10 Inventions You Should Know That Came From the Byzantine Empire

Posted by Powee Celdran

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Welcome back to another article from the Byzantium Blogger! This time, it is time again for a bit of break from extremely long and highly researched articles and stories spanning the entire 1,100-year history of the Byzantine Empire (330-1453), therefore time for a quick yet entertaining top 10 list, this time on Byzantine inventions. Now, the Byzantine Empire among the many things it was known for, was known to have come up with a series of spectacular inventions including items we know very well up to this day, however not many know these items date back to the Byzantine era and were created by the Byzantines themselves. Some inventions in the Middle Ages including Greek Fire would immediately be associated with Byzantium when first hearing about especially when one is familiar with Byzantine history, however there is more than just Greek Fire when it comes to items the Byzantines created throughout the existence of their empire. These spectacular creations include larger than life architectural styles such as the pendentive dome and simple everyday items like the fork, and other than that, a lot of civil laws, scientific theories like the Theory of Impetus and that of the round earth and time zones, religious doctrines and icons, and the Cyrillic Alphabet can be attributed to Byzantium too. This article however will be only limited to the material inventions of the Byzantine Empire whether they were for architectural, warfare, or daily life purposes, therefore we will not include Justinian I’s Corpus Juris Civilis or “Body of Civil Laws”, spiritual innovations of the Byzantines which would include religious icons, political innovations like the Thematic System, and scientific theories despite them being of great importance even up to this day. Now if you remember from 2 years ago, I did a similar article to this (check out Forgotten but Significant Byzantine Science and Technology), however this previous one was more related to science as it included not only inventions but scientific theories made by the Byzantines in their history, while this one will basically be limited only to material inventions. Although just like that previous article, this one will also be heavily inspired by the book A Cabinet of Byzantine Curiosities by Anthony Kaldellis, and since a lot of these inventions were discussed in the 12 chapters of my recent Byzantine Alternate History series, these chapters will be linked as well in the list of these inventions. Before starting off, I would like to remind you all that this article would seem rather amateur and less researched than the previous ones I made, mainly because this one was just a spontaneous piece I just suddenly thought of writing for now.

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Map of the Byzantine Empire at 3 different eras; greatest extent in the 6th century (red line), in 1025 (pink), and by 1360 (red)

I. Pendentive Dome         

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Pendentive dome of the Hagia Sophia from the interior

Possibly the most famous landmark from the Byzantine Empire which still exists up to this day is the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople which is famous for its massive and high dome, and this type of dome design is known as the Pendentive Dome.

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Pendentive dome design of the Hagia Sophia

The pendentive dome now is a construction solution that allows a circular dome to be built above a rectangular floor plan, and although the Romans before the rise of the Eastern Roman Empire based in Constantinople in 4th century had already come up with a number of early designs of this kind of construction plan in which known examples of this include the Pantheon in Rome built in the 1st century, these Ancient Roman pendentive domes were only prototypes and not as high and large as the dome of the Hagia Sophia itself. Shortly after Constantinople’s founding in 330, the original structure of the Hagia Sophia was already present, however it was a much smaller church without a dome and following the Nika Riot of 532 during the reign of Emperor Justinian I the Great (r. 527-565), most of the city including the original Hagia Sophia was burned down, thus Justinian sought to rebuild it from scratch into a much larger structure with a dome higher than everything else.

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Anthemius of Tralles and Isidore of Miletus, architects of the Hagia Sophia

To build this cathedral, Justinian left the job to two brilliant architects being Anthemius of Tralles and Isidore of Miletus, and in only less than 6 years (532-537), the entire church with the dome included was completed due to having thousands of workers constructing the building day and night and lots of wealth brought back to Constantinople as war spoils from the Byzantine conquest of the Vandal Kingdom in North Africa (533-534). The dome of the Hagia Sophia looked as if it was suspended in midair without any pillar to support it by connecting its middle part to the ground, instead its architects used a solution of building 4 semi-domes or pendentives on the 4 corners below the main dome in order to hold it up. Though no matter how impressive the structure was, the dome itself when completed was unstable that the historian of the 6th century Procopius of Caesarea who saw the cathedral built with his own eyes writes “the piers on top of which the structure was being built, unable to bear the mass that was pressing down on them, somehow or suddenly started to break away and seemed to be on the point of collapsing”.

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Emperor Justinian I the Great of Byzantium (r. 527-565), acrylic painting, art by myself

True enough, following the great earthquake in Constantinople in 557 when the Justinian I was still ruling, the foundation of the Hagia Sophia was weakened, and in the following year (558), the dome itself collapsed. In 563, the dome was rebuilt by the architect Isidore the Younger who was a nephew of its original architect Isidore, and by the time Justinian I died in 565, he at least saw the dome of his cathedral that he put a lot of attention into making completed. Back in the Byzantine era, the dome itself was not only impressive from the outside but from the inside as well, as its interiors were filled with gold mosaics while its base had 40 windows forming a circle that let light in, and the dome was in fact so impressive that people from all over the world were in awe when coming to Constantinople basically because of it. In the 10th century, ambassadors from the Kievan Rus’ Empire (includes today’s Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia) sent by their Grand Prince Vladimir I the Great (r. 980-1015) when seeing the dome, suggested to Vladimir that he and his people must convert to Orthodox Christianity as it was their faith that had the most spectacular place of worship being the Hagia Sophia with its dome. The dome meanwhile had a diameter of 33m and a height of 55m from the ground, and for about a thousand years until the 15th century, it would be the world’s largest dome until the one of the Cathedral of Florence which is the Santa Maria de Fiore was completed in the 1430s. The style of the Hagia Sophia of Constantinople’s dome meanwhile would also be the basis for the architectural plans for many Greek Orthodox churches in the centuries to come, and after the Ottoman Empire captured Constantinople from the Byzantines and took over the Byzantine Empire, the Hagia Sophia with its pendentive dome would be the basis for the architectural plans for many of their mosques as well.

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Cross-section of Constantinople’s Hagia Sophia, interior and exterior
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The Hagia Sophia, built in the 6th century under Emperor Justinian I

Read Byzantine Alternate History Chapter III- 6th Century.

II. Cross-in-Square         

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Cross-in-square Byzantine church plan

Other than the pendentive dome, another architectural style especially used for churches that can be attributed to the Byzantines was the Cross-in-Square plan, in which many Orthodoxy churches use this kind of style. This kind of plan consisted of a basic square shape with 4 halls in the middle of it being the naves intersecting each other forming a cross while above the intersection area at the middle was the church’s main dome, while the 4 different corners of the square sometimes had their own domes as well, thus this kind of church architecture would usually have 5 domes in total, however there are many variations to this design, therefore not all churches in this cross-in-square plan have this said plan, but this said plan was the standard design for these churches. This kind of style was developed by the Byzantines from the 9th to 10th centuries which took the place of the former long Basilica style of churches which consisted of a great hall with an apse at the end, and as I recall from the History of Byzantium Podcast by Robin Pierson, in one of its earlier episodes it is said that this kind of compact style of churches was more preferred in the Eastern Roman Empire as a lot of their churches were built over tombs of early Christian martyrs, therefore it had this kind of style while churches in the western world such as in Italy and other parts of Western Europe used the long rectangular Basilica as they were based on the Ancient Roman Basilica structures as the western world on the other hand too did not have that much tombs of early Christian martyrs compared to the east. In the Byzantine world, the cross-in-square style of church was first introduced with the Church of the Nea Ekklesia built between 876 and 880 by Emperor Basil I the Macedonian (r. 867-886) which was part of the Imperial Palace Complex of Constantinople, however this structure does not exist anymore today as in 1490 when Constantinople was under the Ottomans who used this former church as a gunpowder storage room, it exploded when it was struck by lightning. However, the earliest cross-in-square style church in Constantinople that still exists up to this day is the Church of the Theotokos dating back to 907/908 constructed under Basil I’s son and successor Emperor Leo VI the Wise (r. 886-912). At this day, this kind of plan can be seen in many Orthodox churches whether dating back to the Middle Ages or to more recent times all over the Orthodox world especially in countries like Greece, Macedonia Serbia, and Bulgaria.      

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Example of a Middle Byzantine era cross-in-square style church
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Church of the Theotokos, Constantinople

III. Pointed Arch Bridge          

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Byzantine era Karamagara Bridge, Turkey, built in either the 5th or 6th centuries

When it comes to bridge building, the Byzantines too apparently had made innovations to it as well, and one style they had created for bridges was the pointed arch bridge, which as basically a long bridge over a river or other kind of body of water with arches supporting it that are not just a regular semi-circle arches, but arches that narrow at the top forming a point. Now the reason why we conclude that the pointed arch bridge was invented by the Byzantines is because the earliest known pointed arch bridge is in the region of Cappadocia dating back to either the 5th or 6th century where Cappadocia at that time was under the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire. This bridge in Cappadocia was the Karamagara Bridge which however unfortunately became submerged with the completion of the Keban Dam in 1975, but before that, it was an impressive bridge crossing the Euphrates River with just a single pointed arch over the river spanning 17m yet holding up the entire bridge without any mortar between the stones that was used in creating the arch. When this bridge was completed in either the 5th or 6th century as part of the Roman road to the city of Melitene in Asia Minor, an inscription was written on the eastern edge of the arch in Greek which is a passage from Psalm 21, verse 8 from the Bible which says “The Lord may guard your entrance and your exit from now and unto all time, amen, amen, amen”, and although this inscription may have nothing really to do with the bridge, it shows that in this part of the empire, Greek was the mainly spoken language. Of course, in the centuries to come, the pointed arch bridge style would become more and more common, and there are many notable ones you can find that still exist such as the Mostar Bridge in Bosnia built by the Ottomans, and apparently the pointed arch design for bridges had happened to be one of the many things the Ottomans had carried over from the Byzantines before them.

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Example of a Byzantine era pointed arch stone bridge

Read Byzantine Alternate History Chapter II- 5th Century.

IV. Ship Mill          

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Medieval ship mills, original one created by the Byzantines during the 536-537 Siege of Rome

The ship mill, as a means to create milled wheat for flour in order to make bread by the use of a boat on a body of water is credited to the 6th century Byzantine general Flavius Belisarius (505-565) as recorded by the same historian Procopius mentioned earlier who was a secretary of Belisarius.

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Flavius Belisarius (505-565), Byzantine general in Justinian I’s reign, art by Amelianvs

Now Belisarius who was the famous general that served Emperor Justinian I was a military genius not only in the battlefield but in coming up with creative means in order to win including digging trenches to slow down the enemy cavalry as seen with him during the Battle of Dara in 530 against the Sassanid Empire, lighting up campfires across the hills to scare off the enemy to make it seem the Byzantines had a larger army as seen in his campaigns against the Ostrogoths in Italy in the late 530s, and by beating trees in order to release giant gas clouds to scare off the enemy as well in his last battle in 559 fought against the Kutrigur Huns. Another genius solution Belisarius came up with was the ship mill in which he created in 537 after taking over Rome from the Ostrogoths, however the Ostrogoth army led by their king Vitiges attempted to recapture Rome while Belisarius and his army were within, and in order to starve out Rome’s population and Belisarius’ Byzantine army, the Ostrogoths cut off the aqueducts supplying water to Rome, which not only cut the water supply but disabled the mills to create flour as the water from the aqueducts powered the mills too.

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Belisarius and his army

To not make the people starve and to keep his troops strong, Belisarius had the mill wheels of Rome moved to where the current of the Tiber River was the strongest, and here he stretched two ropes across the river as tight as possible attaching them to many boats with the wheels attached to them. This invention then proved successful as the river’s current was strong enough to power the wheels in order to grind the wheat creating flour, and thus the population of Rome and the army had a sufficient food supply despite the city being blocked off by the Ostrogoths’ siege. The Ostrogoths however fought back by tossing logs and the bodies of their dead soldiers into the river which made it into the walls of Rome jamming the mill wheels. Belisarius in return hung chains stretched tightly across the arches of a bridge which then proved successful in stopping the debris and dead bodies thrown by the Ostrogoths, thus resuming the operations of the mills allowing the population to continue being fed, and by late 537, the Ostrogoths lifted their siege of Rome as Belisarius and his army chased them away to the north. Following the success of the ship mill used in Rome, this invention would later spread across Europe as a new way for creating flour that not too long after it reached Paris in 556, Geneva in 563, and Dijon in 575. Between the 8th and 10th centuries, ship mills too became a popular means of milling wheat in the Arab world and common in the rest of Europe as well, although little did they know that this effective means of milling wheat came from the mind of a brilliant Byzantine general.

