Byzantine Alternate History Chapter VI- Irene and Charlemagne, the Wedding of the Century

Posted by Powee Celdran

DISCLAIMER: Although this is mostly a work of fiction, it is largely based on true events and characters. It seeks to alter the course of actual events that transpired in the 8th and 9th centuries AD. This story will begin with events that happened in real history but will become fictional as it progresses.

Previous Story: Byzantine Alternate History Chapter V- 8th Century

“But of Salic land no portion of the inheritance shall come to a woman: but the whole inheritance of the land shall come to the male sex.” -Salic Law

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Welcome to the 6th chapter of the Byzantine Alternate History series by the Byzantium Blogger! Last time, in chapter V of this 12-part series, I went over the Byzantine Dark Ages in the 8th century, the chaos and anarchy, the dystopian-like situation the Byzantine Empire, and the controversy of Iconoclasm or the breaking of icons that may have seemed like a simple issue but at the end caused so much tensions in the empire especially in its long-term relations with the western world, particularly the Church of Rome. The last chapter had also mentioned an event that could have ended the controversial Byzantine Iconoclasm before it could get worse and totally ruin Byzantium’s relations with the west and Church unity as a whole, and this event that could have changed it was if the emperor Artavasdos who only reigned a year (742-743) stayed in power longer rather than losing and being blinded by Constantine V (r. 741-775), who returned to power and continued Iconoclasm to an even higher level purging all those who believed in icons and worked to restore them. However, since the stories in this series despite being in chronological form with one chapter per century, their alternate history scenarios are not continuous with each other, so this means that for this chapter, the events of real history would play out whereas the Iconoclast extremist Constantine V would stay in power and not fall off a castle wall like in the previous chapter. This story then continues not so long after the last one left off and will be set at the turn of the 9th century at the tail-end of the Byzantine Dark Ages and the last days of the Iconoclast period and therefore this will be the last part of the Byzantine dystopian trilogy which began with chapter IV. Now this chapter in this series will be a very special one as we are now at the midpoint of this series and the thing that will be different about this story compared to the previous ones is that first it will be more of a direct sequel of its previous chapter as the same plot and scenario as well as characters from the last chapter return here except of course for the scenario of Artavasdos defeating Constantine V in the civil war, so basically it will be something not purely a 9th century story but rather an 8th and 9th century crossover alternate history story. Another unique style chapter VI over here will have which the other chapters will not is that its background part will no longer be a story retelling the past events but rather already beginning in the main setting in the year 800 while the lead character here Empress Irene Sarantapechaina or Irene of Athens will be the one narrating the events of the past going back to reign of Constantine V where she comes into the picture being chosen as the wife for his son Emperor Leo IV (r. 775-780).

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Empress Irene of Athens, empress-regent (780-797), sole empress (797-802)

Now Empress Irene was one powerful, ambitious, and even ruthless woman who was basically the one running the empire for 27 years (775-802) first as the empress for her weak-ruling husband Leo IV who being already sickly since birth died too soon, then the empress-regent of the empire for Constantine VI (r. 780-797), her son with Leo IV as Constantine VI was never an effective ruler anyway that in 797 he was overthrown and blinded by his mother Irene who then became the sole ruler of the empire, the first woman to rule the Byzantine Empire alone. Irene may have a made a lot of achievements for the Byzantine Empire going from an imperial princess, to empress consort and it did not need a large anti-government resistance to end Iconoclasm, instead it only needed Irene as an empress strongly believing in icons to end the pointless issue of Iconoclasm in 787 at the 2nd Council of Nicaea. However, despite her achievements, Irene being a female ruler was not fully secured on her throne as the fact of a woman ruling an empire alone was quite unheard of that it became easy for the nobility to challenge her and in addition, she despite being a strong and decisive ruler was not very good at managing the empire and its economy, getting the whole empire loyal to her, and at same time ruled an empire that was chaotic, almost bankrupt, and weakened. In Irene’s rule as the sole empress (797-802) and as regent (780-797) before it, the Byzantine Empire though already more stabilized than it was back at the start of the 8th century was still not yet fully stable as the issue of Iconoclasm still split the empire’s people in half, a new Arab power in the east being the Abbasid Caliphate had just begun to pose a threat to the Byzantines despite the threat of the Arabs by this time being nothing new to Byzantium anymore, to the north the new power of the Bulgarian state or the Bulgars was growing to become more of a threat to the Byzantines, and in the west the ruler of the Frankish Kingdom (France) which was Charles I or Charlemagne (Charles the Great) had rapidly built an empire in such a quick matter of time covering almost all of Western Europe that in the year 800, the pope crowned Charlemagne as a “Roman emperor”, therefore a direct insult and threat to the Byzantines who had always seen themselves as the only Roman Empire and its ruler the only rightful person to call himself a Roman emperor despite the empire no longer being ruled in Rome or Italy but in Constantinople. Ever since the year 476 (as mentioned in chapter II of this series) when the Western Roman Empire based in Ravenna fell, the Eastern Roman Empire or the Byzantine Empire was the only Roman power left but because in the western lands, particularly the Frankish Kingdom, their law known as Salic Law forbade women from ruling and in 800 with the Byzantine Empire ruled as a woman, the western rulers such as Charlemagne did not see her as legitimate therefore someone like him could challenge her and be crowned as a “Roman emperor” or more specifically an Augustus– not “Holy Roman emperor” though as many would confuse it-without even seeking the approval of the Byzantines, although the pope also refused to acknowledge the Byzantine Empire as the real Roman Empire but instead Charlemagne’s new Frankish Empire because the issue of Iconoclasm in Byzantium- as mentioned in the previous chapter- had already grown so much to damage the pope’s ties with Byzantium. Now the rise of Charlemagne may be both a threat but also an opportunity to Byzantium as the mere fact of another king being crowned a “Roman emperor” when there is already an existing one was a heavy blow to the pride of the Byzantine Empire but at the same time it could have benefited the much weaker Byzantine Empire since its ruler Irene being a widowed woman and Charlemagne being a widower could have married each other, therefore being the magic pill that could reverse all of Byzantium’s previous setbacks, refill its treasury, and unite the east and west again as one massive empire just like the Roman Empire of old before it was permanently split in half in 395 but now as the Frankish-Roman Empire. The marriage between Irene and Charlemagne that almost did happen in 802 could have put what is now France, Italy, and Germany as well as other Western European countries together with the Byzantine Empire then being Greece, Asia Minor, and some of the Balkans as one large super-empire under two rulers of equal power (Charlemagne and Irene) with two capitals (Constantinople in the east and Aachen in the west) and together both rulers with a massive empire and a massive army of the Byzantine Thematic Army and Frankish knights could put an end to all of Byzantium’s external threats like the Bulgars, Arabs, and lot more together but unfortunately, none of this happened as the idea of Byzantium ruled by a foreigner who was seen as a barbarian, which was Charlemagne was shocking to the people of Byzantium and for considering this marriage but also for failing to manage the empire’s economy, Irene had grown increasingly unpopular that with a single conspiracy by the nobility, she was easily ousted from power by a palace coup later in 802 and replaced as emperor by her finance minister Nikephoros I (r. 802-811) while Irene was exiled to the Greek island of Lesbos dying there just a year later. In this story however, the course of history will change when the marriage between Charlemagne and Irene- which would only be for political reasons- does indeed take place as Charlemagne travels to Constantinople and marries Irene before the plot against her is successfully hatched. Of course, if this marriage did indeed happen which in real history did not, then the Byzantine Empire which was here losing its significance would instead just join forces with the rapidly growing Frankish or Carolingian Empire of Charlemagne, though this union of empires which although would be like a magic pill for Byzantium in terms of reversing all the setbacks in its Dark Ages would also be very confusing as the Franks and Byzantines were of two different cultures and government systems, also it would be confusing as in religion the Franks were Catholic Christians and the Byzantines were Orthodox so it would be confusing which religion the whole empire would fall under, and lastly in terms of succession as Irene’s son Constantine VI in 802 was already blinded and Irene being already 50 could no longer give birth, while Charlemagne though had sons but the issue would be on who rules the east and who rules the west. Now the big question here is, if Charlemagne and Irene married, would this really be the magic pill for Byzantium or will it only be very confusing for both empires?           

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Flag of the Byzantine Empire

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Note: Since this story is set in the 8th to 9th centuries after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the Byzantine characters will be now referred to as Byzantines, not Romans.

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The Byzantine Empire in 800 (purple)
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The Frankish (Carolingian) Empire of Charlemagne
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Flag of Irene and Charlemagne’s fictional united Frankish-Roman Empire, crossover between Byzantine (red) and Frankish (blue) flags (photo from Reddit)

This article is again another work of collaboration and again with Justinianus the Great (follow her on Instagram @justinianusthegreat) who had previously worked with me in creating chapter III of this series on Emperor Justinian I the Great (r. 527-565), making this the second chapter I am putting the story together with her. Now Justinianus being a Byzantine history enthusiast as you remember from chapter III is a great fan of Emperor Justinian I the Great as her username certainly suggests, but on the other hand, she is also a great fan of Empress Irene of Athens who will be the main focus of this story. Justinianus here had also suggested that Justinian being the lead character of chapter III would make a comeback and true enough, Justinian I will return here in this story 3 centuries later as a ghost occasionally coming here and there giving some advice to Irene on ruling her empire. Where Justinianus’ part comes in is basically in adding in some fictional elements from her imagination in filling in the blanks to creating some more background to Irene’s story and personality as she is the main character and history itself does not really record a lot about Irene’s full backstory like about her family and intentions, thus leaving a lot of historians to make guesses about her, although here a lot of the details about Irene’s unknown backstory thought of by Justinianus are actually very smart guesses. For the information used here, I again went through various articles online and went through videos on Byzantine history in this era by channels such as Kings and Generals, Eastern Roman History, Thersites the Historian, and of course the History of Byzantium Podcast by Robin Pierson.

Now before beginning the story, this topic of what if Charlemagne and Irene married is a very popular what if in Byzantine history and possibly one of the biggest and most popular what ifs in medieval history that has already been covered many times by other alternate history blogs and videos, although this article despite covering an already popular what if topic will have its own take on it. Since this blog site is about Byzantine history while at the same time to just remind you all that I am not very knowledgeable in the history and society of the Franks the way I am with Byzantium, it will tell the story through the Byzantine perspective, basically from Irene’s and not Charlemagne’s eyes, therefore it will cover a lot more about Byzantium in this time rather than Charlemagne’s Frankish Kingdom and later Frankish Empire in the west. Also, unlike these other videos which cover the long-term effects from this said marriage, this story will only cover its short-term effects for the Byzantine and Frankish Empires limited only to the 9th century. Now Charlemagne or “Charles the Great”, the King of the Franks is an already very famous historical figure not only in the medieval world but in world history as a whole, so his background does not need to be explained so much in this story, except just to give a quick explanation of who he is, he was the king of the Frankish Kingdom (a predecessor to the Holy Roman Empire as well as to today’s France and Germany) from the Carolingian Dynasty who since coming to power in 768 worked for years to expand his kingdom into a powerful empire by fighting wars against the still Pagan and even Christian barbarians in Europe in order to unite Western Europe and spread Christianity and for his conquests and valor, in 800 he was crowned as “Roman emperor” by the pope.

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Charlemagne (Charles I the Great), King of the Franks (768-800), emperor (800-814)

The one confusing thing here though is that a lot think Charlemagne was the first one that was crowned as “Holy Roman emperor” by the pope and his empire became the Holy Roman Empire, though true enough he was crowned as a “Roman emperor” and his empire would be the foundation for the Holy Roman Empire later on which would begin in 962 with the coronation of Otto I as the first Holy Roman emperor. Now having an empire that covered both today’s France (except Brittany) and Germany as well as most of Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland, Austria, Bohemia, parts of Demark, and some of Northern Spain, Charlemagne would basically be remembered as the “Father of Europe” for uniting most of Western Europe and laying the foundations of what would be Europe’s most powerful countries being France and Germany, and also for laying the foundations of a Western European Empire, his empire would also be remembered as the “First Reich”. As emperor, he was not only remembered for his conquests but for promoting art, culture, and literacy which were heavily inspired by that of Ancient Rome and Byzantium, therefore bringing into Europe what was known as the “Carolingian Renaissance” leading the west out of the Dark Ages. On the other hand, at the same time as Charlemagne was crowned as an emperor by the pope in 800, the now much downsized and battered Byzantine Empire was ruled by a woman which was Empress Irene who of course Charlemagne and the pope did not see as legitimate because not only was she a woman but seen as a usurper as well for deposing her son and had no blood relation to the Isaurian Dynasty that ruled Byzantium, except that she was only married into it. In addition, the previous years where Iconoclasm or the breaking of icons ruled Byzantium and damaged their relations with the pope, the pope in Rome could no longer accept the rule of the Byzantine emperor, and also because the pope in Rome had been threatened by the power of the Lombards of Italy while the Byzantines were too busy with their own problems in the east to focus on Italy that the pope had to turn to the Frankish Kingdom for their assistance against the ambitious Lombards which later succeeded as the Lombard Kingdom was crushed and annexed into Charlemagne’s Frankish kingdom, therefore making him an ally of the pope. Irene meanwhile was a significant historical figure as not only was she as strong woman figure that ruled an empire by herself and by her own name, but because she put an end to the controversial Iconoclasm which again helped in fixing the schism between the Byzantines and the Western Church and when later hearing of Charlemagne being crowned as a new emperor challenging her and Byzantium’s authority, she considered marrying him as a diplomatic way to settle all the differences between the west and Byzantium and to unite the empires becoming one Roman Empire again but this move was too controversial to the Byzantine people that it never succeeded and instead Irene got overthrown. The climax of this story then will be with Irene and Charlemagne actually managing to marry each other and unite their empires despite their differences and after the climax being the wedding of the century, the story will go on a bit further to see how this marriage will benefit Byzantium especially on how having a united empire in the west would help a lot in military victories against the Arabs and Bulgars as Charlemagne had previously already displayed success in battle against the Lombards, Avars, and Saxons. This story’s main part will then end in the year 811 where in real history the Byzantines under Emperor Nikephoros I suffered a heavy defeat to the Bulgars under their khan Krum at the Battle of Pliska where the emperor himself was killed and his skull turned into a drinking cup, though this story will explore how this battle could play out favorably for the Byzantines if Charlemagne assisted them, so basically this will be a double what if story. As this series also covers one story per century in Byzantine history with this one being the 9th century story, it will be quite odd that its main part is at the very early part of the 9th century, though the proposed marriage of Charlemagne to Irene as well as the Battle of Pliska in 811 are not the only interesting moments of this century as later on in the 9th century, there are a lot more crucial moments in Byzantine history especially with the rule of the Amorian Dynasty (820-867), the beginnings of the Byzantine Renaissance later on and the spread of Orthodox Christianity to the Slavs in the Balkans, but since the what if scenario of Charlemagne and Irene being married and the union of their empires is a very popular one and something that intrigues me and others a lot, I chose to cover that for this 9th century setting.

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Map of the Frankish-Roman Empire under Charlemagne and Irene (yellow)
What if Charlemagne marries Irene, Alternate History video (Monsieur Z)

Now this story as the halfway point of this series will be a very big one being a story of two great empires- Byzantine and Frankish- and two influential rulers being Charlemagne and Irene, but of course will more or less primarily focus on Byzantine society and not medieval Frankish society, which means that the same issue of Iconoclasm from the previous story and how it divided Byzantium would return here and part of the elements of Byzantine society here will of course include the same old Thematic System in the empire’s administration which was introduced back in chapter IV of this series, and the extravagance of the Byzantine imperial court with all its rituals, court dress, dining, and parties. Now in this story, Irene as the leading character would be depicted as a strong and ambitious woman who at the same time is a devout Orthodox Christian strongly dedicated to religious icons and despite coming from a backwater of the empire then which was Athens although from the nobility, she would also be someone who is ahead of her time for being a woman ruling in her own name, not afraid to make her own decisions for the empire, and someone with a very liberal thinking in such a conservative society and this can be seen where she is open to marrying someone like Charlemagne who is many worlds away from her in culture and thinking whereas Byzantine women in that time only marry who they are told to marry and think only the way they are told to think. To also add a sexy and sensual angle to this story, Irene would be the lead character as a woman who stays beautiful and attractive even as she ages that in an instant, she attracts the much older Charlemagne, who is however just 10 years older than her. As for Charlemagne on the other hand, history always shows him as a great emperor that united Europe under his rule, but for this story’s case just for the sake of experimenting, Charlemagne here will be downplayed as someone who seems to be so great when hearing about him but in reality as he comes over to Constantinople, the people would just see him as a tired old man that has nothing really special about him as having done his part now just wants to retire and marry an attractive Byzantine woman he could sleep with, which is of course Irene. Of course, this story to add more story telling element to it will include some suspense, drama, and comedy, as well as a number of important Byzantine figures of this time namely Irene’s finance minister who in reality overthrew her which is Nikephoros the Logothete who will usually be referred to as “the Logothete” – as confusingly enough there will also be another Nikephoros here who is Irene’s brother-in-law- in this story who would be the main villain who is quite an interesting and seedy character at first being loyal to Irene though only doing this further his ambitions to become emperor. The other characters this story will heavily feature on would be Irene’s family members from her own family from Athens and from her late husband Leo IV’s side being the ruling Isaurian Dynasty of Byzantium which introduced in the previous chapter, as well as Irene’s son Constantine VI who here will be seen as a useless and sadistic young emperor who here deserved his blinding in 797, and Irene’s eunuchs Staurakios and Aetios who are in conflict with each other. Overall, this story will be the kind of war and dystopian epic mixed together with romance and comedy but is more importantly a story not so much anymore about Byzantium’s constant conflicts with the Arabs but about their differences but also common ground with Western Europe, the other constant theme in the history of Byzantium which was its “Cold War” style conflict with the west.

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Guide to the Thematic System of the Byzantine army (from Wikipedia); this article contains a lot of terms of Byzantine army units
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Guide to the Isaurian Dynasty of the Byzantine Empire, 717-802; character illustrations and layout by Powee Celdran

Related Articles from The Byzantium Blogger:

Byzantine Alternate History Chapter V- Emperor Artavasdos, the Unlikely Hero of the 8th Century

Byzantine Alternate History Chapter III- Justinian the Great Joins his Campaigns

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

12 Turning Points in Byzantine History

A Guide to the Themes of the Byzantine Empire

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


The Leading Characters: 

Irene Sarantapechaina “Irene of Athens”- Byzantine empress 

Charlemagne “Charles I the Great”- Frankish emperor

Nikephoros the Logothete- Finance Minister of the Byzantine Empire under Irene

Nikephoros Caesar- Imperial usurper, brother-in-law of Irene

Tarasios- Iconophile Patriarch of Constantinople

Staurakios- Byzantine eunuch official and general of Irene

Aetios- Byzantine eunuch official of Irene

Leo IV “the Khazar”- Byzantine emperor (775-780), first husband of Irene

Constantine VI- Byzantine emperor (780-797), son of Leo IV and Irene

Theophano Sarantapechaina- Irene’s cousin

Anthousa- Twin sister of Leo IV, sister-in-law of Irene  

Christopher Caesar- Imperial usurper, brother-in-law of Irene

Leo the Armenian- Iconoclast Byzantine general

Bardanes Tourkos- Byzantine general, Irene loyalist

Louis I the Fair- Son and successor of Charlemagne

Krum- Khan of the Bulgars since 803

Harun al-Rashid- Caliph of the Abbasid Caliphate

Character images below of selected characters from this story, Illustrated by Powee Celdran


The Background Part I- The Isaurian Dynasty and Empress Irene’s Origins        

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It is the year 800AD, and the Byzantine Empire at the turn of the 9th century was stronger than it was at the turn of the previous century. Here, the Byzantines had already taken back basically all of Greece from the Slavic tribes that had raided and settled it for the past 2 centuries while in the east, imperial territory stretched as far as Armenia as a lot of lands were taken back from the expanding Arab Caliphate which has been the empire’s traditional enemy for already almost 2 centuries, though in the west Byzantine control of Italy has been reduced to only the south as well as the islands of Sicily and Sardinia as some of it fell under the control of the Lombards and the northern half to the new Frankish Empire. Ruling the Byzantine Empire in 800 was a woman, Empress Irene Sarantapechaina of Athens who at the age of 48 was still stunningly beautiful with long and thick dark hair, green eyes, and a voluptuous figure. Irene however despite ruling the empire alone was not from the ruling Isaurian Dynasty that had ruled the empire since 717 when Emperor Leo III the Isaurian (r. 717-741) came to power, rather Irene was a girl from Athens from the noble family of Sarantapechos who back in 769 married Leo III’s grandson Leo IV who would later be crowned as emperor in 775 following the death of his father Emperor Constantine V (r. 741-775), the son of Leo III. Following Leo IV’s death in 775 after only 5 years as emperor, Irene came to power as regent for their young son Constantine VI (r. 780-797) who in 797 after being in conflict with her was deposed and blinded by his own mother Irene. After blinding her son who although survived it, Irene in this story’s did not feel much guilt but now 3 years after it, she has become haunted with the guilt of blinding her son.

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Empress Irene of Athens

As the sole empress though, Irene did not choose to reign with the title of Basileus or Greek for “emperor”, but rather in respect for her gender, she still ruled with the title of Basilissa or “empress” in Greek and in the coins minted with her name and image, she appeared alone but still using the title “Basilissa”, which she also used when signing documents. Just a year earlier (799), Irene fell fatally ill that her doctors believed she was already close to death but luckily she recovered and now in 800 having fully recovered, at the Boukoleon Palace along the shore of the Marmara Sea at the imperial palace complex of Constantinople, she was going to meet with her newly appointed finance minister or Logothete Nikephoros, a man Irene put great trust into as he was first of all an Iconophile (or Iconodule), a believer of icons the way she was, and he had a brilliant mind in finance and military matters, which was something Irene was not so skilled in, and of course he was loyal as Irene valued loyalty from her officials above all else. Now Nikephoros was a man 2 years older than Irene born in 750 in Constantinople in this story’s case as real history does not record his place of birth but what is documented are his ethnic origins as the Syriac source Michael the Syrian (1126-1199) and Arab source Al-Tabari (839-923) say Nikephoros is of Arab-Ghassanid descent with his ancestors coming from the Ghassanid Kingdom, the old Byzantine client kingdom at the northern edge of the Arabian Desert which was destroyed by the First Islamic Arab power of the Rashidun Caliphate in 638 before the Arab-Byzantine wars still ongoing up to this time began. In this story’s case, Nikephoros certainly did have Arab blood as seen with his black curly hair and olive skin, and he was proud this heritage while at the same time a proud Byzantine and Orthodox Christian too. Here, barely knowing Irene, Nikephoros was already endlessly charming her by talking about his knowledge of the Arab world and his Arab heritage that here- for this story’s case only- he introduced to Irene an odd drink that the Arabs already had knowledge of at this time, which was coffee, though not the kind of coffee we mostly know of today, but a thick and bitter muddy drink which seemed to be addicting giving someone a great amount of energy.

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Arabian coffee

Of course, the Byzantines in their time surely had no idea of coffee even if the Arabs in the 9th century had already been cultivating the bean and drank its liquid and true enough, coffee beans had already been cultivated in Yemen since the 6th century and Nikephoros here being a descendant of the Ghassanid Arabs traces his origins back to Yemen in which that area was known to the Romans as Arabia Felix, the lesser known fertile southern part of the otherwise desert Arabian Peninsula; and doing this, in this story’s case, he was able to get his hands on this bean and the recipe of how to make it a drink. When getting a taste of the drink, Irene found the taste and texture odd, but Nikephoros was quite used to it and as they drank it, Nikephoros told Irene a local legend from the Arab traders he acquired the coffee beans from knew of which was that some time ago, a goatherd in Ethiopia (in Africa) discovered the properties of the coffee bean after seeing his goats act all excited when eating the cherries where the beans were found in and true enough even the goatherd felt the same way when tasting the bean. Nikephoros though did not fully believe this story the same way it is mostly seen as a legend because coffee beans had certainly already been cultivated in Yemen since the 6th century, which is the side of the story we will stick to here, though on the other hand it was here at the beginning of the 9th century when coffee cultivation became a major thing in the area of Ethiopia and Yemen right across the Red Sea from it, and in this story’s case just too add an interesting element, the Byzantines had already gotten their hands on it from Arab traders. Now that Nikephoros told his rather trivial story, it was time Irene told hers which was also the story of the Isaurian Dynasty she married into.          

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9th century legend of the discovery of the coffee bean by the Ethiopian goatherd
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Location of Arabia Felix
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Boukoleon Palace, seaside palace of Constantinople

The story of the Isaurian Dynasty that ruled Byzantium began in 717 when a Syrian general of low birth named Konon who was Irene’s grandfather-in-law took over the Byzantine throne in a period of anarchy that had seen 6 different emperors in only 22 years (695-717). When coming into power, Konon became Emperor Leo III and swore to end the anarchy period that could have brought the end of the Byzantine Empire and true enough, after successfully defending Constantinople from the siege of the Arab Umayyad Caliphate in 718, Leo III brought order and stability to the severely weakened Byzantine Empire.

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Emperor Leo III the Isaurian, aka Konon (r. 717-741), founder of the Isaurian Dynasty

In his 24-year-reign, Leo III restored much of the lands in the east that the Byzantines lost to the expanding Arabs, reformed the law, and reorganized the political-military structure of the empire known as the Thematic System which was long story short, basically how the military ran the empire’s provinces as a defense system, but despite his successes Leo III would be controversial for something that damaged the empire a lot internally which was his ban on religious icons first acted on in 726 and made legal in 730. This ban on icons or Iconoclasm soon enough became popular with half the empire’s population especially the army wherein most came from eastern provinces in Asia Minor where their beliefs had been inspired by that of the Muslims and Jews who believed worshiping God or saints through painted images was sinful as it was equivalent to idolatry and Leo III as a superstitious person blamed all the empire’s setbacks on how his people’s excessive use of icons. Half the empire’s population meanwhile especially those from western provinces like Thrace or Greece where Irene’s family came from, or Italy saw the use of icons as a sacred tradition and hearing that the imperial government as well as the Church of Constantinople put a ban on it deeply outraged them that the people of Italy being encouraged by the pope or the Patriarch of Rome rebelled against their Byzantine imperial authorities that the Venetian lagoon in the northeast coast of Italy declared their independence from Byzantium in 730 forming the Republic of Venice, though still being loyal allies to the Byzantines.

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Byzantine Iconoclasm under Leo III from the 9th century Chludov Psalter

Leo III having successfully driven away the Umayyad Arab armies from Asia Minor fully came to believe that the ban on icons was necessary and helped the empire a lot and in 741 he died peacefully passing the empire to his son Constantine V better known as Konstantinos Kopronymos or the “Constantine the Shit-Named” as the Iconodulesor believers of icons branded him as that for being their worst enemy as an Iconoclast extremist, although this nickname also comes from a rumor about him defecating on the baptismal water as a baby. Though inheriting the imperial throne from his father, just a year after (742), Constantine V was challenged by his brother-in-law Artavasdos who being married to Constantine’s older sister Anna felt betrayed as Leo III back in 717 promised him the throne in return for helping Leo come to power as his friend and partner and as Constantine campaigned against the Arabs in Asia Minor, Artavasdos deserted him in battle and proclaimed himself emperor using the restoration of icons as his motive for usurping power and as emperor, he did indeed have the icons that had been outlawed restored but only a year later in 743, his forces were defeated by Constantine V’s in the civil war between them. Losing the war, Artavasdos was blinded by Constantine V as being blind prevented someone from taking the throne, and he was then sent to a monastery to die 2 years later from the injuries caused by his blinding while Constantine V took back the throne seeing Artavasdos’ rebellion as a sign to make a stronger stance against the use of icons.

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Emperor Constantine V Kopronymos (r. 741-742/ 743-775)

Constantine V true enough became more of an Iconoclast extremist than his father that when issuing a ban on religious icons, he also launched a full-scale persecution on people who owned them or restored them and as part of his anti-icon policies, countless of monks, nuns, and icon painters were tortured, blinded, exiled, or even executed and regardless of class or age, everyone who went against the emperor’s anti-icon policies were punished. Now Irene was born in 752 in Athens which was part of the Byzantine Theme or military controlled province of Hellas as Constantine V was emperor, and the family she came from which was the Sarantapechos clan was a rich family of great influence in Byzantine Greece. Athens meanwhile which was Irene’s home city according to the English historian John Julius Norwich (1929-2018) in his book Byzantium: The Early Centuries (1988), in Irene’s time was no longer the center of the intellectual world as it was in the Ancient days but a pious little provincial town wherein the famous temple of the Parthenon even became a church, though the people of Athens were said to be strong supporters of religious icons when it was banned, and Irene and her family was no exception.

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Athens in the Byzantine era

The Sarantapechos family wherein Irene came from however was an obscure family though a wealthy one and despite being loyal to the reigning emperor Constantine V, they were strong believers in icons, however Irene’s childhood and upbringing in Athens is unclear, but according to Justinianus when creating this story, Irene grew up wealthy and privileged receiving the best education from Greek teachers especially in history, philosophy, poetry, and the arts. Irene too was said to be an orphan but it is unclear when and how her parents died, but in this story’s case, let’s say they died when she was only 10 in 762 when both were on ship which sank during a storm in the Aegean Sea, though it was never discovered by Constantine V that Irene’s parents were Iconophiles, otherwise he would have executed them seeing it as treason. For this story, according to Justinianus, Irene was a strong Iconophile growing up especially after her parents died as a way to honor their memory but the one thing she longed for was an opportunity to get out of her conservative and sleepy Athens and go to Constantinople to make a name for herself. Now back to Constantine V, in 750 his wife Tzitzak an Oriental beauty who came from the Khazar state or Khazaria in today’s Southern Russia gave birth to twins which was first their son Leo named after Constantine’s father Leo III and their daughter Anthousa, although it is unclear if she was really Leo’s twin or the twin of one of Constantine V’s other sons with his next wife Eudokia, but for this story Anthousa would be Leo’s twin, but in 750 Tzitzak would die shortly after giving birth to her twins, and a year later Constantine would marry Eudokia, a local Byzantine Greek.

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Church Council of Hieria in 754, headed by Emperor Constantine V and Empress Eudokia (left)

In 754 meanwhile at the Council of Hieria, Iconoclasm became fully legal in the empire in the eyes of the Church too, and churches and monasteries were to be legally raided to confiscate icons, but also to confiscate their hidden wealth which was to pay for the army and true enough, all the raids on churches and monasteries grew the army to a more powerful force. Another thing Constantine V would be known for was the breaking down of a number of Themes in Asia Minor such as the notorious Opsikion Theme in half as a way to weaken the power of the Theme’s military governor or Strategos to prevent rebellions and part of this act was creating the Optimatoi Theme out of the Opsikion Theme, and this new Theme located right across the Bosporus Sea from Constantinople based in the city of Nicomedia was the Theme assigned to the new elite imperial army Constantine V created which was the Tagmata, the emperor’s personal guard that was to be absolutely loyal to the reigning emperor.

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Byzantine Tagmata soldier, elite imperial force created under Constantine V

In the east, Constantine V taking advantage of the Arab Umayyad Caliphate falling into civil war raided deep into enemy territory retaking a large amount of land all the way up to Syria which the Byzantines had lost in the past century. When being able to take back some of Syria, Constantine V relocated its Christian population to Thrace as a way to make the border of the Arab and Byzantine worlds which was the Taurus Mountains a no-man’s land without anyone living there to farm it so that invading Arabs would not want to pass there to invade as they would starve to death without any food supply present there. For his many victories and giving away free food to the population of Constantinople, Constantine V was extremely popular despite his vile treatment to those who opposed him and supported icons and by being extremely popular especially with the mostly Iconoclast army, he was seen as their hero and true savior that they would die in battle for him, but no matter how popular and well-loved he was, Constantine V too suffered from epilepsy.

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Flag of the Abbasid Caliphate, founded in 750

As for the events around the world, things would be in favor for the Byzantines in the east as in 750 the Arab Umayyad Caliphate based in Damascus had dissolved as it was overthrown by the new Arab Muslim power of the Abbasid Caliphate which needed some time to consolidate its rule, therefore they would not yet pose a threat to Byzantium, and with their capital now in Baghdad they would not be so much a threat to the Byzantines too as they were farther away than Damascus. In Italy on the other hand, things would be worse for the Byzantines as in 751 their capital there which was Ravenna fell to the Lombards when its last Exarch or semi-autonomous governor Eutychius surrendered it to them being unable to hold it any longer as the imperial authorities neglected Italy too, thus the Byzantines were only left with Southern Italy, Sicily, and Sardinia which would become Themes too (except for Sardinia).

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Fall of the Byzantine Exarchate of Ravenna in 751, Exarch Eutychius surrenders Ravenna to the Lombards

Now as the threat of the Arabs died down in the east, the new state of the Bulgarian Khanate in the north which had been there since 681 though not yet a massive empire would be the new major threat to Byzantium as after Constantine fortified the northern border with the Bulgars, the Bulgars saw this as a reason to declare war on the Byzantines which they did in 755 and from here on, Constantine V would fight a constant war with them as luckily he did not have to focus on the east anymore with the Arabs no longer a big threat. In 756 Constantine V won a major victory against the Bulgars though was defeated by them in 759, but in 763 after the Bulgars raided Byzantine territory, Constantine V crushed the invading Bulgars at the Battle of Anchialus along the Black Sea coast, and as a result of the defeats the Bulgarians would be plunged into anarchy with a change of rulers 5 times from 763 to 768.

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Bulgar army, 8th century

Now as Constantine V was busy at war against the Bulgars in the north, it was in 769 when he chose Irene to be the wife of his son Leo and it was very ironic as Constantine V was in fact the “Icon of Iconoclasm” and Irene was a strong Iconophile, but Constantine did not know it. The reason now to why Leo or even his father chose Irene is a mystery but the most accepted one is that she at the age of 17 was that even if the empire had a lot of beautiful young women for the imperial heir to choose, she was an exceptional beauty and also because Constantine V knew the Sarantapechos family of Athens well and Irene herself had already proven to be a smart and capable person. Here in 769 with both her parents dead, in this story’s case, Irene would be raised by her uncle, her father’s younger brother the general Constantine Sarantapechos, who would later on be the Strategos of the Hellas Theme. By this point, Constantine V with his wife Eudokia also had 5 sons together in which the eldest one Nikephoros born in 755 would later be made a Caesar (Kaisar in Greek)in title together with his younger brother Christopher while the next 3 sons Niketas, Eudokimos, and Anthimos would only receive the title of Nobelissimos.             

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Byzantine Asia Minor’s Themes by 750, under Emperor Constantine V
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Constantine V’s Iconoclasm from the Manases Chronicle
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Iconoclasm- breaking of religious icons and persecution of monks in the Byzantine Empire under Constantine V (743-775)
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Map of the new Arab Abbasid Caliphate (black), formed in 750 replacing the Umayyad Caliphate

Watch this to learn more about Constantine V’s reign (Thersites the Historian).

Back in 800, Irene and Nikephoros continued drinking their coffee while overlooking the Marmara Sea from the Boukoleon Palace, and when looking at the sea and the steps leading up to the palace from the shore, Irene recalled the moment she first stepped there in 769 when she was chosen to marry Constantine’s son the imperial prince Leo and here, she continued telling her background story. On November 1 of 769, the 17-year-old Irene saw the great metropolis of Constantinople for the first time in her life as the ship she boarded from Athens arrived at the dock of this exact Boukoleon Palace greeted by a large number of people and afterwards escorted by soldiers of Constantine V’s elite Tagmata force to the Great Palace Complex (or Imperial Palace Complex) itself and along the way, people all cheered for her for some reason, which was most likely because she was to be the future empress. Irene back then coming straight out of the sleepy and slow city of Athens was shocked with the amount of energy in Constantinople’s streets but most significantly feeling so important that she had to be escorted by palace guards, greeted by so many people of the high ranks of society, and was cheered by so much people as if she were a big star as back in Athens, no one really noticed her in the streets despite coming from the city’s influential family.

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Map of Constantinople’s Imperial Palace Complex

On the other hand, she was also shocked but in awe with all the landmarks she saw in Constantinople such as the Boukoleon Palace built right next to the sea, the Hippodrome, Great Palace, the Hagia Sophia and its dome, and all the dining halls, bedrooms, and baths all decorated with such extravagance. Irene’s first stop in the Great Palace was her designated room in the women’s section which even had its own bath and personal assistants assigned to her. As the day ended, Irene was invited to a feast at the main dining hall of the palace wherein she would meet the emperor Constantine V himself who Irene remembers as someone at the age of 51 who was quite overweight with messy hair and a messy beard and there she would also meet his 19-year-old son Leo who was to be her husband, who was short and round in appearance and since he was half-Khazar with his late mother being a Khazar, Leo had strong Oriental features including small and slanted gray eyes, though also having curly brown hair, a round face, and big ears. Being Khazar in his mother’s side, he was known as “Leo the Khazar” also because of his features, though his most recognizable quality was his easy going and nice personality unlike his father who was usually unstable, violent, and quick to anger. Now as Justinianus for this story says, why Leo fell for Irene who was his father’s choice for her out of all young women in the empire was because of her beauty and when meeting her for the first time, Leo was impressed with her quick thinking and confidence that she was not shy to speak to him and his father. The day after she arrived in Constantinople, Irene’s 6 weeks of learning court etiquette began and usually it would not be this long but in the story’s case as Constantine V noticed Irene’s rather fresh and outspoken attitude whereas women in this conservative society were supposed to be reserved and proper, her time to be taught the right way in court etiquette and protocols had to be extended before she was to marry Leo. Now from something I recently just learned when commenting on a post on Instagram asking about women’s fashion in the Byzantine era, I just found out with all the influences from the Arab world and the movement of Iconoclasm becoming a major factor that impacted the empire, women in Byzantium increasingly became more conservative in behavior and fashion, and in this story’s case Irene was someone who did not want to play along and dress up and talk the way she wanted to.

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Byzantine female court fashion

Of course in order to be the future empress, Irene had to go through this 6 weeks of training in the proper behavior of an empress and as the History of Byzantium Podcast host Robin Pierson had said, this would be an endless of process for Irene in learning the proper behavior of the Byzantine imperial court and part of her training would be on how to talk to people of high status, how to behave in church, how to greet the people and senators, how to respond to foreign ambassadors, and also on how to sit properly when eating, and how to use a fork which was a symbol showing how sophisticated the Byzantines were when it came to dining as other people especially in the western lands did not use a fork. In this 6-week period, the one person Irene would become close to in this story’s case was the eunuch Staurakios who came from a prominent family and was making a name for himself as a eunuch in the imperial court and in this story’s case only, he would be the palace’s chef who was very skilled at cooking lavish dishes for the imperial court but at the same time, he was also a master at managing state affairs and the army in which he taught some of that to Irene- except for cooking dishes- in these 6 weeks. Another thing Irene vividly remembered about this period of training was when she was taught to dress the proper way in imperial style as the court officials and court women that trained her noticed the informal style of the lose clothes she dressed in coming from Athens wherein they dressed like that and in so little time, 2 dresses were prepared for her which was first her wedding dress for the wedding ceremony and the gold dress for her coronation.

