A Byzantine History fan reacts to new Byzantine graphic novel Theophano: A Byzantine Tale including a Complete Book Review/ Analysis and fan casting for the novel

Posted by Powee Celdran

Theophano does a great job showing us the unknown side of history in such a fascinating and contemporary way that we can relate to centuries later. It has such an amazing balance of Byzantine easter eggs and stories mixed with modern pop culture elements and truly has the potential to introduce the world of Byzantium into today’s pop culture.” -Powee Celdran, Byzantine history fan and creator of The Byzantium Blogger

WARNING: THIS IS A VERY LONG ATICLE AND MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS!!

If you don’t want any spoilers, please order the book online in Amazon and Comixology.

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Theophano: A Byzantine Tale (2020)

Welcome to the Byzantium Blogger’s first post for 2021! Hello everyone, I am Powee Celdran better known as the “Byzantium Blogger” and I would like to start off my new Byzantine adventure for this year 2021 with a very special article featuring the recently published graphic novel with a Byzantine era setting Theophano: A Byzantine Tale (2020), a Byzantine fan fiction based on real historical events. For almost 2 years now, my life has been all about this history of the Byzantine Empire that I have been making articles on this site non-stop and Lego films with a Byzantine setting on my channel No Budget Films since then but sadly the story of the Byzantine Empire or Eastern Roman Empire is not very much talked about and neither is it brought into the world of pop culture the way the history of Ancient Greece, Rome, and Medieval Europe is. However last year (2020), when hearing out of the blue that a new graphic novel with a Byzantine era setting has been published, my heart literally jumped out of my chest finding out that Byzantine history sure enough does have a place in the world of pop culture. This graphic novel by the way written by Spyros Theocharis and illustrated by Chrysa Sakel is set in the 10th century golden age of the Byzantine Empire under the Macedonian Dynasty, an intriguing and exciting time in of resurgence in their imperial power as the military and cultural power of Eastern Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean but behind all this power and glory in this era was also a time of extreme imperial extravagance, a toxic imperial court run by scheming eunuchs, and powerful generals all eyeing the ultimate prize, the imperial throne. This graphic novel which is divided into 5 chapters tells the story of these complex times yet very fascinating up to this day in the perspective of Theophano, an actual historical figure of this time who was a young woman of humble origins that up marrying the imperial heir and later becoming the empress of the Byzantine Empire herself being the wife of 2 emperors as well as a mother of 2 emperors. Overall, this graphic novel does a truly great job showing us readers in the modern age what the lesser known lifestyle, politics, battles, and fashion was in the interesting time of the 10th century when the Byzantine Empire was at its height and I have to definitely say that I had the great honor of actually getting to interview the creators of this novel by messaging them through Instagram, more particularly with the novel’s illustrator Chrysa Sakel who I have asked a long series of questions to which have proven useful to guide my article/ graphic novel review. It was quite a challenge to actually get the chance of having a private Q&A with the graphic novel’s creators that in fact the whole process took 4 days! At the end it was all worth it as I got to know more about not just the behind-the-scenes of writing this novel but about the background of the story and its littlest details and why in particular Theophano was chosen as the subject of the story and I would like to thank Chrysa very much for giving some of her time to answer all the questions I have come up with when reading the novel in order for me to make this article possible. In addition, I am also going to do something very unique and special for this article which will be a fan casting for the graphic novel as when reading the novel, I had already envisioned a list of actors and actresses who in my opinion could nail playing the characters featured here. Now this article here will be overall how a Byzantine history fan reacts to this amazing new graphic novel. Before I even start, I have to mention that this novel will be featured today at the Edinburgh Byzantine book festival and fortunately I came right in time to complete this article on the book!

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Check out their website byzantinetales.com to get more info on the graphic novel. 

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Follow the novel’s illustrator on Instagram: ChrysaSakel

Watch the trailer to the graphic novel here!

(Photo credits: Byzantine Tales FB page, Madrid Skylitzes, and artworks by Amelianvs and Ediacar)

Last year, it was when listening to the History of Byzantium podcasts by Robin Pierson and the podcast of Byzantium and Friends by the historian Anthony Kaldellis where I learned that this graphic novel existed so I decided to order it online wherein I received the book at the very start of this year so I kick started 2021 reading this 137 page graphic novel and 3 weeks later, I finished reading it in time to ask a number of questions to its creators through Instagram after I shared a story last January 25 that I have complete reading it. Luckily, when I received the book and posted it as my first post in my newly created Byzantium centered Instagram account Byzantine_Time_Traveller, the creators using the novel’s account followed my new account the moment I shared my post and tagged them. Reading this novel sure gave me a really fascinating impression of Byzantium in the 10th century, however I already knew what to expect since for one I am already very familiar with the whole history of Byzantium ever since I have been drawn to it in early 2019 and second I am already familiar with the story of Theophano and 10th century Byzantium and what it is known for as before reading this novel I have a read number of Byzantine history books as well and the best so far- aside from this graphic novel of course- that totally gave me a perfect glimpse of the life of the Byzantine Empire was Anthony Kaldellis’ Cabinet of Byzantine Curiosities and The History of the Byzantine Empire by Radi Dikici in which second one mentioned tells the story of Byzantium through the lives of all its emperors from beginning to end (330-1453). Now I would say this graphic novel would be a good start off for readers who are not very familiar with the history of Byzantium and I would highly recommend it to my friends and cousins who don’t really understand why I am so into Byzantium, and hopefully this novel will show them just why. Basically, why this graphic novel can hopefully make Byzantium relatable to modern people is because this novel tells its story in such a contemporary way through the same kind of modern language we use for its dialogue and very well made drawings that can make us imagine these historical Byzantine figures as real people and no longer as faded stick figures as they have been depicted in their time through manuscripts like the Madrid Skylitzes and Menologion of Basil II.

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Flag of the Byzantine Empire

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On the other hand, as I have mentioned earlier I have been doing Lego fan fiction films using the subtitle of “Byzantine Epic” since 2019 and surprisingly the first one I did with a Byzantine setting was set in the same era of this novel with the emperor Nikephoros II Phokas as its main character who happens to be a major character in this novel. This Lego Byzantine epic I did set in the 10th century was The Rise of Phokas (2019) in which Theophano too had a quick appearance as a Lego character, then this was followed by its short sequel Killing a Byzantine Emperor (2019) focusing plainly on the assassination of Nikephoros II, which (spoiler alert!) also appears at the end of this novel. The surprising part happens to be that the creators started creating this novel in the last quarter of 2019 and finished in the summer of 2020 and ironically enough it was in the last quarter of 2019 that I made my full feature 13th century Byzantine era epic Summer of 1261 while its sequel War of the Sicilian Vespers was released in the summer of 2020. Now when it comes to bringing the hidden history of Byzantium into the world of pop culture, I should say first that even I intend to do that which is why I make Byzantine Lego films that are relatable to today’s viewers and other than myself there is someone I have always been mentioning in my past articles which is my favorite Youtube channel Dovahhatty who has reached great levels of success through his animated 19 episode series the Unbiased History of Rome in which now began its second season with its first episode on Byzantium but between my channel and Dovahhatty, this graphic novel Theophano: A Byzantine Tale is what I should say is the one that pretty much nailed it in making Byzantium something worthy of modern pop culture the same way many medieval fantasy series and films like The Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones does and if you continue reading this, you will know why. Basically, this novel is written in the form a failed fairytale by doing what a Disney fairytale movie does in centering on a young female lead character which in this case is Theophano and why in particular Theophano was chosen according to the creators in my Q&A was because they did not want a really famous character in Byzantine history like Emperor Justinian I of the 6th century or Basil II of the 10th century but someone who’s story is mostly unclear and Empress Theophano was certainly the perfect choice for it as her story could be altered but at the same time she was chosen as the main character because her story was very interesting as she acted as a link between the famous characters of this era including Emperors Constantine VII, Romanos II, Nikephoros II Phokas, and John I Tzimiskes as the main part of the novel covers a span of a complete 20 years in her life (956-976). On the other hand, this novel was also done to show a more human side to the character of Theophano as history usually remembers her as an evil empress that killed 3 emperors which were her father-in-law and 2 husbands out of her own evil ambitions and I have to admit I thought the same way too before but when reading this novel, it made me see a different side to her which was that she was sure enough ambitious but necessarily evil as history shows her as when reading this, I came to realize that Theophano sure enough was doing all these evil things just to protect herself and her children’s succession as basically the world around her was evil with plots left and right. Now before I move on to the rest of my article, I also want to congratulate the creators of this graphic novel as after 6 months of being published it has been quite successful so far that it now has a Greek version coming up and a good number of online reviews and features including this article right here!

Other Reviews and Articles on Theophano: A Byzantine Tale:

From Medievalist.net

From Fan Base Press

From Greek City Times

From Eileen Stephenson

Related Articles from my site The Byzantium Blogger:

My Personal Byzantine Journey (2019-2020)

War of the Sicilian Vespers: A Lego Byzantine Epic

Imperial Women in the Roman and Byzantine Empires

Constantinople: The Queen of Cities and its Byzantine Secrets

The Complete Genealogy of Byzantine Emperors

7 Reasons to be Interested in Byzantium

Reasons Why You Should Buy and Read Theophano: A Byzantine Tale

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Many still think that Roman civilization ended in 476 when the Western Roman Empire based in Ravenna was taken over by a barbarian mercenary named Odoacer who deposed the last emperor Romulus Augustus and became King of Italy leaving the rest of Europe to fall into the Dark Ages ruled by barbarian kingdoms. The truth is that in 395, the Roman Empire was split between east and west permanently and when the west fell in 476, the east survived as what we know as the Byzantine Empire which lived throughout the entire middle ages still using the name of the “Roman Empire”. This novel thus shows us that in the 10th century when the rest of Europe (England, France, Germany) went through hard times of constant wars and broken kingdoms, there was one side of the world where things remained as culturally and intellectually advanced as Ancient Rome which was the Byzantine Empire having a very cosmopolitan and technologically advanced capital which was Constantinople (today’s Istanbul) known as “The Queen of Cities”. However, despite Byzantium being a lot more advanced than Western Europe, it was still very far from perfect as in the 10th century Byzantium despite rising above their enemies still fought chronic wars against their neighbors such as the Arab powers and the Bulgarian Empire and it’s imperial court was very unstable as it was filled with ambitious officials and generals all wanting the throne but no matter how unstable politics were, the empire at least had a stable system of government.

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Constantinople, Byzantine imperial capital

Theophano shows us what the word “byzantine” means in this current day meaning “complicated” is as it really shows it in detail how complicated the imperial court worked with scheming eunuchs and ambitious generals all in the quest for power, hence giving birth to the definition of this word. At the same time, it brings the word “byzantine” in a very realistic sense to a fairytale story especially since it is the kind of fairytale story that is not to have a happy climax and ending.

It has done a pretty great job in its illustrations which were created using the software Procreate for the illustrations and Photoshop for its finishing touches. Its illustrator Chrysa Sakel has surely done it with such color, life, and emotion and not only are characters drawn so impressively but backgrounds and scenes too from city life in Constantinople to famous landmarks depicted in its full glory and armies in massive battles. The art of this novel according to friends I have showed it to say it does not look as intricate as those in the Marvel and DC comics but in fairness, this novel was actually Chrysa’s first project as a comic illustrator as said in her profile at the end of the book, although it also says she has been doing traditional art since age 5 and this here is her first project using digital art. Other than that, in my Q&A with Chrysa, she said that its style was intended to look cartoonish because it is actually targeted for younger readers.

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Sample drawing in “Theophano: A Byzantine Tale”

Nevertheless, all these illustrations true enough bring Byzantium to life as the History of Byzantium podcast host Robin Pierson and Professor Anthony Kaldellis have mentioned. Now in my opinion, I’d say the illustrations are able to capture the look and proportions of the landmarks a lot better than it does in showing some realism in the faces of the characters.

You will be invested in the characters despite the cartoonish style of drawing because their faces still show a lot of emotion and so do their dialogues show a lot of drama, and when reading you surely be invested in many characters such as Theophano, Romanos II, Nikephoros II, and John Tzimiskes. When reading it, the story gives you two different feelings, first from Theophano’s perspective, the story seems more like a fairtytale story while on the perspective of Nikephoros Phokas and John Tzimiskes it seems like an American Western style film which focuses on the frontier while here, I would say a Byzantine Western style film through the point of view of the army generals.

The novel’s illustrations and story were based on intense research done by its writer Spyros Theocharis who has based the novel on both Byzantine sources of the 10th century as well as Slavic sources like the Primary Chronicle by Nestor the chronicler and as I asked where the evidence of what costumes in the novel actually looked like, it turns out it was very well researched too and not just a wild guess of Byzantine fashion in its 1,100 years of existence, instead it was based on illustrated manuscripts from that era of Theophano more or less such as the well-known Madrid Skylitzes by the 11th century court official John Skylitzes which documents the history of Byzantium from 811 to 1057 through a series of illustrations and the Menologion of Emperor Basil II made in the year 1000, therefore making the costumes you see very accurate to that of the era.

It is a unique work putting Byzantium in pop culture as nowadays, there are many pop culture media set in the medieval world whether they are fictional but based on the real world like The Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, and The Witcher or historical series such as Vikings and The Last Kingdom but all are based or are set in Western Europe particularly England and France showing the medieval period as dark and gray with only stone castles and farmhouses whereas Byzantium is almost non-existent in medieval pop culture or films except for possibly Greek films and films all the way back in the 1950s when period films were the thing. Theophano gives a different outlook to the middle ages by showing a rich world where things were just as sophisticated and literate as it was in Classical Greece or Rome yet even more extravagant than it. However, LOTR does in fact have some inspiration from Byzantium and here no one really knows that J.R.R. Tolkien based the Kingdom of Gondor on the Byzantine Empire and its civilization which is why they use a communication system of beacons similar to Byzantium in the 10th century. In the world of video games however, it is only Assassin’s Creed Revelations (2011) that has a Byzantium angle but they only play a minor role in it while popular history for children series like Horrible Histories has no mention of Byzantium at all!

The 10th century setting of the novel surely makes it sellable because aside from the era of Justinian I in the 6th century, many who are familiar with Byzantium will know this era as well as it was their second golden age wherein they had grown to be Europe’s cultural and military power. On the other hand, this happens to be the best era of Byzantium to do a movie or comic on especially centering on Theophano since all the famous people of that time many are familiar with such as Emperors Constantine VII, Nikephoros II Phokas, and John I Tzimiskes all meet each other and at the same time, it was the time in Byzantine history wherein they had it all from scholarly works, to mechanical thrones, lavish feasts, Greek Fire, the professional Thematic armies including the famous Cataphract cavalry, and richly decorated churches. On the other hand, many would immediately think of Justinian I’s reign when hearing of Byzantium, however in that time they would still associate Byzantium with the Roman Empire of old whereas this 10th century setting of Theophano will show you the authentic medieval Greek Byzantine Empire known for its complex politics and imperial extravagance.  

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Byzantine Cataphract army in the novel

This novel can help familiarize people with Byzantium because it is written in such a way that the complicated life of Byzantium can be easily understood as instead of using such formal language many period films do, the dialogues the characters speak are spoken in the modern casual English we use today. Personally this is something I would love seeing in period films and in fact, in the Lego films I make for No Budget Films, I choose to make my voice actors speak in the modern English language they normally use in real life and not fake it by speaking in a formal old fashioned way so it seems both natural and relatable and I see that this novel tries to do just that.

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Crossover flag of the Roman and Byzantine Empires

It also tries to be very authentic despite being relatable to the present day in its dialogue as it uses titles that barely anyone except Byzantinists know like Kouropalates and Spatharios to give the feeling that you are rreally in the medieval Byzantine world. Even though it is set in what we know as the Byzantine Empire, the word “byzantine” is not even used by the characters as the Byzantines in fact never called themselves that, instead they still referred to themselves as the “Romans” and the characters in this novel sure enough do that calling their empire still the “Empire of the Romans” or “Romania” or in Greek Basileia ton Rhomaion. The word “byzantine” referring to the empire was in fact only coined in the 16th century a century after the fall of Byzantium by westerners who did not see Byzantium as Rome’s imperial successor, thus the empire was stuck with that term. However, some of the characters here use their English names instead of Greek ones such as “John” instead of “Ioannes” for consistency reasons.  

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Greek Fire in the Madrid Skylitzes

It shows a different side to Byzantium when many would think of Byzantium for being extremely religious which was mostly true but at least this novel does not go that deep into the religious debates and controversies the history of Byzantium was well known for as doing this could possibly turn off many readers making them think it would be too serious. Rather than focusing on all the endless religious debates that Byzantium made itself famous for, this novel instead focused on the other things Byzantium made itself famous for such as unimaginably impressive art and riches as well as the superior military tactics that proved itself successful in battles countless times including the Cataphract cavalry and Greek Fire.

You will see get to see in detail the most notable sites of Byzantine Constantinople including the world’s largest and most impressive cathedral back then which was the Hagia Sophia, the massive city walls of Constantinople, the Great Palace, Hippodrome, richly decorated mosaics, and a lot more.

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The Hagia Sophia’s details from “Theophano: A Byzantine Tale”

It can be suitable for younger readers as its violent scenes are not too extreme with intense blood and gore and also does not contain sex, rape, or obvious nudity- as is common in a lot of medieval dramas- except for a scenes of the lead character Theophano only showing partial nudity such as when at her bath but they rarely appear. According to Chrysa the illustrator, the comic was actually intended to address younger audiences which is why as mentioned earlier the characters were drawn with a cartoonish feeling in the texture but she says that in the future this would change as she could experiment in doing more mature content. In addition, this era in Byzantine history featured a great number of bloody genocides such as the merciless genocide of the Arabs Chandax by Nikephoros Phokas’ army in 961 when recapturing Crete which was omitted from the novel. Now if this comic were to give readers the full medieval experience, then I would have to say it has to contain extreme violence and sex in which the middle ages was definitely known for.

It is an innovation to have a young female character being Theophano as the lead role for a Byzantine epic as many wouldn’t expect a Byzantine epic centering around a strong woman but rather a strong but unstable emperor or a soldier but Theophano here is presented as a strong woman who acts on her own will and is not useless and submissive as many empresses of strong military emperors in Byzantium were. The part of Theophano as the lead character shows this novel having a Disney princess fairytale angle as Theophano at the start came from humble origins as an innkeepers’ daughter and was unexpectedly chosen as the wife of the future emperor Romanos II. Theophano herself is surely a strong woman as she is not afraid to speak to people above her in rank and social class and as empress she would do all she can so that she survives and stays in power but more importantly so that her sons will be safe and not fall from power as the happenings at that time were so unpredictable that a lot of the people Theophano trusted would end up betraying here and (spoiler alert!) at the end she is ultimately betrayed and exiled but at least like a Disney princess has a happy ending when she is reunited with her children the moment her first born son Basil II who will later be the “Bulgar-Slayer” becomes emperor in 976.

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Empress Theophano book cover

Byzantium however had other powerful women too such as Justinian I’s wife Empress Theodora, Empress Irene of Athens in the late 8th century, and Empress Anna of Savoy in the 14th century, meaning every now and then Byzantium would have a powerful woman, though not in all centuries.

It does justice to the character of Theophano as history usually remembers Theophano as a stereotypically evil woman that poisoned her father-in-law Emperor Constantine VII, first husband Emperor Romanos II, and arranged the assassination of her second husband Emperor Nikephoros II out of pure evil ambition but instead shows her as just a woman who wanted to do what was best for herself and her children while the world around her was cruel, so she had to act cruel to fight it. Now if Dovahhatty in his new Byzantium series would end up reaching the point of doing an episode with Theophano in it, I wonder if he would portray Theophano as evil the way he did with most of his empresses or if he would have read this novel too and portray her like the novel does?

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Anastasia becomes Theophano, chapter I

It has a unique feature starting where it ends in 976 being narrated by an old palace official standing at Constantinople’s sea walls who at the end of the story (spoiler alert!) reveals himself as Theophano’s father Krateros. Chapters II, III, and IV of the novel begins with a flashback scene in Theophano’s life. Other than that, the novel too has some creative features such as characters doing a narration while a montage of events happens, the most notable being (spoiler alert!), the poisoning and death of Romanos II in 963.

Its story is not plain black and white with one side being all good and the other side all evil, rather it shows that everyone no matter how good their intentions were had to do evil things to make them happen and this was the case with Theophano. The novel also shows how power corrupts and can make good hearted people like the emperors Romanos II, Nikephoros II, and John I have a change of heart and turn evil due to how much power they are holding. On the other hand, it also shows that some people are just purely evil like the eunuch Joseph Bringas who (spoiler alert!) is at least defeated and banished at the mid-point of the story although in the second half (spoiler alert!) the emperor Nikephoros II and the other court eunuch Basil Lekapenos who for the most part was seen as good guys turn out to be the new villains. For me a story that is plain black and white is very biased and lacks a lot of meaning.

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Character of General Nikephoros Phokas in the novel

It is truly entertaining as it has a fusion of epic battles, court intrigues, romance, family drama, poisoning, betrayal, visions and ghosts, extravagant settings and palace ceremonies, and Byzantine easter eggs and at the same time will remind you of a Shakespeare play by the way it was written and divided into 5 chapters (like the 5 acts of Shakespearean plays) except of course easier to understand as Shakespeare’s plays use old fashioned formal English. Now since Shakespeare never wrote any plays set in Byzantium, this novel comes close enough to doing a Byzantine setting for a Shakespearean play.

It is a type of fan fiction that tries to remain as historically accurate and realistic as possible that it does not go experimental by blending in dragons, zombies, vampires, magical spells and potions, teleporting, and creatures to a Byzantine setting, neither does it have talking animals like in the Disney princess fairytales considering this is the type of story. Although it would also be a good idea too to have a Byzantine era graphic novel or novel that have elements of fantasy in it. However, no matter how historically accurate the novel tries to be, it still does have a number of inaccuracies which will be mentioned later.

It has a very important moral at the end which teaches you that if you do not belong in the ruling class, aspiring to be in it could mean a lot of consequences as was the case of Theophano, lesson here is to mind your own business especially if it does not concern you. The story also teaches us that power corrupts especially with a government system like Byzantium where the people still have power and more significantly, the army has true power and they can use that power to make or break an emperor, therefore showing that even though it had been centuries since the Roman Empire when things were like this, it still remained this way in Byzantium. To put it short, as Byzantium was the continuation of the original Roman Empire, it kept very much the same imperial system wherein there was no law that the emperor had divine rights meaning that when they lose support from the senate, army, or people, they could be overthrown, therefore it was easy for an emperor to be dethroned and replaced.    

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10th century Byzantine life in the Madrid Skylitzes

Background of the Story

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To understand the story of Theophano: A Byzantine Tale, you must know a bit about the history of Byzantium too. Basically, Byzantium is the continuation of the Roman Empire in the Middle Ages though the date to start off Byzantine history still remains debated as you can start it when the Roman Empire was first divided by Emperor Diocletian in 286, with the founding of the new imperial capital of Constantinople in 330 by the Roman emperor Constantine I the Great, with the final division between the Eastern and Western Roman Empires in 395 following the death of the last united Roman emperor Theodosius I, or lastly with the fall of the west in 476 wherein only the east based in Constantinople survived as the only Roman Empire. In the 6th century, the Eastern Roman Empire being Byzantium reached its height of power and territory under its most influential emperor Justinian I (r. 527-565) wherein the empire stretched west to east from Southern Spain to Syria and north to south from the Crimea to Egypt but shortly after disintegrated due to a devastating war with their mortal enemy then, the Sassanid Persian Empire in the early 7th century during the reign of Heraclius (r. 610-641) which was followed by the destruction of the Sassanids not by Byzantium but by the newly born power of the Arab Caliphate which also in the 7th century began posing a major threat to Byzantium taking away all of North Africa from them and even almost ending their empire when laying siege to Constantinople twice (674-678 and 717-718). The Byzantines though managed to survive because they adapted to the current situation by reforming their administrative system into militarized districts known as Themes which were provinces made to increase military presence especially since enemy raids became more frequent and at the same time, they had also invented great innovations such as a secret flamethrower naval weapon known as Greek Fire which protected Constantinople from both of these Arab sieges. In the 9th century, Byzantium came out of these dark times when turning the tide of war against the Arabs by fighting on the offensive as for the past 2 centuries, the Byzantines in their heartland (Asia Minor or Turkey) always fought on the defensive but in the 9th century, they were able to retake the lands lost to the Arabs, however to the north the new Bulgarian posed as a problem at the same time ever since Nomadic Bulgar hordes settled in Byzantine Thrace in the late 7th century. In the year 867, a peasant by origin named Basil plots against and murders the reigning emperor Michael III and establishes the long-lived and successful Macedonian Dynasty, the ruling dynasty in this novel’s setting and the golden age begins here with Basil I (r. 867-886) followed by his son and successor Leo VI (r. 886-912), though at Leo VI’s death he was succeeded by his brother Alexander who put aside Leo’s actual son and heir Constantine VII, the reigning emperor at the beginning of the story. Alexander only ruled for a year and died in 913, and it was here when the young boy Constantine VII came to power but under a troubled regency under his mother and the Patriarch of Constantinople, a total disaster which was only resolved when an admiral of low birth, the Armenian Romanos Lekapenos usurped power making himself emperor in 920 as a way to protect the young Constantine VII from other usurpers. Romanos I’s reign was a successful time in Byzantine history as this was when most of the lands lost to the Arabs centuries earlier were recovered after many battles fought by his armies and in his reign, the story’s protagonist Theophano was born. Though Romanos I reigned successfully, Romanos I appointed 3 of his sons as his co-emperors making the rightful one Constantine VII the least effective one of the 5 co-emperors but the eldest son died and in 944, his 2 sons Stephen and Constantine fell out with Romanos I making them exile him to a monastery and taking the throne for themselves for about a month but a palace coup overthrew them both and sent them to their father in his monastery making Constantine VII no longer a puppet but the sole emperor and by this time he and his wife Helena had a son and heir Romanos II who was destined to succeed his father but to be an emperor, he needed a wife and though he could have clearly chosen a girl from the nobility, he ended up- though being manipulated by his scheming mentor the eunuch Joseph Bringas- marrying a commoner named Anastasia who renamed herself Theophano when being selected as young Romanos II’ wife. At the same, the empire had many powerful generals from the military aristocracy namely Nikephoros Phokas, his brother Leo, and their nephew John Tzimiskes son in order for none of these families gaining the upper hand and usurping the most valuable prize which was the throne, the imperial heir Romanos had to marry Theophano who was a commoner so that none of the noble families would be in conflict with each other. At the setting of this novel beginning in the 950s, the Byzantine Empire pretty much consisted a great amount of land including southern Italy, most of Greece, Thrace, and more than half of Asia Minor.  