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Belisarius at the 536-537 Siege of Rome, art by Amelianvs

V. Greek Fire         

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Byzantine navy using Greek Fire against the Arab fleet, 717-718 Siege of Constantinople

When hearing of the Byzantine Empire, usually the naval superweapon of Greek Fire would be one of the first things that comes into a lot of people’s minds, and true enough this was one of the most cutting-edge innovative things the Byzantines had created that only they, and no one else had made, as true enough this weapon was a heavily guarded state secret as it was the secret weapon that saved the empire from ultimate destruction a number of times.

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Emperor Constantine IV of Byzantium (r. 668-685)

Greek Fire (Hygron Pyr in Greek) first came into use during the 674-678 Umayyad Arab Siege of Constantinople where the Syrian refugee Kallinikos made it right in time for the event during the reign of Emperor Constantine IV (668-685), and although this Arab siege basically consisted of on-and-off attacks by the Arab army and fleet, it was with Greek Fire used for the first time on the ship of the emperor Constantine IV himself that was able to relieve Constantinople from the siege. Greek Fire was basically an incendiary weapon that served as a kind of flame-thrower blowing out a sticky kind of fire that could even stick to the water which is why some Byzantine chroniclers call it “sea fire” or “liquid fire”. This weapon not only destroyed enemy ships by burning them but struck fear into the enemies that the enemy armies fighting against the Byzantines at sea when seeing Greek Fire would jump to the sea in fear and would not die really from the fire but by drowning. The fire then came from a liquid mixture which was heated in a brazier, pressurized by a pump, and lastly ejected through a large siphon against the enemy. The Greek Fire now wasn’t entirely this mechanism but the liquid fire formula the mechanism used, however the formula of Greek Fire being kept as a heavily guarded secret remains to be a mystery, but it is most probably a mixture of petroleum, pitch, sulfur, pine or cedar resin, lime, and bitumen, while some even speculate that it even had gunpowder in it due to how the fire could explode.

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Greek Fire operated by the Byzantine navy

The operators of this weapon would then be a very elite force of the imperial guard and only this unit could operate it as the weapon was overall meant to be a secret, however the operation process was a difficult one as the cannon that fired the liquid fire was heavy and unwieldy while the range of the fire was very short, therefore when the weapon was mounted on a ship it needed to be up close to the enemy ship in order for it to be fully effective, and at the same time the weapon was only very effective when being used on a ship when the sea was calm and the wind blew from behind the ship. Although the weapon may have been difficult to use, it defended Constantinople a number of times including against the more massive Umayyad Arab siege from 717-718 and in a massive naval battle near Constantinople against the fleet of the Kievan Rus’ navy in 941. On the other hand, there were many variations of the Greek Fire weapon as well, as long as it used the same formula, and these included Greek Fire that could be stored in grenade jars and thrown at the enemy or hand-held cannons ejecting the same kind of fire known as a Cheirosiphon which was mostly used during sieges as a medieval version of the modern flamethrower. Now it is unclear when the Byzantines discontinued the use of Greek Fire or if they never discontinued it at all, although one theory says that the secret of Greek Fire was lost before the 4th Crusade captured Constantinople in 1204, though Greek Fire could have also been used in 1453 in the defense of the city before it fell to the Ottomans.

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Operation process of Greek Fire
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Greek Fire used for the first time at the 674-678 Arab Siege of Constantinople
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Byzantine navy using Greek Fire against the Rus’ fleet outside Constantinople’s Walls, 941
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Hand-held Greek Fire (Cheirosiphon), art by Amelianvs

Read Byzantine Alternate History Chapter IV- 7th Century.

VI. Incendiary Grenades           

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Surviving evidence of Byzantine era grenades

Other than using a large cannon as an incendiary weapon, the Byzantines too had used grenades as another means of using Greek Fire, and shortly after the successful defense of Constantinople against the Umayyad Caliphate Arabs from 717-718 during the reign of Emperor Leo III the Isaurian (r. 717-741), the soldiers who had defended the city had come to realize that Greek Fire could not be only be projected by flamethrowers, but could be thrown in stone and ceramic jars as well, thus leading to the creation of grenades.

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Sample of a Byzantine era grenade

Over the years, the Byzantines had developed different versions of this exploding weapon such as in storing the flammable substance that Greek Fire was made of into small or large clay jars and pouches used as grenade shells that could be hurled at the enemy, and over time Byzantine soldiers developed a tactic by loading their catapults with these grenades as a way to besiege walled cities, which true enough proved to be effective. Other than using flammable substance, these grenades also dispersed sharp objects or shrapnel as well as smoke when exploding, and in the following centuries, this kind of weapon was adopted by armies of the Islamic world who also developed different forms of these incendiary grenades, and archaeological evidence as well shows that in the 13th century there was a grenade workshop in Syria showing that by this time, the use of grenades became popular in the Islamic world. Even in the video game Assassin’s Creed Revelations– which I said a number of times was one of the many things that introduced me to Byzantine history- which is set in 16th century Constantinople under the Ottomans, you have the option to craft a large variety of these kinds of grenades when playing it, while in one mission you actually get to operate the superweapon of Greek Fire from a ship.

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Arab armies using the Byzantine warfare tactic of throwing grenades

Read Byzantine Alternate History Chapter V- 8th Century.

VII. The Fork         

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Byzantine era forks

Now if the Byzantines could create larger than life inventions from large domes without any central support to superweapons that could not be rivalled by anything in its time such as Greek Fire, the Byzantines too had made inventions very small and simple yet very important to our daily lives, and such inventions like this include the fork. Now for those who aren’t familiar with the fork and its origins, it certainly does date back to the Byzantine Empire, and although I’ve written about the fork and its Byzantine origins a number of times, I would like to discuss it again here, as recently I have made new discoveries about the fork’s Byzantine origins. Just recently, I had posted on my Facebook page my photos of the Byzantine Collection of the Dumbarton Oaks Museum in Washington DC, and part of this collection included a Byzantine fork, and in the comments of this post someone asked if the fork was really a Byzantine invention as it only first appeared in France in 1315 at the royal court, while someone here replied saying that the Byzantines have been eating using a fork ever since the 4th century, thus it took a full thousand years for an item as simple as this to be adopted in other parts of the world. Now the fork has been a utensil used by the Byzantines ever since the beginning while the rest of Europe had no idea about it, thus for a long time everyone else but the Byzantines had been eating with their bare hands and a knife, that also recently I have just heard a saying from Serbia which was also part of the Byzantine sphere of influence that “while a German would still use his fingers to eat, in the middle ages, a Serb picks his food with the fork”. For the longest time- such as in Ancient Rome- the fork was only used to serve dishes, while it was only in the Byzantine era after the 4th century when it became a personal utensil for eating, and it was only in the 10th century when the Byzantines first introduced this item to Western Europe.

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Theophano Sklerina, niece of John I Tzimiskes and wife of the future Holy Roman emperor Otto II

This happened in 972 when the Byzantine princess Theophano Sklerina, the niece of the Byzantine emperor at that time John I Tzimiskes (r. 969-976) married the future Holy Roman emperor in Germany Otto II, and the people of the imperial court in Germany when seeing the fork for the first time being used by Theophano did not get the idea of it, thinking it was all useless as they already had their hands to do the job of picking up the food and bringing it to their mouths. Another story of the Byzantines introducing the fork to Western Europe happens in 1004 when another Byzantine princess being Maria Argyropoulina married Giovanni Orseolo, the son of the Doge of Venice Pietro II Orseolo, and during their wedding feast Maria used a two-pronged golden fork to eat the food. The Venetians meanwhile who saw her eating with it also did not get its concept thinking it was in fact blasphemous while some members of the clergy there had said “God had provided humans with natural forks being their fingers, therefore it was an insult to substitute them with artificial metal ones for eating”. In 1007, just 3 years after their marriage, both Maria and Giovanni died from a plague in which the Venetians claimed that Maria’s early death was a result of her disrespecting God by eating with a fork. Nowadays, we cannot imagine eating certain things without a fork, and to this we have to thank these Byzantine marriages to rulers in different parts of Europe as over time, these marriages with Byzantium would lead to the spread of the fork across Europe, and from there to the rest of the world.

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Byzantine spoons and a fork, Dumbarton Oaks collection

Read about my take on the Dumbarton Oaks Byzantine Collection here.

VIII. Hand-Trebuchet and Counterweight Trebuchet         

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Byzantine army using a trebuchet, Madrid Skylitzes

The Byzantines themselves were adept at siege warfare with weapons like Greek Fire and incendiary grenades, but the other kind of siege weapons they have developed as well and were skilled at were trebuchets, which was a type of catapult used for hurling large stones and missiles during sieges. The unique catapult design of the hand-trebuchet first appeared in the Byzantine Empire during the 10th century, which was Byzantium’s golden age of warfare when they had turned the tide of war against the Arabs from the defensive to the offensive.

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

This hand-trebuchet (Cheiromangana in Greek) was basically a staff sling mounted on a pole using a lever mechanism to propel projectiles which could be operated by only one man and was first advocated as a siege engine in an open battlefield by the military emperor Nikephoros II Phokas (r. 963-969) in 965 during his campaigns against the Arabs in Asia Minor and Syria. This weapon too had been mentioned in the Taktika or military manual of the Byzantine general Nikephoros Ouranos in around 1000. Aside from this small single-man operated trebuchet, the Byzantines not too long after this weapon was invented had also been apparently the first ones to use the much larger and more complex counterweight Trebuchet, which was basically a massive catapult with a heavy weight on the opposite side of the projectile to balance it.

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Niketas Choniates, Byzantine historian (1155-1217), recreation of the original manuscript depicting Choniates, art by myself

This weapon is first recorded in the work of the 12th century Byzantine historian Niketas Choniates (1155-1217) who first mentions the use of this weapon during a siege in 1165 taking place in the area of the Danube River border, and that this weapon here was equipped with a windlass, which was an apparatus used for moving heavy weights that earlier trebuchets such as the traction or hybrid ones did not use when launching missiles. However, this counterweight trebuchet was also said to have appeared even before 1165 being introduced at the Byzantine-Crusader Siege of Nicaea in 1097 during the First Crusade against the Seljuk Empire wherein the Byzantine emperor then Alexios I Komnenos (r. 1081-1118) was credited for having invented it together with other artillery weapons, and with this weapon he made a deep impression on everyone whether Byzantine or Crusader.

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Counterweight trebuchet, first recorded in Byzantium in 1165

Read Byzantine Alternate History Chapter VII- 10th Century.

IX. Hospitals          

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Medicine in the Byzantine era

Apparently, even the concept of a hospital was created by the Byzantines, however even way longer before the birth of the Byzantine Empire in the 4th centuries, hospitals were already existent in Ancient Greece, Rome, and in other civilizations, although hospitals back then were only mere places for people to die or for soldiers wounded from battle to be treated. The Byzantines now came up with the concept of hospitals being an institution to offer medical care and possible cures for patients due to the ideals of Christian charity which played a very important role in Byzantine society. In Byzantine Constantinople itself, there were a number of functioning hospitals with one such example being a structure found between the two important churches of the Hagia Sophia and Hagia Eirene that connected them, and this here was the Hospital of St. Sampson in which its structure however does not exist anymore today. Hospitals in Byzantium meanwhile were mostly associated with monasteries; thus, hospitals were usually found within monastery structures with another notable one being the 12th century Pantokrator Monastery in Constantinople (today the Zeyrek Mosque) which was founded in 1136 by Emperor John II Komnenos (r. 1118-1143) and his wife Empress Irene of Hungary, and back then it was one of the most impressive structures of its time with possibly the best medical services in the empire, if not the entire world. This structure contained not only a monastery but a church, library, hospital, and mausoleum for the Komnenos emperors. Its hospital meanwhile had 50 beds and 5 wards with one for women, 2 doctors per ward with a number of assistants, a chief pharmacist, and a female doctor with female nurses for the female ward. Salaries for male and female nurses here were equal, but for doctors the salary for the female ones was half of their male counterparts. The Pantokrator hospital too had a complete set of medical equipment including lancets, cauterizing irons, catheters, forceps, tonsil knives, tooth files, scalpels, rectal speculums, uterine dilators, rib saws, clysters, tweezers, needles, and something called a “skull-breaker” used possibly to break a dead fetus in order to make its extraction easier. With all these kinds of medical equipment as well as in having female doctors, the Byzantines too were an advanced society in medical matters, but one major innovation the Byzantines too had in medical matters was that they were the first to successfully carry out the operation of separating conjoined twins where the first known case of it took place in the 10th century. In this case, a pair of conjoined twins lived in Constantinople for many years and when one twin died, surgeons removed the dead one and its result was partially successful as the one that was alive still continued living for 3 more days, while the next known case of separating conjoined twins happened so many centuries later in 1689 in Germany.