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Ancient Roman/ Byzantine female underwear (evidence from a 4th century mosaic in Sicily)

Irene also remembered that here in this 6-week period as she was in the baths of the palace, she was taught how to wear the imperial dresses by the court ladies where these court ladies where she had to take off her robe to be examined if her body was healthy as the wife of the imperial heir had to be in order to give birth to a healthy heir, and true enough Irene was in good health here though her soon-to-be husband Leo was not, and here too in the baths when dressing down to what was her underwear- a piece of cloth wrapped around the chest and the waist- her body was to be measured for the 2 dresses for the upcoming ceremonies. When this 6-week period of preparations ended on December 17 of 769, Irene came out as a fully grown and proper imperial woman at only 17 dressed in coronation dress, which was a tight long-sleeved golden dress that covered almost the entire body, and when fully dressed up she met her husband-to-be Leo IV at the Hagia Sophia where the Leo already as the co-emperor of the empire placed a golden outer robe on Irene’s shoulders and afterwards placed a crown on her head, thus Irene was now crowned as a co-empress, or at least an imperial princess and the 4th most powerful person in the imperial authority (first being the emperor Constantine V, then his wife Eudokia, then the co-emperor Leo, and lastly Irene). Now in Byzantine coronation tradition, the Patriarch of Constantinople was to crown the emperor symbolizing that the emperor got his authority from God, but the empress was not crowned by the patriarch but rather by the emperor showing she got her power from her husband, the emperor. Following the coronation, Leo presented Irene dressed in her golden dress and crown to the people of Constantinople from the balcony of the imperial palace. Leo then proceeded to the Church of the Virgin of the Pharos in the Imperial Palace Complex while Irene returned to her dressing room to change into her wedding gown, another conservative dress that covered almost her entire body, and then met up with Leo at the Pharos church where the Iconoclast patriarch of Constantinople married them and in attendance was Leo’s entire family including his father the emperor and the senate. At the end of the day, Irene was both crowned and married and with both ceremonies over, she and Leo changed back into more comfortable but still formal outfits for the banquet given to them by the emperor that night. The entire ceremony process would then end only 3 days later on December 20 with a bath ceremony held for Irene, except no one would see her bathe, instead as the palace officials and guards led her to her baths which was already prepared with the tub filled and towels and robes for her hanging, they left her alone to undress, fall into the tub, and take her time. Though now being married, Irene and Leo did not share the bedroom at all times but rather, Leo would frequently visit Irene in her bedchamber and in 770, Irene would be pregnant at 18 but everyone speculated if it would be a boy and true enough in January of 771, Irene gave birth to a healthy boy at the purple room of the imperial palace or Porphyria, a dark room with walls made of purple marble or porphyry and draped with purple silks. This now was another Byzantine imperial tradition as only the imperial wife or the wife of the imperial heir could give birth here as a way to secure the succession of their children to secure legitimacy as no one else but the imperial family had access to this room, and in 771 Irene and Leo’s son Constantine named after his grandfather the emperor was the second one to be born here, the first being Leo himself as well as his twin sister Anthousa in 750. With the birth of Constantine who was to be emperor one day, his grandfather the emperor who he was named after threw lavish celebrations including chariot races in the Hippodrome and the free distribution of the purple sherbet drink Lochozema to the people of the capital and after these celebrations, the baby Constantine dressed in a golden robe was presented to the people. With the celebrations over, the Patriarch of Constantinople baptized the baby Constantine, except unlike his grandfather back in 718 he did not defecate on the water though the emperor Constantine V who was right there in that exact same spot many years after this still remembered that embarrassing moment, at least from what he heard of. It was also here in her son’s baptism when Irene got herself acquainted with her in-laws such as the empress or Augusta Eudokia who was at least friendly with her- in this story’s case-, her sister-in-law Anthousa who was Leo’s twin wherein both her Irene would soon develop a strong bond as Anthousa also secretly supported the icons, and also Irene would meet the emperor’s much older sister Anna, who being 10 years older than Constantine V was still alive at 63 except she appeared to be cold and bitter as her brother blinded her husband Artavasdos and her sons with him leading to their deaths even if it was already almost 30 years ago, but where Irene and Anna would later find common ground was in their support for icons as Anna way back then- in this story’s case- led a resistance to restore the icons which failed when her brother took back the throne in 743 which also removed Anna as empress. 2 years later though- in this story’s case as history does not record it- Anna would die and Constantine V too would not have much longer to live.          

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Diagram of Byzantine Constantinople’s Imperial Palace Complex with the Hagia Sophia and Hippodrome
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Interior of the Hagia Sophia

Back in 800, the conversation between Irene and Nikephoros was already lasting until night and before they could call it a day, Irene proceeded to talk about her life as Leo IV’s Augusta or empress. Back in 768, a year before Irene came to Constantinople, the Bulgarians in the north got a new ruler of Khan which was Telerig and years later in 775, he successfully made Constantine V who was still alive reveal the names of his agents in Bulgaria and when finding about their identities, Telerig had them all executed which made Constantine V even more angry that he decided to again make preparations for another campaign against the Bulgars to the north.

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Church of the Holy Apostles, Constantinople, burial site of the Byzantine emperors

Before he could march on Bulgaria though, Constantine V while away from Constantinople in Thrace fell ill with a fever and on September 14 of 775, he died at 57, afterwards buried at the Church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople, the burial site of all the emperors since the empire’s founder Constantine I the Great (r. 306-337). Following the death of Constantine V, his son Leo IV immediately succeeded to throne without any difficulty as he was already made his father’s co-emperor since he was only a year old in 751 and Irene already being married to him immediately became the empress without any coronation ceremony as she was already crowned at the day of her wedding in 769. In 775 however, Leo IV at only 25 was already obviously in bad health suffering from tuberculosis and his condition disabled him from being a strong ruler in making critical decisions, therefore it was up to his 23-year-old wife Irene who was more able in body and mind to do them for him and one of Leo IV’s first acts done under Irene’s influence- in this story’s case- was to banish all of Leo’s 5 half-brothers as well as their mother Empress Eudokia in 776 who Irene saw them all as a potential threat.

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Emperor Leo IV the Khazar (r. 775-780), first husband of Irene (art by Androklos)

This incident that led to the banishing of Leo’s 5 half-brothers happened when Leo in 776 held a ceremony in the palace wherein he announced to his generals and palace officials that he was sick and did not have long enough to live and so here he proclaimed his 5-year-old son Constantine as his co-emperor, but the half-brothers were enraged and seeing Leo’s illness as a sign that one of them should soon enough take over the throne, the most ambitious of the 5 being the eldest one Nikephoros Caesar as well as the second brother Christopher the other Caesar hatched a plot to get one of them to succeed Leo. Leo shortly after discovered their plot but with his kindheartedness and relaxed personality, he instead chose to spare his 5 half-brothers and just banish them from the palace and strip off their titles forcing them live in the outskirts of Constantinople, though the conspirators from the palace staff that helped in their plot were banished to the cold and remote colony of Cherson in the what is now the Crimea (Ukraine), north of the Black Sea. Irene however thought of punishing her brothers-in-law more severely but since they were only teenagers without much ability in running an empire, she chose to go with her husband’s decision but deep inside Irene really wanted to act on them with force as she felt constantly annoyed with how they treated her, which was that in this story’s case, these brothers being quite unruly and unsophisticated lusted after Irene’s beauty and always attempted to seduce her, but she being smarter than them always avoided them at all times and when banishing them far away, she could get rid of them for good; and with the half-brothers only banished from the palace, this would only be their first attempted coup in taking the throne.

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Emperor Leo IV (left) with his son and co-emperor Constantine VI (right)

Now Leo IV on the other hand being close to his Iconoclast extremist father was also raised to be an Iconoclast although he was not an extremist as his marriage to Irene in this story’s case somewhat changed his worldview, and although he did not believe in the use of icons he at least tolerated it that his people believed in them as at the end it was only in the army where the hardline Iconoclasts lay while it was only mostly women, monks, and nuns that were strongly for the use of icons, and most of the population again according to History of Byzantium podcast did not really care if icons were legal or not. In his reign, Leo IV undid most of his grandfather and father’s extreme Iconoclast policies though not fully getting rid of Iconoclasm, instead only making it more moderate that he put an end to his father’s persecutions of Iconodules, though like his father, he sometimes had some Iconodule members in the imperial court fired or whipped only if they publicly showed icon veneration, but on the other hand he no longer continued having soldiers raid monasteries, arrest monks, and confiscate icons like his father did and instead he returned the monks his father banished back to their monasteries, thus the dystopian era of Iconoclasm was slowly dying down. Leo IV though did not really care about the whole point on breaking icons as he soon saw it was useless and only dividing the empire’s people, and with his failing health too he was more worried about it, and falling for Irene’s beauty here in this story, he listened to her on her opinions on how to deal with the issue on the icons. On the other hand, Leo and Irene would not have any more children aside from Constantine as Leo’s health condition made it hard for him to be with Irene often as she too did not want to be around too much with a sick husband who was constantly coughing.

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Khan Kardam of the Bulgars (r. 777-803)

When it came to ruling the empire though, there was not much significance in Leo IV’s reign except with one incident in 777 when the Bulgarian khan Telerig was ousted from the throne by the new khan Kardam making Telerig flee to Constantinople where Leo welcomed him, gave him the rank of patrician, and had him baptized as a Christian as here the Bulgars were still Pagan, though Telerig died later that year; and in 778 Leo despite his bad health decided to launch a campaign against the Abbasid Arabs in Syria as fighting a war was part of his bucket list before his death. The invasion Leo launched in 778 was a large one consisting of the armies of the Anatolic, Armeniac, Opsikion, Bucellarian, and Thracesian Themes all led by their own generals or Strategoi (singular: Strategos) and at the end, this campaign was successful in killing a large number of Arabs, winning a number of victories, taking back a large amount of spoils of war, and relocating a number of Syrian Christians to Thrace just as Constantine V did before, and the emperor at least got the honor of leading his men in battle. Later in 778, a triumphal procession in Constantinople was held for Leo IV and all the 5 generals who survived where all the spoils of war and Arab captives were paraded, though in the next year (779) the Abbasids struck back invading Eastern Asia Minor but Leo’s army again successfully won repelling the invasion. In 780, Leo IV decided to this time launch a campaign on Bulgaria against its new ruler Kardam but before he could even start, his health grew worse that in this story’s case Irene persuaded him to give up on it and rest and on September 8 of that year, Leo IV the Khazar died at only 30 from an extreme fever caused by his tuberculosis being the last effective ruler of his dynasty, the Isaurian Dynasty as his son Constantine VI at only 9 succeeded to the throne with his mother Irene as his full-time regent in which she will be for the most of Constantine VI’s reign. Irene ends her story here in 780 when she came to power already as the effective empress-regent for her son and here back to the setting in 800, she called it a day saying goodbye to the Logothete Nikephoros as Nikephoros returned to his house and Irene would return to her bedchamber which was not the empress’ room but the emperor’s as with no male emperor, she was free to occupy it.

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Cataphract cavalry, elite army of the Byzantine Themes
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Byzantine Cataphracts battle Arabs in Asia Minor

Watch this to learn more about Leo IV’s reign (Thersites the Historian).


The Background Part II- Irene as the Empress-Regent          

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In the year 800, a few days after Irene’s meeting with the new finance minister or Logothete Nikephoros at the Boukoleon Palace, Irene in a gold and purple imperial robe headed to the polo field of the Great Palace where she saw her advisor, the eunuch Aetios playing a game of Tzykanion or Polo who after seeing Irene stopped and rushed to her reporting about his rival eunuch Staurakios, Irene’s most trusted person before and here Aetios brought some sad news though happy for him which was that some weeks earlier on June 3 of that year, Staurakios had died from sickness in Cappadocia when raising an army to rebel against Irene and take over the throne despite being a eunuch, although Staurakios seeing that Irene took the throne even if she was a woman thought he could too even as a eunuch. Irene as the empress put most of her trust into the eunuchs as they were the people she was most acquainted with ever since she arrived in Constantinople back in 769, and eunuchs too being males without reproductive organs were the only men allowed into the women’s quarters as they could not do anything to a woman, though they had no ability to become emperor, they still had the power to influence one. However when Irene fell ill in 799, both eunuchs the younger one Aetios and older one Staurakios’ rivalry intensified and the reason for their rivalry was that the old-timer Staurakios felt threatened by the growing influence of the younger Aetios, but the rivalry had also something to do with the succession as Irene with her husband having died years ago and her son blinded and sent to a monastery being unable to rule again had no heir and she too did not want to remarry or adopt a son as she could also see them as a rival to her power, so without a named successor both eunuchs plotted to make each of their male relatives the next emperor, but neither of their plans succeeded. After Irene recovered a year earlier, she summoned both Aetios and Staurakios to a council to hear both sides of the story and at the end, she just dismissed Staurakios at least with an apology except doing nothing severe to him but only decreasing his power and feeling insulted, Staurakios headed over to Cappadocia to raise an army with the support of the Anatolic Theme’s Strategos which was the empire’s most powerful general against both Aetios and Irene but in June of this year (800), again after getting an illness that caused him to cough out blood, he died and his rebellion failed. Irene felt disappointed here as Staurakios was someone she put a lot of trust into and all of sudden after feeling cheated despite not being removed from his position, he rebelled, though to tell more about Staurakios, Irene here told Aetios the full story, that Staurakios was indeed a loyal official, general, and chef who Irene knew ever since she got to Constantinople and it was in 780 when she came to power as her son’s regent when the eunuch Staurakios also rose in influence.           

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Tzykanion, Byzantine polo (art by Amelianvs)

20 years earlier in 780, after Leo IV died his son with Irene Constantine VI became emperor at only 9, therefore the task was left to Irene to rule as the effective ruler of the empire as Constantine VI was too young to make his own decisions and Staurakios who in this story taught Irene the proper dining etiquette, introduced her to a number of cuisines including Byzantine, Arabic, Persian, and Frankish, turned Irene from a country girl to a sophisticated imperial woman, and helped secure her position as the empress-regent as a big percent of the army, mostly being the elite guard force or Tagmata opposed Irene as not only was she a woman but a supporter of the icons whereas most of the army were still extreme Iconoclasts undyingly loyal to the late Constantine V. The soldiers of the Tagmata refusing to answer to Irene and Constantine VI wanted a son of Constantine V on the throne and the perfect choice was the Caesar Nikephoros, the most ambitious of Constantine V’s 5 sons with Eudokia that were banished from the palace 4 years earlier, and although Nikephoros was never really a strong Iconoclast but he did have some imperial ambitions and so here in 780 he was proclaimed emperor by the Tagmata army in honor of their hero Constantine V, although just a month after the plot was hatched, Irene discovered it and had the conspiracy leaders exiled and Nikephoros and his 4 younger brothers made priests as a way to prevent them from taking the throne as priests and monks were also unqualified to rule. To confirm to the people that Nikephoros Caesar and his 4 brothers were made priests, Irene had them perform the communion service at the Christmas Day Mass of 780 at the Hagia Sophia and here the 25-year-old Nikephoros who was tall and muscular in appearance with large and dark curly hair, pale skin, and a long nose looked the most humiliated being forced to give communion to the people at the Mass. In 781 then, Staurakios was appointed by Irene as the empire’s foreign minister or Logothetes tou Dromou as Irene trusted eunuchs above all as her ministers and generals were still loyal to the late Constantine V and therefore strong Iconoclasts and as for Staurakios, the contemporary historian Theophanes the Confessor (758-817) would call him “the foremost man of his day and in charge of everything” as if Irene was the power behind Constantine VI, then Staurakios was the power behind her. It was also in 781 when the Frankish king Charles I, later known as Charlemagne who had ruled the Frankish Kingdom since 768 first came into the Byzantine scene when Irene considered making an alliance with him by marrying her son Constantine VI to Charlemagne’s 6-year-old daughter Rotrude, known as Erythro by the Byzantine Greeks and Irene herself even sent Byzantine scholars to the Frankish Kingdom to educate the young Rotrude in the Greek language and Byzantine customs. In 782 meanwhile, the war between the Byzantines and their eastern neighbor the Arab Abbasid Caliphate would resume when the caliph Al-Mahdi launched an invasion on Byzantine Asia Minor with an army of 100,000 men led by his son Harun al-Rashid as payback for their defeat to the Byzantines under Leo IV back in 778 and 779, and this totally shocked Irene but still acting strong, she had the armies of the Themes in Asia Minor counter-attack, except things only got worse when the Strategos of the Bucellarian Theme (located in Northwest Asia Minor) Tatzates defected the Abbasids, thus the Byzantines despite having a strong army with the elite Cataphract cavalry was defeated, although Tatzates still suggested to Harun to make negotiations with the Byzantines. Imperial envoys from Constantinople including Staurakios would meet up with Harun in Asia Minor where they would be captured by Harun’s Arab forces while Harun only agreed to release them if Irene was to pay off the Abbasids a tribute of 70,000 gold dinars and 10,000 silk garments a year for the next 3 years, and not wanting any trouble Irene agreed to it. Irene however was deeply humiliated with her defeat to the Arabs and so to make up for it in order to gain back her popularity, in the next year (783) she sent Staurakios to command an army to campaign in Greece against the Slavic tribes that had settled there for almost 2 centuries. Staurakios marched into Greece by land from Constantinople passing through Thrace heading east to Macedonia, then south to Thessaly, and finally to the Peloponnese in Southern Greece where at the end of the year he managed to take back a large amount of territory from the Slavs and in early 784 when returning to Constantinople, the victorious eunuch general Staurakios was awarded with a triumph. Now satisfied with reconquering most of Greece in 784, Irene returned to consolidating her rule and even though only the empress-regent for her son, she put her image on the right side of the coins even if that space was reserved for the emperor which was where her son was supposed to be, but instead Constantine VI was only put on the left as Irene wanted to show that she was actually the one really wielding power.

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Patriarch Tarasios of Constantinople, appointed by Irene in 784

Irene then would turn to the more serious issue of Iconoclasm and how to end it as in her husband’s reign it had already been dying down and now running the empire, she wanted to achieve the legacy of ending Iconoclasm but it was such a challenge as most of the army was still for it and the policy had been already in effect for more than 50 years and so for Irene, she would only have to wait for the right moment to put an end to it, and luckily in 784 too, the Iconoclast Patriarch of Constantinople Paul IV who Leo IV appointed in 780 had died and when selecting a new candidate for patriarch, Irene as usual when it came to appointing people loyal to her chose her loyal secretary and fellow Iconophile Tarasios as the new Patriarch of Constantinople who despite having no background as a priest and being rather oblivious at most times was a skilled scholar especially in philosophy and theology and after being ordained, he became patriarch and would work to restore icons. In 785, Irene wrote a letter to Pope Hadrian I in Rome signed both by her and her son Constantine VI which was to approve a council aimed to undo all the Iconoclast policies by Leo III and Constantine V before them and return to the old ways of venerating icons, and in return the pope approved of it if both mother and son were to follow his spiritual guidance.       

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Army of the Arab Abbasid Caliphate

Back in the present setting of 800, Irene after her discussion with Aetios in the polo field headed to one of the storage rooms in the palace alone where she saw an old coin of her with her son with her on the right side as well as a coin of her late husband Leo IV with their son on the obverse and on the reverse were the images of Leo IV’s father Constantine V and grandfather Leo III who founded the dynasty and since this coin was minted in the Iconoclast period, no religious images such as Christ were to be seen and instead images of the imperial family were put but with Iconoclasm over in Irene’s time, religious images returned to imperial coins.

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Coin of Irene and Constantine VI with Irene on the right

Another thing Irene found in the storage room was a document signed in the council of 787 that restored the use of icons. Now back to 786, Irene together with Patriarch Tarasios made their first attempt to end Iconoclasm by holding a Church Council at the Church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople, the burial site of the emperors but before the negotiations even started, the Iconoclast soldiers of the Tagmata force, most of them having served Constantine V were still at it and attacked the church by firing arrows at it in honor of the late Constantine V and being too distracted, Irene decided to not push through with it and so the council was disbanded leaving the soldiers to lift their siege on the church. Irene was still intent to hold a council and in order to do it safely, she decided to hold it in the next year in the city of Nicaea right across the Sea of Marmara from Constantinople and to keep the Iconoclast soldiers distracted in order to peacefully hold the council, she sent them to all corners of the empire to defend it including to the eastern border to fight off the Abbasids.

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2nd Council of Nicaea in 787, Irene and Constantine VI leading it

On September 24 of 787, the Second Council of Nicaea was held with Irene together with Patriarch Tarasios and Emperor Constantine VI as well as 365 bishops and 136 priests and monks in attendance and the council was made to discuss the restoration of religious icons was held in the Hagia Sophia of Nicaea which was also its senate hall and was the same place where the first Byzantine emperor Constantine I held the First Church Council in 325 that set the official creed for Christianity. At the end, all agreed that icons were to be restored and legalized once again, coming up with the statement that Christ had been seen on earth as a human, therefore he can be pictured. The final meeting was then held back in the Magnaura or Great Hall of the imperial palace in Constantinople on October 13 of 787 where the declaration to restore icons was signed by both Irene and Constantine VI, although Irene as usual of her signed it first to assert her authority, but no matter who signed first, the period of Iconoclasm ended right here and from here on, icons were to be restored all across the empire, although Iconoclasm was still around with the soldiers still loyal to Constantine V still in their posts. It also happened that in 787 Constantine VI turned 16 and at that age, the emperor was already expected to rule alone but, in this case, Irene never trained him to be an emperor as she still wanted to continue ruling for him, as she after getting a taste of power never wanted to let go of it.         

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End of Iconoclasm at the 2nd Council of Nicaea, 787
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Coin of Emperors Leo IV and Constantine VI (left) and Leo III and Constantine V (right)
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Empress Irene restores icons (art by Ediacar)

Irene back in 800 remembering holding the last meeting of the council at the Magnaura of the palace returned there to see it once again while it was not being used for the meantime and when stepping foot there again, she remembered another incident that happened there in 788 which was the first ever imperial bride-show in Byzantine history organized by Irene for her son Constantine VI wherein he was to choose his bride. Though before this bride-show, Constantine VI was still engaged to the King of the Franks Charlemagne’s daughter Rotrude except that here in 787 Irene feared that if her son married Rotrude then Charlemagne would attempt to claim the Byzantine throne so to avoid that possibility, Irene cancelled the engagement against her son’s wishes, though this only enraged Charlemagne using this as an excuse to invade and attack Byzantine territory in Southern Italy as well as the Istrian Peninsula (Northeast Italy) in 788.

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Emperor Constantine VI (r. 780-797), son of Irene and Leo IV

With the engagement broken off, Irene organized a bride-show in Magnaura of the imperial palace wherein several daughters of noble families from across the empire were brought there and the imperial heir was to choose one of them to be his wife, instead here the teenage Constantine had no say and instead Irene chose the bride for him which was the pious and plain looking Maria of Amnia, a Greekfrom Central Asia Minor and the reason for this- in this story’s case- was that Irene wanted her son to still think she was the most beautiful person to him. Constantine VI however totally resented not being able to choose his wife but he still married Maria out of respect for his mother but because of not being able to make his own choice even in choosing his wife, this is when the bitter conflict between Constantine VI and his mother would begin and from here on, Constantine would never want to follow his mother’s advice and would even distance himself from her. By 790 with Irene still never wanting to let go of power, Constantine VI at 19 came up with a plot and here betraying his cause of restoring icons as to gain a big support base, he sided with the still Iconoclasts in the army who hated Irene and the aim of their conspiracy was to banish Irene to the still Byzantine-held Sicily and have all her ministers including Staurakios banished. Irene however learned about the plot before it came to full effect and to punish Constantine for plotting against her, his own mother, she put him under arrest in his room in the imperial palace and his conspirators either arrested and turned into monks. Some months later though, civil war was about to erupt between the forces loyal to Irene and those loyal to her son and the majority of them from Asia Minor was loyal to Constantine VI proving they could defeat the forces of the European side of the empire loyal to Irene and so here later in 790 the army of the Armeniac Theme rebelled proclaiming Constantine VI as the sole emperor and fearing the possibility of civil war, Irene released her son to please the troops loyal to him. Though when being released, Constantine VI was still against his mother and so to get back at her for putting him in room arrest, he in return had her placed under house arrest at the Palace of Eleutherius outside Constantinople which she had built, while a number of her ministers were banished to the far corners of the empire and Staurakios was at first whipped in public and then exiled to the Armeniac Theme. Constantine VI now was fully in charge of the empire and highly popular, except having no proper training to run an empire from his mother and her officials, he proved to be weak in decision making, easily persuaded, could not think for himself, and the worst part was that he soon lost a lot of allies when he showed that he was not really a real Iconoclast and only used it as a way to gain support.

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Harun al-Rashid, Caliph of the Abbasid Caliphate (786-809)

In 791, the new Abbasid Caliph Harun al-Rashid who back in 782 attacked Byzantine Asia Minor, after coming to power over the Abbasid Caliphate in 786 launched another attack into Byzantine Asia Minor and here the Abbasid Arabs won a victory over the Byzantine forces, thus Constantine VI’s incompetence in ruling the empire was exposed especially when he agreed to pay heavy tribute to the Abbasids. Still wanting to prove he was not overall incapable in leading the empire, in the following year (792), he personally launched a campaign against the Bulgars in the north leading the army in battle himself although the Bulgar khan Kardam here already knew the Byzantine army was weak hearing of their defeat to the Arabs the previous year and so he used this to his advantage. Constantine VI unsurprisingly headed off to battle with his troops poorly prepared and he not knowing about the landscape of the battlefield and the result was complete disaster here for the Byzantines at the Battle of Marcellae, in which was the exact same place his grandfather Constantine V defeated the Bulgars back in 756. The Battle of Marcellae here in 792 then ended with a significant part of the Byzantine army destroyed, most of the Byzantines’ valuables and coins as well as horses seized by the Bulgars, and even the emperor’s tent captured by Kardam whereas Constantine VI fled to save his life returning back to Constantinople. Following his defeat, Constantine VI even lost more allies that he had no choice but to release his mother Irene from palace arrest and return her to power as his empress-regent and by doing this, the Iconoclast troops especially the Tagmata saw this as Constantine’s complete betrayal of them that later on in 792, the Tagmata dragged Constantine’s uncle Nikephoros now a priest out of the monastery he was sent to and proclaimed him for the 3rd time as emperor, though this time he no longer had any intentions of being emperor and had nothing against Constantine VI and so did his younger brothers. When hearing of this plot against him, Constantine VI had his uncle Nikephoros brutally blinded even if he had no intention to rebel while for the other uncles Christopher, Niketas, Eudokimos, and Anthimos, Constantine only had their tongues cut out even if they were completely innocent as here in this story, Constantine found his uncles to be nothing but very loud and annoying anyway, and afterwards, they were all imprisoned in a monastery outside Constantinople. With Irene restored to power, she also restored her exiled ministers including Staurakios back to their positions while here the eunuch Aetios would come into the picture already rising to prominence in the imperial court.

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Byzantine imperial bride show for Constantine VI, 788
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Bulgar army at the Battle of Marcellae, 792

Watch this to learn more about Constantine VI’s reign (Thersites the Historian).


The Background Part III- Irene’s rise to Sole Empress          

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In the present setting, time had already gone by and here it was already early in the year 801 with Irene still as sole empress while Tarasios who was appointed as Patriarch of Constantinople back in 784 was still the reigning patriarch. On this winter day in 801, a function was to be held later that night wherein ambassadors from the Frankish Kingdom were to come over to Constantinople to bring in some news and Irene here was anxious of it. Irene though was also thinking of what to wear for the event and what she had in mind was something quite unusual and this dress of hers was in her dressing room in the palace and as she headed there, she met up with her old friend and sister-in-law Anthousa, Leo IV’s twin sister who was now 51 here but still looked like she hadn’t aged like Irene too.

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Anthousa, twin sister of Leo IV, sister-in-law of Irene

Now Anthousa had not appeared in quite a long time but in the past when Irene was empress-regent for her son, she asked Anthousa a number of times to be her co-regent but Anthousa refused as she was a simple woman who chose to live a simple life. In real history, Anthousa spent most of her life as a nun but in this story’s case, she lived half the year every year as a nun in a nunnery and the other half in the imperial palace. Anthousa like all women in her Iconoclast family was devoted to religious icons and in rebellion against her father Constantine V many years ago who asked her to marry, she instead refused and chose a monastic life which she would live half the year. Just like her twin brother Leo IV, Anthousa also had strong Oriental features such as small gray eyes, and like Leo she had brown hair and pale skin but was much taller compared to Leo, though despite living a monastic life, in the palace she wore the silk palace dress worn by imperial princesses but beneath it, she wore an uncomfortable hair-shirt which was a vest made up of irritating animal hair worn for repentance purposes, which reflected her vow of simplicity and here she was wearing just that. Irene on the other hand was the opposite and loved wearing elaborate dresses which was something she adapted to all these years in the palace and right here as she was going to be all dressed up, Anthousa who also her personal assistant was to fix her hair and help her dress up. When Irene put on a silk dressing robe as Anthousa was to fix her hair, Irene would continue telling her story on how she became the sole empress and it was here in 792 when she was restored to power by her son when she asked Anthousa to be her co-regent, but Anthousa refused.

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Inside Constantinople’s Great Palace

          

In 792, despite Irene coming back to power, Constantine VI still asserted himself as the effective emperor, though Irene was still more popular here and she would do all it took to make her son fail in order to fully get him out of the way and this included, in this story’s case encouraging him to brutally suppress a revolt in the Armeniac Theme wherein Constantine had the general Alexios Mosele blinded, and out of his own cruelty he massacred a large number of the rebellious population in the Theme, thus the people of this Theme who had strongly supported him became his biggest enemy. Constantine VI though with his wife Maria of Amnia back in 790 had a daughter named Euphrosyne, thus making Irene a grandmother at 38, although with his wife Constantine failed to produce sons and in 794 when getting tired of his boring wife chose to divorce her, which was an illegal act although Patriarch Tarasios ignored it and the divorce happened, but it created a lot of controversy as it was against Church Law making many monks turn on Constantine VI and side with Irene. Constantine VI later in 795 would marry his long-time mistress Theodote, a Greek beauty, though this would even make the tensions between him and his mother even stronger and here with the monks supporting Irene because of her devotion to icons, her support base was even stronger than that of her sons’. In 795 as well, Constantine VI launched another campaign against the Bulgars in which he was successful at this time although no one cheered for him in the empire as he was rapidly losing his popularity. In 797, Constantine VI resumed his campaigns in the east as Caliph Harun al-Rashid continued raiding into Asia Minor again but before even going that far as when Constantine was at the baths in the city of Prusa in the Opsikion Theme right across the Marmara Sea from Thrace, he received fake news that the caliph withdrew his forces before he even began the war, although it was only Irene who came up with this as a way to get her son back to the capital and so Constantine returned to capital, however when returning he just realized literally everyone in the capital turned on him that people threw stones at him and shouted insults at him calling him “loser” and “idiot”. Constantine then decided to flee Constantinople when seeing everyone was against him but when reaching the dock at the Bosporus, the Tagmata guards had already been bribed by Irene, therefore they seized Constantine, beat him up, chained him, and dragged him to the imperial palace. Here on August 17 of 797, the unconscious Constantine VI woke up in the exact same purple room he was born in 26 years ago in 771 where he was met by his very enraged mother who was tired of having to deal with her incompetent and cowardly son and ruling with him, and thinking imprisoning or exiling him was not enough as someone would again return him to power, Irene would instead commit one of the most brutal acts in Byzantine history and in the dark and creepy purple room where he was born in 26 years ago was the last thing Constantine would see as here, the brutal emperor was brutally blinded by a court eunuch which in this story’s case was Aetios acting on Irene’s orders. Some sources including Robin Pierson in the History of Byzantium Podcast say that with the blinding being so brutal, Constantine VI would die shortly after, although this story would go with the version that after his blinding, Constantine VI was sent by ship just to one of the islands in the Marmara Sea known as the Princes’ Islands just a few kilometers from Constantinople to be put in monastery arrest for the rest of his life dying years later. Just right after Constantine VI was blinded, an unnatural natural event took place in Constantinople which was a solar eclipse and here for 17 days straight, the sky turned black although right here as Justinianus put it, Irene did not feel any sense of guilt at all and instead totally felt like she did not care while the rest of Constantinople’s people saw this solar eclipse as an act of God punishing Irene for blinding her son.  

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Meme of Irene blinding Constantine VI, 797

           

Back in 801 as Anthousa continued doing Irene’s hair, Irene recalled this solar eclipse that began her reign as the sole empress in 797 and even though she was already the sole empress, she was not fully secure and popular as everyone knew she blinded her son and even for the Byzantine society that was used to all this violence and blinding, they could not accept the fact of a mother blinding her son for her own gain, although Irene only saw it as necessary as her son was ruining the empire anyway with his brutality and incompetence. Irene’s first act as the sole empress was to compensate for this vile act to make herself more loved again, and to do this she had to do something no Byzantine ruler would do which was to cut taxes for the people of Constantinople in half as well as lower the taxes for imports and exports, though for the nobility most saw this as an act of weakness shown by Irene as a strong emperor would always think of increasing taxes. The people of the empire meanwhile were not as surprised with Irene as the sole empress as ever since the early days in the 5th century, the Byzantine Empire had moments of being ruled by a strong woman figure behind her husband, son, or brother, but Irene was the first one to rule alone not as a regent but as an empress with full imperial power. In the history of Byzantium, the empire had seen everyone from aristocratic or low-born generals, to palace officials, to common soldiers, even a tribal chieftain, and a low-ranking tax official become emperor, but here it was unusual as it was the first time a woman who was not even from the ruling dynasty but instead only married to it that became the ruler of the empire.

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Coin of Empress Irene as the sole empress

On the other hand, with Irene being a woman, a portion of the army in Asia Minor in 797 rebelled and for the 4th time chose to elevate the Caesar Nikephoros despite having been blinded back in 792 as emperor. Irene discovering another plot to make her brother-in-law Nikephoros emperor again acted quick and had Nikephoros’ 4 younger brothers blinded too, and had them all moved to Athens to get them further away where Irene’s surviving family members would watch over them. However, in 799 another plot made by the army in Greece which was of the Hellas Theme again chose to proclaim Nikephoros as emperor and when hearing about this, Irene had all 5 brothers moved out of Athens to one of the Princes’ Islands in the Marmara near Constantinople- though not the one Constantine VI was in- to keep them under closer watch. At the same time, the threat of the Abbasid Arabs was still at large in the east and Irene not wanting to continue conflicts with them as there was so much in her mind, chose to pay tribute again to Caliph Harun al-Rashid, which was an amount even bigger than what her son had to pay. Irene then moved on to talking about her illness just 2 years earlier wherein Staurakios and Aetios used it to have a power struggle between themselves but Irene on the other hand in this story’s case, when getting this illness would start feeling some guilt for blinding her son, seeing the illness as a punishment from God for doing just that. Here in 801, Irene was now feeling guilty for the blinding but with a big function that was to happen later that day, Irene had to hide her emotions, which was something she learned when being trained the proper court etiquette many years ago. With Irene’s hair now completed styled in a way with her wavy hair put down in an orderly way, Irene stood up and headed behind the dressing curtain to take off her dressing robe and begin putting on her dress for the night. The dress Irene was going to wear was something unusual for the conservative Byzantines as it showed a lot of skin exposing her shoulders and upper chest though in length it extended all the way to the floor and this purple silk dress with a gold lining at her chest was to be wrapped around her body and here Anthousa did the job of wrapping the dress around Irene’s torso and to keep it in place so the dress wouldn’t slip out, a silver belt with gems was put over Irene’s waist. Now this revealing purple silk dress had already appeared in the universe of this Byzantine Alternate History series in chapter III worn by the 6th century empress Theodora (527-548) and her successor empress Sophia (565-578), and as for Irene in the universe of this fan fiction series, when discovering old documents from the 6th century, she decided to replicate with the exact same style, although no one really saw her in it except her late husband Leo IV once when he was emperor between 775 and 780 and her son Constantine VI as Irene always tried to make herself look attractive in front of them. As the end result, Irene at 48 still looked exceptionally attractive in figure wearing this and all prepared for the function that night.          

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Empress Irene in the purple silk dress (art by Powee Celdran)

After Irene got all dressed, the function at the Magnaura of the Imperial Palace began and the important guests included Irene’s loyalists Aetios, Anthousa, Nikephoros the Logothete, the patriarch Tarasios, and Irene’s cousin Theophano Sarantapechaina all the way from Athens, a woman who looked much like Irene except younger and a bit on the fat side though still attractive with thick long hair and brown eyes. Theophano of Athens was indeed a real historical character who became empress later on though it was only said she was a relative of Irene, however in this story’s case Theophano would be Irene’s younger first cousin and the daughter of her uncle Constantine who here was the current Strategos of the Hellas Theme. Of course, in this function there was sophisticated food and cocktails as well as wines from Greece and Asia Minor, though when seeing Irene enter some people were shocked to see how much of her bare skin was exposed when wearing that dress but others were in awe seeing how attractive she still was even at 48, but on the other hand the dress was very comfortable and soft for Irene. The main purpose of this function however was that everyone was here to receive word from Charlemagne’s Frankish Kingdom in Western Europe, although news did not come from Charlemagne’s capital of Aachen but from Rome itself, which now had been independent from the Byzantine Empire since 754 and put under the Papal States ruled by the pope, though under the protection of the Frankish Kingdom.

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Frankish Empire fashion

The Frankish ambassadors were already right here in the palace looking very distinct with their unkempt blonde hair and beards and dressed in wool tunics and cloaks with at least some gold trimmings, except their attire was not as sophisticated like the silks the Byzantines here were wearing. When meeting Irene, the ambassadors already told her the headline of their report in Latin, which Irene here in this story knew a bit of, though when hearing it she seemed to dread it and afterwards she announced it to everyone in Greek. The dreadful news that Irene announced to everyone here is that on Christmas Day of the previous year (800), the pope in Rome Leo III– not to be confused with Emperor Leo III the Isaurian- crowned the King of the Franks Charlemagne “Roman emperor” or Augustus for his valor and dedication to the Church of Rome, and even though his title of “Roman emperor” was only honorary, he still had an empire a lot larger and more powerful than that of the Byzantines. The people in the room were deeply offended hearing this while both Aetios and Nikephoros the Logothete even shouted out here “how dare he! He has no claim to our empire, he even has no trace of Roman origins”, though Irene remembering her court training did not react in such a way, instead she only remained still and thought of what the news could mean, but instead she only remembered Charlemagne as the man whose daughter her son was supposed to marry. For the Byzantines meanwhile, hearing of a Germanic Frankish barbarian in the west which was Charlemagne who had no trace of Roman origins was insulting and had hurt their pride as the Byzantine Empire being the Eastern Roman Empire was the legitimate Roman Empire that in fact in their time they even called themselves that, basically Romania meaning “Roman Land” and them as people of their empire called themselves Romaioi in Greek meaning “Romans”, while the name for them “Byzantines” which these alternate history stories use was in fact only a 16th century invention used only after the Byzantine Empire was gone. If you also remember back in chapters I and II of this alternate history series respectively set in the 4th and 5th centuries, the Byzantines or Eastern Romans were still referred to as “Romans”, though after the end of the Western Roman Empire in 476, by chapter III of this series, the Eastern Romans were already referred to as “Byzantines”. The Byzantines of Constantinople had every right to be the legitimate Roman Empire as their city was founded by the Roman emperor Constantine I the Great in 330 as the empire’s capital, the eastern half of the empire based in Constantinople too was the superior empire over the western half after the old Roman Empire was divided in 395 following the death of Emperor Theodosius I the Great (r. 379-395), and after the Western Roman Empire based in Ravenna was dissolved in 476 the east was the only surviving Roman Empire whereas the west fell to several barbarian kingdoms. Now back in this function in the palace, after hearing the news of Charlemagne’s coronation as “Roman emperor”, the people attending feeling the pride of their empire being insulted all left leaving only Irene and her cousin Theophano in the room before both went back to their quarters in the palace. Irene though was deeply angered inside as in the entire history of Byzantium, foreign rulers especially from the west would get the approval of the Byzantine emperor to rule their own lands but now everything changed with Charlemagne not getting Byzantine approval to be crowned but to be crowned as a Roman emperor when there was still in fact a Roman Empire (Byzantium) and this could have been because for one the pope who crowned him was no longer answering to the Byzantine Empire after all these years of conflict with them and Iconoclasm, and also because Irene was a woman therefore she could not be accepted as a Roman emperor by Charlemagne and the pope, therefore times had totally changed.   