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The Roman Empire permanently divided between east (Byzantium) and west, 395
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Byzantium at its greatest extent in Justinian I’s reign, 555
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Map of the Byzantine Empire’s Themes (military districts) in Asia Minor, 10th century
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Map of the 10th century Byzantine Empire (purple) in the novel
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Complete Genealogy of Byzantium’s Macedonian Dynasty (867-1056)

The Characters and the Ideal actors to play them (in my opinion)

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The 2020 graphic novel Theophano: A Byzantine Tale features a great number of complex characters that well drawn making them look authentic to the era despite not having very realistic features like well-known comics do. As I read the novel, when looking at the characters, I already had an ideal fan cast in mind for a potential movie of this graphic novel consisting of many talented actors and actresses of different nationalities who in my opinion can nail their respective characters. To say it simply, there has been no mainstream Byzantine era Hollywood film the way there are so many films even up to this day set in Ancient Greece or Rome or in Medieval Europe though if there were to be a Byzantine era film, this novel could be a good basis for a film adaptation as its style was written like an epic movie too. Now, on order for a film adaptation set in the Byzantine era sell, it needs a list of well-known actors as on the other hand just last year, there was true enough a live-action documentary-drama which featured Byzantium which was The Rise of Empires: Ottoman wherein the Byzantines in their last year (1453) had a big part but the thing is, when watching it, you would not seem hooked to the characters as they were played by lesser known actors.

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Rise of Empires: Ottoman series

However, if a Byzantine film such as this novel could use well-known actors many are familiar with from other pop culture media, then this could make a possibility for Byzantium to be introduced into the world of pop culture. Now, let us proceed to the novel’s characters and the actors/ actresses that I think could nail their roles! Helping me in casting some of the characters in this novel was my friend and partner in my channel Carlos who by the way voiced John Tzimiskes in my films- shout out to @itscarlosfrancisco on Instagram! As for you viewers, please feel free to comment if my casting choices are not so much to your liking.

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Leading 9 characters of “Theophano: A Byzantine Tale”

Check out the fan cast list for Theophano I made on IMDB here.

Anya Taylor-Joy as Theophano/ Anastasia– The story’s lead character is a young woman named Anastasia who is renamed Theophano when being selected as the bride of the imperial heir Romanos in 956. When I asked the creators about Theophano’s origin as a commoner whose parents came from Laconia (Southern Greece) while she grew up in Constantinople in her father’s inn was true, I was told by them that no one can really answer that since the sources about her origins are conflicting as she could have possibly come from the Byzantine nobility but not from a known family while her humble origins could just be a theory or a Phokas propaganda as the Phokas family who opposed the ruling emperor Constantine VII by the time Theophano entered the imperial family probably came up with lies about her as they possibly wanted one of their own to marry Romanos. The story however goes for the option of making Theophano a woman of low birth whose origins are from the Southern Greek region of Laconia (where Sparta is today) though she was born in Constantinople as at the beginning of the novel, her parents fled Laconia when Slavic tribes that settled there attacked their village and when arriving in Constantinople, she was born some time in 941.

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Anya Taylor-Joy as Empress Theophano (Anastasia)

Another source I read however said she grew up in Laconia and the future emperor Romanos II met her there. In the novel, Anastasia though despite coming from humble origins grew up quite well-off as her father Krateros was the innkeeper of not just an ordinary inn but the high-end tavern located near the imperial palace which was frequently visited by palace officials including the imperial heir Romanos and in the story, the couple met at this tavern. At the start of the novel however, Anastasia already had fantasies of living in the palace which was very close to her home, and at her first visit to the palace, her whole world turns around when she expressed it out loud that she wanted to live there which alarmed the court eunuch officials Joseph Bringas and Basil Lekapenos thus beginning the plot to lure her in which was achieved when Bringas arranged her to marry the heir Romanos, thus Anastasia was renamed as Theophano though since she not from the nobility many especially the empress Helena Lekapene do not trust her. Theophano gains some of the empress’ trust when she is able to give birth to male heirs but her independent personality in casually talking to important people shocks the court and the empress making Helena attempt to poison Theophano to rid her for good as she had proven to be such an embarrassment. Theophano though was revealed of the plot to poison her so when receiving a cup of wine at a feast, she reluctantly passes it to the emperor Constantine VII who she believes is plotting to kill her resulting in the emperor’s death and the empress falsely accused of doing it and imprisoned, though this paved the way for Theophano to become the next empress or Augusta at only 19 while her husband Romanos II was crowned at only 21 although Romanos II grew more distant from her due to the schemes of his trusted advisor Joseph Bringas who poisoned Romanos to believing Theophano caused his parents’ death which makes Romanos start turning on her. Theophano then knew for sure Joseph Bringas was the true villain who only got her to marry Romanos in order to use her for his own personal gain and now that she has been used, Joseph plans to eliminate her but her father informs her that she must get rid of Joseph to survive but the only way to do it is to poison her husband who is Joseph’s source of authority and puppet. For Theophano it was now a tough choice since she still loved him but since Romanos distanced himself from her now wanting to divorce her and marry someone else, she had to poison him to ensure the safety of her children so that they wouldn’t end up being puppets like their father. With Romanos II dead however, his sons with Theophano were too young to rule alone and although Theophano thought poisoning her husband could get rid of Joseph, it was the complete opposite as Joseph already seized power as the regents for her sons wherein he has Theophano banished but she is saved by a coup led by the general Nikephoros Phokas with his brother Leo and nephew John Tzimiskes as well as the eunuch Basil Lekapenos, her father Krateros and his friend the admiral Theophanes. The coup is successful and Joseph Bringas is banished while Nikephoros Phokas becomes emperor marrying Theophano to secure his legitimacy and Nikephoros as the senior emperor swore to protect Theophano’s sons who were already made co-emperors back when Romanos II was still alive. Nikephoros II Phokas as emperor however turned out to be too ambitious in his military conquests that he also grew distant from Theophano but it was Nikephoros suddenly naming his brother Leo as his successor when Theophano had the last straw and to protect her children, she had to eliminate him. At this time, she was in fact in love with John Tzimiskes who was banished but with the help of the eunuch Basil Lekapenos, John returns to Constantinople where with the help of Basil and Theophano plot to murder Nikephoros. In a cold winter night of December 969, Theophano helps John Tzimiskes and his 3 fellow conspirators into the heavily fortified palace to assassinate Nikephoros in his sleep but killing the emperor had so much consequences, that the mastermind of the plot John Tzimiskes who in fact eyed the throne had to comply the patriarch of Constantinople Polyeuctus and banish Theophano to the Princes’ Islands in the Marmara Sea in order to secure his place as emperor.

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10th century Empress Theophano (in real life)

Theophano was thus betrayed and stripped off her title and it was revealed that it was Basil Lekapenos that was behind the plot and was backing John Tzimiskes, however John was reluctant to send Theophano away but still had to do it to comply with the patriarch. For the next 7 years, Theophano was banished to the Princes’ Islands though her sons at least remained co-emperors while John I Tzimiskes was the senior emperor though in 976, John I suddenly died making the new senior emperor being Theophano and Romanos II’s son Basil II arrange to have her brought back, thus her story ends happy as she is reunited with her children. The story’s epilogue then says Theophano lived out the rest of her days in Constantinople’s palace regaining the title of Augusta but after learning from all the consequences of her actions in the past, she never again actively participated in the administration. The story though does not mention the year of her death while real history also does not mention it so I had to ask the creators to give an estimated year of death for her and they answered me saying that the last time Theophano was mentioned in the sources was when she took the responsibility to negotiate with the Georgians for a potential alliance with her son Basil II and this had happened definitely before the 990s, therefore they estimated her death to be some time in the 990s while her son Basil II reigned long before his ultimate conquest of the Bulgarian Empire. Basically the novel shows Theophano as a brave and independent woman who to great extent did not know how behave herself seeing powerful people as equals and refused to not act submissive to anyone and would do anything to protect herself and her children even if it meant killing those who posed a threat to her but true enough despite committing such evil acts, the novel shows that her intentions were not purely evil as true enough the world around her was cruel so she had to act that way in order to survive and at the end she at least met a happy ending as the empress again. Like most of the characters in the novel, Theophano’s personality has undergone a lot of changes coming from an idealistic young woman who dreams of being an empress seeing it as fantasy where she gets everything her way but as time progressed, it turned out to be the complete opposite as the world literally went against her seeing the actual reality of being an empress in the Byzantine Empire though at the end she learned from her mistakes and ambitions which is why she had ended up remaining less active and more of an advisor to her son Basil II.

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Theophano character recreation

Not to mention, Theophano too has the great honor of being a wife of 2 emperors, mother of 2 emperors (Basil II and Constantine VIII), and mother-in-law of the Grand Prince of Kiev Vladimir the Great. Though Theophano, is the lead character of the story in which it is based on her perspective, the story seems like the plot revolves around her and not her moving the story which is similar to the case of Jyn Erso, the protagonist of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story in which the plot revolves around her and not her changing the story’s plotline. Now ever since I started reading the novel as this year began, I already envisioned Anya Taylor-Joy (@anyataylorjoy) playing Theophano; Anya Taylor-Joy is a young American-Argentine-British actress known for playing Beth Harmon in the 2020 Netflix series The Queen’s Gambit and her performance there as an independent young woman with complex emotions makes her perfectly fit the role of Theophano. In addition, Theophano was known for her striking beauty with dark hair and green eyes as she appears in the novel and although the actress has brown eyes, she could still do well portraying Theophano as the character in the novel has a similar look and figure with the actress, not to mention Joy’s age as of now is more or less similar to the age of Theophano in the story and though Theophano’s adult character goes through a span of 20 years in the main section of the story, it should be possible that Anya Taylor-Joy can play the character throughout the entire 20 years with just some makeup and prosthetics to appear as if she had ages. The novel too features Theophano as a child at the beginning of chapter III, though I have no possible choice for an actress who could play the child Theophano. When mentioning my ideal casting in the comments section in their Instagram post of the novel’s characters, I commented too that Anya Taylor-Joy would play a good Theophano, though the novel’s illustrator Chrysa Sakel agrees Anya Taylor-Joy is a great actress but in her opinion sees British actress Kaya Scodelario (@kayascods) as her choice for Theophano who’s appearance also has a lot of similarities with the character. For me, another choice for an actress to play Theophano is the star of Netflix’s Haunting of By Manor and You Victoria Pedretti who’s face is perfect for a Byzantine role in my opinion although she does not look very much like Theophano except her deeply emotional style of acting as seen in Bly Manor makes her a possible choice to play Theophano, however if not for Theophano, she could also play another minor role in this story as a cameo character.

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Lego Nikephoros II Phokas (left) and Theophano (right) in Lego by No Budget Films 

Keanu Reeves as KraterosThough the story is told in the perspective of Theophano, it also seems like it is being narrated by someone as the novel opens when an old man appearing to be a palace official in the year 976 stands in at the palace walls telling a story to the guards, this old man happens to be Krateros who has served for many years in the court and happens to tell the story of his daughter Theophano. Krateros’ story begins in 940 where he was nothing more but a simple citizen from the region of Laconia in Southern Greece coming from Sparta where he and his wife escape in a ship headed for Constantinople helped by a naval officer named Theophanes as a band of raiding Slavic people that settled in their area attack their homes. When arriving in Constantinople, Krateros joins the navy to fight off an invading fleet of the Kievan Rus’ (Varangians) in the Bosporus Sea using the secret weapon known as Greek Fire which together with a surprise attack by the Byzantine Cataphract cavalry destroys the Rus’ invasion.

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Keanu Reeves as Krateros

When settling in Constantinople, Krateros opened up an inn near the palace wherein he became rich while his inn grew to become a high-end tavern as high ranking palace officials often dined and drank there. Krateros basically raised Theophano (Anastasia) himself as his wife died giving birth to her in 941, and it can be hinted that Theophano’s independent character was due to her upbringing by him. Before Theophano married Romanos, Krateros was advised by his best friend Theophanes and eunuch Joseph Bringas to close his tavern to become a court official with the title of Spatharios so that Theophano can be legitimized as part of the imperial family, though Krateros at first objected, he accepted the position anyway and closed his tavern. During the time Theophano was part of the imperial family, Krateros enjoyed the privileges of being a court official together with his best friend Theophanes but when Romanos II becomes emperor in 959 following the death of his father Constantine VII, Romanos forced Krateros to join the expedition of Nikephoros Phokas to recapture Crete as Romanos was manipulated to do so by Joseph Bringas who saw Krateros and his friends Theophanes and Basil Lekapenos as threats so sending them there would mean sending them to their deaths for it was going to be a perilous mission. While at the expedition, Krateros however was just in charge of logistics but this was very vital since it kept the expedition operating instead of retreating due to lack of supplies and historically, Nikephoros’ expedition of Crete succeeded because supplies were sent to the army in Crete by ship. It was here however where Krateros sends word to Theophano to poison Romanos in order to get rid of Joseph who he felt was getting too powerful. Krateros later reunites with his daughter and helps in Nikephoros’ coup to overthrow Joseph Bringas in 963 following the poisoning of Romanos, though in the process Theophanes was killed. During the reign of Theophano’s new husband Emperor Nikephoros II Phokas, Krateros barely appears in the story but he still remains alive except now much older, though he appears only a few times conversing with Basil Lekapenos who still remained a court official under Nikephoros II. In the story’s climax, after Nikephoros is assassinated in his sleep in 969, Krateros returns again and here Basil Lekapenos reveals he was behind the plot to lead Nikephoros to his downfall and have Theophano banished and here Basil who turns out to be the secret villain even goes as far as threatening to beat the old Krateros if he pleads for Theophano to be spared but fearing for his life, Krateros has to allow his daughter to be banished. Other than Theophano and Basil Lekapenos, Krateros is one of the only 3 lead characters that live till the very end of the story. Now Krateros is historically Theophano’s father but history does not record anything else about him so the novel goes deeper by building up Krateros’ character being Theophano’s father and ultimate supporter till the very end and he is surely one person that has gone a long way from a common folk in Laconia to a court official witnessing the countless intrigues of this golden age of Byzantium. When looking for an actor to play Krateros, I had a hard time finding one who has a strong presence especially in narrating the story but luckily my friend Carlos when seeing the appearance of Krateros chose no other than Keanu Reeves to play the character and I agree since the movie would be a hit with someone as legendary and talented as him starting off the film by narrating it and I can tell he is one actor that can play a wide variety of roles, even Byzantines; on the other hand, I also thought of casting Keanu Reeves as Nikephoros Phokas though late I came to think Pedro Pascal who will be mentioned next would be a better choice.

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Theophano’s parents with Admiral Theophanes arrive in Constantinople, 941

Pedro Pascal as Nikephoros II PhokasNikephoros II Phokas is a real historical figure and one of Byzantium’s most renowned military emperors who married Theophano in 963 following the death of Emperor Romanos II until his own death in 969. Nikephoros Phokas was from the prominent Phokas clan of Cappadocia born in 912, the son of the general Bardas Phokas the Elder and older brother of Leo Phokas and Nikephoros’ entire life was basically all about military service and fighting the Arab enemies in the east and his constant wars against the Arabs ever since a young age shaped him to have an intense anger towards the Arabs and Islam itself making him something like a “crusader” as his purpose in his fighting his wars was not only for territorial expansion but to fight in the name of Orthodox Christianity.

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Pedro Pascal as Nikephoros II Phokas

In the story, Nikephoros is first introduced in chapter I in 956 before Theophano marries Romanos and here, Nikephoros is seen as a loyal general who is given the high ranking military position of Domestikos ton Scholon or “Domestic of the Schools” by the emperor Constantine VII wherein he was approached by Theophano to be made the godfather of her first son Basil and afterwards, he spent most of the time campaigning against the Arabs in the empire’s eastern borders achieving a lot of success but hearing of Constantine VII’s death in 959, Nikephoros had to return to Constantinople to pledge loyalty to the new emperor Romanos II who charges Nikephoros with leading the long awaited naval expedition to retake Crete from the Arab Emirate established there back in the 820s. In 961, Nikephoros led the successful expedition in retaking Crete which he finally completed and back in Constantinople a triumph was celebrated for him where their Arab prisoners including the last Emir of Crete thus Nikephoros was nicknamed the “Pale Death of the Saracens”. Though Nikephoros won a great victory in Crete, he was sent back to the east where the Arab threat grew again. After the death of Romanos II in 963 though, Theophano and John Tzimiskes asked the help of Nikephoros and his army to march into Constantinople and overthrow Joseph Bringas and moths later, Nikephoros arrived in Constantinople with an army defeating the forces of Joseph Bringas who surrendered after losing in a fight to Nikephoros thus Joseph was banished and Nikephoros was now crowned the senior emperor and guardian to the rightful young emperors Basil II and Constantine VIII while Theophano was re-crowned as empress afterwards marrying Nikephoros though Theophano did not truly love Nikephoros as he was not only 30 years older than her but had also thought of himself as an ascetic monk-warrior who preferred to distance himself from women ever since his first wife and son died.

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Emperor Nikephoros II Phokas (r. 963-969)

As emperor however, Nikephoros’ personality had a great change but nevertheless he was still the tough no-nonsense military man he was but the downside of him as emperor was that he was too ambitious and living too much in the past that he also had the dream of making the Mediterranean a “Roman Lake” again as it was back in the 6th century under Emperor Justinian I forgetting that they were no longer living in a time when these kinds of conquests were still possible. Nikephoros turned out to be hated by his people for his brutal taxation policies to fund his wars, though they were also content with the empire they had and did not care about expanding too much anymore. Nikephoros II true enough was nothing more but a general and not a politician and man of the people which caused his downfall especially since he tolerated dirty means of taxations such as torturing taxpayers to pay up and even going as far as taxing the Church and forcing the patriarch to consecrate every Byzantine soldier that was killed by a Muslim. As his reign progressed, Nikephoros II grew more and more tyrannical and abusive even to his wife Theophano and when celebrating another triumph, the people instead of cheering for him protested and stoned him while in terms of foreign policy, Nikephoros II was a failure leading to renewed war with Bulgaria in the north, an invasion by the Kievan Rus, and a total defeat in Sicily to the Arabs. As Nikephoros grew more and more unpopular for his taxations and unrealistic conquests, he grew more and more paranoid that he had the imperial palace heavily guarded and even turned into a military fortress and at one point he tried to please the people but since he did this by having his Cataphract cavalry form into formations, the people took this the wrong way and panicked causing a lot of them to die in a stampede.

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Nikephoros II Phokas character recreation

Theophano meanwhile could no longer handle Nikephoros’ abusive rule and finding out Nikephoros betrayed her by naming his younger brother Leo his heir instead of her sons, this was the last straw for her and this was when she reunited with her actual lover John Tzimiskes and the eunuch Basil Lekapenos to plot and kill Nikephoros. In chapter V, John Tzimiskes and his 3 conspirators are led into the palace by Theophano as an inside job where they kill Nikephoros himself who was sleeping on the floor on midnight of December 11, 969. The dead emperor’s head was shown to the palace guards in order to stop Leo Phokas from taking the throne, instead Leo was banished while John I Tzimiskes, Nikephoros’ and Leo’s nephew was crowned emperor. Personally, Nikephoros II is one of my favorite emperors as he has achieved a lot in terms of military victories but lacked the skills as a politician, though I think this novel also exaggerates his abusiveness as an emperor, but overall I see Nikephoros II as a badass emperor and one who was never really afraid to fight, though at the start he had a good nature that as a general he refused to usurp power but as emperor he was prone to be corrupted by power drastically turning him into a bloodthirsty people hating tyrant, therefore he remains one of Byzantium’s most notable hero to zero stories and 3 centuries later, Nikephoros’ story repeats itself with the emperor Michael VIII Palaiologos (r. 1261-1282) who at first was the hero that took back Constantinople from the Crusaders in 1261 but due to his diplomatic policies in submitting Byzantium to the pope’s authority and his harsh treatment to those who opposed it, he was hated by his people. As a fun fact, Nikephoros was said to be a vegetarian, was actually married and had son before though both his wife and son died, and though he and Theophano were a couple, their looks contrasted each other as Theophano was young and beautiful and Nikephoros was 30 years older than her and unattractive. The actor I see that could nail the performance of Nikephoros is Pedro Pascal (@pascalispunk), the Chilean-American actor who has been playing major roles in series like Narcos, Game of Thrones, and The Mandalorian wherein he played the lead character Din Djarin himself and his performance as Din Djarin as a tough and cold warrior surely shows that he can play the role of the tough and cold Emperor Nikephoros II, also his appearance in the novels very much resembles that of Pedro Pascal.

Alexander Dreymon as John I TzimiskesJohn Kourkouas Tzimiskes is Nikephoros Phokas’ nephew and a Byzantine general of Armenian descent born in 925; his nickname Tzimiskes is the Greek word for the Armenian word for either “red boot” or “short stature” and as the second meaning of his nickname suggests, he was described by contemporary sources as short in stature but well-built with reddish hair and blue eyes that made him attractive to women and true enough the novel depicts him this way except not entirely being entirely short in stature, fun fact he was said to have been a skilled archer and according to the contemporary historian in his time, John Tzimiskes could jump from one horse to another in full speed, strike an arrow into a small ring, and strike a leather ball into a cup without damaging it even when riding in full speed.

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Alexander Dreymon as John Tzimiskes

In the novel, John Tzimiskes is first introduced in chapter I set in 956 as a young and talented general, although the opening of chapter IV set in 963 starts by going back to 956 where apparently Theophano before being introduced as Romanos’ bride first met John and both fall in love with each other on first sight. In the earlier part of the novel, John mostly serves as his uncle Nikephoros’ sidekick but when Nikephoros returns to Constantinople in 959 to swear loyalty to the new emperor Romanos II, John stays behind in Eastern Asia Minor with his other uncle Leo Phokas to guard the frontier against the Arabs and while Nikephoros successfully reclaimed Crete in 961, John helped his uncle Leo manage to defeat an Arab invasion in Cappadocia. John Tzimiskes returns to the picture in 963 after the poisoning of Romanos II and Theophano’s banishment by the eunuch Joseph Bringas where John comes to her rescue and it is John that keeps Theophano safe before the arrival of Nikephoros who was still at the east. It was also John that informed his uncle’s troops of Bringas’ plot so John encouraged them to acclaim Nikephoros as emperor by raising him on a shield as was tradition, and this here is one of the most touching scenes in the novel for me. The following scene happens to be one of my best and most exciting ones too wherein Nikephoros Phokas stages his midnight coup taking over Constantinople and overthrowing Joseph Bringas wherein John Tzimiskes helps out too and so does their eunuch ally Basil Lekapenos. Before Nikephoros II was crowned emperor, Theophano not being married to Nikephoros yet had to reside away from the palace in what is today’s Fener district of Istanbul where her affair with John begins. During the reign of Nikephoros II, John still continued being a successful general stationed in the east but it soon revealed that he too wanted the throne, now I find this part showing a lack of character development to John as for most of the story he was a loyal general with no such ambitions, unless he has been hiding it all this time. It is soon revealed to Nikephoros that John was interested in the empress and wants to replace his uncle which leads to John being banished. For the rest of the part focusing on Nikephoros II as emperor, John does not appear until one of the emperor’s disgraced generals Michael Bourtzes conspires with Basil Lekapenos and Theophano to get John back from exile in some place in Asia Minor and back to Constantinople, John who had always been loyal to his uncle before was now intent on betraying him together with Theophano. The plot to kill Nikephoros meanwhile was already orchestrated and John Tzimiskes together with conspirators including Bourtzes, Anemas, and Bardas Skleros cross the Bosporus at night in a small boat, gets lifted up the walls of the Boukoleon Palace by a basket assisted by Theophano and later quietly storms the emperor’s room. When killing Nikephoros, John planned to do it in a quiet and organized way but Bourtzes shouts and immediately kills Nikephoros in his sleep leaving John to give the killing blow. Following Nikephoros II’s death, the throne was vacant and before the empire could fall into anarchy, John Tzimiskes complied with Patriarch Polyeuctus to banish Theophano to the Princes’ Islands in the Marmara Sea in order to be emperor to save the empire.

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Silk tapestry of John I Tzimiskes

At the end, even if John I Tzimiskes betrayed Theophano to become emperor, he did not primarily intend to do that but only had to because of the patriarch’s terms and more importantly to save the empire from anarchy and true enough near the end of the story, John as the emperor visits Theophano in the Princes’ Islands once but nothing much is said anymore, therefore John is one of the only few characters here that somewhat resisted being corrupted by power unlike Nikephoros II and Romanos II- who will be up next. The reign of John I though is omitted in this novel as it could be something made for a follow up to the novel but his reign was just as eventful as that of his uncle’s except John I possessed better looks and charm and his good looks make him a perfect match for Theophano’s beauty. Where the story ends in 976, John I had already died passing the empire to Basil II who was now no longer a co-emperor but the senior one. Now the actor I chose for John Tzimiskes is Alexander Dreymon (@alexander.dreymon), the German actor who is the star of the Netflix series The Last Kingdom set in Anglo-Saxon England, apparently a century before this story’s setting and here he plays the protagonist Uthred of Babenberg and his portrayal of Uthred makes him fit for the role of John Tzimiskes as both are warrior roles and the way John appears in the novel looks similar to Alexander Dreymon’s Uthred in my opinion. 

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Banishment of Theophano by John I Tzimiskes in 969 featuring Theophano, Basil Lekapenos, John I, Basil II, and Constantine VIII by Amelianvs

 

Tanner Buchanan as Romanos IITheophano’s first husband, the emperor Romanos II in this novel is portrayed as an energetic, playful, and hedonistic young man as he is in real history who at the beginning is the only son and heir of the reigning emperor Constantine VII. Romanos Porphyrogennetos was born in 938 and was named after his maternal grandfather Emperor Romanos I Lekapenos, the senior emperor at his birth and when growing up was well trained by his father in civil and military administration but when grown up, Romanos decided to forget everything his father taught him and even forget all the struggles his father went through so that he could gain the throne, instead he just focused on indulging himself in all kinds of pleasures.