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Recreation of the Hospital of St. Sampson between the Hagia Sophia and Hagia Eirene, Constantinople
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12th century Pantokrator Monastery and Hospital in Constantinople, art by myself
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Separation of the conjoined twins in 10th century Byzantium, Madrid Skylitzes

Read Byzantine Alternate History Chapter IX- 12th Century.

X. Mechanical Throne, Lions, and Tree          

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

The type of self-operating mechanism known as an Automaton had already existed a lot earlier before in Ancient Egypt, Greece, and China, but it was in Byzantium where this mechanism was the most impressive as it was used to elevate a throne, while the lion sculptures that flanked the throne as well as the golden tree were able to operate on its own. Now before writing this article, I asked for suggestions on Byzantine inventions, and apparently someone mentioned the mechanical throne, and so I decided to put it here. The Byzantine automaton being the mechanical throne was mentioned in 949 when the Italian ambassador Liutprand, the Bishop of Cremona visited the imperial court of Constantinople wherein the Byzantine Empire here was ruled by Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos (r. 913-959).

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

Here, Liutprand when meeting the emperor Constantine VII had mentioned “lions, made either of bronze or wood covered with gold, which struck the ground with their tails and roared with open mouth and quivering tongue, a tree of gilded bronze, it’s branches filled with birds, likewise made of bronze gilded over, and these emitted cries appropriate to their species, and the emperor’s throne itself which was made in such a cunning manner that at one moment it was down on the ground, while at another it rose higher and was to be seen up in the air”. What Liutprand here said was that the lion statues on both sides of the emperor’s throne made a roar by itself with the actual sound of the lion, while the birds on the artificial tree next to it sang with the actual sounds of birds, but what was most impressive was that the throne of the emperor itself actually rose up to the air with the emperor as well. This same emperor Constantine VII too confirms in the book he wrote being De Ceremoniis that these mechanical items were present in his throne room at the Imperial Palace in Constantinople. An Ancient Jewish legend however says that King Solomon of Israel using his wisdom designed his throne room to look exactly like this with mechanical animals and a throne that could be elevated, however there is not much proof about this unlike how we have written evidence about Constantine VII’s mechanical throne and sculptures in which its design was definitely inspired by Solomon’s throne room. Now, the big mystery is how the Byzantines were actually able to record the sounds of these animals to make it so exact to fit the artificial animals in the said throne room.

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King Solomon’s throne room with mechanical lions

           

Now with all these fascinating cutting-edge inventions, it truly does show that the Byzantines had a lot of creativity as well as the ability to come up with solutions at difficult times, and usually these difficult situations allowed the Byzantines to create powerful inventions like no other including weapons like Greek Fire and incendiary grenades. On other occasions, the Byzantines created such inventions including the pendentive dome and the mechanical throne as a way to assert the power of their empire and Orthodox faith as these domes were built for their churches to emphasize the power of the Orthodox Church, and the mechanical throne for the imperial throne room to assert the authority of its emperor. Other times, the Byzantines created these innovations out of necessity such as the ship mills, other times out of charity such as the concept of hospitals as a place to recover and not plainly to just die, while other times they created such things to make life easier such as the fork. Now no matter how much the Byzantines have created in their empire’s existence and no matter how great these inventions were, Byzantium does not really get the credit they deserve for coming up with these brilliant inventions, and it is for this reason why I suddenly came up with this short article. These days, we usually eat with forks, have hospitals, and have buildings with domes that seem to be floating in the air, but little do most of us know that the Byzantines played a major part in making these things possible, therefore again this article was made to let you viewers know more about Byzantium’s role in these items in which some are still relevant up to this day. On the other hand as well, there could possibly be more inventions made by the Byzantines that we don’t know much about including the beacon system and so much more, and so it is up to you viewers to comment if I missed out on any other inventions. Anyway, this article was rather quick as this was just a spontaneous article wherein an idea to do this just popped out in my head, which is why I just said whatever came to my mind when writing this without much thought or heavy research in the process. Before finishing off, I would like to greet you all viewers Happy Holidays in advance, and again this is Powee Celdran, the Byzantine Time Traveler… Thank you for viewing!       

The Legacy of the Byzantine Empire- An Epilogue to the Byzantine Alternate History Series; Featuring Interviews with 3 Byzantine History Enthusiasts

Posted by Powee Celdran

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Byzantine Time Traveller logo

Welcome back to the Byzantium Blogger! It’s now been over 2 weeks since I finished the final chapter of my 12-part Byzantine Alternate History series that had been going on for almost 8 months! Now since I have just finished the finale (chapter XII) of my 12-part Byzantine Alternate History series, I thought that it would be a great idea to do an extra special edition article to share my thoughts on the entire series I made (beginning in February and finishing in September of this year), how it taught me more about the very fascinating history of Byzantium and enriched the passion I had for it for over 2 years now. If you have been following my site, then perhaps you would recall that almost a year ago I came up with a similar special article like this when finishing off 2020 (read it here) wherein I discussed my personal story with Byzantine history and what it meant to me, as well as my learnings from it wherein I also announced that I would be doing an alternate history series for Byzantium for 2021. Now, this article will be something similar to that, except this one would be simply limited to my journey in writing the 12-part Byzantine Alternate History series, and since I am very much tired as of now considering that I completed writing all chapters, this article itself will not be as articulate in words as the chapters of the series, basically this article you will read is just me talking regularly. On the other hand, as we also finish off another quarter of this year 2021, I decided once again to do it with another special edition article, whereas this year I have already come up with two previous end of quarter articles, the first one being an interview with 5 friends on their thoughts on quotes from the Byzantine era despite them not being really familiar with it, and the next one being my own personal ranking of the 12 centuries of Byzantine history from my own personal best to least. This special edition article would then be as I said a reflection on all the 12 chapters I have previously written which covered the 12 centuries of Byzantium’s history with one chapter per century from the 4th to the 15th. By having over 1,100 years of history, the Byzantine Empire (Eastern Roman Empire) surely had gone through so much ups and downs, colorful characters that defined it, encountering all sorts of people from beyond, and so many changes both in territory and culture that would make it look like their empire’s history had gone such a long way that with about a thousand years going by, its history a thousand years earlier may have in fact seemed like that of a totally different country’s history altogether! Just as the Byzantine Empire and its history kept on evolving over these 12 centuries, the same can be said with my journey through these 12 centuries when putting all of them into 12 different stories over the months. From February to September of this year, I have gone through a very amazing yet challenging journey of writing 12 different alternate history scenarios for each of the 12 centuries of Byzantine history, and throughout these months I have somewhat gone through the same kind of ups and downs the Byzantines had gone through in their history, and in my case of writing this 12 part series, I have simultaneously been doing a social media campaign to spread awareness on the history of Byzantium where I have come across many groups on Facebook to share and gain new knowledge on Byzantine history, posted numerous posts on my Instagram to share some bits and pieces of Byzantine history, and as I always did since before create some videos in which I have shared on my Youtube channel No Budget Films. At the same time as I have written my 12-part series, I have created several artworks on historical figures and locations from the Byzantine era, and additionally throughout these past months that I have been sharing new information on Byzantium through Instagram and creating my alternate history series, I have also come across many channels and podcasts that made me learn more about the rich history and met so many interesting people along the way through social media who share similar interests as I do, especially in the very rich and complex history of Byzantium. As this article will be something to do about discussing the great legacy of the very colorful Byzantine Empire that still lives on up to this day, I will be interviewing 3 different people that I have come across over the past months on their thoughts about Byzantine history and how they can still see its legacy up to this day by asking each of them the same 3 questions, although each of them will be asked a separate 4th question after answering the 3. Much like the post I made several months ago wherein I interviewed different people on the history of Byzantium, this post would be something similar, although unlike the last one wherein I was asking people their thoughts on Byzantium despite knowing very little of it, for this one I will be interviewing those who are not only very familiar with it but passionate about it the way I am, thus the questions I will ask will be quite complex ones that only those who know Byzantine history very well can answer. This article will then begin off with my interviews on these 3 different Byzantine history enthusiasts and their thoughts about Byzantium’s history and legacy, then I will move on to my own personal journey throughout the time I wrote my 12-part series wherein I would like to share a behind-the scenes story of writing the 12 chapters including all the ups and downs I went through while immersing myself deeper into Byzantium’s history together with a bit about what other things I have been up to as I wrote my 12-part series, as well as the Byzantine themed artworks I made throughout the months. Afterwards, I would then move on to the lessons I learned from both the 12 centuries of Byzantine history and from my personal journey in creating content on Byzantium which for me was a very new experience as even though I have been into Byzantine history for the past 2 years and have posted articles about it, it was only this year when I began making myself public in sharing the history of Byzantium through social media. Lastly, this article will also have my thoughts on how I see the legacy of Byzantium living on up to this day, and then some updates on what I would do next now that I have completed my 12-part series, as after all my Byzantine journey is still continuing to go on.

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Read the 12 chapters of Byzantine Alternate History Here:

Chapter I- Roman Victory at the Gothic War (376-382), 4th Century

Chapter II- Preventing the Fall of the Western Roman Empire 4 Years in Advance, 5th Century

Chapter III- Justinian the Great Saves his Empire from the Plague and Personally Joins his Campaigns, 6th Century

Chapter IV- Constans II Relocates the Imperial Capital to Sicily, 7th Century

Chapter V- Emperor Artavasdos, the Unlikely Hero, 8th Century

Chapter VI- Irene and Charlemagne, the Wedding of the Century, 9th Century

Chapter VII- A Retelling of the Bizarre Byzantine Renaissance and the Macedonian (Amorian) Dynasty, 10th Century

Chapter VIII- A Byzantine Victory at the 1071 Battle of Manzikert and its Impact on the Empire, 11th Century

Chapter IX- Preventing the Catastrophic 4th Crusade in Advance, 12th Century

Chapter X- The 2nd Bulgarian Empire Captures Constantinople in 1235, 13th Century

Chapter XI- The Serbian Empire Takes Over and Saves a Dying Byzantium, 14th Century

Chapter XII- Constantinople Surrenders to the Ottomans in 1453 in Order to Buy Time to Buy Time to Start a Crusade and Recapture it, 15th Century


The Interviews         

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First of all, I shall introduce the 3 different interesting individuals that will be interviewed for this article, and although they may come from different parts of the world with their own different stories and world-views especially on how they see and want to share this rich history, they share a common passion for Byzantine history. The first of the interviewees is Flavian the Historian, a young Byzantine history enthusiast, artist, and influencer who had sharing and promoting knowledge on Byzantine history through his Instagram account (follow him on Instagram @flavianthehistorian) for more than a year now, and earlier on this year when I just started out with my own Byzantine history account similar to his, he was one of the first ones I followed and in return followed me due to having similar ideas, and on the other hand other he also shares engaging Q&As on his stories while he too has a number of interesting artworks on Byzantine historical figures which includes his drawing of the last Byzantine emperor Constantine XI in which I included in chapter XII, the grand finale of my series.

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Emperor Constantine XI Palaiologos, art by Flavian the Historian

The second of the interviewees is Akitku (follow him on Instagram @akitku), another artist who does a lot of medieval era including Byzantine themed artworks and has also published the Crusades era fan fiction comic book Brothers’ Keepers’, and for many months I have also followed him on Instagram as he never fails to come up with interesting artwork whether medieval Western European or Byzantine, while I have also included some of his artworks in chapters III, VII, and VIII of my series such as his illustration of Constantinople’s Hippodrome and the chariot racing factions, his Emperor Justinian I the Great illustration, and General Bardas Phokas illustration.