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Magnaura of Constantinople’s Imperial Palace (art by Byzantine Tales)

Watch this to learn more about Irene’s reign (Thersites the Historian).


The Climax Part I- Charlemagne and Irene’s Marriage        

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In the year 800 as the 9th century opens, the world looked all different compared to what it was in the previous 3 centuries as here in the western part of the world, a massive empire covered what is now all of France except the northwest peninsula of Brittany which was only a vassal state of it, almost all of what is now Germany, as well as Austria, Northern Italy, and Northern Spain and this empire was the Frankish Empire (Carolingian Empire) of Charlemagne. The Middle East as well as North Africa and all the way east up to Central Asia and what is now Pakistan was under the Arab Abbasid Caliphate of Baghdad now in a golden age under Caliph Harun al-Rashid, although most of Spain which was under the rule of Islam did not fall under the new Abbasid Caliphate but rather still remained a remnant state of the old Umayyad Caliphate known as the Umayyad Emirate based in the city of Cordoba. In the far east meanwhile, China was under the Tang Dynasty which ruled it for already almost 2 centuries and was still strongly ruling the land. In the middle of this all was no other than Irene’s Byzantine Empire and compared to the 3 other major empires of this age which was that of Charlemagne’s Franks, the Abbasid Caliphate, and the Tang Chinese Empire, Byzantium looked the weakest, most battered, and most bankrupt out of all of them and because of the current state the Byzantine Empire was in, Charlemagne thought that with the size and power of his empire, he also had every right to be the rightful Roman emperor, even if he was a Frank and so were his people and his only connection to Imperial Rome being that he and his people were Catholic Christians in which the faith dates back to the time of the old Roman Empire made the empire’s official religion- back when it was still one with the Orthodox faith- in 381 at the Council of Constantinople led by Emperor Theodosius I.

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Clovis I, King of the Franks (r. 481-511)

Now if you remember, the Frankish Kingdom was first mentioned in chapter II of this series as well as in chapter III when it was founded by King Clovis I in 481 using the disintegration of the Western Roman Empire to his advantage in taking over what was once Roman Gaul beginning in the north and in a quick amount of time he consolidated his rule and that of his Germanic Frankish people over Gaul (France) by crushing the last Roman remnant state there known as the Kingdom of Soissons in 486 and in 507 defeating the Kingdom of the Visigoths that had occupied Southern Gaul forcing the Visigoths to flee south to Spain and thus the Franks consolidated their rule over Gaul which under them became Frankia. Clovis I died in 511 establishing the Merovingian Dynasty of the Franks which lasted for more than 2 centuries ending in 751 when the last Merovingian Frankish king Childeric III was deposed and the rule over the kingdom known as Frankia was passed on to Pepin I (r. 751-768), Charlemagne’s father who was also known for recognizing Rome as independent from Byzantium making it the Papal States.

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Charles Martel battles the Umayyads at Tours, 732

Meanwhile Charlemagne’s grandfather who was his father Pepin’s father was the famous Frankish general Charles Martel, who if you recall from the last chapter defeated an invading force of the Umayyad Arabs from Spain that had invaded Frankia at the Battle of Tours in 732, and Charlemagne whose real name was Charles was named after his grandfather. Charlemagne or Charles I then was born in 742 though his place of birth is unknown, except some say it was either Aachen in Germany or Liege in Belgium. With the death of his father Pepin I in 768, Charles succeeded as ruler of the Frankish Kingdom together with his younger brother Carloman I as co-rulers except both were at odds with each other and when Carloman suddenly died in 771, Charles took over the entire Frankish Kingdom. As the Frankish king, Charles I’ mission was to unite all Germanic people into one empire and doing this required a lot of military campaigns and conquests and Charles himself was a talented military leader and warrior.

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Seal of the Lombard Kingdom of Italy, conquered by Charlemagne in 774

Earlier on in his reign, Charles I had fully conquered the Lombard Kingdom in Italy in 774 that had been there since 568 which had been a major threat to the pope in Rome for years and with this conquest, all of Northern Italy fell under the rule of the Franks, and at the same time the pope in Rome saw Charles and the Franks as a new ally they could trust as they got rid of the Lombards for them and unlike the Byzantines who the pope saw as untrustworthy and destroyers of sacred icons, they saw the Franks in the opposite way as respectful and trustworthy Christians despite being warlike and greedy people. At the same time as his conquest of the Lombards in Italy, Charles I was also busy with his wars against the still Pagan Saxon people of the Northern Germany which would go on for 3 long decades beginning 772 and when Irene considered her son Constantine VI marrying Charles’ daughter Rotrude in 781, Charles could not really focus on this diplomatic move as he was too busy with his war against the Saxons.

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Seal of the Frankish Kingdom of Charlemagne

At the same time too, Charles had launched campaigns in the east against the still surviving Avar Khanate in Central Europe that had been a threat to the Byzantines back in the 7th century and as part of his campaigns in the east and south, he put what is now Austria and Bavaria under his rule. Charles too had campaigned in Northern Spain preventing the advance of the Umayyad Emirate there and in the process, he created a number of small states in the Pyrenees Mountains bordering what is now France and Spain known as the Spanish Marches and one of these states created here still exists today as the small country of Andorra. For all his successful conquests which was also aimed at converting the still Pagan people he conquered like the Saxons and for giving a generous amount of money to the Church, Pope Leo III in Rome decided to crown Charles becoming known as Charlemagne or “Charles the Great” (Carolus Magnus in Latin) as an emperor equivalent to what would be a Roman emperor in authority, although the pope’s main intention- in this story’s case- to do this was to assert the power of the west as the dominant empire over the weakened Byzantines which was ruled by a woman, therefore seeing that the position of the Roman emperor that was seen here as the ruler and protector of the civilized world was vacant.

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Pope Leo III, crowned Charlemagne emperor in 800

Now the Franks here had stuck to a 3-century old succession law known as Salic Law (Lex Salica in Latin) dating all the way back to 500 made by their king Clovis I where a major statement of it says “But of Salic land no portion of the inheritance shall come to a woman: but the whole inheritance of the land shall come to the male sex”, literally meaning women were excluded from inheriting land the rule over it, and although this law was the law over the Frankish lands and serves as a basis to modern European law, it did not apply in the Byzantine Empire. Charlemagne on the other hand never really made a claim to the Eastern Roman Empire and in fact Charlemagne’s biographer Einhard (775-840) who knew Charlemagne in person says that Charlemagne was surprised when the pope decided to crown him as an emperor for there has been no ruler in the western world that held the title of “emperor” or more particularly “Augustus” since the last Western Roman emperor Romulus Augustus who deposed in 476 while the rest of the barbarian rulers after him inly used the title of “king”, although another interesting fact about Charlemagne being crowned as an Augustus was that the pope saw him as the only Augustus for the rulers of Byzantium even stopped using this title since the reign of the Byzantine emperor Heraclius (610-641) and instead used the Greek word for emperor “Basileus”. The Franks meanwhile despite originally being Germanic barbarians saw themselves as the most civilized of the Germanic people and the cultural successors of Imperial Rome even if their people’s DNA was not Roman or Italian but Germanic, and it could also be for this reason why Charlemagne being a Frank was crowned as a Roman emperor in 800. Now having been crowned as a Roman emperor, Charlemagne had to make sure he did his part in it which meant that in his capital of Aachen, he constructed impressive buildings such as his imperial palace and the cathedral in Romanesque architecture, as well as the baths as the city was built in natural springs, but also, he improved arts and culture adopting the Byzantine style of mosaics for his buildings and their lavish fashion as well after learning about the lavish Byzantine world from ambassadors he sent there.

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Carolingian Minuscule

In addition, he styled Aachen to look like the former Byzantine capital of Italy which was Ravenna and to promote arts and culture in his empire to make it match that of Byzantium, he spent a lot of money on academies and teachers, and also he would set a standard writing for the Latin alphabet known as the Carolingian Minuscule, and overall his project in promoting art and culture for his empire would be forever remembered as the Carolingian Renaissance, Carolingian coming from his name Charles as well as his dynasty named Charles Martel, his grandfather.   

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Expansion of the Frankish Empire from Clovis I to Charlemagne (481-814)
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Charlemagne’s Frankish army battle the Saxons in Germany
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Charlemagne’s Imperial Palace Complex, Aachen
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Charlemagne crowned by Pope Leo III in Rome, 800

       

Back in Constantinople, Irene when hearing all about Charlemagne’s achievements in the west which was not only conquests but in introducing a cultural Renaissance in the forsaken lands of Western Europe that slipped out of Roman control for more than 3 centuries which included even issuing laws called Capitularies in the style of the Roman emperors was impressed. On the other hand- in this story’s case- Irene also felt a sense of insecurity that someone in the west who was not even a Roman but a Germanic Frank was achieving the same kind of successes the Roman (and Byzantine emperors), and not wanting to feel left out, Irene thought of coming up with a solution to join the two empires together back into one single Roman Empire again like it was before 395, and if Irene almost attempted at doing this before by considering marrying her son Constantine VI to Charlemagne’s daughter Rotrude, she this time thought of doing it again but instead it would be her turn to marry Charlemagne himself as Irene for over 20 years now was a widow and Charlemagne too was a widower whose wife Fastrada died back in 794.

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Charlemagne crowned by Pope Leo III, 800

Now history is never really clear if Charlemagne proposed to Irene to marry her but the same contemporary Byzantine source of Irene’s time, Theophanes the Confessor says Irene considered marrying Charlemagne for political reasons but this scheme was immediately frustrated by her powerful eunuch advisor Aetios. In this story’s case, Irene here mid 802 after receiving a later from Charlemagne who was asking to marry her as a way to unite their empires and save her empire from falling apart and being bankrupt as she knew Charlemagne’s empire being larger was also richer, while Charlemagne also saw this marriage as necessary as he did not also want his empire to be in conflict with another Roman Empire, so it was better that two empires would stand stronger as one. Here in this story, Aetios would be first to discover Irene’s objective to marry Charlemagne and unite their empires and immediately he objected to it, not because he was loyal to Irene and did not want to see the empire fall to the hands of a foreign barbarian but rather for Aetios’ own gain as deep inside, he was actually conspiring to take over the throne if Irene were to die, although being a eunuch he could not rule the empire alone but rather rule through his brother Leo who was to be his puppet and in 802, Aetios being the prime minister of Irene’s Byzantine Empire had appointed Leo as the Strategos of not one but two Themes which were Thrace and Macedonia, therefore making him more powerful than a Strategos which in title was a Monostrategos.

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Coin of Charlemagne as a Roman emperor

Irene meanwhile also had mixed feelings as she never met Charlemagne personally and therefore did not know what he entirely looked like except through his coins, but more than that did not know a thing about his personality whether he would be a lazy and useless husband or an abusive and over-controlling one, but she did know that he was only 10 years older than her which was not much of a big issue and at the end, this marriage was only to be for political reasons as she never intended to move to his capital of Aachen anyway or to sleep with him. For this story, Justinianus says Irene despite marrying Charlemagne soon would have never planned to move to Aachen as she was a proud Byzantine. At the same time as Irene was pondering the thought of marrying Charlemagne in her study in the Great Palace, an old man wearing the imperial purple cloak or Chlamys and a crown suddenly appeared out of thin air and this old man happened to be the ghost of no other than the legendary 6th century Byzantine emperor Justinian I the Great (r. 527-565).

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

Irene here was both shocked and in awe of seeing her imperial idol, the great emperor a lot of rulers after him from all over the known world looked up to but Justinian I’s ghost was disgusted seeing the current situation the Byzantine Empire was in, not because it was ruled alone by a woman but because of how much all the lands he worked so hard on to conquer in his reign especially in the west was all lost and that toxic schemes and infighting became the new normal especially with Irene’s eunuchs Aetios and Staurakios before him. Irene then told Justinian’s ghost that she only wants to do the right thing which she sees with her proposed marriage to Charlemagne as this was to get back all the lands in the west they had lost and in fact even more than what they had in Justinian’s time but the ghost told her that she must be careful with what she wishes for when marrying Charlemagne as he is not a Roman but a barbarian and Justinian definitely was someone who resented barbarian rule. Justinian however came to agree with Irene’s proposal hearing from her that Charlemagne even as a barbarian wanted to get rid of the Dark Ages brought about by barbarian invasions but the one advice Justinian’s ghost gave to Irene as Justinianus put it was that Irene should not trust everyone in her path like she always did before especially with her eunuchs which got her into trouble many times, and therefore when marrying Charlemagne she should not be submissive to him but to be able to solve problems by herself to still prove that she is still in charge of their empire. As Justinian’s ghost vanished, Irene picked up her pen and wrote a letter to Charlemagne asking him to come to Constantinople wherein the army would let him through all the way to the Theodosian Walls of Constantinople, and at the same time Irene also sent letters to all the military commanders in the empire to grant Charlemagne access as he passes through with his horse coming from the northwest.          

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Supposed marriage proposal between Irene and Charlemagne

In order to gain more support from the people of Constantinople, Irene as usual went out to the Hippodrome and the streets of Constantinople to give away money and food but here it was soon enough going to be too late for Irene to still keep her popularity as both Aetios and her other most trusted advisor Nikephoros the Logothete were now hatching a plot to turn the people against her. Nikephoros the Logothethe on the other hand also had his own intentions to overthrow Irene which were different from Aetios’ and his was because as the finance minister, he objected to all of Irene’s weak financial policies such as reducing taxes for the nobility, and coming from the nobility he saw this as a sign of weakness wherein he could just bribe his way to power in order to get support to oust Irene and after all, Nikephoros even if being an Iconophile and loyal to Irene only wanted to work for Irene and pretend to be nice to her as a way to advance himself in power and one day take the throne. Now Nikephoros the Logothete and Aetios together with other conspirators including another palace official named Niketas Tryphillios, Irene’s cousin Leo Sarantapechos, and in this story’s case a young scheming Iconoclast soldier with his own ambitions which was Leo the Armenian– who in real history would become emperor in 813- would all meet up at a high-end tavern near the Great Palace in Constantinople where they would discuss their plot to overthrow Irene as they drank a few cups of wine. Where both Nikephoros and Aetios had common ground however was that they both objected to Irene marrying Charlemagne and for their empire to be ruled by a barbarian but as it turned out, both Aetios and Nikephoros had conflicting ambitions as Aetios still wanted to use this conspiracy to make his brother Leo emperor and rule through him while Nikephoros on the other hand was set to make himself emperor and not wait any longer and instead find the soonest opportunity to overthrow Irene while Aetios was still waiting for her death. In the tavern, Nikephoros already had an entire organized campaign in mind to get rid of Irene, which was to bribe off heralds and officials in the city to spread word that Irene wants to give up their empire to Charlemagne as well as announcing all of Irene’s inappropriate things in public even if they were not really proven which here for this story would include Irene lying down naked sunbathing at the Imperial Palace’s balcony among a lot of others, which was a similar strategy the historian Procopius did in the 6th century to ruin the image of the empress Theodora, Justinian I’s wife, except his was more privately done. Another rumor too was spread that Irene’s son Constantine VI had already died, therefore she killed him as a way to further vilify her. Nikephoros the Logothete too already got ahead in his plot to make himself emperor and this meant- in this story’s case- that he was to trick Irene’s still alive brothers-in-law the Caesars Nikephoros and Christopher despite being blind that they would be his co-emperors in order to get more support from the still Iconoclast troops in the army who were still undyingly loyal to Constantine V and his sons, though the other 3 sons who were all still alive were to be left behind. Now Nikephoros Caesar by 802 was still in the Princes’ Islands in the Marmara under close watch by Irene’s officials and would only rise up one last time later on in 812 in real history, but in this story’s case, Nikephoros the Logothete would go there to this island just a few hours by boat from Constantinople, bribe the guards and monks of the monastery to only get the Caesars Christopher and Nikephoros out and together they would flee to a stronghold in Thrace.

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Location of the Princes’ Islands in the Marmara (red)

In Constantinople meanwhile, after receiving a lot of fake news, a major percent of the population would already turn on Irene though the rest would still remain loyal while Aetios on the other hand when discovering that Nikephoros already beat him to taking the throne switched his loyalty back to Irene and returned to the palace while Aetios’ brother Leo in Thrace also gave up his ambitions. Now in real history, on October 31 of 802 as Irene was not in the Great Palace, the conspirators of Nikephoros the Logothete told some false information to the palace guards telling them Irene had fallen ill and was close to death therefore she chose Nikephoros to succeed her as a way to get rid of the scheming Aetios and later during the night, the guards believing it found Irene and escorted her back to the Great Palace where Nikephoros confronted her. Nikephoros here explained everything he was doing, though only as a way to get Irene to reveal to him where she kept all her gold which she did, and when Nikephoros got all the gold he wanted, he had Irene pack up all her things and then at the dead of night, he put her on a boat headed for one of the Princes’ Islands in the Marmara where she was to now be under his watch in a monastery there which she founded while Aetios was fired from his post, and Nikephoros then was crowned as emperor by Patriarch Tarasios who was as usual oblivious to the matter.

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Irene as empress (left) and nun after 802 (right), in real history

However, things would be very much different here in this story as Irene already made her move in asking Charlemagne to come over to Constantinople to marry her while Nikephoros knowing about this fled to Thrace to raise an army in rebellion against Irene and Charlemagne and there in Thrace, Nikephoros- in this story’s case- would craft an explosive which was like a grenade made using the combustible ingredients of the Byzantines’ superweapon Greek Fire, which included naphtha, quicklime, and resin, and this grenade was to be lit by a fuse which was to be blown up whenever the wedding of Charlemagne and Irene would happen. Now on October 31 of 802 in this story, rather than Irene losing the throne all of a sudden without her even knowing there was a plot to overthrow her, Charlemagne instead arrived in Constantinople escorted only by a few of his Carolingian knights and here he was welcomed warmly by the people, only because Irene told them to receive him well.

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Sample of a Byzantine era grenade

The people however were not in awe but questioning what they saw which was Charlemagne as from everything they have heard, he was some kind of great warrior emperor that could take down an army or a wall with his bare hands, but when seeing him ride his horse through the streets, he looked nothing like an old fat man with messy hair and beard despite still being tall and muscular, but still looking like he hadn’t taken a bath- which of course he did not after so many weeks riding his horse- and as he got off his horse, everyone noticed him walking in an odd way looking that there was nothing regal about him after all. Charlemagne with his entourage would meet Irene who was dressed in the complete imperial robes and crown at the Hippodrome where Charlemagne was immediately taken away by Irene’s beauty despite her already being 50 and here, the 60-year-old Charlemagne knelt down and out of nowhere spat on the ground and kissed Irene’s hand and grabbed her legs, although Irene immediately moved her legs away before she could fall; now Irene was already quite tall but Charlemagne was so much taller than her being from the Germanic race. The first thing Charlemagne however said to Irene was that he asked her where is the nearest bath and bedroom as he needed to rest and Irene pointed him to the palace while Charlemagne without even properly greeting her said he had such a long journey wherein he took a ship from the Istrian Peninsula in Italy to Greece and from there rode nonstop down the Ancient Roman road of the Via Egnatia to Constantinople for 2 weeks.

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Empress Irene of Athens (art by HistoryGold777)

Now on the same night as Charlemagne arrived in Constantinople, Irene once again dressed up in the same purple silk dress she wore when discovering Charlemagne was crowned emperor more than a year earlier and as the function held to celebrate Charlemagne’s arrival in Constantinople had begun in the Magnaura of the Great Palace, the people that came to attend included Aetios, Anthousa, and Irene’s cousin Theophano, and as Charlemagne got up from his nap entering the hall, he was immediately stunned by Irene’s outfit and how it showed off her still attractive body even at 50, and in fact she thought of wearing it seduce Charlemagne. In this celebration dinner then, there was a lot of food, drinks, and entertainment such as acrobatics and fire eating which also impressed Charlemagne but the one thing here Charlemagne found odd was a utensil the Byzantines used when eating their meat which was of course the fork whereas in the Frankish Kingdom here, people just ate with their hands and a knife. When getting his hands on the fork, Charlemagne said in Latin “what the hell is this!” that he ended up breaking the fork and also seeing all the dances and eunuchs he said the same too but at the same time everyone else there was laughing at him and his unsophisticated way of eating. Sitting next to him was Irene and as she spoke Greek, Charlemagne could at least understand some of it but when she started speaking Latin, they stated having a proper conversation although after drinking too much wine that was served, he began rubbing Irene’s legs and stomach but soon enough as he moved his hands up, passed out in front of everyone wherein they all saw how unkempt he was especially with the saliva dripping out of mouth and gas he was farting out that Irene had to order him carried to one of the rooms in the palace.          

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Feasting in the Byzantine Empire

Now just like Irene 33 years earlier on December 17 of 769 when she married Leo IV, she would marry Charlemagne again on this day in 802 for this story, although Charlemagne in the past 6 weeks that he had been in Constantinople would not do the same as Irene before going through training in court etiquette, rather he would observe Constantinople for 6 weeks in order to get ideas for decorating his capital Aachen, and it was the newly restored mosaics by Irene replacing the previous ones were destroyed by the Iconoclasts that inspired him most and so were the public and private baths that he wanted to model the existing baths in Aachen to look like them. In the morning of December 17 of 802, Charlemagne was to be crowned as the Eastern Roman emperor in the Hagia Sophia by Patriarch Tarasios, and although he did not really need it as he had already been crowned emperor by the pope 2 years earlier, it was only ceremonial that he needed to be crowned as the eastern emperor as this way he would be accepted by the Byzantine people as an emperor who the patriarch crowned rather than just a foreigner who seized the empire.

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Charlemagne in a Byzantine Loros

Irene watched the coronation ceremony from the empress’ box on the upper floor of the Hagia Sophia while Charlemagne who was being crowned by the patriarch Tarasios at the large circle known as the Omphalion felt uncomfortable in the Byzantine imperial robes he had to wear which was the Loros, a long golden scarf tightly wrapped around the body which he saw as something that was suffocating him as it was wrapped so tightly whereas the golden robes he wore back at home were lose and comfortable, but he needed to wear it anyway to prove that he was accepting his position as the Eastern Roman emperor, and at the end of the ceremony he became known as Basileus Karoulos in which this name was Greek for Charles. In Thrace on the other hand, Nikephoros the Logothete had already sent a slave dressed up as a monk to Constantinople hiding the explosive under his robes after receiving reports that Irene and Charlemagne were to marry on the 17th of December.

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Nikephoros I the Logothete crowned as emperor standing on a shield, 802

Now on the same day as Charlemagne’s coronation and later his wedding, Nikephoros also dressed up in the golden imperial Loros though placed over a blue instead of purple silk tunic, and here in this Thracian fortress, he placed a crown on his head and stood on a large round shield having his soldiers lift it and proclaim him emperor, and right here he became Emperor Nikephoros in direct rebellion against Irene and Charlemagne while the two blind Caesars who still looked very young Nikephoros with his large black curly hair and Christopher with his red curly hair were made co-emperors, though only as a way to please the mostly Iconoclast troops there. Back in Constantinople, it was Irene’s turn to get ready for her second marriage and as she was being dressed up in her wedding dress, the same style of the long and tight one from before that covered almost the entire body, she started to think about things like how far she’s gone in life and being able to stay as the sole empress for 5 years now and that now by marrying Charlemagne she would be the joint ruler of a global empire, but at the same time, she also started feeling the guilt again for blinding her own son who here was still alive in the Princes’ Islands, but she also came to remember that she was already a grandmother here as her son had a daughter Euphrosyne who was somewhere out there. While she was dressing up, the same ghost of the old emperor Justinian I popped out again although this time very quick only telling Irene to remember that her marriage to Charlemagne is only political and to not give in to his demands as this could start giving mixed signals to the people of the empire that a barbarian is now running the show. In the afternoon of that day, the wedding ceremony took place at the Church of Pharos in the Imperial Palace Complex where Irene and Leo IV married on this day back in 769 and again Patriarch Tarasios retuned to marry both of them, but at the end of course this was all political as Irene never had any kind of feelings for Charlemagne who in return also did not, except that he was only attracted to her looks. As the ceremony took place, the reception area also in the palace complex was being set up and here the slave sent by Nikephoros the Logothete had arrived placing that explosive right under Irene and Charlemagne’s table but everyone else did not notice as they were setting up the food and the expensive wine from Burgundy which part of Charlemagne’s empire.

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Medieval wine making

Following the ceremony, the reception began and everyone enjoyed themselves with the food, wine, and festivities such as dances and circus performances while Irene having not eaten the entire day to make sure she wouldn’t be full for her big day and to fit into her dress went straight for the Frankish wines which she was curious about the most that she kept drinking it noticing that it tasted different compared to the Greek wines she was used to while Charlemagne on the other hand enjoyed himself by stuffing himself with food. Aetios meanwhile was also here together with Anthousa, Theophano, and the patriarch and Aetios though was still bitter about Irene’s marriage with Charlemagne but still wanting to keep his position, he pretended like he was all for the marriage. Meanwhile, as everyone was enjoying themselves, the slave sent by Nikephoros the Logothete with no one noticing him, not even Irene and Charlemagne crawled beneath their table and lit the fuse, and a few minutes later Aetios smelled something burning and tracked it to Irene’s table wherein he bent down and grabbed the explosive which was hot in his hands, and although he never really cared about Irene he still grabbed it and threw it into the fountain below just to save himself as if he weren’t there he would have just let it explode killing Irene and Charlemagne. The grenade then exploded in the fountain below while the slave dressed as a monk ran away but was immediately spotted by the Tagmata guards who seized him, beat him up, and dragged him to prison. Irene meanwhile did not notice anything as she drank too much of the Frankish wine and not eating anything prior to that, it was here her turn to pass out and be carried off to the palace while Charlemagne remained alert and using the very little Greek he knew, he asked everyone to return to the palace, but at least both were still married.               

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Omphalion, coronation square in the Hagia Sophia

Irene woke up the next day in a hangover in her room in the palace dressed down to her underwear forgetting everything that happened the previous day until Charlemagne entered telling her everything that happened including the explosion which woke Irene up. Charlemagne meanwhile did not care to investigate anymore as they at least survived and all he wanted anyway was to retire here in Constantinople feeling he had done his part already in growing his empire and therefore making it larger by now adding Irene’s Byzantine Empire into it and that he revealed he only came to Constantinople to marry Irene and sleep with her. Irene on the other hand wanted to know who was behind the plot and so she had that slave who was caught and imprisoned by the Tagmata guards tortured wherein he revealed Nikephoros the Logothete who had proclaimed himself emperor crafted it and sent him to plant it and after revealing it, the slave was stabbed to death in the neck in his prison cell. With the investigation over, Irene sent some men to track down Nikephoros but Charlemagne objected to it saying that this investigation is useless as now they both rule a massive empire together that the rebel emperor Nikephoros has no chance standing against it but Irene felt like it was her duty to do it as she put a lot of trust in Nikephoros and therefore still wanted to make him explain himself. Irene remembering Justinian’s advice to act on her own to solve problems here had her troops hunt down Nikephoros even if this would mean a civil war while Charlemagne wanted to discuss the more important matter which was how both will run the empire and Irene again remembering that she must act on her own asserted herself saying that Charlemagne must return to Aachen where he would rule from and she would stay in Constantinople as she did not want to go all the way there and leave her home.

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Irene and Charlemagne married

Charlemagne agreed to the deal but only if he was to rule the empire as the senior emperor and Irene as the junior ruler though Irene first objected to it, but knowing between her and Charlemagne, he was more experienced so it was left to him but Irene still wanted to keep her position as empress which was granted to her, therefore she was to rule the smaller eastern half but least being able to use the troops and funds from Charlemagne’s more powerful western half. The next issue they had to deal with was with the Church matters whether the Byzantines as well as the patriarch would now have to submit to the pope and the Western Church or vise-versa but Irene again asserting herself chose to not submit to the pope as long as the patriarch and pope would still be in good terms with each other and Irene ruling the empire would follow the pope’s spiritual guidance rather than ignoring it, which Charlemagne again agreed to as after all the pope and Byzantium were again in good terms after the period of Iconoclasm had ended back in 787. Now the last thing they had to settle is the political structure on whether to keep the Themes or not or to make Charlemagne’s western half divided into Themes as well and at the end, both could not come up with a conclusion so rather the Themes were to be kept in the Byzantine Empire while the Frankish western half still was to keep its own system of provinces or territories while the divide between both halves would be in the Istrian Peninsula between Italy and the Balkans and only a small piece of land would connect them which is the Adriatic coast of the Balkans running from Northern Italy down to Albania in which this part would be under the eastern half. The tough part for Charlemagne though was that he did not want to leave the great city of Constantinople which he already fell in love with but in early 803, he got word from one of his men that the Saxon war in Northern Germany was not yet over, therefore he needed to return there and also because he had many children (as many as 18 in total) back in Aachen that needed him and as a father, he was very devoted to his children, especially his daughters. Now in early 803, Charlemagne kissed Irene goodbye departing now by ship directly from Constantinople to Istria in Italy where he would ride north to Aachen knowing that he could now travel freely in Byzantium as he already controls it. Irene then made a public announcement to the people of Constantinople in the Hippodrome about her marriage to Charlemagne which everyone shouted insults to her at first still not accepting that a barbarian would rule them, but Irene told them the other side of Charlemagne that he was a cultured man that would be very respectful to their culture and that he has agreed to retain the autonomy of the Byzantine Church, adopt Byzantine customs, and that the people could now travel freely from Greece to Frankia as all of that is now under one empire. Irene had also announced that under the protection of Charlemagne and his armies which were stronger and more in number compared to theirs, they would be more secure and no longer going to face the threat of extinction, but most importantly what cheered everyone up was that they have a massive global empire again which was once again a united Roman Empire.    

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Speculated map of Irene and Charlemagne’s united empire

 

The Climax Part II- A United Frankish-Roman Empire and the Bulgarian War          

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In 803, the landscape of Europe and Asia Minor had changed compared to how it was just like a year earlier as instead of one massive empire in the west, a crumbling empire in the east, and several growing kingdoms or tribal confederations in the middle, there was one massive empire that went from Northern Frankia and Northern Germany all the way down to Greece and Asia Minor right across the sea now known as the Frankish-Roman Empire, although the half of the eastern empire ruled by Irene was barely connected by land to the larger western half of Charlemagne except for a thin strip of land in the Balkans along the Adriatic coast connecting Greece to Italy where the divide between the eastern and western halves was, while Southern Italy and Sicily itself was in no way connected to the main empire by land as the Papal States where Rome was separated it from Northern Italy which was under the united Frankish-Roman Empire. Though Irene was solely in control of the eastern half but at the same time still answering to Charlemagne in Aachen who controlled the larger western half as the superior ruler, a part of Northern Greece including the Themes of Thrace and Macedonia were in rebellion not recognizing either Charlemagne or Irene as their rulers but instead recognizing Nikephoros the Logothete who by 803 in this story’s case would take over the city of Serdica (today’s Sofia, Bulgaria) in Thrace making it his own capital. Like in real history too in 803, over in the Bulgarian state north of Byzantium, a new ruler would come to rule the Bulgars following the death of their previous ruler Khan Kardam, and the new ruler that came to rule the Bulgars was Khan Krum, though not related by blood in any way to Kardam but instead he was one of the tribal leaders of the Bulgars that managed to take the throne when the previous ruler died without a successor.

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Irene exiled in Lesbos (in real history)

Now in real history, Irene in late 802 who was in the Princes’ Islands in the Marmara banished there by the new emperor Nikephoros I the Logothete just after a month of being there was again banished by Nikephoros to the more isolated Greek island of Lesbos in the Aegean Sea as her first location in the Marmara was too close to Constantinople, therefore Nikephoros felt that Irene was too close to the capital meaning someone loyal to her would soon enough come to her rescue. In the real timeline then, Irene just after 9 months in exile in Lesbos died there from unknown reasons at the age of 51, but it was said that she died in her sleep, and in fact her blind son even outlived her by 2 years and Charlemagne by 11 years. In this story’s case however, Irene would still be alive and well in 803 ruling the eastern half but the biggest problem for her now was her rival emperor Nikephoros in Thrace who by this point would have already raised a large army but for Irene, it would not be much of a problem as she had Charlemagne and his more powerful army on her side and with them ruling one empire, his troops could come over to the east to help her.

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Emperor Nikephoros I the Logothete, Byzantine emperor in real history (r. 802-811)

With Nikephoros I as the Byzantine emperor in real history in 803, he would inherit a heavily troubled empire caused by the disasters of Constantine VI’s reign and of Irene’s after him and part of these problems he inherited was Charlemagne who in 803 put pressure on Byzantium by attempting a massive invasion on it as a way to get back at Nikephoros for overthrowing Irene who he proposed to marry, but also because he was now attempting to have Byzantines recognize his claim as emperor and he was only doing it here 3 years after he was crowned because when he was crowned in 800, Irene who was a woman was ruling the empire, therefore he could not agree to a woman recognizing his claim, but now with a man running the empire, Charlemagne now thought he could have the Byzantines recognize him. Nikephoros I however did not want to recognize Charlemagne and in fact did not even want his name mentioned in the empire which led to Charlemagne launching naval attacks in the Adriatic Sea against the Byzantine fleet, which then made Nikephoros conclude a treaty with Charlemagne known as the Pax Nicephori named after Nikephoros I which was not in full effect between both empires until 814 acknowledging that the Adriatic Sea was the permanent border between both empires.

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Charlemagne and his son Louis

In this story’s case however, the Adriatic was still to be the border between the eastern and western halves but the whole conflict with the Byzantines and Charlemagne over his recognition as emperor would not happen any longer as Charlemagne was basically the one in charge of the Byzantine Empire now together with Irene after he married her and took the Greek name Karoulos which the Byzantines of the eastern half would refer to him as. On the other hand in 803 in the real historical timeline, Nikephoros I in order to secure his legitimacy on the throne and form a dynasty made his son also named Staurakios like Irene’s former eunuch advisor as his co-emperor but in this year too, his rule would be challenged by a general loyal to Irene named Bardanes Tourkos who marched to Constantinople but failed to gain support, therefore his rebellion failed and he was forced to become a monk, although he also failed as one of Bardanes’ loyal soldiers which was Leo the Armenian- the same one mentioned earlier- as an act to move up the ranks switched his support to Nikephoros I knowing Bardanes would lose. In this story’s case, Bardanes Tourkos would remain loyal to Irene serving as her top general while Leo the Armenian here would be Nikephoros’ top general despite being an Iconoclast while Nikephoros was still an Iconophile. Nikephoros I in real history as an Iconophile continued Irene’s policy of restoring icons but undid Irene’s policy in relaxing taxes, instead Nikephoros would restore the regular tax collection and increase taxes especially for the nobility by coming up with creative means to do so which included a tax on the size of furnaces or a “hearth tax”, meaning that those with bigger furnaces had to pay more as well as imposing a tax on farmers based on the quality and quantity of their produce. Now with Irene still ruling the empire, she would however start showing more strength in ruling that after realizing that her own lax taxation policy made her an easy target for conspiracies by the nobility and had turned out to empty the treasury, she would gradually increase taxes, although not come up with the creative genius solutions Nikephoros would in taxation, but like Nikephoros she would soon enough create the new Themes of Thessaloniki, Cephalonia, Dyyrhachion, and the Peloponnese in Greece which were the same Themes Nikephoros I created in his reign (802-811). Irene though would not do it entirely alone but with the advice of Bardanes Tourkos and Aetios who would still remain with her while Charlemagne at times would have the final say in her decisions. Now Charlemagne here by 804 would be too busy with his own wars such as the war with the Saxons in Northern Germany which he finally finished and came out victorious in 804 forcing the Saxons to convert to Christianity but at the same time, he would be troubled by a new mysterious enemy in the north which were the Danes or Vikings who had first appeared in the historical record back in 793 when attacking Anglo-Saxon England and here they would begin raiding the northern coasts of his empire with their longships.

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Krum, Khan of the Bulgars (r. 803-814)

The other new problem bothering Charlemagne here just like in real history was the Avar Khanate in Central Europe (Hungary and Romania) which however here like in real history would eventually be subjugated by him in 805 turning the Avars into his client kingdom to protect them from the expansion of Krum’s Bulgars from the south. In 805 on the other hand, the Bulgarian Khan Krum had defeated and finished off the Avar Khanate annexing it to his Bulgarian Empire which now doubled in size by adding what is now Romania into his empire following the defeat of the Avars while the western remains of the Avar Khanate would fall under Charlemagne’s empire- in this case under the new united Frankish-Roman Empire- being made a frontier march or border state just as Northern Spain was, and now the Frankish word “march” had therefore meant borders state. Another event that would also happen here in 805 just like in real history was the death of the blind Constantine VI in the monastery he was sent to in the Princes’ Islands in the Marmara, though in real history he still outlived his mother Irene by 2 years but here, Irene when hearing about it in Constantinople would be guiltier than ever just realizing that she had killed her son by blinding him 8 years earlier.           

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Avars, defeated by Charlemagne and the Bulgars in 805
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Army of Charlemagne’s Frankish Empire

Watch this to learn more about Nikephoros I’s reign (Thersites the Historian).

Now the issue that Irene would face following her blinded son’s death in 805 was the succession as she being now 53 could not give birth to a new son anymore and she had no surviving male relatives to inherit the empire though luckily Charlemagne here had 3 adult legitimate sons that Irene could choose from. In 806 like in real history, Charlemagne sticking to the Frankish royal tradition of the ruler dividing his realm among his sons naming the eldest one also named Charles or better known as “Charles the Younger” naming him as his main successor as emperor and chief king of the empire, while the second son Pepin was given control of Northern Italy as its king though answering to his older brother, and the third son Louis known as “the Fair” was given control of Aquitaine as well as Provence and Burgundy as its king but also answering to his eldest brother, but what Charlemagne- in this story’s case- forgot was who will inherit the eastern half considering that he was in charge of it too as here he thought his wife Irene had someone in mind without knowing she had no surviving male relatives. Irene on the other hand when hearing of Charlemagne’s plan of dividing the western half of the empire among his sons as kings of different parts of it thought that the east after Irene would die could be ruled by the eldest son Charles as he like his father was to be the senior emperor and he being still single was suggested by Irene here to marry her also still single cousin Theophano who was already in her 30s. Meanwhile in real history back in Byzantium, Nikephoros I as part of undoing Irene’s policies decided to give up paying annual tribute to the Abbasid Caliphate, which however only made things worse between them that in 804 the still reigning caliph Harun al-Rashid invaded the Asia Minor and Nikephoros wanting to face off the Arabs in battle suffered a heavy defeat to them at the Battle of Krasos and again in 806, the Abbasid Arabs invaded again with 135,000 men but Nikephoros knowing he was unable to contain the invasion decided to give up and continue paying annual tribute again.

