Most Favorite to Least Favorite- Ranking the 12 Centuries of Byzantine History

Posted by Powee Celdran

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Welcome back to the Byzantium Blogger! As for now, I will be taking a break from the extremely long but informative Byzantine Alternate History series in which I have progressed very far, at this point I have completed the 8th chapter of this 12-part series. To break my consistent streak of Byzantine fan fiction articles now that I am in between chapter VIII and chapter IX of my series, I have decided to come up with another more entertaining special edition article which will mark the end of the 2nd quarter of this year 2021. Previously 3 months ago, I did another special edition article marking the end of the first quarter of this year wherein I asked 5 of my friends to give their own point of views on quotes quoted by Byzantine era people to see what these ancient quotes mean these days. This time, my special edition article to mark the end of the 2nd and beginning of the 3rd quarter of this year is a more personal one which will be a list ranking the 12 centuries of Byzantine history (4th-15th centuries) from my point of view from 1 being my most to 12 being my least favorite one. Now as may would know, the Byzantine Empire or Eastern Roman Empire lived on for an exact 1,123 years (330-1453), meaning 12 centuries of stories to tell and within these 12 centuries were a series of ups and downs wherein the empire at some points would be a dominant power then at some points lose it and have to fight to defend its borders and then once again become a power again, and so the cycle goes on. Basically, the Byzantine Empire was the Roman Empire itself continued except being based in the east with Constantinople as its capital throughout its 1,100-year existence- except for a brief period of time between 1204 and 1261 when the capital fell under the rule of the Latin Empire or basically the Crusaders- and throughout these 1,100-year existence there are a lot of stories to be told. Now out of the 12 centuries of the Byzantine Empire’s existence, some really had a lot of exciting moments within them while some had important turning points in world history, but some just had less stories to tell compared to others. For this article, I will rank the 12 centuries from my personal best to worst according to how eventful these centuries were. I will both put a summary of each century but will evaluate them by describing why I find each century more interesting or less interesting based on everything I have learned about Byzantine history in the past 2 years that I have been reading up on it, therefore this article is mostly based on my insights and did not involve heavy research. In my opinion, I find centuries filled with action-packed events as the more interesting, fascinating, and memorable ones compared to those that had less happening, and so here I would place the more eventful centuries on the higher tiers of this ranking and the less eventful ones on the lower ones. In the history of Byzantium however, each of its 12 centuries of existence had a lot of events happening, although some centuries may have just been more eventful than others. Now to find out which centuries I find more fascinating and which ones I find less fascinating, you will have to find out by scrolling down the list, and before beginning, the previous 8 chapters of my alternate history series will be linked to the respective centuries they are set in, except for the 12th, 13th, 14th, and 15th centuries as I have not yet written any alternate history chapters yet for these 4 mentioned centuries. In addition, each century that will be ranked on this list will be guided by images of important events that took place in these respective centuries, in which most of these images would be Byzantine fan art made by either myself or other Byzantine history fans that do art related to it.

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

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


 

1. The 10th Century           

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

My personal favorite out of the 12 centuries of the Byzantine Empire’s existence has to be the 10th century or the century of the Byzantine Renaissance, which is at the same time a very popular era in Byzantine history that is also fascinating to a lot, and there are just so many reasons to say why this century happens to be so popular among Byzantine history fans such as myself. First of all, if there were to be any century in Byzantine history that had so much happening both within the empire and beyond, it is the 10th century which featured Byzantium under the Macedonian Dynasty entering a golden age of military and cultural dominance over the known world while at the same time, this century shows exactly just how complex Byzantium was especially in politics and succession which makes Byzantine history ever more fascinating. The intriguing roller-coaster of the 10th century begins with the reign of Emperor Leo VI the Wise (886-912) wherein Byzantium is still fighting to defend itself against various attacks by Arab powers, which is then followed by a complicated succession crisis after Leo VI’s death where his son the young Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos is placed under regents all fighting each other for power all while Byzantium is threatened by their next-door northern neighbor, the Bulgarian Empire ruled by Tsar Simeon the Great. As the 10th century progresses, the complicated situation of Constantine VII’s regency is taken care of in 920 when the ambitious low-born admiral Romanos Lekapenos takes over the throne not to depose but protect young Constantine VII who he actually turns out to sideline, but even though he may seem to be a usurper, Romanos I ruled the empire well as during his 24-year reign (920-944), he was able to end the war with Bulgaria through the diplomacy while the Byzantines too had totally managed to turn the tide of war against their Arab enemies in the east to the offensive but Romanos I unfortunately did not stay in power forever as in 944 he was overthrown by his sons who were then overthrown by the legitimate ruler Constantine VII who then becomes the sole emperor.

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

Constantine VII’s reign as sole emperor (945-959) is also one of my favorite moments in Byzantine history as Constantine VII as emperor had shown a great example that Byzantium at this time was not only a military power but a cultural one which was perfectly demonstrated by the emperor himself being an intellectual who published 4 books himself about the Byzantine Empire’s history, court etiquette, and governance system while at the same time, he was able also able reveal to the world how Byzantium was a superior sophisticated culture by impressing foreign diplomats by sitting on a mechanical throne that lifted itself up while the mechanical lions beside it projected an actual sound of lion and the fake birds on the golden tree next to it sang. Constantine VII after his death in 959 was succeeded by his son Romanos II who despite ruling very quickly (959-963) had a lot of accomplishments in his reign which were although achieved not really by him but by his successful generals such as the brothers Nikephoros and Leo Phokas and their nephew John Tzimiskes who successfully crushed the powerful Arab armies a number of times in Cilicia and Syria while at the same time in 961, Nikephoros Phokas was able to reclaim the entire island of Crete itself from the Arabs after a long and brutal campaign.

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Byzantine emperor Nikephoros II Phokas (r. 963-969)

The second half of the 10th century gets even more exciting when Nikephoros II Phokas becomes the emperor himself in 963 after marrying the empress Theophano, the wife of the late emperor Romanos II who died earlier that year, and in Nikephoros II’s reign Byzantium expands even more by conquest that a large number of territories they had lost over the past 3 centuries to the Arabs including the region of Cilicia, the island of Cyprus, and the city of Antioch itself are taken back by the Byzantines, thus forever weakening the Arab powers that had threatened Byzantium for the past 3 centuries. Nikephoros II as emperor was a brilliant general and strategist but nothing more as he failed as a politician in terms of pleasing his people and in foreign policy that when failing to negotiate with the Bulgarians, war between them resumed. Due to his harsh taxation policies and growing unpopularity, Nikephoros II in 969 was assassinated in his sleep by his nephew the general John Tzimiskes who then succeeded his uncle as emperor who just like his uncle was more or less a warrior emperor but at least succeeded more as a politician. John I Tzimiskes as emperor (969-976) was successful in fighting wars against the new power of the Kievan Rus’ army that had invaded Bulgaria which he defeated resulting in most the Bulgarian state itself to be absorbed into Byzantium and following this, John I returned to campaigning in the east winning more decisive victories against the Arabs again but before returning to Constantinople in early 976 he suddenly died.

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

John I after his death in 976 was succeeded by the legitimate ruler Basil II, son of the previous emperor Romanos II and Empress Theophano, and would be the last ruler of the 10th century, although his early reign was not really stable as he was challenged by the ambitious rival generals Bardas Skleros and Bardas Phokas who believed that Basil II was unfit to be emperor due to being raised in the palace. Basil II however proved them wrong and in 989 after making an alliance with the Kievan Rus’ Empire that provided him with an army of 6,000 warriors which would become the Varangian Guard, Basil had defeated Bardas Phokas and 991, Basil II’s rule would be fully secure following the surrender of Bardas Skleros allowing Basil to grow the empire even more that by the time the next century began, the Byzantines had managed to conquer the entire Bulgarian Empire itself. Though the 10th century ended before the Byzantine conquest of Bulgaria finished, the Byzantine Empire at the end of the 10th century was a dominant military and cultural power in the Eastern Mediterranean and Eastern Europe that the entire Kievan Rus’ Empire (consisting of what is now Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia) fell under Byzantium’s sphere of influence by adopting the Orthodox Christianity of Byzantium, while at the same time, their rival empire which was the Holy Roman Empire in Germany looked up to them in terms of culture, and in the south the Arab powers that once threatened Byzantium were now the ones threatened by Byzantium’s growing power.

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

Overall, I would say the 10th century had the complete set of everything that would define the history of Byzantium including epic battles, ambitious yet brilliant generals with unique strategies like Nikephoros Phokas and John Tzimiskes, sophisticated and superior technology unheard of in the Middle Ages including the superweapon Greek Fire and mechanical thrones, superior intellectual culture in Constantinople, a decadent imperial court rich in luxury, lots of violence including blinding and assassinations, scheming eunuchs behind the throne, and ambitious women in power such as the empress Zoe Karbonopsina who ruled as regent for her young son Constantine VII in the complicated regency period (913-920) and Empress Theophano who was the wife of two emperors Romanos II and Nikephoros II, both who they say she had killed. It is for all these reasons why I would say it is the century in Byzantine history that fascinates me most, and other than all these reasons that I had mentioned above, what makes this period fascinating too was that there was never any dull moment in this century as every step of the way was action-packed and most of them were all the wars the Byzantines fought as they were not only fighting against one enemy but many including Arabs, Bulgarians, the Rus, and Pechenegs while at the same time there was a lot going on in this century especially in foreign relations as here Byzantium made contact with the various powers of the time including the Holy Roman Empire and a lot more. Now by having so much going on all in one century, I would also say that the 10th century is really the century that defined Byzantium the same way the 15th century or Renaissance was for Italy, the 16th century for Spain, the 17th for the Dutch, 18th for France, and 19th for England, and true enough it is also the 10th century where Byzantium gets a lot of attention in visualized media even centuries ago as the famous illustrated manuscript the Madrid Skylitzes specifically focuses a lot on the events of the 10th century and even up to this day, a lot of Byzantine related media such as the recent graphic novel Theophano: A Byzantine Tale is set in this period, and so are some of my Lego films including The Rise of Phokas (2019) and Killing a Byzantine Emperor (2019). 

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Emperor Constantine VII hosting a feast, art by Byzantine Tales
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Nikephoros Phokas enters Constantinople in 963, Madrid Skylitzes
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Byzantine navy using Greek Fire against the Rus’ fleet outside Constantinople’s Walls, 941

To learn more about Byzantium in the 10th century, read Chapter VII of my Byzantine Alternate History series.

2. The 5th Century           

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Roman Empire 5th century map, dissolution of the west (red).

For second place, I would put the 5th century which was the second century of the Byzantine Empire’s existence but also a very crucial point in their history as it was in this century when the Eastern Roman Empire was already a concept as a separate empire from the Western Roman Empire based in Constantinople, while the 5th century was also the century when the Eastern Roman Empire or Byzantium became the sole Roman Empire itself following the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476. Now the story of 5th century Byzantium until 476 is basically told as a story of two parallel empires which are the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire based in Constantinople and its twin satellite empire the Western Roman Empire based in Ravenna wherein one empire (the east) is strong but still struggling to survive against the massive invasions of barbarian powers while the other one (the west) is weak and dying without any chance to live long anymore unless fully dissolved or absorbed into the eastern empire. The 5th century however happens to be more famous for the story of the Western Roman Empire which is already at a breaking point as when the century begins and progresses, the western empire is ruled by incompetent rulers like Honorius (395-423) and Valentinian III (425-455) while most of the empire is already falling apart being invaded by several barbarian people that have wither settled in it or invaded from beyond including the Visigoths who take over the Western Roman lands of Gaul and Hispania, the Burgundians and Franks that take parts of Gaul, and the Vandals that take over North Africa, while here the Romans completely lose control of Britain at the beginning of the century.

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Battle of Chalons, 451

While several barbarian powers take over territories of the Western Roman Empire, a larger threat is yet to arrive which was Atilla the Hun and his rapidly growing Hunnish Empire which is not only a threat to the Eastern and Western Roman Empires but to these barbarian powers too, thus the Western Romans and some barbarian powers like the Visigoths, Burgundians, and Franks join forces against Atilla’s Huns and together led by the Roman general Aetius they manage to achieve the impossible in defeating Attila’s forces at the Battle of Chalons in 451, and after Atilla’s death in 453 the Huns from being the terror of the world simply vanished as a major threat. Despite the Western Romans’ victory over Atilla, the following years were not as favorable anymore as in 454 they lost their greatest general Aetius who was assassinated by the emperor Valentinian III out of envy and in 455 Valentinian III was assassinated which leads to conflict with the new power of the Vandal Kingdom of North Africa under their King Genseric who also in 455 launches an invasion on Rome and sacks it. The 5th century saw two major attacks on Rome itself first by the Visigoth king Alaric I in 410 and in 455 by the Vandals in which both forever weakened the power of Western Rome, although after 455 there were still some emperors that had the ambition to save and revive the weakened Roman Empire and reconquer their lands the barbarians took from them and these emperors included the capable soldier Majorian (457-461) and the Eastern Roman aristocrat Anthemius (467-472) but sadly both never achieved their dreams as they were in fact both puppets of Ricimer, the ambitious barbarian general in Roman imperial service who was responsible too for killing both of these emperors for being too ambitious and not being his intended puppets.

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End of the Western Roman Empire with the surrender of the last Western Roman emperor Romulus Augustus to Odoacer, 476

After Anthemius’ death in 472 it was all downhill for the Western Roman Empire which was now only reduced to Italy, thus it was only a matter of time that the western empire would disappear and just 4 years later in 476, one small event brought the Western Roman Empire to its complete end and this was simply when the barbarian general Odoacer marched into the empire’s capital Ravenna and forced the last Western emperor Romulus Augustus to surrender which he did and so ended the Western Roman Empire which was replaced by Odoacer’s personal Kingdom of Italy. Meanwhile, the Eastern Roman Empire had a much different story in the 5th century which was as I would say more or less not as exciting in the century’s earlier half but more exciting in its second half. The earlier part of the 5th century did not have much happening for the Eastern Roman Empire or Byzantium except for the rule of the incompetent Arcadius (395-408) where the century begins although he did not really live long enough and following his death in 408 he was succeeded by his young son Theodosius II who later grew up to be a more competent ruler who ruled for a full 42 years (408-450), and in his long reign he was able to achieve a lot as a peace loving palace scholar emperor and his achievements included the construction of Constantinople’s massive land walls named after him even though he did not really have much of a part in building it, but in his reign he also compiled a code of laws for the empire, established universities, and oversaw a major Church Council.

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Eastern Roman emperor Theodosius II (r. 408-450)

It was also in Theodosius II’s reign when Atilla was expanding his empire but wanting to get away from any major conflict, Theodosius II agreed to pay heavy tribute to Atilla annually, which however only made Atilla’s army stronger that despite their agreement, Atilla still invaded Eastern Roman territory but turned away when failing to besiege Constantinople‘s walls which already proved to be an effective defense system for the Byzantine capital. Theodosius II’s long rule came to an end when he died from a horse-riding accident in 450 and having no sons, he was succeeded by the general Marcian who married Theodosius II’s sister Pulcheria and as emperor, Marcian oversaw the major Church Council of Chalcedon in 451 and when dealing with the major threat of Atilla, he unlike Theodosius responded to it with force by sending armies to invade Atilla’s base in Central Europe itself which then contributed to Atilla’s downfall in 453. After Marcian’s death in 457, he was succeeded by Leo I the Thracian who being only a common soldier was appointed as emperor by Aspar, the powerful barbarian general serving the eastern empire who happened to be the actual power behind Marcian and Theodosius II before him. The story of the 5th century for the eastern empire then gets more exciting during Leo I’s reign (457-474) as Leo was someone who may have seemed unambitious and useless as an emperor being only a commoner by origin but as his rule progressed, he actually turned out to be ambitious yet ruthless with a strong desire to be independent that in 468 he launched a major invasion of the Vandal Kingdom of North Africa itself by sending 1,000 ships to punish the Vandals for sacking Rome in 455, though at the end this invasion failed but Leo I still succeeded in making himself an independent ruler with his own dynasty by killing off his power hungry puppet master Aspar in 471. Leo I was later succeeded by his son-in-law and general Zeno after Leo’s death in 474 and for me Zeno is one of the most interesting emperors of Byzantium and he is one of the reasons too why the 5th century makes 2nd place in this list.