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Tanner Buchanan as Romanos II

When Romanos is introduced he is already a pleasure loving young man who bumps into Theophano at her father’s high-end tavern where the eunuch and Romanos’ mentor Joseph Bringas arranges for their marriage and when it is time for him to choose his bride, he chooses that same commoner he met named Anastasia who is renamed Theophano. Romanos’ choice of Theophano as his wife greatly bothered his mother Empress Helena and father Emperor Constantine VII, though they still married anyway. While his mother grew more and more suspicious of Theophano, Romanos did not feel the same way and following Constantine VII’s sudden poisoning, Romanos succeeded him as the sole emperor at only 21 but as emperor he was pretty much quite useless and like he usually does, kept indulging in pleasures like drinking, hunting, playing polo (Tzykanion) and womanizing but at least he was able to have 3 children with Theophano. As the emperor, Romanos II supervised his parents’ burial and had the luck of being the ruler when Crete was retaken by Nikephoros Phokas and his army but he was too dependent on his eunuch mentor Joseph Bringas who poisoned his mind making him believe Theophano caused his parents’ deaths making them more and more distant with each other despite her still loving him.

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Romanos II and Theophano crowned as emperor and empress with Joseph Bringas (left) and young Basil II (right), 959

Romanos despite having a good heart in the earlier part of the story has a turn to the dark side when becoming emperor being so reliant on Joseph who was in fact evil and his marriage with Theophano which began out so romantically began failing in his reign when he started getting more and more irritated with her and being fed with lies about her by Joseph and an old general named Marianos Argyros, Romanos had plans to divorce her and marry someone of nobility being Argyros’ daughter though Theophano soon enough knew that Joseph’s power was growing stronger and as advised by her father, she had to do the tough choice and poison Romanos in order to get rid of Bringas so that her children will not remain puppets. The death scene of Romanos was only one of my favorite parts as it appears to be in a form of montage wherein Theophano tells the story of Romanos to her son Basil ironically while Romanos is slowly poisoned when drinking his wine, and here I can imagine some slow piano music in the background. Now the actor I chose for the role of Romanos II is the American actor Tanner Buchanan (@tannerbuchananoffcial) who appeared in the series Designated Survivor and is better known for playing Robby Keene in Netflix’s hit series Cobra Kai when reading the novel, when I saw Romanos’ character I was immediately reminded of Robby from Cobra Kai as both look very much alike and true enough the actor’s age now is the age Romanos was when he became emperor. In Cobra Kai, I can tell that out the young cast, Tanner Buchanan has the potential to play a Byzantine role as his acting is very natural and varied that he could play someone who is both playful, emotional, and angry like Romanos II and (spoiler alert!) for those who haven’t seen Cobra Kai’s season3, Robby has a character arc of turning bad and he could do the same thing with Romanos who also had this kind of arc in turning bad the moment he comes to power in which reading the novel also reminds me of Anakin Skywalker’s turn to the dark side in Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith.    

Danny DeVito as Joseph BringasThe primary villain of the first half novel is the manipulative and unapologetic court eunuch and senior palace official or Praepositus Joseph Bringas, a native of Paphlagonia who began his service to the imperial court under Constantine VII, though when the novel opens, Joseph is already quite old and has been the one that educated the imperial heir Romanos. Joseph and a younger court eunuch named Basil Lekapenos are first to notice Theophano (Anastasia) when she visits the palace overhearing her saying she wants to live there and be an empress which leads Joseph to hatch a plot in getting Theophano to be the heir’s wife as he manipulates Romanos to marrying her.

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Danny DeVito as Joseph Bringas

Though most of the imperial court opposes Romanos marrying Theophano who is a commoner, Joseph convinced them that it is a better choice since marrying someone from the nobility could create tension among the nobles, however Joseph really intended to just use Theophano as a means to get himself more power. At the earlier part of the novel, you can already see how powerful Joseph was that he could appoint a patriarch but could not take the throne for himself due to the fact that he was castrated and made into a eunuch though the empress Helena and Basil Lekapenos are suspicious of him thinking he wants throne though Romanos is oblivious to it thinking that Joseph at his older age would not have such ambitions. However, Joseph truly did have ambitions and would orchestrate his plot from behind the scenes doing just that as when hearing of a plot by the empress to poison Theophano, he revealed the plot to Theophano to use her in poisoning the emperor Constantine VII and as the emperor fell on the ground and died, Joseph already carried out his plan and falsely accused Empress Helena for doing that thus sending her to prison where she poisoned herself. With Romanos II as the new emperor, Joseph Bringas was now literally the power behind him being his puppet master and now since he had used Theophano to get himself into power, he now considers her useless and makes Romanos believe that Theophano caused his parent’s death which further ruins their marriage. When Romanos II was emperor, he spent most of his time indulging in pleasures while Joseph as a skilled statesman ran the administration but what was not mentioned in the novel was that Joseph was in fact a naval commander under Constantine VII. Following Romanos II’s poisoning by Theophano in March of 963, Joseph already seizes power as the regent for Theophano’s sons already knowing Theophano poisoned her husband which he has her thrown out of the palace for doing that but soon enough, she is rescued by John Tzimiskes who helps her stage a coup to overthrow Joseph and acclaim Nikephoros Phokas as emperor. The coup of Nikephoros seized Constantinople where Argyros was killed by Nikephoros and Joseph himself lost in a duel to Nikephoros and since he had lost, Joseph was thus banished to his homeland of Paphlagonia never to return again. With Joseph gone, Theophano gained her place back while her sons were released from Joseph’s control and now placed under the regency of Nikephoros; in the second half of the novel, Joseph no longer appears. When making my fan casting for this novel, it was a quite a challenge for me to cast Joseph Bringas although my friend Carlos said when seeing Joseph’s appearance that Danny DeVito could do well playing the role. Now Danny DeVito is an American actor who has had many years of acting experience, although despite being in his 70s whereas Joseph’s character was only in his 50s, DeVito could still nail the role of Joseph as Joseph’s appearance as bald and stocky man of short stature somewhat resembles DeVito’s appearance and based on DeVito’s performance as the villain in Batman Returns (1992) which was the Penguin, he can surely do the part of the villain Joseph Bringas well who in my opinion appears more to the type of villain that is vocal with a high voice and is highly manipulative and at most points creepy, and now if this novel were made into a film, DeVito could be doing a guest starring role the same way Keanu Reeves would do for Krateros.

Thure Lindhardt as Basil Lekapenos- Other than Joseph Bringas, the other lead eunuch of the story and secret antagonist in the second half is Basil Lekapenos, the illegitimate son of the former emperor Romanos I Lekapenos (r. 920-944) who was castrated and made into a eunuch. In contrast to Joseph Bringas’ vocal personality, Basil Lekapenos is more reserved and but true enough knows how to get things his way and in his case he does not care which side he’s on as long as it’s the side of the victor so he can continue staying in power.

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Thure Lindhardt as Basil Lekapenos

At the beginning of the novel, Basil together with Joseph first encounter Theophano (Anastasia) when she first visits the palace but when Theophano had already been married to Romanos, Basil together with his half-sister the empress Helena, his closest ally is suspicious of Joseph that he even advises Theophano not to trust Joseph. It is unknown when Basil began working at the imperial court but under his brother-in-law Constantine VII, he was the imperial chamberlain and as said in the contemporary chronicle of Theophanes Continuatus, he was dedicated and loyal to his emperor, true enough the novel depicts him such only because that was his way of retaining his position. At the time Constantine VII was poisoned in 959, Basil Lekapenos accompanied Queen Olga of the Kievan Rus’ who visited Constantinople back to her homeland but rushed back when hearing Romanos II was crowned as the new emperor. However, since Joseph Bringas accused Empress Helena of murdering her husband, he also ordered that Basil be banned from the palace for being an ally of the late empress. Since Romanos II favored Joseph Bringas over his uncle Basil, Basil was sidelined in Romanos II’s reign but in the novel appears to have joined Nikephoros Phokas’ expedition to reclaim Crete from the Arabs and since he and Joseph had become bitter he rivals, he uses the campaign to include Theophano’s father Krateros and the admiral Theophanes to join him in plotting to overthrow Joseph. When the expedition was over and victorious, Basil at least stayed in Constantinople but away from the palace and only after Romanos II was poisoned in 963 did Basil come back to the picture helping arrange the coup to overthrow Joseph Bringas, crown Nikephoros Phokas as emperor, and reinstate Theophano as empress. It is in second half of the novel where Basil Lekapenos has a bigger role wherein he was appointed by Emperor Nikephoros as the head of the Byzantine senate, equivalent to today’s Senate President. Basil later on however together with Theophano and John Tzimiskes are disillusioned with Nikephoros’ abusive rule so he too joins the plot to eliminate him and replace him with John. After Nikephoros’ assassination, it is now revealed that the true villain of the novel’s second half was not Nikephoros but Basil who was behind all the disorder in the city such as the rioting in the harbor and the stampede at the Hippodrome wherein he bribed the people convincing them Nikephoros planned to kill them all in order to make Nikephoros completely lose his popularity and now since John had won and was crowned emperor by Patriarch Polyeuctus in exchange for banishing Theophano, Basil taking the side of the victor betrayed Theophano too instead of pleading to let her stay causing an enraged Theophano to punch him in the face which actually happened in real history. Basil Lekapenos though is one of the novel’s few characters that survives all the way till the very end when Theophano returns to the palace and during the reign of Basil II, he still played an important role in the imperial court until he was banished in 985. Now Basil Lekapenos, here is seen as a very interesting person who did well in keeping his villainy concealed by playing out the entire time as a loyal official but deep inside he only wanted to be in power and would do anything he could to stay in it even if it meant betraying people he was close to like Nikephoros II and Theophano and what was interesting too about him was that he was also a patron of the arts.

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Byzantium movie (2012)

Now the actor I chose to cast for the role of Basil Lekapenos is the Danish actor Thure Lindhardt (@thurelindhardtactor), one of the bigger names in the Danish film industry who had played a large variety of roles in Danish and English language films which included a wide variety of period films and other popular ones including Angels and Demons, Fast and Furious 6, and ironically he was also in a 2012 vampire film called Byzantium, which however has nothing to do with the Byzantine Empire. For me, Thure Lindhardt is surely a great actor who can do a great job playing a villain, especially a more reserved one like Basil and Basil’s appearance in the novel as a tall and thin with long blonde hair- considering that Basil was said to be half Slavic- very much resembles that of the actor. Basil too ages as the novel progresses as he has been in it from beginning to end and even lives all the way deep into the reign of Theophano’s son Basil II.

Mark Hamill as Constantine VII PorphyrogennetosThe reigning emperor when the story begins is Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos, whose title means “born in the purple” which was in fact the title all Byzantine emperors who were born imperial heirs when their fathers were emperor used though he is the only one in history to officially use this title. When Constantine VII is introduced, he appears to be an all-powerful, well respected, and wise emperor in his 50s though behind his regal appearance is tragic back story.

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Mark Hamill as Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos

Constantine VII was born in 905 as a son of an illegal marriage between his father Emperor Leo VI the Wise and his 4th wife Zoe and Leo back in the day failed to produce sons in his 3 marriages and only in the 4th was he able to but it raised such controversy especially since he broke a law that he made which was to forbid multiple marriages. Leo VI died in 912 and was immediately succeeded by his younger brother Alexander who sidelined young Constantine though when Alexander died childless the following year, Constantine came to power as a young boy under a troubled regency shared between his mother and the patriarch which almost led to civil war tearing the empire apart if not for the Armenian admiral Romanos Lekapenos to step up and usurp power in 920 as a means to protect the young emperor. For 24 years, Constantine VII though marrying the usurper’s daughter Helena stayed behind in the shadows while his ambitious father-in-law Romanos I ruled as senior emperor making his 3 sons his co-emperors leaving Constantine as the least powerful of the 5 rulers despite him being the legitimate one but Romanos I’s luck did not last long as his eldest son died, and in 944 his 2 other sons overthrew and banished him but soon enough they too were banished in a coup led by Romanos I’s daughter Helena and sons Theophylact and Basil to make Constantine VII finally step in as the sole ruler in early 945. Constantine VII was a very interesting figure as he was not only a wise ruler but was someone particularly fixated with lavish court ceremonies as a way to assert the dominance of the Byzantine Empire to all other powers around the world that ambassadors who came to his court were all in awe seeing him in a throne that was elevated up into the air by a mechanism, a golden tree beside him with singing birds, and golden lions that flanked him that produced a roar.

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Emperor Constantine VII of Byzantium (r. 913-959)

Though he appeared so powerful, he was not particularly interested in state administration and military campaigns as he was able to delegate them to his wife Helena, court eunuch officials Joseph Bringas and Basil Lekapenos, and generals like Nikephoros Phokas and his brother Leo Phokas. Constantine VII was not particularly interested in this because of his traumatic experiences as child undergoing the court intrigues that almost cost him his life if not for overthrowing his father-in-law and brother-in-laws being overthrown giving some kind of PTSD but despite this, his experiences with this kind of politics gave him vast knowledge of the complexities of the Byzantine court and its government system that he wrote 3 books about it for his son and heir Romanos II which remain valuable sources of Byzantine court administration up to this day. When Romanos II chose the commoner Theophano (Anastasia) as his wife, Constantine was unhappy with his son’s decision reminding him that he did marry Empress Helena out of love but to secure an alliance. Constantine still remained alive to see Theophano as his daughter-in-law and give birth to grandsons but in one night in 959, he was reluctantly poisoned by Theophano who gave him a poisoned wine glass thinking he was trying to poison her as revealed to her by Joseph Bringas and right after Constantine’s death, Joseph got his way and accused Empress Helena for poisoning him. A fun fact is that Constantine VII was a true Renaissance man as not only was he a ruler but a writer, painter, sculptor, and diplomat who was skilled in receiving foreign guests and certainly he is one of my favorite Byzantine emperors as he is a rare type for being a true neutral cool headed wise ruler rather than the usually energetic and hot tempered or cowardly Byzantine emperors.

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Constantine VII on his elevated throne in the novel

Another interesting topic for debate here is that Constantine VII and his descendants including Romanos II and his son Basil II could possibly be not from the Macedonian Dynasty but the previous Amorian Dynasty since Constantine’s father Leo VI was rumored to have been not the son of the Macedonian Dynasty’s founder Basil I the Macedonian but the illegitimate son of Michael III, the emperor Basil I killed, though Constantine still believed Basil I was his grandfather, though Leo did not think so. The actor I see portraying Constantine VII is no other than Mark Hamill himself (@hamillhimself) who is best remembered for playing Luke Skywalker in the Star Wars movies and his portrayal of Luke in Episode VIII: The Last Jedi (2017) and quick appearance in Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker (2019) gave me a clear image on how Constantine should be portrayed like as Luke in these movies appeared as an old man full of trauma from past events the way Constantine is seen in this novel however Constantine appears to be friendly and warm rather than Luke who seemed mostly cold but nevertheless I think Mark Hamill can do a great job playing an emperor even though his age now is something like 10 years older than Constantine who was only in his 50s in the novel despite looking a bit older, though this could possibly suggest that the hardships he faced made him age quicker. Constantine’s appearance in the novel too kind of resembles Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker in the sequel trilogy.

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Emperor Constantine VII hosting a feast in the palace, chapter II

Emily Watson as Helena LekapeneThe empress or Augusta when the story opens is Helena Lekapene, the wife of Emperor Constantine VII and daughter of the former emperor Romanos I Lekapenos and when she is introduced, it is her that is more active in running the state administration together with her younger half-brother the eunuch Basil Lekapenos as Constantine remains too busy in scholarly pursuits making Helena mock him for that believing he is better off as a monk.

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Emily Watson as Empress Helena Lekapene

The moment Theophano (Anastasia) is introduced to the court, Helena already starts feeling suspicious of her especially since Theophano is a commoner in origin though Helena pretends to act at least tolerant towards Theophano despite showing no respect for her privacy that she even goes as har as touching Theophano’s body roughly as she is bathing. What concerns Helena most about Theophano is her untamable behavior in acting so casual in talking with people above her rank though when Theophano gives birth to 2 sons, she at least tries to give Theophano a chance but when Theophano exhibits her natural independent behavior again when trying to talk casually with the Queen of the Kievan Rus’ Olga, this was the last straw for Helena who now attempts to get rid of Theophano who on the other hand was revealed of the plot causing her to reluctantly poison Constantine VII during a feast wherein afterwards, Joseph Bringas accuses Helena of the poisoning and has her thrown in prison where she is forced to commit suicide by drinking poison, later she and her husband Constantine appear as ghosts haunting Theophano. Now the novel depicts Empress Helena Lekapene as uptight, cold hearted, and tough towards her husband, son, and daughter-in-law though the historical sources do not really mention much about her personality except that she was a strong woman running the administration, though the History of the Byzantine Empire by Radi Dikici mentions that Helena was good in nature and got along well with her husband ever since they were married as children. Though Helena seems most of the time unlikeable when reading the novel, you would later at least feel bad for her when she was falsely accused and put in prison- which here was an old bathhouse. Casting Helena meanwhile was difficult task as I had a hard time finding an actress who like the character is in her 50s but still attractive so eventually, the option I chose was the English actress Emily Watson who fits the character’s description and true enough she is a talented actress who has appeared several times in stage and films and has great experience in period films such as War Horse (2011) and Anna Karenina (2012).

  

Henry Thomas as TheophanesOne of the first characters introduced in the novel is the naval officer Theophanes who later becomes an admiral and best friend of Theophano’s father Krateros and a father figure to Theophano (Anastasia) who in facts accompanies her in her first visit to the Great Palace where she is discovered. For most of the story’s first half, Theophanes served as a high-ranking court official as well as an admiral and remained always close to Krateros.

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Henry Thomas as Theophanes

After Constantine VII was poisoned in 959, Theophanes despite being suspicious of the powerful eunuch Joseph Bringas acted loyal to him and forbade Joseph’s eunuch rival Basil Lekapenos from entering the palace and in 961, Romanos II as the emperor was manipulated by Joseph to send Theophanes as well as Krateros and Basil to the perilous expedition of Crete as a way to send them to their deaths as Joseph feared their growing influence too though Theophanes helped lead the troops to victory in Crete. Theophanes appears again during the coup of Nikephoros in 963 where joins the skirmish against Joseph’s troops but is killed in the fighting by a spear and apparently, at the end of the story, Basil Lekapenos who turns out to be traitor reveals he let Theophanes die in the skirmish.

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Theophanes in the Madrid Skylitzes

When reading the novel, I always came to question that if whether Theophanes was a historical character or fictional and when asking the creators, I was informed that Theophanes was actually a real person who was a naval commander and possibly a eunuch during the reign of Romanos I Lekapenos in which the story opens in and during Romanos I’s reign in one of the story’s first scenes, Theophanes fighting the Kievan Rus’ fleet was real although after this battle in 941, Theophanes disappears from the historical record as he must have been exiled after Romanos I was deposed by his sons in 944. The creators though chose to make Theophanes have a bigger role by making him live longer and be close to Theophano which was purely fictional. Since Theophanes plays quite a major role in the first half of the story, I chose to cast him with quite a well-known actor but not someone too famous so I chose the American actor Henry Thomas (@hjthomasjr) best known for playing Elliot in E.T. (1982) to play him since he looks similar to Theophanes’ character in the novel and due to his performance lately in the 2020 Haunting of Bly Manor series as uncle Henry playing a British character, he looks like he can do a good job playing Theophanes who like uncle Henry is a father figure. 

    

Diego Luna as Leo PhokasAccompanying Nikephoros Phokas for the most part of the story was his younger brother and sidekick Leo Phokas the Younger who in reality is either 3-8 years younger than Nikephoros though the novel depicts him looking a full 12-15 years younger though just like his older brother, Leo was a skilled general who had scored a number victories against the Arabs in the east since the reign of Constantine VII (945-959).

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Diego Luna as Leo Phokas

Leo’s first appearance is in chapter II is when campaigning in the east against the Arabs with his brother Nikephoros and nephew John Tzimiskes after Constantine VII’s death in 959 and during the entire reign of Romanos II (959-963), Leo was seen still campaigning against the Arabs in the east where he destroyed an Arab army by throwing stones at them from above a ridge and later is rejoined by Nikephoros after the latter’s conquest of Crete in 961. Together with John Tzimiskes, Leo has the army acclaim Nikephoros as emperor in 963 and takes part in his brother’s successful coup. When Nikephoros II is crowned emperor, Leo still remained always with his brother as his top general but also appointed as the minister of the treasury and Kouropalates or top manager of the palace. Unlike Nikephoros who was a man of big personality, Leo was the quieter version of his older brother though in my opinion, the novel did not do that well in showing his character development as when Leo was introduced he did not tolerate corruption in the government but in his brother’s reign he seemed to be fine with all the harsh taxation policies, and also he starts out as a quiet character and all of a sudden at the second half when his brother is the emperor, he instantly turns into a hot-headed and arrogant bully especially towards Theophano that he even openly expresses castrating her children in front of her, but I could also see that his personality drastically changed since Nikephoros named him his heir making him ever more arrogant. At the climax when Nikephoros is killed, Leo rushes to protect him but instead finds out his brother is dead; thus, Leo was banished by the new emperor John I Tzimiskes though historically, Leo rebelled against John in 970 and again in 971 where he failed and was blinded. My casting choice for Leo is the Mexican actor Diego Luna (@diegoluna) who is remembered for playing Cassian Andor in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) and I think he could do a great job in playing Pedro Pascal’s Nikephoros Phokas’ younger brother as both somewhat look alike while Diego Luna is someone I think that can play a variety of roles with such emotion.

Lars Mikkelsen as Patriarch PolyeuctusOne of the only characters in the story to have such strong morals in this immoral time was the Patriarch of Constantinople Polyeuctus who was appointed to the Patriarchate of Constantinople in 956 as replacing the former patriarch Theophylact Lekapenos who died from a riding accident and as the head of the Church, Polyeuctus was a simple but pious monk but a no-nonsense Church leader in contrast to his predecessor who ignored his religious duties and indulged in pleasures.

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Lars Mikkelsen as Patriarch Polyeuctus of Constantinople

Polyeuctus was appointed to the Patriarchate by Joseph Bringas and was patriarch throughout the entire story in the reigns of Constantine VII, Romanos II, Nikephoros II, and John I and throughout the entire story he distrusts Theophano seeing her beauty as sinful and her independent behavior as unthinkable, yet he could speak about her low birth without getting punished as he was the head of the Church. Polyectus here was shown as the one who baptized Queen Olga of the Kievan Rus and sent missionaries to convert the people there, afterwards he presided over the funeral of Constantine VII and Empress Helena and later in 963 over the funeral of Romanos II where he orders that Theophano should only mourn for her husband when she asks him to help her plot against Joseph Bringas. In Nikephoros’ coup, Polyeuctus remained neutral but had later been the one to marry Nikephoros and Theophano and crown Nikephoros as emperor but as Nikephoros’ reign progressed, Polyeuctus too began opposing Nikephoros believing the latter lost his mind and did the unthinkable demanding that the Church be stripped of their tax exemption privileges and that every soldier slain by a Muslim must be made a saint. Polyeuctus however did not approve of deposing Nikephoros by murdering him making him refuse to crown John Tzimiskes unless John made up for his murder by banishing Theophano as Polyeuctus knew Theophano who he always distrusted had a part in it; this scene then is his last appearance though in real history, he died shortly after in 970. The actor I chose to play Patriarch Polyeuctus is the Danish actor Lars Mikkelsen, older brother of the famous Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen as his serious appearance very much resembles that of the patriarch as he is depicted in the novel.   

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Patriarch Polyeuctus in the Madrid Skylitzes

Thomas Ian Griffith as Marianos ArgyrosOne of Byzantium’s most famous generals of the 10th century is Marianos Argyros who appears briefly in the novel during the reign of Romanos II (959-963) as a strong supporter of his and Joseph Bringas.

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Thomas Ian Griffith as Marianos Argyros

Argyros had been serving as a general since Constantine VII became sole emperor in 945 and since then fought campaigned in the Balkans and in Italy. In the novel, Romanos considered marrying Argyros’ daughter and divorcing Theophano and after Romanos’ death in 963, Argyros took part with Joseph Bringas in defending Constantinople against Nikephoros’ coup but at the end was killed by Nikephoros’ blade. The actor to play the old general Marianos Argyros was someone who isn’t that well-known so I chose the American actor Thomas Ian Griffith who is best remembered for playing the villain Terry Silver in The Karate Kid III (1989) and could possibly return for season4 of Cobra Kai, even if he hasn’t been acting for years.

Kristina Klebe as Queen Olga of KievOne of the notable historical characters that made a cameo appearance in the novel was Queen Olga of the Kievan Rus- the powerful nation north of Byzantium at that time which consisted of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus- who had visited Constantinople in 957 according to the Russian sources to be baptized, however other sources say she visited Constantinople before the novel’s setting though the novel went for the option of including Olga in the story when Theophano was already introduced.

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Kristina Klebe as Queen Olga of Kiev

Olga appears quickly in chapter II where she meets Theophano herself, is baptized by Patriarch Polyeuctus and given the Christian name Helena after the empress and like in real history, she was rumored to have had an affair with Constantine VII as she overstayed in Constantinople, but she returns to her homeland to convert her people to Christianity. Ironically despite being canonized as a saint for converting her people, Olga has done terrible things as a ruler before which included setting the entire city of Korosten hled by their enemy Slavic tribe of the Drevlians in Ukraine on fire by tying Sulphur into birds to set fire to city from above out of revenge for them killing her husband Prince Igor I of Kiev, though later in life she redeemed herself by converting to Christianity. Sources are conflicting on Olga’s date of birth as it could be any year between 890 and 925 so in the comments of the novel’s Instagram post on Olga, I asked the creators if Olga was supposed to be an older woman or a younger woman, and they said that they chose the option of placing her birthdate at 925 which is why she is seen as a younger woman. Interestingly, in the novel Olga did not speak Greek (in the novel’s case English) and needed an interpreter as back then there was no universal language of diplomacy but the strange thing was that she was seen conversing with Theophano. Though Olga’s appearance was quick, I still have a casting choice in mind for her and I chose the German-American actress Kristina Klebe (@kristinaklebe) to play her since her age fits well with the character if Olga were to be in her 40s as the actress who is in her 40s still looks much younger and attractive for her age and Olga in the novel has blonde hair and Nordic features as she was of Varangian (Swedish) origin, coincidentally the actress looks the same way too. Coincidentally again, Kristina Klebe appeared in the 2019 film Sinister Seduction with Tanner Buchanan who I chose to play Romanos II so here they would reunite even though both characters were never seen side-by-side with each other in the novel.