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Nikephoros I, Patriarch of Constantinople since 806

In 806 too just like in real history, the mostly oblivious Patriarch Tarasios would die though in reality, the new patriarch Nikephoros I who was also a historian and major source of this period was appointed as patriarch by emperor Nikephoros I who shared the same name as him, and in this story too, the same patriarch Nikephoros I too would be appointed as being an Iconophile, Irene would trust him too. In this story’s case however, with Irene still ruling the empire she would still continue her foreign policy in paying annual tribute to the Abbasids, therefore no Arab invasions would happen as she was ruling therefore giving her time to focus on dealing with the rival emperor Nikephoros who here by 806 was still not yet defeated as Irene’s forces here had never been able to besiege Serdica and Charlemagne’s forces could not yet come to the rescue still being busy pacifying their own borders. Here for this story, it would be only in 807 when Charlemagne would come to Irene’s rescue in the east by sending his troops there to help her troops defeat the rebel emperor Nikephoros’ forces in Serdica in which Irene’s general Bardanes Tourkos here would succeed in taking the city forcing Nikephoros and his still surviving loyalists including Leo the Armenian and Irene’s brothers-in-law Caesars Nikephoros and Christopher to flee north. Still not feeling defeated and wanting to take the throne, Nikephoros the Logothete would decide to head north to the now larger and more powerful Bulgaria of Khan Krum to get his support in taking the throne and being enraged with the failures of the brothers Nikephoros and Christopher even if they were not responsible for anything as they were blind, Nikephoros the Logothete here would kill both of them and dump their bodies in a river, though this act would actually lead to his downfall as the Iconoclast soldiers that supported him were actually backing the brothers more than him and with both brothers dead, the Iconoclast troops loyal to them would end up defecting to Irene despite her being an Iconophile as she was after all from the same family as the brothers, though Leo the Armenian would still remain with Nikephoros the Logothete. It will be very ironic though in this story that Nikephoros the Logothete would join forces with the Bulgarian khan Krum to get him on the Byzantine throne, as in real history with Nikephoros I as emperor he decided to launch a massive campaign to finish the Bulgar state of Krum for good after Krum captured Serdica from the Byzantines in 809, but little did Nikephoros I know that the Byzantines had very little chance in fully defeating the Bulgars who now had a massive empire covering almost the entire Eastern Balkans all the way north to the Carpathian Mountains. Now in this story, in 809 Krum would do the same as in real history by capturing Serdica from the Byzantines except here Krum would be assisted by Nikephoros the Logothete and Leo the Armenian, and when hearing about this in Constantinople, Irene would be furious that she would be the one to launch a massive campaign on the Bulgarians consisting of 50,000 men the way Nikephoros I did in real history, except here it would be even larger as Irene would be assisted by Charlemagne’s army from the west. What would also happen in this story like in real history in 809 would be that the Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid would die thus relieving the Byzantines from the Arab threat in the east, and in 809 Irene’s sister-in-law Anthousa would also die.

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Pepin, King of Italy (r. 781-810), son of Charlemagne

Charlemagne here however would not be able to act quick as in 810, his western half of the empire would face somewhat of a succession crisis when his son Pepin the King of Italy had died at 33, although he had a son Bernard though he was still very young, and so now out of Charlemagne’s sons only Charles the Younger and Louis were left alive. Charlemagne meanwhile by 810 would already start suffering from bad health suddenly as according to his chronicler Einhard, he said Charlemagne was in good health all the way till old age until around 810 which was 4 years before his actual death but here by 810 in this story, he had already transformed his capital of Aachen worthy of an imperial capital just like Constantinople in opulence with buildings like the octagonal Palatine Chapel of his imperial palace built in Byzantine style, though the only thing Aachen did not have that Constantinople did was a scenic skyline by the sea, a harbor, and a strategic position on a peninsula at the border of two continents.          

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Bulgarian Empire under Krum (territory added by Krum in yellow)
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Palatine Chapel in Aachen, Germany; Byzantine style mosaics added by Charlemagne

With the Bulgars now attacking Irene’s half of the empire and going deep into Thrace, Irene had already sent an army led by both Bardanes Torukos and Aetios to push them out and soon enough march deep into Bulgarian territory. While Irene was directing her armies in battle though from Constantinople, Justinian I’s ghost would appear again this time telling Irene that she is doing a pretty good job in directing military campaigns even if she had never set foot out of the palace, the same way Justinian I did back in the 6th century in annexing great amounts of lands in Italy, North Africa, and Spain to the empire without even leaving the palace. Justinian here though would give Irene some war advice which is to tell her troops to be ruthless in battle in killing enemy, strike fear into them, and never give in to their demands, but to also show mercy in conquering the people of Bulgaria especially since a lot of the subjects of the Bulgar khan were still Byzantines by blood therefore the Byzantine army would have to be seen as their liberators from the Bulgars and not foreign conquerors, and true enough this was the tactic Justinian used in his conquests which was in brutally killing his enemies but sparing the people who were still Romans to make them feel like they were in fact liberated. In addition, Justinianus says Irene would just direct her generals in battle from Constantinople but would not personally lead the armies herself unless there is an emergency that really needs her there in battle itself. Now in real history, in Nikephoros I’s campaign against the Bulgars in 811, he personally led the Byzantine army deep into Bulgarian territory even capturing their capital of Pliska and razing it to the ground, though also the Byzantine army here committed great atrocities including a massacre of the entire population of the city as a way to get back on the Bulgarians. In this story however, Irene’s Byzantine army would consist of the entire armies of the Themes of Macedonia and Thrace which previously defected from Nikephoros to Irene, as well the armies of the Opsikion, Optimates or the Tagmata, and Thracesian Themes, though the armies of the 5 Themes campaigning in the Bulgarian heartland itself would do as Irene told them and not massacre the locals but instead burn the farms to cut the Bulgar army’s food supply.

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Carolingian Frankish knights, elite army of Charlemagne

However, Charlemagne’s Frankish forces from the west would arrive too by land in 811 led by both his sons Charles the Younger and Louis and they would be the ones carrying out the destruction of Pliska here as well as committing brutal atrocities there like massacring locals, similar to what they did before in fighting the Saxons in Northern Germany. In real history, Krum in 811 thought of concluding peace with Nikephoros I after Pliska was razed and his lands severely devastated by the Byzantines, but Nikephoros being intent on finishing the war and conquering Bulgaria did not agree to Krum’s terms as he knew he was close to winning, so instead he continued campaigning until Krum soon enough set a trap for him as Nikephoros’ army marched through the Varbitsa Pass in Bulgaria. Now in this story’s case, Krum after seeing his lands severely devastated by both the Byzantines and Franks would consider making peace with Irene and Charlemagne but Nikephoros who here would be on Krum’s side would persuade Krum to continue fighting as he still wants to finish off Irene for good, but here rather than setting the trap for the Byzantines at the Varbitsa Pass, the Bulgars and Nikephoros’ army would instead be the ones marching through it. Charlemagne meanwhile despite his failing health would still go to the campaign all the way in Bulgaria, except he would no longer lead his armies in person instead leaving the job to his sons while he would reunite with Irene back in Serdica which the Byzantines had just taken back and here, he and Irene would discuss their plan of how Bulgaria would be annexed to their empire. The sons of Charlemagne meanwhile would be the ones setting the trap for the Bulgars and Nikephoros at the pass using one side of it while the Byzantine forces of Aetios and Bardanes would ambush the Bulgars and their Byzantine allies from the other side.

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Carolingian knight, 9th century

The combined forces of the Byzantines and Franks here would number up to 70,000 with the majority being Byzantines and here at the mountains pass, the combined forces would easily overwhelm the forces of Nikephoros and Krum that their general Leo the Armenian would be killed here in the ambush, though Irene’s general Bardanes Tourkos in this story would get killed as well by the arrows and javelins of the Bulgars while leading a cavalry charge down the mountain pass. Like in real history, this battle would also take place on July 26 of 811, except here it would be in favor of the Byzantines and Franks as in real history, the Byzantines were caught by surprise and decimated in a single day and even Emperor Nikephoros I did not survive the battle, although his son and co-emperor Staurakios fled badly injured. In this story however, the Bulgars and Nikephoros’ forces would be outnumbered and surrounded by the Byzantines and Franks though both Krum and Nikephoros would try to escape the pass using the opposite ends but before getting out, they would both be stabbed to death by spears, Nikephoros by the Byzantines and Krum by the Franks. The remaining Bulgars and Byzantines of Nikephoros would then surrender and be sent to Charlemagne’s western half of the empire as slaves while both Krum and Nikephoros would be decapitated and their skulls later made into drinking cups. Now back in real history, after Nikephoros was killed in this battle at the age of 61, his severed head was given to Krum who made it into his drinking cup which here was a Bulgarian tradition that the defeated enemy ruler’s skull was to be made their khan’s drinking cup. Here however, Charlemagne had learned of this Bulgarian custom and chose to adopt it and since his troops killed Krum, Krum’s skull would be used as his drinking cup and since the Byzantines killed Nikephoros, his skull would be made into Irene’s drinking cup.

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Staurakios, Byzantine emperor in reality (r. 811), son of Nikephoros I

Back in real history, Nikephoros’ son Staurakios who was 33 here immediately succeeded his father as emperor and carried off to Adrianople which was the nearest city to the pass, although from the battle, his spinal cord was severely injured that it caused him to be paralyzed, therefore he could not properly rule as emperor that his advisors had to suggest that he had to abdicate which he finally did on October 2 of 811 passing the throne to his brother-in-law Michael I Rangabe who was married to Nikephoros’ daughter Prokopia, while Staurakios would retire to a monastery dying in January of 812 from his injuries. On the other hand, Nikephoros’ son Staurakios in real history had been married to Irene’s cousin Theophano since 807 and with Staurakios injured in 811, he even suggested that Theophano succeed him as sole empress the way her cousin Irene ruled, but this plan failed at the end and Michael I succeeded him and with the Bulgars victorious, they were still left as a major threat by 812. Here in this story though, both Staurakios and Michael Rangabe would live a quiet life the whole time while Nikephoros was challenging Irene but following Nikephoros’ death here, Irene would uncover the locations of both Nikephoros’ son Staurakios and son-in-law Michael, hunt them down, and have them blinded and sent to the Princes’ Islands as well to prevent another power struggle, while at the same time she would also have Krum’s son Omurtag who in real history would succeed his father in 814 blinded too, and the entire Bulgarian Empire too would be annexed into Irene and Charlemagne’s empire. Now, the Battle of Pliska in 811 wherein Nikephoros I in real history was killed was a major disaster for the Byzantines that would again prolong their dark ages and because of this, the Byzantines would continue suffering defeats to the Bulgars for the next few years, and this too would with Nikephoros I’s death would be the first time an emperor would die in battle against a foreign enemy ever since the death of Valens (r. 364-378) in the Battle of Adrianople in 378 by the Goths. In this story however, the Byzantine-Frankish victory here would be the first major success of their united empire, therefore showing that the union of both empires was a successful one as it led to a major victory and the annexation of the entire Bulgarian state, which would fall under Irene’s eastern half.

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Pliska, capital of the Bulgarian Empire, attacked in 811
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Byzantine forces defeated by the Bulgars at the Battle of Pliska in 811, in real history
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Khan Krum uses Emperor Nikephoros I’s skull as his drinking cup, in real history

Watch this to learn more about the Byzantines’ defeat to the Bulgars at the Battle of Pliska, 811 (Kings and Generals).


Aftermath and Conclusion        

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In this story, after the first victory of the united forces of the Franks and Byzantines over the Bulgars in 811, the entire Bulgarian state in the Balkans would be annexed to the eastern half of the Frankish-Roman Empire under Irene, and thus wiped off the map, and with this victory too, the Byzantine treasury would be filled up with all the spoils of war, thus Irene’s empire would be far from being bankrupt like how it was before she married Charlemagne. Now one of the other main advantages of Charlemagne marrying Irene and uniting their empires together was in making Byzantium rich again as before Irene’s marriage to Charlemagne back in 802 in this story, the Byzantine state was almost bankrupt while Charlemagne’s Carolingian Empire was much larger and richer, and now with both empires united, they would share each other’s incomes. On the other hand with both empires united, Charlemagne would agree to settle some people in his part of the empire including Franks, Saxons, Lombards, and Avars into the depopulated eastern half of Irene and learning the strategy that Byzantine emperors of the past used in resettling people in the empire, Charlemagne would do the same in scattering his people in different parts of the eastern half and let them assimilate with the local population there whether Greek, Bulgar, Slavic, Armenian, or Syriac as a way to prevent unity among a single race which would later cause them to rebel. The local people in the eastern half such as the Greeks in Greece and Asia Minor, the Armenians in the east, or Slavs and Bulgars in the newly annexed Balkans would at first disapprove of Germanic people being forced to live side-by-side with them that would in fact cause some conflicts between them, although in time these Germanic people settled in the eastern half would learn to assimilate, adopt Byzantine practices, learn Greek, even convert to Byzantine Orthodoxy, and intermarry with the locals. On the other hand, Charlemagne would also resettle the Byzantine locals in the eastern half into his western half also to balance the population there, but more importantly the Byzantine people Charlemagne would settle in his half especially in Aachen would be Byzantine scholars, scientists, and artists in order to further make Aachen as impressive of an imperial capital the way Constantinople was. Now back to the empire’s succession issue, like in real history Charlemagne’s eldest son Charles the Younger would die in December of 811 in Bavaria from a stroke at 39, here in this story after returning by land from the campaign in Bulgaria, therefore leaving the youngest son Louis as the only one left to succeed his father who here had returned back to Aachen later on in 811 though sometime before his son Charles died.

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Louis I, Frankish emperor (r. 813-840), son of Charlemagne

Louis in this story’s would have stayed behind in Constantinople with Irene as here he was now made his father’s co-emperor and assigned to the eastern half, and here in this story in early 812, Irene would have her younger and still single cousin Theophano marry Louis only to secure Louis’ claim on the eastern empire as Louis though had already been married before to Ermengarde of Hesbaye and already had 3 sons with her. In real history though, Ermengarde was still alive by 812 and would only die in 818, but in this story’s case just for the sake of conveniency, Ermengarde would have already died in 812 when Louis married Theophano, who in real history in 812 had already retired together with her late husband the 2-month emperor Staurakios. Irene then in this story’s case would not have much longer to live and later on in 812 she would die in Constantinople at the age of 60 from a heart attack but at least satisfied knowing that she was able to settle the complicated succession herself, and before she stopped breathing on her bed, Justinian I’s ghost would appear one more time telling her she had done her part in running the empire well and then Justinian’s ghost would vanish right when Irene stopped breathing. As a Byzantine ruler, Irene here would be buried in the Church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople right next to her son Constantine VI and first husband Leo IV and both Louis and Theophano would oversee her funeral, although Charlemagne being too old to travel himself would not attend, instead he would order that the whole city of Aachen should mourn their co-ruler’s death too.

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Old Charlemagne, before his death in 814

Louis meanwhile in 813 would return to Aachen alone just to be fully recognized by his father as his co-emperor like in real history, and again like in real history Charlemagne would die on January of 814 in Aachen at 71 leaving Louis to inherit the entire unite empire, both east and west except for Northern Italy, which was still under his nephew Bernard as its king, who eventually would die in 818 like in real history. Now with Louis as the sole empire of a global empire from the North Sea to Asia Minor, he would not be able to completely rule it alone, so he would make his wife Theophano rule the east from Constantinople and him ruling the west from Aachen, thus Theophano would be the second female ruler of Byzantium after her cousin Irene, and here begins the rule of the Carolingian-Sarantapechos Dyansty over the Roman-Frankish Super-Empire. The Byzantine-Frankish conquests here would resume and under Louis, the western Frankish armies would succeed more in conquering more lands in Spain from the Arab Umayyad Emirate and more lands in the north as well taking over some of Denmark and in the northeast going as far as parts of Poland conquering it from the Slavs. In the east meanwhile, the combined armies of the Byzantines and Franks would soon enough recover all of Asia Minor and Armenia which was lost to the Arabs and at the same time, more of the Balkans would be annexed to the eastern half to give in more land access from the east to west, and as the end result, the united empire would be much larger except some lands within the empire would remain independent such as the Papal States where Rome was as it was agreed that the pope should retain his autonomy over these lands, while the small Republic of Venice in Northeast Italy would still be independent although a vassal and large naval partner of the united Frankish-Roman Empire, the way Brittany was and would always be.

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Bust of Charlemagne in Aachen, containing his relics

As for Louis, like in real history, here he would also be a devout Catholic Christian thus known as “Louis the Pious”, therefore never wanting to convert to Orthodoxy although he would respect it that the eastern half was to remain Orthodox as part of the agreement between Charlemagne and Irene, while he too would respect that his wife Theophano would remain Orthodox. Louis too like in real history here would be also paranoid and would purge his family members which were his father’s illegitimate children- his half-siblings- that he saw as a threat, although here like in real history, Louis already had 3 sons from his first wife which were Lothair, Pepin, and Louis II and in 815, Louis like in real history had already made his son Lothair govern Bavaria and Pepin govern Aquitaine, then in 817 like in real history too, Louis would proclaim his eldest son Lothair his co-emperor while at the same time making Pepin King of Aquitaine, and Louis II better known as “Louis the German” as King of Bavaria. In real history, the Frankish emperor Louis I’s wife Ermengarde had died in 818, therefore Louis married again to Judith of Bavaria in 819, although here this would not happen as he was already married to Theophano who was his co-ruler ruling the eastern half, and like in real history in 823 when Louis had a son with Judith named Charles, named after his grandfather, instead here Charles would also be born in 823 except in Constantinople being Louis’ son with Theophano who despite being already in her late 40s would still be able to give birth, and Charles here would be named as the heir to the eastern empire, thus continuing the Carolingian rule over Byzantium. Now in the 820s, the Byzantines in real history would experience major losses of territory to the Arabs, first being Crete which in 824 fell to exiled Arabs from the Umayyad Emirate of Spain and in 827, the new Arab Dynasty from North Africa known as the Aghlabids would begin their conquest of Byzantine Sicily. In this story however, with the Byzantines being a now stronger force with their Frankish allies combined would resist the Arab attacks in Crete and Sicily, and not only would their armies halt the Arab attacks there, they would also launch attacks into North Africa, thus the land where the old city of Carthage was (Tunisia), would be annexed to the empire’s western (Frankish) half too, and the Aghlabid state in North Africa would soon be wiped off the map as well and annexed to the Frankish half of the empire. In the east meanwhile, the Byzantine forces in the 830s and 840s would continue their campaigns against the Arab Abbasid Caliphate in the east and now no longer fighting on the defensive position like before, but instead on the offensive, though to be realistic, the Byzantines no matter how powerful they now are here with the combined forces of the Franks would not entirely destroy the Abbasid Caliphate, instead only the Levant (Syria and Palestine) would return to Byzantine hands, though with their losses the Abbasids would have to campaign elsewhere, therefore having to expand east into India and Central Asia instead of west into Byzantium.

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Lothair I, Frankish emperor (r. 817-855), son of Louis I

Now fast-forward to 840, and here Louis like in real history would die at around 62 in what would be in Germany in the western half of the empire and here his eldest son Lothair I succeeded him as the Frankish emperor, but in this story’s case with Byzantium as part of their empire with them, Charles II who was Louis’ son with Theophano would immediately succeed as the ruler of the eastern half with Lothair as the western half’s ruler as here like in real history, Louis’ middle son Pepin had already died in 838, though Louis II was still alive. In reality, Lothair I in 843 split the Frankish Empire with his 2 other surviving brothers Louis II and Charles II with the Treaty of Verdun thus splitting Charlemagne’s Frankish Empire into 3 leaving Lothair ruling the middle part known as Middle Frankia as its king based in Aachen, while Louis II had East Frankia which would be Germany, and Charles II left with West Frankia which would later be France. In 855, with Lothair’s death, the realm would further be split among his 3 sons with the Treaty of Prum thus creating the Kingdom of Lotharingia based in Aachen which would be under his son Lothair II while Lothair I’s other son Louis would inherit Italy as his kingdom, and Lothair I’s other son Charles would inherit Provence which would be his kingdom, thus Charlemagne’s Frankish Empire had been split into 5 parts as Lothair I’s other brothers Louis II ruling East Frankia and Charles II ruling West Frankia were still alive.

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Charles II the Bald, King of West Frankia (r. 843-877), son of Louis I; Eastern Roman emperor and son of Louis I and Theophano in this story

In this story however, in 843 Lothair I would only split his realm in half with him ruling West and Middle Frankia from Aachen and his brother Louis II ruling East Frankia as their younger half-brother Charles II had already become the eastern emperor in Constantinople. Now the rest of the story for the Frankish Empire gets confusing after 855, so instead this story would end before 855 with the united Frankish-Roman Empire under Lothair I, Louis II, and Charles II, and here let’s just say that the situation would not be that the Byzantine Empire entirely became absorbed to the Frankish Empire both politically and culturally, rather both cultures would eventually fuse with each other, though it would be quite too difficult to explain it all here, so instead this story will just end in a rather happy but confusing way. What would happen as well is that the Franks in the west would soon enough face the growing raids of the Vikings or Norsemen in the north who were in search of land to settle and farm in escaping their cold and inhospitable lands in Scandinavia therefore making raids into Europe whereas they would arrive and settle into what is now Russia forming what would be the Kievan Rus’ Empire in 862 which would later pose a threat to Byzantium. The big question here though is that will the united Frankish-Roman Empire survive in the next decades given the confusing situation of the succession system especially with the successors always having to divide their lands among each other, and this story will no longer go there so it is best that you as viewers should decide how this story will go in the next half of the 9th century.         

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Invasion of Byzantine Crete by the exiled Arabs from Spain, 824 in real history
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Invasion of Sicily by the Aghlabid Arabs of North Africa, 827 in real history
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Treaty of Verdun- division of Charlemagne’s Frankish Empire into 3 parts: East (green), Middle (purple), and West (orange) Frankia; 843 in real history
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Further division of the Frankish Empire into 5 parts with the Treaty of Prum, 855 in real history

Watch this to learn more about the dissolution of Charlemagne’s Empire (Kings and Generals).

Now in the Byzantine Empire in real history, following their defeat to the Bulgars in 811 and the abdication of Nikephoros I’s son Staurakios, Michael I Rangabe who was Nikephoros I’s son-in-law inherited the empire but had turned out to be a weak ruler especially when the empire was in great danger with Krum still on the offensive against them. Michael I though acknowledged Charlemagne as emperor, though only as the Greek “Basileus” and not as “Roman emperor” but Michael I’s biggest problem was the Bulgars which he saw that the only solution was to fight on the offensive against Krum which he did, although Michael I was hesitant about it. The Byzantine forces and the Bulgars eventually clashed at the Battle of Versinikia in 813 wherein the army of the Anatolic Theme under the same Leo the Armenian in this story having no loyalty in Michael I deserted leaving Krum to be victorious again.

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Emperor Michael I Rangabe, Byzantine emperor in real history (r. 811-813), art by Melissinos Arts

Michael I later in 813 decided to abdicate which everyone agreed to as no one saw him as a fit ruler anyway, therefore he passed the throne to the general Leo the Armenian and retired to become a monk in which he would live the rest of his life as all the way till his death in 844. Though Leo V the Armenian was the new emperor, Krum had already gone as far as the walls of Constantinople thus ravaging the Thracian countryside, and wanting to put an end to Krum’s terrorizing of Thrace, Leo V attempted to have Krum assassinated except Krum escaped it and out of revenge continued massacring the Byzantine people in Thrace. Leo V however struck back by invading Bulgar lands and carrying out massacres on the Bulgars, and just before Krum could launch another attack on Constantinople again, he suffered a stroke and died leaving the Bulgar state to his son Omurtag who then decided to end the conflict with the Byzantines as he feared Leo V would make an alliance with Charlemagne’s son Louis who just succeeded his father in 814.

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

Leo V now as an Iconoclast had blamed all their defeats to the Bulgars on the restoration of icons by Irene, and so in 815 Leo V after firing the Iconodule patriarch Nikephoros I and appointing new Iconoclast scholars to be in charge of the Church, he once again resumed Iconoclasm also as a way to please his supporters who were the now old veteran soldiers still loyal to the late Constantine V. Leo V’s Iconoclast policies though were not as extreme as his predecessors Leo III and Constantine V as here Iconodules were no longer persecuted and monasteries were no longer raided for icons, instead the new order was that icons were only to not be displayed in public. Leo V had turned out to rule successfully except that in 820, he fell out with his friend and general Michael the Amorian who Leo though was having an affair with his wife, and so Leo punished Michael by imprisoning him in the furnace of the palace and tied to a large ape to see whether Michael would die from dehydration or be hacked to death by the ape, although the execution was delayed as it was Christmas giving Michael enough time to have his conspirators dress up as choir members who then stabbed Leo V to death at the Christmas Eve Mass in the Hagia Sophia leaving no heir to succeed him.

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

The next day, Michael was dragged out of the furnace and immediately crowned with the chains still on his feet to prevent a succession crisis, and here begins the age of stability for the Byzantine Empire under the Amorian Dynasty under Michael II. However, Michael II too was an Iconoclast, though not an extreme one and since his first wife died, Michael II married the same Euphrosyne who was the daughter of Constantine VI and granddaughter of Irene, as a way to legitimize himself as emperor as Michael II only began out as a common soldier. Michael II in this reign although faced many difficulties such as the rebellion of the general Thomas the Slav which led to a civil war as Thomas proclaimed himself emperor even claiming to be Constantine VI though not knowing Constantine VI had been blinded by Irene and had died in 805, and this civil war would go on for 2 years (821-823) resulting in Thomas defeated and executed in 823. Though Michael II won the civil war, his army was weakened thus unable to stop the exiled Arabs from Spain from taking over Crete in 824 which then led to the creation of the Emirate of Crete as mentioned earlier, and in 827 the Aghlabid Arabs of North Africa began their conquest of Sicily. Michael II then died in 829 at least leaving Byzantium more stable than it was when Leo V came to power in 813, and here Michael II at least established a dynasty being succeeded by his son Theophilos, who too was an Iconoclast.

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

Theophilos now as emperor spent his entire reign in war against the Arab Abbasid Caliphate in the east and again with the Bulgars in the north in which he had mixed results, though in his reign, the Byzantine army and empire itself was much more stable again. One of Theophilos’ great achievements was the creation of the Beacons System which was made up of several torches built across Asia Minor from the Taurus Mountains to Constantinople to send signals in case an Arab army was attacking, therefore a Theme’s army could easily come to reinforce the other Theme under attack. Theophilos suddenly died in 842 with his son Michael III (r. 842-867) who being only a year old when becoming emperor was under the regency of his mother Theodora, the wife of Theophilos who like Irene was also a major supporter of icons. Here history would repeat itself as just how Irene held a council in 787 to put an end to Iconoclasm when being the regent for her young son Constantine VI, Theodora here as the regent of her young son Michael III held a Church Council in Constantinople in 843 that finally put an end to Iconoclasm for good. Although Theodora did not depose Michael III the way Irene did to Constantine VI in 797, instead Michael III in 857 when grown up got rid of his mother’s regency and ruled alone, and although he was an irresponsible ruler, he at least had good administrators running the empire for him.

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End of Iconoclasm in Byzantium under Michael III and his mother Empress-Regent Theodora, 843

It was in Michael III’s reign, following the end of Iconoclasm wherein Byzantine art and culture would have a Renaissance as after all these years wherein art became plain and simple, here it was revived to more extravagant levels to make up for the years it was lost under the Iconoclasts. Here in Michael III’s reign as well would begin the conversion of the Slavs north of the Byzantines in Eastern Europe into Orthodox Christianity by two Byzantine missionaries St. Cyril (originally Constantine) and St. Methodius beginning 863, and in 864 the Bulgarian ruler Boris I, being an ally of the Byzantines would be baptized as a Christian, thus converting the Bulgarian Empire to Orthodox Christianity as well. Now in the second half of the 9th century, Europe would have 3 major empires which was the Frankish Empire, Bulgarian Empire, and Byzantine Empire which here had come out of the Dark Ages and steadily enter its second Golden Age.         

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Byzantines defeated by the Bulgars at the Battle of Versinikia from the Manases Chronicle, 813 in real history
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Assassination of Emperor Leo V, 820 in real history
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Rebellion of Thomas the Slav and civil war from the Madrid Skylitzes, 821-823 in real history
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Map of the Byzantine beacons built across Asia Minor by Theophilos
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Byzantine in the 2nd half of the 9th century (yellow)

Watch this to learn more about the Battle of Versinikia, 813 (Kings and Generals).

Our story will now end here with the closing of the dystopian like Byzantine Dark Ages which had seen Byzantium be under constant attacks for 2 full centuries by the Arabs coming from the south and east and then from the Bulgars in the north, a pointless war against religious icons that was thought to save the empire but at the end only made things worse especially in their relations Western Europe, and of course the humiliation of their empire’s pride as at one point in the 6th century, they were the master of the Mediterranean and then came the 7th century when in an instant, the Byzantines lost more than half of their empire to the Arabs coming out of nowhere. At first, Byzantium in the 7th century beginning with the reign of Constans II (641-668) thought that they could still one day reverse their defeats and gain back their lands but then came 2 sieges of Constantinople by the Arabs, first from 674-678 and again from 717-718 and from here onwards things would change. From the 7th century onwards to the 9th, the Byzantines were then forced to fight on the defensive against the Arabs that by the 8th century it became the new world order for the Byzantine Empire that they existed to fight on the defensive even when winning victories. Now at the beginning of the 9th century where this story took place, the Byzantine Empire despite having been stabilized was weak economically and politically and having a woman as a ruler which was Irene was a big question for them especially since she was not even part of the dynasty but had only married into it. Now, I would see that Irene had considered Charlemagne for various reasons especially since he had a much a larger and younger empire which was much wealthier with a larger army than Irene’s Byzantium and this could be as I said in the introduction of this story the magic pill that could save the deteriorating Byzantine Empire. Now the marriage between Irene and Charlemagne could have benefited both empires a lot, though it would benefit Byzantium more as it could save it economically and in helping them reverse all their setbacks while for Charlemagne’s Frankish Empire, uniting with Byzantium would make them more cultured not only in art but in governing. However, the union between both empires had a lot of down sides as well, as for one it could ruin the proud identity of the Byzantines as Orthodox Christians as the empire of Charlemagne being Catholic and under the guidance of the pope would have to be the official religion of the empire as Charlemagne’s half was the more powerful one, thus this would not be received well by the proud Orthodox Byzantines, although since the religious icons had been restored under Irene, the relationship between Eastern and Western Churches would be much friendlier which is what I chose as the outcome of the marriage between Irene and Charlemagne in this story. Another down side with their marriage is that things will only become confusing especially in the governing system of the empire as this could mean that the western Frankish half would have to adopt the Theme System or that Irene’s half would have to adopt the Frankish governing system, and even more confusing would be the cultural impact on the people of the united halves as this union could either mean that the Byzantines would have to integrate into the Germanic culture and customs of the Franks or vice-versa, therefore I could not decide how this union would fully turn out, so I chose not go any further anymore beyond the mid 9th century. Now overall, I would say that the marriage between Charlemagne and Irene was not so much a magic pill that could turn all the setbacks for the Byzantines around, though in the short-term it could as the Byzantines were threatened by the Bulgars in the north and having a union with the massive Frankish Empire could definitely help the Byzantines crush the immediate threat of Krum’s Bulgarian Empire but in the long term, the union will not be very much that magic pill as for one obviously, the Byzantines and the Franks were from two different worlds as the Byzantines despite being the older and weaker empire was the more sophisticated and cultured one while the Franks were a new barbarian empire that had just learned to adapt to the sophisticated culture of the Greeks and Romans, therefore it would actually be hard to see them act as one empire except if they had a common enemy. Now for me, it was overall quite a difficult job in creating this story especially with the outcome of Irene and Charlemagne’s supposed marriage and writing about it, especially since the situation that would soon enough follow this crucial event was certainly something very confusing especially on how both halves of the united empire would be run especially given the confusing tradition of the Franks when it came to inheritance and diving their realm among their successors, and because of this I would see that this union would not really work out well and would not last a full century, therefore sometime after 855, the united empire would disintegrate leaving the east independent, though still under the rule of the Carolingians. On the other hand, I am also not very knowledgeable about the Franks and their history, society, and culture the way I am with Byzantium but when writing this, it also made be somewhat interested in the story of the Franks too. On the other hand, this what if scenario of Charlemagne and Irene marrying is a very popular one in Byzantine Alternate History and when writing this story, it was fun especially in the more insider situations and stories such as Irene and her personal life especially in her personality and how she dresses, as well as in portraying Charlemagne in a different light as rather than showing him here as the legendary “Father of Europe”, it was quite fun to show a more human side to him as a tired old man, and of course writing certain events like the grand imperial wedding and this fictional plot hatched in it of the exploding grenade. This story too despite being a bit too confusing was also something rather experimental in blending genres together as it included Byzantine politics and religious debates, the extravagance of the Byzantine court, medieval politics and wars, and family drama all mixed up with some comedy, romance, action, suspense, treachery, and a bit of a dystopian feeling. Another thing I enjoyed most in writing this story was putting more attention on Irene rather than the more famous Charlemagne as I would say Irene is overall an underrated historical figure who is somewhat fun to play around with when writing a fan fiction as she had a very complex personality, was beautiful with a perfect body, was courageous and decisive, ruthless but still caring, intelligent and sophisticated, though not very skilled in running an empire and securing loyalty, therefore she was far from perfect which makes her an even more interesting character to build a story on which I just did here, and I should definitely thank my friend Justinianus for building up Irene’s character more in this story and adding a bit of some entertaining twists such as the return of Justinian the Great from chapter III here as a ghost. Now as the centuries would go by, Charlemagne would be forever remembered as one of the greatest figures of medieval Europe that actually managed to unite almost all of Europe into one empire that ambitious and ruthless leaders later on like Napoleon Bonaparte in the 19th century and Adolf Hitler in the 20th century would follow the example of Charlemagne in putting Europe into one empire, but little did these future leaders know Charlemagne would have actually succeeded more in making a complete European superpower if he was to marry Irene and absorb the Byzantine Empire. Of course, this marriage never happened and the empires never united, but not so long after Charlemagne died in 814, his empire never really lasted as a unified one but rather an empire divided among his successors, but for this reason in the empire being divided, this would soon enough lead to the foundation of the medieval Kingdom of France and in 962 the actual Holy Roman Empire beginning with Otto I the first Holy Roman emperor, thus laying the foundations for Germany. As for Byzantium in reality, this marriage would later turn out to be something not so necessary as in the next half of the 9th century, after Iconoclasm would be finished off for good, the Byzantine Empire would get over its Dark Ages and enter a new age of a Renaissance in art, culture, and military power that the whole standard of living for the Byzantines of living in fear seeing the end of their empire was imminent would be no more, instead the Byzantines by the end of the 9th century would finally turn the tide of war against the Arabs to the offensive.

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Icon of Empress St. Irene of Athens

Now Irene would then have the legacy of being Byzantium’s first female ruler making that a possibility and more importantly for putting an end to the controversy of Iconoclasm which would indirectly lay the foundations for the empire’s new Golden Age, and for this reason no matter how flawed Irene was, she would become a saint in the Greek Orthodox Church. Of course, the Byzantines despite coming out of its Dark Ages would still go through some hard times which includes their Cold War situation with the west still continuing but by the end of the 9th century, Byzantium would be one of the 3 most powerful empires in Europe next to the Carolingian Frankish Empire and Bulgarian Empire. The Byzantine Golden Age wherein all its setbacks and humiliations for the past 3 centuries would be reversed would be another chapter in the 1,100-year history of Byzantium and therefore a story for another time. The next chapter of this Byzantine Alternate History series will explore the rise and peak of the Byzantine Golden Age from the late 9th to early 10th centuries followed by the glorious 10th century of Byzantium under the powerful military and palace emperors of the Macedonian Dynasty all put in one story but with only one significant historical of this period eliminated to see how history would turn out to be, without this one person. Well, this is all for chapter VI of Byzantine Alternate History- the midpoint of this series and therefore a very special alternate history story in this series- this is Powee Celdran, the Byzantine Time Traveller… thank you for your time!                    

Byzantine Alternate History Series: Chapter IV- Constans II Relocates the Imperial Capital to Sicily

Posted by Powee Celdran

DISCLAIMER: Although this is mostly a work of fiction, it is largely based on true events and characters. It seeks to alter the course of actual events that transpired in the 7th century AD. This story will begin with events that have happened in real history but will become fictional as it progresses.