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Zeno the Isaurian, Byzantine emperor (r. 474-475/ 476-491), art by myself

As for Zeno, he was originally an outsider as he was an Isaurian chief named Tarasis Kodisa coming from the people of the mountains of Asia Minor that the people of Constantinople saw as primitive and uncivilized and basically because of his origins, Zeno was not accepted by his people that his rule was challenged countless times by ambitious generals that one time between 475 and 476, Zeno was in fact completely overthrown by Leo I’s brother-in-law Basiliscus who Zeno later overthrew himself. In addition, Zeno was also the Eastern Roman emperor in 476, the year the Western Roman Empire was abolished, therefore Zeno became the first emperor to rule the Eastern Roman Empire as the sole Roman Empire and throughout his reign, his position and that of the empire was left very challenged both internally and externally and the biggest threat here happened to be the Ostrogoth Kingdom of the ambitious king Theodoric the Great, although Zeno succeeded in overcoming Theodoric by turning him away from Byzantium and instead having him invade Italy. Zeno at the end at least managed to die in 491 peacefully without being ousted from power again but more importantly he left the eastern empire more stable than how he had founded it, although Zeno with his wife Ariadne had no children so after Zeno’s death Ariadne married the finance minister Anastasius I who as the next emperor was even far more successful especially in the managing the economy. Now, I would put the 5th century as my 2nd place in this list not only for the Eastern Roman Empire’s story but for the combined stories of both Eastern and Western Roman empires as one, as the 5th century was crucial for both and even though the earlier part of the century for the Byzantines is not as interesting for me, the story of their twin western empire was and following the fall of the western empire in 476, it is the story of the east that becomes more exciting, therefore to sum it up this entire century was basically eventful and action-packed, although not the same way the 10th century was in terms of being totally action-packed every step of the way.

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Mosaics of the Galla Placidia Mausoleum in Ravenna, made in the 5th century

For both east and west, the 5th century saw so many memorable events of all kinds take place such as wars, religious debates and Church Councils, interesting emperors, bizarre stories such as men living above columns known as the Stylites, and cultural innovations including lavish construction projects in Constantinople from colorful mosaics to massive city walls. The more important part of the 5th century however was the drastic change of geography of the old Roman Empire into the several barbarian kingdoms of the Franks, Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Burgundians, Suebi, Vandals, and more, therefore this century being the transition of the Roman era into the Dark Ages for the west leaving Byzantium as the only Roman power left alive is a very crucial point in world history and thus because of how dramatic things had changed in this century, I consider it my 2nd favorite one out of the 12 centuries of Byzantium’s existence.  

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The 5th century land walls of Constantinople (Theodosian Land Walls), art by myself
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King Gaiseric and his Vandal army sack Rome, 455
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The world map after 476 with the Byzantine Empire (red) as the surviving Roman Empire

To learn more about Byzantium in the 5th century, read Chapter II of my Byzantine Alternate History series.

3. The 6th Century           

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Detailed map of the Byzantine Empire at its fullest extent under Justinian in 555 (gold)

If there was one century that everyone will come across when hearing about the Byzantine Empire which always features on general history books when briefly discussing Byzantium, this is the 6th century and this is because of no other than the reign of Byzantium’s most influential emperor Justinian I the Great (527-565) that took place here. The 6th century was then the first full century of the Byzantine Empire being the sole Roman Empire as previously mentioned, the Western Roman Empire came to an end in the previous 5th century, but it also happened that in the 6th century, the Eastern Roman Empire recovered the lands that were once part of the western empire although instead of restoring the old western empire, these lands came under the rule of the eastern empire from Constantinople.

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

Now, I would say that no doubt the 6th century is a very fascinating part of Byzantine history especially considering that the reign of Justinian I when all the century’s highlights took place was a long one lasting for a full 37 years. It is basically the reign of Justinian I (originally Flavius Petrus Sabbatius) that puts the 6th century in the top 3 of my list, as in his reign, almost every step of the way had a story to tell from the massive Nika riot in Constantinople that almost overthrew him in 532 which then had to be dealt with such brutality, to ambitious construction projects in Constantinople, loads of reforms, the devastating plague of 542 that wiped out so much of the empire’s including Constantinople’s population wherein Justinian himself was a victim of it but still survived, and so much more. In his reign, Justinian I had two major legacies that still live on up to this day and this includes his Code of Laws or Corpus Juris Civilis that still serves as the basis of most countries’ legal systems up to this day and the other one being no other than the impressive Hagia Sophia cathedral in Constantinople with its massive dome which did in fact only take 5 years (532-537) to build its structure, yet it is still intact up to this day. Another great legacy of Justinian I were his ambitious military campaigns to reconquer the lands that were once part of the Western Roman Empire in order to bring them back to Roman rule and in his reign, Justinian I managed to reconquer all the entire Vandal Kingdom of North Africa, all of Italy from the Ostrogoth Kingdom, and Southern Spain from the Visigoths, and the even more fascinating thing about this was that first Justinian conquered by intervening in their political struggles and that Justinian himself did not have to go himself to any of these campaigns but just stay in the palace. Other than his conquests, Justinian I was also known to have had made contact with parts of the world very distant to the Roman sphere of influence such as Sub-Saharan Africa wherein he had sent Christian missionaries to and China wherein he sent monks to learn the secret of silk making which resulted in the monks smuggling silkworms from China leading to the creation of silks in Byzantium itself.

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Court of Emperor Justinian I and Empress Theodora

Another thing that made Justinian I’s reign very eventful were the people behind his rule which included his wife Empress Theodora, the finance minister John the Cappadocian who managed to make the empire’s economy a strong and wealthy one, the jurist Tribonian who was responsible for codifying Roman law of the past thus creating the famous code of laws, the architects Anthemius of Tralles and Isidore of Miletus who were responsible for the building of great structures like the Hagia Sophia, the historian Procopius who gives us a very detailed source of this time, and the generals Belisarius and Narses who were responsible for expanding the empire through war in the years-long conquests of North Africa and Italy. By the time Justinian I died in 565, the Byzantine Empire was a very massive one basically covering the entire Mediterranean stretching west to east from Southern Spain all the way to Syria and north to south from the Crimean Peninsula of Ukraine all the way down to Egypt, but with all the wars and plague that had brought too much damage by killing off a large number of people and severely weakening the economy, this massive empire would soon enough prove to be too difficult to manage considering how large it was, therefore making it exposed to future invaders as well.

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Emperor Justinian I of Byzantium and Shah Khosrow I of the Sassanid Empire, by Justinianus

Another thing that makes Justinian’s reign more action-packed therefore putting more story into the 6th century was Byzantium’s chronic war with its traditional enemy in the east which was the Sassanid Persian Empire which during Justinian’s reign was ruled by Shah Khosrow I, an equally ambitious ruler who despite being paid off by Justinian to not attack in order for the Byzantines to focus on their conquests in the west still attacked Byzantine borders from time to time. On the other hand, the 6th century had a lot more than just Justinian I’s reign and these were the events before and after his long reign, although I would say it is only Justinian I’s reign that makes the 6th century a very interesting one for me as the events before and after it were still dramatic ones but do not fascinate me much.

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Anastasius I Dicorus, Byzantine emperor (r. 491-518), art by Amelianvs

Anyway, the events that had taken place before Justinian I came to power in 527 were not as exciting but very important especially in setting the stage for Justinian’s epic projects to expand the empire as first of all, the emperor who ruled at the beginning of the century which was Anastasius I- the successor of Zeno- was responsible for strengthening and enriching the economy with his smart economic policies which later made Justinian’s ambitious projects possible, and though Anastasius I’s empire was already threatened by the Sassanids in the east, the Byzantines were still able to successfully fight them. Anastasius I died in 518 at the age of 87 leaving the empire’s economy strong and rich, but the problem was that he did not have a clear succession plan by having no sons, so instead he was succeeded by the commander of the palace guard Justin I who was Justinian’s uncle and even though Justin I as emperor coming from humble origins was illiterate, he was able to still rule well especially in protecting the Orthodox faith of the empire, therefore gaining the support of the pope in Rome, although behind Justin I’s power was really his nephew Justinian who in 527 succeeded his uncle following his death. On the other hand, the latter part of the 6th century following Justinian I’s death in 565 was for me more or less disappointing especially to see how all the hard work of Justinian to expand his empire disappeared when new barbarian invaders came in such as the Lombards who in 568 just 3 years after Justinian’s death invaded Italy making their own kingdom only just a few years after the Byzantine reconquest of it from the Ostrogoths was completed, while in the Balkans new invaders such as the Slavs and Avars appeared, and in the east the war against the traditional enemy the Sassanid Empire under Shah Khosrow I intensified.

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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

The more disappointing part however after Justinian I’s death was that his successors were not as capable as he was, and this included his nephew and immediate successor Justin II who without a clear solution but also having a weakened economy decided to stop paying tribute to the empire’s neighbors including the Sassanids which then made things only worse as seen when the Byzantines started losing a lot of lands to them. The mistake at the latter part of the 6th century however happened to be that the empire left behind by Justinian I was so large and defending so many borders proved to be so difficult that Justin II ended up turning insane that in 574 he had to abdicate passing the throne to his palace guard commander who then became Emperor Tiberius II who however proved to be a much more capable emperor than Justin II before him. Although Tiberius II was a competent emperor, he still could not solve all the empire’s problems at the same time so while he was busy continuing the war against the Sassanids in the east, the Balkans were left exposed therefore allowing the Avars and their Slav allies to invade it, while at the same time he too lacked enthusiasm in ruling.

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Maurice, Byzantine emperor (r. 582-602)

After his death in 582, Tiberius II was succeeded by his general and son-in-law Maurice who was a far more competent emperor than his two predecessors, and as emperor Maurice set a new standard for emperors to personally lead the army in battle himself, therefore he spent most of his reign campaigning against the Sassanids in the east and against the Avars and Slavs in the Balkans. Although he was a capable general, Maurice was weak in economic policy but at least he still managed to solve the problem of having provinces very distant from Constantinople which were Italy and North Africa in which he made them semi-independent provinces known as Exarchates where their own rulers somewhat ruled independently except still answering to the emperor in Constantinople. Now, what I would say makes the 6th century a very fascinating one is that it had a lot of exciting moments especially in warfare as the Byzantines at this time were fighting a variety of enemies from the powerful organized armies of the Sassanids, to the barbarian kingdoms of Western Europe, and even the nomadic people of the steppes such as the Avars, Huns, and Bulgars while at the same time they also made contact with distant lands like China, and it was also a century of great cultural innovations especially seen with the ambitious projects of the Hagia Sophia and a lot of structures around the empire including the mosaics of Ravenna in Italy. Although the 6th century had a lot of moments that I find very exciting and dramatic, not all of it was, as this century also had a lot to do with religious controversies especially between the Orthodox, Arian, and Monophysite faiths and a lot about economics as well which I don’t find very fascinating, but overall the 6th century was still one with so much happening and drama which is why I consider it as my 3rd favorite.

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World Map, 555AD, Byzantium under Justinian I (purple)
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Mosaic of Emperor Justinian I with his generals Belisarius and Narses, Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna
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The Hagia Sophia, built under Justinian I
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Massacre of the 30,000 at the Hippodrome ending the Nika Riot, 532
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The Plague of Justinian hits Constantinople, 542
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The Byzantine Empire in 600 (green) and Sassanid Empire (orange)

To learn more about Byzantium in the 6th century, read Chapter III of my Byzantine Alternate History series.

4. The 13th Century          

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Map of the aftermath of the Byzantine Empire after its fall to the 4th Crusade in 1204

Despite the 13th century being the century wherein the Byzantine Empire disappeared for half of it (1204-1261), I still count it as one of my favorites for a number of reasons. The 13th century was one of if not the most turbulent time for the empire and also the beginning of its end as when the century began, the terrible 4th Crusade that was aimed at the Byzantine Empire was launched which in 1204 managed to capture Constantinople itself, thus temporarily ending Byzantine rule establishing the new Latin Empire with Constantinople as its capital.

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Seal of the Latin Empire of Constantinople (1204-1261)

Following the fall of Constantinople to the Latin (Western European) army of the 4th Crusade, the geography of what was once the Byzantine Empire totally changed as Constantinople and it surroundings fell under the Latin Empire, Greece fell under various Latin nobles from the west, Crete and a number of islands to the rule of the Republic of Venice, while the Byzantine people as well divided themselves once their capital fell thus creating their own separate states including the Despotate of Epirus in Western Greece, the Empire of Nicaea in Western Asia Minor, and the Empire of Trebizond along the Black Sea coast in the far eastern corner of Asia Minor. Among the 3 successor Byzantine states which were the Empires of Nicaea and Trebizond, as well as the Despotate of Epirus, it was the Empire of Nicaea that was the most successful of them, therefore it remained as the legitimate successor state of the Byzantine Empire, so basically the story of Byzantium for half of the 13th century was the story of the successor state of the Empire of Nicaea. What I find very fascinating about the 57-year period of the Byzantine Empire in exile as the Empire of Nicaea in the 13th century was that despite them being so fatally defeated that they even lost their capital to the Crusaders, the Byzantines still had it in them to rise up again and one day direct their attention to reclaim their capital. Even in its earliest days, the Empire of Nicaea under its first ruler Theodore I Laskaris from 1205 to his death in 1221 already came up with a clear plan to put the pieces back together and form a state strong enough to one day make an attempt to reclaim the old capital and doing this required a lot of hard work, alliances, and good timing.

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Emperor John III Doukas Vatatzes of Nicaea/ Byzantium (r. 1222-1254)

The real success for the empire of Nicaea however came during the reign of John III Doukas Vatatzes (1222-1254), Theodore I’s successor and son-in-law and as the emperor of Nicaea, John III was able to make the exiled Byzantium as powerful as it was when the Byzantines still held Constantinople by turning the tide of war against Byzantium’s Latin occupiers as true enough the Latin Empire of Constantinople had turned out to be a failed state, also John III gave his people a time of peace and economic growth. John III in fact almost succeeded in recapturing Constantinople in 1235 with assistance from the 2nd Bulgarian Empire’s tsar Ivan Asen II but failed in doing so when mistrust erupted between them but also when seeing that they had no way to break into the walls. The rest of John III’s military campaigns were mostly successful especially against the rival Byzantine power of the Despotate of Epirus that he was able to successfully reclaim the city of Thessaloniki from them, but other than military campaigns John III invested heavily in promoting Greek culture in the exiled Byzantine Empire of Nicaea that his reign would begin what would be the Greek cultural revival of Byzantium as well as the birth of the medieval Greek identity. Though John III ruled somewhat with an iron fist, he was also a well-loved ruler and that when he died in 1254, he was mourned by almost all his subjects, though the sad part about his death was that he was not able to live long enough to see Constantinople back in Byzantine hands. John III’s son and successor Theodore II Laskaris however only ruled for 4 years (1254-1258) and was not as successful as his father, while also did not prioritize the reconquest of Constantinople, although after his sudden death in 1258 the Empire of Nicaea was taken over by the ambitious noble and Theodore II’s greatest rival Michael Palaiologos who made his message clear to everyone which was to take back Constantinople from the Latins. The Empire of Nicaea’s army was then able to successfully recover Constantinople from the Latins in 1261 by surprise when attacking at the dead night, but to their surprise, most of the Latin army was away, therefore the Latin Empire came to an end and the Byzantine Empire was restored as Constantinople was recaptured. Now, again what makes the 13th century a fascinating one for me were the stories of the two strong emperors that dominated this century which were John III Vatatzes who ruled the exiled Empire of Nicaea for a full 32 years and Michael VIII Palaiologos who finally managed to recapture Constantinople in 1261 and restore the Byzantine Empire after 57 years of disappearance, and what both rulers had in common was that they persisted and made Byzantium persist despite the challenging times.

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Emperor Michael VIII Palaiologos of Byzantium (r. 1261-1282), painting by myself

As for Michael VIII, despite restoring the Byzantine Empire, he faced so many difficulties immediately after taking back Constantinople. In Michael VIII’s 21-year reign (1261-1282), the restored Byzantium was threatened on all sides by various enemies including the Turks and Mongols, as well as the still surviving Latin powers in Greece established back in 1204 following the 4th Crusade and the rival Despotate of Epirus too that still continued to pose a threat to them even if the Empire of Nicaea became the Byzantine Empire again, although the most dangerous threat to Michael VIII’s restored empire was the new ambitious French king of Sicily Charles of Anjou who took over Sicily in 1266 and from there made it his goal to launch another invasion on Byzantium with the ultimate goal to take Constantinople back from the Latins. Now what makes Michael VIII an interesting character was that he was someone that would do all it took to save his empire especially through diplomacy even if there were dirty tactics involved such as turning against his allies and paying off people to rise up in rebellion known as the “Sicilian Vespers” which was in fact how he managed to get the ultimate threat of Charles of Anjou away from him as before Michael’s death in 1282, he paid off the people of Sicily to rebel against their French overlord Charles of Anjou which then succeeded in overthrowing the French overlords who were replaced by the Spanish Kingdom of Aragon, an ally of Michael VIII. On the other hand, Michael VIII’s may have ruled with an iron fist too much with very rash decisions such as his attempts to submit Byzantium to the pope in order to be allies with the rest of Western Europe, although this created such unrest among his proud Orthodox subjects which caused Michael to lose so much of his popularity.