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Chariot racing at the Hippodrome of Constantinople, art by Akitku

The 3rd and final of the interviewees is no other than the illustrator of both the recent Byzantine era graphic novel Theophano: A Byzantine Tale and 1821: The Beginning of a Revolution Chrysavgi Sakel (follow her on Instagram @chrysasakel). Although she says she isn’t very much knowledgeable about Byzantine history, she comes from a country where the Byzantine legacy is very strong which is Greece, while she has also done many Byzantine themed illustrations both for her graphic novels and for the Youtube channel Eastern Roman History.

Now, as for how the interviews will work, I will post each question separately and below them will be each of their own responses to the respective 3 questions, and once these 3 questions and each of their answers are done, I will move on to the bonus question in which each of the 3 interviewees will be given their own different question.

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The Hagia Sophia’s interiors from Theophano: A Byzantine Tale, art by Chrysa Sakel

The Questions

1) In our present day, where can you still see the influence of the Byzantine Empire?

Flavian: In our present day we can still see the influence of the Byzantine Empire on the territories that it once ruled over, and especially in the region of Southeastern Europe. With the castles, the great walls around cities like Constantinople or Thessaloniki, and also the Byzantine churches and monasteries. These are the direct material heritage from the Byzantine Empire, but we have also immaterial heritage like the famous Byzantine chants that are still sung in the Orthodox Church. There is also the Byzantine art that is preserved by the Orthodox. There are a lot of things that are coming from the Byzantine Empire and I can’t cite all of them. The Byzantine Empire conserved and passed on the rich Greco-Roman culture, which had a very important influence on the Western civilization. Indeed, with the fall of the empire, the savants fearing the Ottomans fled to the west with the knowledge that the Byzantines had preserved and thus they participated to the Renaissance. As the Empire of Christ, Byzantium evangelized the Slavs, who are indebted to it for the creation of the Cyrillic alphabet, and the Orthodox faith is still present today. In Italy, Ravenna owes to Byzantium its famous basilicas with their sparkling mosaics, while Genoa and Venice have inherited Byzantium’s diplomatic genius.   

Akitku: To me, the Byzantine influence can be seen in historic architecture in many countries around the Mediterranean: Greece, Turkey, Bulgaria, Southern Italy, Israel, and Syria. Byzantine architecture also influenced the art and architecture of other cultures. The Cyrillic alphabet is another Byzantine legacy and is still used in much of Eastern Europe. Also, many public institutions such as state-funded public hospitals, universities, bureaucratic records, and attempts at legal transparency took place in Byzantium earlier than they did in Europe, and I think they might have been a strong influence for Western states, which is completely unknown or ignored.  

Chrysa: It can be seen almost everywhere around me since I live in a country with a heavy “Byzantine” legacy. The vernacular Romaic written in the Epic poem “Digenes Akrites” isn’t much different from the modern Greek spoken today in my country. Most of the religious celebrations like Easter are celebrated in the same manner as centuries ago. Our traditional Greek dances and music have a lot of influences from the “Byzantine” period. Many traditional Greek recipes come from that time too.

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The Byzantine Legacy- The Land Walls of Constantinople

2) Do you think the history of Byzantium deserves more attention and awareness all over the world such as in being made into popular movies or series?

Flavian: I think that yes, the Byzantine Empire deserves way more attention, because of its big role and influence on the Western civilization. Now, making movies and series about it, I am not opposed, I would really like to see a movie about Justinian, or Basil II for example! But now, I’m fearing that there could be some derivatives where they are historical inaccuracies, or that the movie will be objectively bad and thus making a bad advertising on Byzantium. But I hope that something like that will not happen, and I would really like to see a good series about this topic!    

Akitku: I think it would be great if people learned more about the Byzantine Empire, especially about its developments and culture, not just its start and fall.

Chrysa: Definitely. I think right now Byzantium is on a steady path towards getting more and more historical attention. It’s very important to communicate the idea of the Roman legacy. To make a wider audience understand that the Romans actually survived and have a long medieval history that ends in the 15th century. This could make Byzantine history more catchy to a wider audience. Maybe then, we’ll be able to watch some really exceptional movies and series set in the medieval Roman era.

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The Byzantine Imperial Palace Complex of Constantinople, art by Ediacar

3) What are the greatest life lessons you have learned from the history of Byzantium?

Flavian: In the history of Byzantium, we can find all the different lessons in life. Because of course of its long history, and so there is a big variety of life lessons. Now, if I have to cite some of them when I think specifically about Byzantium, I would say that you must know how to combine strength and spirit. The mastery of letters with the mastery of weapons. You must have one same coin with two faces. The one face is the material domain, and the other the spiritual domain. You can’t have the one without the other, unless you want to become a monk, where you have to be entirely devoted to the spiritual domain. But on a greater scale, you can see that those two characteristics are present, especially on the Byzantine Empire! And I think that’s one of the reasons for its great longevity. 

Akitku: I think one of the main lessons from Byzantium is that internal divisions and corruption can lead to the destruction of great and culturally advanced communities. I think that it also shows that an advanced culture provides protection and help to its weakest members (the poor, orphans, etc.), in many ways I think this made the Byzantine Empire rather unique.

Chrysa: I wouldn’t say I am knowledgeable of Byzantine history. But one thing that comes to mind about the history of Byzantium is that whenever a person wants to achieve something, it doesn’t matter who they are, they will achieve it. Someone may say that the political system allowed it but still we have seen peasants becoming emperors, eunuchs controlling the empire, and women taking charge of a male dominated empire. So in our much evolved today’s society I believe it’s up to everyone to legally follow their dreams and make them true.

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Byzantine court life from Theophano: A Byzantine Tale, art by Chrysa Sakel

Bonus Questions

How do you feel about young people such as yourself being fascinated with and promoting the history of Byzantium?

Flavian: I am very glad to see that the Byzantine Empire is still fascinating those young people, and that we are not alone! Especially on our times, where sadly the majority of young people pass their time to do things that are useless, that doesn’t improve them culturally and intellectually. That’s why I’m very proud of those young historians who are being fascinated with the Eastern Roman Empire and are promoting it! They are transmitting this rich and precious knowledge to others, and in this way, they are keeping the flame of the Byzantine Empire burning, as if it had not been extinguished since the fall of Constantinople on the tragic day of May 29, 1453.

If the Byzantine Empire survived up to this day, how would things be like?

Akitku: This is something I wonder about quite a lot. I think it sort of depends on how it would survive, for example how much of it would survive in terms of geography. But overall, I think it would maintain its character as a blend of East/ West. I assume that Orthodox religion would still play an important role in its identity though I don’t think it would be a religious state. More like modern Greece, I think it would be a secular state in which the Orthodox Church would still be significant culturally. I imagine it would be advanced but also quite classical in terms of art and education.    

If there was one thing you would want to change in Byzantine history, what would it be?

Chrysa: I would probably try to stop the beginning of the Iconoclasm. So many invaluable works of art were lost during that time just like after the 4th Crusade. I think if Iconoclasm did not happen, everything that came later would be totally different, including the Crusades.


 

Behind the Chapters- My Personal Journey Writing the 12-Part Series       

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Since early 2019 I have already been writing Byzantine era articles for my own site which is this one, however I have never come across writing an alternate history story relating to Byzantine history the entire time I have been doing blogs on Byzantine history. From 2019 to 2020 I have written numerous articles on Byzantine emperors, culture, society, warfare, fashion, travel destinations such as Constantinople and Ravenna, and even cuisine, however it was when I came across writing all these said topics when I began thinking of doing something different, thus I thought of coming up with what if kinds of stories for Byzantine history. Now, even before I have started becoming passionate about Byzantine history in 2019, I have already been fascinated with what if kinds of stories especially if it had to do with history like Roman history, as before getting into the history of Byzantium, I was very much interested in its predecessor the Roman Empire. Additionally, in 2020 I have discovered the Youtube channel Dovahhatty and his series the Unbiased History of Rome, in which its name is very misleading and it is true enough a very biased but still very fun series of Roman history from Rome’s founding in 753BC up to the Byzantine Empire in the 7th century told through memes and animation, and it was through this series that I was soon enough inspired to write an alternate history series for the history of Byzantium.

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Icon of Dovahhatty

It was in December of 2020 when the idea first came into my head to do an entire alternate history series, though not for the history of Rome, but for the history of its successor the Eastern Roman Empire or Byzantium, although it was particularly one of Dovahhatty’s videos which was Episode XVII- Imperial Wrath of his Unbiased History of Rome that got me inspired to do a kind of alternate history fan fiction. This particular episode was set in the 4th century history of the Roman Empire, which I would already consider part of Byzantine history, as I would mark the history of Byzantium’s beginning with the establishment of Constantinople by Roman emperor Constantine I the Great in 330, while this video took place after Constantine I’s death in 337 thus focusing on the following events with its climax being the death of the Western Roman emperor Valentinian I in 375 from a stroke caused by his own anger followed by a massive migration of the Goths from the north resulting in war with the Romans leading to a catastrophic Roman defeat at the Battle of Adrianople in 378.

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Roman defeat to the Goths at the Battle of Adrianople, 378

When carefully watching this video over and over again, it made me come to think that if the emperor Valentinian I in 375 did not die out of his own anger, then perhaps he would have been around to defeat the Gothic invasion of the Roman Empire that happened after his death in reality, as true enough Valentinian I was a strong and capable warrior emperor who would have enough experience in fighting barbarians in order to fully beat the Gothic invasion unlike his brother Emperor Valens who in real history tried to crush the Goth’s invasion but failed dying at the Battle of Adrianople. After thinking of this particular what if scenario, I eventually came to think that there would be a lot of others in the following centuries after the 4th that I could do what if stories on, thus I eventually came to conceptualize two other what if kinds of stories in Byzantine history with one being in the 5th right after the first story, and the other in the 13th century.

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Logo of my channel- No Budget Films

In addition, from October to December of 2020, I have also been doing a 3-part Byzantine history audio epic for my Youtube channel No Budget Films which was the 57 Years: Byzantium in Exile set in the 13th century during the 57 years (1204-1261) when the Byzantine Empire temporarily vanished as the 4th Crusade took over Constantinople, and when doing this audio epic series (watch episodes here), I also came to conceptualize an alternate history scenario taking place in that era. Before 2020 came to an end, I then finally came to decide that for 2021 I would do a series wherein each of the 15 centuries of Byzantine history gets its own alternate history story, and since there are 12 centuries in Byzantine history (4th to 15th), I had decided to come up with 12 different stories, as after all I came to realize that the best way to tell the story of Byzantium is to tell it per century, while each century in Byzantine history too is a story of a different ruling dynasty. It was then in January of this year when I finally decided what each of the 12 stories would be including the what if scenario, and in addition it was also right when this year began when I launched my Byzantine history Instagram account Byzantine Time Traveler wherein I was at first reluctant to start one, but when starting it I got the hang of it to the point of already putting my life into it, and though I had quite a steady although hopeful start with quite a small following and a lot to expect in the next months to come, I just began with posting old photos of different Byzantine era travel destinations that I have been to including Constantinople (Istanbul) and Ravenna with very short and simple captions. However, the moment I launched my Byzantine history Instagram and began writing for the first chapter for my new series, everything changed, and thus there was no going back as for the next 8 months, I would experience a very interesting and meaningful although very challenging journey especially when it came to promoting my Byzantine history content online and trying to get the people I am close to be aware of it. On the other hand, from January of this year onwards I would also come across many things I would call external elements beyond the chapters I wrote and this would include movies and series I have watched, places I have travelled to, people I met whether physically or online, and so much more which added to the inspiration in writing the 12 chapters of my series. Not to mention, as I was in the process of writing my 12-part alternate history series, I was also doing an additional project which was the continuation of my Youtube audio epic from last year, in which this year’s continuation series The Last Roman Dynasty would also cover Byzantine history from the 13th to 15th centuries although not told as an alternate history story, but still it was also quite a challenge as my mind would be on two different eras of Byzantine history at the same time until my alternate history series which I worked on much faster would catch up with the era my audio epics were set in.  

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Constantinople in the Byzantine era artwork, artist unknown

           

For my 12-part alternate history series, I thought it would be the best choice to write it in chronological form meaning that it would begin with the origins of Byzantium’s history in the 4th century and end with its fall in the 15th, thus I would chronologically go over 12 centuries in a span of 7 months. Now although the first chapter of my 12-part series was published on February 11 this year, the conceptualizing and writing process for it began about a month prior to that in January, however I still waited for an entire month to publish it as even though I fully wrote the story itself, I was still thinking of how to systemize the rest of my alternate history series while at the same time I was also busy laying the foundations for my Byzantine history account which was progressing quite slowly only reaching 100 followers by the end of January, then at the beginning of February I also created my own Facebook page for my Byzantine history Instagram account.