Previous Story: Byzantine Alternate History Chapter III- 6th Century

I call on you to be advisors and judges for the common welfare of our subjects.” -Emperor Constans II, 641AD

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Welcome to the 4th chapter of the Byzantine Alternate History series by the Byzantium Blogger! Last time, in the 3rd chapter, I discussed the reign of the Byzantine Empire’s most influential and most remembered emperor Justinian I the Great and his reign in the 6th century when the Byzantine Empire (Eastern Roman Empire) at its golden age was also at its greatest territorial extent. However, being too massive ruling the entire Mediterranean again as a “Roman lake”, it was far too stretched and left far too exposed for enemies to attack on all sides, most notably their traditional enemy in the east, the Sassanid Persian Empire. In the previous story however, I went with the what if scenario of Justinian I saving his empire and preserving its stability for many more centuries to come by sending the devastating plague that hit his empire in 542 east over to the Sassanids resulting in their total destruction and at the same time Justinian himself personally going to his own military campaign in Italy to restore it to imperial rule and training his own nephew and successor Justin II to be a strong ruler just like him. However, since the stories in this alternate history series are not continuous with each other, this story will go with the course of events in real history meaning that after Justinian died in 565, the plague was still present in the Byzantine Empire, the economy ruined from all the wars and the plague, the Sassanid Empire in the east still alive and strong, and Justinian’s successor Justin II coming to the throne as a not so competent emperor. The main part of this story where the course of history will change happens a full century after Justinian’s reign, therefore unfamiliar territory for me as I still have much to discover about this era of Byzantium, and here the Byzantine Empire ruled by Emperor Constans II (641-668) would literally be a shell of its former self, compared to the glorious state it was under Justinian I. Here in the mid-7th century, Byzantium being devastated from total war, first against the Sassanids and afterwards against a new enemy being the Arabs, it had lost more than 50% of the lands it gained under Justinian and now has to fight on the defensive against the rapidly expanding Arab Caliphate, in which the Byzantines for the longest never knew would pose such a threat. Now Justinian’s legacy in the cathedral of the Hagia Sophia which he had constructed in the imperial capital Constantinople and his code of laws known as the Corpus Juris Civilis which he commissioned may have lived long beyond his time but his legacy in expanding the empire in land did not last long and in the latter half of the 6th century and early 7th century, all his hard work in restoring the old Roman Empire through conquests had begun to fall apart. For instance, after Justinian’s death, Italy which had just recently been put under Byzantine rule quickly began falling to a new Germanic enemy invading through the north which were the Lombards, Byzantine Southern Spain slowly began falling to the Visigoth Kingdom in the north, the Avars and Slavs began frequently raiding the Byzantine Balkans, and the threat of the Sassanids in the east resuming in full scale wars, and the worst part was that the Byzantine treasury was growing increasingly empty. The hard times for Byzantium then began in 602 when the last emperor of Justinian’s dynasty, Maurice was dethroned and executed by his army which resulted in chaos reigning in Byzantium allowing the Sassanids to now invade imperial territory to the point of coming right outside Constantinople! In 610, Heraclius who would be another strong and decisive emperor came to the throne to save the empire and true enough by 628 he was able to finish off the Sassanid threat once and for all by winning the great war against them which totally fractured the Sassanid Empire and though the Byzantine here had won, years of war weakened the empire and its economy that one more war could result in Byzantium’s total annihilation. As for the Byzantines, little did they know that the war with the Sassanids was not yet the end, and little did they know that the new deadly threat to them would come from the Arab people from the deserts of the south who the Byzantines never had thought would ever be much of a threat. Apparently, the Arab tribes of the southern deserts in the early 7th century had all united under the new religion of Islam to form an empire or Caliphate and began expanding north beyond Arabia to conquer both the Byzantine and Sassanid Empires to spread Islam by the sword, and for them the Byzantine capital Constantinople was the ultimate prize. Now, the sudden rise and expansion of the Arab tribes of the desert becoming the Rashidun Caliphate was one of history’s most unexpected moments but at the same time it was also expected that the Byzantines would lose a great amount of their imperial holdings in the east, most notably all of Egypt and Syria to the Arabs very quickly as the previous war with the Sassanids heavily devastated the Byzantine forces and facing a powerful and swift enemy like the Arabs, the Byzantines could not stand a chance but at least with the Byzantines being able to adapt to these challenging times by coming up with new kinds of military and administrative systems and secret superweapons like Greek Fire survived the expansion of the Arabs whereas the Sassanid Empire that had fallen into civil war stood no chance and was soon enough entirely absorbed into the Arab Caliphate by 651. The main part and climax of this story will be on the 27-year reign of Constans II (641-668), the grandson of Heraclius who in 641 at only 11 inherits an empire that had gotten into a war with the Arabs and already at a breaking point. Unlike emperors Justinian I and Heraclius whose reigns and achievements remained well remembered long after their time, Constans II’s does not and remains one of Byzantium’s most underrated emperors despite achieving a lot as emperor and so much happening in his reign as it was under him when the course of Byzantine history had been drastically changing. For instance, it was under Constans II when the Byzantine Empire in an instant lost a large amount of territories most of them being important ones like Egypt and Syria, it was also under Constans II when Byzantium began its shift from Latin to Greek culturally and linguistically, and most importantly it was under Constans II when the new administrative system of Byzantium’s provinces known as the Thematic System was introduced whereas the Byzantines now having to fight constantly on the defensive against the expanding Arabs from the east while at the same time losing large amounts of land had to adapt to the situation and this meant reducing their provinces in size thus creating smaller military provinces called Themes to increase military presence. Under Constans II, the major shift in the course of Byzantine history took place as it was here where they would now from here on for 2 more centuries have to fight on the defensive to protect their empire from the ambitious conquests of the Arabs and in these difficult times, Byzantium had to adapt by coming up with all sorts of creative ideas for their survival including the creation of Thematic System- which you will learn more about how it works when reading this- to make their defenses easier and creating weapons like Greek Fire, a naval superweapon that was to remain a Byzantine state secret, and yes these new solutions the Byzantines came up with in these difficult times did prove effective enough in allowing the Byzantine Empire to live on through these hard times and eventually by the 9th century rise up again to counter-attack the Arabs. As for Constans II on the other hand, others may remember him as the emperor that met a very odd end being killed by a servant using a soap dish when bathing but in the story of his death that took place in the city of Syracuse of Sicily, Constans II did indeed have some kind of secret intention which was to move the Byzantine Empire’s capital to Sicily seeing Constantinople was far too vulnerable to the Arab attacks and having Syracuse as the new capital was more effective as it location was central in the Mediterranean and could help in further defending the Mediterranean and taking back lands such as Egypt and North Africa that were lost to the expanding Arab Caliphate. Now, I actually think here that Constans II did really intend to move west as he was looking to further defend the Mediterranean from the Arabs while at the same time I also see that he had also cared about the west and Byzantium’s Roman heritage, therefore this makes him and not Justinian the last Roman emperor to have some kind of connection to the west and Rome, considering that the Byzantine emperors despite ruling from the east were still considered Roman emperors. This article will be another long one as it covers the very crucial 7th century and the worlds of the Byzantines, Arab Rashidun and Umayyad Caliphates, Sassanid Persians, and even the Tang Chinese Empire but a lot of it will focus on Emperor Constans II’s reign and his decision to move the imperial capital to Syracuse being the last Byzantine emperor that still care about Byzantium’s western roots but the real question here is that if Constans II moved the Byzantine capital to Syracuse, could this really change the course of Byzantine history?

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Note: Since this story is set in the 7th century after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the Byzantine characters will be now referred to as Byzantines, not Romans.

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The Byzantine Empire at its greatest extent by 555 under Emperor Justinian I the Great
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The Byzantine Empire in 650 (orange) under Constans II

 

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Map of the expansion of the Islamic Rashidun and Umayyad Caliphates (622-750)


Here, in chapter IV of my Byzantine Alternate History series, this time I am writing the story alone basing it on historical facts from 7th century Byzantium and coming up with my own plots for the characters of the story. Most of the story will be relying on historical facts with an intense amount of research and info from the History of Byzantium Podcast and other history related media online and books as well including my go to book for Byzantine history told through its emperors, The History of the Byzantine Empire by Radi Dikici. However, when we get to the year 668, the year Constans II was killed in his bath in Syracuse, rather than going with the course of real history wherein Constans II met his end at the baths, this story will take a different turn whereas Constans II survived and would continue to build up the empire’s Mediterranean defense as well as continue his war against the Arab forces, this time having united as the Umayyad Caliphate.

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Coin of Emperor Constans II (r. 641-668)

Although before getting to this story’s climax of Constans II’s fate in 668 wherein he avoids it, it is important to give some context to the story by discussing the background of the plot of the rise of the Byzantine-Arab conflict which will take us all the way back to Byzantium in the late 6th century following Justinian I’s death. This story then will have a long background section that will discuss Byzantium after Justinian, the total war against the Sassanids, the emperor Maurice, the usurpation and failed reign of the emperor Phocas, the rise and achievements of Emperor Heraclius, the final defeat of the Sassanid Empire, and the sudden rise of the Arabs and expansion of Islam since it would be difficult to understand the Byzantine Empire of Constans II without knowing about how Byzantium changed so much before his time. Once the background of the story and its conflict is explained in the historical context, this article will proceed to the turbulent reign of Constans II from 641 to 668 and then to the climax of the story wherein things will take a totally fictional shift. This story will then proceed and finish off with the reign of Constans II’s son Constantine IV (668-681) with the first Arab Siege of Constantinople in 674 and the invention of the superweapon Greek Fire, despite Constans II still alive except here in this case, after 668, the Byzantine Empire would be split in half to be able to fully defend all its borders properly whereas Constans II would rule permanently from the west in Syracuse while his young son Constantine IV would rule from the east in Constantinople. Now Constans II for me is one of Byzantium’s most underrated yet very important emperors as like mentioned earlier, he ruled Byzantium in a very crucial time when the empire had suddenly downsized in land and population as a large percent was lost to the Arabs, therefore it was in his reign where many important reforms and changes were introduced which would last for many centuries to come such as the introduction of the Thematic System and the shift from Latin to Greek in language and culture which would be the new standard for Byzantium from here onwards with the Latin language and Roman identity of the past slowly but significantly disappearing as for instance, the imperial court began using Greek as the language of administration. Other than the creation of Byzantium’s Theme System that would be the standard of the empire’s governance for many centuries to come, Constans II’s reign was one with many significant moments which included sending an embassy to the Tang Empire of China, almost getting killed in a naval battle against the Arabs, arresting the pope, travelling the empire personally, leading battles himself, settling in Syracuse as if it were the empire’s new capital, and getting assassinated in his bath by a soap dish. Now the 7th century was a very crucial turning point in the history of Byzantium as this was when the empire entered a somewhat dystopian setting which would be its “Dark Ages” where it drastically downsized, therefore losing the imperial power and prestige it had as the all-powerful empire it was from its beginnings in the 4th century to the age of Justinian in the 6th century and also, it was the time when the purpose of war for the Byzantines shifted from one for territory to holy war to defend Christianity, first against the Zoroastrian Sassanid Persians in the first half of the 7th century and against the Muslim Arabs in the 2nd half; and it would not only be the Byzantines fighting for faith but the Arabs too as their purpose for expanding was to spread Islam. This story in the 7th century too will only be the beginning of the wars the Byzantines would have against Islam which they would fight against till the very end while this story too will be the beginning of the Byzantines vs Arabs and Dark Ages phase which the next 2 stories of this series will cover. As for creating a what if story for 7th century Byzantium since each century in Byzantium’s history gets one story in this series, I could have done more popular ones such as if the war against the Sassanids from 602 to 628 had not happened, if the Arab expansion never happened, if Emperor Heraclius lost to the Sassanids, or if Heraclius successfully beat the Arabs, but instead I chose to go deeper into the 7th century and deeper into the Byzantine-Arab conflict, therefore into the complex reign of Constans II as in this alternate history series, I usually like to go for lesser known emperors and events and this article will do just that. Of course, the more popular events of the 7th century like the reign of Heraclius and his wars against the Sassanids and later the Arabs will play a large role in this story giving a background to Constans II and the situation of the empire he ruled and considering Constans II is the grandson of the more famous Byzantine emperor Heraclius, it is impossible to not discuss the heroic yet tragic reign of Heraclius. Now for the main character of the story, I chose Constans II (real name: Heraclius Constantine) who I would consider a very complex person as I always find stories that center on a flawed, unlikeable, and mean-spirited protagonist very interesting and Emperor Constans II is no exception for this kind of character. Unlike the other protagonists I chose for the previous 3 stories like Valentinian I, Anthemius, and Justinian who I portrayed as rather likeable characters, Constans II here as the lead character is the opposite, and just as he recorded in history to have ruled, Constans II here will be portrayed as a young mean-spirited emperor ruling with an iron fist, purging all those who opposed him including family members and even the pope, and falling out with his family which is why I would also say he left for 5 years to settle in Sicily, never to return. As an emperor, Constans II too would be his grandfather Heraclius’ polar opposite as Heraclius is usually portrayed in a heroic fashion being Byzantium’s savior from incompetence and tyranny and from the ultimate destruction of the Sassanids yet at the same time as a tragic hero as even though he achieved so much in finally putting an end to the constant war against the Sassanids, he plainly lived long enough to die a broken man unable to stop the new Arab threat while his grandson Constans II is usually and here will be seen as an unlikeable autocratic ruler in which others may know him as “Constans the Bearded” or the “Bearded Autocrat”- as he is depicted  in his coin to have a large beard- and although tyrannical as an emperor and not very effective in religious and foreign policy, he was not incompetent and was actually a visionary with some good intentions for the survival of his empire which is why he introduced the Theme System- though historical sources aren’t that clear about if he exactly created them- and thought of relocating the imperial capital seeing he could use that as a base to save the threatened western provinces. Constans II too being part of the Heraclian Dynasty founded by his grandfather Heraclius would also be the one to set the standard of his dynasty’s ruling style as strong autocratic rulers in which this kind of ruling style Constans II had would be seen with his son Constantine IV as you will also see here, and with Constantine IV’s son Justinian II (r. 685-695) who would be this dynasty’s last emperor and it was also here at this point in time with Byzantium under the Heraclian emperors wherein you would no longer see powerful women running the empire like in the 5th and 6th centuries; instead the 7th century was a time for strong young men running the empire such as Constans II, Constantine IV, and Justinian II. This story too will not be the kind of black and white story wherein the Byzantines are all good and their enemies like the Arabs all bad, instead it will be a very complex one as its lead character Constans II despite being the hero of the story, will be somewhat villainous in nature as a result of the difficult situation the empire was facing as he grew up, but with actually good intentions therefore being an anti-villain with a complete character arc while the Arabs on the other hand like Constans II’s arch-enemy Caliph Muawiyah I would not be seen as pure villains even if it is told through the Byzantine perspective, as true enough the Arab Caliphate’s intention was just to expand and conquer in the name of Islam without any bad intentions yet they had actually been tolerant as rulers at times, thus this story too will do justice to the Arabs who are usually villainized in other stories. At the same time, this story too will give you a full picture of the world of the 7th century by not only telling the story of Constans II but of the collapse of Byzantium’s long-time mortal enemy, the Sassanid Empire wherein the Arabs would replace them as this enemy, the relations of Byzantium with the distant Tang Dynasty Empire of China at this time, the continuation of the endless headache of religious debates, the introduction of Byzantium’s Theme System which would prove effective in the empire’s survival, the Byzantine Exarchates, the development of Greek Fire, and the ultimate change in the course of Byzantine history from fighting to conquer to fighting on the defensive. Of course, in order to be more interesting for a wider range of viewers would not focus to heavily on the religious debates of the time and political situation of the empire but rather on the happenings of the time including the wars and power struggles in which Byzantium would also be forever remembered for. Although at the same time, this story will be one that is more centered on the empire and its political and geographic situation rather than on characters, but the characters and their stories like of Constans II will play a major part too.

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Emperor Constans II of Byzantium, black and white illustration by Powee Celdran

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Guide to the Heraclian Dynasty of the Byzantine Empire, 610-695 (covered heavily in this story)

Related Articles from The Byzantium Blogger:

Byzantine Alternate History Chapter III- The Empire Strikes Back

Byzantine History for Everyday People- Reactions to Quotes from Byzantium

Around the World in the Byzantine Era- Part I (330-1000)

12 Turning Points in Byzantine History

The Art of War in the Byzantine World

A Guide to the Themes of the Byzantine Empire

The Sieges of Constantinople

Lesser Known and Would be Roman and Byzantine Emperors (27BC-695AD)

Related Videos to this era:

Constans II the Bearded (Thersites the Historian)

Early Muslim Expansion- Yarmouk and Al-Qadisiyah (Kings and Generals)

Constans II: Struggle for Survival (Eastern Roman History)


The Leading Characters:

Constans II- Byzantine emperor

Constantine IV- Son and heir of Constans II

Theodore Calliopas- Byzantine Exarch of Ravenna

Mizizios- Byzantine general, Komes of the Opsikion Theme

Muawiyah I- 1st Caliph of the Umayyad Caliphate

Heraclius- Son of Constans II and co-emperor

Tiberius- Son of Constans II and co-emperor 

Fausta- Byzantine empress, wife of Constans II, mother of Constantine IV, Heraclius, and Tiberius

Theodosius- Twin brother of Constans II

Kallinikos of Heliopolis- Byzantine engineer, inventor of Greek Fire

Paul II- Patriarch of Constantinople

Pope Martin I- Patriarch of Rome

Saborios- Byzantine general, Strategos of the Armeniac Theme

Yazid- Arab general, son of Muawiyah I

Peroz- Last heir of the Sassanid Empire in exile, Persian general in China

*Alexios- Byzantine senator and diplomat sent to China (real character with not much of a story, his story is expanded here)

*Philippikos- Byzantine senator and diplomat sent to China (real character with not much of a story, his story is expanded here)

Gaozong- Tang emperor of China

Character images below of these selected characters from this story, Illustrated by Powee Celdran

(Credits to AmelianvsSkamandros, Gambargin, Ahmed AbuElnaga, and Marwan Musa for their art on this era which are featured here.)

Background Guide: Byzantine characters (blue), Latin west (light blue), Arabs (yellow), Sassanids (green), Chinese (red-orange) 


The Background (From Justinian I to Heraclius)

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On November 14, 565 died the most influential ruler of the Byzantine Empire, Justinian I the Great who had ruled for a total of 38 years coming to power back in 527 and with him died the golden age. Under Justinian I, the Byzantines came to rule the entire Mediterranean by conquering North Africa from the Vandal Kingdom, Italy from the Ostrogoth Kingdom, and Southern Spain from the Visigoth Kingdom and though the Vandals and Ostrogoths were destroyed under Justinian I, the Visigoth Kingdom still lived on in Spain as only the south was put under Byzantine rule and despite these conquests, the might of Byzantium was weakened. Certainly, Justinian’s imperial conquests of the former Western Roman provinces needed funds and though the dream to reconquer these provinces had been achieved, the treasury ran low due to all the wars fought to reclaim these lands considering the war to retake all of Italy spanned almost 20 years.

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Icon of Emperor St. Justinian the Great (r. 527-565)

The worst part however was the plague that struck the Byzantine Empire so severely in 542 that killed 1/3 of the empire’s population and as a result of all the deaths crippled the economy but even though all this happened, Justinian I was able to put the entire Mediterranean under Byzantine rule and die at least knowing he was able to fulfil his ultimate dream despite never even taking part in his own conquests but instead staying his entire reign in Constantinople. Though Justinian I died with his ultimate dream of reconquest achieved, little did he know that shortly after his death, all his hard work would fall apart and a lot of this would be due to the leadership of his nephew and successor Justin II (r. 565-578) as Justinian in fact never properly trained a successor and never had children of his own with his wife Theodora and following Theodora’s death in 548, the devastated Justinian vowed to marry again, and little did he know that this would be a terrible decision. Justin II inherited from his uncle a massive empire that controlled the entire Mediterranean but no matter how large it was in territory, he lacked the vision and strong administrative skills his uncle had and the Byzantine Empire Justinian I left behind to Justin II had an economy ruined by the plague and wars and having an empty treasury while facing enemies on all borders particularly the Avars across the Danube border in the Balkans allying with the Slavic tribes across the Danube making attempts to cross the river and settle in Byzantine lands.

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Emperor Justin II of Byzantium (r. 565-578), nephew and successor of Justinian I

The Avars now had been making raids into the Danube borders of Byzantium ever since Justinian I’s reign but part of Justinian’s policy was to pay off the Avars and their allies, the Slavs (Sclaveni in Latin, Sklabenoi in Greek) to stay where they are and not attack but when becoming emperor, Justin II seeing the treasury was too empty to continue paying the Avars annual tribute decided to stop paying tribute therefore making them raid into the Byzantine Balkans with their Slav allies to find land whereas the Avars fought as cavalry and the Slavs as infantry. As for Byzantine Italy which had just been entirely conquered from the Ostrogoth Kingdom, the wars and plague left it a depopulated wasteland and due to pressure from the Avar hordes in Central Europe, the Germanic tribe of the Lombards migrated south to look for land therefore invading Byzantine Italy in 568 meeting very little resistance as not that many troops were left to defend Italy as a result of the deaths from the previous war against the Ostrogoths and in such a short amount of time, the Lombards were able to take over half of Italy leaving only the major cities of Ravenna, Rome, and Naples as well as the south to the Byzantines. In the eastern border of the Byzantine Empire on the other hand, ever since 562 Justinian I agreed to a truce with their mortal enemy, the Sassanid Persian Empire ruled by Shah Khosrow I, King of Kings though the amount of money to be paid off to the Sassanids as tribute was soon to be impossible with the Byzantine state now critically running out of funds and again as Justin II decided to do with the Avars, in 572 he decided to stop the annual tribute to the Sassanids, therefore resuming war and this time to an even more severe level wherein the Sassanids had the upper hand making them able to seize some of Byzantine territory in Syria.

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Avar cavalry (left) and Slav infantry (right)

The resumption of the war against the Sassanids and the defeat of the Byzantine forces to them as well as the pressure of running such a massive yet fractured empire in 573 made Justin II break down and lose his sanity and memory that soon enough he became unfit to rule and in 574, he was convinced by his wife the empress Sophia to abdicate and rule in name only and appoint his commander of the palace guard or Comes Excubitorum the Thracian Tiberius to run the empire not as Caesar while Justin II still ruled as Augustus or senior emperor and Tiberius would be the first Byzantine emperor from here on to primarily speak Greek. Justin II then adopted Tiberius as his son and heir despite them being the same age here (54) and from here on Tiberius would be the one effectively running the empire cleaning up the mess Justin II left behind which included continuing the defense of Italy against the Lombards and campaigning against the Sassanids in the east to push them back though the campaigns were left to their generals as Tiberius like Justin II and Justinian I before him again ruled as a palace emperor though luckily one day, out of chance he discovered tons of gold in his new house in Constantinople which was the house of the late Narses, the eunuch general of Justinian I who had died in 573 and apparently Narses had been keeping a large amount of gold for himself and having no children to inherit the wealth, it was passed on to the state and used to continue funding the wars and to resume paying tribute to the Avars.

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Tiberius II Constantine, Palace Guard Commander, and successor of Justin II (r. 578-582)

In 578, Justin II had died and Tiberius II adding “Constantine” to his name now ruled as the empire’s sole Augustus though Empress Sophia considering marrying him to continue ruling herself as the Augusta or empress but Tiberius already having a wife refused and banished Sophia from the imperial court and now as emperor, Tiberius would at least rule more competently than Justin II but still lacking the abilities, enthusiasm, and vision of Justinian I but still, Tiberius II was popular with the masses as he relaxed taxes and had managed to keep the fractured empire together by keeping the Avars across the Danube away, containing the Lombard threat in Italy by paying off the Franks of Gaul to distract the Lombards by attacking them from the north, and manage to continue making a truce with Khosrow I’s Sassanid Empire. In the Sassanid Empire in 579, Khosrow I died and was succeeded by his son Hormizd IV who had certainly wanted to continue the war with the Byzantines and Tiberius here decided to again face off the Sassanids at war and luckily, he had appointed a competent general to lead the campaign against the Sassanids which was the Cappadocian Greek Maurice– formerly Tiberius’ secretary and palace guard commander since 574- who in 580 successfully marched the army deep into Sassanid territory as far as Iraq pushing back the Sassanids.

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Sassanid Empire flag

However, Tiberius II having pulled out troops from the Balkans in order to launch the Sassanid campaign left the Balkans defenseless allowing the Avars and Slavs to continue their raids facing little resistance to the point of taking over the important city of Sirmium (in today’s Serbia) from the Byzantines. By 582, the conflict with the Sassanids was more or less settled allowing Tiberius to continue focusing on the threat of the Avars in the Balkans and not wanting to resume war against them, Tiberius again agreed to pay tribute to them as well as formally cede the city of Sirmium to the Avars and Slavs but in return the Avars and Slavs destroyed Sirmium. It was also in 582 when Tiberius II Constantine died at 62 most possibly from food poisoning, though it also rumored he was poisoned but when dying he named Maurice his successor.  

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Start of the Lombard invasion of Byzantine Italy in 568, Lombard lands (blue), Byzantines (orange)

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Imperial court of the mentally insane Justin II (seated) with Empress Sophia (left) and Tiberius II as Caesar (right), by Amelianvs

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Byzantine Sirmium, ceded to the Avars and Slavs in 582

Here in 582 at the age of 43, the general Maurice after marrying Tiberius II’s daughter Constantia came to rule the empire and would prove to be a competent and worthy emperor with a vision, another one of who primarily spoke Greek, and the first Byzantine emperor since Theodosius I (r. 379-395) 2 centuries earlier- with the exception of Zeno (r. 474-491)- to personally lead the armies in battle as many of his predecessors, most notably Justinian I never led the armies in battle, instead only giving orders to generals to do the job, and here Maurice would set a new standard for emperors to lead their troops in battle. The loss of Sirmium to the Avars and Slavs was a heavy blow to the prestige of the empire giving Maurice a reason to continue the war with them which he did though this ended in total disaster that he had to again continue paying off tribute to them which therefore began bankrupting the empire.

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Maurice, Byzantine emperor (r. 582-602)

Other than that, as Maurice having a vision to save and rebuild the strong empire Justinian before him planned to have, he looked into the matter in Italy that was under attack by the Lombards, North Africa threatened by the Berbers of the desert, and Byzantine territory in Southern Spain slowly being taken back by the Visigoths and here he decided to create two semi-autonomous provinces to further protect the provinces too distant to Constantinople. These two semi-autonomous provinces Maurice had created were known as the Exarchates which were to be ruled by an Exarch or a semi-autonomous governor with almost the same authority as the emperor himself but still answering directly to the emperor, and these Exarchates will play an important role in this story. In 584 the Exarchate of Ravenna was created which was to rule all of the remains of Byzantine Italy as a way to continue in the effort of containing the Lombards as Maurice being too busy dealing with problems in the east and Balkans did not have the time and neither could not split himself in half to focus on problems on all sides, therefore he left Italy under the care of an appointed Exarch based in Ravenna, the Byzantine capital of Italy. In 585, it was Byzantine North Africa’ turn to become a Byzantine Exarchate based in Byzantine North Africa’s capital Carthage and here the North African provinces as well as Sardinia and Corsica, and the remains of Byzantine territory in Southern Spain fell under the Exarchate of Africa as again Maurice had no time to focus on the problems but at least he still cared to keep these lands that Justinian worked so hard to conquer for the empire. Not to mention, it was also during Maurice’s reign when the fertile lands of Byzantine North Africa outside Carthage (Tunisia and Algeria) due to over farming and climate change began to dry up turning more and more into a desert, therefore limiting the abundant grain supply for the empire which came from these lands. Meanwhile in the Sassanid Empire, due to the heavy defeat they faced earlier under Maurice’s hands, the shah Hormizd IV was enraged making him insult his defeated general Bahram Chobin for losing but feeling insulted by his king, Bahram in 590 rebelled against, dethroned, and executed Hormizd IV taking over the Sassanid throne as Shah Bahram VI making Hormizd IV’s son and Khosrow I’s grandson Khosrow II flee to Maurice’s court in Constantinople. Maurice however managed to make an alliance with the young Khosrow II and in 591 with the help of Maurice returned to the Sassanid capital Ctesiphon, dethroned and killed Bahram VI, and successfully regained the throne, therefore resuming peace with the Byzantines promising not to attack as Maurice helped him regain the throne.

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Khosrow II, Shah of the Sassanid Empire (r. 591-628)

With the peace once again signed with the Sassanid Empire as well as Byzantine lands in Armenia and Eastern Asia Minor previously conquered by the Sassanids returned to Byzantine control, Maurice now focused on continuing the war with the Avars and Slavs in the Balkans and maintaining diplomatic relations with the neighboring kingdoms of the Caucasus as well as with the Arab tribes of the deserts in the far south but little did he know that they would one day erupt as a total threat to the Byzantines. At this time, as Maurice continued fighting his wars against the Avars and Slavs in the Balkans and actually leading the army himself, his famous military manual known as the Strategikon was written and though it is debated if Maurice wrote it himself or if it was his brother Peter or some of his generals that wrote it, I would believe that it was actually Maurice himself since he had a lot of military experience and as an emperor was also a skilled and practical general.

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The Strategikon of Emperor Maurice

This military manual here is basically a guide on how to fight particular enemies the Byzantines had at this time whether Franks or Lombards, Avars or Slavs, Sassanids or other eastern enemies, and Nomadic horsemen from the distant steppes of Central Asia and this book discusses not only how to beat the enemy by learning their fighting styles but from learning about their culture and behavior as well and a lot of the information for this book came from Byzantine spies sent to study these people. However, this book has not much mention about the Arabs from the south and their fighting styles as at this point, they were not in any way seen as a big threat though the useful advice given here was when it came to fighting the Slavs, it was best to fight them during winter by camping across the Danube in order to contain them and prevent them from crossing as they were at their weakest during winter, but as it would turn out, this tip from the Strategikon would cause Maurice his downfall. In 602, before winter came, Maurice successfully led his forces in beating back the Avars and Slavs across the Danube and with this success, the army was ordered to camp across the Danube during winter while Maurice returned to the capital. From the beginning, Maurice was already unpopular with Constantinople’s people especially the elite for never being around that much in the capital to please them and for his weakness in economic policy which led to the empire’s near bankruptcy and across the Danube, it was his own army that came to despise him for making them live in harsh conditions at enemy territory especially since they were to do it during winter wherein the cold was much more brutal there than it was within Byzantine territory but more importantly, these soldiers began to rise up due to their lack of pay, although this was not Maurice’s fault as the empire’s treasury was already emptying out. The soldiers camped across the Danube then refused following orders and went in open revolt against Maurice and here their centurion or senior officer Phocas was sent to march to Constantinople and overthrow Maurice in favor of Maurice’s son Theodosius who for the army was seen as a better choice. However, when Phocas arrived in Constantinople, the blue and green factions who were traditionally each other’s enemies united and rioted with support from the Byzantine Senate in favor of Phocas as their new emperor. With the unrest ongoing, Maurice with his family fled Constantinople across the narrow Bosporus Sea to Chalcedon on the Asian side but it was too late as they were caught by Phocas’ men although Maurice’s eldest son Theodosius was already sent away in time to seek help from Khosrow II in the Sassanid Empire, though when caught, Maurice’s wife and daughters were banished to monastery while Maurice and his 5 sons as well as his brother Peter were all sentenced to death. Here on November 27, 602 at one of Constantinople’s harbors, Maurice witnessed his 5 sons beheaded in front of him before he himself was beheaded and when he and his sons were killed with Phocas as the new emperor overseeing the executions, the eldest son Theodosius escaped but was later found though spared and sent to live out his life in the neighboring Kingdom of Lazica (today’s Georgia) in the Caucasus. The execution of Maurice thus ended the Justinian Dynasty founded back in 518 by Justinian’s uncle Emperor Justin I (r. 518-527); some historians too use the event of Maurice’s execution in 602 as the end of antiquity and the Byzantine golden age and the start of the Dark Ages.

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Byzantine Exarchate of Ravenna (red), established in 584
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Byzantine Exarchate of Africa (red), established in 585
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Maurice’s troops across the Danube in 600, by Amelianvs
The Byzantine Emperor Maurice about to be executed by the usurper Phocas, having seen his five children killed in front of him, 602
Execution of Emperor Maurice in 602, end of the Justinian Dynasty
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The Byzantine Empire in 600 (green) and Sassanid Empire (orange)

Watch this to learn more about the Strategikon of Emperor Maurice (Kings and Generals).

Following the execution of Emperor Maurice and his 5 sons, the 53-year-old centurion Phocas, a Greek speaking Thracian was now emperor but for taking over power by killing off Maurice, he was seen as a usurper. True enough, Phocas had no ties to Maurice or the Justinian Dynasty, therefore making him the first Byzantine emperor to usurp power without having any blood or familial connections with previous emperors, not even a lineage traced back to previous emperors, instead he was a simple and barely educated common soldier rising above the ranks and seizing complete control of the empire by force, though it still remains unclear why the senate still backed him.

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Emperor Phocas of Byzantium (r. 602-610)

Phocas though was married but had no children but as emperor, due to his lack of education, he lacked the skill to run an empire and being a low-born usurper, he soon enough became a constant target of conspiracies by the elite of Constantinople. Meanwhile, when hearing of Maurice’s execution, the Sassanid shah Khosrow II broke his peace agreement with Byzantium and again declared war as a way to avenge Maurice who helped him come into power where in fact avenging Maurice’s memory was more of an excuse because with Maurice as emperor, Khosrow II would not dare attack Byzantine lands as Maurice backed him but with Maurice dead, Khosrow II who really intended to conquer Byzantine lands had every reason to now invade and at the end of 602, a massive Sassanid campaign was launched against Byzantium. At the same time, the Sassanids now had the former Arab Lakhmid Kingdom to their south as their own province as well as the lands across the Persian Gulf (today’s Qatar, UAE, and Oman) being the province of Mazun, while Yemen too at the southwest portion of the Arabian Peninsula was also a Sassanid province here, though both were not connected to the main Sassanid Empire by land but with these lands already theirs, the Sassanid Persians were now to gain more by expanding west by conquering Byzantine provinces. Now Phocas would be a great example of tyranny and incompetence as when he ruled, he primarily focused on eliminating the conspiracies targeted against him and executing all those who opposed him especially the remaining family members of Maurice including Maurice’s wife Constantia and the daughters they had who were all put to death in 605 despite them previously being spared and all while Phocas busied himself getting rid of threats against him, little did he know that he left the Balkans even more exposed to the Avars and Slavs and true enough all of Maurice’s hard work to contain them was undone as these enemies raided deep into the Balkans. Phocas when hearing of the Avars and Slavs’ raids decided to let them attack and not pay them off any tribute as the treasury too had already been emptied out but the worst part was at the east, as when Phocas was too busy purging those who opposed him, the Sassanids without much resistance penetrated deep into Byzantine Asia Minor as well as Syria and Phocas seeing nothing could be done about it just let it happen. Soon enough, Phocas would lose support from the senate as they never wanted an incompetent usurper as emperor anyway while his most loyal top general Priscus too was accused to treason so in 608, Priscus fled Constantinople to the Exarchate of Africa to get the help of its exarch, the Armenian Heraclius the Elder in Carthage to overthrow Phocas as it turned out a lot of provincial governors had still been loyal to Maurice even if he was unpopular with the senate and elite of Constantinople especially since a lot of the governors were those that were appointed by Maurice. Heraclius the Elder and his son Heraclius the Younger were no doubt Maurice loyalists especially since the father was appointed exarch by Maurice himself and when Priscus arrived, both father and son were willing to openly rebel against Phocas that in Carthage they started minting coins with their faces and names and named themselves consuls too.

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Coin of Consuls in Carthage Heraclius the Elder and Heraclius the Younger

To fully kick start the rebellion, Heraclius the Younger set off to Egypt as his father was too old to journey therefore remaining in Carthage. Heraclius the Younger with his cousin Nicetas then seized Egypt for themselves in rebellion against Constantinople by cutting off the grain supply for the capital, therefore starving the people of Constantinople which was a sure move that turned them against Phocas. In 609, Heraclius the Younger then proceeded with his fleet to Greece and in 610 arrived in Constantinople and once the ship had docked in the harbor, the mob had already turned on Phocas in favor of Heraclius and here as Heraclius arrived, a severely beaten Phocas who’s robes were torn off was brought to Heraclius whereas Heraclius questioned him “is this how you have ruled, wretch?” and in return Phocas said “and will you rule better?” and being so enraged, Heraclius had Phocas beheaded at the spot. Now here on October 5, 610, the 35-year-old Flavius Heraclius the Younger, a native Greek speaker of Armenian and Cappadocian Greek descent was crowned emperor who was yet to face a very heavy burden of ruling a damaged empire.

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Khosrow II’s Sassanid imperial court
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Heraclius the Younger overthrows and executes Phocas in 610, by Amelianvs

          

The Byzantine Empire Heraclius came to rule in 610 was heavily fractured and threatened on all sides, first of all the Avars and Slavs raided even deeper into the Balkans, the Lombards still threatened Italy, and in the east the Sassanids had already captured Byzantine Mesopotamia (Southeastern Turkey) and Heraclius on the other hand who came to power by force was also seen as a usurper as he also had no connections to any of the previous dynasties except that his father was appointed Exarch of Africa by Maurice, though some time after 610, Heraclius the Elder would die at least knowing his son successfully took the throne.

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Heraclius the Younger, Byzantine emperor crowned in 610

Meanwhile with Byzantium’s eastern borders left poorly defended under Phocas’ rule, the Sassanids led by their powerful and highly skilled and feared general Shahrbaraz– whose name meant “royal boar” although his real name is unclear- scored major victories that in 611 he captured the major city of Antioch itself for the Sassanids, followed by the capture of Damascus in 613, and afterwards even Caesarea in Cappadocia in Asia Minor fell to the Sassanids which opened the way for the Sassanids to expand westwards to Constantinople. As for Heraclius, before becoming emperor he had married Fabia Eudokia, a patrician woman from North Africa and in 612 their first child who was to later be Emperor Constantine III was born but shortly after Constantine’s birth, Eudokia died and due to her popularity, the whole of Constantinople mourned at her funeral. With his first wife dead, Heraclius decided he needed to marry again in order to have more children and establish a legitimate ruling dynasty, though Heraclius had no choice but to marry his niece Martina, the daughter of his older sister Maria in 613. The marriage between Heraclius and Martina shocked the population of Constantinople and most especially the Church as it was definitely incestuous and illegal but they still married and Martina was still proclaimed Augusta by Heraclius and crowned by the Patriarch of Constantinople Sergius I. The Byzantines again suffered a heavy blow to them in 614 when Jerusalem was captured by the Sassanids, and although Jerusalem and in its location had no strategic importance, as the holy city it did have a lot of spiritual importance and for the Byzantines, losing the city was a heavy loss that angered the people of the empire.

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Sassanid general Shahrbaraz, by Gambargin

The Sassanids had turned out to favor the Jews over Christians and when capturing Jerusalem, they assigned the Jewish community to be in charge of the city over the Christians which definitely angered the Christians making them revolt against their Jewish and Sassanid Persian overlords, though the rebellion was brutally crushed by the Sassanid forces and as result of quelling the rebellion, the Sassanids looted the city taking away its most important relics including the True Cross wherein Jesus Christ himself was crucified in and many other relics from the time of Christ over to the Sassanid capital, Ctesiphon. The looting of the relics of Jerusalem truly shocked the people of Constantinople who knowing the oppression of the Christians there were not only due to their Sassanid overlords but by their Jewish allies began having anti-Jewish sentiments that the Byzantine Christians in Constantinople would randomly beat-up Jews in the streets while Heraclius here saw the loss of Jerusalem as God’s punishment for his incestuous marriage to his niece Martina. The Balkans here was still facing a heavy crisis of the raiding Avars and Slavs and it grew even worse there when Heraclius had to pull out its troops to head over to the east to focus on the Sassanid threat but Heraclius himself too did not want to lose the Balkans so even with the Sassanid threat ongoing, he headed north to confront the Avars and Slavs where in 619 he tried to propose peace with the Avar khan or ruler as the Sassanid threat was more important and devastating, but the khan refused Heraclius’ offer and set a trap to kidnap him, although Heraclius escaped the trap almost getting himself killed.

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Byzantine soldier (right) attacks a Slav (left) with an Avar behind, during the 7th century Balkan Wars

At this point, things would go from bad to worse for the Byzantines as in 619, the Sassanids now managed to invade and capture Byzantine Egypt, thus totally cutting off the empire’s grain supply and triggering riots all over the empire because of this while in 620, almost the entire Byzantine Balkans and half of Greece were lost to the Avars and Slavs as troops needed to be sent over to fight the Sassanids in the east. With all this crisis going on, Heraclius first thought hope was lost and that he had to move the imperial capital to Carthage where he was based in before, but soon he knew he could solve it but in order to do so, he needed to take the greatest of risks and a lot had to do with taxation policies which included increasing taxes and taxing the Church, while the annual pay for the soldiers and court officials had to be cut in half and although this would trigger them to revolt like they did under Maurice, Heraclius at least convinced them it was only temporary, assuring them everything will soon stabilize. In the meantime, it was around this point, more particularly in the year 622 down south in the Arabian Desert when the new religion of Islam was born as here in 622 the prophet Muhammad– an Arabian trader from the Quraysh tribe born back in 570 when Justin II ruled Byzantium- with his followers fled his birth city of Mecca to Medina when the people of Mecca did not accept this new faith, although as early as 610, Muhammad had already been receiving some divine revelations.            