“Stone Cold” Steve Austin as Prince Sviatoslav of KievIn chapter IV of the novel, Olga’s son and the new prince of the Kievan Rus’ Sviatoslav makes a cameo appearance as in Nikephoros II’s reign (963-969), Sviatoslav invaded Bulgaria which came into war with Byzantium so the emperor Nikephoros II asked the Prince of the Rus Sviatoslav to attack Bulgaria for the Byzantines but instead Sviatoslav continued raiding into Byzantine Thrace and only after Nikephoros II’s death was peace settled with Sviatoslav by John I Tzimiskes in 971.

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“Stone Cold” Steve Austin as Sviatoslav

Sviatoslav appears as a large man with no hair except for a thin long stand on his scalp so to cast him, I had to choose someone large and intimidating in appearance who does not really need speaking lines, so as Carlos suggested, I went for American actor, WWE superstar and podcast host “Stone Cold” Steve Austin (@steveaustinbsr).

Guillaume Canet as Michael BourtzesOne of the prominent Byzantine generals of the era that appears in the novel is Michael Bourtzes, a native of Eastern Asia Minor who served under Nikephoros II in his reign but was secretly loyal to John Tzimiskes as he tells Theophano while she joins Nikephoros in his trip in Cappadocia where Bourtzes is first introduced.

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Guillaume Canet as Michael Bourtzes

Later in 969, like in real history, Bourtzes retook the city of Antioch from the Arabs by persuading a traitor in the city to surrender one of the walls’ towers which he did making Bourtzes use it to defend against the attackers inside the walls and after 3 days taking back the city, though the emperor Nikephoros was enraged because Bourtzes disobeyed orders and set fire to the city so he was whipped and dismissed from command even if he won a victory so this led Bourtzes to conspire with Theophano and Basil Lekapenos to bring back John Tzimiskes and kill Nikephoros. Michael Bourtzes was one of the 3 conspirators that joined John Tzimiskes in killing Nikephoros II and it was Bourtzes who stuck Nikephoros first out of revenge. In John I’s reign, Bourtzes again served as a general and again in the reign of Basil II. Though Michael Bourtzes has a minor role in the story, I still decided to cast him and randomly I went for the French actor Guillaume Canet (@guillaumecanetofficiel).

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Michael Bourtzes captures Antioch, 969

Rodolfo Sancho as Bardas SklerosIn chapter V, at the story’s climax, one of the 3 conspirators that joined John Tzimiskes is the general Bardas Skleros, a powerful ally of John who took part in killing Nikephoros II in his sleep. Afterwards, Skleros would be one of John I’s trusted generals in his reign together with Bourtzes and later would be the same general that rebelled against Basil II. Just as I did for casting Bourtzes, I did the same and randomly went for casting the Spanish actor Rodolfo Sancho (@rodolfo_sancho) to play Bardas Skleros who does not appear to have any speaking lines.

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Rodolfo Sancho (top left) as Bardas Skleros (far right) and Jonathan Roumie (bottom left) as Anemas (near right)

Jonathan Roumie as AnemasOne of the 3 conspirators that joins John Tzimiskes in killing Nikephoros II at the climax in chapter V is the Arab Al-Numan who was renamed Anemas when converting to Christianity. Anemas was the son of the last emir of Crete who was deposed when Nikephoros Phokas captured the island in 961 and was taken to Constantinople as a prisoner and as seen in the novel, Anemas had his reasons to kill Nikephoros since it was Nikephoros that dethroned his father; afterwards Anemas would serve as one of John I’s generals. Like I did for casting Bourtzes and Skleros, I did the same and randomly went for casting Jonathan Roumie (@jonathanroumieofficial), an American actor of Middle Eastern descent to play Anemas who is an Arab by ethnicity. 

James Scully as Patriarch Theophylact LekapenosAnother historical character that makes a cameo appearance is the Patriarch of Constantinople Theophylact Lekapenos who as patriarch was more or less a joke as he was appointed to the position at age 16 by his father Emperor Romanos I in 933 and as patriarch, he cared more about his horses and spent more time in his stables rather than in his religious duties and once he did not show up in an important liturgical event in the Hagia Sophia as his favorite horse was giving birth.

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James Scully as Theophylact Lekapenos

Ironically, Theophylact died falling off a horse in 956 and as seen in the novel, he died in an accident by hitting his face in a rock when playing polo with the imperial heir and his nephew Romanos II, which for me was actually one of the more comedic scenes in the novel. Here, both Theophanes and Krateros who are observing the polo game are shocked especially seeing the head of their Church being where he shouldn’t be. The actor I chose to have a cameo role playing Theophylact is the American actor James Scully (@scullynjames) from the series Heathers and You, who with his young age and playful looking appearance looks like he can fit the role of the neglectful polo player patriarch.

Gianni DeCenzo as Basil II, Noah Schnapp as Constantine VIII, and Jenna Ortega as Anna PorphyrogenitaThe 3 children of Romanos II and Theophano have quick appearances in the novel, though for most of the story the sons who would be the future emperors Basil II and Constantine VIII appear as young boys so I have no idea on who to cast for them. The first son Basil was born in 958 and the second one Constantine in 960 while their daughter Anna was born in 963 2 days before her father’s death though Anna’s birth is not shown or mentioned in the novel. At the story’s epilogue, when Theophano returns to the palace in 976, her 3 children all standing next to each other are now all teenagers and 18-year-old Basil II is now the senior emperor with 16-year-old Constantine VIII as his co-emperor. Basil II, one of Byzantium’s most famous emperors here however is not depicted in the way we usually know him to look like which is short and round with dark hair, instead here he has light hair and is tall and thin.

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Top left: Gianni DeCenzo, Middle left: Noah Schanpp, Bottom left: Jenna Ortega as Basil II, Constantine VIII, and Anna Porphyrogenita respectively

For the 18-year-old Basil II, I chose to cast Gianni DeCenzo (@gianni_decenzo) who is best known for playing Demetri in Cobra Kai as his age and appearance matches that of the novel’s Basil II and strangely, Gianni here would be playing the son of Tanner Buchanan’s character Romanos II’s son and both actors appeared in Cobra Kai and are almost the same age with Tanner being only 3 years older, however in 976, Tanner’s character is already long dead and Basil II here is almost the same age as his father was when he became emperor in 959. The actor I chose for Basil II’s younger brother Constantine VIII as a teenager is Noah Schnapp (@noahschnapp) who plays Will Byers in the series Stranger Things who would appear here as a cameo role, and their younger sister Anna in my opinion who looks like a young Theophano could be played by 18-year-old American actress Jenna Ortega (@jennaortega) from the series Jane the Virgin and You. Basil II would from here on rule for almost 50 years later becoming known as the “Bulgar-Slayer” with Constantine VIII as his co-emperor and later successor after Basil’s death in 1025 while their sister Anna in 988 married the Kievan Rus’ Prince Vladimir the Great.

Clotilde Hesme as Theophano’s motherAt the flashback where chapter II opens, Theophano’s unnamed mother is seen giving birth to her but dies shortly after leaving Theophano (Anastasia) to be raised by her single father Krateros.

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Clotilde Hesme as Theophano’s mother

Theophano’s birth scene happens to be a flashback she receives when it is her time to give birth to her first son Basil II. Though Theophano’s mother appears so quickly, I still chose to cast her and the actress I chose was French actress Clotilde Hesme from the most recent Netflix series Lupin.

Victoria Pedretti as Argyros’ daughter and Vanessa Rubio as Joseph’s handmaidenLastly, I still got to cast the characters with the smallest appearances and these include the daughter of the general Marianos Argyros who Romanos II thought of marrying and for her I’d cast American actress Victoria Pedretti (@then0t0ri0usvip) from the series Haunting of Bly Manor and You who I also considered for another option in playing Theophano as I mentioned earlier although I think Anya Taylor-Joy would do better as the lead protagonist. However, I see Victoria Pedretti as someone who could perfectly play a Byzantine character so I chose to keep her in my casting list to play a cameo role. Meanwhile, another female character that appears to have a role that is more than a glimpse is the handmaiden of Joseph Bringas who holds the poisoned win intended for Theophano which Theophano uses to poison Constantine VII and the actress I chose for this cameo role is Colombian American actress Vanessa Rubio (@veryvness) who in Cobra Kai played Carmen, the mother of Miguel, the protagonist.

Lastly, I would also like to see the creators of the novel Spyros Theocharis and Chrysa Sakel have cameo roles too but also be the films’ producers though one person I’d also like to see as a cameo role and a producer of the film as well is no other than my favorite Youtube creator Dovahhatty. For the movie’s other producers, I have no idea on who can do the part but one possible option could be Elena Andreicheva, producer of last year’s Oscar winning documentary/ short film Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl). For the movie’s director, I could not choose one myself so when asking the creators, I asked who they could see as their choice of director if their graphic novel was made into a movie, and for them they said it is either a tie between Ridley Scott and Zack Snyder and both surely have experience in doing dramatic and action packed films, but it would be their first time doing a Byzantine epic. For the film’s musical scoring, I could imagine the composers Jepser Kyd and Lorne Balfe who as I know have done the soundtrack of Assassin’s Creed Revelations which too had a setting in Constantinople and tis soundtrack surely having a Byzantine feel to it, therefore they could do the same again in giving a Byzantine feel to the soundtrack to a possible film adaptation to this novel. In my opinion, it would be a great experience to have the Icelandic hit rock band Of Monsters and Men (@ofmonstersandmen) also have a part in the movie’s scoring too!

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Bardas Skleros, John Tzimiskes, Constantine VII, Romanos II, Theophano, and Basil II visualized as modern day characters by Amelianvs

Byzantine Historical Easter Eggs

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Since Theophano: A Byzantine Tale is a graphic novel with hundreds of images, it does show a lot of Easter Eggs and references to Byzantine history especially of their time and these not only include buildings of the era or costumes but things people who know Byzantine history would be familiar with such as Byzantine Polo, Greek Fire, the imperial palace, the Cataphract Cavalry, and much more. For instance, the book cover shows the story’s lead character Empress Theophano dressed in full imperial attire and at her hands are mosaic tiles or Tesserae which is a reference to the mosaics that decorate the interiors of several Byzantine era churches while behind her flanking her left and right are images of emperors with erased faces.

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Byzantine chi-rho symbol

In my interview with the creators through Instagram message, I asked what was up with the defaced emperors as I thought it was a reference to the Byzantine Iconoclasm a century before Theophano’s time wherein faces were erased though they said it was allegorical and these erased faces represent the two emperors Theophano killed which could be Constantine VII and Romanos II, Romanos II and Nikephoros II, or Constantine VII and Nikephoros II while also flanking Theophano if you look closely are two Chi-Rho symbols, one of Byzantium’s imperial symbols that dates all the way back to the times of the Roman Empire in the 4th century. Now since this novel was inspired by historical events, it has to include references to the time it was set in to make it look authentic (spoiler alert for those who haven’t read the book yet!). Luckily, the novel ends with a list of notes on historical facts which I am mostly basing this section of my article on.  

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Diagram of Byzantine Constantinople featuring the Hagia Sophia, Imperial Palace Complex, Hippodrome, and Polo Field

Chapter I- Ambition

  • The novel’s opening scene in 940 features Slavic tribes that had settled in the Peloponnese revolting and attacking what is medieval Sparta wherein Theophano’s parents with her mother pregnant with her are escaping from and true enough it was during the reign of Romanos I (920-944) when they revolted though the year is not exactly stated.  
  • The secret superweapon of Byzantium Greek Fire makes a signifact appearance and so was the victory against the invading Kievan Rus’ fleet in Bosporus and the land battle against them where the Byzantine Thematic army defeated them.
  • When Theophano first visits the palace, as she enters you see a large mosaic of Christ above the palace gate, this here was a real location being the Chalke Gate of the imperial palace. The two soldiers you see guarding the gate are part of the emperor’s elite army or the Tagmata.
  • When Emperor Constantine VII is introduced, you see him seated in the elevated throne that he was said to have been sitting on as well as the mechanical roaring lions that flanked him and the golden tree of singing birds. This here is a reference to the Italian bishop and diplomat Liutprand of Cremona’s encounter with Constantine VII in 949, although here the foreign ambassador meeting him is probably someone else as the main part of the story opens in 956.
  • The bride show set up for the imperial heir Romanos II wherein he chose Theophano as his wife was true enough a tradition in this period of Byzantine history wherein the imperial heir would choose his wife out many young noble women from all over the empire. In Byzantine history, emperors like Leo IV (r. 775-780), Constantine VI (r. 780-797), Staurakios (r. 811), Theophilos (r. 829-842), and Leo VI (. 886-912) chose their spouses this way.
  • The Church of the Virgin of Pharos where the marriage between Romanos II and Theophano took place was a real location and this a chapel exclusive to only the imperial family and court located within the Imperial Palace complex.
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Byzantine navy uses Greek Fire in battle

Chapter II- Intrigue

  • At the start of chapter II in the year 958 setting, a cat is seen sitting on the foot of Krateros who is already a palace official. Now this detail requires you to pay a lot of attention to notice it but apparently a friend of mine and fellow Byzantine history fan (@anacagic) who I met online commented on the novel’s Instagram post of this exact image that she noticed the cat and apparently the creators said in response to her comment that the cat here was a reference to the many cats you see in today’s Istanbul.
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Krateros and the hidden cat, chapter II
  • When Theophano gives birth to her first child Basil II in 958, she does it in a purple room, which however in the novel doesn’t appear to be purple. This was a true fact in Byzantine history since imperial heirs to ensure their legitimacy were born in a room line with purple stone or Porphyry hence came the title Porphyrogennetos for all imperial children born in that room, though only Constantine VII as emperor uses it in his title. Since there were no laws of divine rights in Byzantium and the Roman Empire before them, emperors had to come up with creative solutions to ensure succession among their children and one of them was for their children to be born in this one and only purple room, if not then this could create generals to find a good reason to usurp power.
  • Today Polo is better known as a sport for the rich and powerful and even back in Byzantine times it was wherein it was a game borrowed from Persia called Tzykanion wherein players ride on a horse and hit a ball with a netted stick, and in the novel you see the young Patriarch of Constantinople Theophylact Lekapenos playing it wherein he dies out of an accident. The polo field or Tzykanisterion seen here which is the one found at the Great Palace Complex near today’s Topkapi Palace was built in the reign of Theodosius II (r. 408-450) who excelled at the game and so did other emperors like Basil I the Macedonian (r. 867-886) and his son Alexander (r. 912-913) who died after a game of it; Theophano’s son Constantine VIII (r. 1025-1028), Alexios I Komnenos (r. 1081-1118) and Theodore II Laskaris (r. 1254-1258) played the game too.   
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Tzykanion, Byzantine polo played in the Tzykanisterion of the Imperial Palace
  • The ivory box of Empress Helena which seen when she is conversing with Joseph Bringas is a reference to the art form of ivory carving, a popular Byzantine art form that was used for several book covers and portraits of emperors.
  • The palace right next to the sea where Queen Olga of Kiev first arrives in is the Bukoleon Palace, one of the more notable palaces in Constantinople’s Imperial Palace Complex. The interior of the Hagia Sophia meanwhile features the entrance to the building that is still used today.
  • Before Olga leaves, you now know Theophano did not speak Olga’s language since whatever Olga says to Theophano is translated by an interpreter and what is spoken in Olga’s thought bubble in the Cyrillic alphabet is actually the Russian translation for what the interpreter was saying and here I asked the creators about this Russian text and apart from telling me it meant exactly what the interpreter was saying, they said they had no knowledge of Russian so they just used Google Translate for it- what I usually do when I use foreign language dialogue in my Lego films- though they also said that a historian told them that Ukrainian was a better option as it was closer to the Kievan Rus’ language but it was too late to change that.
  • The prison Empress Helena was put in was once the Baths of Zeuxippus, a popular bath site in Constantinople back in the 6th century and the earlier days.
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Empress Helena imprisoned at the ruins of the Baths of Zeuxippus, chapter II

Chapter III- Sovereignty

  • The church where Emperor Constantine VII and Empress Helena were buried in was the Church of the Holy Apostles, the burial site of many Byzantine emperors which is now the Fatih Mosque of Istanbul. Since it is unclear what the here in the novel shows it looking similar to St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice in which the architecture was based on the Holy Apostles church. The purple sarcophagus of Constantine VII as will see is based on the surviving porphyry sarcophagus of the Byzantine emperors which you will see in Istanbul’s Archaeological Museum. In addition, Romanos II and Theophano are seen wearing white, which is the Byzantine color of mourning, although there is no evidence of this in the 10th century as sources that mention white as a mourning color only come in the 14th century.
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Byzantine imperial porphyry sarcophagus in the novel, chapter III
  • In Nikephoros Phokas’ expedition in Crete, one panel depicts the Cataphract cavalry unloading in the beach through ramps coming out from ships similar to the D-Day landings in World War II (1944), it turns out that the Byzantines used this kind of tactic when invading enemy territory from sea. The scene of the walls of Crete’s capital Chandax collapsing by mining beneath it was actually how Nikephoros’ army in 961 captured the city from the Arabs.
  • The single column seen next to Romanos II and Joseph Bringas in the middle of field is the Column of the Goths, one of the oldest structures in Constantinople and could even date back to its founding by Constantine the Great in 330, today it still stands in Istanbul’s Gulhane Park near Topkapi Palace.
  • The scene of Nikephoros Phokas acclaimed by his troops by standing on a shield shows the Roman and Byzantine tradition wherein an emperor acclaimed by his troops was lifted on a shield.
  • The part of John Tzimiskes firing an arrow is a reference to him as a highly skilled archer as documented by his contemporary historian Leo the Deacon.
  • The house of the eunuch Basil Lekapenos shown here happened to be the house of the 5th century Byzantine general of Gothic origin Aspar, the puppet master of Emperor Leo I (r. 457-474) who in fact killed Aspar. Being a high-ranking court official, Basil Lekapenos gained so much wealth over the years that he commissioned a highly valuable golden reliquary which still exists today known as the Limburg Staurotheke, which can be seen in the background of the part where Basil and John Tzimiskes are talking.
  • The ceiling mosaics in the scene Theophano walks in as empress in my opinion looks like it was patterned after the dark blue and gold ceiling mosaics of the 5th century Mausoleum of Galla Placidia in Ravenna.

 Chapter IV- Disorder

  • The street seen where the coronation procession of Nikephoros II is Constantinople’s main artery known as the Mese which connects all the city’s forums ending in the Hippodrome.
  • Before Nikephoros II’s coronation in 963, the house Theophano was staying in wherein John Tzimiskes came to visit her was in today’s Fener district of Istanbul. The History of the Byzantine Empire by Radi Dikici’s chapter mentioning Theophano also mentions that she had to be placed in a house outside the city center before her wedding to Nikephoros II as custom dictated.
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Map of Byzantine era Constantinople including its main street, the Mese
  • The red imperial robes and crown Nikephoros II Phokas is seen wearing as emperor looks similar to the exact robes and crown he wears in his existing portrait wherein he is carrying a Paramerion or curved sword.
  • The Byzantine senate too makes a quick cameo appearance but it is also mentioned here that they did not have a powerful role in society anymore as they did in the age of the Roman Empire, instead the senate only remained as a board of rich and powerful old men serving as advisors for the emperor. The Senate of Constantinople meanwhile was founded by all the way back in 330 by Constantine the Great who moved some noble families from Rome east and according to tradition, some of the important Byzantine families such as Doukas and Palaiologos were originally Roman patrician families moved to the east by Constantine the Great.
  • The region of Cappadocia, which was also a Theme of the empire back then and the homeland of Nikephoros II and growing up there which was then a wild frontier constantly attacked by Arabs shaped him into a tough general determined to kill his Arab enemies. Apparently, the trip Nikephoros with Theophano and her sons took to Cappadocia between 964 and 965 did indeed happen and seen here in the novel is a church with frescos of Nikephoros and Theophano themselves and today these can be found in a rock carved church in what is today the village of Cavusin. When asking the novel’s creators if this trip to Cappadocia actually happened, I was also informed by them that Nikephoros even briefly left the army for a time to spend time with Theophano, and now here’s something new I learned from the creators which was not even seen in the book itself.
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Church fresco of Nikephoros II and Theophano in Cappadocia in the novel
  • The rioting scene in the harbor has a quick appearance of the “powww!” text when a man punches a soldier, a reference to the action scenes in old comic books. The Hippodrome scene meanwhile shows a bird’s eye view of the famous Statue of the 4 Horses which are now in Venice after being taken by the 4th Crusade in 1204, this is seen when Nikephoros’ cavalry marches into the Hippodrome, the most common gathering location in Constantinople. In addition, the 70m tall Column of Justinian I can be seen in the background of the Hippodrome, this was taken down after the Ottomans took over Constantinople in 1453.
  • I had also asked the creators if the stampede was true event, and it certainly was as they had answered me. It also did happen in history that Nikephoros II built another wall to protect the palace as he feared a prophecy of him being assassinated but it was exaggerated here that the palace became a military camp.
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Imperial Palace turned into a military camp under Nikephoros II
  • In the scene where Nikephoros II angrily insults a cardinal sent by the Holy Roman emperor Otto I, this cardinal happens to be the same Bishop Liutprand of Cremona who visited Constantinople in 949 meeting Constantine VII but his encounter with Nikephoros II was the complete opposite of his encounter with Constantine VII. When meeting Nikephoros, Liutprand was insulted being seated at a remote part of the dining hall and being served a smelly fish sauce as punishment for calling Nikephoros only as “Emperor of the Greeks” and not “Roman emperor”; to retaliate as well, Nikephoros refused to call Otto I “emperor” but instead “king” and when returning to Italy, Liutprand’s purple silks were confiscated as he insulted the emperor. The novel however omitted the whole part of Liutprand meeting Nikephoros, instead only showing one scene of it as part of a montage sequence, though it would add some comedy to the story when putting in this scene.
  • The church structure behind Patriarch Polyeuctus when he is talking with Basil Lekapenos and Theophano is the Hagia Eirene or Church of Holy Peace which still exists today part of the Topkapi Palace Complex of Istanbul.

Watch this. to learn more about Nikephoros II’s encounter with Liutprand of Cremona (from Voices of the Past).

Chapter V- Betrayal

  • When seeing the prayer object Nikephoros II was holding, I first thought it was a Rosary but when asking the creators what it was, they replied saying it is a prayer rope known as a Komboskini, as the Byzantine Orthodox Christians do not have rosaries in their tradition.
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Komboskini, Byzantine prayer rope
  • When Nikephoros II is assassinated in his sleep, he is seen wearing monk’s robes and on the floor. The monk’s robe he is wearing a reference to his preference to live the life of an ascetic monk ever since his wife and son died years ago which is why he chose to distance himself from women even when marrying Theophano. As mentioned in the historical records, Nikephoros slept on the floor when he was killed, though when I made my short film on this subject matter back in 2019, I missed out this detail and I only knew about it when someone later on commented that he slept on the floor that night. The decapitated head of Nikephoros meanwhile was meant to show proof that he was dead.
  • It actually happened that Theophano sought refuge in the Hagia Sophia when Basil Lekpaneos betrayed her and it was actually true that she punched him out of anger when hearing he had betrayed her.
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Coin of Empress Theophano
  • The location where Theophano departs the palace and later comes back to in 976 is the same seaside Bukoleon Palace. The end page meanwhile shows a coin from Theophano’s time in the 10th century with her image on it which shows proof of what she looks like even if the coin is faded so it is hard to know what she actually looked like.
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Great Palace Complex with the Hagia Sophia and Hippodrome by Ediacar

Historical Errors and Missing Items

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Though this novel was well written and well-illustrated giving readers a clear image of what life in 10th century Byzantium was, there are quite a few historical errors and though some of them I can tell were done intentionally just to exaggerate the tory a bit more to make it have some fantasy elements. As a Byzantine history fan, I was able to pay attention to the details and point out some loopholes. Here is a list of them as seen per chapter.

Chapter I- Ambition

  • The novel mentions that the trip Theophano’s parents and Theophanes took from Laconia in Southern Greece to Constantinople by sea took months though historically speaking, back then sea trips took long but since Laconia and Constantinople were not too far from each other, the trip could have just taken about a week as a sea trip to from Italy to Constantinople was something like 3 weeks unless the ship stopped at many places along the way which was mentioned here.
  • As mentioned earlier, sources of Theophano’s origins can be conflicting that she could have even came from the nobility but from an unknown family though the creators of the novel went for the option of Theophano’s humble origins showing that she grew up in Constantinople while her father grew rich over time as he owned not an ordinary inn but a high-end one visited by court officials from the palace.
  • Before Romanos II and Theophano met and married in 956, Romanos was married as a child to Bertha of Italy who died in 949 and in fact there is an ivory carving which is said to depict Romanos II and Bertha.

Chapter II- Intrigue

  • In the novel, Patriarch Theophylact Lekapenos died in 958 as Basil II was already born before the accidental death of Theophylact, although it is accurate that Theophylact died ironically in riding accident as he was fond of horses but historically, he died in 956 and was not accidentally kicked to a rock by Romanos as shown here. This scene however could be in 956 as the birthdate of Basil in this novel could have been placed earlier.
  • There is a major inaccuracy here in the novel on the birth years of Basil II and Constantine VIII, although for Basil it was more or less accurate because he was born in 958 when his grandfather Constantine VII still ruled as emperor though the second son Constantine VIII was born in 960 when his father Romanos II was already the sole emperor whereas the novel says that Theophano gave birth to Constantine VIII while his grandfather who he was named after was still alive. It is also unclear if Theophano asked Nikephoros Phokas to be the godfather of her son Basil as shown here.
  • When Queen Olga of Kiev visited Constantinople, it is unclear whether Theophano was already around or not as Olga’s visit could have been before 956 but other sources place it at 957 which means she would have most likely met Theophano.
  • It is remains unlikely if Empress Helena who distrusted Theophano planned to poison and it is also unclear if Joseph Bringas actually revealed the plot to Theophano. At the same time, it is only rumored that Theophano poisoned Constantine VII in 959 as his death could have also been due to natural causes as weeks before his death, he was already bedridden.
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Romanos II banishes his mother and sisters in 959, Madrid Skylitzes
  • In reality, Empress Helena was not betrayed and imprisoned by Joseph Bringas wherein she was forced to commit suicide by poisoning herself, instead according to the choronicler at that time Theophanes Continuatus, when her son Romanos II became emperor in 959, she was banished with her 5 other daughters to a convent as Theophano convinced Romanos to do that while at the same time Romanos too purged the court of those disloyal to him and Joseph such as Basil Lekapenos. Helena after her husband’s death in 959 retired while she died in that convent in 961.