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Theophano: A Byzantine Tale graphic novel by Spyros Theocharis

On the other hand, for the first 3 weeks of this year I was reading the new Byzantine era graphic novel Theophano: A Byzantine Tale (2020) that I was so excited about, which was true enough a very fascinating read that I even made a review on for my site (read it here) which included my own fan casting for the novel’s characters, and luckily for me the creators even shared it on their Instagram and Facebook page. The article that I made reviewing the graphic novel was then the very first one I published for this year, even before publishing the first chapter of my alternate history series, and at the same time I also created my first Byzantine history themed artwork by the end of January which was a chart of the structure of the late Roman military from the late 3rd to 6th centuries, which was surprisingly a very great hit on the Facebook groups I shared it to that it in fact got hundreds of shares which I only discovered months after I first shared it, and true enough this drawing of mine is one of the first results you see on Google images when searching “Late Roman Military Structure”. This drawing would then also be used as a guiding illustration for the first 3 chapters of my alternate history series as these first 3 chapters prominently featured the late Roman army which is the drawing’s main subject. What then took long for me to publish the first chapter happened to be the system of my alternate history series, but at the end I still finalized how the system would be like wherein each story has its own alternate history scenario wherein they do not continue to the next chapter, but rather each chapter begins with events that took place in real history and will only be altered as the story progresses.

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The Byzantine chi-rho symbol

The first chapter would then already begin the system I would use for the next 12 ones wherein each chapter and its sections begin with the Byzantine Empire’s chi-rho symbol, a disclaimer at the beginning, optionally a quote from the era the respective chapter is set in, the Byzantine Empire’s flag and maps at the intro section, links to my social media accounts and other related articles, related videos, and images wrapped into the texts of the paragraphs as well as features of artworks relating to the respective century the chapter was set in by various online artists in which already began in chapter I. Another thing I have done for my series’ first chapter that would then be a standard for the next 11 chapters would be my own illustrations of the leading characters for each story- in which I was inspired by the Theophano graphic novel which begins the story with illustrations of the story’s leading characters- though the one for the first chapter featured a total of 27 character illustrations as true enough the story featured so many characters including Western and Eastern Romans and Greuthungi and Thervingi Goths wherein the characters’ background colors depended on the country/ empire they came from.

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Sample of the Byzantine Alternate History chapters’ character illustrations

As for the first chapter’s story, I would say it was quite simple to write it as most of it basically just featured battle sequences while its setting being the 4th century was not a really complicated one considering that the century’s story basically only focuses on the Roman Empire and its neighbors in which they never really had much of except for the powerful Sassanid Persian Empire to its east and the Germanic tribes such as the Goths in the north which here were being chased west into migrating into the Roman Empire’s borders by the westward expansion of a new mysterious enemy, the Huns. When writing the first chapter, I also set a standard for my series which was in giving a background and context to the story’s setting, although for the first chapter I wrote the background in a very simple way just to mention Constantinople’s and therefore the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire’s establishment by Emperor Constantine I the Great in 330, the aftermath of his death in 337, the origins of the Goths in Central Europe and the spread of the Arian Christian faith from the Roman Empire to the land of the Goths, and the rise to power of the general Valentinian in 364 who then became emperor of the western half of the Roman Empire appointing his brother Valens as the emperor of the eastern half based in Constantinople.

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Western Roman emperor Valentinian I (r. 364-375)

Now the main premise for the first chapter’s story wherein I was inspired by Dovahhatty’s video was to have the western emperor Valentinian I who in real history died in 375 from a stroke caused by his own anger escape death and live long enough to see the massive Gothic migration into the Roman Empire in the following year (376) in which he was not alive to see happen and possibly stop it and save the empire from breaking apart. True enough for the story’s climax I had Valentinian survive 375 although only meet up with his brother and eastern co-emperor Valens in 378 when the war between the Roman Empire and the invading Goths was already in full-scale. For chapter I however, the main highlight I really put a lot of attention to in writing was really the action scenes wherein I wrote its climax being the 378 Battle of Adrianople as a massive epic battle in this story with both brothers Emperors Valentinian and Valens teaming up together with their respective Eastern and Western Roman armies against the hordes of the Gothic king Fritigern and his toughest warriors. At the same time, I also included as many named characters as I could for this chapter’s epic battle and these included notable Romans of this time including Arbogast, Stilicho, and Theodosius despite them not yet rising to prominence by the time of the Battle of Adrianople in 378, while another thing I did here for experimenting was in blending in an entirely fictional character into the historical setting which here was the female Gothic warrior Valdis.

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Emperor Theodosius I (r. 379-395), last emperor of a united Roman Empire, art by myself

Although chapter I was more or less plainly an action epic story without much depth, I also thought of adding a few elements of drama and betrayal such as an entirely fictional scenario of the future Roman emperor Theodosius I- who in real history came to power in 379- betray Rome and join forces with the Goths feeling he would gain greater power with the Goths, while also since I began writing this chapter shortly after season 3 of the Netflix series Cobra Kai was released, I put in a few references to the show in the story considering that both had the same kind of action epic genre in common. Now for the endings, I always end each chapter with the side of the Romans (Byzantines) winning despite them losing in real history, thus chapter I ended with a Roman victory at the Battle of Adrianople, although I ended the story discussing possible outcomes from this Roman victory in which I just chose to keep the question hanging. When the entire article was finished and published on February 11, I immediately shared it on social media considering that this era where the story was set in which is the Late Roman era is a popular one more so compared to later centuries in Byzantine history, thus it received quite positive feedback especially in the Late Roman Group on Facebook where one commented saying the idea of Valentinian surviving and living up to 378 to beat the Goths was a good and interesting idea no one has ever thought of considering that Valentinian was a strong warrior emperor that rarely lost battles against barbarians, however chapter I also got some mixed feedback as when I shared it in the comments of the channel Eastern Roman History in his video about the Valentinian Dynasty, someone commented saying that in a way my article was not professional enough as it quoted the rather comedic parody historian Dovahhatty, which was quite hilarious. With the first chapter completed, I then felt that there was no more going back and so the rest of my Byzantine journey continued, both in social media and my blogs.

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Visual guide to the Late Roman army’s structure, art by myself
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Goths settling in the Roman Empire, 376
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Late Roman era legionnaires in battle
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Defeat of the Romans to the Goths at the Battle of Adrianople, 378

Right when conceptualizing chapter I’s story, I was already conceptualizing what I would write for chapter II, and even before writing the series I already knew what story the 2nd chapter would feature, again thanks to Dovahhatty. Chapter II’s what if scenario was then inspired by Dovahhatty’s finale The Fall of Rome which was Episode XIX of his Unbiased History of Rome series, which was a rather unknown scenario in the 5th century history of Rome regarding a secret letter which in real history was discovered thus leading to the death of the dying Western Roman Empire’s last strong and competent emperor Anthemius in 472, and afterwards leading to the collapse of Western Rome just 4 years later (476), an event everyone who basically does not know about Byzantium remembers as the fall of Rome. Although between the completion of chapter I and the beginning of writing chapter II, I had another Byzantine history project ongoing which was the first video for my new 2021 series The Last Roman Dynasty for my Youtube channel, thus the challenge here was shifting my mind between the 5th century where the 2nd chapter of my alternate history series was set in and the late 13th century where this video (Part I: Michael Palaiologos’ Imperial Restoration) was set in, although luckily I have already written the script for this video back in January before even writing the first chapter, and thus between publishing chapter I and II, I uploaded this 43-minute video being the first for this audio epic series which is still ongoing up to now.

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Flag of the Western Roman Empire, 395-476

When writing the second chapter, true enough I wrote its background and most of the story’s main part with such great speed as I already knew the history of the 5th century Roman Empire very well due to both taking notes in advance based on other videos of this era including time-lapse videos on the fall of Western Rome in the 5th century and of course memorizing it after watching Dovahhatty’s Fall of Rome over and over again. It was also here when doing Chapter II wherein I first came across the history related Youtube channel Thersites the Historian which I would then use as a reference for the rest of the entire series up to the end, as his videos do indeed explain the complicated parts of history including the reigns of each and every Byzantine emperor up to the 11th century in complete detail, thus for chapter II it proved to be such a great help.

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Western Roman and Foederati (barbarian allied) soldiers, 5th century

For chapter II, it was also easier as I just used the same formula I used for chapter I, while I again did the individual character illustrations for the story’s main characters, although unlike in chapter I wherein I did a complete set of 27 character illustrations, for chapter II I only did 20 which was still a lot, as unlike in the previous chapter, chapter II did not have all these characters all have a big role at the same time but rather in different time settings, as chapter I’s story basically just focused on a time setting from 375 to 378, whereas chapter II covered the entire 5th century up to the 460s in its background section to establish the rise of the Germanic barbarians and the rapid decay of the Roman Empire due to the barbarian migrations and invasions, the permanent split of the Western and Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empires in 395 after the death of Theodosius I who was the last emperor of a united Roman Empire, political instability in the Western empire, the apocalypse being the invasion of Attila the Hun and how it just faded away, and the last days of Western Rome wherein the Germanic barbarians basically just won and sought to destroy the empire both from within and beyond. On the other hand, the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire was at relative peace for most of the 5th century that they managed to survive the threat of Attila; thus, the Byzantines do not have much of an exciting story until the latter part of the 5th century. For me, I personally find the 5th century one of the most interesting in Byzantine history which is why I ranked it as 2nd place in my article of ranking the centuries- with the 10th century as first place- and due to my strong interest in this century which is however not a very much popular one in Byzantine history, I put a lot of attention into writing chapter II.

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Emperor Leo I (Leo Marcellus) of the Eastern Roman Empire (r. 457-474)

Chapter II was then another action-packed epic story where its main part then took place beginning the 460s when both the Eastern and Western Roman Empires are controlled by powerful barbarian generals acting as kingmakers wherein the emperors are just puppets to them whereas the east is practically ruled by the Gothic general Aspar who was the power behind the 3 consecutive eastern emperors Theodosius II (r. 408-450), Marcian (450-457), and Leo I (457-474) while the west is ruled by the Gothic general Ricimer, the undefeatable puppet-master. However, in the east, Aspar’s puppet Leo I turns out to have no desire of being a puppet and while he sent his friend and once rival, the Eastern Roman Anthemius to the west to rule it as his puppet emperor, Anthemius still falls under the influence of the powerful Ricimer in which both become each other’s enemy. This chapter too features the unexpected rise of the Germanic Vandals from a small tribe to the masters of the Mediterranean in only a few decades under their king Genseric that they were in fact able to seize the Roman fleet, sack Rome in 455, control most of the Mediterranean, and defeat the combined fleet of the Eastern and Western Roman Empires numbering up to 1,000 in 468.

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Emperor Anthemius of the Western Roman Empire (r. 467-472)

At this very chaotic time, the Vandal king Genseric also acts as a kingmaker to the failed state of the Western Roman Empire, and as Genseric pressures Leo I of the east to recognize his own Roman puppet Olybrius as Western emperor, as the Eastern emperor had the power to make a Western emperor being his puppet a legitimate one, Leo soon enough breaks free from Aspar’s influence and kills Aspar finally becoming an independent emperor and thus saving the Eastern Roman Empire from falling to barbarian influence and allowing it to survive, while he also encouraged his Western puppet Anthemius to do the same, thus Leo pretends to accept Genseric’s demands to make Olybrius the western emperor, though in fact Leo had happened to send a secret letter to kill both Olybrius and Ricimer and thus save Anthemius and the Western Roman Empire. In real history, Ricimer intercepts the letter in advance, proclaims Olybrius as his new puppet emperor, and murders Anthemius who he began to believe was too independent and could not be controlled. In this alternate history story however, Anthemius gets the letter in advance and kills both Ricimer and Olybrius, thus the Western Roman Empire continues to live on but at a cost, as my alternate history story would discuss a possibility of a world war before it was even a thing to erupt between the Eastern and Western Romans against a united coalition of barbarian tribes considering that the 5th century was the era of the rise of the barbarian powers.

