiskes who here was his intended candidate, although true enough John as a strong general was not willing to be a puppet. Bardas however would not end up being arrested as Marianos before reaching the Hagia Sophia was injured by a heavy object thrown right at his head by a woman from the balcony doing this in rebellion against Joseph, and hours later Marianos would die from his head injury. At the same time, the eunuch Basil Lekapenos who had been put aside throughout Romanos II’s reign struck back in rebellion against Joseph bribing the population of Constantinople to turn on the corrupt and fat Joseph. Nikephoros and Leo with the forces eventually crossed the Bosporus and made it into Constantinople wherein the city garrison surrendered to them as they commanded a larger army and when getting into the center of the city, Nikephoros himself confronted Joseph in a fistfight in which Nikephoros won and when losing the fight as well as all his power influence when everyone turned against him, Joseph Bringas was banished from Constantinople for good, thus returning to his native land of Paphlagonia in Northern Asia Minor never to return again.

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Emperor Nikephoros II Phokas of Byzantium (r. 963-969)

The next day, Nikephoros was officially crowned as emperor by Patriarch Polyeuctus, although Polyeuctus never really supported him anyway, except that after seeing power shift twice from Constantine VII to Romanos II, then to Nikephoros in only 4 years he got tired of all this changing of emperors, so he crowned Nikephoros anyway who now was the sole emperor as here in this story there is no Empress Theophano around and her 2 that Nikephoros would have to rule for as their guardian. In this case, Polyeuctus also agreed to crown Nikephoros despite him having no ties to the previous ruling Amorian Dynasty because Polyeuctus knew the dynasty was ruined anyway as Leo VI long ago was not a legitimate son and Constantine VII was the son of a controversial 4th marriage, though only for the sake of legitimacy for Nikephoros to not be seen as a usurper, Polyeuctus would ask him to marry one of Romanos II’s sisters as in fact all 5 were still alive, and in this story, unlike in real history where Nikephoros married Theophano to legitimize his claim, here he would choose Romanos’ twin sister Zoe as his wife, as again Theophano would not be around here. Just like how Nikephoros in real history married Theophano despite never staying close to her as he vowed to stay away from women after his first wife and son died a long time ago and also because he wanted to live life like an ascetic monk, Nikephoros would do the same here too by marrying Zoe for political reasons only although as part of his ascetic lifestyle, he would mostly stay away from her, but it would be worse here as Zoe had no children whereas in real history Theophano already did, and Zoe would actually not have any children as Nikephoros would never stay close to her.

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General John Tzimiskes, nephew of Nikephoros II Phokas, art by Byzantine Tales

As the new emperor, Nikephoros made his brother Leo the head of the palace or Kouropalates and his father Bardas a Caesar as an honorary title, while John Tzimiskes succeeded Nikephoros as the top commander of the eastern armies. Now for weakening Sayf al-Dawla’s threat in the east, recapturing Crete, and finishing off the corrupt Joseph Bringas, Nikephoros II was highly popular when coming into power but his much younger nephew John Tzimiskes was even more popular mostly because of his good looks and supernatural abilities in horse riding and archery despite his short stature which is why he is known by his nickname Tzimiskes which as I forgot to mention is the Greek translation for the Armenian word for “short” thus hinting he is of some Armenian origin, and John Tzimiskes too aside from having good looks also had charm unlike his uncle Nikephoros who at 51 here in 963 was unattractive in appearance and being a veteran soldier was very rough around the edges, negative in personality, and had also lacked charm making him unable to connect with the population but only with his soldiers. Nikephoros as emperor true enough ruled the same way as he commanded his troops and rather than caring about pleasing his people, the first thing he thought about when becoming emperor was resuming the war in the east against Sayf al-Dawla. By the end of 963, Nikephoros launched another campaign against the Arabs of Cilicia although this time he remained in Constantinople while his brother Leo and nephew John Tzimiskes led the army and here John was able to strike the city of Adana forcing the Arab forces there to flee to a nearby hill where they made a last stand but ultimately lost when John wiped them out there. Sayf meanwhile began raiding Byzantine Asia Minor once again but did not last long enough as here in 963 as well, he suffered a stroke thus making him unable to fight in person which made him have to make a truce with Nikephoros II.