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Emperor Michael VIII Palaiologos of Byzantium

Michael VIII however responded with such brutality to all those that opposed his policy to reunite the Byzantine Church with the Latin Catholic Church that he imprisoned and even executed many of his subjects for opposing it, but at the end his intentions were still good which was to save his empire even if this would mean taking the greatest of risks such as submitting to the more powerful Latin Church despite great opposition by his people as he believed that it would be only by joining forces with their enemy being the western world that Byzantium could be saved. Basically for me, it is just John III’s and Michael VIII’s reigns that I find fascinating about the 13th century and the rest not so, though for me, the last years of the 13th century happen to be nothing more but disappointing as Michael VIII’s son and successor Andronikos II Palaiologos who ruled in the last years of the 13th century was a nothing much but a weak and incompetent emperor, although Michael VIII was in fact also to blame for leaving behind to his son such a troubled and bankrupt Byzantium, as in his reign Michael VIII had spent so much on war and bribing other powers to not attack while also by putting too much attention on the west and the Balkans, he neglected Byzantium’s borders in their heartland which was Asia Minor, therefore by the time Andronikos II came to power, he would have to face the consequences of his father’s decisions and over-spending. On the other hand, the 13th century was one of the periods in Byzantine history that I put a lot of attention to that I in fact made two major Lego films set in this era focusing on important events of the century and these films include Summer of 1261 (2019) focusing on the Byzantine reconquest of 1261 and War of the Sicilian Vespers (2020) focusing on the conflict in Sicily which the Byzantines assisted the Sicilians in overthrowing their French overlords in 1282.     

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Constantinople falls to the 4th Crusade, 1204
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Byzantine Reconquest of Constantinople from the Latins in 1261, art by FaisalHashemi
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Map of the restored Byzantine Empire in 1261 (yellow)
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Rebellion of the Sicilian Vespers, 1282

5. The 11th Century              

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

The 11th century was no doubt one of the most action-packed centuries in Byzantine Empire which saw it be at its height of power when the century began then all of a sudden drastically fall from it, therefore the Crisis of the 11th Century comes in, although this century again ends with Byzantium strong again, therefore the 11th century is the one century which shows the usual pattern of Byzantium going up then down then up again in terms of power and influence.

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Emperor Basil II the “Bulgar-Slayer” (r. 976-1025)

The 11th century began with the Byzantine Empire under Emperor Basil II of the Macedonian Dynasty as the dominant power of Eastern Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean in the Middle Ages and following the ultimate Byzantine conquest of the Bulgarian Empire in 1018, Byzantium and its army was feared by all that no one would dare attack Byzantium or else suffer the same fate as Bulgaria. The period of great power and influence Byzantium had held over the world however did not last long as after Basil II’s death in 1025 it would be all downhill from here despite Byzantium still being a massive empire that covered the entire Balkans going east all the way to Armenia while in the west still keeping most of Southern Italy. The downfall of Byzantium following Basil II’s death in 1025 was also due to how large the empire stretched making it already impossible to maintain a large enough army to defend all its borders although things still would have been better even if Byzantium held a large amount of territory if they had better leaders in the 11th century, but unfortunately the Byzantines did not. Most of the emperors that succeeded Basil II were weak rulers that tolerated having a corrupt court run by scheming eunuchs while a number of ambitious generals from powerful military aristocratic families many times rebelled and tried to claim the throne. Now while corruption reigned in mid-11th century Byzantium and so did economic problems that for the first time in their 700 years of history their standard gold coin or the Solidus was devalued, new and unexpected enemies came into contact with the Byzantines and these included the Normans in Italy which were just mercenaries that the Byzantines happened to underestimate as true enough it turned out they were there in Italy to stay and conquer it while in the east, a new power arose which the Byzantines never saw coming and this was the empire of the Seljuk Turks who the Byzantines first battled with in 1048 although still defeating the Seljuks.

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Seljuk Turks ride from the steppes into Asia Minor

In 1056, the long-ruling Macedonian Dynasty came to an end with the death of the last Macedonian ruler Theodora, the niece of Basil II and what followed her death was some political instability until 1057 when the strongman emperor Isaac I Komnenos came to rule the empire promising to return it to its military glory in the time of Basil II, although Isaac I’s reign ended too soon as he abdicated in 1059 due to illness leaving the throne to an unworthy successor which was Constantine X Doukas who made the worst decision ever in disbanding the eastern army to save up on funds right when the Seljuks were threatening Byzantium’s eastern borders. After Constantine X’s death in 1067, his wife Empress Eudokia married the capable general Romanos Diogenes who in 1068 became Emperor Romanos IV right when the Seljuks made constant riads into the Byzantine heartland which was Asia Minor without orders from their leader the sultan Alp Arslan. In 1071, Romanos IV tired of the Seljuks raiding the empire declared war on them even if their sultan Alp Arslan’s intention was never to really fully invade Byzantium but just take a part of it in order to gain access to conquer his ultimate goal which was Egypt.

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Defeat and capture of Romanos IV by the Seljuks, 1071

The forces of Romanos IV and Alp Arslan clashed at the fatal Battle of Manzikert in 1071 in which Romanos IV was defeated and captured although spared but when returning to Constantinople, he was betrayed as the imperial court declared him deposed therefore replacing him with his stepson Michael VII Doukas. Romanos IV was then blinded in 1072 dying shortly after although the next emperor Michael VII proved to be a very incompetent one, and due to his weak leadership, a number of ambitious generals rose up to claim the throne and with all this chaos, Norman mercenaries turned warlords created their own states in Byzantine Asia Minor itself while the Seljuks due to their victory at Manzikert freely raided and occupied lands in Byzantine Asia Minor. Michael VII eventually abdicated in 1078 and was replaced by Emperor Nikephoros III Botaneiates who was in fact much worse as due to his old age, he could not really do anything to save the empire from deteriorating that almost all of Asia Minor already fell under Seljuk rule, though in 1081 Nikephoros III was ousted from power by the much young and ambitious general Alexios Komnenos, nephew of the previous emperor Isaac I, and as emperor Alexios I promised to restore the empire to its greatness once more.

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Emperor Alexios I Komnenos (r. 1081-1118)

Alexios I began his reign fighting off a Norman invasion finally defeating it by 1085, then in 1091 he defeated a massive Pecheneg invasion. The 11th century ends with Alexios I calling for military assistance from Western Europe to help him reclaim Asia Minor from the Seljuks, but in return he got the First Crusade which was never really loyal to him, though at the end despite the Crusaders claiming for themselves lands in the Middle East, they at least pushed back the Seljuks relieving Alexios I and Byzantium from its ultimate extinction. Now, I would say that the 11th century featured so many events that were not only crucial for Byzantium but for world history in general such as the Byzantine conquest of Bulgaria in 1018 and the significant defeat the Byzantine army faced at Manzikert which then turns out to be the most significant turning point of this century, as this defeat exposed that the once feared and all-powerful Byzantine army was in fact vulnerable, but this defeat that also led to the Seljuk occupation of Asia Minor more importantly led to the Crusades to become a thing which would be the major story for the next 2 centuries in world history. It is because this century had such crucial events such as the Battle of Manzikert in 1071 and the Great Schism before that in 1054 which finally separated Byzantium from the west culturally and spiritually that I find this century very fascinating, but also because it featured a lot of epic battles and the famous Varangian Guard consisting of Nordic mercenaries serving in Byzantium protecting its emperor. On the other hand, unlike the 10th century that preceded it, the 11th century was not all action-packed and memorable every step of the way, but instead had a number of exciting yet suspenseful moments such as of course Manzikert and a lot of other battles before it but it also had its share of disappointing moments especially its repetitive cycle of having one incompetent emperor after the other wherein one able emperor comes in between them but does not stay too long, while this century also featured a lot of economics and religious struggles again which makes it have some not so interesting parts for me. The 11th century however was one of the few centuries in Byzantine history that was action-packed from beginning to end despite a few dull and disappointing moments in between, which why I still consider it one of the more purely fascinating ones in Byzantine history but still not one of my plainly most fascinating ones.

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Empresses Zoe (left) and Theodora (right) in the palace, art by Eldr-Fire
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Painting of the fateful Battle of Manzikert between the Byzantines and Seljuks, 1071
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Map of the expansion of the Seljuk Turks and their empire (yellow), in the 11th century
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The First Crusade, 1095-1099
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Emperor Alexios I Komnenos, art by Diogos_tales

To learn more about Byzantium in the 11th century, read Chapter VIII of my Byzantine Alternate History series.

 

6. The 4th Century               

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Map of the Roman Empire under Constantine I, 330

The 4th century is considered to be the first century in the history of Byzantium as this was when Constantinople was founded as the Roman Empire’s new capital by the Roman emperor Constantine I the Great, however the real history of the Eastern Roman Empire being the Byzantine Empire only begins in 395 where the 4th century ends, therefore the rest of the 4th century more or less is just the introduction period to the actual main body of Byzantine history that fully begins in the 5th century following it. Although since the 4th century still counts as part of Byzantine history basically because this was when Constantinople was founded and had become the new capital of the Roman Empire, I am putting it on this list. Now the 4th century as I would say was more or less a very eventful one filled with exciting, action-packed, and even dramatic moments which then makes it for me a very fascinating one, although I am only placing it on #6 of this list because as I mentioned earlier it is not really part of the main history of Byzantium and therefore still more or less part of the history of the original Roman Empire before Byzantium, but also because for some reason the history of the 4th century has many gaps as it is only the important events here that are mostly recorded, therefore I cannot appreciate it as much as the other centuries. From beginning to end, the 4th century had a lot of significant moments as when the century began, the Roman Empire was still under the experiment known as the Tetrarchy with 4 divided parts ruled by 4 different emperors which seemed to do well until 305 when this system’s founder Emperor Diocletian retired, therefore creating chaos leading into civil war as a result of the other rulers of this system wanting more land and power.

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Roman emperor Constantine I the Great (r. 306-337), founder of Constantinople

The empire was then thrown into chaos until one of the rulers of the Tetrarchy which was the western emperor Constantine I defeated all his rivals over the span of 18 years (306-324), and by 324 after fighting an on-and-off civil war against all his imperial rivals in the western and eastern portions of the empire, he became the sole ruler of the Roman Empire deciding to turn the backwater port town of Byzantium along the Bosporus Sea between Asia and Europe as the Roman Empire’s new capital seeing it as a strategic location, and in only 6 years the small port town was transformed into an imperial capital which was inaugurated in 330. Constantine I known as “the Great” of course had made a lot more of achievements than founding Constantinople and therefore the Byzantine Empire and restructuring the Roman army, and a lot of his major achievements had to do with making Christianity the dominant but not official religion of the Roman Empire as in 313 he issued the Edict of Milan that finally gave toleration to Christians after centuries of persecution, then in 325 Constantine I organized the First Church Council at Nicaea that formally set the official doctrine for Christianity and condemned the teachings of Arianism as heresy, though it was only shortly before his death 337 that Constantine I was baptized as a Christian.

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Council of Nicaea, 325

Although Constantine I ruled the entire Roman Empire alone, after his death the empire was divided among his 3 sons that were basically all at odds with each other and at the end, only the middle son Constantius II ruling from Constantinople survived his two brothers therefore ruling the whole empire alone until his death in 361 and without any son to succeed him, Constantius II passed the throne to his younger cousin Julian despite not trusting him. Julian’s 2-year reign (361-363) was one of the most interesting moments of the 4th century as he was the last Roman emperor willing to return to the glory days of Ancient Pagan Rome that he in fact was a Pagan himself although he did not rule long enough to achieve his goal to return the empire to its glory days of the past as in 363, he was killed in battle against the Sassanid Persian Empire while campaigning in the Sassanid heartland itself.

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Emperor Julian (r. 361-363), art by Amelianvs

The Roman army however survived and returned to empire and in 364, a new emperor came to power establishing a new dynasty which was the soldier Valentinian I who when coming to power split the empire in half with him ruling the western half and his younger brother Valens ruling the eastern half from Constantinople. Valentinian I the Great ruled successfully managing to defeat a number of barbarian tribes invading the western half but in 375 he died from a burst blood vessel caused by his own anger while failing to negotiate with barbarian tribal leaders at the empire’s Danube border. Meanwhile, the eastern half of the Roman Empire ruled by Valens, a sudden massive migration of barbarian Goths poured into the eastern half’s Danube border in 376 which later proved to be too uncontrollable by Roman authorities in the Balkans leading to war against the Goths resulting in the Roman army defeated by the Goths at the Battle of Adrianople in 378 wherein Valens himself was killed. The death of Valens and the victory of the Goths put the eastern half of the empire into chaos without any emperor sitting in Constantinople until the next year came when the general Theodosius came to power as the Eastern Roman emperor and in his reign, he focused on containing the pillaging Goths which he succeeded in except that he was only able to take care of the problem only by allowing the Goths to settle within the empire as Foederati or defeated soldiers forced to serve their conquerors in exchange for being kept alive.

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Emperor Theodosius I the Great (r. 379-395)

As emperor, Theodosius I known as “the Great” being a devout Christian prioritized making Christianity the empire’s dominant religion and true enough in 380 he declared Nicene Christianity which was established back in 325 as the official religion of the Roman Empire and began persecuting those who opposed it. Theodosius I too had dealt with two large civil wars in his reign in which he managed to defeat both and after defeating the second one in 394, he became once more the sole ruler of the whole Roman empire except only for a few months as in early 395 he died permanently dividing the empire in half leaving his older son Arcadius to rule the eastern half which was the Byzantine Empire and the younger son Honorius to rule the western half. Now, the 4th century more or less was full of exciting and memorable moments in different fields especially in warfare as it featured important and climactic battles whether in Roman civil wars such as the Battle of Milvian Bridge in 312 and Frigidus in 394 or in battles against barbarians such as Strasbourg in 357 and Adrianople in 378 while at the same time, it was a very crucial period especially for the history of Christianity as this was when it first became both a dominant faith and an official state religion. Although, the 4th century had a lot of important and exciting moments, it was only known for major moments and nothing much in between which is why I place it as #6 on this list which is in fact not very low, but even though this century may just be one notable for important events, it was still a very crucial one in world history as it saw the transition of what was Classical Ancient Rome into the Byzantine era as well as the era of Christendom, therefore I would say that this century would be most fascinating to Roman history enthusiasts, especially if they want to be introduced to Ancient Rome’s continuation which is Byzantium.

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Constantinople, Eastern Roman Imperial capital, founded in 330
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Constantine I civil war victory at the Battle of Milvian Bridge, 312
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The Roman Empire divided among Constantine I’s sons Constantine II, Constans I, and Constantius II following Constantine I’s death, 337
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Emperor Valentinian I (r. 364-375, center) with his Palatini legions, art by Amelianvs
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Defeat of the Romans to the Goths at the Battle of Adrianople, 378
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The Roman Empire divided between east (purple) given to Arcadius and west (red) given to Honorius at Theodosius I’s death in 395
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Map of all Barbarian invasions into the Roman Empire, 100-500AD

To learn more about Byzantium in the 4th century, read Chapter I of my Byzantine Alternate History series.

7. The 12th Century         

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Map of the Byzantine Empire (red) during the reign of Manuel I Komnenos (1143-1180)

The 12th century is often remembered as the century of the Crusades wherein Byzantium did in fact play a major role in it, as true enough before the century began the Byzantine emperor Alexios I Komnenos requested military aid from Western Europe to help him drive away the Seljuk Turk occupiers from the Byzantine heartland Asia Minor but in return what he got was the First Crusade.