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

Chapter II did also feature interesting characters of this era including the Isaurian general Zeno who was Leo I’s successor who may have been unpopular due to his heritage of coming from a mountain tribe in Asia Minor but at the end in real history saves the Eastern Empire from falling to barbarians like the west did in 476, while in the alternate history version Zeno too succeeds Leo and takes part in the fictitious world war all while the Western Roman Empire too lives beyond 476 in the story. Now I also have to admit that it was chapter II that I enjoyed writing a lot that when writing it, I got so immersed into the world of the Late Roman Empire, although on the negative side the era this chapter was set in barely had online images relating to it making this chapter be the one in the entire series with the least images, however this made me immerse more into the time setting as without the images, I basically had to imagine life back then, while also the what if I chose was a very obscure one compared to maybe writing an alternate history story in this era wherein Rome does not get sacked by the Vandals in 455, however the more obscure what if story made me enjoy writing it even more. Chapter II was then completed and published on February 28 and shared on social media 2 days later, and the most memorable part was that I completed and shared this chapter not at home or nearby but while I was on a road trip at a very remote place which then lasted for more than a week, and because of finishing this chapter while on a trip, my mind throughout the trip was still in the 5th century setting.  

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Map of all Barbarian invasions into the Roman Empire, 100-500AD
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Roman Empire 5th century map, dissolution of the west (red).
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Fall of the Western Roman Empire, the last emperor Romulus Augustus surrenders to Odoacer, 476

For chapter III of Byzantine Alternate History, I then had a completely different approach as this was the first story to be written in collaboration with another Byzantine history fan, and this was Justinianus the Great (follow her on Instagram @justinianusthegreat) who I have known since the very first weeks of doing my Byzantine history Instagram, and not too long after we got to know each other, we already chatted a lot about Byzantine history to the point of doing a role playing wherein we travelled back in time and played different Byzantine era characters.

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

Although the 3rd chapter of the alternate history series was published on March 22, the conceptualizing process for it including the role-playing with Justinianus where we went back to the 6th century whereas she played the influential Byzantine emperor Justinian I the Great and I played other characters through Instagram chat started out back in January, though the role play chat itself went on for about 2 months! This character role playing through Instagram chat did in fact occur for so long that I was able to publish 3 articles being my review on the Theophano novel, chapter I and II of the series, and one video for my channel. However, the writing process for the 3rd chapter only began in mid-March after coming back from the same road trip wherein I finished chapter II while the role playing on Instagram chat was still ongoing as well, and luckily before writing chapter III, Dovahhatty released his own episode on Justinian the Great (Unbiased History: Byzantium II- Justinian the Great), which was indeed such a great help to writing the 3rd chapter as the story for the chapter which was about the influential Justinian the Great was to be a very complex one that so many books and videos have had their own take of it. In addition, other than Dovahhatty’s video on Justinian, the same channel Thersites the Historian was of great help in explaining the situation of the 6th century and so was the History of Byzantium Podcast by Robin Pierson, although Dovahhatty made the story plain and simple enough in order to put it all into one story as after all the reign of Justinian I (527-565) was not only long but very eventful.

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

The role-playing chat with Justinianus meanwhile did serve as the basis for the fictional part of the story especially on Justinian’s life that history does not record, therefore we made up some parts of his life including his thoughts and personality for the story through the role-playing. As for the story of chapter III, a lot of the same locations, characters, and themes from chapter II still continued- although not the alternate history outcome- as the time jump between chapter II and chapter III was in fact very short, and true enough chapter III’s lead character Justinian I was born in 482 just 6 years after the Fall of the Western Roman Empire (476), while other characters in chapter III were in fact still alive back when the Western Roman Empire was existing. Due to the relatively short time jump from chapter II to III, some of the same characters from chapter II such Emperor Zeno and the Ostrogoth king Theodoric the Great returned for the background part chapter III, as well as the Vandals, Ostrogoths, and Visigoths, although the one power that was mostly left out in the previous two chapters was the Sassanid Persian Empire in the east, and only in chapter III did they begin having a major role in the story, as true enough it was only in the 6th century when the Sassanids again began to be a bigger threat to the Romans as while Justinian I ruled Eastern Rome, the Sassanids had a ruler equally as ambitious as him which was Khosrow I.

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Emperor Justinian I and Empress Theodora at the imperial court

Another new feature chapter III had was that it was the first time in the series which from here on the word “Byzantine” would be used referring to the Eastern Romans, and this was due to the Western Roman Empire falling in 476, however the term may be incorrect as the Byzantines even after the fall of Western Rome in 476 never called themselves “Byzantine” but still continued calling themselves “Romans” and only in the 16th century after Byzantium fell was the term “Byzantine” only first used to refer to them. However, since the series was called “Byzantine Alternate History”, and also for the sake of not confusing viewers, I chose to stick to referring to the Eastern Romans from chapter III in the 6th century onwards as “Byzantines”. Now the big challenge for chapter III was to put all the spectacular events in Justinian I’s reign into one story, thus chapter III would then become the longest so far that I have written considering that it covered Justinian’s wars against the Sassanids, Vandals, Ostrogoths, and Visigoths that he never fought in personally despite the Byzantines taking back North Africa, Italy, and Southern Spain, while it also featured the Nika Riots of 532 that almost destroyed Constantinople if it were not for Justinian having it brutally put down, the spectacular careers of his generals like Belisarius and Narses, the codification of Roman laws, the construction of many notable landmarks like the Hagia Sophia, the Plague of Justinian that almost brought the empire down killing thousands each day, and the hidden story of how Justinian acquired silkworms from China using these smuggled silkworms to begin manufacturing silk in Byzantium. With all these events taking place in one story, it was then set to be a very spectacular one that was not only an action story but one with a lot of drama, intrigue, and overall a larger-than-life figure which was Emperor Justinian I the Great.

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Flavius Belisarius, Byzantine general in Justinian I’s reign, art by Amelianvs

The writing process of chapter III was then something very engaging and memorable especially when putting all these legendary historical figures like Emperor Justinian I, his wife Empress Theodora, the generals Belisarius and Narses, the finance minister John the Cappadocian, the jurist Tribonian, the Sassanid emperor Khosrow I, the Ostrogoth king Totila, and Justinian I’s nephew and successor Justin II into one story, while just like in chapter I and II wherein I blended fictional characters into the historical setting wherein in chapter I it was the female Goth warrior Valdis and the assassin/ soldier Cyriacus in chapter II who was the one made up for the story to carry the secret letter to Anthemius, while in chapter III the made up character was a general named Andreas who was made to join in Belisarius’ campaigns and later encourage Justinian himself to take part in the campaign to put Italy back under Roman rule, and this character Andreas was created in the role-playing chat with Justinianus wherein I played as Andreas, however he would also be the last made up character to be blended into a historical setting for the entire series.

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The Plague of Justinian, 542

Now the alternate history scenario for chapter III had a lot to do with the deadly plague of 542 that Justinian himself was a victim of, although in the story Justinian would end up using the plague as an act of biological warfare which he would use against the Sassanids in the east by sending over plague victims there to spread the plague and destroy their empire in order to focus on his dream of reconquering the lost Roman west. Other than the plague, the other fan fiction part of the story was in having the old emperor Justinian himself join his military campaign to recapture Italy from the Ostrogoths, and in the story Justinian being depressed over the death of his wife Theodora in 548 would go himself to Italy to get a sense of purpose again, though on the other hand the other part the story wanted to explore was to have Justinian properly train his successor, his nephew Justin II as in real history Justin II succeeded his uncle in 565 following his death without any proper training in running an empire, though in this story what would be different would be that Justin would join his uncle Justinian in his Italian campaign to train to be a strong ruler like his uncle.

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

True enough the story ended happily with Justin II succeeding his uncle in 565, and with the Sassanid Empire no longer around things would be much easier for him especially in focusing on the reconquest of the west, unlike in real history where Justin II inherited from his uncle a very massive empire covering the entire Mediterranean that proved to be too difficult to hold together. Indeed, the 6th century was a very challenging time with the Byzantines reconquering Roman lands lost to barbarians all while they were being pressured by the Sassanids in the east and by a deadly plague, and even though Justinian I achieved his dream in the end, it still cost a lot as the plague and wars depopulated his empire, most especially Italy that just shortly after his death, Byzantine rule over Italy would gradually slip away to a new barbarian invader, the Lombards.

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

Just how the 6th century was a great challenge that still achieved a lot at the end, it was also a great challenge to write chapter III considering that it was longer than the previous two chapters and had so much story to tell, while chapter III did include a lot of images too. When writing the chapter though, the bigger challenge came from outside as while I was writing the chapter, I was simultaneously busy with school work as I am still in college, and it was true enough very challenging to the point of becoming quite too stressful that I had already slept so very little in the process of doing chapter III with school work combined, that it was here when I decided to take a long break from school to focus on my alternate history series, as it would be hard to balance two difficult things at the same time. Additionally, it was when writing chapter III that I started becoming more ambitious in writing my stories that my stories would not only consist of words but images that I drew, and during March when I published chapter III, this is when I began becoming serious in doing Byzantine themed artworks, wherein one I made at this time was the black and white image of Emperor Zeno, as well as the illustrations of chapter III’s lead characters and a visual genealogy for Justinian’s Dynasty. At the same time, it was during the process of writing chapter III when I began a new gimmick for my Byzantine Instagram account, and this was in posting content related to the era of my current alternate history chapter, and here since my mind was set in the 6th century, most of my Instagram posts then had a lot to do with events happening then. The challenge now at this time was in promoting my Byzantine content online, as it was here in March when I began to aggressively promote my work wherein, I have to admit it was quite a difficult time for me then as my following was basically at a standstill with very little growth, however in the long-term chapter III would turn out to be the most mentioned chapter as its story especially a mention of Justinian I kept making a comeback in the next 9 chapters of the series.

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Detailed map of the Byzantine Empire at its fullest extent under Justinian in 555 (gold)
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The Hagia Sophia, built in the 6th century under Emperor Justinian I
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Justinian I receives silkworms from monks arriving from China, 552
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Belisarius defending Rome from the Ostrogoths from 537-538, art by Amelianvs
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Guide to the Justinian Dynasty of the Byzantine Empire, 518-602; character illustrations and layout by myself

With chapter III completed, I then did another major Byzantine themed art project, which was a painting of Byzantine emperor Michael VIII Palaiologos (r. 1261-1282), as well as the 2nd episode of my audio epic series on Youtube (Part II: Michael VIII Palaiologos’ Redemption), and between publishing chapters III and IV, I made my first special edition quarter end chapter for the year which was as I mentioned earlier my interview with friends on their reactions to Byzantine era quotes. The process now between writing chapters III and IV was quite a long one with all the research through Youtube channels like Thersites the Historian and Kings and Generals, as well as Robin Pierson’s History of Byzantium Podcast, but at the same time, the process of writing chapter IV compared to chapter III was such a great relief with school work no longer in the way.

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

For me, I could really feel the change in Byzantine history when writing chapter IV, and this change for me could already be felt the moment after Justinian I’s death in 565 which I think from here on the feeling of Byzantine history begins to feel different as the late Roman era comes to an end while the dark ages begins to rise as the arrival of new enemies like the Avars, Slavs, Lombards, and the threat of the Sassanids in the east intensifying, although the Dark Ages itself is basically usually limited to Western Europe at this time and not so much to the Byzantines, however some historians mark the end of antiquity and the beginning of the Byzantine Dark Ages in the year 602 with the execution of the Byzantine emperor Maurice, the last ruler of Justinian’s dynasty and the takeover of the common soldier Phocas as emperor, wherein it would then be all downhill for Byzantium. Chapter IV would then be another new kind of phase just as it was for the Byzantines when entering the 7th century, as it was in chapter IV when I would leave the late Roman era wherein chapters I to III were set in that my mind was so focused on for the past months, and thus enter the Middle Byzantine era wherein things will drastically change, and so did the layout of the chapters as the late Roman military structure drawing of mine beginning in chapter IV was no longer in use.

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

Although when writing chapter IV, I still began with a long background section discussing the events after Justinian I’s death in 565, his successors, how the threat of the Sassanids from the east grew worse thus ending the Golden Age Justinian I left behind for Byzantium, the overthrow of Maurice and rise of Phocas, the fall of Phocas in 610 and the rise of Emperor Heraclius, the great Byzantine-Sassanid War from 602-628, the fall of the Sassanid Empire, and the rise of a new and unexpected enemy, which were the Arabs coming from the deserts of the south. The second and main part of chapter IV would then discuss Byzantium after the fall of the Sassanids and the rise of the Arabs, which then included the drastic loss of so much territory to the Arabs including Egypt and Syria, how Asia Minor would then become Byzantium’s new heartland, the formation of the Thematic System that would define the Byzantines for the next 4 centuries, and the wars with the Arabs that would also define Byzantium for the next 4 centuries as well.