Chapter III- Sovereignty

  • Instead of accompanying Queen Olga to the lands of the Rus at the time of Constantine VII’s death in 959, Basil Lekapenos was joining the general John Tzimiskes in his campaigns against the Arabs in the eastern frontier.
  • The merciless genocide of the citizens of Crete in 961 as well as the sacking and massacre of the citizens of Aleppo in 962 both committed by Nikephoros Phokas were omitted from the novel and so were the battles against the Emir of Aleppo Sayf Al-Dawla in the east.
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Byzantines capture Aleppo from Sayf Al-Dawla, 962
  • Though the novel depicts Romanos II growing more and more distant from Theophano and their children, in reality they were still close that Romanos made his young son Basil his co-emperor in 960 and Constantine in 962, though Romanos indulging himself in all kinds of pleasures was known to have been a playboy. The proposed marriage between the general Marianos Argyros’ daughter and Romanos shown here is purely fictional as said by the creators in my interview with them.
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Anna Porphyrogenita, daughter of Romanos II and Theophano, born 2 days before Romanos II’s death (March 15, 963)
  • The death of Romanos II in 963 again was rumored to be done by Theophano but it is also possible that it was caused after returning from a long and tiring hunting expedition though it is highly possible too that it was caused by poisoning since Romanos was only 25 at his death and still healthy. In addition, Romanos and Theophano’s 3rd child Anna was born just 2 days (March 13) before Romanos’ death (March 15).  
  • The old general Marianos Argyros in fact tried to get John Tzimiskes to plot against the latter’s uncle Nikephoros Phokas but John refused. Instead of being killed by Nikephoros’ blade as seen in the novel, Marianos was killed by a platter thrown at him by a woman but also in the same coup of 963.
  • During Nikephoros’ coup of 963, his old father Bardas Phokas the Elder was still alive and possibly around 80 as Nikephoros was 51 when becoming emperor and it was Bardas that hid the young co-emperors Basil and Constantine in the Hagia Sophia when Joseph Bringas attempted to kill them but were spared through Basil Lekapenos’ mediation. Bardas however was omitted from the novel and had no appearance nor mention even.

Chapters IV- Disorder & V- Betrayal

  • In Nikephoros II’s reign, it is unclear if he gifted Theophano with exotic animals like a peacock but it is also clear that Nikephoros did not care for any other class of society but the army and that he even taxed the Church for his military campaigns but at the same time he was a pious Christian who with his friend Athanasios of Trebizond helped establish the Great Lavra Monastery of Mt. Athos in Greece by funding their construction, though Athanasios and Mt. Athos too were omitted from the novel. Despite Nikephoros’ brutality in battle and as an emperor, he is actually venerated as as saint in the Eastern Orthodox Church for defending Orthodoxy in war, his feast day is his day of death which is December 11. Instead of imposing heavy taxes particularly on poor farmers, Nikephoros also imposed them on rich landowners.
  • In the novel, the conspirators that joined John Tzimiskes in killing Nikephoros II were all real historical figures which included the disgraced general Michael Bourtzes, and the other generals Bardas Skleros and Anemas but in reality the 3 other conspirators were assassins hired by John and here in the novel the fellow conspirators were spared whereas in real history, John complied with Patriarch Polyeuctus’ terms and executed his fellow conspirators as well as banishing Theophano. To be legitimized as an emperor, John Tzimiskes married Romanos II’s sister Theodora and though John died in 976, it is not said when she died.

Suggestions, Sequel, and Conclusion    

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Though I would say this again that this graphic novel has done a great job in visualizing and making the forgotten history of Byzantium very relatable, there are still a few things that I noticed were missing and things that could have been improved on. First of all, the flaw I noticed most was when it came to character development and here I noticed that some characters like Romanos II, Leo Phokas, and even Nikephoros II Phokas did not have much character development and they went from seeming surely like the good guys to all of a sudden turning into power hungry villains in just a blink of an eye. Other than that, the drawings in my opinion were done pretty well in capturing emotion even though people I showed the comic to don’t really agree saying this style looks quite too cartoonish and unrealistic though this could be due to the fact the people I know are more used to the more detailed style of comics as seen with Marvel or DC. I also noticed that there were some interesting and important Byzantine history items and easter eggs left out such as locations in Constantinople such as the central square or the Forum of Constantine, the cisterns, aqueducts, the massive Theodosian land walls, as well as the the Byzantine beacon system of communication between the Themes of the empire and the forks which were commonly used in 10th century Byzantium when it came to eating and it also was in the 10th century when the Byzantines introduced the fork to the rest of Europe. Another thing too I’d like to suggest which could have improved the novel was to give more background to the Byzantine setting such as what the Themes or military provinces of the empire were being their version of what the Feudal system was to Western Europe, that it should also show a more realistic angle to history by showing the brutally real events such as Nikephoros Phokas’ massacre and sacking of Crete in 961 and Aleppo in 962 to give the story a true medieval feeling, and that it should have made more references to Byzantine emperors and events of the past such as Justinian I and his conquests or even better that it made some hints to the future of the Byzantine Empire like there could have been someone predicting the future of the empire such as it expanding even more under Basil II or someone foreseeing their eventual defeat to the Turks at Manzikert in 1071. However, at least there was one mention of great Byzantines of the past and this was seen in the part where Theophano gave birth to Basil II telling him that one day he will be as great as the past emperors Justinian I and Heraclius and true enough what she was saying was to be a foretelling of his future as Basil II would indeed be one of Byzantium’s greatest emperors. Also, I asked the creators about the beacon system which is one thing I also knew well about this era of Byzantium and why it was not included and here they replied saying they wished they included it but the novel was only 137 pages so there was no way to put it in especially since it was told through a woman being Theophano’s perspective. However, they said that they could include these missing items like the beacon system if they were to do a sequel of it. On the other hand, one scene that I was surprised to see appear in the novel was the Cappadocia trip showing the character of young Basil II growing up by practicing with a sword to be trained to be a warrior, which in fact is something Byzantine history fans like myself never got to see. Another thing I have to mention that I noticed in the novel was that it put too much attention to the Russian relationship with Byzantium more than it does with Byzantium’s relationship with the rest of Europe and the novel surely shows the Russian angle by focusing more on the Kievan Rus’ parallel story to Byzantium at this time rather than with let’s say showing parallels with Italy or France or the Holy Roman Empire but I would also think that the Russian angle was focused on more as a way to show that the Russian world was Byzantium’s spiritual successor after the empire’s fall in 1453. Now back to the 10th century setting, I would say it is a very interesting time not just for Byzantium but for the rest of the world too as this time also saw the birth of new kingdoms including the Holy Roman Empire, the medieval Kingdom of France and many other powers.

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Map of the Byzantine Empire’s beacons across Asia Minor (black and orange dots)

        

Now speaking about a sequel graphic novel to Theophano, I also asked the creators what they have in mind if they were to do one and they replied to me saying that the most possible sequel to it would be one set directly after this one focusing on the reign of John I Tzimiskes following Theophano’s exile in 969 and continuing up to the early reign of Basil II beginning 976, though this one as I could see would overlap a bit with this story except the creators said that if they were to do a sequel, they would tell it from someone else’s point of view and no longer Theophano’s so probably through the perspective of John I or Basil II and in fact it is already hinted in this novel that the story could continue with Basil II especially since it features his childhood and his path in growing up to become an emperor which we never really get so see when reading Byzantine history. For me, I’d think a graphic novel on Basil II would be an interesting spin especially since he is one of Byzantium’s greatest emperors and his reign was one of the most eventful being almost 50 years.

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

Now if the sequel were to be set directly after this novel, then there is a good chance that the beacon system and the forks would appear especially since it happened in the reign of John I Tzimiskes when his relative also named Theophano married the future Holy Roman emperor Otto II and introduced the fork to the rest of Europe, and possibkly this other Theophano could make a cameo appearance in the sequel. In addition to asking about a possible sequel, I also asked the creators if they interested to do the same kind of graphic novel but this time featuring some of the emperors of Byzantium which I find to be the most interesting and conflicting characters like Julian (r. 361-363), Zeno (r. 474-491), Justinian II (r. 685-695/ 705-711), Alexios I Komnenos (r. 1081-1118), Isaac II Angelos (r. 1185-1195), John III Vatatzes (r. 1222-1254), and Michael VIII Palaiologos (r. 1261-1282), they said that it would be quite difficult as there would be a need for a lot of research for these people, though they said Alexios I is a favorite of theirs too and a possible option for a graphic novel, and this could possibly even by a graphic novel of his life as told by his daughter Anna Komnene in her book The Alexiad.

Watch this to see the life and reign of Basil II (from Kings and Generals).

Anyway, I have now come to very end of this article which I thought would just be a quick review but at the end turned out to be a complete analysis of the whole graphic novel! For me, it was such a great experience reading and seeing the world of Byzantium come into color with such lively illustrations instead of just usually seeing these people as barely visible images in documents like the Madrid Skylitzes and not to mention the book was very well printed with very good quality pages and a very excellently designed book cover. When reading this novel, finally there was something that shows all these Byzantine characters I am familiar with and have grown fascinated with such as Constantine VII, Nikephoros II Phokas, John I Tzimiskes, and Theophano come to life and on the other hand, this novel had also done a great job in showing a lighter and more human side to someone history sees as an evil woman which is Theophano. Though I said the characters do not show much development, I still have to say you would still get invested in them but what I would say is the main highlight of the novel is how it brings scenes of Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire itself to life. Of course, the whole story isn’t overall perfect as it is in fact the first novel these creators made and true enough, they have done a pretty great job for their first novel in which now has a Greek version of it in the making! As for myself being a true Byzantine history fan, this book was surely a dream come true and even more, it was such a great honor to interview its creators who turn out to have a lot in common with me being both Byzantine history fans who have also taken a lot of inspiration from Kaldellis’ Cabinet of Byzantine Curiosities. Among both creators, it was really the illustrator Chrysa Sakel that I have had the great honor of getting to interview especially since she had set aside some time to answer my endless questions for 4 days and turns out that she had also taken a lot of inspiration from travelling to Constantinople (Istanbul) itself and she is surely someone who has had a fascination with Byzantine history especially when learning it all the way back in 5th grade which she said had been building up in her since then as I asked her if she had been into Byzantine history ever since she was young. Now it was quite a challenge to get to ask the creators some questions and required a lot of anticipation especially since when in the process of asking questions, there seemed to be no end for me as new questions kept popping up in my head and what was even more challenging was the wait for an answer thinking whether they would reply or not but at the end, I could say that I was able to do my part and ask everything I needed to and I would like to thank them for using some of their time for me and for giving me the chance as well for publishing this article of mine on their page and overall it was still a great experience to chat with the creators of the novel! Another challenging but exciting experience too was casting all the characters in the novel as it was actually really fun when reading the novel wherein I was already thinking of which actor or actress can be seen as this particular role but after doing this Byzantine casting, I have to say that since it was actually such a fun experience that I plan to do the same again in doing fan casting for other people in Byzantine history. Now back to the creators of the novel, I wish them luck for their future projects as I too would continue to do more projects as well whether they would be articles or films. Now for 2021, my biggest project as a Byzantine history blogger and fan is to do a 12-part series of what ifs in Byzantine history which will be a rewrite of events in Byzantine history wherein I would alter one story of a particular event per century beginning with the 4th century in which I will post very soon! Now this is all for this extremely long and special article on this very special and intriguing graphic novel Theophano: A Byzantine Tale in which I would like to say before finishing off that it gave me a good reason to kickstart the year well. Anyway, thank you all for reading and I hope you have taken a lot from this!   

The Byzantine Journey (2019-2020)- My Personal Story with byzantium, year end post

Posted by Powee Celdran

“In less than 2 years, I came from just thinking of Byzantium as some kind of interesting subject matter to the point that Byzantium has already become a part of me.” -Powee Celdran on Byzantium

The complete journey of my passion for Byzantium, My story as a Byzantine filmmaker, Lessons from Byzantium, What Byzantium means to me, Recommended readings and videos, thanks, and updates for 2021

WARNING: THIS IS AN EXTREMELY LONG ARTICLE !!

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I am now about to tell you all a story. A story of how one empire’s story could have so much of an impact on someone, and of course here I am going to recap not the history of Byzantium but my Byzantine history passion and my journey through it in the past 2 years despite living centuries apart from their time. Now I’ve come to my year-end post for this year 2020 and my belated Christmas gift for you all and instead of doing the usual very scholarly and informative stuff I have done so much of this past year and last year, I’m going to finish off the year with a lighter yet very long more personal post, basically talking about the story of my study journey through the fascinating world of the history of the Byzantine Empire by traveling to places and sitting in front of my computer screen or reading books about it at home. In this article, I just want to share with you all my thoughts on Byzantine history and the empire, how much Byzantium means to me, all my discoveries of the great story of this empire, and my complete journey of getting deeper into Byzantine history in the span of this whole 2-year period including all the materials I read, channels I watched, people I met along the way, and places I travelled to, but also I will use this article to tell you some behind the scenes of my posts and other Byzantine history related media I do such as my Lego Byzantine films in my channel No Budget Films, and also some recommended reading and videos for those who want to get into Byzantium, credits to those who have made my journey in the past 2 years possible, and updates for my Byzantine history posts next year. This article would not include any deep research, analysis, complete storytelling of Byzantium, or a massive load of photos like usual and will also seem to be very messy as it won’t be in any chronological form as the rest of all my articles, instead it’s just going to be me talking about Byzantine history in my own voice without going into so much detail anymore but will also be told using a lot of memes. It is also going to be about my thoughts and observations on the fascinating people, places, and stories in the world of Byzantium. If you’re looking for more information that I wrote on Byzantine history, the links to my other articles will be found as you read along the paragraphs. This article is going to be a very long one because it focuses on my entire journey and there is no way to shorten up Byzantine history since it is just so colorful; anyway it will begin with my story of what got me into Byzantium and how it evolved in me in the past 2 years. Of course, this article will be the article that sums up all my other articles and projects which will be linked here, as this one is basically all about the evolution of my Byzantine history story from when I just started out writing simple posts to the point where I have ended up writing complicated and unique articles going as far as making 60 pages, close to already making an entire book. So basically, to be honest I never actually studied a Byzantine history college course, rather I just first learned about it as part of my high school history subject but just studying a small part of it in school in fact got me so interested in it. Fast-forward to some years later, as I am in college taking up entrepreneurship which is a business course, I find a random Byzantine history book in my house and I start reading it out of curiosity as I started feeling interested in learning the story of Byzantium, and true enough I was so drawn to the book that I actually finished it and from then on, my thirst for knowledge in the world of Byzantium would never end and it still lives on in me almost 2 years after. It’s now almost 2 years since I read that book which is Byzantium; The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire by Judith Herrin, and after that I have read 5 more Byzantine history books and went non-stop searching online for Byzantine history content and discover a lot of new interesting channels and sites along the way where I would learn a lot more about the subject matter from comprehensive and scholarly podcasts including “The History of Byzantium” and “12 Byzantine Rulers” to fun and entertaining ones like Dovahhatty’s Unbiased History which has now become my favorite Youtube channel aside from my own of course. When starting out my Byzantine history journey in February of 2019, I only knew the basics of it, but in the almost 2-year span of the journey which goes up to this day, I can say I have discovered possibly 5 years’ worth of Byzantine history content and have done countless related projects including the whole genealogy of all the Byzantine emperors from beginning to end, travelled to the world’s top Byzantine destinations like Constantinople (Istanbul) and Ravenna, made 2 full films, a 3-part audio epic, and 3 short films with a Byzantine history setting using Legos. Then came 2020, I started the year deciding to continue with Byzantine history posts and was working on my biggest Byzantine era film War of the Sicilian Vespers, but the COVID-19 pandemic came, but it still did not stop me, in fact this entire year of just staying home has helped me in so many ways to make so much more out of my growing interest in Byzantium like new Byzantine content including more articles on this site and Lego films and I fact I have to thank Byzantium for helping survive these hard times of the pandemic by keeping me moving and not losing myself. Also in these trying times of 2020, I have also rediscovered Ancient Rome, which was my first passion before Byzantium and this way I was able to actually see both empires as the same as most of Byzantium’s systems and culture dates back to the Romans. Despite the hardships of 2020, this year on the positive side made me see how much Ancient Rome and Byzantium means to me and how much they still remain relevant to today’s world as no matter how long ago it was turns out people and situations still remain unchanged, also another positive side of 2020 is that it made my Roman-Byzantine history journey even more meaningful by discovering new content online especially the channel of Dovahhatty, which made me appreciate the history of Rome/ Byzantium even more and just a quick mention, I have some great news that Dovahhatty just released his first episode of his Byzantine Empire sequel series! Now if the COVID-19 pandemic had affected businesses and other industries, I can surely say it has not affected the world of Roman and Byzantine history, in fact I can say it has even made it grow more especially when people being at home would end up discovering new things. Lastly, to sum up my entire almost 2-year Byzantine journey, I went from seeing Byzantium as a mysterious side of history that is not given much attention to, to coming to the point of seeing Byzantium no longer as a myth and legend but already as pop culture material and mainstream history that I can very much relate with and more importantly see where all those stereotypes about Byzantium are wrong and that no matter how corrupt and scheming the Byzantine Empire was in history, they still have a very human side to them and are still relevant to today’s world. Back in early 2019, I barely knew the emperors of Byzantium or their whole history in order, and now at the last days of 2020 I have grown so close to it to the point that I can relate so much to the stories of the Byzantine emperors, get so excited when I hear discussions on Byzantine history, and in fact be so obsessed with it that I cannot even stop talking about it even if the topics being discussed are not even related, you will also get to know more about it as you continue reading. As 2020 comes to an end however, there are still some questions I can’t fully answer, especially how exactly Byzantium is the same old Roman Empire and how to exactly place that question in history, also where to mark the start of Byzantine history, and so much more which I will further discuss as you read along.   

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Byzantine Empire flag
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All my Byzantine reading materials in the past 2 years

Please like and follow my other social media sites:

WordPress travel blog site: Far and Away

Facebook page for Lego Byzantine films: No Budget Films: Making Unknown History Known

Deviant Art: Byzantium-blogger55

Byzantine content Instagram: ByzantiumTimeTraveller

Watch Dovahhatty’s Unbiased History: Byzantium IThe Eastern Empire here.

Watch this to get an intro to Byzantium through anime (from Hellenic History Series).

The Beginnings of my Byzantine Journey, my Commitment to Byzantium, and Travels in the Byzantine World

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As a kid, I have always been into ancient history especially Ancient Greece and Rome as well as Medieval and Renaissance Europe but I never really fully understood what Byzantium or the Byzantine Empire was, except that I only knew it in name. What first got me interested in Byzantium was playing the Assassin’s Creed Revelations game sometime in 2012 or 2013 and although this game is set in Ottoman era Constantinople between 1511 and 1512, it does show a Byzantine angle featuring some Byzantine characters, although its story more or less depicts the Byzantines as the villains namely the last Byzantine heir Manuel Palaiologos, but nevertheless I saw these mysterious Byzantine people, particularly soldiers shown in the game as interesting especially on their character designs. So basically, it was Assassin’s Creed Revelations which features both assassins Ezio and Altair that first got me interested in Byzantium, although the first thing about Byzantine history that I was interested in was their army including soldier units, armor, and weapons which I first saw when playing this Assassin’s Creed game making me so intrigued. At first I thought all Byzantine military units only looked like those in Assassin’s Creed but the funny thing was that when I searched online back then, there was a lot more to Byzantine soldiers and their armor than those shown in the game and in those shown in the game are not even very much accurate to the real Byzantine armor and weapons. Of course, back then, my other interest aside from playing the Assassin’s Creed games was first Ancient Greek then Ancient Roman history which I got interested in when learning it in history class at high school. Unlike many kids who find their history subjects boring, it was my favorite in high school and in my 2nd year in high school, I took up Roman history and even read the Ancient Roman classics like Livy and Tacitus and at this point in life when in high school, I had gotten so into Ancient Roman history all the way to the point of being so obsessed with it the way I am with Byzantium right now that I even watched the old hit miniseries I, Claudius over and over again, which got me even more fascinated in not just the warfare or basics of Ancient Rome but its culture as well since this miniseries does great in showing Ancient Roman culture in detail. Now here in this part of my high school life, I was so into Ancient Roman culture and history but not entirely as my focus on Ancient Rome back then was quite narrow only to the very much focused era in Roman history which was the rise of the empire from the 1st century BC to 1st century AD while I never really got into the history of Rome after the 2nd century and it was only this year that I did get into it. Then came my 3rd year in high school and my history lesson would change moving onto medieval history and this is where I would finally start learning about Byzantium in school. Byzantine history though would only be a very small fraction of my topics for the history subject as the whole year covered the entire history of the Middle Ages including the Dark Ages, Crusades, Hundred-Years’-War, and a lot of Church history which meant Byzantium had to be a part of it and true enough, the subject matter of Byzantine history was very short but still, it sparked something in me that I just could not resist getting fascinated by it.

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Even though my Byzantine history lessons in high school were very much basic, I still got to learn about Byzantium in a nutshell which was that they were the advanced civilization in the Middle Ages when the rest of Europe was in the dark and just by learning about it for the first time, I was already so amazed especially with its exceptional people like Emperor Justinian I the Great who already interested me so much when first reading about him especially on how he built the world’s greatest cathedral back then being the Hagia Sophia and how he set up a standard code of laws which is still relevant up to this day. Other things I learned in school about Byzantium that got me so drawn to it at first site was the topic of the Byzantine army and their Cataphracts, the elite Nordic Varangian Guard units, Byzantine art such as mosaics and frescoes, and technology you would have not believed existed back then such as a flamethrower known as Greek Fire used in ships. When finishing that year of high school in 2015, I already knew Byzantium would be the kind of history I’d like and want to continue learning more about, and it also happened at the same time in 2015 that I had already founded my Youtube channel No Budget Films and the first Lego film I made though was set in Ancient Rome which back then I still preferred over Byzantium and this first film was based on the episode of I, Claudius entitled Some Justice featuring the character of Claudius who later becomes Roman emperor and his brother Germanicus the war hero but the 2nd film I made which was also in 2015 had a Byzantine angle as I was already getting into Byzantium, though the film I made was a very loose version of the story of the 4th Crusade in 1204 wherein the Byzantine capital, Constantinople was sacked and captured by the Crusaders, although in this film, I told it through the perspective of the defending Byzantine soldiers. By 2015, I had already added Byzantine history to one of my historical interests as back then I was into other European history especially the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, but back then it was primarily Byzantine military stuff that was my interest there as it was also then when I did my first sketches of Byzantine military units with weapons as well as when I made my first article on this exact same site you are reading now based on these sketches I made. Time had passed however and more things started to interest me including film and actual pop culture like Star Wars but Assassin’s Creed still remained close to me and so did my interest in Byzantium and Ancient Rome but the strange thing is that between when I first started getting into Byzantium in 2015 and when I actually fully got into it in 2019, I never really bothered to study the history of Byzantium itself and rather just look up Byzantine travel destinations in the Balkans or Turkey and of course Byzantine armies, armor, and weapons as for the longest time I was really into historical arms and armor finding Byzantine arms and armor the most interesting of them all.

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Byzantine soldiers from Assassin’s Creed Revelations

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Greek Fire from AC Revelations

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Constantinople, Byzantine imperial capital
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Map of the Balkans today

As time passed, my interests also do the same going from one topic to another but deep inside, I still would not let go of my love for Ancient Rome and Byzantium even if I still did not know much yet about Byzantine history. Throughout 2016, 2017, and 2018 my interests kept on switching that I can’t even remember what I was actually in to, also this was a very challenging time in life as this was when I was unsure of what to do with my life, as this is when I first entered college (2017) going for a film course where I later did not feel was the right place for me making me shift to entrepreneurship after a year (2018) and this was when I also started seeing the world by travelling in a more realistic way and not as a child anymore, which also meant that I was getting more drawn into the history of these countries I went to. In 2017, before going to college, I had an 11-day trip in the Balkans moving from one city to another each day, sleeping in another location every night but no matter how tiring this trip was, I got to see a very new and undiscovered side of the world that has so much history which made me appreciate Byzantine as well as Ottoman history especially since that part of the world is rich in both Byzantine and Ottoman cultures. From 2017-2018, I had also become very interested in Europe in general, not only its history but geography, countries, cities, food, and languages that in my other blog site called Far and Away for my travel articles as well as my top 10s in travel destinations which although included Byzantine travel destinations too, you should check this site out as well. However in 2018, my long-time interest in Roman history sparked again for some reason which included re-discovering the old series I, Claudius again after 3 years, also the release of Assassin’s Creed Origins and later that year Assassin’s Creed Odyssey had also helped me return to my linking for Ancient Greece and Rome, the Byzantine angle would come in not so long after. Also in 2018, I went to Constantinople (Istanbul) for a second time (the last time being 2015) and in that 2018 trip though I wasn’t yet very particular in my historical interest that I was still open to see both the more dominant Ottoman side of the city and the hidden Byzantine secrets that are still around, considering that of course Ottoman history was more recent and that Constantinople was the Ottomans’ imperial capital too. Also, considering that Turkish and Greek are my all time favorite cuisines, there’s got to be some reason that I would like its history too since these cuisines have a lot to do with both the Ottomans and Byzantines before them, and although my liking for these kinds of cuisines could have also gotten me interested in the Ottoman world too, I already had a fascination for Byzantium but not so much knowledge of it. It also happened in 2018 that I joined this really informative and interesting Facebook group Roman and Byzantine History especially since it was Ancient Rome that was my one of my favorite subjects back then and Byzantine armies too but it was in this group when I started discovering more of Byzantium than Ancient Rome. Basically, I can thank this awesome Facebook group for first getting me into Byzantium as when I joined it in mid-2018, my knowledge of Byzantine history wasn’t as broad yet and I only came in for the content on Imperial Roman history, and only then did I find out that Byzantine history too was not different but in fact part of the story of the same old Roman Empire. Now going back exactly 2 years from now with 2018 ending, let me just tell you that I did not see it coming that in 3 months I would end up becoming so obsessed with Byzantium despite having already gone to the Balkans and Constantinople, at this point I was so focused on playing Assassin’s Creed Odyssey as well as with the other Assassins’ Creed games so my interests would keep shifting each day from Ancient Rome or Ancient Greece to the colonial age of the 17th to 18th centuries which a lot of other Assassin’s Creed games are set in too. At the beginning of 2019, my historical interests were still in Ancient Greece and Rome but again thanks to that group, I was starting to get more and more into the history of Byzantium seeing posts about certain emperors from the 6th century emperor Justinian I the Great to the powerful military emperors of the 10th century like Nikephoros II Phokas and Basil II as well as their cool advanced technology like Greek Fire. Now where my whole journey in the Byzantine world actually began wherein my unbroken fascination with Byzantium would begin is in this one February day of 2019. At this point, I have already been getting some new information about Byzantine history from that FB group and it just got me curious to learn about them and at the same time when I keep passing by the hallway of my house, I kept seeing the side of a gold book with the word “Byzantium” and due to all this curiosity on Byzantium being sparked in me due to all the Byzantine content in that FB group, I decided to give that book a try. This gold covered book was entitled Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire written by Judith Herrin and as I picked it up I scanned through all the chapters to see how the book was like, out of all the chapters to give a try reading it, I went for the one about Greek Fire since it was one of the the things that fascinated me about Byzantium ever since first getting into it back in 2015, and this was the extraordinary advanced super-weapon known as Greek Fire which was basically an ancient flamethrower that actually blew out fire operated by a mechanism in which after seeing it in Assassin’s Creed Revelations where you can actually get to operate it in the game got me so intrigued by it.