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Coat of Arms of Byzantium under the Komnenos Dynasty

The Crusader army that came to aid Byzantium may have not kept their word in returning the lands they conquered to Byzantium and instead claimed these lands as their own but in return the Byzantines simply allow this to pass, therefore the 12th century was another period of Byzantium’s revival while also a challenging time as the empire had to battle different enemies on sides such as the Crusaders, Seljuks, Normans, and Hungarians. Most of the 12th century was then defined by what was the “Komnenian Restoration” which was a period of the Byzantine Empire’s revival in military and cultural power after it had lost most of it in the previous century due to the 11th century crisis and the catastrophic Battle of Manzikert in 1071, and most of the efforts to restore the empire to the old glory it had during the late 10th century and early 11th century were due to the reigns of 3 consecutive long-reigning strong visionary emperors in a straight line of succession which were Alexios I (1081-1118), his son John II (1118-1143), and his son Manuel I (1143-1180). These 3 Komnenos emperors may have had a strong vision to restore the empire, although their policies to revive the empire’s glory were a bit too ambitious, required so much funds, but also involved bullying other nations to submit to the authority of Byzantium as was seen with the new Crusader states in which these emperors demanded a lot from them including forcing them to pay tribute and to recognize Byzantium as their overlords, while the same thing too can be said to how the Komnenos emperors acted towards the Kingdom of Hungary. In the Byzantine Empire itself, the 3 long-reigning Komnenos emperors did in fact do a lot to restore the invincible power of the Byzantine army, strengthen the economy, and reclaim most of Asia Minor which was in the previous century lost to the Seljuks.

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Emperor John II Komnenos of Byzantium (r. 1118-1143)

Alexios I’s son and successor John II mostly spent his 25-year reign away from the capital in military campaigns against Hungary in the Balkans and the Seljuks in Asia Minor, although his reign also saw the new age of revival for the empire take shape. John II’s son Manuel I meanwhile did the same ambitious projects as his father and grandfather did before him, except that he was far more ambitious that his constant wars throughout his 37-year reign drained the empire’s funds. Manuel I just like Justinian I in the 6th century put all his attention to restoring the empire and again reconquering the west which they have lost which in his reign was seen with his attempt to reconquer Italy which however failed.

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Emperor Manuel I Komnenos of Byzantium (r. 1143-1180)

Manuel I’s over ambitious campaigns and spending would also later on cause the downfall of the empire and therefore the end of the Komnenian restoration and part of the reasons that caused the downfall of his dynasty and of the empire was his decision to have war with their ally Venice which then only made Byzantium and Venice bitter enemies for the next centuries to come, while at the same time Manuel I was also too fascinated with the culture of Western Europe that he even tried introducing it to Byzantine society which at the end did not work out well, therefore only causing division among his people. The most disappointing part however was that in 1176, the Byzantines again suffered a heavy defeat to the Seljuk army in Asia Minor therefore ending this age of restoration, thus Manuel I in 1180 died without seeing his dreams achieved but the worst part that was to come was that his son and successor Alexios II was only a child therefore under the regency of his mother Empress Maria of Antioch who was unpopular due to her western heritage that her regency caused internal conflict in the empire which resulted in the empress and her son the emperor overthrown and executed by Manuel I’s anti-western cousin who became Emperor Andronikos I Komnenos.

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Emperor Andronikos I Komnenos of Byzantium (r. 1183-1185), art by Skamandros

The new emperor Andronikos I turned out to be nothing but a bloody and paranoid ruler that just ruled out revenge executing, torturing, and exiling everyone who was associated with the previous regime of his cousin Manuel I who he hated, but at the end Andronikos I too had met a bloody end in 1185 being tortured to death by the people that put him in power 3 years earlier as they switched their support to his relative, the young charismatic politician Isaac Angelos who then became emperor following this revolution. The new emperor Isaac II Angelos however was not what his people expected as rather than being the strong ruler promising to save the empire from collapse, he was one ruler that again faced so many difficulties on all sides especially usurping generals that questioned his legitimacy as they too saw he was unfit.

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Emperor Isaac II Angelos of Byzantium (r. 1185-1195/ 1203-1204)

Isaac II however still had still managed to drive off a large Norman invasion of Byzantine Greece in 1185 but unfortunately this was only one of his few successes as the rest of his reign was filled with disaster and some of it caused by his own inept policies such as the Bulgarian uprising of 1185 that led to the breaking away of Bulgaria from Byzantium once again thus creating the 2nd Bulgarian Empire which was mostly due to Isaac II’s heavy taxation allegedly to pay for his lavish wedding ceremony while he too dealt with the arrival of the 3rd Crusade in Byzantium terribly by being skeptical about letting them through which at the end did not solve anything but instead only led to conflict with the Crusaders. Isaac II however at least knew he was responsible for creating such trouble including the Bulgarians’ declaration of independence that Isaac II in fact made many attempts to take back Bulgaria with force which however failed many times, but when finally launching a massive invasion to finally reclaim Bulgaria in 1195, Isaac II unfortunately did not succeed as he was overthrown and blinded by his jealous older brother who then became the next emperor Alexios III Angelos who proved to be even more incompetent than his brother, thus putting Byzantium down a path that will lead to its temporary collapse in 1204 when Constantinople was captured by the Crusaders. Now, I would say that the 12th century was in fact a very eventful and exciting one though I still do not consider it as one of my top picks as for me it is really a mixed century with equally fascinating but also equally disappointing moments. The part I find interesting and worth talking about for the 12th century is definitely the earlier part of it with the empire undergoing a time of restoration under the rules of the 3 ambitious and competent Komnenos emperors Alexios I, John II, and Manuel I, while the second half for me is nothing more but disappointing especially to see all the greatness of the empire fade away through a series of incompetent rulers including Andronikos I, Isaac II, and Alexios III. It is basically for the reason that this century that was supposed to be defined by the age of the restoration of Byzantium’s imperial glory ended so disappointingly why I don’t count this century as one of my favorites, but since it was one that had a lot of excitement including battles, political intrigues, and most importantly more significant contact made between Byzantium and the western world mostly because of the Crusades, this century is still something that fascinates me a lot when talking about the entire history of Byzantium in general.

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Byzantine defeat to the Seljuks at the Battle of Myriokephalon, 1176
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Isaac II Angelos’ rise to power, 1185

8. The 15th Century          

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Map of the reduced Byzantine Empire in 1450 (purple)

The 15th century being the last century of the Byzantine Empire’s existence is best defined by one event which was the Fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans in 1453 with the epic siege of Constantinople, so basically the 15th century story of Byzantium was only half a century as in the second half of it, the Byzantine Empire was already gone. Now, I would say that the 15th century was very exciting and eventful in different parts of the world as by this point the kingdoms of Europe were already much more powerful than they were in the past centuries but for Byzantium it was the other way around as instead of the major power it was when the rest of Europe was still forming, Byzantium was now the one weak and reduced and by the time the 15th century began, Byzantium was basically just Constantinople and its surroundings as well as a few Aegean islands and the region of Southeast Greece known as the Morea.

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Flag of the Ottoman Empire in the 15th century

In the region of where the Byzantine Empire was however, the main story was no longer Byzantium but the rapid expansion of the Ottoman Empire into Europe that already sent shockwaves to the kingdoms of Western Europe to fight them back considering that the Ottomans from being a small power just a century ago was able to defeat and conquer both Serbian and Bulgarian Empires. The reduced and dying Byzantine Empire meanwhile in the 15th century was just a backwater state entirely surrounded by the Ottomans that it was only going to be a matter of time that the capital Constantinople itself would be captured by the Ottomans therefore finishing off Byzantium for good.

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Emperor Manuel II Palaiologos (r. 1391-1425) with his family

Fortunately the last emperors that ruled Byzantium in the 15th century which were Manuel II Palaiologos (1391-1425) and his son John VIII Palaiologos (1425-1448) were competent rulers that still managed to keep the Ottomans away and still keep their dying empire alive and a lot of their success in keeping Byzantium alive despite being surrounded by the Ottomans was through diplomacy and true enough both Manuel II and John VIII made several trips to Europe asking for financial aid and alliances from various rulers there. John VIII in 1448 however died without any sons to succeed him and so it was his younger brother that succeeded him as Emperor Constantine XI Palaiologos in 1449 who was then the last Byzantine emperor.

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Emperor Constantine XI Palaiologos (r. 1449-1453), the last Byzantine emperor

In 1451, just 2 years after Constantine XI came to power, the young Mehmed II came to power as the Ottoman Empire’s sultan and he had the ultimate goal to begin his reign by conquering Constantinople to get it out of the way in order to push through with the complete Ottoman conquest of the Balkans. In 1453, Mehmed II thought of asking Constantine XI to simply surrender Constantinople to him without a fight so that the Ottomans could already take their ultimate prize in exchange for Constantine XI to be spared, but Constantine XI not wanting to shamefully surrender his city refused and so the Ottomans laid siege to Constantinople which lasted for 2 months. The Byzantines and their western allies defending the walls however fought bravely and resisted for 2 months strait but at the end they proved to be outnumbered and the Ottomans having more advanced weapons such as cannons were finally able to break through the 1,000-year-old walls of Constantinople for the first time and on May 29 of 1453, the last Byzantine emperor vanished in battle while the victorious Ottomans took over Constantinople making it their empire’s new capital, thus ending the 1,123-year history of Byzantium.

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Ottoman sultan Mehmed II captures Constantinople, 1453

On the other hand, Byzantine history did not yet fully end in 1453 as the other parts of the empire still under Byzantine hands resisted but in 1460 Mehmed II was able to capture the last Byzantine holding in Greece which was the Morea held by Constantine XI’s brothers and in 1461 Mehmed II too conquered the last remaining Byzantine break-away state which was the Empire of Trebizond founded back in 1204 in the eastern edge of Asia Minor along the Black Sea, thus this event in 1461 marked the final end of the Byzantine story. Now I would say that the 15th century was a very action-packed one with all the battles with the Ottomans but also a very tragic one considering it was the end of Byzantium and true enough the siege and fall of Constantinople was no doubt this century’s biggest story and one of my all-time favorite moments in Byzantine history as it showed the Byzantine Empire not ending quietly but with a bang. However, it is only the Fall of Constantinople in 1453 that I consider the only major highlight of the century while the rest of the events were not as memorable for me especially seeing how the Byzantine Empire grew to be so insignificant, therefore with nothing else but 1453 being its major highlight, I would not consider the 15th century or more specifically the last century of Byzantium as one of my top picks when ranking all 12 centuries in Byzantine history.

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1453, the final siege of Constantinople
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Fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans, May 29, 1453

9. The 9th Century           

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Byzantine Empire in the 2nd half of the 9th century (yellow)

If I there was one century in Byzantine history that may have had a lot of important as well as exciting moments but with equally dull and uninteresting moments, it is the 9th century. First of all, I would say the 9th century had a lot of important moments and highlights worth remembering and a lot of them involved Byzantium’s interactions with the rest of the world around them such as the proposed marriage between Byzantium’s empress Irene and the newly crowned Frankish emperor of the west Charlemagne in 802 which never happened, the crushing defeat the Byzantines suffered to their northern neighbor the Bulgarian Empire in 811 at the Battle of Pliska wherein the Byzantine emperor Nikephoros I himself was killed in, the Bulgarian war that followed, the fall of Byzantine Crete and Sicily to the Arabs, continued wars against the Arab Abbasid Caliphate, the first attacks of the Kievan Rus on Byzantium, and the beginnings of the Byzantine Renaissance as well as its cultural and military revival at the latter part of the century. The first half of the 9th century basically saw Byzantium at a low point still in its Dark Ages having to defend itself both against the Arabs in the east and the Bulgarians in the north while within the empire the controversy of Iconoclasm or the breaking of religious icons still lived on.

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Emperor Theophilos, Byzantine emperor (r. 829-842)

It is only as the 9th century progresses when the Byzantine story gets more interesting which is when Michael II becomes emperor in 820 after assassinating his predecessor Leo V thus founding the Amorian Dynasty, while in the reign of his son and successor Theophilos (829-842) the Byzantine cultural Renaissance was already taking shape and despite losing heavily to the invading Arabs in battle, Theophilos invested a lot of money into making Constantinople a cultural and educational center. Things then get even more action-packed in the latter part of the century under Theophilos’ son and successor Michael III (842-867) and even though he was ineffective as an emperor, a lot had happened in his rule such as the final end of the Iconoclast controversy in 843, the mission of St. Cyril and St. Methodius to convert the people of Eastern Europe to Orthodox Christianity which was organized by the Patriarch of Constantinople Photios I, the Kievan Rus’ first attack on Byzantine territory in 860, the conversion of Bulgaria to Orthodoxy, and the rise to power of the unlikely peasant and wrestler Basil the Macedonian who after becoming close to Michael III killed him in 867 and became the new emperor Basil I establishing the long-lived Macedonian Dynasty that survived until the 11th century.

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

The reign of Basil I (867-886) saw Byzantium once again rise up to become a strong military power as well as a cultural one, therefore laying the foundations for the actual Byzantine golden age in the following century. Now the reason why I am putting the 9th century far down on this list ranking the 12 centuries of Byzantium compared to the 10th century that followed it which is my personal best being #1 on this list is because the 9th century compared to the 10th that followed was definitely not action-packed every step of the way but it had a lot of exciting and memorable moments too. These memorable moments though that the 9th century had to offer mostly had to do with its relations with other powers such as the Bulgarians, Rus, Arabs, and the west and true enough a lot of important moments took place in this century that are worth telling regarded Byzantium’s foreign relations and these included the mission of St. Cyril and Methodius which has a more intriguing angle to it as their mission was not plainly one for spirituality but politics as this was a cold war situation wherein Byzantium competed against the Western Catholic Church to see who would convert the still Pagan people of Eastern Europe first, and at the end the Byzantines won it.

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

The battles against the Bulgarians were exciting moments as well as already at the beginning of the century Byzantium was already engaged in war with them while the century also ended with Byzantium again at war with Bulgaria in which Bulgaria was much more powerful under its greatest ruler Tsar Simeon, while also the conflicts between Byzantium and the Arabs had a lot more excitement here as it was in this century when the Byzantines first turned the tide of war against the Arabs to the offensive when for the first time the Byzantine army in the 860s did not just fight to defend its borders from Arab raiders but in fact raided deep into Arab territory. On the other hand, it is only in the external situation that makes the 9th century exciting for me as internally, the Byzantine story was not very much exciting as a lot of the stories here had to do with complicated court politics and religious issues, although the internal issues of this century only gets more exciting in the latter part of century such as Basil I’s rise to power and the questionable parentage of his son the future emperor Leo VI who came to power in 886 as it is still debated whether he is actually Basil I’s son or the previous emperor Michael III’s. For me, the 9th century had more not so exciting if not dull moments compared to its more exciting and dramatic moments which is why I do not consider it as one of my favorite centuries, but other than that I still find the 9th century a period that has a lot of interest for me as the 9th century set the stage for the Byzantine Renaissance including its military and cultural golden age that took place in the following century which is my all-time favorite of the 12 centuries in Byzantine history.

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Aftermath of the Battle of Pliska in 811, Khan Krum of Bulgaria uses Emperor Nikephoros I’s skull as his drinking cup
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Michael III (right, in blue) makes Basil the Macedonian (left, in red) his co-emperor, Madrid Skylitzes

To learn more about Byzantium in the 9th century, read Chapter VI of my Byzantine Alternate History series.

10. The 7th Century          

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The Byzantine Empire in 650 (orange) under Constans II

The 7th century was definitely a major turning point for the Byzantine Empire as this was the end of the old Roman era and the beginning of their Dark Ages, and a lot of this had to do with the final defeat of their traditional eastern enemy the Sassanid Persian Empire and the unexpected rise of a new power which were the Arabs that in such a quick amount of time took over the entire Middle East as well as half of the Byzantine Empire’s territory. The 7th century is often described as a dark time for Byzantium and was already dark right when this century began when in 602 the emperor Maurice was executed by the usurper Phocas thus ending the great Justinian Dynasty and the age of Antiquity in general and beginning what would be the Dark Ages. The execution of Maurice and Phocas seizing the throne led to war breaking out with the Sassanid Empire in the east as its ruler or shah Khosrow II was an ally of Maurice although he also had the ambition to invade Byzantium and using the execution of Maurice as an excuse, Khosrow II declared war on the Byzantines.