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

For the lead character of chapter IV, I chose the Byzantine emperor Constans II (r. 641-668), which is quite an unlikely choice as for the 7th century the Byzantine emperor that would be the most remembered would be Constans’ grandfather Emperor Heraclius (r. 610-641) who was the emperor that lived long enough to see the Sassanids fall only to be replaced as a new major threat by the Arabs. It was however in Constans II’s reign when the Arab threat became real, and so did the creation of Byzantium’s Theme System, which is why I chose to make him the lead character and his reign the story’s main setting. The alternate history scenario for the 4th chapter was then to have Constans II survive the assassination attempt on him in 668, where in real history he was killed in his bath when attempting to move the Byzantine capital to Sicily fearing that Constantinople was no longer safe especially if the Arabs attacked it by sea.

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

In chapter IV, with Constans II surviving the attempt on his life, the Byzantine capital would then be temporarily moved to Sicily, although without much results, thus this would be the first chapter wherein the what if would not really be useful to the Byzantine protagonists at the end, however chapter IV would end with the epic battle being the first Arab Siege of Constantinople from 674-678 wherein Constans’ son and successor Emperor Constantine IV successfully defended Constantinople due to the invention of a Byzantine superweapon which was Greek Fire, though in the story Constans II had lived long enough to come to Constantinople’s rescue during the siege wherein everyone thought he had disappeared. In addition, chapter IV was the first one in the series to feature a multinational conflict as while the Byzantines and Arabs were at war with each other, I put a fictional scenario of a Sassanid army returning to ally with their old enemy the Byzantines against the Arabs which was their common enemy, while I also thought of giving a bigger role to Tang Dynasty China as in the 7th century as well, Constans II sent Byzantine ambassadors to Tang China to send gifts to their emperor and get some in return, although history does not record much about it, but in the story I put in a fictional part of China assisting the Byzantines against the Arabs by attacking the Arabs from behind as the Arabs did in fact expand so fast that in only a few decades since they united and rose from the deserts of the Arabian Peninsula, they were able to take over all of Egypt and Syria from the Byzantines, destroy the Sassanid Empire, and reach as far as Central Asia to the east. Chapter IV was thus a turning point in the series with the rise of the Arabs as well as the new dystopian kind of setting the Byzantine Empire would be in, and it was also in the process of doing chapter IV when I began taking my Byzantine themed art much more seriously, thus for the chapter I did a black and white style drawing of its lead character Constans II, as well as an illustration of Constantinople’s land walls. Both in the timeline of the story and in the publishing date, the time jump between chapter III and IV was large, and it was on April 15 of this year when chapter IV was published, and just like chapter II, I also published chapter IV when away on a road trip.

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The Byzantine Empire in 650 (orange)
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Expansion of the Arabs, 7th century
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Map of the first original 5 Themes of Asia Minor created under Constans II
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Greek Fire used for the first time at the 674-678 Arab Siege of Constantinople
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The Land Walls of Constantinople, art by myself

Shortly after finishing chapter IV, I already began the researching and writing process for chapter V while I was also on that same road trip where I completed chapter IV. Chapter V would then see the experimental phase of the alternate history series, and a lot of this both had to do with me wanting to experiment a bit more on Byzantine history by putting a dystopian feeling into it as well as some personal factors I have been going through at this point. Chapter V was then true enough quite entertaining to write as considering that the 8th century where it is set in is the least documented century in Byzantine history while also being my personal worst and least interesting as there were fewer epic battles and the rest all internal conflicts, though the fun part was in playing around by coming up all sorts of made-up stories for the characters in this era just to simply fill in the blanks. Though the era the chapter is set in is the least interesting for me, the writing process for chapter V may have been exciting only because of all the continued wars against the Arabs and civil wars, but its end result would then be nothing more but a story of so much senseless violence including gouged out eyes and chopped off noses, graphic scenes of soldiers eating their own feces to survive the winter, imperial anarchy, tiring wars, petty characters, and the useless breaking of icons known as “Iconoclasm” which defined the 8th century history of Byzantium.

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

When writing chapter V, I began by discussing the chaos and anarchy Byzantium fell into as the 7th century came to an end, the continued expansion of the Arabs, and then getting to the 2nd Arab Siege of Constantinople from 717-718 ending with another Byzantine victory thanks to the use of Greek Fire and the intervention of new people in the north that was once Byzantium’s enemy which were the Bulgarians, while a new emperor came to power as well which was Leo III the Isaurian, one of the powerful generals of this time who put an end to Byzantium’s 22-year anarchy period that began in 695 and once again brought stability to the empire by establishing his dynasty, however to stabilize the empire once again he issued a very unpopular policy which was that of Iconoclasm or the braking of icons believing it would save the empire as he thought icons were sinful. The ban on icons however created such division among the Byzantine people wherein some supported it especially the army while many opposed it and reacted to it with such violence, but the worst part about this simple policy of breaking religious icons led to the permanent schism between the Byzantine Orthodox and the Latin Church in the west together with the rise of the Republic of Venice as well.

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Byzantine Iconoclasm under Leo III in the 8th century

The climax of chapter V however did not have to do so much with Iconoclasm but rather with a dystopian setting in the Byzantine Empire which here was on how the banning of icons affected society, thus making it quite an unique take on setting a dystopian story in Byzantine times, as dystopian style stories are usually set in modern times. The other major story in chapter V then was the family drama within the imperial family wherein the emperor’s daughter Anna even led a resistance against her father’s Iconoclasm while her brother Constantine V strongly stood loyal to his father’s policy of breaking icons. The alternate history scenario for chapter V would then regard Artavasdos, the general and son-in-law of Emperor Leo III who being married to Anna secretly opposed Leo III’s Iconoclasm, and in real history Artavasdos after Leo III’s death in 741 did rebel against Leo’s son and successor Emperor Constantine V in 742, but at the end Artavasdos still failed, and thus Iconoclasm still continued.

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Emperor Artavasdos (r. 742-743), Funko pop recreation by myself

In the alternate history scenario however, I made Constantine V lose to Artavasdos and thus making Iconoclasm ended early enough to make amends with the west that had just been alienated from Byzantium, and the reason now why I decided to focus on such a small topic for chapter V was to show that even the smallest events such as if Artavasdos won the civil war can have a major impact on history, this way by ending Iconoclasm early enough to not create a schism with the Western Church that would end up becoming permanent.

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Emperor Constantine V of Byzantium (r. 741-742/ 743-775), art by Chrysa Sakel

Overall, chapter V considering that it was mostly a gore fest story with lots of useless drama, it was still the shortest one in the series that it could have in fact been skipped altogether, however just for the sake of experimenting I chose to do an entire chapter on this unknown part of Byzantine history, while on the other hand I used chapter V to explain some of the bigger events happening at that time such as the rapid expansion of the Arabs all the way west to Spain and the beginning of the end of Byzantine rule over Italy as by the end of the 8th century, the Byzantines were left with only the south in Italy. In addition, chapter V was the second chapter that I wrote for the series wherein I wrote it in collaboration with someone, and this was with my friend Mario (follow him on Instagram @mariopuyatrewreplays) who was also one of the 5 friends I interviewed on the their take on Byzantine history earlier on, and although he isn’t very much familiar with Byzantine history, I just thought it would be a good gimmick to have someone unfamiliar with Byzantium have his own take on the story, again for the sake of experimenting.

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The Mandalorian in Byzantine armor, art by myself

Chapter V was in fact so experimental that for this chapter I even made digital artworks of not very Byzantine looking funko-pop figures for the story’s 3 leading characters Artavasdos, Anna, and Constantine V, while my Byzantine themed artworks at this time (late April to early May) have also began becoming experimental such as the one I made with the Mandalorian in Byzantine armor. Additionally, the time I was writing chapter V was more or less the low point of my Byzantine journey this year as my social media accounts (FB and IG) saw little growth, post likes and shares, while at times I would feel as if my content was being neglected that there were even some times wherein I felt like quitting the alternate history series entirely after finishing only chapter VI, and thus starting from scratch afterwards. This kind of situation I was having back then also contributed a lot into the very experimental way I wrote my stories, while at the same time the same kind of situation was ironically the same situation Byzantium was going through where I was at in writing my series which was the Byzantine dark ages, but at the end chapter V was still published on May 2 together with a series of artworks I did relating to this time period in Byzantine history which included by black and white portraits of the 6 emperors of the 22-year Byzantine anarchy (695-717). However, I soon enough overcame these obstacles and hard times through persistence and determination by using these hard times to drive me to push harder thus unleashing a competitive streak within me that would seek to post better quality posts regularly in order to survive and not slip away.  

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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, 8th century

When it all seemed that my Byzantine journey was beginning to go downhill, it eventually did not as I still chose to persevere despite all the adversities and do all it takes to get my content recognized, and after chapter V was completed, I immediately moved on to doing another project which this time was again for my audio epic series, and on May 15 not too long after chapter V was published, I uploaded the 3rd part (Part III: The Beginning of the Decline) of my audio epic series on my channel. While editing the 3rd part of my audio epic series, I also began writing chapter VI for the alternate history series, which was then not too difficult to conceptualize and begin as the story for chapter VI was basically just a direct sequel of chapter V, wherein the story of chapter VI itself is set just right after chapter V finished off while also continuing the stories and themes that were introduced in chapter V including Iconoclasm, the beginning of the “Cold War” style conflict with the Latin west, while characters from chapter V such as Emperor Constantine V too made a comeback in chapter VI with the only difference being that the alternate history scenario of chapter V wherein Constantine V lost the civil war to Artavasdos did not happen, but instead the story would begin with how things actually went in real history.

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Emperor Leo IV the Khazar of Byzantium (r. 775-780), art by Chrysa Sakel

For chapter VI, the story’s main focus was then on Irene of Athens, the daughter-in-law of Constantine V who married Constantine’s son Leo IV “the Khazar” (r. 775-780), and following Leo IV’s death in 780, Irene came to rule the empire first as regent for her son Constantine VI until she ordered his blinding in 797, wherein afterwards she became the sole empress of the Byzantine Empire, the first time a woman would rule the empire alone. As the ruler of Byzantium, Irene had the great legacy of putting an end to Iconoclasm as she strongly believed in the use of religious icons, while at the same time she was also a strong female ruler both decisive and comfortable with herself. Just like chapters III and V, chapter VI was another article in collaboration with someone, and again it was with Justinianus the Great with whom I have worked together with in creating chapter III, and originally for chapter VI, we were again supposed to do the same kind of role playing like we did for chapter III, however the role playing through Instagram chat instead became an interview with Justinianus wherein I asked her a number of questions regarding Irene as a way to come up with her personality for the story.

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

The alternate history scenario for chapter VI was then my own take on the popular what if of Empress Irene and Charlemagne, the newly crowned Frankish emperor marrying as an act to unite both their empires into one massive Frankish-Roman Empire. Chapter VI also had the major innovation of being written in the form of flashbacks wherein it begins off already with Irene as empress in year 800 while she narrates the events of the past such as her backstory. Chapter VI too was the first chapter in the series that equally featured Byzantium and another empire, in this case being Charlemagne’s Frankish Empire that became the new power that conquered and united most of Europe, while Byzantium here was losing in terms of power wherein their salvation could come if both rulers of these said empires married each other.

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Irene Sarantapechaina, Byzantine empress, art by myself

The writing process for chapter VI happened to be quite a fun one especially when introducing Irene’s character, the extravagance of the Byzantine imperial court, the court rituals and ceremonies, the scheming court eunuchs, the fashion styles of the time, and the journey of Irene from a small-town orphaned girl in Athens to the ruler of the Byzantine Empire. This chapter also had some experimental elements, and here it was especially in Irene’s character not only as a strong empress but as an attractive figure as this was the only chapter in the series to have a female lead character, thus for Irene I even created an experimental seductive drawing of her in a kind of dress that may have not been existing in the Byzantine era, while additionally this story was the one too with the most side stories made up just out of fun to put some more life into it.