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Sassanid army captures Byzantine Jerusalem, 614
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Greatest extent of the Sassanid Empire (orange) under Khosrow II, by 622

In 622, Heraclius’ holdings were only limited to Constantinople, Thrace, some of Greece, the Aegean Islands, and Western Asia Minor as North Africa and Italy were under the control of the exarchs while the Sassanids had now captured almost all of Asia Minor penetrating all the ways as far as the Asian shore of the Bosporus, right across Constantinople that the people of Constantinople even reported that at night when looking across the Bosporus, they could already see the campfires of the Sassanid army, although no matter how much land they have conquered, the Sassanid Persians did not have a fleet to let them cross into Europe and lay siege to Constantinople. It was here in 622 when the Sassanid Empire under Shah Khosrow II was at its largest territorial extent reaching as far west as across Constantinople, as far south as Egypt and Yemen, as far north as the Caucasus Mountains in Southern Russia, and as far east as the border of India and here Heraclius would make a very bold move by attacking the Sassanids when they were at their most powerful and largest in land.

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Emperor Heraclius in full battle gear

By 622, Heraclius’ army was now fully prepared to face off the might of the Sassanids in battle so here they set off from Constantinople by sea landing at the location of Issus in Cilicia, Southern Asia Minor, the same place Alexander the Great had defeated the Achaemenid Persian Empire all the way back in 333BC. In his campaign, Heraclius brought along with him his wife Martina who would give birth to their children as they travelled while Heraclius’ eldest 10-year-old son was left behind in Constantinople to watch over it together with Patriarch Sergius I. After landing at Issus, Heraclius and his army headed north to Sassanid occupied Cappadocia where they actually managed to beat the invincible general Shahrbaraz in battle recapturing the region, afterwards heading north back to the region of Pontus along the Black Sea coast of Asia Minor which was still under Byzantine rule, and here Heraclius made the coastal city of Trebizond as his base for the campaign. It was at this point when the idea of warfare would change from fighting over conquering lands to fighting for faith and as to motivate his soldiers in battle, Heraclius encouraged them they were fighting not to get rid of an enemy but in the name of Orthodox Christianity as they saw the Zoroastrian Sassanids as the enemy of their faith considering they looted the holy sites of Jerusalem and stole the most important Christian relics.

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Trebizond, base of Heraclius in his Sassanid campaign

By 623, Heraclius crossed deep into Sassanid territory through Armenia in pursuit of Khosrow II who was believed to be in the Sassanid’s province of Albania (today’s Azerbaijan) although Khosrow II was nowhere to be found but instead it was here in this area where the Zoroastrian holy site of the Fire Temple was found, which had been sacred to the Persians ever since the days of the ancient Persian kingdoms and empires and as Heraclius and his army arrived there, they believed the stolen relics were to be found there, although they were wrong and finding nothing there, Heraclius out revenge for the Sassanids’ looting of Jerusalem ordered the Fire Temple burned down completely.

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Persian Zoroastrian Fire Temple sample drawing

In 624, Heraclius had come across the Nomadic Turkic Khazar people of the Caucasus and here made an alliance with their khan against the Sassanids as they both had the Sassanids as a common enemy and with this alliance, Heraclius was able to score more major victories against the Sassanids and it was at this point when the Byzantines were able to reclaim Armenia from the Sassanids and although they had been scoring victories in the east against the Sassanids, it also happened here in 624 in the far west that the Visigoths of Spain completely took over the last remains of Byzantine Southern Spain, which the Byzantines never bothered to care about much. In 625, Heraclius again with the help of the Khazars were able to recapture Mesopotamia forcing Shahrbaraz who was again defeated to flee while also here in 625, Martina gave birth to her only healthy son with Heraclius which was Heraklonas as due to inbreeding, the other children of Martina and Heraclius either died shortly after birth or had physical deformities.

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Nomadic Khazar army from the Caucasus

When fleeing Mesopotamia, Shahrbaraz in 626 headed all the way to Sassanid occupied land across Constantinople where he found a way to send word to the same Avar khan that almost captured Heraclius in 619 to form alliance to attack Constantinople and here the Avars and Slavs being at the European side laid siege to Constantinople itself making this the second time Constantinople was attacked by an enemy army, the last one being the Goths in 378 which failed. Using the absence of Heraclius to their advantage, the Avars and Slavs with 80,000 men combined attacked Constantinople’s invincible 5th century Theodosian Walls but using primitive siege weapons, they got nowhere near breaching it and poor communications with the Sassanids across the Bosporus made the coordination of this siege even more difficult. Defending Constantinople here as Heraclius and his best forces away was Heraclius’ 14-year-old son Constantine as well as the patriarch Sergius I and the patrician Bonus who all did not have much military experience and only commanding some 12,000 men, though Heraclius soon got word of the siege and here he split his army in 3 parts where the smallest division under him was to defend Armenia, the division of his brother Theodore was sent over to defend what was recaptured in Mesopotamia, and third one to reinforce Constantinople.

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Avar and Slav armies attack the land walls of Constantinople, 626

As the Avars and Slavs attacked by land, Sharbaraz attempted to aid them by sending his forces across the Bosporus using the small boats of the Slavs which failed as these boats were too unstable to carry large armies and soon enough the Byzantine fleet arrived at the Bosporus destroying the Slavic boats killing the Sassanid soldiers that boarded them. The siege of Constantinople was thus broken and the Avars, Slavs, and Sassanids retreated and for the Avars, their loss in this battle broke off their power forcing them to retreat back north never to return again, although leaving their Slav allies behind in the Balkans. Over in Mesopotamia also in 626, Theodore and his forces won a decisive victory over the Sassanid forces led by the general Shahin and with this defeat, Shahin committed suicide while his body was brought over to Khosrow II who enraged with Shahin’s defeat had Shahin’s body disfigured. It was in 627 when Heraclius himself resumed personally leading the army as for 626, he left the job mostly to his Khazar allies as in 627, the alliance with the Khazars broke when their khan died and here Heraclius marched south to the Sassanid heartland in Iraq by stalking the Sassanid forces under the general Razates until both forces met near the ancient Assyrian city of Nineveh. Here on December 12, 627 when the Byzantine and Sassanid forces clashed at the Battle of Nineveh, Heraclius personally killed Razates and two other Sassanid commanders himself and at the end of the day, the Byzantines won a decisive victory opening the way for them to besiege the Sassanid capital of Ctesiphon which unlike Constantinople which was surrounded by water was easier to attack being on flat ground. The shah Khosrow II meanwhile began suspecting Shahrbaraz of treason and when sending a letter to Shahrbaraz, Heraclius intercepted it and forged it ordering Shahrbaraz to remain in Asia Minor which definitely allowed Heraclius and his army to seize, capture, and loot Khosrow II’s palace of Dastagird near Ctesiphon in 628 and when looting the palace, they came across tons of exotic spices and Persian carpets, exotic animals like lions and tigers, and 300 Roman war standards captured over the past 3 centuries by the Sassanids in battle and after taking the loot, the palace was burned to the ground, though since Khosrow II was away, Ctesiphon was left untouched by the Byzantines. Khosrow II on the other hand was still nowhere to be found as he fled further east fearing a prophecy saying he would be killed, although his end did not come from the Byzantines but from his own people. After Heraclius and his army left Ctesiphon, the Sassanid nobles together with Khosrow’s son Sheroe and General Shahrbaraz conspired to overthrow Khosrow II and on February 28, 628 Khosrow II was captured and executed and so were his other sons except of course Sheroe who then was crowned as Shah Kavad II and his first act as the new Sassanid emperor was to finally end the war and make peace with Byzantium.

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Execution of Khosrow II, 628

Kavad II acknowledged Heraclius as the victor of the war sending Shahrbaraz to Asia Minor where Heraclius was at to conclude peace and here, the relics looted from Jerusalem including the True Cross were returned to Heraclius. Part of this peace agreement too was for all Sassanid forces in Byzantine territory to retreat back home and to return to the Byzantines all the lands the Sassanids had conquered from them since 602 which included Armenia, Syria, Palestine, and Egypt as well as the major cities of Antioch, Jerusalem, and Alexandria and right here the long war ended without achieving really anything for the Byzantines despite them penetrating deep into the Sassanid heartland, instead it only resulted in the pre-war borders restored.

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Byzantine era sketch of Heraclius in 628 (left) with his family

Heraclius here at 53 at least returned to Constantinople victorious as a war hero celebrating his return with a triumphal march and in it was paraded all their loot taken from the 6-year campaign including 4 Persian war elephants and with all this victory, Heraclius became extremely popular with his people as also winning the war had filled up the empty treasury once again. The following year (629), Heraclius himself journeyed to Jerusalem, which had just been restored to Byzantine rule to return the True Cross and before entering, he felt a kind of divine energy that him feel it wasn’t right to ride into the city, rather he dismounted from his horse and carried the True Cross himself to its rightful place, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, setting a new tradition for those who would conquer Jerusalem in the next centuries to come which was for the conquering ruler to walk into the city by foot.

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Heraclius returns the True Cross to Jerusalem, 629

Heraclius too after defeating the Sassanids took the ruling title the Sassanid Persian rulers used which was “King of Kings” as well as dropping the Roman title of Augustus in which all Byzantine emperors before him used, instead replacing it with Basileus which was “emperor” in Greek and for the next 800 years all emperors would use this title, thus here marks the beginning of the Greek age of the Byzantine Empire. As for the Sassanids, right when they thought they came to close to crushing the Byzantines and conquering the world, they were proven wrong here as in 628, their all-powerful emperor Khosrow II was executed, his son and successor Kavad II died the same year from the Plague of Justinian which again returned, and the following year, civil war broke out that would definitely spell the end of the Sassanid Empire.

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Byzantines defeat the besieging Sassanid forces at Constantinople, 626
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Emperor Heraclius and his Byzantine forces defeat the Sassanids at the Battle of Nineveh, 627
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Heraclius and his army loot the Sassanid imperial palace at Dastagird
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Ctesiphon, imperial capital of the Sassanid Empire

Watch this to learn more about the Byzantine-Sassanid War of 602-628 (Kings and Generals).


The Rise of the Arab Caliphate

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As the Byzantines and Sassanids clashed in a full-scale war, the disunited Arab tribes of the southern deserts began to unite and what caused them unite was the new religion of Islam which the prophet Muhammad had successfully spread. By 629, Muhammad and his followers who became his army successfully conquered Mecca which they had been chased away from years earlier and soon enough had united almost all of Arabia under Islam except for the lands still under Sassanid rule.

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Muhammad’s Conquest of Mecca, 629

Early Muslim sources say that in 628 before the recapture of Mecca, Muhammad sent letters to both Heraclius of Byzantium who was referred to as the Roman emperor and Khosrow II of the Sassanid Empire encouraging them to join him by converting their empires to Islam and Heraclius here after his triumph received the letter and politely wrote back saying he would consider it but his people would not while Khosrow II already losing his sanity at this point before his death rudely tore the letter which gave a reason for Muhammad’s followers to one day invade the Sassanid Empire.

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Muhammad’s letter to Heraclius

The failure to convert Byzantium to Islam led a small Arab army to attack the Byzantine lands that bordered the Arabian Desert (today’s Jordan) and here at the Battle of Mu’tah, the Byzantines aided by the forces of their client kingdom, the Christian Arab Ghassanids that had settled right at this part at the edge of the Arabian Desert were able to defeat this small Arab force. Back in the Sassanid Empire, the civil war after Kavad II’s death got even worse that one ruler just kept coming after the other and in this unstable time, the general Shahrbaraz even took the throne and became shah in 630 but was killed the same year and replaced as ruler by Khosrow II’s daughter Boran, the first and only female Sassanid ruler who was later killed in 632 and in this time of civil war, the Sassanid governors of the provinces of Mazun and Yemen declared independence making these provinces an easy target for the now united Arabs which they soon enough had conquered. In the meantime as Heraclius had won the Sassanid war being more popular than ever, he had been touring the eastern provinces that the Sassanids had just returned to the Byzantines and at this time, being the year 630, he had his first grandson which was the son of his eldest son Constantine with his wife Gregoria, born as Heraclius Constantine on November 7 and was named after both his grandfather and father but not confuse things, historians would refer to him as Constans the nickname he was called which meant “little Constantine” in Latin. It also happened at this time in 632 that the prophet Muhammad died in Medina and at his death, all of Arabia was united under Islam and even though the founder of the rising Empire of Islam had died, his work was to be continued by his close friend and relative Abu Bakr who would succeed Muhammad as the leader of the Islamic people and become the first Caliph or emperor of the first Islamic Empire which here, founded in 632 was the Rashidun Caliphate and it was under the first Caliph Abu Bakr after putting all of Arabia under his rule wherein the Islamic Arab armies would expand beyond Arabia to conquer Byzantine and Sassanid territories.

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Flag of the Rashidun Caliphate, the 1st Islamic Empire

All while the Arab armies were set to expand beyond Arabia, Heraclius as most of the emperors did got himself involved in the endless religious debates and controversies which here in the 7th century was again between the Orthodox and Monophysite Christians with the debates being again on the natures of Christ and ever since 622, Patriarch Sergius I of Constantinople proposed a new compromise which was to end the debates by concluding a new doctrine saying that Jesus Christ had one energy. This new doctrine was well agreed to by many bishops and patriarchs across the empire even the Patriarch of Rome or the pope, though only the Patriarch of Jerusalem Sophronius objected to it.

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Patriarch Sergius I of Constantinople

While Heraclius had been occupied by religious debates, the Arab armies numbering up to 24,000 here in 633 had now made their first full attacks in Byzantine Syria and Palestine invading from the east as previously, the Arabs had already conquered the Sassanid territories along the border of Syria and Palestine. In 634, Caliph Abu Bakr had died and was succeeded by Omar, another follower of Muhammad as the 2nd Rashidun caliph and it was under his rule when Islam would fully expand by force as here too in 634, his forces further defeated the Byzantines and even more in 635 when almost all of Syria including the city of Damascus fell to the Arabs. At this time, Heraclius concluded that he was too old to lead the armies in person but being in Antioch at the time the Arabs began their invasion of Syria, Heraclius sent an army of 40,000 men under a general named Theodore, which was not the same as his brother to push the Arabs back and though the fighting styles of the Arabs were not familiar to the Byzantines at all as it was never mentioned anywhere, not even in Maurice’s Strategikon, Heraclius and his generals at least tried to wing it out thinking the strength of the Arabs was nothing much, as after all they were just desert tribes barely armed and armored and had just began expanding. The Byzantine forces under Theodore and Arab forces under their energetic general Khalid ibn al-Walid, another follower of Muhammad met them at the Battle of the Yarmouk River in the Syrian Desert in August of 636 and here the Byzantines now saw the full strength and capability of the Arab armies that could easily overwhelm them in an instant with the speed of their cavalry consisting of horses and camels as well as their harassing tactics.

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Khalid ibn al-Walid, commander of the Arab forces at the Battle of Yarmouk, 636

The Byzantines though had been used to fighting in fixed formations in all their wars especially against the Sassanids, and here they thought they could face off the Arabs this way but the Arabs fought differently by attacking in lose formations and with such speed surrounding the Byzantine forces exhausting them. The battle went on for 5 days and at first, the Byzantines seemed to be having the upper hand but on the 5th day, a sudden sandstorm blew at the directions of the Byzantine forces to the point that they could not see even a meter ahead of them and as a result of this, the Arabs not affected by the sandstorm used it as an opportunity to slaughter the Byzantines, and at the end of the day, not a single Byzantine soldier was left alive including their general Theodore, thus this opened the way for the Arabs to capture everything the Byzantines gained back from the Sassanids in 628.        

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Cavalry of the Arab Rashidun Caliphate
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Battle of Yarmouk, 636- Defeat of the Byzantine forces (left) to the Arabs (right)

In the meantime, while the Byzantine forces were absolutely defeated at the Battle of Yarmouk in 636, the Arabs again won another great victory later that year, this time against the Sassanid forces at the Battle of Al-Qadisiya where another division of the Arab army with their speed and harassing tactics totally annihilated the Sassanid forces weakened from the previous war against the Byzantines, and even if the Sassanids had elephants here, they still lost with most of their generals killed. Following this victory, the Arabs proceeded further into the Sassanid Empire with very little resistance and by 637, they had laid siege to Ctesiphon while the very young Sassanid shah Yazdegerd III, grandson of Khosrow II who had come to power in 632 fled Ctesiphon to the north and not surprisingly, Ctesiphon had fallen to the Arabs in very little time. Back in Syria, the way for the Arabs was clear and now their ultimate prize was Jerusalem as they knew it was the holy city for the Byzantine Christians and also a holy city for Islam, though the Arabs knew that capturing Jerusalem would weaken the morale of the Byzantines. The Patriarch of Jerusalem Sophronius though knew the Arabs would soon attack Jerusalem so before things could get worse, Sophronius had the relic of the True Cross returned by Heraclius in 629 shipped to Constantinople for safekeeping fearing the Arabs would steal it the way the Sassanids did before.

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Patriarch Sophronius of Jerusalem

Now in early 637, the Arabs forces again led by the victor of Yarmouk Al-Walid laid siege to Jerusalem which was poorly defended by the very exhausted and outnumbered Byzantine troops with only Patriarch Sophronius leading them. Seeing the Arab forces outside, Sophronius did want to put up a fight, instead he agreed to surrender the city only if the caliph Omar himself would accept the surrender. At this time, Omar all the way in the Arab Caliphate’s capital Medina in the Arabian Desert travelled himself to Jerusalem in a white camel where doing the same as Heraclius in 629 out of respect for the city got off his camel and entered the city by foot where he was met by Sophronius himself who surrendered the keys of the city to Omar. In Jerusalem, Omar was treated well as Sophronius himself gave him a tour of the city’s holy sites and here they made a deal which was that Omar was allowed to take Jerusalem as long as he allowed Sophronius to keep his position as patriarch and for the Christians and Jews to be left alone to worship freely with their Muslim occupiers. Jerusalem then fell peacefully while the Arabs later conquered all of Syria and Palestine except for Antioch where the emperor was still in but hearing now that Jerusalem and Syria was lost, Heraclius just chose to say goodbye knowing that with the might of the Arabs, it would be too difficult to take them back so he then set sail returning to Constantinople while later in 637, even Antioch had fallen.

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Surrender of Jerusalem to Rashidun Caliph Omar (on camel), 637

Over in the Sassanid Empire, the Arabs again severely defeated the Sassanid forces at the Battle of Jalula in Iraq while Shah Yazdegerd III fled even deeper into Iran which the Sassanids still held. Heraclius on the other hand had been losing his popularity after losing all of the east to the Arabs and a lot of people blamed his defeats again all on his incestuous marriage to Martina and when arriving back across the Bosporus from Constantinople, Heraclius had developed a great fear of water that Martina had to have a bridge lined with railings for him to cross so that he would not see the water. In 638, Heraclius here had been losing his sanity that he could no longer rule alone so here he appointed his 26-year-old son Constantine to be his co-emperor Constantine III though Martina also convinced Heraclius to make her son with him Heraklonas who was now 13 as his other co-emperor equal in rank to Constantine III.

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Emperor Heraclius of Byzantium (r. 610-641) as an older man

It also happened in 638 that Patriarch Sophronius of Jerusalem and Patriarch Sergius I of Constantinople both died peacefully leaving the new Monothelite doctrine unresolved while Heraclius’ health grew even worse that it was said by the 9th century historian Nikephoros that Heraclius was suffering a kind of prostate cancer as he had difficulties in urinating. By 639, the Arabs now began their invasion of Byzantine Egypt while in 640, they began invading Byzantine Armenia and Heraclius here was now in shock but knowing nothing can be done about it anymore, as here, the dying emperor concluded that God was definitely punishing him for marrying Martina.

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Empress Martina, wife and niece of Heraclius, by Skamandros

On February 11, 641 the 66-year-old Emperor Heraclius had died in Constantinople ruling for 30 years through many ups and downs. In his reign, Heraclius began ruling a deeply troubled empire in ruins which grew worse but was able to put it back together, but just as he thought he did, everything he worked so hard on fell apart, thus he died a broken man seeing all the lands he regained after defeating the Sassanids lost to the Arabs, therefore it can simply be said that Heraclius had lived too long that it would be better off that he died shortly after his victory against the Sassanids in 628 as a happy man, but instead he lived long enough to see all his hard work undone unlike Justinian I before him who at least died long before his hard work in expanding the empire would be all shattered. Heraclius though had the legacy of beginning the Greek era of Byzantium by turning Greek into the major language, reorganizing the political-military system of the empire by laying the foundations for the Thematic System that would be operational years later, and seeing the Taurus Mountains of Asia Minor as the empire’s natural defense against the Arabs, which sure enough will soon happen as well.

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Battle of Al-Qadisiyah- ultimate defeat of the Sassanid Empire to the Arab Rashidun Caliphate, 636
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Coin of Heraclius, Constantine III, and Heraklonas as co-emperors, 638-641
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Fullest extent of the Arab Rashidun Caliphate in the 7th century (green), vassal states (light green)

The Reign of Constans II             

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The year 641 would forever be remembered as the year of the 4 emperors first being Heraclius who died in February of that year and was immediately succeeded by his eldest son Constantine III who was extremely popular with the people of Constantinople as it was him at only age 14 back in 626 who helped successfully defend Constantinople from the Avars, Slavs, and Sassanids. However, Constantine III is not be confused with another Roman emperor who was also Constantine III, a usurper emperor from the Western Roman Empire (r. 407-411) who was mentioned in chapter II of this series, though surprisingly this Byzantine emperor was also Constantine III despite there being another one with his name, and as emperor in 641 at age 29, the Byzantine Constantine III was already in bad health suffering from tuberculosis and the empire he inherited from his father had a very empty treasury that a few weeks after his father’s death, he had to open his father’s coffin, take the crown, and sell it to increase the treasury. After only 2 months of being in power, Constantine III fell deathly ill and here he sent off some money to an Armenian general named Valentinus, a descendant of Armenia’s ancient Arsacid Dynasty that ruled Armenia (54-428AD),to back Constantine’s young son Constans as the new emperor as Constantine did not feel his half-brother Heraklonas who was his co-emperor at an equal level was fit to be emperor as he was under the regency of his mother Martina who Constantine III did not really trust as his step-mother.

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Emperor Heraklonas of Byzantium (r. 641), son of Heraclius and Martina

Previously, Martina convinced that her son Heraklonas should be Constantine III’s co-emperor to protect her interests which the old Heraclius had agreed to and although a lot of historians always give a bad image of Martina as the wicked step-mother, it is not entirely true as at that time, ambitious women were usually given a bad image as the standard back then was for women to be content with where they are and true enough in this story’s case, Martina never really had any evil intentions. On May 3, 641, Constantine III died from tuberculosis, though again others suspect Martina and Heraklonas of poisoning him, and Constantine’s son Constans surely believed Martina and Heraklonas envied his father and poisoned him and now the 16-year-old Heraklonas ruled as the sole emperor, though a puppet of his mother Martina. Heraklonas’ actually ruled as “Heraclius II” but to not be confused with his father, he used the name Heraklonas meaning “little Heraclius” just as Constans meant “little Constantine” and already when Heraklonas came to power, he was already unpopular, precisely because he was the child of an incestuous marriage between uncle and niece and his mother Martina was surely unpopular being an ambitious woman. It was here some months after Heraklonas became emperor when the general Valentinus arrived outside Constantinople with orders from the late Constantine III demanding that Heraklonas make young Constans his co-emperor to continue Constantine III’s line but Heraklonas and Martina refused the offer. Sometime later, Valentinus began spreading rumors that Martina and Heraklonas wanted to depose young Constans and the people who were loyal to Constantine III with Constans being his son all revolted in favor of Constans and by September of 641, both Martina and Heraklonas were arrested and the almost 11-year-old Constans was put in the throne reigning as “Constantine IV”, although history would forever remember him by reigning with his nickname as “Constans II” whereas his son who will appear later on would be the Constantine IV and the first Constans being the 4th century Byzantine emperor Constans I (r. 337-350). Martina and Heraklonas were then banished from the palace and young Constans II came to rule the empire under the regency of Valentinus, the senate, his mother Gregoria, and the new Patriarch of Constantinople Paul II. Later that year at only 11, Constans would already show the kind of autocratic style of ruling that would define his reign when he spoke to the senate at the square outside Constantinople’s Hagia Sophia known as the Augusteum where the Column of Justinian was, and here he falsely accusing Martina and Heraklonas of poisoning his father even if he died naturally, yet with his speech, the young emperor would already show how smart, cunning, and articulate he was in the skill of speech, and here is how the speech goes:

After my father Constantine was born, he was emperor with his own father, my grandfather Heraclius for a long time during his life, but after him for a very short while, for the envy of his stepmother Martina ended his high hopes and his life. She did this for the sake of Heraklonas, who was her illegitimate son by Heraclius. It was mostly your decision, which expelled her and her son from the imperial power, and your great dignity knows it well. Therefore, I can call on you to be advisors and judges for the common wealth of our subjects.

-Constans II, 641

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The Augusteum of Constantinople with the Hagia Sophia and Column of Justinian

           

Now Martina and Heraklonas in fact did not commit any crime, rather they just envied Constantine III but with this kind of eloquent speech made by young Constans II, the senate immediately put all the blame on Martina and Heraklonas falsely accusing them as they never saw Heraklonas as legitimate ruler anyway as for them the incestuous marriage between Heraclius and Martina was already illegal, therefore Heraklonas was an illegitimate child and unfit for being an emperor. As Martina and Heraklonas were both condemned as public enemies, the mob seized them and had Martina’s tongue slit while Heraklonas’ nose was cut off, the first time it would happen to an emperor, thus making this a new practice for deposing emperors as having just a single deformity like not having a nose would make someone unfit to rule whereas the Byzantines saw that their emperor had to be perfect in physical form. Both Martina and Heraklonas were then banished to the Island of Rhodes where Heraklonas would die by early 642 possibly from suicide or from the severity of the injury caused by his nose being cut-off while Martina would die possibly peacefully years later. Now back to young Constans II, it is also turned out that he too was a child of an incestuous marriage, although the level of the marriage of Constantine III and Gregoria was not as high as the level of incest between Heraclius and Martina being uncle and niece as Constantine III and Gregoria were only second cousins with Greogria being the daughter of Heraclius’ cousin Nicetas who helped Heraclius seize Egypt back in 608 and one lesser known fact was that Constans II did indeed have a twin brother named Theodosius who looked very similar to him but not exactly making this one of the few rare cases of rulers in world history that actually had a twin. The big question here was why it was Constans that was chosen to be emperor and not Theodosius even if possibly one could not tell which was the older one but answer could be that their father Constantine III certainly knew Constans came out first on November 7 of 630. Constans and Theodosius were born when their grandfather Heraclius was at his height of popularity but as they grew up, they would hear nothing more but tragic news of entire provinces being lost to the Arabs and their grandfather losing his popularity by a lot and as the host of the History of Byzantium podcast Robin Pierson says, the reason why Constans II would end up ruling in such a bitter and paranoid way was the childhood he grew up with as first he grew up hearing stories of his empire’s armies only being defeated, then became emperor at only 11 inheriting a highly troubled empire, therefore he would indeed lose his childhood putting all his attention to his empire. As for Theodosius, due to the fact that he did not become emperor, he would instead enjoy life growing up in the imperial palace while his twin brother ruled, although he secretly did want to claim the empire as he had some kind of idea that he could have been born first, which is why he would later be suspected of plotting, well at least in this story’s case. The empire Constans II had inherited was now having to fight on the defensive against the Arabs in the east with the provinces of Syria and Palestine lost, Egypt now under attack, the Balkans and half of Greece entirely lost to the Slavs who were left behind by their Avar allies there, Italy split in half between the Byzantines and Lombards, all of Byzantine Spain lost, and North Africa soon to be threatened by the Arabs. The biggest mystery for Constans II, which in this story’s case would define his true intention to fully deal with the Arabs by force is how the Arabs expanded out nowhere as just shortly before his birth, they had just been scattered tribes in the southern deserts that did not ever pose much of a threat to the Byzantines that the Strategikon of Maurice even said nothing about their fighting styles, yet now in only less than 20 years they had crushed the Sassanid Empire and took away almost half of Byzantium. The answer to this mystery is that if all the people of this vast desert all unite under a common ideology which here is the religion of Islam, then they would all be fighting with such zeal that would allow them to keep wanting to conquer and this true enough was the case for the Arabs who no one saw their sudden expansion out of the Arabian Desert coming. In addition, the Arabs being people of the desert moved quick and light which allowed them to travel so fast unlike the Byzantines and Sassanids who always moved in formation and always with a plan while the Arabs just moved spontaneously without having much equipment and supplies the way Byzantines and Sassanids did and also unlike the Byzantines and Sassanids who could not cross deserts, the Arabs being from it could which allowed them to quickly take over all of Egypt soon enough.

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7th century Arab infantry army charges with full speed
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7th century Arab cavalry advances across the desert

          

Now the year 642 would be a bad year for the Byzantines as this was when Egypt completely fell to the Arab Rashidun Caliphate when the last Byzantine garrison in Alexandria feeling they could no longer hold onto it agreed to surrender the imperial capital of Egypt to the Arabs although the Byzantine authorities back in Constantinople knew it was not yet over and that they could still take it back one day.

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Last of the Byzantine forces in Egypt, 642, by Amelianvs

It was also in 642 when Valentinus married off his daughter Fausta to Constans, and though it was not said how old Fausta was, in this story’s case she would be 2 years older than Constans, and as for Valentinus he was appointed as commander of the armies or Magister Militum which was still in use but would soon no longer be, and being only regent and not co-emperor, he was still allowed to wear the imperial purple. In 643, with news of the Arabs attacking Eastern Asia Minor, Valentinus with an army was sent to deal with them while also in this year, the young Constans II would score a great achievement, not only in military matters but in diplomacy, and here is when he would send Byzantine ambassadors far away to the court of the Tang Empire of China itself. There are not much sources on Constans II’s embassy to Tang China, but it is said that it happened here in the year 643, though it is not said who exactly young Constans II sent to China, but in this fan fiction story’s case, the two ambassadors sent all the way there were two senators from the patrician class named Alexios which was the older one and Philippikos the younger one with 2 other attendants- as an illustration of the imperial court of China with them in it depicts- who would travel for a year or more and considering the Sassanid Empire at this point was already in ruins and the Arab Caliphate having not yet reached Central Asia, their journey would be easier.

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Byzantine ambassadors of Constans II arrive in the court of the Tang Chinese emperor Taizong in Chang’an

Despite the distance of China, then known as Seres to the Romans (Byzantines), Constans II knew something about it considering that the Byzantine silk industry was something taken from China when a century ago, monks that journeyed there smuggled Chinese silkworms presenting them to the emperor Justinian I also reporting to him how they made their silks and after stealing the Chinese state secret, the Byzantines were true enough able to develop top quality silk just as the Chinese did that was true enough indeed able to once again revive their economy that was ruined by the plague. Apparently, the Old Book of Tang as well as the new Book of Tang from China in this era records an embassy from the Roman (Byzantine) Empire in 643 by Constans II (referred to by the Chinese as King Buduoli) and his empire as Fulin, although even before this, the Roman Empire and China have long been aware of each other. The gifts Alexios and Philippikos sent over to Chinese Empire’s capital of Chang’an in behalf of Constans II included red glass and green gemstones, though it is not clear what their intention was, but in this story’s case I would say these ambassadors came to Tang China asking their emperor Taizong for some military alliance and funds against the expanding Arabs.

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Taizong, Tang Chinese emperor (r. 626-649)

Back in Byzantium in 643, a rebellion in Italy rose up against Constans II, this one here was in Rome led by its military commander or Dux Maurikios Chartoularios (his name literally the Greek translation of Maurice) and here he wanted to rule Rome as his own state independent from the Byzantine Exarchate of Ravenna but the Exarch of Ravenna here which was Isaac soon enough got word about this, thus sending an army to Rome which successfully captured Maurikios, executing him in Ravenna. Meanwhile, Valentinus and his army suffered a defeat to the Arabs in Asia Minor and Valentinus wanting to regain his relevance after this defeat marched back to Constantinople demanding the throne and for Constans II to be deposed. As Valentinus and his army amassed outside Constantinople in 644, the people persuaded by Patriarch Paul II backed Constans II as he was seen as the legitimate ruler, therefore turning on Valentinus who was later killed by the mob as they rushed out of the gates, thus leaving Constans II here at only 14 as the sole ruler of the empire without a regent. Historical sources though do not mention what Constans II’s mother Gregoria had been doing here or his wife Fausta, but let’s just say here that Gregoria refused to run the empire leaving everything behind to her young son, who here would lose his childhood and teenage years plain simple by having to face the burden of the ruling an empire. On the other hand, the Byzantine Christian people of the lands of Syria and Palestine which the Arabs had conquered were actually fine with being under the Arabs and not demanding the Byzantines to reclaim their lands as the Arabs proved to be tolerant rulers that were easy on taxation, therefore no need for rebelling against them. Although in Arab occupied Egypt, things were much different there as there the Arab overlords were harsher in taxation and less tolerant in allowing the Christians there to practice their faith which led the people to rebel wanting Byzantine rule to be restored. Just as the people of Egypt started rising up against their new Arab overlords, a Byzantine fleet from Constantinople with an army on board under the command of the admiral Manuel was to set sail for Egypt to liberate at least Alexandria from the Arabs. In 645, Manuel and his forces occupied Alexandria putting it back again under Byzantine rule using the absence of the Arab governor Amr ibn al-As to his advantage as the governor was recalled to Medina, the Rashidun Caliphate’s capital as here they had new caliph Uthman, another of Muhammad’s followers who had succeeded Omar following Omar’s death in 644.

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Amr ibn al-As, Arab general and governor of Egypt

Manuel was seen in Alexandria as their liberator and savior but in 646, the Arab governor Amr arrived back in Egypt and to the surprise of the Byzantines with a full fleet as apparently, in the previous years with the Arabs having captured the Levant (Syria and Palestine), they had been able to amass a fleet using old Byzantine ships and get the locals of the area to sail the fleet for them and here in 646, the Arab fleet defeated the Byzantine fleet and took back Alexandria together with the rest of Egypt while Manuel returned to Byzantine territory, never to be heard from again. This event here in 646 marked the end of Byzantine rule in Egypt which was to be certainly a heavy blow to the empire as the major grain supply was lost, but not all of it as the empire still had Carthage which produced a major amount of grain but losing Egypt too meant allowing the Arabs to take over more ports which blocked off the Byzantines’ trade with the Red Sea and Indian Ocean, and when losing Egypt here in 646, the Byzantines now would never have hopes in taking it back anymore. Prior to the complete fall of Byzantine Egypt in 646, when the Arabs under Amr ibn al-As occupied Alexandria back in 642, Amr had the walls of Alexandria razed and here legends say he had the ancient and highly important Library of Alexandria burned down together with all the books and knowledge kept in it but really, when he occupied Alexandria, the library was already rundown ever since the late 4th century when fanatical Christian mobs ransacked the library wanting to get rid of ancient Pagan knowledge. The truth however was that the Arabs did not want the metropolis of Alexandria as their capital, instead they would rather have a location along the desert and not the sea as this was the life they were used to so back in 642, Amr turned the village of Fustat deeper down the Nile and closer to the Egyptian Desert as the new provincial capital, which would later on become the city of Cairo.

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Fustat (Cairo), new imperial capital of Egypt under the Arabs

Fast-forward to 646, now that the Arabs had all of Egypt with Cairo as their capital, they decided next to turn west and conquer the Byzantine Maghreb (Northwest Africa) including Carthage while at the same time in Carthage, the Exarch of Africa Gregory who was a relative of the ruling Heraclian Dynasty, and therefore of Constans II rebelled and declared himself emperor feeling Constans was too underaged but the Arab armies having the ability to cross a desert without much difficulty crossed the Sahara Desert from Egypt arriving near Carthage in 647 forcing Gregory to have to confront them in battle. Being as far west as Carthage, Exarch Gregory did not know that much about how powerful the Arabs were in battle until confronting them and right here, Gregory was killed in battle against the Arabs, therefore ending his rebellion. Though the Arabs defeated the Byzantines here in North Africa and made raids into it, North Africa did not yet fall to the Arabs as the Byzantine authorities of Carthage agreed to pay tribute to the Arabs, now making the Exarchate of Carthage a vassal state to the Arab Rashidun Caliphate. It also happened in 647 that the Arab armies from the east now having occupied most of the Sassanid Empire started raiding deeper into Byzantine Asia Minor into regions such as Cappadocia, Cilicia along the southern coast, and the mountains of Isauria near it and these attacks were being directed by the Arab governor of Syria Muawiyah, a native of the Arabian Deserts coming from the Umayyad clan, meaning he was not part of Muhammad’s clan and before Muhammad united Arabia, Muawiyah and his family opposed Muhammad until Muhammad recaptured Mecca in 629 wherein Muawiyah switched his support to Muhammad, converted to Islam, and became Muhammad’s scribe and in 639 following the Arab conquest of Syria, Muawiyah was appointed as its governor by Caliph Omar and to be based in Damascus and he had turned out to be a very ambitious leader with the ultimate goal of conquering Constantinople. 

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Arab forces of the Rashidun Caliphate march across the Sahara Desert to Carthage, 647
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Byzantine era Carthage, capital of the Exarchate of Africa

          

As the Arabs directed by Muawiyah continued their raids into Byzantine territory in 648 wherein they had reached as far west as Phrygia in Asia Minor, Constans II knew it was to time to act in defending the empire and this meant not repeating the past mistakes of emperors which even included his grandfather Heraclius who busied himself too much with creating the new doctrine of Monothelitism and trying to consolidate it across the empire while the Arabs were winning victories against them, so Constans here decided it was time to put all the endless religious debates on the natures of Christ aside as there was an even bigger threat, the Arab expansion.

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Coin of Constans II as a young emperor

To solve the entire issue of the religious debates, Constans here in 648 with Patriarch Paul II’s guidance issued a decree known as the Typos that forbade any kind of debates on the natures of Christ that was tearing the religious unity of the empire apart in such a difficult time, but it was to also to stop the persecutions of heretical sects of Christianity that were not seen as Orthodox, though what this decree actually meant was absolutely no more debating on Christ’s natures and what was already ruled by the Patriarch of Constantinople on Christ’s nature which here was the Monothelite doctrine of Christ having one energy was final and those who did not abide by this would get their property confiscated or worse, be jailed. Here at age 18, Constans had already shown the full autocratic nature of his reign and how much he had despised the Byzantine senate even if they were the ones that put him in power as a child and had been acting his regents as he was still quite young, but here at this point, even being only 18, Constans already showed to the senate he was capable of ruling alone with absolute power and did not need them at all. By issuing a decree that was to prohibit all religious debates on Christ’s natures, Constans had now become increasingly unpopular with most of the bishops of the empire- except Patriarch Paul II- as it was their job to debate on religious matters and these bishops included the Patriarch of Rome or the pope himself, which in 649 was Pope Martin I who had just been elected as pope, though illegally according to Constans II, and just as he was elected as pope, Martin I called for a council in Rome to condemn Constans II’s ruling of the Monothelite doctrine and the Typos itself as it did not allow religious leaders to do their job.