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Emperor Heraclius (r. 610-641), art by Skamandros

Phocas however was overthrown and executed by Heraclius in 610 who became the emperor and as emperor he turned all his attention to fighting off the Sassanids and finishing them off for good whereas the Sassanids too had gained the upper hand and invaded a large percent of Byzantine territory including Syria, Egypt, and even laying siege to Constantinople in 626 with the help of the Avars and Slavs who at the same time were also invading the Byzantine Balkans. Heraclius at the end managed to defeat the Sassanids in 628 and reclaim all Byzantine territories lost to them but despite his victory, a large percent of the army was destroyed and the imperial treasury emptied out from the war, therefore meaning that another war would mean the end of Byzantium. True enough, just right after the war with the Sassanids came to an end, just some years later a new unexpected power arose and expanded with such speed with nothing to stop it, and these were the Arabs in the form of their first empire which was the Rashidun Caliphate and their invincibility was already shown when defeating the Byzantine army at the Battle of Yarmouk in 636 and defeating the Sassanids too that same year. Following the ultimate defeat of the weakened Byzantine army to the Arabs in 636, the Byzantines in the next few years lost all of their territories in the Middle East including the important cities of Antioch and Jerusalem, thus Heraclius died in 641 seeing everything he restored to the empire fall apart due to the Arab conquests.

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Emperor Constans II of Byzantium (r. 641-668), art by myself

Heraclius’ reign was followed by that of his grandson Constans II (641-668) who in his reign saw all of Egypt fully fall to the control of the Arabs as well as the first Arab naval attacks and raids deep into imperial territory in the east. Though coming to power only as a minor, Constans II would later on prove to be a decisive ruler that held the empire together in such a challenging time and he had also created the new Thematic System or Themes thus restructuring the old Byzantine provinces into smaller ones run by the army in order to strengthen its defenses against the constantly raiding Arabs. Constans II although saw that Constantinople was in a dangerous position as it was vulnerable to the naval attacks of the Arabs and so he decided that the capital should be moved to Syracuse in Sicily where he even set himself up from 663 to 668 thinking that if the east would fall, he could rebuild Byzantium in the west but his plans never came to happen as he was assassinated in his bath in Syracuse in 668. Following Constans II’s death, he was succeeded by his son Constantine IV who despite being still young was a successful ruler and from 674 to 678 successfully defended Constantinople from its first siege by the Arab armies with the use of the new superweapon of Greek Fire.

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Emperor Constantine IV (r. 668-685), son and successor of Constans II

It also happened in the late 7th century in 680 wherein the Bulgarians first appeared and settled in Byzantine lands forming their state and Constantine IV despite his success against the Arabs failed to contain the Bulgar raiders. Following Constantine IV’s death in 685 he was succeeded by his son Justinian II who although had the intention to revive the old glory of Byzantium and defeat all its enemies was too ambitious that his constant fighting off wars led to empire being further weakened while he too had a very oppressive ruling style which led to his downfall in 695 where he was overthrown by the senate, army, and people wherein his nose was cut off and therefore sent into exile afterwards. The 7th century then ended terribly for the Byzantines as the overthrow of Justinian II in 695 threw the empire into anarchy which would see a change of emperor 7 times in the course of 22 years and in this time, the Byzantines too suffered the great loss of losing their last territory in North Africa which was Carthage to the Arabs in 698.

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Emperor Justinian II (r. 685-695/ 705-711), art by Amelianvs

Now, it is no doubt that the 7th century was a very crucial turning point in Byzantine history considering the fall of its old enemy being the Sassanids and the rise of a new one which were the Arabs, the creation of the Thematic System, the invention of Greek Fire, and countless wars everywhere which makes it a very eventful and exciting one. The 7th century for me no doubt had a lot of exciting moments worth remembering and a lot of it had to do with wars such as the full-scale Byzantine-Sassanid War from 602 to 628, the conflict with the Arabs, and the sieges of Constantinople first in 626 by the Sassanids with their Avar and Slav allies and from 674 to 678 by the Arabs, therefore this century is something that would interest war enthusiasts. At the same time, the rulers of this century which was mainly the Heraclian Dynasty being the emperors Heraclius (610-641), Constans II (641-668), Constantine IV (668-685), and Justinian II (685-695) were very interesting and colorful characters as well. The downside of this century however was that everything usually seemed so one-sided which was mostly because it had so much wars from beginning to end that the history of this century would in fact go from exciting to becoming already too tiring and repetitive in story. What makes this century less interesting too aside from that it did not have much to tell except wars, and if not wars its other stories had a lot to do with abstract religious debates such as the controversial new Monothelite doctrine that Heraclius and Constans II supported but was finally declared a heresy by Constantine IV. What makes the 7th century a bit too one dimensional as well was that there were no other interesting characters except for its emperors who were all strong military men, therefore no other interesting stories such as cultural innovations and ambitious women except for Heraclius’ wife Empress Martina who however only had a very brief role in this century at the time of Heraclius’ death in 641. If not for the exciting battles and new inventions like Greek Fire and Thematic System, the 7th century story of Byzantium is more or less disappointing considering how much territory they had lost including half of it which fell to the Arabs, most of the Balkans which fell to the Avars and Slavs and later on the Bulgarians, most of Italy to the Lombards, and all of Byzantine Southern Spain to the Visigoth Kingdom. Despite all the disappointing moments and one-dimensional kind of story that defined the 7th century, I still find it fascinating as it was a major turning point in their history but I would consider it as one of my least favorites for the reason that it did not have much stories to tell except of warfare.

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Greatest extent of the Sassanid Empire (orange) under Khosrow II, by 622
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Defeat of the Byzantine forces (left) to the Arabs (right) at the Battle of Yarmouk, 636
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Byzantine and Arab fleets clash with each other at the Battle of the Masts, 655
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Greek Fire used for the first time at the 674-678 Arab Siege of Constantinople

To learn more about Byzantium in the 7th century, read Chapter IV of my Byzantine Alternate History series.

11. The 14th Century

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Byzantium in 1350 (blue)

The 14th century which is the 2nd to the last century of Byzantium’s existence was no doubt one of its most disappointing ones especially considering how reduced and weakened the Byzantine Empire became due to the damage of the 4th Crusade in the previous century and even though the empire was restored in 1261 by Michael VIII Palaiologos, it was already too late for Byzantium to become a world power again. The 14th century is often the overlooked century in Byzantine history which many history books only make a very quick mention of or if not do mention the century as if it did not exist and true enough it is overlooked for many reasons, thus making this century be known as the “forgotten century”.

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Emperor Andronikos II Palaiologos of Byzantium (r. 1282-1328)

First of all, the 14th century already began terribly for Byzantium as during the reign of Andronikos II Palaiologos when the century began, the empire was close to bankruptcy due to the great amounts of money his father Michael VIII spent in his reign (1261-1282), therefore without much funds the army had to be disbanded but it had happened in such a bad time as a new enemy rose up in Asia Minor which were the Ottomans that may have started out only as a small power in Asia Minor but after winning a number of victories in Asia Minor, they soon enough kept expanding. The reign of Andronikos II was also a very disastrous one due to a major mistake of hiring an unruly band of Catalan mercenaries in 1302 to strike back at the Ottomans which only ended in failure when the Catalans turned on the Byzantines due to lack of pay and as a result of it pillaged Byzantine lands in Thrace and Macedonia burning it to the point of turning it into a desert. The incompetence of Andronikos II’s rule would lead to his downfall as in 1321 his grandson also named Andronikos rose up in rebellion and in 1328 succeeded in overthrowing his grandfather following a 7-year civil war.

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Emperor Andronikos III Palaiologos of Byzantium (r. 1328-1341)

In his reign, the new emperor Andronikos III Palaiologos (1328-1341) vowed to revive the Byzantine Empire and make it at least a significant power in the Balkan region again and so he spent most of his reign in military campaigns which however had mixed results as most of Greece including the rebel Byzantine states of Epirus and Thessaly were returned to Byzantium through Andronikos III’s conquests although he failed when battling the new power of the Ottomans in Asia Minor, thus proving that the Ottomans were now growing far too powerful. Andronikos III at least succeeded in making Byzantium a power in the Balkans but he died too soon in 1341 before seeing his dreams fully achieved, therefore it would be all downhill after his death. The following years after 1341 would be the worst for Byzantium as Andronikos III’s lack of a succession plan led to a civil war between the faction of his young son Emperor John V Palaiologos led by his mother the empress Anna of Savoy who was the late emperor’s wife and Andronikos III’s closest friend and advisor the general John Kantakouzenos.

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Emperor John VI Kantakouzenos of Byzantium (r. 1347-1354)

The civil war ended in 1347 with John Kantakouzenos victorious therefore being crowned as Emperor John VI but this civil war was nothing more but devastating that it totally bankrupted the empire while both sides getting foreign alliances only allowed these foreign powers to take over land such as the Serbian Kingdom of King Stefan IV Dusan which as a result of the civil war took over most of Byzantine Greece and became the Serbian Empire while the Ottomans that backed John VI here finally gained their first territories in Europe as a reward for helping John VI win the war. The other tragedy that further struck Byzantium too was the plague of Black Death in 1347 which further weakened the empire and its economy. The rest of the century too featured more civil wars such as the one in 1354 wherein John V came back to power overthrowing John VI and later on in John V’s reign again, he had to fight a civil war against his son Emperor Andronikos IV in 1373.

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Emperor John V Palaiologos of Byzantium (r. 1341-1391)

A large part of the 14th century saw Byzantium under the rule of John V Palaiologos from 1341 to his death in 1391 but with many gaps between his reign as he was removed from power 3 times and although he was not blind to the difficulties his empire was facing, he was ineffective in solving them. The 14th century then ended with the Byzantine Empire reduced only to Constantinople and its surroundings which were all surrounded by the ever-expanding Ottoman Empire while other the Byzantine territories they still held such as Thessaloniki, the Morea in Southeast Greece, and the Aegean islands were disconnected by land to the capital. Now the Byzantine story of the 14th century is nothing more but disappointing as the more exciting stories of this century had to do more with the other powers that Byzantium either allied with at this time or fought against such as the Ottoman, Serbian, and 2nd Bulgarian Empires, and the Italian naval republics of Venice and Genoa. The 14th century is definitely more or less the story of the Ottomans as it saw the Ottomans go from a small state at the Byzantine border in Asia Minor to an empire that had both Europe and Asia, yet by the end of the 14th century the Ottomans had in fact crushed both the Serbian and Bulgarian Empires that were just previously this century’s dominant powers.

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Seal of the Palaiologos Dynasty of the Byzantine Empire

When it comes to the Byzantines’ story in the 14th century during its twilight years, it nothing more but disappointing seeing all the wealth and luxury that once defined Byzantium all disappear while its stories feature a lot of defeats and disasters as well as internal conflicts, and although stories of civil wars, political intrigues, blinding, poisoning, and scandals make Byzantine history interesting, this is not the case for the 14th century as here all these mentioned incidents happen to often that it already becomes too tiring to hear, therefore making this century’s story less memorable. On the other hand, having interesting characters such as Andronikos III, Anna of Savoy, John Kantakouzenos, as well as the Serbian king turned emperor Stefan IV Dusan and the Ottoman sultan Orhan give a bit of excitement to the century but other than that, I would say this century is not a very memorable one which is why I am ranking it very low in this list. Additionally, this century has a lot of importance especially in studying what led to the fall of Constantinople and ultimate end of Byzantium in 1453 as this century was really the story of the Ottoman Empire’s rise, therefore I would say that this century telling the story of how Byzantium’s end came to be adds some interesting element.

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Byzantine art recreated- Emperor Andronikos III Palaiologos (r. 1328-1341) and his wife Empress Anna of Savoy (art by Powee Celdran)
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Stefan IV Dusan, Emperor of Serbia (r. 1346-1355), previously King of Serbia
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Map of the spread of Black Death (1347-1351)
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Ottomans defeat the Serbians at the Battle of Kosovo, 1389

12. The 8th Century           

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The Byzantine Empire in 717 (purple)

Last on this list of ranking the 12 centuries of Byzantine history from my personal best to worst is the 8th century which is no doubt the least interesting century in Byzantine history for me and it is for a lot of reasons. First of all, the 8th century lacked a lot of sources describing the century as well as the reigns of its emperors in detail while most of the sources of this century are one-sided ones that portray most of its emperors as bloodthirsty monsters, therefore it seems to be hard to appreciate this century’s story. The 8th century already begins with Byzantium in a state of anarchy in which I mentioned earlier had a change of emperor 7 times in 22 years and part of this anarchy period from 705 to 711 was the second reign of the deposed Justinian II who ruled his second reign only to have revenge on those who overthrew him before that his reign ended up just becoming a gore fest in which he himself was executed at the end of it in 711. The worst part about this time of anarchy was that the Arabs now in the form of the Umayyad Caliphate used the chaos in Byzantium to their advantage to launch a massive invasion on Constantinople itself.

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

In 717, the anarchy period ended when the general Konon came to power as Emperor Leo III and here he successfully defended Constantinople from the Arabs afterwards he restored order by creating his own dynasty. Leo III may have been a successful emperor in battle but his policies turned out to be disastrous for Byzantium and this was specifically Iconoclasm or the declaration to destroy religious icons which he thought would save the empire from its setbacks but at the end only created division among his people and even worse, the first schism with the west which led to the separation between the Byzantine Orthodox Church and Latin Catholic Church. This major controversy of Iconoclasm true enough even led to civil wars in Byzantium such as the one following Leo III’s death in 741 which was between Leo III’s son and successor Constantine V who strongly stood for Iconoclasm and his general Artavasdos who was against it, in which Constantine V was victorious at the end of it in 743 thus blinding Artavasdos.

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

Constantine V in his long reign (743-775) strongly enforced Iconoclasm in the empire believing it will save the empire from falling apart, though at the same time he was a very popular emperor for winning many battles against both enemies of the empire which were the Arabs in the east and Bulgarians in the north. By the time of his death in 775, Constantine V left the empire much stronger than his father founded in 717 while Constantine V too had the legacy of reforming the army and the Thematic System, however his son and successor Leo IV did not really prove to be effective as he only ruled for 5 years until his death in 780. The 8th century gets only more eventful after 780 when the empire was under the regency of Leo IV’s wife Empress Irene ruling for their young son Constantine VI as at this time Iconoclasm comes to its end in 787 and 10 years later in 797 Irene comes out victorious in the conflict against her son who she blinds here, therefore making her the first woman to rule Byzantium alone.

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

Now what I find very one-sided and uninteresting about the 8th century was that most of it was just seen as Byzantium only fighting to defend itself against the Arabs in the east and Bulgarians in the north while everything else just included internal struggles including civil wars, court intrigue, and of course Iconoclasm which was just nothing but a useless and divisive policy that went on for so long without resulting in anything good except for countless of tortures, blinding, exiling, and destruction of valuable art. On the other hand, the 8th century for me still had a few exciting and memorable moments such as the full-scale Arab siege of Constantinople from 717 to 718 wherein the Byzantines managed to defeat the Arabs with the use of Greek Fire, as well as through some help from the Bulgarians in the north, and a brutal winter that destroyed the Arab army as winter was alien to them while the other only exciting part of the 8th century was Irene’s reign as regent and later as sole empress at the end of the century and nothing more. Now if not for these two moments I find memorable about the 8th century, the rest were plainly nothing but a forgettable gore fest as it featured so much violence and infighting which for me makes the 8th century not a period that interests me a lot. At the same time, as I mentioned earlier, the 8th century basically lacks sources to tell it in such a colorful way, but if sources mentioning that era were not so biased then possibly, I would appreciate it more but since we only get a one-sided story of the 8th century which for me tells it in such an uninteresting way, I have to put the 8th century in the bottom of this list as my personal worst century in all of Byzantine history.          

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The 6 emperors of the Byzantine 22-year-Anarchy (695-717)- Leontios (top-left, r. 695-698), Tiberius III (top-middle, r. 698-705), Justinian II Rhinotmetos (top-right, r. 705-711), Philippikos Bardanes (bottom-left, r. 711-713), Anastasius II (bottom-middle, r. 713-715), Theodosius III (bottom-right, r. 715-717), art by myself
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Victory for the Byzantines with Bulgarian aid against the Arabs in Constantinople, 718
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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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Empress Irene (r. 797-802), art by myself

To learn more about Byzantium in the 8th century, read Chapter V of my Byzantine Alternate History series.