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Athanasios of Trebizond, ascetic monk and friend of Nikephoros Phokas

In 964, Nikephoros II’s popularity would already start dropping when he began to issue laws that was to limit land donations to the Church from the aristocracy thus making him unpopular with the Church, while he also continued the reforms of Romanos I and Constantine VII in limiting the aristocracy (Dynatoi) from buying land from the peasants. As a devout Christian, Nikephoros believed that the Church should not really possess worldly wealth and property which he was very vocal about, though despite this, he still gave property in the peninsula of Mt. Athos in Northern Greece to his friend the monk Athanasios of Trebizond in which Nikephoros even helped him financially construct and establish the Great Lavra Monastery which would over the years grow into a large monastic community.   

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Nikephoros Phokas enters Constantinople in 963, Madrid Skylitzes
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Monastery of Great Lavra in Mt. Athos, founded by Athanasios of Trebizond with funding from Nikephoros II

         

Between 964 and 965, Nikephoros II himself headed out east to continue his campaigns against the remaining Arab emirates in Cilicia and Syria to finally conquer them.

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Nikephoros II Phokas, “Pale Death of the Saracens”, art by Spatharokandidatos

In 965, Nikephoros announced that the sharing of the island of Cyprus between the Byzantines and Arabs in which the Arabs having one half of the island paid rent to the Byzantines, which they have done ever since the reign of Constans II in the mid-7th century would end and this meant that Nikephoros launched a massive naval invasion to recapture the Arab half of Cyprus. The expedition to retake all of Cyprus led by the general Niketas Chalkoutzes was then successful making all of Cyprus Byzantine again all while Nikephoros together with Leo and John continued their Cilician campaign. For several months, both the emperor Nikephoros and John Tzimiskes were besieging the city of Mopsuestia in Cilicia while Leo was busy besieging Tarsus, which here was another haven for Arab pirates the way Crete was before 961. By July of 965, the city of Mopsuestia completely fell to the Byzantines after the soldiers of Nikephoros and John dug beneath its walls making them collapse and when taking Mopsuestia, the Byzantine soldiers being the same ones that captured Crete and Aleppo did the same as they did there by carrying out another brutal massacre on the Arab Muslim population of Mopsuestia and taking the survivors as slaves. Following the fall of Mopsuestia, Tarsus too fell to the Byzantines in August of 965 where Nikephoros chased the remaining Arab forces of Tarsus with his Cataphract cavalry and following this, all of Cilicia fell into Byzantine control thus becoming a Roman province again.

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Nikephoros II Phokas in imperial robes holding a Byzantine curved sword (Paramerion)

Back in Constantinople, a major triumph was celebrated for the complete reconquest of Cyprus and Cilicia and here Nikephoros II began a tradition which was to parade the sacred Christian relics he captured in his triumphal parade, a new practice that Byzantine emperors would do from here onwards. Though John Tzimiskes was the hero of the Cilician campaign, just shortly after returning to Constantinople he was fired from command by his uncle the emperor and forced to live under house arrest in a small estate in Asia Minor for some unclear reasons, but for this story’s case it would be because Nikephoros II here started getting paranoid and envying his nephew to the point of seeing him as a threat to his power as it was John who gained a lot of popularity for his victories in Cilicia, and it would be here when John would eventually form a conspiracy to overthrow his uncle Nikephoros. Now Nikephoros may have been successful in fighting wars in the eastern front but in the west it was not really case as by putting all his attention and best troops in the east, the west meaning Byzantine Southern Italy was poorly defended with weaker forces and in 965 too, the Byzantines forces after being forced out of Rometta, their last outpost in Sicily would suffer a heavy defeat to the Arab navy at the naval Battle of Straits wherein many Byzantine soldiers died drowning in the sea and the survivors enslaved by the Arabs.