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Pope Martin I

Meanwhile in 649, Muawiyah had already been making some progress as here he had landed in Byzantine controlled Cyprus partially taking the island leaving the other half still to the Byzantines, and for the next 300 years, the island of Cyprus would remain split between Arab and Byzantine control. Constans here when finding out half of Cyprus was lost to the Arabs, he decided to sign a peace treaty with Muawiyah and the Rashidun Caliphate but little did he know that by signing this, this would allow Muawiyah to build his fleet as his intention to capture Cyprus was to build a fleet there that could attack Constantinople by sea. In 650 on the other hand, Constans II now decided to take action on Pope Martin I for violating the decree of the Typos by holding a council that spoke against Constans’ decree and for Constans, it did not matter who violated this decree, even if it was the pope, so here Constans sent a letter to the reigning Exarch of Ravenna in Italy Olympius ordering him to head over to Rome and arrest the pope who was to be brought to Constans himself in Constantinople. Exarch Olympius then carried out the job and headed to Rome but when there, he failed to arrest the pope as he claimed the pope was too divinely protected as most possibly, Pope Martin successfully convinced him to turn away. Now rather than arresting the pope, Olympius in 650 instead turned on Constans, led his soldiers in rebellion, and declared himself emperor ruling Byzantine Italy as his own state completely independent from the empire. Soon enough, a small Arab army and fleet arrived in Sicily to raid it and here Exarch Olympius headed south to Sicily to counter-attack the Arab force that invaded it but in 652 as Olympius was in Sicily, another episode of the Plague of Justinian from the previous century had broken out killing many including Olympius himself, as well as most of the invading Arab army. In the meantime, it happened in 651 when the Sassanid Empire completely died out and not with a big event like a large battle, instead the Sassanid Persian Empire only died out here when its last ruler Yazdegerd III at age 27 when continuing his flight east to escape the Arab invasion of the Sassanid Empire was killed outside the city of Merv in the Steppes of Central Asia at the edge of their empire.

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Yazdegerd III, last shah of the Sassanids (r. 632-651) fleeing from the Arabs

It remains unclear how Shah Yazdegerd III had been killed but some sources say a simple miller killed him to take his jewellery but no matter what was the cause of his death, his death marked the end of the Sassanid Empire that had been around for 4 centuries since the 3rd century and with the Sassanids gone after years of civil war and defeats to the Arabs, it was now time for the Arab Caliphate to replace the Sassanids as Byzantium’s new traditional enemy. Though the last Sassanid emperor had died when actually trying to flee east to the Tang Empire of China, he at least had a wife who though unnamed was said to be a Christian and with her a young son named Peroz who was also a Christian and not a Zoroastrian like his father and young Peroz and his mother would at least survive and make it to China, their final destination to seek refuge in.

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Imperial court of Constans II in Constantinople

           

Hearing about the final dissolution of the Sassanid Empire in 651 was not so much a relief for Constans II as with this happening, he knew the empire of the Arabs would grow even larger and true enough with Sassanid authority crumbling in their last province of Khorasan (Central Asia), the Arabs were able to also take this entire area. Now it is about time to discuss a bit about Constans II’s life as an emperor at a young age and his family, and here Constans was now in his 20s but with all the difficulties he faced in his teenage years, he had aged very fast both in looks and in mentality, but this meant that his bitter nature and autocratic style of ruling would increase even more.

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Young Constans II illustration

Historical sources though do not say much about Constans II’s twin brother Theodosius but in this case, let’s just say that now at this point, Constans was growing more suspicious of him even though Theodosius was rather useless and had no potential to be a serious threat, but for Constans- at least in this story’s case- having a twin brother meant potential trouble and even though Theodosius was not really seen as a threat, one day he could when his soldiers might mistake Theodosius as Constans considering that they looked very much alike even if not identical twins and with this, they could even start calling Theodosius their emperor, forgetting Constans is still around, or possibly Theodosius would one day rebel and take the throne with the excuse that it does not matter who is emperor as both were twins. Historical sources too do not mention about the happenings with Constans’ mother Gregoria at this point, so for this story’s case we could just say Gregoria had retired and had completely left the world of politics, though other than Gregoria, historical sources do not also mention much about Constans’ wife the empress Fausta except that here in 652 she gave birth to her first child with Constans and sticking to the naming tradition of the eldest son named after his grandfather- just how Constans with Heraclius as his real name was named after his grandfather- Constans’ first son was named Constantine after Constans’ father Constantine III. Now about Fausta who historical sources do not say much about, in this story’s case as mentioned earlier, she was 2 years older than her husband, and of Armenian descent as her father, the late general Valentinus was an Armenian, though her mother remains unknown, though in appearance Fausta- in this story’s case- had a strong Armenian or eastern look with large piercing green eyes, tanned skin, black hair, and a short and round stature. In the meantime, Constans II was still not yet finished with his plan to arrest Pope Martin I for disagreeing with his doctrine, so here in 653 with the previous exarch of Ravenna Olympius dying the previous year from the plague in Sicily, the new Exarch of Ravenna Theodore I Calliopas– who had already been Exarch of Ravenna from 643 to 643- was again reappointed by Constans and following his appointment was charged by Constans to again head over to Rome and arrest the pope. This time, Exarch Theodore succeeded in arresting Pope Martin I by sending his soldiers to the pope’s palace at the Lateran Basilica who tricked him into shipping him over the Greek island of Naxos in the Aegean Sea where the pope here was thrown into prison, while back in Rome Theodore convinced the Roman bishops to elect someone else as their pope which they did by electing Pope Eugene I the next year (654).

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Pope Martin I arrested and brought to Constantinople, 653

Later on, in 653, Martin I was brought over from Naxos to Constantinople where he was paraded in the streets in chains like a prisoner before confronting Constans II at the Hippodrome who sentenced him to be executed for opposing the emperor’s Monothelite decree as well as being elected illegally, although Constans accused Martin I of being elected illegally meant that he was elected without the emperor’s approval. Right when Constans was about to have the deposed pope executed, the dying Patriarch of Constantinople Paul II came to the pope’s rescue and when listening to Martin’s pleas, Paul convinced Constans to not execute Martin but to instead send him to exile in the most remote land of the Byzantine Empire, which was the isolated Peninsula of Cherson or the Crimea (today’s Ukraine), a cold and desolate land in the north coast of the Black Sea, as exiling the pope to a warm Aegean or Ionian island would be sending him to exile in some kind of island paradise while sending him to cold Cherson would be a death sentence. As it would turn out, when Pope Martin I was sent into exile in Cherson, he would die soon enough in 655 at age 57, possibly due to the cold and lack of food there but still become a saint after his death, whereas Patriarch Paul II would die in late 653.

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Byzantine ruins of Cherson in the Crimea, Ukraine; exile place of Pope Martin I

On the other hand, Muawiyah here continued his conquests of the Mediterranean islands that in 654, he had conquered the Greek island of Kos and afterwards Rhodes and when in Rhodes, the first thing the Arab army did was to clear out the ruins of the famous Colossus of Rhodes, a massive statue of the Greek sun god Helios build in 280BC standing 30m high but over time after several earthquakes, the statue was reduced to ruins, and though some legends say Mauwiyah and his army tore down the Colossus itself, instead when the Arabs arrived, they found it ruins and decided to scrap it to be made into gold coins, and when taking down the ruins, it was said that the Arabs used up to 900 camels as the statue was literally that large and the metal that heavy. Hearing of the fall of Rhodes to the Arabs, Constans now felt threatened and decided he had enough and so he put an end to the truce he signed with Muawiyah back in 649 and assembled a fleet in Constantinople to attack Muawiyah’s fleet which had at this point been stationed in the southwestern coast of Asia Minor while at the same time here in 654, he appointed his 2-year-old son Constantine as co-emperor. The Byzantine fleet of 500 ships was fully constructed by 655- the same year Pope Martin I died in Cherson- and the 25-year-old Constans II here decided to lead the fleet himself assuring they would score a victory that way and so the fleet sailed south to the Lycian coast of Asia Minor where Muawiyah’s fleet was stationed. The night before the battle, Constans II when sleeping in his luxurious cabin in the emperor’s own ship- according to the Byzantine historian of the next century Theophanes the Confessor– and in this story’s case as well, he had a dream that he was in the city of Thessaloniki and when waking up, he though this meant he would win a victory as Thessaloniki in Greek meant something to do with scoring a victory, but little did he know that the Thessaloniki of his dream meant the other definition of the name which in Greek was thes allo nike meaning “give victory to another”. The next day, the Byzantine and Arab fleets met at a location known as Finike off the Lycian coast of Asia Minor and here the battle was fought as the sea was rough and this battle here would be remembered as the Battle of the Masts, referring to the masts of the ships.

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Battle of the Masts, Byzantine vs Arab naval battle, 655

The battle resulted in a decisive victory for the Arabs despite them having only 200 ships compared to the Byzantines having 500, and although it is not clear how the Arabs won, in this story’s case the Arabs ships being smaller in size were able to quickly crash into the larger Byzantine ships which they quickly boarded with their speed and were soon enough able to outnumber the more heavily armored Byzantine troops in them. Constans himself barely escaped the battle, that according to the same Theophanes, and in this story’s case too, he did a trick he was good at, so he exchanged his purple imperial robes with a young sailor who was about the same age and had the same short stature as him and while disguising himself as a sailor, the sailor dressed as the emperor was mistaken for Constans and was killed right at the spot by an Arab soldier whereas Constans retreated back to Constantinople in a small ship that had survived. As it turned out, Constans’ dream meant the opposite of what he thought it meant, therefore meaning “give victory to another” which was the Arabs but the following year (656), the Byzantines would have at least some luck as here when Caliph Uthman was assassinated in Medina, conflict broke out between the ambitious Muawiyah of the Umayyad clan and Uthman’s successor Caliph Ali, the son-in-law of Muhammad and this conflict would be the first full civil war in this history of the Islamic Caliphates better known as the First Fitnah.

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Location of Cherson (encircled in black)
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Colossus of Rhodes before the Arab conquest of Rhodes in 654
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Arab fleet (left) and Byzantine fleet (right) engage each other at the Battle of the Masts, 655
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Byzantine and Arab fleets clash with each other at the Battle of the Masts

 

Birth of the Thematic System and the Move West       

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With the Arab Caliphate at a civil war with each other, Constans II now used the moment to his advantage in order to focus on restoring some parts of the empire that had been ruined by the previous wars and invasions and these included the Balkans and Eastern Asia Minor while Muawiyah who was here in conflict with the caliph Ali agreed to not bother Constans and instead to even pay tribute to him.

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Ali, the last Rashidun caliph (r. 656-661), by Ahmed AbuElnaga

Now focusing on the problems of the empire, the first thing Constans thought about was the economy considering that the loss of Egypt had a heavy blow on the once abundant grain supply for Constantinople and the empire that once a month, this abundant grain supply from Egypt allowed people to get free distribution of bread but with Egypt gone, free bread was no longer possible. Although the second grain source which was Carthage was still around and fortunately for the Byzantines, after the civil war between Muawiyah and Ali broke out, the Exarchate of Africa based in Carthage which had become a vassal of the Caliphate since 647 was fully restored to imperial rule, although unfortunately the land around Carthage had already been drying up turning into a desert from over farming, so the next place the Byzantines looked to for grain supply was Thrace and Asia Minor, although the grain supply in these places weren’t as abundant as Egypt, therefore there would be no more free grain distribution for the people of Constantinople. The next major challenge in the Byzantine Empire Constans II was ruling other than the economy was the cultural shift from Latin to Greek which was now truly evident in Constans’ time than it was in his grandfather’s time, as here the Greek language had almost entirely replaced Latin amongst the people of the empire and in the imperial court, as well as in the army that Latin titles had now been evolving to Greek ones, which was evident even in the imperial court as the emperor was now referred to as the Greek “Basileus” meaning emperor instead of Augustus, or Autokrator instead of the Latin Imperator and a lot of these changes in the Greek language becoming the more dominant one had a lot to do with Heraclius’ reign as he was a native Greek speaker of Cappadocian and Armenian descent, meaning he had more connections to the east and the people he appointed to rule the empire were also native Greek speakers from the eastern provinces rather than before when most high officials of the empire were Latin speakers from the Balkans or western provinces. Constans meanwhile was adapting to the changes in the empire both in geography and of language and culture quite well, but he was still feeling some kind of connection to the west and the empire’s Roman roots- at least for this story- and here in 658 with the conflict against the Arabs in the east at least put to a halt for now, he decided to turn his attention west to the Balkans which was now completely overrun and settled by the Slavs who were left behind there by their Avar allies who retreated back north sometime after they failed to besiege Constantinople in 626. The loss of the Balkans meanwhile was a heavy blow to the Byzantines as for the longest time, all the way back to the era of the Roman Empire, the Balkans played a major role as the major recruitment ground for soldiers, so now with the Balkans gone, this would mean shortage of soldiers, but again with the pressure of the Arabs coming to a halt here in 658, Constans set off from Constantinople to campaign in the still Byzantine territories of the Balkans.

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7th century Byzantine soldier clashes with a Slav warrior

Here, Constans managed to win a number of victories against the Slavs by defeating a large Slavic raid and afterwards returned some of Greece to Byzantine rule and after defeating these invading Slavs, his army had captured many prisoners of war which were the Slavic warriors, who were then all stuffed into ships and sent over across the Aegean Sea to Asia Minor to be resettled as the previous wars against the Sassanids and Arabs have resulted in the near depopulation of Asia Minor. In 659, Constans briefly returned to Constantinople to be with his family as by this point his wife Fausta had given birth to two new sons Heraclius and Tiberius, although history does not specify their birth years, so instead for this story Heraclius as the elder one would have been born in 656 and Tiberius in 657 and here in 659 Constans back in Constantinople appointed both sons Heraclius and Tiberius as co-emperors even if they were too young to read and write, so now there were 4 people with the imperial title being Constans II and his 3 sons, and this for sure would have made Constans’ twin brother Theodosius feel threatened as he was put aside in favor of Constans’ very young sons, but Constans on the other hand never really cared as he always saw that having a twin was a threat, so here Constans began his plans in eliminating his twin brother. After his short stay in Constantinople, Constans travelled this time to Asia Minor, this time to drive back the Arab forces that had still remained, and due to the Arab Caliphate in conflict with each other, Constans took advantage of the situation and when leading the army himself, he campaigned far into the east of Asia Minor successfully driving away the Arabs. It was in this 659 campaign in Asia Minor where Constans would make his greatest achievement in the history of Byzantium, which was the creation of the Thematic Systems or to put it short, the Themes (Themata in Greek), and this was another change that marked the transition of the empire from Latin to Greek as the names of these new smaller provinces or Themes would be in Greek. History though is not very clear about the formation of the Theme System or if Constans II exactly created it as others say it was his grandfather Heraclius that did, but many sources still agree that the first 5 Themes or shrunken military provinces of the Byzantine Empire were created under Constans II between 659 and 661, and in this story’s case it will true enough be Constans II that toured Asia Minor between 659 and 661 to create the Thematic System. The word “Theme” here does not really have a literal translation but it simply meant the name of a particular area bearing the name of the mobile army that was stationed in it as each of these new provinces had their own mobile armies assigned to it and these provinces too were under the administration of their army’s general known as the Strategos, basically a Greek title which replaced the former Latin Magister Militum. Now in these new provinces or Themes of Asia Minor, the soldiers stationed in them were given land of their own which their children would inherit as well as succeed their fathers as soldiers as a way to ensure their full loyalty as the empire was sure enough running out of soldier recruits with most of the Balkans lost and the remnants of the Plague of Justinian from the previous century still making comebacks. On the other hand, the Slavic warriors that were previously captured in the Balkans were relocated to Asia Minor to be settled as the soldiers for these Themes wherein here they were to marry locals, though at the same time Constans still encouraged many of the local men of Asia Minor to join the army and had many of the ruined castles of Asia Minor rebuilt as well which were to be the strongholds for each of the Themes’ armies. It was here at this point that Asia Minor became the Byzantine Empire’s new heartland as it was to now provide both soldiers and food supply for the empire and with the creation of these new provinces or Themes, each of the Themes were to produce their own goods for the empire’s survival whether it was minerals, food, wood, or military equipment while each Theme too had its own foundry to manufacture its soldiers’ uniform weapons and armor. Under Constans II, 4 Themes were created in Byzantine Asia Minor (Turkey) with their own generals in charge of it and its own capital and these first 4 Themes were the Anatolic Theme (Anatolikon in Greek) consisting of the central and southern part of Asia Minor in which the eastern army of the empire was stationed in and the city of Amorion; next was the Armeniac Theme (Armeniakon) which was the largest and most of the Themes being located in the eastern part of Asia Minor along the border with the city of Amasea as its capital; next was the Thracesian Theme (Thrakesion) in the western coast of Asia Minor where the Thracian army would be based in, hence the origin of its name; and last would be the Opsikion Theme in the northwest part of Asia Minor which here was to be administered directly from Constantinople, and this Theme would be under the most elite army of the empire or the Praesental army commanded not by a Strategos but by a general with the title of Komes, which was an honorary title for a general. After creating the 4 land Themes in Asia Minor, Constans decided to create a fifth one which was this time to be a naval Theme under the imperial navy and marines which was to be the Karabasian Theme (Kibyrrhaioton) in the southern coast of Asia Minor to further protect the Aegean and Mediterranean coasts of Asia Minor. The first known generals Constans II appointed to be in charge of these Themes included one of Sassanid Persian descent named Saborios, whose name is the Greek version of the Persian name Shapur who would be the Strategos of the Armeniac Theme and another one named Mizizios, an Armenian general who was made the Komes of the Opsikion Theme, the most elite Theme. Constans on the other hand before even hitting the age of 30 made a very strategic achievement for the empire that was to prove very effective in the next centuries to come, although still it was not entirely him who came up with the idea of these Themes from scratch but rather his grandfather Heraclius when he saw the provinces of Syria and Palestine lost to the Arabs and Asia Minor as the new core of the empire, thought it would be Constans II to put this whole idea into full effect. There is a lot more to explain about the Themes of Byzantium, Thematic System, and its elite armies being the Cataphract cavalry but that would be for the upcoming stories after this one, but to put it short it was effective in the way that when both parts of the empire were under attack, one Theme’s army could focus on one side while the other could focus on the other side without having to march an army from one far end of the empire to the other, therefore these Themes made it quicker for armies to respond to external attacks.

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Map of the first original 5 Themes of Asia Minor created under Constans II
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Slavic warriors, resettled into Asia Minor by Constans II
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Cataphract cavalry, elite army of the Byzantine Themes

Watch this to learn more about the creation of the Theme System under Constans II (Eastern Roman History).   

      

After being away from Constantinople for 2 years from 659 to 661, Constans returned to the capital wherein he started becoming increasingly unpopular and though it is not really said why, in this story’s case this would be mainly due to his defeat to the Arabs back in 655 at the Battle of the Masts and from being absent from the capital for 2 years despite doing the latter to actually further protect the empire by creating the Themes.

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Caliph Muawiyah I, 1st Umayyad Caliph

It also happened in 661 that the caliph Ali was assassinated in a mosque at the city of Kufa (in today’s Iraq) and with his death died the Rashidun Caliphate as with him dead, Muawiyah took over as Caliph ending the civil war and beginning the Umayyad Caliphate wherein he turned the Caliphate into something more politically organized and had moved the caliphate’s capital from Medina in the Arabian Desert to Damascus in Syria which was more of a threat to the Byzantines as it was closer to their borders, although for the meantime, Muawiyah still organizing the new caliphate did not yet have plans to attack Byzantium, thus giving Constans more time to rebuild the ruins of his empire and put the Themes into full effect. Here in 661, Constans II at the age of 30 now had a full and thick square beard in his large face, which was the first thing to be noticed about him as well as his thick and long curly hair as seen in his coin which too will be a new standard for future Byzantine emperors, henceforth his nickname Konstantinos ho Pogonatos meaning “Constantine the Bearded” in Greek as true enough he ruled by his real name Constantine while his family members and those closest to him still referred to him as the Latin Constans or “little Constantine” (Konstas in Greek). Now back to Constans’ growing unpopularity, the people here at this point in 661 started favoring Theodosius over his twin brother and considering that they almost looked a like, the people who hated Constans thought it would not hurt those who favored Constans if they deposed Constans and replaced him with Theodosius as long as Theodosius would grow a longer beard the way Constans has, therefore those who are loyal to Constans would still mistake him for Constans, however it would not really work as Theodosius still did not have Constans’ brutal and autocratic personality whereas as Theodosius was more relaxed. For this story at least, Constans suspected something wrong about his twin so let’s say say the faction loyal to Constans soon enough knew of the plot by those who opposed him to overthrow him and replace him with Theodosius and so when finding out about this, Constans now knew this was the right time to act against his twin brother and get rid of him for good. History too does not say when Constans and Theodosius’ mother Gregoria died but let’s just say that here in 661 she had already died which now gave Constans every reason to get rid of his twin brother as he would most definitely not do it while their mother was still alive. Having enough of the possibility of Theodosius taking over the throne from him with popular support, Constans without any hesitation had some of the palace guards arrest Theodosius at his quarters in Constantinople’s imperial palace and cut off his tongue, again as a way to make sure he would not try to claim the throne as again a single deformity like missing a tongue would render him unable to rule as emperor. Constans too thought of simply executing his twin brother but he soon started to think cutting off his tongue was a better punishment as Theodosius had still done nothing wrong that deserves the death penalty, and so after getting his tongue cut off, Theodosius was forced to take Holy Orders and become a monk in a monastery outside Constantinople but little did Constans know that the injury Theodosius received when getting his tongue cut off cost him his life and later on in 661, Theodosius had died. Constans here would therefore be remembered as the “Bearded Autocrat” or “Constans the Killer” and this would not be it yet for his vicious deeds, although he was at least still very loyal to his wife Fausta and 3 sons but Fausta hearing about Constans’ vicious act that ended up killing his twin brother would soon begin to fall out with him. Each day Constans and Fausta would argue more and more that they would stop eating and sleeping together while Fausta even tried to get her 3 sons Constantine, Heraclius, and Tiberius away from their father fearing that her sons would follow in their father’s footsteps becoming a bloodthirsty tyrant. Now in 662, Constans had grown tired of living in Constantinople being unpopular with the people and ignored by his family, so here is when he decided to leave the capital again and protect the empire but here he also began to think about the rather short life he had lived so far, about how he had lost his childhood and teenage years when having to put aside for the responsibilities of running an empire, about how the difficulties in his early reign of having to face challengers left and right turned him into a bloodthirsty autocratic ruler, and how this kind of personality of his turned his people and family against him. Constans here thought it was time to change his image which is why he decided to head to Greece and protect it as he got word that the Slavs were invading again, and here at this point, the Theme Systems was now more or less fully operational that if Constans pulled out one Theme’s army, the armies of the other Themes could defend that Theme and since the Opsikion Theme was closest to Constantinople with its troops being the elite retinue of the imperial army, he called for this Theme’s army to join him in this campaign. The Opsikion Theme’s general Komes Mizizios, the Armenian noble 8 years older than Constans who was said to be very tall and handsome but at the same time shy and reserved led his troops across the Marmara to meet Constans in Constantinople where he and his troops were to accompany the emperor in his new campaign.

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Coin of Mizizios, Komes of the Opsikion Theme under Constans II

Meanwhile- in this story’s case- the senators Constans sent to China, Alexios and Philippikos almost 20 years earlier has returned to Constantinople with Alexios who left Constantinople in his 40s was now in his 60s and Philippikos who was then in his 20s now in his 40s and now when returning, both reported to Constans about their fascinating journey in this far away land, about how sophisticated the imperial court was in their capital of Chang’an with buildings made with crystal and glass, about the colorful silks worn by its people, and the exotic food unknown to the Byzantines such as fisheye that was only reserved for the emperor. The senators had also told Constans that their emperor Taizong had agreed to lend them some money in exchange for Byzantine jewelry, although Taizong had already died back in 649 and was succeeded by his son Gaozong, who at this point was still ruling and Gaozong too had agreed to help Byzantium as he too feared the expansion of the Arabs even if it was still far from China. The senators too had told Constans that the last Sassanid heir, the young Peroz, son of the last shah Yazdegerd III had arrived in China seeking refuge wherein at this point he had already grown up and had built a church there as he was true enough a Christian and there in Tang China, the young Peroz had been training to be a general to command the Chinese imperial forces to one day lead an attack against the Arabs in Central Asia. Constans was intrigued hearing of stories from what he thought was a parallel world of Byzantium but not wanting to waste time, he asked both senators Alexios and Philippikos to join him in his campaign with Mizizios and the Opsikion army.

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Illustration of Byzantine era Thessaloniki

After setting off from Constantinople by sea, Constans and his retinue arrived first in Thessaloniki, where Constans having dreamt about being there back in 655 before losing the Battle of the Masts would finally step foot there, as true enough dreams usually do predict a future and as he also remembered that the dream he dreamt to him meant scoring a victory, this time his predication actually came true as here in Thessaloniki, Constans himself leading the Opsikion Theme’s army fought the invading Slavic army with success driving them away from the walls of Thessaloniki. For the rest of 662, Constans together with the Opsikion army, Alexios, and Philippikos for a long time toured the remains of Byzantine Greece as Constans needed this lengthy amount of time to examine the situation in Greece, for he also thought of expanding the Themes beyond Asia Minor by establishing one in Greece too but in his long stay in Greece, Constans recruited more men to the Byzantine army as well which also included the Slavs he had defeated in battle and captured. For the winter of 662-663, Constans set himself up in Athens which at this time was now a ghost town where he would start drafting new plans for creating Themes in Greece but by early 663, Constans had now decided to leave Greece and set sail west for Byzantine Italy whereas Mizizios and the Opsikion army, Alexios, and Philippikos joined him too.   

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7th century Constantinople street life, by Amelianvs
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Chang’an, imperial capital of the Chinese Tang Empire
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Full coin of Constans II the Bearded including reverse

In 663, Constans and his men set sail from Athens to Southern Italy arriving some weeks later in the port of Taranto in Southern Italy which was still under the Byzantines but right when arriving, Constans following the example of his grandfather Heraclius and Maurice before him, decided to lead his army north to attack the Lombard’s capital of Benevento taking advantage of the fact that the Lombard king Grimoald I left his capital to head north and fight off a Frankish invasion.

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Map of 7th century Italy divided between the Byzantine Exarchate of Ravenna (orange) and Lombards (blue)

In one swift campaign led by Constans and Mizizios, the Byzantines overwhelmed the Lombards in their holdings in Southern Italy taking over a number of fortress before arriving in their capital, Benevento facing little resistance, also considering the fact that it was the most elite Byzantine army that was brought over to Italy. The Byzantine forces did in fact come so close to taking over Benevento, however a Lombard messenger reached Grimoald I in time to warn him of the Byzantines’ attack and in very little time, the forces of Grimoald arrived to relieve Benevento forcing Constans’ army to retreat, although at least the Byzantines despite losing did not suffer many casualties and were able to retreat to Byzantine held Naples in an orderly way, though a portion of Constans’ army again suffered a heavy defeat when retreating to Naples.

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Lombard army of Italy, 7th century

After a short stay in Naples, Constans now joined by his old friend Exarch Theodore Calliopas- in this story’s case- joined him and from Naples, they all headed north and visit Rome making him the first Roman emperor to set foot in Rome since the Western Roman emperors 2 centuries earlier and the last Roman (Byzantine) emperor to do so for several centuries. At some time in 663, Constans had a 12-day visit Rome wherein he was greeted personally by Pope Vitalian, the successor of the former pope Eugene I who personally showed Constans, Theodore, Alexios, and Philippikos around Rome, the eternal city and Vitalian was also pleased with Constans getting rid of Martin I who Vitalian had opposed before. Constans who had still felt Byzantium’s connection to its origins showed a lot of respect for the eternal city that he stopped at every important Roman landmark including the Forum, Trajan’s Column, Baths of Caracalla, and the Palatine Hill Imperial Palace, and wanting to show the people of Byzantine held Rome that he was a much better person than how everyone saw him as, he greeted most of the people he saw in the city in a friendly way, although his soldiers acted differently except for their general Mizizios due to his reserved personality.

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Pope Vitalian

When stopping by the Ancient Roman Pantheon, which had been turned into a church by the Byzantine usurper emperor Phocas who Heraclius overthrew in 610, Constans saw his soldiers looting its valuables and stripping off its copper roof, although Constans despite getting angry at them for doing it still allowed them to do it as long as it was to be sent to Constantinople to be minted as coins to further improve the economy and not so long after, Constans’ 12-day stay in Rome was over, so here he proceeded south to Sicily setting himself up in its most important city, Syracuse while Theodore returned north to Ravenna. Constans II’s real intention for setting himself up in Syracuse still remains unclear as some say it could be because he wanted to restore Western Rome’s relevance in Byzantium the way Justinian I a century before him wanted to do as well, or maybe because he remembered his grandfather Heraclius’ possible decision one time to move the capital to Carthage as Constantinople was more at risk to be attacked, and this time by the Arabs and that Sicily would be a safer location as it was easier to defend being at the center of the Mediterranean, or also that Sicily would be a good base to reclaim pats of Byzantine North Africa like Cyrenaica (Northern Libya) and Egypt that were lost to the Arabs, and for this story, it would be for all these reasons why Constans decided to set himself up in Sicily which he would for the next 5 years never thinking of returning to Constantinople. Another possible reason why Constans left his family behind in Constantinople to journey alone was to make up for his lost teenage and young adult years in which he spent nonstop worrying about defending his empire according again to the History of Byzantium podcast, and for this story I would also agree with it that Constans left to at least enjoy life in the warm Mediterranean climate of Sicily, and for this story’s case he true enough would do just that drinking and partying hard with his soldiers. Although when basing himself in Sicily, Constans also decided to raise the taxes to the same levels as taxes were in Constantinople and Byzantine Greece, Asia Minor, and North Africa to make things fair and to increase the army’s pay, though forgetting that the people of Sicily were much poorer than in the other parts of the empire. Constans here in Sicily would again show how much of an apathetic autocratic ruler he was when he started losing his sanity by nonsensically brutalizing the tax collection on the Sicilians that it was said that the Sicilians had to sell their children to slavery and that women were forced into prostitution just so they could pay up Constans’ harsh taxes, although most of these were just written by sources hostile to Constans, but in this story’s case with Constans as a villainous ruler, it would be true that all of these were happening for the next 5 years as Constans was in Sicily. Constans in Sicily on the other hand after a time wrote to Fausta in Constantinople asking her to come over to Sicily with their 3 sons, abandon Constantinople, and all settle in Syracuse as the new imperial capital as Constans also knew that with the Themes set up in Asia Minor, Constantinople will still be protected. In 663 meanwhile, as the months passed with the emperor not present in the capital, the Byzantine senate decided to name the 11-year-old son of Constans, Constantine as emperor in Constantinople knowing Constans would not return, although since Constantine was only 11, the same age his father was when becoming emperor, he was to rule under the senate’s guidance but only as co-emperor as Constans still being around was still the senior one.

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White flag of the Umayyad Caliphate

Now back in the newly formed Umayyad Caliphate of Caliph Muawiyah that had just adopted a simple white flag as their symbol, at this point after forming his new caliphate, he resumed his attacks on Byzantine Asia Minor which were carried out by his son and general Yazid, who Muawiyah also named his successor, which was a practice unheard of in the Arab world as a caliph did not inherit his position from his father, but rather was elected by the Caliphate’s leaders but to secure the new Caliphate’s succession, Muawiyah thought it would be better to adopt a hereditary succession like the Byzantines and Sassanids had. With the Arabs back in action again, the newly created Themes in Asia Minor were for the first time be put into their full wartime function and here, the Anatolic and Armeniac Themes were able to hold out against the Caliphate’s attacks for a time though from 665 to 666, the Armeniac Theme had become more and more devastated from the Arab attacks which made their troops and their Strategos Saborios think that Constans being in Sicily gave up on the east allowing the Themes there to suffer defeats to the Arabs. In 667, the general Saborios of the Armeniac Theme decided that with Constans away and unable to protect Asia Minor, it was time for him to declare himself emperor against Constans and his family as there was no emperor to protect the east but rather than continuing the war against the Arabs, Saborios instead asked for an alliance with Muawiyah sending word to Damascus agreeing to even pay tribute to the Umayyad Caliphate and in return Muawiyah agreed to it even sending some Arab troops to back Saborios’ rebellion, and in late 667 Saborios with the Armeniac Theme’s army marched west to Constantinople. In the meantime, the people of Constantinople were beginning to grow worried especially since their senior emperor Constans II had been away for 5 years now and the Arabs were gaining some success in invading Asia Minor but right at the moment when everyone was starting to think hope was lost, an unlikely Byzantine refugee from Arab occupied Syria, Kallinikos of Heliopolis arrived at young Constantine’s imperial court thinking Constans was there as he had plans of a superweapon that could destroy the Arab fleet which only needed the emperor’s approval.

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The Pantheon of Rome, parts stripped down by Constans II’s soldiers
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Constans II in Sicily, by Amelianvs

Constans II Strikes Back (The Climax)   

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While Mauwiyah’s Arab armies were again putting pressure on Byzantium’s eastern borders and this time actually gaining an opportunity when allying with the usurping general Saborios, Constans was still in Sicily enjoying himself by again drinking and partying every night with his soldiers as well as with Mizizios, Alexios, and Philippikos as a way to make up for not being able to do this in his younger years while the people of Sicily were suffering by having to pay the heavy taxes Constans imposed on them and with his oppressive way of ruling the Sicilians, they would start referring to Constans as the new Phocas, the usurping emperor Constans’ grandfather deposed. Another thing  Constans had done now in Sicily- which is only for this story- is that he started adopting the Chinese imperial practice Alexios and Philippikos had told him which the Tang emperor of China Gaozong had done, eating fisheyes, a dish only reserved for the emperor and that everyone else who ate it was to be executed, and here Constans did just that as the Chinese emperor by having everyone else who ate fisheyes executed that here in 668 he had about 40 people killed whether they were Sicilian fishermen or elites for eating this dish. The real turning point however for Constans’ life was on September 15, 668 when Constans went to the bathhouse of the imperial palace in Syracuse and here as he bathed, the Greek servant who was the only one in the room that was to scrub the emperor grabbed a bucket or rather a soap dish and used it to assassinate the emperor, which is how the contemporary historian of this time Theophilus of Edessa, who worked for the caliph described Constans’ death, therefore a very odd way of assassinating someone.

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Assassination of Constans II in real history with the use of a soap dish, 668

In this story’s case however, as the 37-year-old Constans was alone to the imperial baths to enjoy himself on the afternoon of September 15, he had noticed something different in the energy around him after this Greek servant put some soap over his eyes as the servant went further away from Constans to grab a soap dish but before the servant could use it against him, Constans got some water to wash his eyes, afterwards when able to see everything, he grabbed the servant by the leg into the pool whereas the heavy marble soap dish fell into the water sinking. While soaking in the pool water, Constans strangled the servant with his arm asking him if he really intended to kill him and the servant replied saying he came into the baths to do just that. While Constans strangled him, the servant told him everything about the plot and that killing Constans in the baths was the easiest was since the palace in Syracuse was heavily guarded and the only way to get to Constans up close was to do it in the baths while no one else was around, not even the guards.

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Marble soap dish intended to kill Constans II

The servant too had said that earlier in that day, he got a letter with orders from Caliph Muawiyah in behalf of the Armeniac Theme’s Strategos Saborios who both wanted Constans dead as Muawiyah feared that now with Constans in Sicily, he could easily take back Arab held Egypt from there as Muawiyah knew that when Constans was younger his forces took back Alexandria for a year while Saborios wanted Constans dead so he could fully take the throne without opposition. After Constans learned everything he needed to know form this servant, he strangled the servant to the point of unconsciousness and when knocked out, Constans dragged the servant to the marble ground where Constans killed the servant ironically by smashing his head with the same marble soap dish meant to kill Constans and afterwards the guards rushed into the baths as Constans put on a towel.

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Meme of Constans II’s assassination

And now history is fully altered here as Constans II survived his assassination and would continue ruling from Syracuse but the big mystery is why and who directed the assassination attempt on Constans II and others here say it could be the people of Sicily who were totally over with his brutal taxation policy, or it could be some disgruntled soldiers who were tired of being in Sicily for so long and wanting to return to Asia Minor, but the best reason is that it was masterminded by Caliph Muawiyah who was given more insider information on the job by Saborios who knew Constans personally, except that Saborios did not know anything about Sicily but rather he knew Constans’ personal schedule, and for Muawiyah, he could sense that Constans was surely going to take back Egypt with Sicily as his base as Sicily was much closer than Constantinople to Egypt and for the Arabs, Egypt too had proved to be a very valuable asset.

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Seal of Caliph Muawiyah I

In this story’s, Constans being in Sicily had now changed his mind as when he was a young ruler, he thought when Egypt was fully lost in 646 there was no more hope in taking it back, but now the much older Constans was fully intent to take it back as it also meant resuming their trade with India and China. With Constans now surviving the assassination attempt unlike in real history, he would meet with Alexios and Philippikos in the Syracuse palace where he would once again ask them to return by land to Tang China, this time to ask for a military alliance with Emperor Gaozong to counter-attack the Arabs from the east as Constans here knew from the servant who tried to kill him that Muawiyah was again set to direct more attacks on Byzantium after allying with the rebellious general Saborios and Constans here even with the Themes did not have much men to face off the Arabs, therefore if the Chinese forces were to attack the Arabs from the east in Central Asia, the farthest the Caliphate extended to in the east, then this would distract the Arabs having to focus their attention east. Alexios and Philippikos then set sail to Constantinople by ship first to inform Constans’ family that he was almost killed but had survived and that they must ready themselves for a full Arab attack and from there they would sail for Cherson in the Crimea where they would journey east by land back to Tang China’s capital Chang’an. Now in real history, following Constans’ assassination, his army in Sicily proclaimed their general Mizizios as emperor against his will while in Constantinople, the 16-year-old Constantine IV became the sole emperor and only when seeing coins with Mizizios’ face on it did he deal with Mizizios by travelling to Sicily himself in 669 to deal with Mizizios’ forces, although the army of the Exarch of Africa loyal to Constans had already sailed north to Sicily where they beat Mizizios’ forces and had already executed Mizizios when Constantine IV arrived there. In this story however with Constans surviving, Mizizios would have no reason to become emperor as he had no ambition anyway as could be seen with his reserved personality, so here Constans with Mizizios would plan their reconquest of the rest of North Africa as well as Cyrenaica and Egypt with the then Exarch of Africa Eleutherios while the Exarch of Ravenna Theodore- who in real history had died in 666- but for this story’s sake would still be alive, would be put in charge of continuing the defense of Italy against the Lombards.

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Syracuse in the Byzantine era, Constans II’s new capital
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Damascus, capital of the Umayyad Caliphate beginning 661

           

For the past 5 years now, young Constantine IV had been put in charge of Constantinople’s administration while his father was away in Sicily, and in these 5 years, young Constantine had learned to be a strong and competent emperor. In this story’s case, in 668 rather than getting word that his father had been assassinated, Alexios and Philippikos at their arrival in Constantinople instead told young Constantine that his father now intended to divide the empire whereas Constans II would rule from Syracuse and Constantine IV from Constantinople, so therefore Constans in his letter asked Constantine to crown himself emperor, which he did here in 668 at the age of 16, and now Byzantium had 2 reigning senior emperors as Constantine’s younger brothers Heraclius and Tiberius remained as junior co-emperors.