And now I have come to the end of this list, and before I finish off, I have to say that when it comes to ranking the 12 centuries of Byzantine history, it is quite a difficult job as basically they all had their moments, except some were just more eventful than the others. Those that I have ranked in the highest numbers of this list such as the 10th, 5th, 6th, and 13th centuries were for me the centuries that had a lot of memorable and exciting moments as well as interesting characters from beginning to end while those ranked at the middle had mixed exciting moments but also dull ones while it is only the 14th and 8th centuries that I personally find less interesting although they too till had some interesting moments and characters. Basically, all these centuries show that Byzantine history was one big roller-coaster of ups and downs with many challenges which makes their history nothing more but totally interesting. Now, this article did not really have so much research involved as it just plainly involved my own thoughts and knowledge on the history of Byzantium. This entry is more or less a break from my extensive alternate history series in which I would want to share to you all my thoughts on the different centuries in Byzantine history. Anyway, this is all for this article on ranking the 12 centuries of Byzantine history from my personal best to worst, this is Powee Celdran the Byzantium Blogger, thank you all for viewing!

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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Flag of the Byzantine Empire

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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!                   

Byzantine Alternate History Series: Chapter III- The Empire Strikes Back; Justinian the Great Saves his Empire from the Plague and Personally Joins his Campaigns

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 6th century AD. This story will begin with events that have happened in real history but will become fictional as it progresses. Fictional scenarios in this story will be marked by footnotes (1). This will be an extremely long article!

Previous Story: Byzantine Alternate History Chapter II- 5th Century

Keep cool and you will command everyone” -Emperor Justinian I the Great (482-565AD)

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Welcome to the third chapter of the Byzantine Alternate History series by the Byzantium Blogger! Last time, in the second chapter of my alternate history series, I discussed the events leading up to the Fall of the Western Roman Empire in the late 5th century (476 AD) and how their twin empire, Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire played a part in the western empire’s story. At the same time, the previous article discussed a lesser-known event in the year 472 that could have helped save the Western Roman Empire from meeting its end just 4 years later and other what if scenarios such as if the Western Roman Empire survived 476, if the last competent Western Roman emperor Anthemius was not killed off in 472, and if in the Eastern Empire the unknown child emperor Leo II who died at only age 7 in 474 instead lived long enough to succeed his father Zeno as emperor. The last article too discussed a possible scenario of an epic world war between the two Roman Empires and their foreign allies against a massive Barbarian Alliance. However, in this new chapter of the alternate history series, again as I said about the background of this series I am making, there will be no continuity from the previous story (chapter II) to this one, so this story will begin with real history taking its course wherein the Western Roman Empire actually fell in 476 leaving the Eastern Roman Empire as the only surviving Roman Empire, now better known as the “Byzantine Empire”. Also keep in mind that this article will be very long because it will cover possibly the most eventful reign in Byzantine history, which is that of its most influential emperor Justinian I the Great. This story will be set in the 6th century AD, where under Emperor Justinian I the Great, the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire would be at its greatest extent when North Africa, Italy, and Southern Spain for a time returned to Roman rule from Constantinople, the eastern empire’s capital after they have for a time fell to the hands of several barbarian powers. The Eastern Roman Empire on the other hand was never expected to regain the lost western provinces but this would soon enough become possible when Emperor Justinian I came to rule the eastern empire in 527 but at the same time, his reign was not all victory and imperial glory as we all remember, as it was also one of military and natural disasters but as a capable ruler, Justinian managed to face all the odds and die ruling the massive empire he had dreamt of. It is also timely that I wrote this article because as the COVID-19 pandemic is happening right now, this story will cover the pandemic then known as the “Plague of Justinian” in 542 which was named after Justinian himself who in fact was a victim of it but survived. Also, just recently, my favorite history related Youtube channel Dovahhatty just released his full feature video on Justinian the Great, and I should say that this story will be based a lot on Dovahhatty’s retelling of Justinian and his personality as he sees it. Now, Byzantine history cannot be told without telling the story of its most influential ruler Justinian the Great (aka. Flavius Petrus Sabbatius) who is one of history’s few rulers who came from humble origins but has left behind a very strong legacy in many aspects that are still live on up to this day and some of his greatest legacies include the complete codification of Roman law that still lives on to this day as the basis for the legal systems most countries use and the impressive structure of the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople built in the 6th century which is still in its full form today. Having achieved so much in his lifetime, Justinian would not only be remembred as “the great” but as an Orthodox saint as well for doing his part to defend the faith.

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

As emperor though, Justinian’s greatest feat was the carefully planned reconquests of the lost Western Roman provinces through his policy of what is known as “Intervention Imperialism” or finding reasons to justify a conquest of place especially if it had to do with defending the Orthodox Christian faith, which this story will be covering a lot of, together with the men responsible victories which were particularly his generals Belisarius and Narses, but at the end were all of Justinian’s ambitious conquests of North Africa, Italy, and Hispania worth it? In real history, despite these lands once again returning to Roman rule, it did not really last long as while Justinian ambitiously was masterminding the reconquest of the former Western Roman provinces, another war was being fought in the east with the empire’s long-time mortal enemy, the Sassanid Empire and after Justinian’s death in 565, no matter how much lands were conquered it would be all downhill from here as the empire would undergo a chronic war with the Sassanid Persians in the east and face new enemies raiding into the empire from north such as the Slavs, Avars, Lombards, and more. Others blame Justinian for the downfall of the Byzantines’ imperial power due to his overly ambitious reconquests that drained the empire’s economy thus weakening it, but I would say it was not entirely his fault because there were things that happened which could not be controlled by Justinian no matter how powerful and talented he was, for instance the plague in 542 which undid most of his hard work and almost destroyed the Byzantine economy. Justinian too was one of a one of a kind exceptional ruler and only he could manage a very large empire no matter the odds as his successors in real history, were not as capable as he was. Not to mention, Justinian too, if considering all the Byzantine emperors until 1453 as “Roman emperors”, Justinian would be the last Latin speaking Roman emperor, which leads some to say that the age of Imperial Rome ended with him. In this story however, I will try to change the course of history by creating a fictional scenario of Justinian as emperor finding solutions to fight the plague of 542 by using it as a biological war to destroy the constant headache of the Sassanid Empire in the east since in the entire history of Rome’s wars against the Sassanids, there was no way the Romans could win by military force so I believe that if a biological war was used through the plague against the Sassanids, then the Romans (Byzantines) could end up victorious giving them more time to totally focus on their reconquests of the west. In addition, this story will also tackle one of Justinian’s mistakes which was not properly naming his successor. At the same time, Justinian no matter how energetic and hard-working he was as emperor earning him the title “the emperor that never slept” was a complete “palace emperor” who never left Constantinople in his reign no matter how much his empire expanded, but here I believe that if Justinian took part in his own ambitious conquests himself and got to know his nephew and successor Justin II a bit more by personally training him in his military campaigns in Italy, then then I believe that empire would stand stronger after Justinian’s death. Coincidentally, since this story is about how Byzantium strikes back to regain the west, it was fitting that I used the same title as Star Wars Episode V “The Empire Strikes Back” (1980). Now, if Justinian I was able to control the plague, train his own successor, and join his own military campaigns, would the Golden Age of the Byzantine Empire he worked so hard to attain still live on or were Justinian’s ambitions just plainly worthless?     

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Flag of the Byzantine Empire

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Note: Since this story is set in the 6th century following the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the Byzantine characters will be now referred to as Byzantines.

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The Byzantine Empire at its greatest extent by 555 under Emperor Justinian I the Great
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Byzantine era Constantinople, capital of the empire

This article here is the first story in this 12-part series wherein I am working in collaboration with another fellow Byzantine history enthusiast and in this case, I put together this story with the help of my friend, Instagram user who prefers to call herself Justinianus Østromerriket (follow her on Instagram @justinianusthegreat), a Byzantophile or enthusiast of Byzantine history but more significantly as her username and Instagram profile pic suggests, she is an enthusiast of Emperor Justinian I the Great and his ambitious project known as the Renovatio Imperii or “Imperial Restoration” in Latin as stated in her bio. To give a brief background of Justinianus, she has been a fan of Byzantine history ever since the age of 15 and is currently 19 and a student of chemistry, but her true passion is Byzantine history and art. Aside from being a Byzantine history enthusiast, Justinianus is also an artist who makes illustrations of Byzantine characters in her own style, both through handmade drawings and digital art using the software Ibispaint; her artworks of 6th century Byzantines such as Justinian I will appear in this article too. Justinianus too dreams of being a Byzantinist in the future and to visit the places on earth where the Byzantine legacy is very strong including Turkey, Greece, and Italy.

Similarly, what we have in common is that we are both young in age and not academics or historians but we share a strong passion for Byzantine history and want to create some buzz for it and I am honored to do my very first collaboration article with her. When starting my Byzantine history Instagram account Byzantine Time Traveller very early this year, Justinianus was one of the first to follow me and apparently it had turned out that we see Byzantine history in the same way which is more or less a strong passion, so we came to work together in creating this story by doing our own role-playing of 6th century Byzantine history through Instagram chat for the past month and a half and here in this role-playing chat, she played as Justinian the Great himself and as I should say, she totally gets into his character very well, so the cool-headed and wise yet scheming personality and unknown side of Justinian that this story will tackle will be more or less her take of it. This alternate history story was created in our Instagram role-playing, as here in this story there will be events that did not happen in real history, most notably an elderly Justinian joining his military campaign in Italy himself while at the same time in this role playing, Justinianus had filled in the gaps by telling the unknown stories of Justinian’s own origins story, private and family life, and source of his ambitious dreams in both hers and my own point of view and since history does not record much about Justinian’s early life as well as private life, this fan fiction story will do just that even if it may not entirely be accurate to real history, just as how Dovahhatty told it in his most recent video. Our role-playing scenario will take place in the second half of this story set in Justinian’s later reign beginning in the year 550AD following the death of his beloved wife, Empress Theodora wherein Justinian from the hopeful and ambitious emperor he was earlier on in his reign becomes a bitter and sad old man thinking all his hopes were crushed especially due the recent plague until meeting a mysterious general and former wrestler named Andreas who will inspire Justinian to join in the conquest of Italy from the Ostrogoths together with the generals Belisarius and Narses as the conquest of Italy nears its end and almost coming into a victory for the Byzantines. This story though will begin giving a background story to Justinian, his rise to power, and his early reign which will mostly be all based on historical facts, then it will proceed to the main part which will be on the Plague of Justinian beginning 541, then the climax will begin in the year 550 when the plague still around, but at least Justinian has managed to control it, and to get himself over the grief of losing Theodora, he decides to join his army in Italy together with his nephew Justin who he decides to train to be his successor as he is the only choice left as Justinian’s intended heir which was his cousin Germanus had just died. Overall, this story is more of a fan fiction re-write of history than a what-if story but it also includes a what if scenario, especially if Justinian properly trained his nephew who would eventually succeed him, the what if of Justinian using his own intelligence to destroy his mortal enemy, the Sassanid Empire with the plague. The age old problem of succession was surely something that eventually ruined the great legacy Justinian worked so hard on as in real history, he did not properly name his successor so instead the throne was left to his nephew Justin, his sister’s son who lacked the experience in running an empire while at the same time was hot headed but the worst part was that in 565 when coming to the throne, he inherited an extremely massive empire when having no experience in ruling it and as emperor Justin II’s own impulsive actions led to the war against the Sassanids in the east resuming when refusing to pay tribute to them, thus all the war and pressure of running an empire made him insane and unfit to rule that he had to abdicate, thus Justin II’s reign ruined everything his uncle worked so hard on. Now if Justin II was only properly trained by no other than his uncle Justinian the Great who would give him the advise “stay cool and you will command everyone” as the quote by Justinian himself says right at the top of this article, then I believe he would have been as great as his uncle in ruling the empire and this story will rewrite history that way.

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Detailed map of the Byzantine Empire at its fullest extent under Justinian I
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Guide to the late Roman army’s structure (by Powee Celdran); this article contains a lot of terms of late Roman army units.
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Guide to the Justinian Dynasty of the Byzantine Empire, 518-602 (by Powee Celdran)

Related Articles from The Byzantium Blogger:

Byzantine Alternate History Chapter II- Preventing the Fall of the Western Roman Empire 4 years in Advance

The Art of War in the Byzantine World

12 Turning Points in Byzantine History

Around the World in the Byzantine Era Part1 (330-1000)

The Story of 3 Plagues Across Centuries

Natural Disasters in Byzantine History

Constantinople: The Queen of Cities and its Byzantine Secrets

The Ravenna Mosaics and What to Expect

Justinian the Great Related Videos:

Unbiased History: Byzantium II- Justinian the Great (Dovahhatty)

Unbiased History: Byzantium I- The Eastern Empire (Dovahhatty)

Emperor Justinian I (Thersites the Historian)

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Justinian the Great: Reconquest and its Legacy (Eastern Roman History)


This story will be extremely long as it spans the reign of Justinian I which was a total of 38 years wherein he was 45 when he became emperor in 527, and 83 at his death in 565, something very unusual for people at their time. This story will be basically focusing on Justinian I as its lead character while it will go in detail as well in going through his thoughts and personality which a lot of it happens to be missing in real history and in addition, this story too will contain some flashbacks of his earlier life told in his perspective. As the main character of this story, Justinian is surely a fascinating character to write about as despite coming from humble origins as a simple peasant in the Balkans born as Flavius Petrus Sabbatius, he had a dream that he never let go of which was not only to be an emperor but to be the best and have a great legacy worth remembering up to this day and no matter how much odds he faced in his reign including a devastating pandemic that nearly destroyed his empire’s economy, a prolonged endless war to retake Italy, and a large number of natural disasters, he was able to achieve so much.

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Emperor Justinian I the Great action figure

Though Justinian is this story’s lead character, his nephew and successor Justin II will also play a major part in the story’s second half since a lot are not very familiar with the man who directly succeeded Justinian to the throne and here, Justin would be at first the stereotypical young, hot-tempered, and ignorant man who will go through a journey to be trained to become a wise and strong leader like his uncle by his uncle Justinian himself. History though does not mention what kind of relationship Justinian had with his nephew Justin but this story will do its best to tell that part of history (in a highly fictionalized form). This 12-part series too includes a fictional or unknown historical figure who will have a story built around him right in the middle of all these events, and here it will be Andreas, who appeared in real history as a Byzantine wrestler and soldier serving the general Belisarius back in the Sassanid War of 530 and though history does not mention what happens to Andreas after, in this case he rises up to become a general and personally fights with Justinian himself in the case of this fan fiction when Justinian himself goes over to Italy and in our role-playing, I had the chance of playing the character of Andreas as well as Justin II. Famous people of this age such as the generals Belisarius and Narses, the Ostrogoth king Totila, the Sassanid ruler Khosrow I, and the contemporary historian Procopius will be covered and so will their back stories. The historian Procopius, who was a Byzantine senator and secretary of the general Belisarius meanwhile is another interesting figure being a man with two sides as at first he wrote two books- Wars and On Buildings recording the reign of Justinian I in such great detail with such great praise of him and his administration but at the same time, he secretly he wrote his book The Secret History which totally slanders the image of Justinian as an incompetent and insane ruler while at the same time exposing his wife Empress Theodora’s life as an actress and her sex scandals exaggerating her as a former prostitute. In this case, just like in Dovahhatty’s most recent video, Procopius for ruining his emperor’s image out of pure envy will be this story’s villain together with the Ostrogoth and Sassanid rulers Totila and Khosrow I as Justinian is the protagonist, but no matter how much Procopius has tried to destroy Justinian’s reputation, his works remain a very valuable source of this era and Justinian’s reign as well as on the history of the late Roman age for the Eastern and Western Roman Empires. This story will be more Byzantine centric despite covering some of the happenings with the Ostrogoths of Italy, Visigoths of Spain, and Sassanid Empire though at the same time it will be a mix of the genres of adventure, drama, comedy, romance, politics, and war though no matter how detailed this story will go in the characters and their lives, I would not bother too much in explaining the political structures of the time, such as the imperial system of Byzantium and the names of the provinces of the empire. And of course, I have to say that when it comes to writing an alternate history story for 6th century Byzantium, it is impossible not to do this story of Justinian I as 6th century Byzantium was literally dominated by Justinian I and no one else but in the wider world, I’d say the 6th century was a very challenging time with so much happening especially since this is when Western Europe entered the Dark Ages while Byzantium stood at its finest as the bastion of Greco-Roman civilization.     