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Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire by Judith Herrin

When reading this Greek Fire chapter, there was no more going back as I did not only learn about what this Greek Fire was or how it was operated but this chapter told me more about it especially that this weapon was a well kept state secret so that the Byzantine would remain invincible to its enemies, considering that in their history that had so much foreign enemies. After finishing this chapter, I went back to the book again a few days later, this time to start from the beginning which was the origins of the Byzantine Empire which was of course the reign of the Roman emperor Constantine I the Great (r. 306-337), who founded the imperial capital Constantinople in the year 330. Of course, even before Constantine the Great, Constantinople already existed as the port of Byzantium which was founded all the way back by Greek colonists allegedly by a hero named Byzas in the 7th century BC but in all these centuries, this town had never been so important until Constantine I chose to make it the new Roman capital and it would prove to be the right move since it was built in a strategic location that was in literally in between 2 continents (Asia and Europe) and surrounded by water on 3 sides making it hard for enemies to attack especially since the small piece of land that spans the peninsula of the city could be easily walled and true enough in the early 5th century, the massive Theodosian Wall was built in to defend the land side of the city which was so effective that these massive land walls were never successfully breached until the final siege of the city by the Ottomans which was the actual fall of the Byzantine Empire in 1453 and even till this day, these walls still stand. First, I would think I’d soon enough stop reading this gold book after I read enough of what I wanted but I was wrong, every chapter was so interesting that I just kept reading although skipping some chapters especially those about the religious story of the empire despite it being so vital to Byzantine history as its subject matter seemed too intellectual for someone like who is not a real historian. Prior to reading this book, I already knew the basics of Byzantine history such as that it was the continuation of the Roman Empire, its foundation by Constantine the Great, it’s culture being a mix of Classical Greek and Roman with the Christian religion, its height of power at the reign of Justinian the Great in the 6th century, and of course the army. When reading this book, I would later discover a lot more, so no wonder I just kept reading and reading and from then on it was not only the Byzantine army’s soldiers, weapons, and armor that was my primary fascination with Byzantium but its contributions to our world from the legal code of Justinian I and the spread of Christianity to the people of Europe to smaller things like the introduction of the fork to the world during Byzantium’s golden age in the 10th century which I will talk about more later. This book also opened me up to so many possibilities in history which seemed like they could only be possible in Byzantium such as the mere fact of simple peasants becoming emperors which was the story of no other than Emperor Justinian I the Great and Basil I the Macedonian later on in the 9th century and this together with a lot of others is one of the sure reasons why Byzantine history is so interesting. It was at the end of March 2019 when I finished this book and true enough it had moved me so much especially seeing the story of how the Byzantine Empire evolved over the centuries and how tragic yet dramatic its end was when the Ottomans laid siege to Constantinople in 1453 with Byzantium’s last emperor Constantine XI Palaiologos personally leading his men to the end wherein he would die with his empire. This Byzantine history book by Judith Herrin may not be well organized in chronological form so it took me a while to understand the timeline of events and emperors in Byzantine history but this book more or less is a good introduction to the culture of Byzantium like a DK book or encyclopedia except with less pictures, and just to mention there is still no DK book purely about Byzantine history and I hope to see one in the future. Anyway, this book had in fact permanently opened me up to the world of Byzantium that from then on there was no going back so in the process of reading that book, I returned to writing articles on this site you are reading right now and from then it just went on an and on until this day. Prior to reading that book as well, after 2015 I have not written any content on this site since doing those Byzantine military figures sketches back then and in fact I thought I’d never write in this site again and rather only stick to doing travel articles for my other site which although had some Byzantine content in them but after almost 4 years of not updating this site, all of a sudden I returned again as my interest in Byzantium started and in late February of 2019, there was no going back as here I wrote the article 7 Reasons to be Interested in Byzantium for this site and from then on, I would go on and on writing here about Byzantium. Before rediscovering Byzantium in early 2019, I thought I would never write on this site again after only less than year writing in it (2015), but when this interest in Byzantium sparked in me again, I decided that this blog site would be revived and would only be usually committed to posts on Byzantine history with a few exceptions from time to time as this blog site needed to have some unique content. At this point in time, I have also been having quite a rough time which is too hard to explain so I wanted to look for some balance in life especially being in college with so much work and school pressure and true enough I did find that balance in Byzantine history when discovering this exact book at home. As I returned to write for this site again in early 2019 after almost 4 years, the new me began, I was then no longer the kid who only found Byzantium interesting because of its soldiers, arms, and armor, or the person who wrote about ranking travel destinations even if not actually going to them but a new person who was willing to get deeper and deeper to the history of Byzantium, its emperors, culture, military, and bizarre tales, fully committed to writing about Byzantine history based on newly discovered knowledge from books and online, here began me as the Byzantium Blogger.     

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The Byzantine Empire’s extents in 3 different periods
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1453, the final siege of Constantinople

I was so fascinated with this book “Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire” that I literally brought it with me wherever I went even if it look off but when I finished reading it in March of 2019, my world had completely changed as from then on there was no going back, my mind had been opened to the truly surprising and fascinating yet bloody and tragic story of the Byzantine Empire and once finished reading that book, I proceeded to write another article using the same title of the book which was basically my review on that book and all my learnings and new found discoveries of Byzantium from it and this is when my commitment to spreading the word of Byzantine history began. When reading this book, I saw that Byzantine history was just as fascinating as that of the history of Imperial Rome, England, or France, yet Byzantine history does not receive much attention as others like Ancient Greece and Rome or medieval England and France that I started realizing it especially since in that same FB group, there happened to be more posts on Ancient Rome than on Byzantium and more obviously that that there are no mainstream media or films set in the Byzantine era wherein there are a lot set in Medieval Europe or Ancient Greece or Rome, and lastly I also noticed why Byzantine history seems to be forgotten. Here I started questioning why and I also discovered that it was partly because after the Byzantine Empire fell to the Ottomans in 1453, Western Europe emerged as the new powers of England, France, Spain, and Portugal and they would be the ones to write history and these were more or less the same westerners that distrusted the Byzantines centuries ago seeing the Byzantine people as cowards and traitors during the time of the Crusades (11th-13th centuries) so with Byzantium falling and the west who never trusted them rising, Byzantium had become forgotten. Also, later on in the 18th century the great intellectuals of the era like the English historian Edward Gibbon would describe Byzantine history as nothing more but a time of corruption and decadence and the French philosopher Voltaire too had described the history of Byzantium as worthless and disgusting. However today, as we continue discovering more and more about history, Byzantium is actually becoming discovered more and seen for what it actually was and when I started writing my articles in 2019, I already made it my mission to put Byzantine history in the spotlight and hopefully make it seem more relatable than myth and even as mainstream history and pop culture. Anyway, in April of 2019 when already getting deeply into the world of Byzantium and being committed to bring it out into the world, I started out by continuing to do my articles on this site and even for a final project in one subject I had for school, I designed a Byzantine themed board game called Byzantium X which I hope that it gets pitched one day and give some attention to Byzantium. Although I finished reading my first book on Byzantium (the gold one), I still skipped some chapters especially on religion but some months later I got the chance to go back to that book and read some chapters I missed like the one about Byzantine icons and the movement of Iconoclasm in the 8th-9th centuries, an interesting yet dark and controversial period in Byzantine history. Anyway, since I already finished reading my first Byzantine history book in April of 2019, soon enough I got a new book which was a copy of A Cabinet of Byzantine Curiosities by the historian Anthony Kaldellis and I just have to say this book was the most interesting Byzantine reading material I read but also the most easy to read, especially if you are in the mood for a light read but at the same time wanting to get into Byzantium. It was when reading this book that I got particularly into the Byzantine emperors and got to know them in order when reading the back end of the book and based on all the trivia I learned on the emperors, I wrote a new article specifically on all the Emperors of Byzantium and basically all the weird trivia about them and their lives based on that new book I read from the first emperor of Byzantium being Constantine I the Great (306-337) and ending with the last one Constantine XI (1449-1453). As I started again writing for this site over here that you are reading, I already focused on promoting them by sharing my article on the Roman and Byzantine History FB group so that I get more viewers and even more, I went as far as actually having the first Byzantine articles I wrote shared on one of the most complete and informative Byzantine history Facebook pages being Great Eastern Roman Empire, although unfortunately this page had been hacked and possibly deleted later on in 2019, but despite it I still continued on with my articles and sharing them online.

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A Cabinet of Byzantine Curiosities by Anthony Kaldellis

Now reading this “Cabinet of Byzantine Curiosities”, I actually ended up doing several articles throughout 2019 based on selected chapters from the book which I found interesting and after the one on the emperors, I made one based on this book’s chapter on the forgotten but very interesting science and technology of Byzantium sometime in June of 2019 which was followed up by another one I made based on this book’s chapter of Byzantine crimes and punishments as well as medical practice. For me, it was the topic of Byzantine science and technology that truly intrigued me especially with their unique inventions and scientific discoveries and when finding out about all the cool Byzantine inventions such as Greek Fire both the one used in ships and the portable one, flaming grenades, advanced silk manufacturing, ship mills, a systematic beacon communication system and also that the idea of a spherical earth was also discovered by a Byzantine named Symeon Seth in the 11th century and that the basis of our calendar was also based on a model of the 14th century Byzantine scholar Nikephoros Gregoras made me even appreciate Byzantium even more especially since they were so enlightened as people that their inventions could even be admired up to this day. Also, the other chapter in this Cabinet of Curiosities book that interested me a lot was the one about foreign lands and people and how the Byzantines saw them and it was so interesting to see how the Byzantines saw far away lands like India and China so intriguing the same way how I see Byzantium today while this chapter also talked about how some Byzantine writers also had some strange views about other different people including Huns, barbarian Germanic peoples, Scandinavians, Slavs, Arabs, Persians, and in the later centuries western people like the Franks, Normans, Italians, Germans, and even English who the Byzantines saw as unrefined barbarians who don’t know how to live life while in return they saw the Byzantines as nothing more but the stereotypical effeminate schemers. Since I found the topic of foreign lands and people according to the Byzantines based on the chapter from the Cabinet of Curiosities book so interesting, I made 2 articles in July of 2019 on them which will be linked here too; the first one about the people of the east and neighbors according to the Byzantines and the next one about the western people according to the Byzantines. Following these 2 articles, I continued to do another one based on another chapter of this book which was about warfare and tactics in Byzantine history, which was what got me into Byzantium at the very beginning. This article I made which is The Art of War in the Byzantine World and this chapter was another very interesting one in the book especially since it talks about the true nature of the Byzantine Empire when fighting wars in which most of their emperors preferred using diplomacy to fight and used much smarter solutions like bribing their enemies’ neighbors to attack them or using spies to gain information on their enemies, and that when it came to fighting battles the Byzantine army turned out to be very disciplined that it was most important for them to stay in formation at all times. Another very interesting thing to learn about Byzantium was their use of the Theme System in administering their empire which was yet another great innovation of theirs wherein they organized their empire’s geography into smaller military provinces or Themes which actually proved to be effective ever since this system was formed in the 7th century when Byzantium was facing constant threats of the Arab invasions, and this system made it possible for the armies to be more mobile especially since armies were stationed not so far from each other and when one Theme was under attack, the army from the next one could easily come to their aid rather than marching all the way from the other side of the empire, and this Theme system indeed helped make the Byzantine Empire’s army structure a well organized one. In September of 2019, I made a whole article which is A Guide to the Byzantine Empire’s Themes on the Themes of the Byzantine Empire including the whole story of Theme System and a list of all the empire’s Themes and even more interesting how these Themes created new Themes over the centuries. I also got a copy of Streams of Gold, River of Blood by Anthony Kaldellis which is a more scholarly work of his compared to his Cabinet of Curiosities, and this book focuses on politics and warfare of the Byzantine Empire during their height of power from the 10th-11th centuries and sudden decline following it due to the rise of new foreign enemies like the Seljuk Turks, Pechenegs, and Normans; however, I never got the chance to fully read this book as it takes a lot of time and patience but hopefully soon I’ll get the chance to read it.

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Streams of Gold, Rivers of Blood by Anthony Kaldellis

As 2019 progressed, I also discovered an older but very informative 18-part Byzantine history podcast which is 12 Byzantine Rulers by Lars Brownworth which although was made 10 years earlier telling the history of Byzantium through 12 different emperors, and in fact I would keep listening to it on and on while in the car during traffic or travelling long hours that it got me so in to the lives and stories of the emperors that ruled Byzantium. Later on in 2019, listening to these podcasts over and over again got me so into the emperors that it made me decide to do an article again on the emperors of Byzantium and more about their personalities and how they reigned and this writing process was so long that I had to divide it into 3 parts which was my blog posts for October of 2019 which all 3 parts will be linked here too; part1- emperors from 330-867, part2- emperors from 867-1180, part3- emperors from 1180-1453. Then following these 3 posts on the reigns and personalities of the Byzantine emperors, I went back to doing another feature on another chapter of Cabinet of Curiosities and this article was on the natural disasters in Byzantine history and it was also good to know that Byzantium suffered many natural disasters including plagues, earthquakes, floods, tsunamis, fires, and more which makes their story even more inspiring surviving them all. Other than that, I already decided to go a bit more experimental later on in 2019 by doing some unique Byzantine articles like one that had to do with different states that formed out of Byzantium which I surprisingly discovered the Republic of Venice was one of them which began in the 8th century which is rather a long story while other kingdoms too like Serbia and Bulgaria were other states that were culturally built up by Byzantium and on this subject matter I made a 2 part-series on 15 states physically and culturally formed out of the Byzantine Empire; the first part being the 7 of them including the Western Roman Empire, Exarchates of Ravenna and Carthage, Venice, Cilician Armenia, Serbia, Bosnia, and the Bulgarian Empire wherein I also got interested in the story of medieval Serbia and Bulgaria; and the second part being the next 8 being other Byzantine breakaway states including the Crusaders’ Latin Empire based in Constantinople from 1204 to 1261, the temporary Byzantine Empire of Nicaea, the break-away Empire of Trebizond, the rebel Despotate of Epirus, Despotate of the Morea, Montferrat which was a small Italian state that at one point was ruled by a Byzantine imperial family member, the Genoese vassal state of Lesbos, and Moscow which can be considered Byzantium’s spiritual successor. Now when finishing off 2019, I then worte a very long article The 12 Turning Points in Byzantine History all based on what learned over the year about Byzantium and basically this article was my retelling of Byzantine history through 12 different major events in their history and it was here when writing this article that I truly learned what Byzantine history was all about which was that it was a story of continuous ups and downs and for this reason their empire actually lasted for over a thousand years. Not to mention for 2019, in almost all my articles I started by quoting a Byzantine history quote either from the age of Byzantium or what someone from a different time had to say about it, although by 2020 I slowly stopped using this style.

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Map of the aftermath of the Byzantine Empire after 1204

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Byzantium X board game, my own project

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Warfare in Byzantium

Not to mention, despite 2019 being the year that my Byzantine history passion started, it was also a very special year because all in one year I was able to travel to the greatest Byzantine destinations in the world first Ravenna, Italy and next to Constantinople itself, then I dedicated my film channel to Byzantine films, and my greatest project of the year was making literally the complete genealogy of all the Byzantine emperors from start to finish. In May of 2019, I would finally get my chance to see Ravenna in Italy itself, the capital of the short lived Western Roman Empire from 402 to the fall of Western Rome in 476 and even back in 2015 when I wasn’t so very much into Byzantium, I already knew about Ravenna and was so in awe only seeing pictures of it. Now in May of 2019, when going to Italy, this would be the first time when in travelling that my primary goal is to see Byzantine sites so in Rome instead of going to the main tourist attractions, cause obviously I’ve been to Rome a few other times before already so it was time to see new things so this time in Rome, I chose to go to a number of hidden churches which had hidden gems being the remains of Byzantine era mosaics decorating apses and walls despite these churches having evolved in architecture over the centuries but overall it is very interesting to see these churches in Rome having usually Baroque architecture but still remains of the past Byzantine era mosaics in them which is very thoughtful too of them to preserve their past even if these mosaics though are not entirely Byzantine but rather made by Byzantine artists in the 8th century that fled to Rome to pursue their work as making religious icons in Byzantium had been banned due to the emperors’ Iconoclast policies.

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Byzantine era mosaic found in Rome

Anyway, I have also done an article in my other site about these churches in Rome that feature some of the best Byzantine style mosaics though it would take so much time to remember the names of all these churches, also this article tells my experience seeing the Capitoline museum of Rome and its Ancient Roman finds. The highlight of this trip however was of course the hidden gem of Italy, Ravenna a city that is quite hard to imagine that it was once an imperial capital so many centuries ago especially now that it appears to be a sleepy town compared to so many historical Italian cities like Florence and Bologna as Ravenna’s gems are found inside its landmarks. Ravenna is also the kind of place that is hard to imagine it as an imperial center especially since it is located in an area hard to reach in a marshland but in the year 402 it was strategically moved to this location by the western emperor Honorius who may have screwed up in ruling his empire but at least he thought of this location as some place that could protect the imperial capital and it worked for a long time, although Ravenna was not impregnable as in 476, the Western Roman Empire died in Ravenna too as the barbarian general Odoacer marched through swamps into the city to overthrow the last western emperor Romulus Augustus.

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Ravenna, capital of the Western Roman Empire since 402

As for me, I have actually already been fascinated with and interested in going to Ravenna ever since I first got into Byzantium in 2015 and again when reading the gold Byzantium book which started my Byzantine journey in early 2019, there had indeed been a full chapter on Ravenna and the mosaics which also talks about the history of the city and its time under the Byzantines. It was in the same Italy trip of mine in May 2019 when I finally got my chance to go and see Ravenna and what it actually is and I have to say that it was not easy to get there as Ravenna itself is out of the way not in any main train route or highway in Italy, also no matter how impressive its mosaics are, it at least still seems to be a popular destination but still not as hyped as everything else in Italy around it and basically it is because of it being out of the way as of this day considering that it had been an important city first as the Western Roman Empire’s capital, the capital of Ostrogoth Italy, then the capital of Byzantine Italy’s Exarchate until its fall to the Lombards in the 8th century but it was only back then in the distant past when Ravenna was significant making one of those kind of places that had been something great long ago but had faded away after a certain point in time until it was rediscovered but on the positive, Ravenna losing its significance also helped preserved its gems, otherwise if it still stayed important, its old treasures would have been built over. As of this day, Ravenna is for me one of the world’s most unique places as it is one of the few places on earth that may look ordinary from the outside but so impressive from the inside especially with its ancient mosaics still intact. Now I have to admit that I was truly in awe seeing the mosaics in Ravenna and at first before going there I thought they would all be in one place but turns out there were actually 8 landmarks which are all UNESCO world heritage sites and in the single day I saw the city, I at least saw 6 out of the 8 and all were impressive. One of the most impressive was the mausoleum of the western Empress Galla Placidia which turns out to date back to the 5th century, also this happened to be the exact same place that has the famous blue ceiling mosaics that are one of the first search results when searching for Byzantine art. However, the best highlight of Ravenna was of course the main church itself, the Basilica of San Vitale which has what of course could be the most iconic of Byzantine mosaics, the panel of the 6th century Emperor Justinian I and his generals facing the panel of his wife Empress Theodora and court members, and even better was that the entire walls and even the small narrow spaces in the church were filled with colorful mosaics and though the mosaics may look one-dimensional compared to the lively Renaissance and Baroque paintings, this kind of style makes Byzantine art what it its, the kind of art that is supposed. to draw you in.

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Mosaics of the Galla Placidia Mausoleum

Though I only stayed in Ravenna for less than a day, I was so amazed with how much was actually put into everything and how skilled these people were especially in decorating everything with mosaics including the narrowest spaces and highest areas considering that they did not have the modern technology to do it. On the other hand, I also felt that my visit to Ravenna was not complete as I missed out on seeing the other 2 heritage sites such as the white marble Mausoleum of the Ostrogoth king Theodoric who ruled Ravenna before Justinian I’s eventual reconquest and the Church of Classe which has another iconic mosaic featuring the 7th century Byzantine emperor Constantine IV although this church had happened to be out of the way not in the city center but rather in the middle of a field. However it was more of the Classe Church that I was still more interested to see than King Theodoric’s Mausoleum and even till this day I still feel bad that I wasn’t able to see the Church of Classe and its mosaics but hopefully I do return to Ravenna some day to see it, not to mention I also felt bad that I did not get to see the country of San Marino too which was also so close to Ravenna. On the other hand, this short trip to Ravenna had also taught me as I mentioned earlier that some places may look generic at first site but if you look deeper they have so much more than what you see. Also, I also learned here in this short trip in Ravenna that it sometimes does not always help to get a guide because based on my experience here of having a guide in Ravenna, it could only help you in showing you the way around and telling you what exactly you see like in the mosaics but sometimes having a guide does not really work much especially if you are someone like me who wants to know more and more about the history and the hidden stories and sometimes they may only know the more basic things and I can surely prove my opinion here because it was only long after going to Ravenna when I learned the more interesting stories of the people that lived and ruled from there and all the weird things that happened in it such as the Empress Galla Placidia and her son Valentinian III who had turned out to be a bad ruler that murdered his competent and heroic general Flavius Aetius in Ravenna out of envy when in fact it was Aetius that was saving the empire or the other crazy story of the emperor Honorius prior to that who was relieved when finding out that the city of Rome had been attacked and not his chicken named Rome. Now I learned all these details on the history of Ravenna from other materials later on like history videos online and not from a guide touring me in Ravenna and these are one of the reasons why I wouldn’t really suggesting a guide but of course if you are just an ordinary tourist who is just interested in knowing about the basics of a place, then I would suggest having a guide but for a Byzantine history enthusiast like me, then it would not be very worth it to have a guide otherwise it would also feel awkward especially when a person like me would end up annoyingly non stop questioning the guide and feel like you know your history better than your guide, not to mention sometimes it is not also so reliable to have a guide especially since they could make things up about their city basing all their knowledge on local legends rather than proven historical facts. Now after having visited Ravenna, I can say that it is one place so underrated but worth visiting but why it still remains underrated is as I said because it is out of the way but more significantly because Italy is one country with just so much landmarks, cities, and destinations to see including 2 separate countries within it being the Vatican City and San Marino and Ravenna is only 1% of what’s there to see in Italy and that it would take a lifetime to see everything in Italy but the other thing I can say about Ravenna is that it is a very specialized place for people although for a lot it could just simply put them in awe when seeing the mosaics but for history fans like me, going to a hidden gem like Ravenna is a truly meaningful experience especially since you are actually steeping in the place where all those events in Byzantine history happened and this is possibly the best place to see Byzantine mosaics all the way back from the 6th century and earlier still intact. Lastly, this short one-day trip had indeed have such a huge impact on me that it had changed my way of travelling and seeing the world as from then on my travelling interest had been so narrowed down due to by obsession on Byzantium and the same can be said for my next trip which was to Constantinople itself later in 2019. Prior to my Ravenna trip of 2019, I was more open to see all kinds of historical destinations when travelling but this trip truly turned me around and I could already see it, like for example when I was in Bologna at the same time as my Ravenna trip and there I did not really care much when seeing the historical landmarks of Bologna even if they have a lot of historical value but since my historical interests has already been so narrowed down to Ancient Rome and Byzantium, seeing sites from Medieval or Renaissance Italy did not fascinate me as much unlike me before getting into Byzantium, when all parts of history fascinated me.

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Emperor Justinian I and his men mosaic, Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna
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Empress Theodora and her court mosaic, Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna

Read my article on the Ravenna mosaics here.

Now later on in 2019 I returned for a quick 2-day trip to the imperial capital Constantinople itself, and here my obsession with Byzantium having grown even more made me only want to see the Byzantine attractions of Istanbul despite the Ottoman attractions being obviously more dominant. In this Istanbul trip however, I had long planned it to be more focused on Byzantine era Constantinople and of course this would mean searching deep for them. In this 2-day trip in Istanbul I can say that I achieved what I wanted to do and in such as short time I had been able to see so much including the remains of the ancient palaces in the city center, the Hagia Sophia, and even all the way to the back of the city seeing the remains of the old imperial Blachernae Palace, and even more going as far as seeing the Princes’ Islands in the Marmara Sea, the exact same islands where Byzantine emperors were exiled to. Now previously I said it was not always worth it to have a guide but sometimes there are exceptions and in this case I was wrong as in this trip of mine in Constantinople, this is when I can say it was surely worth it having a guide especially since it helped in getting me actually a VIP entrance to the Hagia Sophia and other locations without falling in line and it surely helped having one especially in getting to know exactly where the old Byzantine landmarks once stood buried beneath this great city and without having a guide I would not know exactly where to located them as Istanbul’s map is a maze while in Ravenna it seems very easy to locate everything. For sure in this short trip of mine in Constantinople the highlight of course was the Hagia Sophia, the world’s largest and most impressive cathedral throughout the whole existence of Byzantium and even till this day 1,500 years after it was built it is still one of the world’s most impressive sites and it is such a surprise on how its still stands intact.