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Emperor Constantine IV, son and successor of Constans II

Apparently, back in 597 when Emperor Maurice got a fatal illness, he thought of this same solution too which was to divide the empire in two parts between his sons, but when recovering shortly after, this plan was scrapped, but here it was Constans who now decided to stick to this which was a strategy a lot of Roman emperors in the past had used and while Constantine IV’s half included the Themes of Asia Minor, and over in the west, Constans II thought of creating Themes in Italy as well and part of it was to make the whole of Sicily an entire Theme too; although by 700 in real history, Sicily too became a Theme. Now like in real history, as Constantine IV came into power, here in this case, the same would happen when some of the soldiers in Asia Minor would here for this story get some fake news that Constans II had died so they marched to Constantinople and demand Constantine IV to rule in equal power with his two younger brothers Heraclius and Tiberius but just as Constantine IV did in real history, here he refused to do so in being manipulated and so he had the leaders of these rebellious troops executed after tricking them to meet with him peacefully, therefore beginning his reign in the same autocratic manner as his father, a trait he sure enough inherited, and rather than ruling with his brothers equally, Constantine remained the senior emperor of the east and his brothers only junior co-emperors. Meanwhile, the larger rebellion of Saborios and the soldiers of the Armeniac Theme had been growing and here by late 668, almost the entire Asia Minor was on his side the moment he was already in the region of Bithynia in the Opsikion Theme very close to Constantinople. Here as Saborios was stationed in the Fortress of Hexapolis drilling his army and waiting for his Arab reinforcement army to arrive, he would meet the same fate as he did in real history, and as Saborios got word that an imperial loyalist army from Constantinople was marching towards them, he mounted his horse right next to the fortress’ main gate but when he got on, his horse suddenly bolted and charged at the gate whereas Saborios slammed his head on the gate as a result of his horse charging. The horse then galloped away while Saborios fell to the ground and since he had not yet put on his helmet when his head was slammed against the gate, he died a few minutes later from the injury while his army with no more leader just defected to the loyalist forces of Constantine IV, thus Saborios’ rebellion was over, though not his Arab allies. Even with Saborios dead, the army led by Muawiyah’s son Yazid was still headed directly to Asia Minor and true enough they were only using Saborios as a way to get to Constantinople themselves wherein if Saborios was emperor, he would only be Muawiyah’s puppet but with Saborios gone, the Arabs had every reason to take Constantinople for themselves. As for Constantine IV here in 669, he would have no reason to head over to Sicily like in real history as his father had not been killed therefore Mizizios not rising up in rebellion, instead he would have to focus with the happenings in Asia Minor as here in 669, 5,000 Arab forces under Yazid’s command reached as far as the Anatolic Theme taking over its capital, Amorion although soon enough like in real history, the army of the Anatolic Theme liberated their capital driving the Arabs away. At the same time, Muawiyah like in real history sent a fleet to attack Sicily and Carthage in 669 and in this story’s case, it would be for the reason of stopping Constans from launching an attack on Egypt, although Constans with Mizizios here would easily defeat the Arab fleet sent against them. Back in the east, Yazid who was still around commanding his fleet in 670, like in real history was able to capture the port of Cyzicus in the Marmara which was very close to Constantinople and intended to be used as a base to construct a larger fleet for the attack on the capital. In 672, the Arabs would now make more progress when the fleet of Yazid had captured the port city of Smyrna in the Aegean to be used as another base to build more ships for their grand assault in Constantinople.

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Greek Fire sticking on water

In Constantinople meanwhile, Constantine IV was growing even more worried but here Kallinikos the engineer would demonstrate to him the new weapon he had created which was a kind of brass cannon that was able to blow out some kind of sticky liquid fire that was operated with a kind of pump but the secret was its chemical ingredient being naphtha, sulphur, and resin which was to be ignited with this mechanism, and Constantine only agreed to use it if its exact formula and procedure was a secret to be kept between both of them and the elite naval force that was to operate it. Late one night in 672- in this story’s case at least- both Kallinikos and Constantine tested this weapon on the shores of the Marmara and to their surprise it worked as the fire emitted from the cannon did stick in the water as was intended.       

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Strategos Saborios leads the army of the Armeniac Theme in rebellion, 667-668
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Umayyad army led by Yazid in Asia Minor, by Marwan Musa
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Byzantine Smyrna, captured by the Umayyads in 672

         

For the entire year of 673, both Byzantines and Arabs had been preparing for the grand battle to come, therefore Constantinople was still safe even if the Arabs in 673 had already captured some of the southern coast of Asia Minor including the city of Tarsus; although in this story’s case with Constans II still alive and Syracuse as his capital, he started feeling the need to go back to Constantinople, just to save it from the upcoming Arab attack. Just like in real history, the grand battle would come in 674 when the Arab fleet and army themselves under the command of Yazid besieged Constantinople both by land and sea and this Siege of Constantinople went on for 4 years (674-678) intermittently as the Arab forces would pause every winter retreating back to their naval bases in Cyzicus and Smyrna as winters were something alien to the desert born Arabs, and every time spring came, the Arabs would attack again. There are not that much sources on this 674-678 siege of Constantinople but it was clear that, things had not come to any results until 677 when Constantine IV decided to lead the fleet himself head-on against the Arabs, and this would be where the secret superweapon Greek Fire would first come into use and in 678, the Arabs being unable to continue the attack due to the power of Greek Fire had fully retreated and on their retreat were heavily defeated once again by the Byzantine fleet off the coast of Lycia in southwest Asia Minor. On the other hand, while the siege of Constantinople was ongoing, Constantine IV was too busy defending capital that he could not put his attention to other parts of the empire and true enough Thessaloniki with most its troops having to march to Constantinople was left poorly defended when the Slavs besieged it in 676, although when the Siege of Constantinople was over by 678, the Slavs too have been driven away from Thessaloniki.

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Constantinople at the 1st Arab Siege, 674

In this story’s case on the other hand, the Siege of Constantinople would play out in a much different way considering that Constans II here was still alive, although when it would begin in 674 he was still absent from Constantinople, thus leaving the 22-year-old Constantine IV to lead and supervise the defense of the city himself, and here he would be extremely nervous as this would be the first time he was to lead his army in a full scale battle against about let’s 50,000 Arabs while the defending Byzantine forces only numbered up to let’s say 15,000 but luckily in the case of this story, the superweapon of Greek Fire was already built and the engineer Kallinikos was to be by Constantine’s side the whole time as the weapon in this battle was at Constantine’s imperial ship.

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Greek Fire operated from the imperial ship

Feeling nervous about what was to come, Constantine motivated himself by remembering how his grandfather Constantine III at only 14 helped lead the defense of Constantinople in 626 against the Avars, Slavs, and Sassanids, and after feeling some sense of motivation, Constantine encouraged his younger brothers Heraclius and Tiberius as well his mother Fausta- in this story only- to all take part in defending the city. By April of 674 like in real history, the Arab fleet from Cyzicus sailed up the Marmara arriving in Constantinople’s south shore and unlike in real history when Constantine IV confronted them only in 677, here he already led the fleet head-on against the incoming Arab fleet of Yazid the moment the Arabs arrived and here is when Greek Fire would first be used against the enemy ships, and is turned out it would be fully effective as the sticky flames would not only stick to the water but burn down the smaller wooden Arab ships too but what was even more devastating was its fear factor as when the flames began to burn the ships and water, the Arab soldiers panicked and jumped off into the water drowning to death. Again like in real history, the battles would go on each day, pausing at night, and again resuming the next day until the point that the Arabs infantry had already disembarked from their ships and began scaling the walls, though Constantinople’s walls as usual would be too impossible for the Arab forces to fully scale due to their height and the number of soldiers defending them as it turned out more troops were assigned to the walls than in the sea, and it was also in the walls where Fausta, Heraclius, and Tiberius would be rallying the troops. As the weeks had gone by, the battles still continued with no result to the point that the Byzantines had been losing hope, but just when they all thought hope was lost, as Constantine looked south into the Marmara, he saw a large fleet consisting of 300 Byzantine ships, and as it would turn out this was his father Constans II himself leading a reinforcement fleet together with Mizizios to relieve Constantinople. In their approach, thousands of flaming arrows fired by Byzantine archers from these ships flew across the sky into Yazid’s ships further burning them and soon enough, these larger Byzantine ships crashed straight into the smaller Arab ships destroying them. Constans would then see the other imperial ship where his son was at and when seeing a streak of flames fired from it against a larger Arab ship, Constans was amazed at the sight but at the same kept cursing in Greek as he could not believe what he just saw.

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Coin of Constans II with his son Constantine IV

Having dealt enough damage here and as the days were getting colder as the year progressed, Yazid ordered his entire army and fleet to retreat and as the Arab forces and ships were retreating, Constans now had the chance to get off his ship and board his son’s ship where they would now reunite after not seeing each other for almost 12 years, and here the 44-year-old Constans barely recognized his son who was now fully grown up as the last time they had seen each other, Constantine IV was only 10. As the days would now go by, the Byzantines had noticed that they were no longer under attack, therefore the people of Constantinople had begun rebuilding the damage caused by siege but soon enough they had noticed the days would turn into weeks, and weeks into months with no more attack against them from the Arabs when the year 675 came.

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Greek Fire used against an Arab ship at the 674 Siege of Constantinople

           

Now in this story’s case, the main difference here in the 674-678 Siege of Constantinople was that here it was over in its first year and not having to go one much longer for 4 more years and the reason for this scenario happening in this story was due to the alliance the still alive Constans II made with the Tang Chinese emperor Gaozong.

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Gaozong, Tang Chinese emperor (r. 649-683)

Back in 668, after Constans survived the attempt on his life, he sent the senators Alexios and Philippikos to China and as it turned out when back there again, they were able to successfully convince the emperor there to amass an army over the next 6 years and only by 674 were they completely ready to march west and distract the Arabs who were attacking Constantinople by forcing them to turn east and face off an attack by the Chinese forces. At this point, the last member of the Sassanid’s ruling dynasty, Peroz who had been living in Tang China was already grown up in his 30s and now a powerful general in the Chinese army who had been trained to fight in the ways of both the Chinese and of his own Persian people and in this story’s case, it would be Peroz dressed in his Sassanid imperial armor that would lead a total of 100,000 men west from China into the border of the Umayyad Caliphate in Central Asia, and these 100k would consist of Chinese infantry and cavalry including war elephants, as well as Sassanid Persian refugees dressed up once again in their own Persian armor and ready to fight to the Arabs to avenge their fallen empire’s twin defeats at Al-Qadisiya in 636 and Jalula in 637 to the Arabs.

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Tang Chinese imperial army

Word of the caliphate’s eastern border under attack would first reach Caliph Muawiyah in Damascus who would then send word about it to his son Yazid who was camped with his army in Smyrna and here in 675 just when Yazid was preparing to set sail to Constantinople again to continue the siege, he got word from his father that the eastern border in Central Asia was under attack and the worst part he heard was that it was under attack by the Sassanids, the very enemy the Arabs thought they had completely crushed. Believing that the Sassanids were planning to reclaim their empire, Yazid with his army instead of continuing on Constantinople would immediately rush east where the Sassanid refugee forces and their Chinese allies were already making progress being already in what is today’s Afghanistan, very close to the Sassanid heartland of Iran which the Arabs now held. Before the winter of 675-676 would arrive, Yazid and his very tired forces after marching for months would confront the fully energized 100k army of Peroz at Bactria (Afghanistan) where due to being exhausted would lose to the combined Sassanid and Chinese forces, although Yazid would still survive retreating back to his father in Damascus never wanting to lead another campaign again after losing almost his entire army in the east. Peroz meanwhile after winning this entirely fictional victory would not anymore try to reclaim the Sassanid Empire even if he was the son of the last Sassanid emperor, instead he would return to China to continue loyally serving Emperor Gaozong as here Peroz never really wanted to reestablish the Sassanid Empire, instead he only chose to fight the Arabs as he wanted to show that the Sassanids would make up for all the harm they caused on the Byzantines for the past centuries and by defeating the Arabs here, the last of the Sassanids did indeed redeem themselves to their old enemy. Although in reality, this kind of battle would happen in the next century (751) where the Arab and Chinese forces would clash in battle. Back in Constantinople, the days would still go by without an Arab attack and as an entire year went by in peace, it was concluded that the Arab siege was over. Constans II meanwhile remained in Constantinople for most of 675 reuniting with his family and although his wife Fausta would still be angry at him for abandoning them back in 662, she would at least forgive him as Constans still came back at the last minute to relieve Constantinople from the Arab siege and as Constans saw his two younger sons Tiberius and Heraclius, he was surprised to see how much they have grown and now as young adults, both brothers looked very different from each other (as they are depicted in Constantine IV’ mosaic in Ravenna) whereas the older one Heraclius very much resembled his mother with tanned skin with thick and curly dark hair while the younger one Tiberius looked a lot more like his father and eldest brother with lighter hair and lighter skin.

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Mosaic of Constantine IV (right) with his brothers Heraclius (first to the left) and Tiberius (2nd to the left), Sant’apollinare in Classe, Ravenna

In Constantinople, Constans would congratulate Constantine for his bravery and success in the defence of Constantinople and for the creation of Greek Fire, and at the same time Constans as the most senior emperor would congratulate the weapon’s architect Kallinikos too. Constans too would tell Constantine the whole secret why the Arabs had no longer showed up and this was because if not for Constans asking the Chinese emperor to send an army to attack the Caliphate, then the Arabs would have not turned their attention east and would instead return to attacking Constantinople. Constantine would then thank his father for doing just that and just before Constans was to return back to Sicily, he confirmed with Constantine that the empire was to now be fully divided with two capitals, Constantinople and Syracuse although when Constans would die, Constantinople would remain as the superior capital where Constantine would rule from and Syracuse the inferior one where Heraclius and Tiberius would rule from after the event of Constans’ death. Constans too had settled a divorce with Fausta with the approval of the current patriarch of Constantinople here Constantine I and after concluding the divorce, Constans would leave by ship to Sicily for good while his general Mizizios would return to the Opsikion Theme in Asia Minor he was in charge of to continue being its Strategos, and with Constans gone again, Constantine IV was now the senior emperor of the eastern half of the Byzantine Empire.

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Sassanid forces in Central Asia returning to the fight the Arabs, 675 (in this story’s case)

Aftermath and Conclusion            

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The much older Constans II now was clear that he never wanted to rule from Constantinople again and after returning to Syracuse, he was to never return to the main imperial capital despite being the most senior emperor. However, for Constans when returning to Constantinople coming to the rescue when it was under attack, he knew he had done his part in making up for all those years he was absent from his family, and what was even more honorable of him here was that he came back right in time to save his family at this moment, but now when doing what he needed to do to redeem himself for his family, he returned to Sicily enjoying himself alone away from his family, while he also thought it was for the best to divorce Fausta, as after all his marriage to her when he was only a child was only for a political alliance with Fausta’s father Valentinus who turned out to be a traitor anyway. In this entirely fictional scenario of Constans surviving his assassination back in 668, in the following years as he based himself in Syracuse, he would actually end up turning Sicily itself into a new Byzantine Theme, though back there, Constans would still never really change and continue being oppressive in his ruling style and taxation. By 679, for this story’s case at least, Constans would achieve his greatest dream which was the Byzantine reconquest of Cyrenaica and Egypt using the 300 ships that helped him defeat the Arabs in Constantinople, and here all of Cyrenaica would be recaptured, though for Egypt it would only be Alexandria and the northern coast while the Arabs would still remain in the rest of Egypt, but still, a portion of the abundant grain supply for Constantinople would still resume, though by losing the coast of Egypt, the Arabs deep within Egypt would have a more difficult time communicating with their imperial capital, Damascus.

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The Umayyad Mosque of Damascus, built under Caliph Muawiyah I

As for Constantine IV in Constantinople, with the siege not going on until 678 as it did in real history, he would use the following years after 675 to rebuild the imperial capital and due to the success of Greek Fire, he would now make it a permanent wartime weapon and not only that but the state secret he wanted it to be wherein its formula and procedure would be only revealed to members of the elite naval force and to those in the line of succession to the imperial throne, while the weapon’s architect Kallinikos would be appointed as the empire’s chief military scientist working in the imperial court. Like in history, the Arabs would suffer major defeats too after they lost the siege of Constantinople, except here in this case the Arabs were defeated a lot earlier before 678, though here they would do the same as they did in real history after being defeated, which was Caliph Muawiyah in 679 agreeing to the peace terms with Byzantium which included paying an annual tribute of 50 slaves, 50 horses, 3,000 pounds of gold, and returning the Aegean islands including the city port city of Smyrna which were all under the Byzantines not so long before. What would be different for this story though is that with the Arab Umayyad Caliphate losing heavily both at Constantinople and in Central Asia, their weakened armies would no longer have much interest to fight and so would their defeated general Yazid and soon enough with the ports of Mediterranean Egypt lost, the Arabs would eventually lose all of Egypt to the Byzantines. Caliph Muawiyah in this story like in real history would also die in 680 realizing from his failure that it was impossible to breach into Constantinople, and at his death would be succeeded by his son Yazid as caliph just as Muawiyah had planned. As for the diplomat senators Alexios and Philippikos, they would choose to remain in the imperial court of China at Chang’an where they would serve the Chinese emperor Gaozong as Byzantine ambassadors to strengthen relations between both empires and there they would introduce some Byzantine customs to China and vice-versa. Back in Italy, the Exarch of Ravenna Theodore Calliopas who in real history died back in 666, for this story’s case had already died by around 673 while the empire was already split in half. Constans II on the other hand in this story’s case would die in 680 before hitting the age of 50 and ironically, he would die in the same baths of Syracuse’s imperial palace, although this time not anymore by being smashed in the head by a servant like in 668; instead Constans when alone at the baths would suffer a heart attack and pass away in minutes and would only be found later as his servants entered the baths for cleaning. Constans’ body would then be sent to Constantinople where he would be buried in the Church of the Holy Apostles- where he is really buried- and his funeral would be presided over by Constantine IV, although since Constans II was never really popular and had abandoned Constantinople and ruled in an oppressively autocratic way, his funeral would not be mourned by many but due to the fact that he relieved the city from the siege 5 years earlier, there would be at least some mourning for him. Following Constans II’s death, Constantine IV now as the most senior ruling emperor would honor his father’s plan in dividing the empire in order to fully protect all sides of it and continue their holding onto Italy and send both his younger brothers Heraclius and Tiberius to Syracuse to rule together as both were already co-emperors since 659, while Constantine IV would rule as the most superior of them from Constantinople, which was to still remain the main capital.  

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Coin of Emperor Constantine IV
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Court of the Umayyad Caliphs in Damascus

           

Now with Constans II having survived the assassination attempt on him and therefore successfully moving the capital to Syracuse and coming right in time back to Constantinople to relieve it from the Arab siege and further masterminding a heavy defeat on the Arab armies by conspiring with the Tang Chinese Empire, and later on dying from natural causes, the same happenings too would happen for Byzantium in Constantine IV’s latter reign as it did in real history. A lot of things Constantine IV had done as emperor were still mostly achievements, like for instance the 3rd Council of Constantinople between 680 and 681 which was finally able to solve the controversy of the Monothelite doctrine Constans II and his grandfather Heraclius before him strongly supported that even led Constans II to go as far as arresting Pope Martin I in 653 for opposing it.

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3rd Church Council of Constantinople headed by Constantine IV, 680-681

Here in this story, like in real history, Constantine IV would succeed in solving the issue by looking back at the ruling on the natures of Christ from the Council of Chalcedon back in 451 and afterwards reaffirming them, and for both successfully defending Constantinople from the Arabs and solving the Monothelite controversy once and for all, Constantine IV would become more popular than ever- as he was in real history- and gaining so much popularity, he would be hailed as the “New Constantine the Great” and the “New Justinian the Great” and coincidentally, Constantine IV here at this point was married to a certain Anastasia and already had a son named Justinian who he was training to be his successor, but in this story’s case to rule from Constantinople, as tragically for Constantine IV by 681 like in real history, his health already began to fail despite his young age, which historians say he could have been suffering from cancer. In real history however, Constantine IV in 681 following in the footsteps of his father mutilating his twin brother in 661 had both his younger brothers Heraclius’ and Tiberius’ noses cut off to prevent them from succeeding to the throne as a sure way to secure young Justinian’s succession, though in this story’s case, this incident would not happen as Heraclius and Tiberius got their chance to rule the empire already from Syracuse where they would busy themselves continuing the campaign against the Lombards in mainland Italy. The other real event that too would happen in this story’s case was the first major invasion of the Bulgar hordes from the steppes of Russia led by their ruler Khan Asparukh across the Danube into Byzantine territory in 680 while Constantine IV was busy heading the Church Council. Again like in real history, Constantine IV here in would lead the armies of the 5 Themes north to confront the Bulgars in 680 as well but at the middle of the campaign would suffer a bad illness due to his chronic disease and have to retreat back to Constantinople leaving his army to confront the Bulgars and without Constantine commanding them, the army like in real history would suffer a defeat to the Bulgars at the Battle of Ongal in 680 which here would also make Constantine in 681 have to acknowledge the creation of the first Bulgarian state in what was the Byzantine province of Moesia in the south bank of the Danube, and here is when the story of Byzantium’s northern neighbor and greatest enemy and ally at different times, the Bulgarian Empire begins. Constantine IV though would not lose his popularity for his defeat to the Bulgars, but in addition for this story’s case too like in reality, he would create the Theme of Thrace based in Constantinople to further protect the valuable province of Thrace, the empire’s capital region from the rise of the Bulgars who had now gained their own state subjugating the Slavic locals there. History does not say what Constantine IV had been doing after 681 but it is most likely that he had been putting the Themes of Asia Minor his father created and the Theme of Thrace he created into full effect in case the Umayyad Arabs would come back again, but it is highly possible that Constantine was not so active anymore after 681 due to his failing health. In this story, Constantine IV would die just 5 years after his father on September 14, 685 at only 33 like he did in real history and would be succeeded in this story’s case as the emperor in Constantinople by his now 16-year-old son Justinian II while his brothers Heraclius and Tiberius would still remain in Sicily. The reign of the passionate and ambitious yet tyrannical and evil emperor Justinian II now would be a story for another time, although in here like in real history, Constantine IV for successfully defending the capital and finally solving the issue of Monothelitism would become a saint after his death. Now the big question at the end of this story is what will happen to the Umayyad Caliphate after being defeated even more than they were in real history and if the establishment of Syracuse as the second capital was worth it and the answer to both cannot fully be told in a simple way but to put it short, all I can say is that even when defeated, the Umayyad Caliphate was still around and would still one day return to action and for the Byzantines having 2 capitals with their own emperors just as the empire did before 476, they would be able to focus on both sides of their empire as in the east the Theme System would soon enough be fully prepared and functional if ever the Arabs rise again while in the west, the emperor ruling from Syracuse could focus on the problems there and restore Byzantine rule to Italy which had been neglected with the growing threat of the Arabs in the east. Now to simply put it, Constans II’s decision to make Syracuse a capital was to prove effective especially since this would help the Byzantines slowly regain control of the Mediterranean again and therefore not spiral down in the sense of rapidly losing lands and this is how this move could change the course of Byzantine history.         

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The coming of the Bulgars, Khan Asparukh and his Bulgar hordes arrive in Byzantine territory, 680
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Flags of the armies of the Byzantine Empire’s Themes, to be developed from here on
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Full mosaic of Constantine IV with his brothers and son Justinian II (leftmost) in Sant’Apollinare in Classe, Ravenna

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

And now I have reached the very end of this story but before I finish, I have to mention about creating this and why Constans II is for me such an interesting historical figure that I dedicated an entire fan fiction story to him. Now as you may know, this fan fiction article happens to be an extremely long one and I have to admit it was a very long process writing it as it required an extensive amount of research and considering that my favorite history related Youtube channel Dovahhatty is currently only at Justinian’s era and had not yet reached this part of Byzantine history, I had to go the long way to put this story together by watching several documentary videos on this era from rather more scholarly channels like Kings and Generals, Eastern Roman History, and Thersites the Historian, as well as listening to the History of Byzantium Podcast, and in fact even reading more scholarly research works in order to get the whole story of 7th century Byzantium. When completing this story, I also discovered that I have now entered unchartered territory as in the entire history of Byzantium, I am not entirely familiar with the 7th century which on the other hand is not as well documented as the 6th century Byzantium of Justinian I or the later eras and what made much more challenging to write was that I put it all together. At the end I also realized that there is a lot more to discover about Byzantium even if I am still more or less familiar with its entire 1,100 year history and as it had turned out, the 7th century is surely an interesting but very crucial time for Byzantium as this was when things just changed in a blink of an eye wherein almost half of its imperial territories it had in the 6th century was lost as the Arabs out of the blue expanded and in only a few decades already came so close to ruling almost the whole known world putting Byzantium in the defensive position for the next 2 centuries to come considering the arrival of the Bulgars at the end of the century too. The other crucial part for Byzantium in this century was the changing of their geography with the creation of the Thematic System and the drastic cultural shift from Latin to Greek and more importantly the end of the golden age or rather the age of antiquity and the beginning of the Dark Ages. It is for all these reasons I have mentioned why the 7th century was a very crucial time for the Byzantine Empire not only in the reign of Constans II but with the events long before it such as the execution of Maurice in 602, the Byzantine-Sassanid War from 602-628, the reign of Heraclius, and the rise of the Arabs and it is for this reason why this fan fiction story had to be a really long one but no matter how long, I still wanted it to go full circle, which is why I ended it with the return of the Sassanids to make up for the harm they did to the Byzantines in the past by indirectly helping them against the Arabs. As for the part of Constans II, I had to choose him as the lead character for this story out of all the emperors of this century because I find his story and more particularly his odd choice of suddenly wanting to move the imperial capital to Sicily very interesting. Constans II too is an emperor who I believe has a very complex personality as at the same time as being the kind of strong emperor with a dictatorial style of rule, he was still more or less a visionary who saw the need to take extreme measures to ensure the survival of his empire. At the same time, I cannot also blame Constans for ruling in such an autocratic way by purging all those he saw as a threat including the pope and his twin brother because he ruled the empire in a very difficult time when it was at the verge of extinction to the Arab Caliphates. On the other hand, it is also hard to judge Constans’ character as he grew up with so much stress being only 11 when coming to power yet having to face a very troubled empire, so no matter how much people bash Constans for ruling in such an autocratic way, he should also be admired as he came to throne at such a young age ready to face the burden of ruling an empire at the verge of extinction. I also have to say that it was also exciting to particularly write this chapter (chapter IV) of this Byzantine Alternate History series as this article has somewhat a different approach not just centering on the lives of the Byzantine rulers and people but on the political and geographical situation of a larger world at this time and at the same time not only on the world of the Byzantines but of the Arabs Caliphates, Sassanids, and Imperial China too, and when planning out this alternate history fan fiction series, I always wanted to write about the unknown Chinese angle in Byzantium, and now I got the chance. At the end, the result for this story happened to be a kind of dystopian Byzantine epic featuring a severely weakened, troubled, and shrunken Byzantine Empire at the state of perpetual war, ruled by an autocratic dictator emperor, and having new kinds of unthinkable technology being Greek Fire compared to the past 3 articles featuring a stronger Byzantium being the dominant world power. Now this chapter is only the beginning of this dystopian Byzantine setting as it is the end of the early Byzantine era and entry point to the Byzantine Dark Ages which the next 2 stories of this series will be part of, so the next 2 stories of this series will be when Byzantium will be at its lowest points having to constantly fight on the defensive against the expansion of the Arabs before the coming of the 10th century when the Byzantines would turn the tide of war, this time fighting on the offensive against the Arabs ready to conquer everything they have lost to them. Up next, in chapter V of this Byzantine Alternate History series, in the 8th century the Arab Umayyad Caliphate will strike again this time even stronger than before whereas Carthage will even fall to them while the new power of the Bulgars in the Balkans would rise up as well and Byzantium this time would be very close to extinction due to external pressure and internal conflicts until Leo III, another unlikely savior emperor again with a very complex personality would come to the rescue, although the next story will rather center more on Artavasdos, the man behind Leo III’s rise of power who too will become emperor for only a year (742-743) before meeting his end, though the next chapter of this series will explore what Byzantium would be like if this very unknown emperor would have ruled much longer, but of course as the rule of this series, there will be no continuity from the alternate ending of this story to the where the next will begin. Well, this is all for chapter IV of Byzantine Alternate History, this is Powee Celdran, the Byzantine Time Traveller… thank you for your time!                   

Around the World in the Byzantine Era Part2 (1000-1461)

Posted by Powee Celdran

WARNING: THIS IS AN EXTREMELY LONG ARTICLE, BUT ENJOY!!

Part1: Around the World in the Byzantine Era (300-1000)

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Welcome now to part2 of the Around the World in the Byzantine Era article! In the previous article I have discussed the events in the Byzantine Empire from the 4th to 10th centuries, how the empire was formed and how it survived all those years with all the constant wars, invasions, plagues, and political crisis but other than it had focused on what was going on in the rest of the world as the Byzantine Empire was existing. Basically, we all know now the Byzantine Empire was born out of the original Roman Empire that had been divided but in 324 it was reunited and by 330 it got a new capital, Constantinople and this would mark the start of Byzantine history. However, the real event that marked the start of Byzantium or the Eastern Roman Empire was in the year 395 when the empire was fully divided east and west as separate independent empires, the west though had fallen in 476 and the rest of Europe that was under its control formed into several kingdoms formed by the barbarian tribes that had settled in the empire such as the Visigoths establishing their kingdom in Spain, the Vandals in North Africa, Ostrogoths in Italy, the Franks in France, and Saxons in England. Meanwhile, Byzantium had stayed strong as the west fell and in the 6th century it retook parts of the west that had fallen such as Italy from the Ostrogoths and North Africa from the Vandals but in the east Byzantium was in an on and off perpetual war with the Sassanid Persian Empire but winning it in the 7th century only to enter a new perpetual war with an unexpected force that rose from the south, the Arabs wherein Byzantium would permanently lose Egypt and Syria to them then in the north another new force would attack and form another new force to war with Byzantium, the Bulgarians who at the 9th century would create an empire to rival Byzantium forcing Byzantium to change from being a Roman world power in the Mediterranean to a downsized militarized Greek Empire. In Western Europe, everything is unstable until the 8th century when the Franks conquer the surviving Germanic tribes and in 800 form an empire, yet another one to rival Byzantium which was the Frankish Empire and in the 10th century had evolved into the Holy Roman Empire in Germany, a new Roman empire in the west while France which once part of the Frankish kingdom becomes the medieval Kingdom of France in 987. In the rest of Europe as Byzantium rules as one empire, several Germanic, Slavic, and Baltic tribes still live in the northeast and only become united to form their own kingdoms by the 9th and 10th centuries but in the north, the biggest story would be the Norsemen known as the Vikings who come in at the end of the 8th century, become a threat in the 9th, and start settling in forming their own states in the 10th such as the Norman state in Northern France and the Kievan Rus in Eastern Europe which had though been born in the 9th century. In Britain ever since it had been abandoned by the Romans in the early 5th century, Saxons from across the North Sea begin to settle and form their own kingdoms but end up uniting against Viking invasions in the 9th and 10th centuries while Scotland and Ireland still remain as smaller and less united. While Europe forms between the 5th and 10th centuries and Byzantium rules as one empire, in the south and east the new force known as the Arabs unexpectedly rise from the Arabian deserts in the 7th century and rapidly grow an empire defeating Byzantium and destroying the Sassanid Persian Empire and the territorial extent of the Arabs extends all the way to Spain in the west and to Central Asia in the east but power is not stable among them and between 632 and 909, the Arabs have had 4 large empires or Caliphates: the Rashidun, Umayyad, Abbasid, and Fatimid. As the Arabs conquer vast amounts of territory, they spread their religion of Islam with them while the Byzantines too spread Christianity to Europe, although they become in conflict over the Christian faith with the pope in Rome but it still Christianity that had turned Europe from scattered tribes to unified states. Between the 4th and 10th centuries, Byzantium may have been the only empire that had been standing all this time as all others around it have risen and fallen but in the far east like Byzantium, China was its parallel as it stayed as the same empire throughout Byzantium’s entire existence except having different names for its empire due to the many changes of dynasties, although Byzantium between 330 and 1000 had been ruled by 10 dynasties and several usurpers but still the same empire, but like China and Byzantium the other empire that had been constantly existing the whole time was Japan. In the rest of Asia like in India and Indonesia between the 4th and 11th centuries, the story was confusing as kingdoms kept on rising and falling the same way ancient kingdoms and empire rise and soon enough fall to another one, though in Central Asia Nomadic people like the Huns, Turks, Avars, and Magyars spread quickly going as far west into Europe as well as east all the way to China and south to India. In the Americas on the other hand, progress moves slow as for all these centuries the Mayans of Central America still remain the dominant force but would soon enough fade out, though there is not much recorded evidence on the events in the Americas between the 4th and 11th centuries. Now this article being part of this 2-part article on around the world in the existence of Byzantium will focus on the Byzantium from the 11th to 15th centuries and the happenings around the worlds within this time and as the 11th century begins so does the 2nd millennium AD, the Byzantine Empire has returned as a dominant force winning over their neighbor the Bulgarians becoming once again the power it was in the 6th century although no longer a Roman Mediterranean force but an eastern Greek empire. In Western Europe, the German Holy Roman Empire is now the major empire that extends all the way down to Italy while France too rises as a powerful kingdom and England is a united Anglo-Saxon kingdom. Meanwhile in the Arab world, the Abbasid Caliphate of Baghdad is weakened with many new Islamic forces rising like the Turkic Ghaznavid Empire in Iran and the Fatimid Caliphate in North Africa while in Spain the Christians at the north grow stronger to fight the Islamic caliphate in the south. In Asia, China is now united under the Song Dynasty and Korea under the Goryeo Dynasty and this is the situation of the world where we left off in part one of this series, and now part 2 of it begins this way. Although as the 11the century progresses, Byzantium which had reached its height of power once again will once again rapidly decline as the Normans rise in the west and the Seljuk Turks in the east crushing the Byzantines heavily at Manzikert in 1071 marking the start of a new decline, and at the end of the century the era of the Crusades begin. In the next 5 centuries, Byzantium will see the Crusades rising and going on until eventually dying out, the Arab empires weaken and the Nomadic Turks rise forming powerful states, the unknown Mongols rapidly rising and building an empire almost conquering the entire world, and Western Europe evolving into powerful kingdoms even surpassing Byzantium in power. At the beginning of the 13th century Byzantium sees its temporary fall to the Crusaders in 1204 resulting in new separate Byzantine states to form like Trebizond but its return 57 years later in 1261 but from here on, its future is no longer bright as the new Turkish power of the Ottomans rise in Asia Minor which would later on bring the end of Byzantium capturing Constantinople in 1453 and the last Byzantine state of Trebizond in 1461; now if 1453 is when Byzantium ended it is just the end of Byzantine Constantinople while the real end of the Byzantine story would be the fall of the separate breakaway Byzantine Empire of Trebizond to the Ottomans in 1461, and in other words, if Byzantium was a movie 1453 would be its end while 1461 would be the post-credits ending. This here will be the second and last part of this series and will begin with Byzantium as a powerful empire in 1000 under Emperor Basil II of the Macedonian Dynasty and will end at the middle of the 15th century. Now, in this article I will try my best to explain the history of every part of the world even if I do not know them as well as I know Byzantine history as this article will cover a time in history where so much is already happening around the world wherein there is so much information about and so much happening in so little time such as the rapid expansion of the Mongols in the 13th century, the Spanish Reconquista, the whole story of the Crusades, the Hundred-Years’-War between France and England, the rise of the Russian states, and the happenings and political tensions in England, France, Italy, and the Holy Roman Empire which will be one of the biggest stories from the 11th to 15th centuries. On the other hand as this article will be divided into 2 sections per century, the first section will be all on Byzantium and its surroundings including the Seljuk Empire, Bulgaria, Serbia, and the Ottoman Empire then in the 12th century part the section on Byzantium will be on both the happenings in the Byzantine Empire and the new Crusader states and the same for the 13th century wherein the Byzantium section will be on the happenings in the Balkans and Asia Minor as in most of the century Byzantium disappeared, while the last parts which will be on the 14th and 15th century the section of Byzantium will focus on the story of the Ottomans as well while the second section will focus on the rest of the world.

Now for all of you reading, please do also like and follow The History of Byzantium and listen to their podcasts as this article I’m doing is similar to it. Also like their Facebook page.

Also, in the time period of this article (13th century), this is where No Budget Films’ most recent Lego epic War of the Sicilian Vespers is set in, please watch it too!


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The Byzantine Empire in 1025 with all its Themes

 

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Constantinople, the “capital of the world”

Related Articles from The Byzantium Blogger:

War of the Sicilian Vespers: A Byzantine Epic

12 Turning Points in Byzantine History

The Complete Genealogy of the Byzantine emperors and dynasties

Foreign Lands and People According to the Byzantines Part1

Foreign Lands and People According to the Byzantines Part2

Constantinople: The Queen of Cities and its Byzantine Secrets

The Ravenna Mosaics and What to Expect

The Byzantine Emperors

Byzantine Science and Technology

The Art of War in the Byzantine World

A Guide to the Byzantine Empire’s Themes

15 Byzantine Related States Outside Byzantium Part1 (1-7)

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

Byzantine Imperial Personalities Part2

Byzantine Imperial Personalities Part3

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The Story of 3 Plagues across centuries

Roman and Byzantine Imperial Systems Compared

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Imperial Women in the Roman and Byzantine Empires

 

Related Videos on World History and Byzantium:

Rulers of Europe Every Year (from Cottereau).

History of the World Every Year (from Ollie Bye).

History of the Byzantine Empire Part2 (from Fire of Learning).

 

The 11th Century

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In the Byzantium:

In the Byzantine Empire as the 2nd millennium begins, Emperor Basil II concludes a truce with the Fatimid Caliphate in order to resume his war with the Bulgarian Empire north now ruled by Tsar Samuil which Basil II failed in the previous years loosing heavily to them in 986 although in 1009 in Byzantine Southern Italy, a Lombard lord revolts against the Byzantines but is defeated and killed in battle in 1010. In 1014, Basil II leading the Byzantine army himself with the help of his new Varangian Guard mercenaries win a large victory over the Bulgarian army at the Battle of Kleidion, here Basil II has the defeated Bulgarians blinded with 1 out of every 100 men left with one eye to lead them home, and in the same year Tsar Samuil dies seeing his men blinded. By 1018, the Bulgarian Empire was wiped off the map with the whole Balkans except for Croatia annexed to the Byzantine Empire although Basil II now called the “Bulgar-Slayer” keeps taxes for the Bulgarians low to integrate them. At this time as well, the Georgian Kingdom of Abkhazia at the northeast border of Byzantium dies as its unified with other kingdoms in the area forming the Kingdom of Georgia in 1008, then by 1020 Basil II had annexed the Armenian sub-kingdoms of this area into Byzantium not by force but by having their kings adopt him as their successor making him inherit their kingdoms after their deaths. Basil II too thought of launching a campaign to take back Sicily for Byzantium from the Arabs but dies in 1025 before he is able to do so, though at his death the Byzantine Empire is at its largest extent again spanning west to east from Italy to Armenia and north to south from the Crimea in Ukraine and the Danube River to the Levant. Basil II ruling for almost 50 years as the senior emperor spent most of his reign in the battlefield therefore having never been married and no children, he was then succeeded by his brother and long-time co-emperor Constantine VIII and at this point it all goes downhill for Byzantium, and with no sons Constantine VIII marries his daughter Zoe to the senator Romanos Argyros; Constantine VIII dies in 1028 succeeded by Romanos III Argyros who tries to ambitiously restore the Byzantium of Justinian I’s days in the 6th century but his reign begins military failure for Byzantium with a failed siege on Arab controlled Aleppo in 1030. In 1034, Romanos III’s wife Zoe plots with her lover Michael the Paphlagonian and assassinates Romanos III making Mich