The Leading Characters: 

Justinian I- Byzantine emperor

Justin II- Heir apparent and future Byzantine emperor, nephew of Justinian I

Flavius Belisarius- Byzantine general

Narses- Byzantine eunuch general

*Andreas- Byzantine general and former wrestler (real named character but with not much story, his story was expanded here)

Theodora- Byzantine empress, wife of Justinian I 

Vigilantia- Sister of Justinian I, mother of Justin II

Procopius of Caesarea- Chronicler of Justinian I’s reign, secret antagonist 

Sophia- Niece of Theodora, wife of Justin II, future Byzantine empress 

John (Ioannes) the Cappadocian- Finance Minister of Justinian I

Germanus- Cousin and original heir apparent of Justinian I

Matasuintha- Wife of Germanus, former Ostrogoth princess 

Liberius- Elderly Byzantine general

Tribonian- Jurist of Justinian I’s court

John (Ionnes) the Sanguinary- Byzantine general in Italy 

Totila- Ostrogoth King of Italy (541-552) 

Athanagild- Visigoth rebel leader in Hispania and later king 

Khosrow I- Shah of the Sassanid Persian Empire 

Character Images Below of Selected Characters from this Story, Illustrated by Powee Celdran

(Credits to AmelianvsAkitku, G. Rava art, Ravesne, Slifer621, Androklos, Foojer, and Justinianus for their art on this era which are featured here.)   

Background Guide: Byzantine characters (yellow), Ostrogoths (red), Visigoths (blue), Sassanids (green) 


I. Part One

The Background- Before Justinian (The Real History)

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Ever since 395, the Roman Empire had been permanently split in half between east and west and while the Western Roman Empire faced catastrophe after catastrophe of barbarian invasions that totally weakened its power while the Eastern Roman Empire better known as the “Byzantine Empire” based in the growing imperial city of Constantinople, founded by the Roman emperor Constantine the Great in 330 still stood strong due to its geographical position as it also controlled several provinces rich in resources such as Egypt, Syria, and those in Asia Minor. The western empire on the other hand had faced the worst and even though it was able to defeat the army of the invading Huns in 451 at the Battle of Chalons with the help of their former enemy, the Visigoths of Gaul, the end was already inevitable. In 472, the assassination of the last competent western emperor, Procopius Anthemius, who was in fact a Greek from the Byzantine Empire was the event that spelled the end for the Western Roman Empire based in Ravenna. 4 years later in 476, the Western Roman Empire died out in a whimper when the barbarian Ostrogoth general Odoacer deposed the last western emperor, the puppet Romulus Augustus and instead of claiming the throne as emperor, Odoacer instead chose to just make himself “King of Italy” as the western empire at this point basically only consisted of Italy. In what was for the Romans the turbulent and dreadful 5th century, Gaul and Hispania were lost to the Visigoths, North Africa to the Vandals, Pannonia to the Ostrogoths, while Northern Gaul fell to the Franks, and Northwest Hispania fell to the Suebi while the eastern provinces on the other hand very much remained intact, though the 5th century too wasn’t entirely all great for the east as it too would have suffered the fate of the western empire’s collapse if it were not for the determination of strong rulers like Leo I (r. 457-474) and Zeno (r. 474-491). The emperor of the east at the time the Western Roman Empire was abolished and turned into the Kingdom of Italy was Zeno, son-in-law of Leo I married to Leo’s daughter Ariadne and following Leo I’s death in 474, his grandson who was Zeno and Ariadne’s 7-year-old son Leo II became the emperor or Augustus being directly related to Leo I though his father Zeno as his co-emperor basically ruled the empire for him but towards the end of 474, young Leo II died from a local epidemic in Constantinople making his father succeed him but shortly after in early 475, Zeno was usurped by his wife’s uncle Basiliscus out of popular pressure as Zeno being an Isaurian, a primitive non-Hellenized and non-Romanized citizen from the mountains of Asia Minor originally named Tarasis Kodisa but renamed Zeno to make his name more acceptable to the civilized Greek speaking people of Constantinople. In the one year the general Basiliscus usurped the eastern throne (475-476), his incompetence in fact made him turn out to be even more unpopular than Zeno and when the army sent by Basiliscus to hunt down Zeno in Isauria defected to Zeno’s side as they consisted of Isaurian warriors, they marched back to Constantinople and deposed Basiliscus who was exiled to Cappadocia wherein he died of starvation the next year when being locked up in a cistern.

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Zeno the Isaurian, Byzantine emperor (r. 474-475/ 476-491), illustration by Powee Celdran

Though Zeno came back to power in 476, he still remained as unpopular as he was in his first reign and most of this was due to not coming in time to save the western empire from falling to the hands of Odoacer. When coming back to power, Zeno received the crown of the last western emperor Romulus Augustus who was sent into exile wherein Zeno accepted it acknowledging that the Western Roman Empire was no more though the King of Italy Odoacer was to still answer to Zeno the way the western emperors previously were to answer to the eastern emperors who were their superiors. It was now here in 476 with the loss of the western empire that the Eastern Empire as the only surviving Roman power would be the “Byzantine Empire”. The western empire here may have died out as Italy fell to Odoacer but there were still a few Roman territories in the west namely Dalmatia under the governor Julius Nepos who previously the western emperor (474-475) appointed by Leo I and in Northern Gaul ever since 461, there was a surviving breakaway Roman state known as the “Kingdom of Soissons” ruled independently by a general named Syagrius. However, these 2 breakaway Roman states in the west did not last as in 480, Julius Nepos was assassinated giving Odoacer the opportunity to invade Dalmatia annexing it into his Kingdom of Italy and in 486, the Kingdom of Soissons fell to the new Kingdom of the Franks when Syagrius was defeated in battle by the Frankish king Clovis I. Back in the Byzantine Empire, Zeno’s reign was not only troubled by riots every week as well as usurpers left and right but by a troublemaking Ostrogoth mercenary commander ravaging Thrace named Theodoric Strabo so to combat Strabo, Zeno had the King of the Ostrogothic Kingdom of Pannonia Theodoric the Amal, better known as “Theodoric the Great” as well as a new raiding enemy in the Danube being the Bulgars attack Strabo but Strabo managed to beat the Bulgars, though he soon enough met his end by falling off his horse into a spear and with Strabo’s death, his men joined the army of Theodoric the Amal who thus united the Ostrogoths and soon enough became a problem for Zeno himself going as far as making plans to start a rebellion within the Byzantine Empire and establishing his own kingdom there.

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Theodoric the Amal “the Great”, King of the Ostrogoths (r. 475-526)

It was also in the reign of Zeno where this story’s protagonist Flavius Petrus Sabbatius was born, and before being known as “Justinian”, this story will call him first as “Petrus”. Now Petrus was born on May 11, 482 in the village of Tauresium somewhere in the Balkans (today North Macedonia) to a simple family of peasants, his mother’s name was unknown while his father was a low-ranking military officer also named Sabbatius but not much is said about him in history, so soon enough in this story’s case he would die possibly in battle. Petrus was a Roman citizen of Thracian and Illyrian origins and coming from a rural area, he did not grow up educated as a child though when it came to language, he was a native Latin speaker coming from a Latin speaking area which is why as emperor, he would be the last Latin speaking one, the rest after him all being native Greek speakers. Before Petrus was born, his uncle Justin, the brother of Petrus’ mother migrated to Constantinople to serve in the army after fleeing an attack on their village by barbarian hordes- in this story’s case the Foederati army of Theodoric Strabo- sometime in 473. History does not say when Justin travelled from his village to Constantinople, but here we will put the date 474 wherein Justin arrived at Constantinople and at the same time, we will go with the version of Dovahhatty’s first Byzantium series video wherein Justin arrives at Constantinople to join the army at the exact time Emperor Leo I was dying in January of 474 from dysentery.

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Tauresium, Macedonia, birthplace of Justinian, 482

Justin was born back in 450 and was 24 by the time he arrived in Constantinople with a few friends and as it is said, Justin and his friends came to Constantinople as refugees with nothing but the clothes on their backs and when arriving, they soon enough started a business of selling bread to support themselves and the worst part was that they were doing this in these times of difficulty when Basiliscus usurped Zeno and Zeno took back the throne from Basiliscus1. Eventually, Justin joined the elite palace guard force or Excubitors under Zeno but never got far yet up the ranks. Though Zeno was unsuccessful in Church matters, he was successful in dealing with the new troublemaker King of the Ostrogoths Theodoric the Amal and first to satisfy Theodoric, Zeno in 488 gave him the position of Magister Militum or supreme commander of the army in a certain area but Theodoric would still continue being problem that he almost came so close to besieging Constantinople though Zeno here with the help of his wife Ariadne made a deal with Theodoric asking him to leave and head to Italy instead and be Odoacer’s problem as here Zeno started feeling Odoacer would be problem when hearing Odoacer was planning to invade the Byzantine Empire so to stop this, Theodoric immediately headed west with his army to attack Odoacer at his capital, Ravenna.

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Eastern Roman Excubitor (elite palace guard)

As emperor meanwhile, Zeno remained unpopular till his death in 491 due to his Isaurian origins seeming uncivilized to the people of Constantinople, his failure to prevent the western empire’s fall and to keep the Church unity together, and because of his thuggish style of ruling wherein he chose to always strike first thus spending his reign picking fights with everyone rather than using peaceful solutions except with Theodoric. Zeno was at least able to stay in the throne up to his death at age 66 without losing it another time, though his death was not entirely peaceful as it was caused by his epilepsy which he had developed later on in life though a 12th century legend says that Zeno was died by being buried alive by the people seeing an opportunity to kill him when Zeno fell sick, which had been Dovahhatty’s version of Zeno’s death. No matter how unpopular Zeno was as emperor, he was able to save the eastern empire from a full-scale invasion of Theodoric the Amal- who in 491 continued besieging Odoacer at Ravenna- and was able to clean up the political instability that plagued his reign. Since the previous story’s outcome does not continue here wherein Zeno and Ariadne’s son Leo II lived on, in this case here since Zeno and Ariadne had no more children following Leo II’s death, it was up for Ariadne to choose the new emperor and the man she chose was one of the Silentiarii or the court secretaires that worked directly for the empress and knowing this man named Anastasius quite well, Ariadne chose to marry him. Meanwhile with Zeno dead, the people shouted in the streets demanding “give us an Orthodox emperor, give us a Roman emperor” for they were tired of violent rulers which the past 3 being Leo I, Basiliscus, and Zeno were and at the same time they did not want a thuggish Isaurian who compromised with heretics which was Zeno and true enough, the people got what they wished for as their new emperor Anastasius I was well refined man, intelligent, energetic, and cool headed, but also a skilled economist opposite of the warrior Zeno was, and already 60-years-old, Anastasius was still very handsome, tall, and fit with one eye blue and the other one black which is why he has the nickname Dicorus meaning “mismatched eyes”, in other words he had heterochromia. 

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End of the Western Roman Empire, Romulus Augustus surrenders to Odoacer in Ravenna, 476
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Constantinople, Eastern Roman Imperial capital
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Legend of Zeno’s death by being buried alive, 491
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The world after 476, Odoacer’s new kingdom in Italy (brown)

Anastasius was born in the port city of Dyrrachium (today’s Albania) in 431 and was a speaker of Latin and here in this story, going with Dovahhatty’s version, when Anastasius’ mother was pregnant with him, she was struck with a curse but mostly overcame it before giving birth to him but the remains of this curse would stay with Anastasius later on in life and it affected him by secretly being a Monophysite in faith which was unpopular especially with the people of Constantinople which made them previously hate Zeno as he sided with them and thinking Anastasius would be pure Orthodox, little did they know that he was a Monophysite heretic deep inside.

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Anastasius I Dicorus, Byzantine emperor (r. 491-518)

At this time, politics in Constantinople was represented by 2 chariot racing teams, the blues and greens and though they cheered for their respective colors during races in the Hippodrome, these factions stood for two different ideologies; the blues stood for the ancient traditions, Orthodox faith, and conservative values while the greens stood for more radical values and the Monophysite faith and Anastasius as a secret Monophysite strongly supported the greens but shortly after becoming emperor, there had been a more legal candidate for the throne, Zeno’s younger brother Longinus who Ariadne previously considered marrying and Zeno’s Isaurian troops still in the city went on a rampage- as they usually did when drunk- in early 492 by bribing off both blues and greens to riot and proclaiming Longinus as their emperor though Longinus’ rebellion failed and he was exiled to Egypt but this led to the outbreak of war against the Isaurians. For the next 5 years, the Byzantine troops of Emperor Anastasius besieged the remaining Isaurian troops at their strongholds in the mountains of Isauria in Asia Minor and in this Isaurian War, Justin who would later be emperor rose up the ranks becoming a general, but here he too would suffer a fatal war wound on his chest. With the Isaurian War over in 497, Justin now promoted to a general returned home to his village in Tauresium seeing his nephew, his sister’s son Petrus for the first time and here Justin decided to adopt him and take him to Constantinople to be educated in the best of ways. It is not clear though when the young Petrus Sabbatius (Justinian) was brought over to Constantinople but it was clear that he was born as a peasant in the village of Tauresium though when creating this story through our role-playing, Justinianus here claims that the young Petrus travelled with his uncle Justin to Constantinople at age 15. No matter what version may be the right one here, Justin being uneducated and in fact illiterate saw hope for his nephew seeing he had potential to be a highly educated person who would bring pride to their family. When moving into Constantinople, Petrus would not only become highly educated, he would develop a dream like no one else had, a dream to restore the provinces of the west that fell to barbarian powers back to Roman rule, a dream to make the Roman Empire great again like it was when it was the supreme world power in the 2nd century. It was in Anastasius I’s reign when the dreadful 5th century ended and so did the 6th century begin in what everyone thought would be hopeful and when ruling the empire, Anastasius’ top priority was the economy so it would one day have enough funds to regain the lost western provinces.

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Follis coin issued by Anastasius I

In reforming the economy, Anastasius made policies to make sure everyone paid taxes in coin and to do this he had to devalue the currency in order to make coins of lesser value which led to the creation of the bronze coin or Follis so that everyone could pay up. In addition, he also abolished the unpopular tax for everyone who passed by Constantinople, abolished the unpopular tax that hurt the poor, but to literally save up, Anastasius cracked down on spending on games and public entertainment, which made him quite unpopular. In the meantime, Theodoric the Amal successfully took over Ravenna from Odoacer in 493 and after a failed negotiation, Theodoric killed Odoacer in front of everyone in the palace, thus Theodoric took over Italy founding his Ostrogothic Kingdom under the Amal Dynasty, his dynasty. Back in the east, when everyone thought the new century would be a hopeful one, Byzantium’s eastern neighbor the Sassanid Persian Empire in which they had always been paying tribute to for the longest time to avoid war demanded the Byzantines to double the tribute paid to them as the Sassanids ran out of funds to defend their northern borders against the same nomadic Huns that terrorized both Romans and Persians in the 5th century and here the Huns happened to be the Hephthalites or “White Huns”.

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Theodoric the Great, King of the Ostrogoths kills Odoacer in Ravenna, 493

Anastasius meanwhile refused to pay double to the Sassanid ruler or Shah Kavad I claiming that he needed to save money, though this triggered a massive war with the Sassanids at the Byzantine-Sassanid border which would be known as the “Anastasian War” named after the emperor which began in 502 when Kavad’s forces invaded Byzantium taking over the cities of Theodosiopolis and Amida in Armenia and this was the first full-scale Roman-Sassanid War since the failed campaign of Emperor Julian in 363. The Byzantine generals that led the armies against the Sassanids were Justin, Celer, Vitalian, and Anastasius’ nephew Hypatius and no matter how hard both sides fought, the war resulted in no conclusions and in 506, the Byzantines and Sassanids signed a peace treaty that only achieved reverting to having the same borders since the war started 4 years earlier. With the war over, Anastasius had the fortress of Dara at the Sassanid border in Syria constructed to further fortify it. While the war happened against the Sassanids in the east, the empire’s Danube frontier in the Balkans were left exposed allowing new enemies, the Slavs and the Bulgars to invade so in 507 to further protect Constantinople from their raids, Anastasius ordered the construction of the Anastasian Wall spanning from the Marmara Sea to the Black Sea which was a structure similar to Hadrian’s Wall in Britain.

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Diptych of Anastasius I, victory over the Sassanids, 506

It also happened in 507 that over in Gaul, the Franks led by their king Clovis I had defeated the Visigoths at the Battle of Vouille killing the Visigoth’s king Alaric II, thus taking over Southern Gaul and the Visigoth’s capital, Toulouse forcing the Visigoths down to Hispania which they would continue holding on to as most of Gaul fell to the Merovingian Frankish Kingdom. With Clovis’ victory at the battle, Anastasius seeing some potential in him as a Roman ally awarded him the title of Patrician and Honorary Consul and hearing of the Visigoths’ defeat to the Franks, the Ostrogoth king of Italy Theodoric fearing the expansion of the Franks made the fallen Alaric II’s son Amalaric the King of the Visigoths in Hispania being a puppet of Theodoric as Theodoric wanted to rule an entire Gothic Empire of Visigoths and Ostrogoths and with his puppet Amalaric in charge of Hispania, Theodoric now had control of Italy and Hispania.