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Byzantine Hagia Sophia layout

When it comes to mosaics and art, I would say that the ones in Ravenna are more impressive to see but the ones in the Hagia Sophia have more story despite being so mixed up but the reason why the Hagia Sophia’s mosaics are like this is because there is so much history to them considering that this church had been through a time when icons had to be erased and afterwards restored, then from 1204 to 1261 was made into a Catholic Church by the Crusaders, and back again to a Byzantine Orthodox Church in 1261 until 1453 when it was converted into a mosque as the Ottomans took over and then centuries later into a museum and now becoming a mosque again. Although my visit to the Hagia Sophia last year wasn’t my first one as when I first went to Istanbul in 2015, I also went to the Hagia Sophia but I wasn’t so into it yet though when I went last year, it was my time to see it now as a Byzantine history enthusiast and not an ordinary tourist and when seeing the inside as a Byzantine enthusiast I spent a lot more time looking at every little detail such as the Byzantine emperors depicted in the mosaics. When being so into Byzantine history and knowing so much about it, it turns out to be such a great experience to actually see your favorite characters in history in the mosaics and know exactly who they are compared to just passing by the landmark and just being so impressed by it without actually knowing what it is you are actually seeing. Now all I can say about going to Constantinople (Istanbul) is that it is such a great experience especially if you are so into Byzantine history even though as of this day, Byzantium remains a distant past in Istanbul especially since it has been the Ottoman imperial capital afterwards for a very long time too but surely it is an interesting place because there has been no other city on earth that stands between two continents making it have such a rich mix in cultures, and no other city has been a capital not just for one but two empires and for all these reasons, Istanbul is surely one of a kind. Now I would also say that Istanbul for a lot would seem more or less like an exotic but very impressive and culturally rich destination that may also look so inconsistent especially since you would see ancient ruins next to Byzantine era church structures, next to Ottoman mosques but this inconsistency makes Istanbul ever more of an interesting place. However, for a Byzantine history lover like me, Istanbul means a lot more than just an interesting exotic and culturally diverse place but a the true great imperial city and for centuries people as far Sub-Saharan Africa and Scandinavia during the Byzantine era were in awe with it. In this trip in November of 2019, I would fully see Istanbul in a totally different light, but of course I have a lot more reasons to like Istanbul especially since Turkish is my favorite cuisine. Not to mention right before passing by Istanbul, I also travelled for one week in Russia which also makes a lot of sense to this story especially since Byzantine culture continued in Russia after 1453, although my journey in Russia would be a story for another time as it would be too long to put it here.

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The History of the Byzantine Empire by Radi Dikici

Another great highlight of this trip in Istanbul was getting a book which would be one of the best ones I read on Byzantine history and my go to book if want to know the stories of the emperors more, this one is The History of the Byzantine Empire written by the Turkish author Radi Dikici, and this book is actually a are one and of all places, I bought it in the museum shop of the ruins of the Blachernae Palace.

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The Hagia Sophia as a church in the Byzantine era 
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Byzantine era Constantinople

Read my article on Byzantine Constantinople, the Queen of Cities here.

Now again back to my Byzantine journey in 2019, something I still have to mention was this extra special of project of mine I did at home made in August between my trip to Ravenna (May) and Constantinople (November) and this extra special project was the complete Byzantine Imperial Genealogy. After doing some readings in the past months, it was the subject matter of the Byzantine emperors that had interested me a lot so soon enough I wanted to see if all these emperors were all related to each other in one way or another and what came out of it was not just a simple answer but a entire full large piece of paper wherein I actually managed to connect all the dots from the beginning to end of the story of the Byzantine Empire. Surely it was not easy to make all this especially since I went from start to end, from Constantine I to Constantine XI and when doing this complete genealogy, this is when I discovered that succession in the Byzantine Empire was very difficult unlike in other kingdoms like England or France and because of this in Byzantium’s 1,100 years of existing it had 15 different dynasties some only having 3 emperors such as the short-lived dynasty of Emperor Nikephoros I (802-813) and also succession in Byzantium was not as simple as father to son. This work of putting together this genealogy too took a lot of research by putting together all the family genealogies of all Byzantine imperial dynasties found in Wikipedia in which I had to systematically interpret but at the end I also discovered that in one way or another, all the imperial dynasties of Byzantium are actually connected to each other though very indirectly meaning that one dynasty would be related to another one with one family member of a dynasty no matter how far related would happen to be married to someone from the other dynasty. Now making this great project of this Byzantine genealogy would happen to be one of my best memories in my Byzantine journey and it was something so unexpected too. Even more unexpected was all the attention that was given to it when I completed it as I first only posted a picture of the whole genealogy to the Roman and Byzantine history FB group and in only a day it got so much reacts and mostly positive ones and to my surprise it was even posted in the page of Brilliant Byzantine Memes and I even felt like a star for that moment. True enough it was not only in these FB groups and sites where I received so much praise and attention but even among people I know in my college who were actually in awe when finding out I had done something just like that. I would say that this Byzantine genealogy is truly something I would remain proud of and one of the best moments of my Byzantine journey. On the other hand, I also had another special project wherein I painted my bathroom’s walls at home with Byzantine related art including the coat of arms of the imperial families and the my version of the mosaics of the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia in Ravenna.  

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My complete Byzantine imperial genealogy (August 2019)

Read this to know more about my Byzantine Genealogy Project.

The Byzantine Journey Continues through 2020

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Now came 2020, and this would be the first time I would be focused on one particular interest for 2 consecutive years which was of course Byzantium, although this year 2020 would be my year of rediscovering my old fascination which was Ancient Rome and expanding more on it in order to see it actually connect to Byzantium. At the beginning of 2020 I just took it easy and haven’t posted anything in this site until February but in January I already had a lot planned in mind, one of them was another ambitious project, the Lego Byzantine epic War of the Sicilian Vespers in which I have been writing its script in January. Another exciting thing that happened very early on this year was that finally there was some Byzantine history related content on Netflix which was the 6 episode documentary drama Rise of Empires: Ottoman and I have to say it was a good series and although its focus was more on the Ottoman story of the sultan Mehmed II and his conquest of Byzantine Constantinople in 1453, this series also did a good job in portraying the last remains of Byzantium and its last emperor Constantine XI, though only a few details of the events of 1453 were missed out on this series.

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Rise of Empires: Ottoman series

Now in February of this year, it would the first time for the year that I would post on this site and my first post was an article again on the emperors but this time more on their ethnic origins and mixes which is another interesting subject matter. As 2020 came in, all I could say is that my knowledge in Byzantium got wider and deeper and so did my articles get more and more insider and unique in topics compared to the previous year and again as 2020 came and my interest in Byzantium went on, Byzantium was now a lot more to me than impressive arms and armor, art, and architecture but its fascinating story and very colorful emperors. As I got to know the stories of Byzantium and its emperors more, I started discovering that almost all these emperors for 1,100 years all had colorful lives and personalities but the other thing that seemed to fascinate me most was that a lot of these Byzantine emperors have a lot of mixed blood or come from interesting parts of the world having different backgrounds as well. In this article I wrote which was the Ethnic Origins of the Byzantine Emperors, I had learned so many new things as I wrote it and this includes some new interesting things you would not really know such as that a lot of Byzantine emperors are either of Armenian descent or in its early days including Constantine I and Justinian I came from the Balkans, also I made a lot of new discoveries when making this and the most interest one also being that a lot of other emperors especially in the last years have so much mixed blood especially due to Byzantine emperors marrying royals from all over Europe, which was the interesting thing I learned here thus making Byzantium more of a rich melting pot of cultures. After writing this article, I did another one I also always wanted to write which was one on the many Sieges of Constantinople and after reading that History of the Byzantine Empire book which I got in Istanbul, I got intrigued to write about all the sieges Constantinople underwent especially since that book covering the whole history put a lot of emphasis on the sieges of Constantinople and when doing this article, what really got me so intrigued about the topic was that no matter how many times Constantinople in 1,100 years as the Byzantine imperial capital underwent a siege by a foreign enemy or in a civil war, it still stood and true enough Constantinople was attacked by as many different people as you can imagine from Goths, to Persians, to Arabs, to Bulgars, to Crusaders, to Turks, and even to fellow Byzantines, the city at most times stood unconquered except for that one time in 1204 when the Crusaders captured it but the fact that Constantinople’s walls proved able to withstand any siege for a thousand years until the invention of cannons was truly impressive. As for the rest of February and March, I focused on continuing my Byzantine journey by actually filming the script I wrote on the Sicilian Vespers story that I previously wrote which I will talk more about it later on. Anyway when March came, this is when everything turned around when COVID-19 turned into a pandemic and things all went upside-down especially with the lockdowns ongoing, although at first I was very nervous about it but at the same time, the lockdown would give me more time to discover more and more about Byzantine history especially since I would just be at home for the next 2 months. In March with the pandemic already happening, I decided to make an article that will fit well with the current situation so I made one talking about the pandemics in Byzantine history and here again I made another interesting discovery about the Byzantine Empire which was that in its 1,100 year existence it went through 2 major pandemics first was the Plague of Justinian in 542 and the next was the Black Death in 1347 which was the Black Death plague of the 14th century which had been one of the reasons for the collapse of Byzantium but it’s still impressive that the empire still lived on till then.

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The Plague of Justinian in Constantinople,

In addition I also included a mention on the Antonine Plague of the 2nd century in this article thus making it the first time I would include stories of Ancient Rome in my Byzantine articles and here I would start seeing the continuity between empires. Following this article on the pandemics of history, I proceeded to write another one which was more personal and talking about my experience during the lockdown and my thoughts on it relating it to stories in Byzantium and when writing both these articles first about the plagues and next about isolation in the Byzantine era in relation with the current quarantine period; here was when I started seeing how much Byzantine history is still relevant up to this day especially since pandemics like this one right now is nothing new as the Byzantines in their time had it worse by having 5-10,000 deaths a day in Constantinople alone due to the plague and ideas right now like social distancing and isolation was also present back then and interestingly some Byzantine people were masters of social distancing like the stylite saints of the 5th century who spent their whole lives above columns to stay away from everyone to achieve a more spiritual life, also I did this article on my thoughts on quarantine wherein I was greatly bothered by the thought of being confined to a small space which however wasn’t so small but I was also trying to show that I wasn’t alone here and people also back then in the Byzantine era even emperors suffered the same thing especially when they were deposed by their enemies and were forced to be stay in a tight monastery for years sometimes even till death as a punishment being deprived of all the luxuries they had in their time as emperor and so far the most impactful story of these emperors who were forced into isolation for years was that of the young boy ruler John IV Laskaris who in 1261 was blinded and deposed and for an entire 29 years he was locked up in a prison tower alone basically growing up there as he was deposed and imprisoned as a child and was released already fully grown up.

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St. Simeon the Stylite of 5th century Byzantium, champion of social distancing

With quarantine time continuing, I moved on to work on my grand project of the year which was editing the Byzantine era Sicilian Vespers movie and continuing to do more articles too. In the long days of quarantine, I also ended up rediscovering the history of Ancient Rome which happened when I rediscovered books at home about the Roman Empire and started watching more videos online about Roman history and this time around May of 2020 is when I first discovered the channel of Dovahhatty which would then be my favorite channel. At this time, I would end up making 3 long articles comparing everything the Roman Empire and its successor the Byzantine Empire had; the first one about the Roman army structure comparing it to that of the Byzantines after them, the second one about the Roman imperial system and succession and comparing it to that of the Byzantines after them, and the third one about the culture of the Romans and comparing it to the Byzantines after them and it may have seemed to be a bit strange that I was comparing the same empire to itself as Byzantium was in fact the Roman Empire continued.

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Crossover flag of the Roman and Byzantine Empires

When doing this 3-part series I also had learned a lot especially that even though the Byzantine Empire was different in name and location from Rome, it was not only the successor of Imperial Rome but Imperial Rome itself evolved as Byzantium basically took on the same structures of the Roman army just changing it over time adapting to the current situations they were in by updating tactics, weapons, and armor, continuing the same system of emperors ruling the empire which had been founded by Augustus Caesar replacing the old Roman Republic except that over the centuries the imperial system kept evolving more and more becoming more and more autocratic at the time of Byzantium, and lastly when it came to culture Byzantium basically just took on almost everything established by Ancient Rome but added Christian elements replacing the old Pagan ones.

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Roman and Byzantine emperors from the Balkans
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Map of the spread of the Black Death across Europe

2020 may have not been a year full of adventure and excitement with no major travel to a place with Byzantine history but it was nevertheless a meaningful one in my Byzantine journey and due to fact of being at home more, 2020 made me discover so many new things about Ancient Rome and Byzantium therefore making me think about it and analyze it even more and for this reason, this made my articles even more scholarly and informative. It was here in 2020 when I had been so drawn to the channel of Dovahhatty even if I only started following it 4 episodes before the finale of the Roman Empire story came out and because of this, my interest in Ancient Rome was revived and to make it more worth it, I decided to make articles which involve it together with Byzantium which I still continued liking. This year I also made 2 lighter articles to read which would now include both Byzantium and Imperial Rome before it and the first of these was one I did last June about Women in Imperial Rome and Byzantium and it was such an interesting topic especially on how women in the imperial families played such a big role in shaping the empire such as when a powerful woman is behind her emperor husband, son, or brother and in July I then did an easier to do article on Cuisine in Ancient Rome and Byzantium which was another interesting topic finding out the food people ate back then. Then came August, and here I decided to do another major project which was an article on the whole history of Byzantium from the 4th to 15th centuries comparing it side by side to the events all over the world. Doing this article was such a great challenge especially since I was going to summarize world history in general wherein I wasn’t so familiar with history of other parts of the world as this article included not just Byzantine or Medieval European history but events in all the centuries between the 4th and 15th everywhere including the Americas and Africa and it was indeed such a challenge that it would be divided into 2 parts, the first part featuring the history Byzantium told side-by-side with events all over the world from the year 300 to 1000 and the second part featuring events in the history of Byzantium side-by-side with those all over the world from 1000 to the fall of Byzantium in 1453.

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Coronation of a Byzantine emperor

When doing this 2-part series last August, I was so impressed when studying Byzantine history from beginning to end side-by-side with events all over the world especially since the Byzantine Empire lived for so long that so many other kingdoms rose and fell throughout Byzantium’s existence. As of 2019 my biggest Byzantine project was doing the complete genealogy of all the emperors and making a full article about while for 2020 it was this article of telling the entire story of Byzantium side-by-side with all the events happening around the world in its entire 1,100 year existence and when finishing it I was so exhausted with all the work and all the information in my head so for the whole of September, I just took it easy and did not post anything new on this site. It was in October when I returned to writing here again and here I would do another 2-part series which would be about something new I had just learned which was that there were many emperors that you did not know about in the whole history of the Roman Empire and Byzantium especially since there were a lot of usurpers and rival emperors in the entire history from the founding of the Roman Empire by Augustus in 27BC to the fall of Byzantium in 1453 so I decided to make an article that will focus on these named of people who could have possibly ruled the Roman and Byzantine Empires and it was again such a long list that I had to divide it into 2 parts again, the first one of the names of possible Roman emperors from the birth of the Roman Empire to the end of the first Byzantine era in the late 7th century, and the second part on the names of possible Byzantine emperors and rival emperors from where I left off in the late 7th century ending with the fall of Byzantium in 1453. Again after doing this great project in October, I took another break from writing and in November I basically took it easy for most of the month until later on in the months when I would do a stand-alone experimental article on the story of the 4 Defenestrations of Prague just for a change of scene and also because this was the exact same new topic that the channel Dovahhatty did a feature on so as a big fan of the channel I wanted to the same in making a stand-alone article about the 4 different Defenestrations of Prague or the throwing of people off a window which happened in Prague 4 times from the 15th to 20th centuries which I thought of as a very interesting topic.

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1618 Defenestration of Prague

Now in December of this year I would go back to doing my usual Roman and Byzantine posts and this one would be the topic I was long planning to do this entire year ever since finally fully understanding Roman history and its connection to Byzantium and this one would be the article where I would be comparing the stories of the decline and fall of Imperial Rome and its successor the Byzantine Empire. For me it was so interesting to see that even though both were the same empire more or less, centuries after the fall of Western Rome the same kind of circumstances and same kinds of emperors happened for Eastern Rome or Byzantium and this truly shows how history does repeat itself. Writing this article too was also such a challenge that needed so much research and so much fact checking that it had to be divided into 2 parts again so how I did it was that I made the first part focus on comparing the similarities and differences between the decline of the old Roman Empire with the 3rd Century Crisis and short revival afterwards together with its emperors compared to the decline of Byzantium in the 11th century and short revival afterwards while the second part was to compare the fall of the Western Roman Empire from the 4th to 5th centuries and its emperors to the fall of Byzantium from the 13th to 15th centuries. At the end, I can say it was such a challenge to write both parts with the second article going up to 60 pages but it was still worth it since I ended the year doing the article I long planned to do no matter how messy it was when I wrote it. Now as 2020 ends, the greatest lesson I learned when writing both about Ancient Rome and Byzantium together was that I now no longer see them as 2 different empires but instead the same which is why I ended up including both the stories of Ancient Rome and Byzantium in my articles.

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Map of the Roman Empire (red) under Claudius II in the 3rd Century Crisis, remains of the Gallic Empire (green) and the Palmyrene Empire (yellow)
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The Byzantine Empire (purple) in 1450

Bringing Byzantium into Film

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Ever since I got into Byzantine history in early 2019 as I already mentioned, I was already intent on wanting to introduce all my discoveries about the strange but interesting story of Byzantium out into the world and what better way to do this than through films and I mean videos on Youtube that actually tell a story using Lego characters. This section is now going to be a recap of my journey in making Byzantine era films, although it will be too long to go into so much detail analyzing all my films so I will just briefly mention what these films were and why I chose to do them, if you want to know more details about my films just subscribe to my channel No Budget Films and watch them there. Ever since 2015 I have already been doing Lego films for my Youtube channel and in fact my second film in early 2015 was set in Byzantium covering the story of the 4th Crusade and the attack on Constantinople by the Crusaders in Lego which was a film with same name The 4th Crusade, although back then making Byzantine era films wasn’t my main focus in doing Lego films despite making one all the way back in 2015 and a spin-off story to it in 2017 which was the short narrative style film Louis de Blois: The Hidden History of the Crusade which tells the story of the 4th Crusade and attack of Constantinople in 1204 through the perspective of the leading Crusader general, the Frenchman Louis de Blois who happened to be the story’s wealth and adventure obsessed villain.

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No Budget Films logo

Although I made 2 Lego films set in the Byzantine era in 2015 and 2017, the Lego films I have been making for my channel from 2015 to 2018 were all either set in 1st century Imperial Rome featuring historical characters I have already made such a strong connection with like Emperor Claudius I, Germanicus, and Agrippina the Elder and their stories or Lego films set in the world of George Orwell’s novel 1984 in which I even expanded on making my own fan-fiction universe to the novel by making it an entire Lego film trilogy plus a spin-off film in 2017 and a prequel 6 episode miniseries in 2018. However in 2018 I had completed the entire story of my fan-fiction 1984 universe and the Roman Empire setting of my films as well so with 2018 over, I did not know what films to produce next so I did not make any new content for my channel until May of 2019 when I had fully gotten into the history of Byzantium. Now since I had fully gotten into the world of Byzantine history in the first half of 2019, I also decided that I wanted to return to doing Lego films and this time focus them on Byzantium. With the 1984 and 1st century Roman Empire story of my films finished, it was time to start all over again but not in a literal way because fortunately as I said I already had some films set in the Byzantine era before but unlike my Roman Empire and 1984 films, those ones that I had set in the Byzantine timeline were left out but since I had just finished telling the story of my Roman Empire and 1984 timelines by 2019, it was about time I finally put some attention to expanding my channel’s Byzantine and Crusades era timeline. Now when returning to doing Lego films in 2019 which would be set in the Byzantine timeline, I chose to now make my upcoming films all set in the Byzantine era thus using the subtitle “A Byzantine Epic” for all these films and in May of 2019 the first Byzantine epic centered on the story of Byzantium however this one was not set in the usual 4th Crusade era as the 2 others I did before in 2015 and 2017, instead this one was to be set almost 3 centuries before it in 10th century Byzantium. Not to mention, when I made my first Byzantine era film in 2015, I created a large Constantinople background and after that film, all my Byzantine era films after that would all use that Constantinople background drawing. This new Lego short film I made was The Rise of Phokas: A Byzantine Epic as in that time I was interested in the era of Byzantium’s golden age of military power in the 10th century so here I chose to do a short film on my favorite Byzantine character of that era which was the brilliant general turned emperor Nikephoros II Phokas and this short film featured the story of his rise to power from general to emperor as he wins a decisive victory over the Arabs at Aleppo followed by his coronation as emperor after he rides with great speed to Constantinople to claim the throne in order to protect the young imperial heirs Basil II and Constantine VIII and stop civil war from happening. Although this short film had just happened to be a stand-alone piece except having a quick 1-minute follow up sequel Killing a Byzantine Emperor in July of 2019 which was a quick skit of the death of Nikephoros II in his sleep in 969 assassinated by his own nephew who became the next emperor John I Tzimiskes. However even if I made one film in 10th century Byzantium with a short sequel skit to it, I did not continue with this timeline in Byzantine history but I still went on in expanding my channel’s Byzantine universe but instead of continuing the story of Nikephoros II and the Macedonian Dynasty or doing a more popular time in Byzantine history like the reign of Justinian I in the 6th century or the Arab wars in the 7th and 8th centuries, I chose to go back to where I started doing Byzantine films which was the 4th Crusade setting and my goal was to expand on the story I already made of the 4th Crusade in Lego by coming up with a sequel story to the 4th Crusade which would be another story in the history of Byzantium that truly fascinated me, which was the Byzantine reconquest from the Crusaders in 1261. Before getting fully into Byzantium in 2019, I already knew that when Constantinople fell to the Crusaders in 1204, it one day returned to Byzantine rule but only when reading the history did I find out that Constantinople was surprisingly taken back by the Byzantine remnant empire of Nicaea in one night in July of 1261, but of course over the 57 years that Byzantium disappeared, the Byzantines at Nicaea expanded more and more to the point that they were able to surround Constantinople and easily take it back from the Latins who never ruled Constantinople effectively anyway. This story had inspired me so much that I did a lot of research and in June to July of 2019 after coming back from that same trip that included Ravenna, I finished writing the script for that movie and began filming an all new Lego film with an all new set of characters including one character I grew so intrigued by that I would end up putting a lot of attention to him and this character was of course the ruler that carried out Constantinople’s 1261 reconquest from the Latins which was Michael VIII Palaiologos. Other than Emperor Nikephoros II Phokas this emperor Michael VIII turned to be more of an interesting figure for me as he was a very complex character who was a strong military man but also a very cunning yet scheming diplomat and politician while Nikephoros II was just the strong soldier emperor although I would get more interested in Michael VIII’s story as I progressed through my Byzantine journey when continuing to do my films. This film I am talking about here which is Summer of 1261: A Byzantine Epic came out in September of 2019 and this was the first full feature film I did using real historical charatcers in the Byzantine Empire with Michael VIII as the lead character with other real historical supporting characters too like Michael’s top general Alexios Strategopoulos, the last Latin emperor Baldwin II, and the young boy emperor of Nicaea John IV Laskaris, though this film focused this time on Michael VIII’s rise to power but at the same time I also intended this film to be more of an action packed epic and the end result was what is, an action-packed story with less drama and philosophy, although it had a number of historical inaccuracies too. After making this film, I really did know whether I would continue expanding my channel’s Byzantine timeline or just end there but true enough eventually I decided to continue considering that this Summer of 1261 film became one of my more successful films and also because after doing that film, I continued to research more on Michael VIII and he turned out to be such an interesting ruler who was at times a scheming murderous villain and at times just an emperor with a great vision  but was at the same time very troubled and again reading the History of the Byzantine Empire book I bought in Istanbul, it opened me up more to the story of Emperor Michael VIII’s reign making me decide to continue the story by making a very epic sequel film to Summer of 1261 in 2020 which would be War of the Sicilian Vespers: A Byzantine Epic set 21 years after it and this happened to be my most ambitious project so far in my history of making Lego films as the end result was a 47-minute long Lego epic with a voice cast having over 28 voice actors and a large cast of characters as true enough this was the concluding chapter to the story of the 13th century’s bitter Byzantine-Latin conflict but for me I would say the most impressive thing about this film was that I actually managed to produce it during the COVID-19 pandemic and succeeded in actually finishing it despite all the obstacles. Unlike its prequel Summer of 1261, the Sicilian Vespers was something more than an action packed Lego epic but rather something with a lot of depth but a lot of action too as this film set in 1282 was for one supposed to show Michael VIII now an old man as a very complex emperor who was not after all evil but rather just conflicted and also supposed to show that Michael VIII as emperor only cared for his empire’s survival and would do anything for it even if it meant giving up the proud Orthodox faith of his people especially since he was faced with an evil and deadly enemy who had a lot of similarities to him, the French king of Sicily Charles of Anjou, while this film was also made to not just show the Byzantines’ side or the side of only the rulers and generals but of the common people too such as the Sicilians’ side as they are rebelling against the oppressive French rule over their land, but at the same time this film also included the classic story arc of a film featuring a young protagonist and his journey to achieve his goal and here it was the story of Michael VIII’s young son and heir Andronikos’ journey in becoming the next emperor. This film though was very much loosely based on historical characters and settings and had a few fictional elements added to it but its plot-line however was to be almost accurate to the real historical story except with more emphasis on battles but its climax was the same as that of the real story in history as also in the film, in the year 1282, Michael VIII indirectly took part in helping the rebellion of the Sicilian Vespers succeed by bribing off local lords to lead a full resistance against their French overlords which was to benefit Byzantium too by getting the French farther away from attacking them. 

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The No Budget Films Byzantine era timeline of its films and other media
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Constantinople background drawing for No Budget Films’ Byzantine films (created 2015)
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No Budget Films’ “Louis de Blois: The Hidden History of the Crusade” poster (2017)
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No Budget Films’ “The Rise of Phokas: A Byzantine Epic” poster (2019)
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No Budget Films’ “Summer of 1261: A Byzantine Epic” movie poster (2019)
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No Budget Films’ “War of the Sicilian Vespers: A Byzantine Epic” movie poster (2020)

Read this to get to know more about my War of the Sicilian Vespers: A Byzantine Epic film.