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Otto I the Great, King of East Frankia (936-962), Holy Roman emperor (962-973)

At the same time too, the Frankish king of East Frankia (Germany) Otto I who maintained good relations with Constantine VII before was now hostile towards Byzantium as in 962 he had been crowned by the pope as the first Holy Roman Emperor, and unlike Charlemagne back in 800 who was surprised to be crowned as a “Roman emperor” by the pope, Otto who spent his whole reign unifying Germany and Italy into one empire the way Charlemagne almost 200 years ago did, was really intent in being crowned as a “Roman emperor” which he used to challenge the authority of the Byzantine Empire especially in their holdings in Italy, which Otto had wanted for himself. Nikephoros as usual of him in 966 continued fighting wars in the east and this time having his men go all the way east to Mesopotamia again to raid the Arab held cities of Amida, Dara, and Nisibis but little did Nikephoros who never really listened to his people know that his people were tired of war and were content with how large and strong empire was already as more wars meant more taxes to pay for the food supply and salary of the soldiers. Nikephoros though was very strict in his tax policies that he constantly increased taxes to fund his military campaigns as in this story, he did indeed have the ambition like Justinian I 4 centuries ago to conquer the entire Mediterranean and make it a “Roman lake” again, except Nikephoros was forgetting that Byzantium’s armies despite being powerful was not as powerful and great in number as it was in the 6th century.

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Tsar Peter I of Bulgaria (r. 927-969), son of Simeon

Nikephoros’ aggressive policy would again show between 966 and 967 when he would end the 42-year peace between Byzantium and the Bulgarian Empire up north which began in 925 between Romanos I and the Bulgarian tsar Simeon, and by 966 Simeon’s son Peter I was still ruling Bulgaria and by not being very aggressive, Peter did not really succeed in blocking off Magyar raids into the Byzantine Empire and because of this Nikephoros wrote him a letter telling him to be more aggressive in dealing with the Magyars from the north as they were spilling in to Byzantine territory but Peter refused saying he was fine with what he was doing. According the contemporary historian of this time Leo the Deacon, Nikephoros insulted the Bulgar ambassadors Peter sent to him reminding them of their origins as nomadic barbarians from the steppes in which the Bulgars were, and in this story, this would be true while Nikephoros as well refused to pay tribute to Bulgaria, which again would resume the traditional war between Byzantium and their northern neighbor after 42 years. At the same time, a new power had been rising in Eastern Europe which was that of the Kievan Rus’ and since 964, this state had been ruled by their Grand Prince Sviatoslav I, better known as “Sviatoslav the Brave”, the son of the Kievan Rus’ grand prince Igor and princess Olga who had been mentioned earlier, and Sviatoslav unlike his mother who was baptized an Orthodox Christian was a Pagan like his father, and also a ruthless warrior who had the ambition to expand the Kievan Rus’ state by force using both the fearlessness of his Scandinavian ancestors and speed of the nomadic steppe people like the Huns, Magyars, Pechenegs, and Avars that had settled in Eastern Europe for centuries.

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Sviatoslav I, Grand Prince of the Kievan Rus’ (r. 945-972)

Sviatoslav thus expanded his empire by force that in such a quick amount time with the speed and ruthlessness of his army, most of Eastern Europe was conquered that in 965 the power of the Khazar Khanate in Southern Russia that had been there for about 4 centuries was destroyed when Sviatoslav destroyed their major trading city of Sarkel along the Don River which the Byzantine emperor Theophilos helped build if you remember, and the Khazar’s capital of Atil located where the Volga River comes out into the Caspian Sea. Sviatoslav too set his eyes on Byzantine Cherson in the Crimea intending to conquer it to gain access to the Black Sea and when Nikephoros heard of Sviatoslav’s ambition to conquer Byzantine territory, he sent Sviatoslav money bribing him to attack the Bulgarian Empire instead in which Sviatoslav accepted the offer and rode to Bulgaria with such terror and what resulted from his attack was the near complete destruction of the Bulgarian state that the eastern half of Bulgaria fell under his rule. Sviatoslav though did not only conquer Bulgarian lands, he even went as far as spilling into Byzantine Thrace bringing such terror there as well, which shows that Nikephoros II was not really a skilled diplomat.