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

Back in the Byzantine Empire, the now old Anastasius’ Monophysite side, which left its mark in his black eye, would be clearly shown when he deposed the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople in 512, though this again caused massive riots by the people and with his turn to the Monophysite faith, the general Vitalian rebelled in 513 taking over most of Thrace in the name of Orthodoxy and would turn out to be a difficult target to fight but in 515, Vitalian’s threat was taken care of as he went into hiding and it also happened in 515, that Anastasius’ wife Empress Ariadne had died. Anastasius himself had no sons except for an illegitimate one killed in a riot years ago so it was left to either of his 3 nephews Hypatius, Pompeius, and Probus to succeed him but being indecisive on who to choose, one day in 518 he summoned all of them to a room in the Imperial Palace and in there he hid a letter beneath one of the couches with the word Regnum or “reign” and whoever sat on it would be the next emperor, but none of them did so Anastasius changed the rule saying that the first person who enters the room the next day will succeed him, and that person was Justin, now the commander of the Excubitor palace guard force. The 87-year-old Anastasius I had died on July 9, 518 and was succeeded by Justin who now went from simple peasant to emperor, the true rags to riches story of the century while his nephew Petrus would now be ready to enter civil service after years of extreme education. Anastasius died after ruling the empire for 27 full years and with him died the dynasty of Leo I founded back in 457 but he had left behind a full treasury and together with the stability the empire achieved at the death of Zeno back in 491, the upcoming emperors had all they needed to make the Eastern Roman Empire a world power and other than stability and funding, all that was needed was one man with the drive and here Petrus was one step closer as his uncle Justin was now in power.            

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Map of Europe, 510 during the reign of Anastasius I (Byzantium in yellow)
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Reconstruction of the Anastasian Wall of Thrace, built in 507
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Franks defeat the Visigoths at the Battle of Vouille, 507

In 518, the world changed when the 68-year-old Justin I, a peasant became the Eastern Roman emperor and according to the most notable source of this era, the historian Procopius (who will appear later on), Justin as a peasant in origin was illiterate, uneducated, and unrefined only knowing about war as in career he was nothing but a soldier and though this historian Procopius speaks in such a biased way to the Justinian Dynasty, he seems to be telling the truth here about Justin since having no formal education, the old Justin I was certainly unrefined in character but as emperor he still wanted to do his part in ruling and knowing he cannot rule the empire alone, he depended highly on highly skilled advisors and among them was his now 36-year-old nephew Flavius Petrus Sabbatius who with his uncle now becoming the emperor he was adopted as his uncle’s successor and from here on, his name would be forever changed to Justinian meaning “son of Justin”.

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Justin I, Byzantine emperor (r. 518-527) by Dovahhatty

The truth behind Justin becoming emperor was that he used the bribe money given to him by Anastasius’ chamberlain to bribe to soldiers to acclaim the chamberlain as emperor, but Justin listening to his nephew’s advice used the bribes to pay off the soldiers to name him emperor and soon enough, Justin at a meeting with the Patriarch of Constantinople, senate, and city council he was recognized by all as emperor and crowned at the Hippodrome. Just 9 days after coming into power, Justin had his potential rivals assassinated and at the same time, the same general Vitalian who rebelled against Anastasius I returned to Constantinople but was soon enough assassinated by the orders of Justinian fearing Vitalian might rebel against Justin as well. The new emperor though lacking education was a devout and fundamental Orthodox Christian and as emperor, the policies he issued himself all had to do with strengthening the faith of Orthodoxy and persecuting the heretical Arian and Monophysite Christians in the army and state but perhaps his greatest achievement shared with his nephew Justinian in 519, the final resolution of the Acacian Schism with the Church of Rome that lasted for 36 years. In his uncle’s reign, Justinian got his chance to rise up the ranks as first he succeeded his uncle in his position as the head of the palace guard force or the Comes Domesticorum, he was then elevated to the rank of patrician, and then consul in 521 and around this time, Justinian finally met the love of his life, the actress Theodora after he spent all his life alone studying jurisprudence, theology, and Roman history day and night on how to be a great emperor, receiving first rate education in Constantinople.

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Justinian as a young man studying, by Dovahhatty

As a young man, Justinian was quite hot tempered especially as an overly enthusiastic fan of the blue faction in the chariot races and being a leading member of the blues faction, a female friend of his who was a belly dancer named Macedonia who served as an informant for him informed him of a young woman of extreme beauty and perfect shape, an actress from the blue faction named Theodora who was her friend whom she met in Antioch. Now the origins of Theodora are conflicting as the 12th century historian Michael the Syrian claims she was born in Syria while another source claims she is a Greek-Cypriot from Cyprus, though in this story’s case, Theodora was originally from Cyprus and a speaker of Greek born there in 500 during the reign of Anastasius I. Theodora’s father Acacius was a bear trainer for Constantinople’s green faction but he died when she was very young leaving her unnamed mother to raise her 3 daughters and Theodora was the middle child as she had an older sister Comito and a younger sister Anastasia and when they were all very young, their mother desperate for work presented them to the leader of the blue faction to accept her and her daughters as actresses for their faction and from here on Theodora would become a strong supporter of the blues. Now again, the historian Procopius had usually slandered Theodora in her years of being an actress as a prostitute sleeping with men of high and low birth and performing sexual acts on stage as a mime actress, although what this meant was that in that time, actresses were seen as equivalent to prostitutes and were at the bottom of society unlike today where actresses have turned into international celebrities with the best treatment.

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Theodora as an actress by Jean-Benjamin Constant

At 16, Theodora travelled to North Africa and later to Antioch where she grew closer to the Monophysite faith and in 524, she finally met Justinian in Constantinople and in only a few days they fell in love, and for Justinian here, this was the first time in his life that he would be in love with someone, yet he was already 42 years old2! Now the existing law said that patrician men- in which Justinian was at their rank now- could not marry women from outside their rank which included actresses but Justinian knowing that Theodora was destined to be his empress convinced his uncle to pass a new law which decreed that reformed actresses can marry men outside their rank if approved by the emperor and Justin being old and having no legal experience just passed this new law through his nephew’s guidance and this here was Justinian’s first experience in drafting laws which he would be most famous for later on. As for the emperor Justin, he continued paying tribute to the Sassanids and tried maintaining peaceful relations with the Ostrogoth King of Italy Theodoric the Great that Justin even took in Theodoric’s son-in-law Eutharic to Constantinople and made him a consul in 519 though he died in 522. Though the actual war with the Sassanid shah Kavad I was at a halt, the Byzantines and Sassanids resolved to fighting proxy wars that involved religion and Justin as well as his nephew Justinian were always at it to defend Orthodox Christianity and one of them involved a faraway land in the south of the Arabian Peninsula known as the Kingdom of Himyar (today Yemen), a Sassanid client state wherein the contemporary chronicler John Malalas (491-578) claimed that Byzantine Christian merchants there were robbed and put to death by their Jewish king and seeing the torture victims return to Constantinople, Justin listening to his nephew Justinian’s advise3 sent word to the Christian king Kaleb I of the Kingdom of Aksum in Ethiopia to invade the Himyarite Kingdom.

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King Kaleb I of Aksum

In 525, the Himyarite Kingdom was destroyed when Kaleb I crossed the Red Sea with the help of Byzantine ships and invaded Himyar annexing it to Aksum and making it Christian. Back with the Sassanids, the shah Kavad I asked if his youngest 12-year-old son Khosrow be adopted by Justin to secure his legitimacy over Khosrow’s older brothers who Kavad did not favor though Kavad also believed that if his son were adopted by Justin then Khosrow would inherit both Sassanid and Byzantine empires as Kavad knew that Justin had no male heir, but little did Kavad know that Justin’s nephew was destined to succeed his uncle. Now the one thing many may not know about was that Justinian had something like a step-brother which would later be his Persian mortal enemy ruler Khosrow although Justin did not adopt Khosrow as a son but instead as a barbarian hostage, and Justin’s treatment of Khosrow insulted Kavad making him begin making preparations to wage war against Byzantium again. Nothing much is said about the time when Justinian grew up with a step-brother he so despised so this part of the story will be made up here and since Justinian was way older than the teenage Khosrow, they had never really gotten along as Justinian was already too busy in actually running the empire for his uncle except that young Khosrow here would learn the art of statecraft the Byzantine way in Constantinople. Since the schism with the Papacy in Rome was already solved back in 519, between 525 and 526, the pope John I visited Constantinople to re-crown Justin I then spending Christmas and Easter with him but when returning to Italy later, Pope John I was immediately thrown in prison by the now extremely paranoid King Theodoric for the reason of favoring the Byzantine emperor over Theodoric, the pope would then die within only a few days of being in prison.

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Pope St. John I

Now Theodoric was an extremely devout Arian Christian and he ruled his Kingdom of Italy very successfully even more than it was under Odoacer before him as if it were like the Western Roman Empire again in terms of culture considering Theodoric grew up in Constantinople educated by the general Aspar who basically controlled the empire before his death in 471, except the people of Italy who were mostly Roman resented the rule of Theodoric especially since he and his army were Arian Christians while most of his people were Catholic-Orthodox and now at an old age, the paranoid Theodoric began persecuting Orthodox Christians in his kingdom in order to assert the dominance of his Arian faith in it though in 526, Theodoric the Great died and was succeeded by his grandson Athalaric, the son of Theodoric’s daughter Amalasuintha and the same Eutharic who died in Constantinople in 522 and with Theodoric’s death, the Ostrogoths of Italy lost control over Visigoth Hispania. Around the same time as Theodoric’s death was the massive earthquake of Antioch I 526 that came close to destroying the entire city and killing some 250,000 people though Justin here responded by sending money to have the city rebuilt in which its process would take years. Justin however only named Justinian his successor in April of 527 as Justin was already close to death, though Justinian had already been running the empire for quite some time as Justin had already gone senile and on August 1, 527 the 77-year-old Justin I died of his war wound from back in the Isaurian War of the 490s and now it was Justinian’s time to rule as the sole Roman Augustus with Theodora as his empress.

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Map of the Sassanid Empire (yellow) beside the Byzantine Empire (blue)
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Map of the Himyarite Kingdom (right in red) annexed to the Kingdom of Aksum (left), 525
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Theodoric the Great’s Kingdom (pink), Burgundian and Vandal Kingdoms (dotted), Byzantine Empire (purple)
Theodoric enters Rome in the year AD 500
Theodoric the Amal “the Great” in Ravenna

The Early Reign of Justinian I (527-540)

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It was here on August 1, 527 when Justinian I came to the Byzantine throne ruling as a “palace emperor” since for all these years he had trained to be emperor, he met talented people along the way that he knew could run the empire without him having to be everywhere and these talented men he met along the way included a brilliant young general named Flavius Belisarius who here at only age 22 was appointed as Magister Militum or master of the army. Belisarius was born in 505 in Thrace (part of today’s Bulgaria) and like Justinian, was of low birth but already at a young age, he joined the army and soon enough his talents were recognized by both Justinian and his uncle Justin who was still emperor then.

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Emperor Justinian I the Great (aka Flavius Petrus Sabbatius)

Belisarius though only became an active commander 3 years later in 530 but prior to that, he had come up with a totally innovative development for the army, the creation of the Bucellarii cavalry unit and making them the core of the army and these cavalrymen were equipped with both composite bows and lances in battle. Right when Justinian came to power in 527, Belisarius now appointed as a general was assigned with a legal assistant and secretary, which is this story’s villain Procopius, a Palestinian Greek from Caesarea born in 500 who would later study law at the academy of Berytus (Beirut) and later at Constantinople and though he admired the talent of Belisarius, he envied Justinian for becoming emperor and not him as Procopius thought that if Justinian who was of low birth could become emperor, and so could Procopius, and in the case of this story, this is why Procopius would slander Justinian and anyone close to him in the works he wrote.

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Flavius Belisarius, Byzantine general

It also happened that when Justinian succeeded Justin to the throne, the Sassanid shah Kavad I forced the people of the Kingdom of Iberia (Georgia) at the border of the Sassanid and Byzantine Empires to convert to Zoroastrianism but their king back then fled to Justin I’s Byzantium to make peace though this here insulted Kavad who was later even more insulted when his son Khosrow was adopted by Justin not as a son but a barbarian hostage so in retaliation against the Byzantines, Kavad invaded through Syria and when Justinian became emperor, he immediately sent his generals Belisarius and Sittas east to defend the border. Sittas is someone of obscure origins but together with Belisarius, they had met and became friends with Justinian serving under him as part of the Excubitor imperial guard force in Justin I’s reign and just like with Belisarius, Justinian too saw great talent in Sittas. Initially, Belisarius and Sittas’ forces were defeated by the Sassanids but not giving up, they both expanded their army with the use of Hunnish mercenaries as well as the barbarian people from the far north (probably Scandinavia) which were the Heruli, as well as the Arab people that lived at Byzantium’s border at the Arabian desert which were the Ghassanids who by Justinian’s orders converted to Christianity. Belisarius knew that the Sassanids and in fact all enemies of the empire would lose to fear due to the presence of the Huns as it had been tried and tested in history such as when the Western Roman general of the 5th century Flavius Aetius effectively used them to defeat the barbarian invaders in Gaul and seeing how much fear the Hunnish cavalry could bring, Belisarius made these Huns occupy half of the cavalry with the other half being his Bucellarii.

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Belisarius’ Bucellarii cavalry

When heading east, the army split up with Sittas heading to Armenia to fight the Sassanid forces there while Belisarius was to head to Syria where the main forces of Kavad attacked from. In 530, Belisarius and his men set themselves up at the same fortress of Dara built by Anastasius I two decades ago. According to Procopius, before the battle began, the Sassanids sent one of their strongest warriors to challenge Belisarius in single combat but rather than Belisarius, his slave who he personally trained in combat to be a wrestler named Andreas fought and killed this Sassanid warrior and killed another one the next day, and though this may be fictional, in this story’s case it was true and here Andreas rather than being a slave was a simple warrior from the mountains of Isauria working under Belisarius and his feat in single-handedly taking down two of the toughest Sassanid warriors made him make a name for himself. The actual battle soon enough began when the Sassanid forces mostly consisting of their Cataphract cavalry and their allies, their client kingdom being the Lakhmid Arabs of the desert to the south of them charged at Belisarius’ men but Belisarius responded by just laughing as he had his men already dig up trenches to prevent the cavalry from clashing on them and when the Sassanids got trapped in the trenches, the Huns and Heruli cavalry of Belisarius charged straight at the Sassanids, thus the Byzantines and their allies won the Battle of Dara despite this day being extremely hot (45 oc).

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Sassanid and Byzantine forces clash at the Battle of Dara, 530

At the same time as Belisarius won this decisive victory, Sittas in the north won another one against the Sassanids at the Battle of Satala in Armenia and both victories further infuriated Kavad so in retaliation, Kavad sent 20,000 of his cavalry forces to attack the now vulnerable Antioch that had just been devastated by the 526 earthquake. Before the Sassanids arrived in Antioch, Belisarius had his men counter-attack them, though some of the older officers that envied his talent charged ahead without orders and got crushed by the Sassanids here at the Battle of Callinicum in 531 leaving Belisarius to take care of the battle but still failed as these officers had already ruined it. Belisarius at least survived while the Sassanid forces had to return east to their empire as their ruler Kavad here in 531 had died. Belisarius then returned to Constantinople while Justinian with Kavad’s death was relieved that he could send his step-brother Khosrow who he despised so much back to his empire to die as Khosrow’s older brothers were all staging a civil war against him.

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Khosrow I, Shah of the Sassanid Empire, unknown step-brother of Justinian I

Now in the past years that Khosrow had lived in the imperial palace of Constantinople, despite not being treated as part of the imperial family, he saw it with his own eyes how much gold was left behind in the treasury by Anastasius I which he then saw as the best way to cripple Justinian and his ambitions which Khosrow already knew Justinian had. In 531 when Khosrow returned to his empire, he managed to defeat all his brothers and ruled the empire even stronger than is father did after learning some empire management skills from the Byzantine court and knowing how much gold the treasury had, he demanded that Justinian pay him 11,000 pounds of gold a year as this was to be an “eternal peace”, and Justinian here agreed to it as long as the Sassanids used it to pay off the Huns at the northern border to keep them further away from the Byzantines.