Following the creation of my most ambitious Lego film project War of the Sicilian Vespers, I did a full article too on the behind-the-scenes and historical facts about the movie and indeed even after making this full length film, it was still not over yet that even for a school project for one of my college subjects despite having the class online, I used the same Lego Byzantine characters like Michael VIII for it. The Sicilian Vespers film was true enough not the end but for me it was actually quite a tiring job to produce an actual film where I have to film all the Lego characters in action for several days so to follow up on making more Byzantine era media for my channel, I decided to later on do something else, this time to tell the story through an audio epic with myself narrating the story. After finishing doing Lego films on the 4th Crusade, the Reconquest of Constantinople in 1261, and the final chapter of the Byzantine-Latin conflict of the Sicilian Vespers in 1282, there was one part of the story still missing which would be the 57 years between 1204 and 1261 and though making this period a full Lego series was an option I realized it would be too difficult to do especially since I would have to film the entire 57 years thus having to produce possibly 10 or even 15 episodes and not to mention I would have to do the whole long process of getting people to voice over the characters and considering there would be so many characters and locations in this 57 year period to create, it would be too much of a hassle to do so I thought of a better solution. The solution was to just narrate the entire story of this entire period to be accompanied by visuals featuring Lego characters and other Byzantine character drawings from other online artists to represent the characters of this age as I tell the story as the narrator.

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Empire of Nicaea flag (1204-1261)

When doing this audio-visual Byzantine epic story of the years between 1204 and 1261, I have already been introduced to this kind of video making style by Dovahhatty’s Unbiased History of Rome so these videos served as my inspiration for doing this 3-part audio epic. Now in this 3-part audio epic I made beginning in October of this year, my whole purpose for this was to expand my channel’s universe by telling the stories of all the events and people in the time the Byzantine Empire was exiled as the Empire of Nicaea as the Crusaders took over Constantinople from 1204 to 1261 and since the story was so long, I divided it into 3 parts and by selecting the links here you can watch all of them. The first part of the series covers the entire story of the aftermath of the fall of Constantinople to the 4th Crusade in 1204 as well as the rebuilding of the Byzantine Empire as the Empire of Nicaea by the emperor Theodore I Laskaris all while the Crusaders’ Latin Empire turned out to fail, the second part covered up the events from 1222 to 1253 covering the resurgence of Byzantine rule through the Empire of Nicaea led by its most successful emperor John III Doukas Vatatzes who managed to defeat and weaken most of his enemies to pave the way for the eventual reconquest of Constantinople, and the third and final part of the series covered up the last 7 years before the eventual Byzantine reconquest of 1261 featuring a bitter rivalry in the successful Empire of Nicaea between John III’s scholarly yet arrogant and opinionated son and successor Emperor Theodore II and his long-time rival the thuggish and scheming general Michael Palaiologos which of course ends with Michael Palaiologos winning, Theodore II poisoned to death, and Constantinople reconquered in 1261 under Michael’s rule.

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Latin Empire seal, 1204-1261

The episodes of this audio epic were released between October and December of this year but just recently to finish off this year, I produced one last Byzantine era short film being The Imperial Epilogue, which is basically a follow-up ending sequence to this year’s highlight film War of the Sicilian Vespers and this epilogue film was basically just a quick way to explain the end story of Michael VIII’s son and successor Andronikos II who was the Sicilian Vespers movie’s hero and in this epilogue film which is set some 38 years after the Sicilian Vespers film, Andronikos II is the main focus of it now showing him as an old man who happened to be a failure as an emperor who has to endure a 7-year civil war against his grandson also named Andronikos who had rebelled against him ending with Andronikos II deposed in 1328 and his grandson taking over vowing to restore the ruins of his empire which is indeed a true story. Now when doing all these Byzantine films and audio epics, I had come to realize that I also had a real purpose in making them which was to shed some light on this mysterious side of history and more particularly shed some light on the lesser known parts of Byzantine history especially the 13th century which was one of the most crucial eras in Byzantine history especially since this was when the decline and fall began due to the conquest of the 4th Crusade but this was also when Byzantium’s awareness as a Greek nation was born which sparked in the time they were exiled as the Empire of Nicaea. Many others who are familiar with Byzantium would have characters like Emperor Justinian the Great or Basil II the Bulgar-Slayer or even Nikephoros II Phokas in mind when thinking of the Byzantine Empire and possible film for it but what I wanted to do was to raise more awareness on the hidden gems of the Byzantine Empire such as the story of the Palaiologos emperors like Michael VIII and for this reason I chose to build up more on his story than that of Nikephoros II but also because I already did a few one set in the 4th Crusade timeline before so I wanted to continue expanding on it and that the stories of Byzantium’s Palaiologos emperors shows a lot more of a human side to the rulers of Byzantium.

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Michael VIII Palaiologos in 1261 Lego figure

Also when making these Byzantine films and audio epics, my objective is to not make them like the Byzantine history podcasts and documentaries which are just plainly informative but don’t get me wrong too because I surely learned a lot from listening to them and watching them but in my channel I wanted to make something that modern day audiences from young children to grandparents could relate to and this sense make it something like pop culture material so in order to do this kind of style, first of all I used Lego characters to represent these historical figures to make them more human and relatable and also rather than using the old fashioned formal English language and accents that most medieval or other period films use, I chose to make mine instead use the modern English language and words we normally use and have some fun by experimenting on even using modern music and different accents for characters thus making characters like Nikephoros II Phokas talk in an American Southern accent and the general Alexios Strategopoulos have a Scouse English accents even if they seemed far from how these historical figures spoke. Also to make my Byzantine films have this pop culture element, I also put a lot easter eggs in them which could be famous Byzantine artworks or portraits of emperors in their time used for props or even references to the other films I made from before such as those in the 1984 or Roman Empire setting and by doing this, this is also my way of making all my films connect with each other, at same time even adding easter eggs from other pop culture areas like Star Wars as well. Anyway, by making my films have an experimental side to it just for fun is basically how I want to make them entertaining for viewers in order to get it some more attention, and it is for this reason why Dovahhatty’s Unbiased History videos are popular and before I finish this part, I have to say that I am actually surprised that in only just less than 2 years, the Byzantine era films in my channel happen to be even more successful in views than the ones I made before that. Now since I have done my part in bringing Byzantium in a way into pop culture, I really do hope one day that Byzantium does actually get into pop culture and that Hollywood does indeed plan to produce a Byzantine era film or series as I already have an idea on how to cast one which I would do an article of in the future.

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The chad Michael VIII Palaiologos vs the virgin Theodore II Laskaris

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No Budget Films’ “The Imperial Epilogue: A Byzantine Epic” poster (2020)

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Left: Byzantine emperor Andronikos III Palaiologos (r. 1328-1341); right: Empress Anna of Savoy, wife of Andronikos III

Lessons and Discoveries from Byzantium and its Emperors

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And now as 2020 finishes I want to share with you all my learnings and discoveries from the story of this great empire that people tend to overlook. First of all the greatest lesson I learned from the story of Byzantium and even from their predecessors, the Roman Empire was that the key to surviving is to adapt and this is definitely true for Byzantium because in their 1,100 year history they saw more war than peace and not just small wars but sometimes full scale invasions that could destroy their empire but the Byzantines did not give up, instead they had to adapt to the current situations to survive and doing this they went as far as reorganizing their political structure from large provinces to smaller ones called Themes to increase military presence for protection when the 7th century came and so did the endless Arab invasions, also when Constantinople fell to the Crusaders in 1204, they had to adapt by starting from scratch but in the process they ended up reconnecting to their Greek heritage and becoming more aware of it especially since their role as the Roman Empire continued was long gone and they had become practically a nation of Greeks as their empire had been reduced.

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Same can be said with the Roman Empire before them, since in the 3rd century they faced so much difficulties in which their emperors solved by having to adapt to the situation in order to reform their society. Another great discovery I have had on Byzantium in my almost 2-year journey was that they actually played a very significant role in our world’s history that no one really seems to be aware of and by this they were the ones that preserved the knowledge of Classical Greece and Rome and brought it into Europe when their empire fell in 1453 thus starting the Renaissance, it was Byzantium that upheld Christianity as a dominant religion throughout their existence and helped civilize most of Eastern Europe through which included introducing the Cyrillic alphabet to the Slavic people in the 9th century, it was Byzantium that introduced silks to Europe through trade with China and so was the fork introduced to the rest of Europe in the 10th century, Byzantium too played a major role in starting the Crusades as one of the major reasons why the 1st Crusade began in 1095 was because Byzantium was previously almost destroyed by the growing power of a new enemy, the Seljuk Turks at the Battle of Manzikert in 1071 so Byzantium needed help from the west to fight them which although led the west to instead make their own states, it was Byzantium that defended the rest of Europe countless times from Islamic and other eastern invasions, and also it was Byzantium that played a major role in the silk route between Europe and China as it was on the way and when the Byzantine Empire fell to the Ottomans in 1453, this led the new powers of Western Europe like England, France, Spain, and Portugal to look for new routes to get to Asia thus along the way discovering the Americas and more of Africa, therefore getting the whole world connected and for this Byzantium but more particularly its fall can be indirectly thanked for it. No matter how great the Byzantine Empire was being such an educated society with a professional army, extremely impressive although quite one dimensional art in the form of colorful mosaics and frescos, advanced weapons and technology like Greek Fire and aqueducts which seems impossible to achieve for their time, and a very complex yet very effective administrative system, it had so many flaws too and a lot of it had to do with their people’s personality. Byzantium was for a very long time indeed a very multi-cultural empire especially since it once covered so much lands from Southern Spain all the way east to Armenia and from the Black Sea coast of Ukraine all the way south to Egypt meaning it was inhabited by so many races including Greeks, Armenians, Jews, Syrians, Arabs, Turks, Egyptians, Punics, Romans, Illyrians, Thracians, Bulgars, Slavs, Italians, Germanic people, and more so there is no doubt that it was a very complex empire, although as the centuries went by Byzantium had downsized by a lot so it became less multi-cultural that in its last centuries it was more or less the Greek kingdom in the Balkans. Just as how Byzantium was so diverse, it was also so complex that today the word “byzantine” is even used for meaning something so difficult to understand and I find it true about the Byzantine Empire as its history is actually quite confusing for beginners at least but the more and more you read it, the people including emperors that made the Byzantine Empire’s story happen would seem more and more human. It is also quite unfair that the west has stereotyped Byzantium as nothing more but an empire of corruption, betrayals, poisonings, and intrigues and since western thought came to dominate the thought the world, this stereotype remains as well.

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What Byzantium is made of

True enough, betrayal and corruption in the government was the norm in Byzantium but that still makes them very human and relatable to today’s world but the same can be said for the Roman Empire before them because betrayal and corruption was also a standard in Imperial Rome which the Byzantines had inherited from them and it was also this show of betrayals and corruption that led to the fall of their civilization but just like the Romans before them, the Byzantines too had their share of great men such as emperors and generals like Justinian I, Belisarius, Heraclius, Nikpehoros II, Basil II, and Alexios I that fought hard to defend or expand their empire. But despite all the negative stereotypes given to Byzantium by the west, there are still some things admirable about them and mainly this was the Byzantine people’s pride of their culture especially since they were the ones to continue Roman civilization in the Dark Ages and as descendants of the great civilizations of the Greeks and Romans they would never let go of this pride and because of this many emperors worked so hard to keep their empire alive despite all odds, and because of this Byzantium stood for 1,100 years. Another thing too that can be admired about the Byzantines was that they were masters of diplomacy that they would sometimes choose to bribe their enemies to spare them from devastating wars and this has saved them so many times even if the westerners came to think of them as scheming people because of this for choosing to pay off their enemies or pay off their enemies’ enemies rather than fight them face-to-face but on the other hand, the Byzantine people despite resolving to bribes were also courageous that when being forced to battle with an enemy, they would accept and fight for their empire and Byzantine soldiers truly had a lot of patriotism to fight for both their empire and Christian faith. Also, another thing I recently learned about why Byzantium’s decline was not it was not mainly because of too much wars and the Ottomans but because their empire lived for so long and standing in that part of the world between Europe and Asia, they were definitely bound to be attacked by everyone around them and because of so much wars and being in a high risk position for foreign invasions, their empire had a slow decline but at least it lived on for 11 centuries. Another factor for their decline was also military problems and at first I thought the Byzantines caused their own fall because their people grew soft and instead relied on foreign mercenaries that could not be trusted but as I continued learning more and more about Byzantium, it was not really their fault why in their last centuries they could not have a large army anymore but because their empire had been so reduced in size and population and it was a waste to recruit people to their army especially since many of their men would die in battle this way when they were needed to work the fields to keep the economy alive so they had to rely on foreign mercenaries and the same can be said for the decline and fall of Western Rome that fell in 476. Lastly, it is also due to the Byzantines’ inconsistent and complex personality that they caused their downfall because truly the Byzantines getting their philosophical genes from the Ancient Greeks were more creative and intellectual rather than being precise and practical people but this personality of theirs makes them even more interesting therefore showing that the intellectual spirit of the Ancient Greeks still lived on with them.

To understand Byzantium and their character a lot more, te best place to dive into are their emperors which represented their society and the complex personality of the Byzantines can well be explained through their emperors as Byzantium had emperors of different kinds of character. The Byzantine succession system true enough was very complex as it was not the usual system most European kingdoms had where the eldest son succeeds his father as king while in Byzantium, sometimes the eldest son succeeded his father but sometimes a lot of Byzantine emperors had no children, so some were succeeded by their brothers, cousins, son-in-laws, brother-in-laws, nephews, sometimes even father-in-laws, or sometimes even by their friends or generals that were appointed to succeed them as Byzantium had no written law of primogeniture wherein the eldest son has to succeed his father, rather Byzantine emperors had to find ways to make the succession stable which included making their sons co-emperors and even having built a purple room in the imperial palace for their children to be born in to secure their legitimacy. True enough Byzantium was a direct successor of Imperial Rome and got its ruling system from it and the Roman Empire was a republic that had a monarchy inserted into it when Augustus Caesar became its first emperor in 27BC but this monarchy system known as the Principate was not a full monarchy as the emperor was just the highest authority but the senate and army had power too and they were the ones that backed the emperors.

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Augustus Caesar, first emperor of Rome (r. 27BC-14AD)

Of course things will change over the centuries and with Diocletian as the Roman emperor in 285, the old system of the emperor as the head of the republic changed with the emperor’s authority becoming more divine but even though the power of the Roman emperors and Byzantine emperors after him was never truly divine as Byzantium still had a senate and its generals held a lot of power too. Not to mention, Byzantium had several periods of anarchy wherein an emperor just takes over for a year and is deposed and in fact there was even one 22-year period (695-717) where Byzantium had 7 changes of emperor and even more interesting, the Byzantine Empire which seems like a male dominated power actually had 2 women that ruled as sole emperor which were Empress Irene (r. 797-802) and Empress Theodora (r. 1055-1056). Now when it came to its ruling emperors, Byzantium had every kind of personality for a ruler you can think of. First of all it had great men that were legends larger than life and 2 of them are Byzantine emperors everyone would be familiar with which are the empire’s founder Constantine I the Great (r. 306-337) who achieved so much in his reign from making Christianity the faith that would define his empire to founding Constantinople as an imperial city to uniting the entire Roman Empire from years of civil and never losing battle and Justinian I the Great (r. 527-565) who was another one larger than life by building the cathedral of the Hagia Sophia that remained the world’s greatest and largest church for a thousand years, introducing the world to its basis for its legal systems, and making Byzantium an actual world power by expanding his empire the way no one before thought they could by actually putting back North Africa, Southern Spain and Italy back under Roman rule which happened to work out for some time.

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Mosaic of Emperor Justinian I the Great (left) and Emperor Constantine I the Great (right) in the Hagia Sophia

Other than these great men, Byzantium too had other greater ones that brought their empire back to greatness after a time of decline and such emperors included the likes of Romanos I Lekapenos (r. 920-944), Nikephoros II Phokas (r. 963-969), John I Tzimiskes (r. 969-976), Basil II better known as the Bulgar-Slayer (r. 976-1025) who were all known to revive the greatness of Byzantium by turning the tide of war against foreign enemies, and Alexios I Komnenos (r. 1081-1118) as well as his son John II Komnenos (r. 1118-1143) who both resolved the long crisis Byzantium faced before their time and returned their empire again to prosperity and stability. Byzantium too had great rulers but met tragic ends such as the general Belisarius of the 6th century who was disgraced at some points but at least died peacefully but emperors like Maurice (r. 582-602) was one that met a tragic end betrayed and executed by his army due to some misunderstandings even if he was a good emperor, then there was Heraclius (r. 610-641) who ruled his entire reign fighting constant wars against the Sassanid Persians then Arabs to save the empire but died with his hard work failing, Nikephoros I (r. 802-811) who died in battle against the Bulgarians, and Andronikos III Palaiologos (r. 1328-1341) who had the drive to restore his dying empire’s glory but died too soon and the same can be said with the great men of Byzantium’s contemporary twin the Western Roman Empire which fell in 476 as it had heroic figures like the generals Stilicho and Aetius and emperor Majorian (r. 457-461) who did their best to keep their weak empire alive and sacrificed themselves for it as they were betrayed . Aside from having such great rulers whether visionaries or tragic heroes, Byzantium had a great share of weak and corrupt emperors who may or may have not caused their empire’s decline and such rulers included the likes of Valens (r. 364-378), Constantine VI (r. 780-797), Empress Irene (r. 797-802), Constantine VIII (r. 1025-1028), Romanos III Argyros (r. 1028-1034), Constantine IX Monomachos (r. 1042-1055), Constantine X Doukas (r. 1059-1067), Michael VII Doukas (r. 1071-1078), Alexios III Angelos (r. 1195-1203), and Andronikos II Palaiologos (r. 1282-1328) and as for the Western Roman Empire that fell in 476 all their rulers except for Majorian and Anthemius (r. 467-472) were all weak and corrupt but Byzantium also had some rulers who may have been weak but had strong men around them and these rulers included Michael III (r. 842-867) and Romanos II (r. 959-963). There are also some rulers of Byzantium that saw themselves as strong emperors but had in fact just used their strength to create further division and destruction in their empire and such rulers were the war fanatic Justinian II (r. 685-695/ 705-711) who is best known for having a mutilated nose in his second reign, Romanos IV Diogenes (r. 1068-1071) who chose to battle the Seljuks at Manzikert without thinking of the consequences, and Andronikos I Komnenos (r. 1183-1185) who brought terror and destruction to the empire leading to the eventual sack of Constantinople by the 4th Crusade in 1204. However, there had turned out to be only quite a few Byzantine emperors that had some evil intentions and such rulers were Basiliscus (r. 475-476) and John VI Kantakouzenos (r. 1347-1354) who were willing to betray their empire for their own gain and some others too like usurping emperor Phocas (r. 602-610) who just lusted for power but did not know how to rule properly. On the other hand, Byzantium too had its share of the rare kind of emperors who were mostly neutral and diplomatic rulers yet competent and highly intellectual people at the same time like Theodosius II (r. 408-450), Leo VI the Wise (r. 886-912), Constantine VII (r. 913-959), and Manuel II Palaiologos (r. 1391-1425). Now the kind of emperors that I actually like in Byzantium are the unlikely people who by chance became emperor and happened to do a good job and these included those who came from low birth and obscurity but by chance were made emperor and happened to flip the script and rule competently like Valentinian I (r. 364-375) who was just at first a soldier but ruled well as emperor despite being in charge of the west and not Constantinople, Marcian (r. 450-457) who was just a common and obscure soldier before being elevated to emperor, his successor Leo I the Thracian (r. 457-474) who was just a common soldier of low birth but actually saved the Eastern Empire from suffering the same fate as its western twin by ridding it of barbarian control in the government, and his successor too which was Zeno (r. 474-491) who despite being seen as an outsider by his people originating as a primitive Isaurian tribesman from the mountains of Asia Minor turned out to be a strong ruler who brought some stability to Byzantium. Other unlikely people that ruled Byzantium well in its history were Anastasius I (r. 491-518) who unexpectedly became emperor at an old age and achieved a lot by stabilizing the economy, his successor Justin I (r. 518-527) who originated as a simple peasant but worked his way up through the army and becoming a competent emperor despite being illiterate and it was he as well that made it possible for his nephew Justinian I to come to power, then other unlikely rulers included the Heraclian emperors Constans II (r. 641-668) and his son Constantine IV (r. 668-685) who did their job well in defending Byzantium from the Arabs despite coming to power at so young, also there was Basil I the Macedonian (r. 867-886) who originated too as just a simple peasant but eventually got the chance to take the throne and as emperor he also did well in promoting Byzantium’s cultural and military supremacy and founding the long reigning and glorious Macedonian Dynasty despite also being illiterate, and there was also Michael IV (r. 1034-1041) the last one to originate as a peasant but end up becoming an emperor. At the same time, in Byzantium’s long history there were some emperors too that may have been judged the wrong way and seen as evil but in fact were just wanted to keep their empire alive and such were the likes of Constantine the Great’s son Constantius II (r. 337-361) who would seem to be at first like a cold hearted and bitter ruler but all he wanted was to make sure his empire remained stable, then there was Leo III the Isaurian (r. 717-741) who is a controversial figure since he’s the one blamed for destroying Byzantium’s religious stability by issuing Iconoclasm which tore the empire apart but he also saved the empire by defending Constantinople against the Arab siege in 718 that could have ended their empire and in his reign won many victories against the Arabs, and of course there is also my favorite as of now Michael VIII Palaiologos (r. 1261-1282) who at first can be seen as an evil monster that brutally killed anyone opposing him and blinded his harmless young co-emperor John IV Laskaris to come to power and ruled in a tyrannical way suppressing his people’s Orthodox faith just so that he could ally with the pope but true enough he had a heart of gold and his intention was just to save his empire from destruction and he would do anything to achieve that. Also as I have studied Byzantine history deeper in this past year and more, I also made some discoveries that broke the stereotypes and first impressions I had on some emperors such as Isaac II Angelos (r. 1185-1195/ 1203-1204) who at first I saw as an idiot who was responsible for bringing his empire down but when getting to know him more which also involved having a conversation with an actual fan of his online, I started to see that Isaac II did fact care for his empire and fought against his enemies but it cost him and also he ruled the empire at a troubled time and the same can be said for John V Palaiologos (r. 1341-1391) who at first was just an weak emperor who ruled a long and tragic reign but behind it all the empire he ruled was already so weak but as emperor he still had the motivation to save his empire. Other than that, as I continued studying Byzantine history even more, I have also come to see that some emperors who at first I thought were great rulers but in fact were actually not great ones and had caused the decline of the empire and such was ironically Manuel I Komnenos (r. 1143-1180) who may have achieved a lot as an energetic emperor but his policies would eventually end up causing the decline of Byzantium as it was him who wasted up all the treasury on campaigns that went nowhere and it was him that started a war with Venice out of arrogance that would permanently be harmful for Byzantium, and it was he who started introducing Western Latin customs in the empire which would outrage his people and create such a permanent cultural divide in Byzantium which shows that it takes the actions of one emperor to bring an empire down, and the same can be said for the last emperor of a united Rome which was Theodosius I (r. 379-395) who for some reason is called “the great” but his rule only created such division among his people due to his policies of religious intolerance favoring Nicene Christianity over everything else making him launch a strong persecution against Pagans and it was he as well that indirectly caused the fall of Western Rome by simply letting the Roman army be run by barbarians and I fist thought of him as a good ruler who saved the empire but even though he was at some points, he turns out to be a hateable person and not to mention it was he who permanently split the Roman Empire among his 2 incompetent sons Arcadius in the east and Honorius in the west. There were some emperors too that when reading through Byzantine history, I had come to actually think of as not worthy of ruling the empire such as Arcadius (r. 395-408) who inherited the east after his father’s death but did not do a single thing as emperor, the short reigning Alexander (r. 912-913) who only just started a war with Bulgaria out of his own arrogance and the lesser known Emperor of Nicaea Theodore II Laskaris (r. 1254-1258) who ruled a successful empire but had such a high opinion of himself that he was basically an ass who thought he was better than everyone that the empire was better off not having him so luckily he was allegedly poisoned by Michael Palaiologos. Lastly, as I studied the history this whole time, I also found some underrated rulers in Byzantium too which were actually capable ones but are barely known about such as Julian better known as “the Apostate” (r. 361-363) who was an enlightened visionary but died too soon when being killed in battle against the Sassanids and John III Doukas Vatatzes (r. 1222-1254) who was one of Byzantium’s greatest rulers despite ruling the empire of Nicaea but he was indeed the only perfect emperor Byzantium had even if he did not rule Constantinople as he died before the 1261 reconquest from Latins but as an emperor he was the only one merciful to his people but brutal to his enemies but he was an overall Renaissance man who was a skilled soldier, scholar, diplomat, economist, politician, and family man and was the one who made his people aware of their Greek heritage and despite suffering chronic epilepsy he was strong ruler and well loved by his subjects which was rare for most Byzantine emperors and for these reasons John III is the kind of ruler people need today and so is Julian because even if Julian may be depicted in the wrong light as an enemy of the Christian faith for returning to old Roman Paganism he was in fact tolerant to both Christians and Pagans wanting them to be equal as people and his rule shows the kind of tolerance great leaders need to have. Now the last emperor I forgot to mention was the last Roman emperor Constantine XI Palaiologos (r. 1449-1453) and he is someone I can say who shows a true heroic character as he chose to not shamefully surrender Constantinople to the Ottomans when he could have but instead chose to fight to death when his odds for winning was low and die with his empire and his speech before the final battle in Byzantium’s last day, Tuesday May 29, 1453 shows just how much Byzantium means to the world. Now out of all the emperors, there are some that I find boring like the emperors after Leo III from 741 to 867 and the Doukas Dynasty emperors from 1059 to 1081 but every other emperor aside from them has an interesting story though my top picks are of course Constantine I the Great because without him the east would not become Byzantium and Justinian I the Great because it was he who gave Byzantium’s long lasting cultural legacy, as for the Macedonian emperors like Nikephoros II Phokas, John I Tzimiskes, and Basil II I can truly admire them for their ambition and courage but these 5 emperors that I have mentioned though are those that I can only see as legends larger than life so the Byzantine emperors that I actually can relate a lot to are the Palaiologos emperors from Michael VIII to the last emperor Constantine XI as I can actually see them as real humans that are still relevant to this day as basically the empire they ruled as much smaller in size so they do not seem to be all powerful rulers anymore and as emperors they could no longer do anything they wanted without suffering the consequences so they had to be crafty in ruling which makes them even more interesting people.

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How to describe some of the Byzantine emperors

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9 Byzantine emperors by personality based on the D&D alignment
Byzantine Emperor Constantine IV (652-658) and his retinue
Emperor Constantine IV (r. 668-685) mosaic in Ravenna