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Charlemagne, King and Emperor of the Franks (r. 768-814), art by myself

Chapter VI was also for me a very ambitious project and for it I created a number of more detailed and intricate drawings rather than just the character illustrations for the intro, as here I came up with a full-body drawing of the story’s lead characters Irene and Charlemagne. When writing the chapter, the entertaining part was in introducing Charlemagne, and here when showing him in person, rather than introducing him as a great man even in physical form, I chose to introduce him as a tired old man feeling like his life’s mission is over as an act of downplaying the greatness he is seen having in history, however he and Irene still married- which never happened in real history- although they only marry for an alliance to join both their empires together in order to fully defeat the Bulgarian Empire. Although each chapter in the alternate history series is made per century out of the 12 centuries in Byzantium’s history, chapter VI was a hybrid one as though it is basically the chapter for the 9th century, its events were in both the 8th and 9th centuries.

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Irene and Charlemagne as husband and wife

The story’s climax however which was Irene and Charlemagne’s wedding in 802, and the battle against the Bulgarians in 811 where the story ends however is in the 9th century, though in the early part of it. With only the early years of the 9th century discussed in the chapter, it would then so happen that my alternate history series skipped an entire part of Byzantine history, which was almost the entire 9th century itself, true enough a very important time for the Byzantine Empire as this was when Byzantium would come out of the dark ages and begin rising again, while also seeing a Renaissance in the arts and academics, and the spread of Orthodox Christianity from Byzantium to the Slavs in Eastern Europe in the latter part of the century, as well as the rise of the Bulgarian Empire and the decline of Charlemagne’s Frankish Empire and the Arab Abbasid Caliphate which were at first thought to be all powerful empires that were a main threat to Byzantium.

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

However, since the chapter was basically about Irene and Charlemagne, I chose to just set the story in the early 9th century skipping the rest of the century, while at the same writing about the outcome of this marriage between Irene and Charlemagne was also confusing especially seeing how long the union of the empires would last, which therefore requires great analytical skills wherein only great historians could succeed in doing. One thing I have to mention too about this chapter’s setting and characters was that just recently I discovered a new Byzantine podcast on Empress Irene and her story, except not including Charlemagne and an alternate history of them marrying, check out Icons/Idols: Irene. On the other hand, just a few days before publishing chapter VI on May 24, I experienced one lifetime achievement, which here was getting my first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, and not to mention the side effects were quite strong that the sleepiness I got from it delayed the publishing of the article by 2 days!    

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Empress Irene at the palace, art by myself
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Charlemagne crowned as “Roman emperor” by Pope Leo III in Rome, 800
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Speculated map of Irene and Charlemagne’s united empire
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Guide to the Isaurian Dynasty of the Byzantine Empire, 717-802; character illustrations and layout by myself

Before publishing chapter VI, I was at a low point in my Byzantine history journey, however success had turned out to be found just right around the corner, as after chapter VI was completed, my Byzantine online career suddenly had an upswing, and this was seen when I created and posted a visual genealogy of the Isaurian Dynasty- the emperors from Leo III to Irene- which got a great number of shares on Facebook, while on May 29 I posted an Instagram a post commemorating the Fall of Constantinople in 1453, which also happened on that day, and this post did in fact all of a sudden get hundreds of likes and multiple shares both on IG and FB, thus making it the first time since my Late Roman Military Structure drawing in late January to get so much hits. Though at the same time as I posted this very successful post, I had already begun doing research for chapter VII’s story in which I true enough even began doing it just 2 days after publishing chapter VI. Basically, because chapter VII covered a lot of content and more than 150 years of history, it required tons of research that for almost a full week I have been going through the videos of the same Thersites the Historian on Youtube as well as listening to Robin Pierson’s History of Byzantium podcast to get some more new information on the era and put the entire story together. Now since chapter VI despite being the assigned chapter to the 9th century only featured the first few years of it as the story was supposed to be about Empress Irene and Charlemagne, I instead covered the important events of the latter 9th century in chapter VII despite it being the 10th century’s respective chapter. Since there would be so much information in chapter VII, I then chose to write it in a more concise way wherein I would condense all the events of the years from the 830s to the 980s, although to still make it in the form of a fan fiction story rather than a factual story, I chose to write chapter VII in the style of a historical parody mocking but at the same time admiring the Byzantines, especially since the 9th and 10th centuries feature Byzantium at its prime with so much to admire about from them such as their victories, military might, and extravagant court life while there is also so much to mock about them at this era such as the toxic court politics and the infamous eunuchs.

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

When writing chapter VII, I began off with the beginnings of the Byzantine Renaissance and the evangelization of the Slavs under Emperor Michael III the Amorian (r. 842-867), the rise to power of the simple peasant turned wrestler, turned emperor Basil I the Macedonian (r. 867-886), the continued war with the now weakened Arabs, and the rise of the major Bulgarian conflict and that of their powerful ruler Simeon the Great. Once the story hit the 10th century, the more it became detailed as personally it is my all-time favorite century in Byzantine history, and no doubt because this was the glory days of Byzantium on the rise as a military and cultural power that commanded both great respect and fear among everyone around them, thus for chapter VII I had a lot of fun writing it due to its action-packed style despite it being quite complicated as it featured too many characters, battles, locations, and foreign powers like the Bulgarians, Arabs, Rus, Khazars, Magyars, Pechenegs, and the new Holy Roman Empire in the west.

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Emperor Leo VI the Wise (r. 886-912) of Byzantium

Now for chapter VII’s alternate history part, I chose to not write it like the previous 6 chapters wherein it begins with what happened in real history wherein everything will get fictional as it ends, instead I wrote it in a way wherein I just basically told it like how the story in real history was told, except to make it a fan fiction I altered a few things along the way, such as that the ruling dynasty of that time which was the Macedonian Dynasty would not actually be that dynasty, instead it would be the previous Amorian Dynasty still continued as this story went with the rumor of the Macedonian emperor Leo VI the Wise (r. 886-912) not being the dynasty’s founder Basil I’s son but the son of the emperor he killed which was Michael III being the truth, thus Leo VI’s descendants as the Macedonian Dynasty would be a lie and instead his descendants would still continue ruling as the Amorian Dynasty.

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Empress Theophano of Byzantium, omitted from chapter VII

In addition, when conceptualizing the chapters I also planned to use chapter VII as a rewrite of the graphic novel “Theophano: A Byzantine Tale” that I read earlier on in the year wherein the chapter was the exact same setting as that book, but for chapter VII, I rewrote the book’s story by omitting its lead character Theophano from the real historical setting as if she did not exist at all, and at the end things would never really change until the story’s ending if she were removed, as after all Theophano was the mother of the legendary Byzantine emperor Basil II (r. 976-1025), therefore the story ended totally differently as compared to real history due to the fact that Emperor Basil II would not be around.

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

The best part for me about writing chapter VII was that it covered the most interesting Byzantine characters as the 10th century had all of them put together including the scholarly and highly cultured emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos (r. 913-959), his former co-emperor and regent Emperor Romanos I Lekapenos (r. 920-944) who rose up the ranks to be emperor despite being also of low birth, the scheming court eunuchs Joseph Bringas and Basil Lekapenos, the powerful and ruthless general and later emperor Nikephoros II Phokas (r. 963-969), his successor Emperor John I Tzimiskes (r. 969-976), and the other powerful generals of the era like Leo and Bardas Phokas as well as Bardas Skleros.

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Emperor Nikephoros II Phokas of Byzantium (r. 963-969), art by Spatharokandidatos

Chapter VII too featured numerous larger than life events including Nikephoros Phokas’ wars against the Arabs and the Byzantine reconquests, Greek Fire on the sea, the chaotic regency civil war for the young emperor Constantine VII from 913-920, and the all the court intrigues including the assassination of Nikephoros II Phokas in 969. When doing chapter VII, I also made a number of ambitious art projects for the same chapter including a black and white illustration of Constantine VII- which was however done weeks prior to writing the chapter- and an illustration of Emperor Leo VI and his 4 different wives, and of course the usual icon illustrations for the story’s lead characters in which for chapter VII I did 20 of them, being the first time to do this much character illustrations since chapter II, and not mention chapter VII was also the first time the intro symbol for the story changed from the Byzantine chi-rho that had been used since chapter I to the double-headed Byzantine eagle which would be the one in use until chapter XII and is used here in this post as well. Chapter VII too featured quite a lot of images as this era in Byzantine history was perhaps the one with the most historical illustrations due to one important illustrated manuscript still around up to this day which is the Madrid Skylitzes showing the 9th, 10th, and 11th century history of Byzantium in very detailed illustrations, and for both chapters VII and VIII I used a lot of images from this manuscript. Also, not to mention while in the process of writing chapter VII, I had also been balancing the hectic workload of my Byzantine Alternate History stories with re-watching all 11 seasons of Modern Family on Netflix and playing the futuristic video game Cyberpunk 2077, which seem to be so far away from Byzantium, though these things still showed that my life was still perfectly balanced between Byzantium and the real world, as I had already been comfortable where I was at in my Byzantine journey.

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Byzantine battles in the 10th century

The more impressive part too was that when writing chapter VII, the dark days of my Byzantine career which was just less than 2 months earlier seemed like it was long gone, and ironically just like the Byzantine Empire which in the same era I was at during this point of my journey was at a very high point too while I also had reached the high point of my Byzantine journey and part of this was that when I published chapter VII on June 9- not too long after publishing chapter VI- and immediately shared it on social media, I even caught the attention of the creators of the Theophano graphic novel considering that the chapter I wrote was at the same era as their book’s setting, that they asked me to be interviewed for their site which I gladly accepted (read it here). Following the completion of chapter VII, I took quite a quick break doing a road trip again, ironically going back to where I went to after chapter II was completed 3 months earlier, and during the 4 days away I mostly kept my mind out of Byzantium for the first time in a long time until returning home with some good news that my interview on the site of Byzantine Tales had been published while my recent artworks too had been shared by other Byzantine Facebook pages, and some days later I also completed the edit and uploaded the 4th part of my late Byzantine era audio epic (Part IV: Andronikos III: The Last Revival). Feeling confident of where I was at in my Byzantine journey then, I then proceeded to do the research and begin writing chapter VIII without much hesitation, although the research process for the upcoming chapter was also another great challenge as its setting being the 11th century had so much happening while having so many sources too.

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Streams of Gold, Rivers of Blood by Anthony Kaldellis

When doing the research for chapter VIII and its 11th century setting wherein the Macedonian Dynasty from chapter VII continues, I deeply immersed myself by listening to Robin Pierson’s podcasts and read the very informative non-fiction book on this era Streams of Gold, Rivers of Blood by Anthony Kaldellis, in which both turned out to be of great help for putting together the story for chapter VIII. Now if chapter VII of the series basically discussed Byzantium on the rise to power and glory, its direct successor chapter VIII was basically written as the reverse story to chapter VII as it discussed Byzantium declining from its glory days during the 11th century. Chapter VIII would then discuss the glorious reign of possibly Byzantium’s most popular emperor these days which is Basil II (976-1025) who being omitted from chapter VII as the story omitted his mother Theophano finally had a big role to set the stage for the 11th century which begins as a glorious time for the Byzantines as they finally defeated and conquered their major enemy the Bulgarian Empire to the north thus putting the entire Balkans under their rule.

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Painting of Emperor Basil II of Byzantium (r. 976-1025), art by myself

Chapter VIII though was also the last chapter in the series to feature the conflict between the Byzantines and Arabs in the east, as the 11th century saw the end of the Arab-Byzantine conflicts that began way back in the 7th century where chapter IV was set in due to the rise of another new eastern enemy, the Seljuk Turks of Central Asia. Aside from continuing in discussing the same Byzantine court politics, extravagance, and extensive military campaigns of the 10th century that continued on to the 11th century, chapter VIII also discussed the rise of new threats to Byzantium such as the Normans in the west and the Seljuk Turks in the east together with their backstories, as well as many side stories like that of the origins of the famous Nordic and Rus Varangian Guard in the Byzantine army wherein the future King of Norway Harald Hardrada served in from the 1030s-1040s and the Great Schism of 1054 which was then the permanent divide between the Byzantine and Latin Churches.

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Byzantine Cataphract cavalry soldier in the 11th century, art by myself

The climax of chapter VIII however was the catastrophic Battle of Manzikert in 1071, which was the event marking the end of Byzantium’s glory days and although it may not have really been a terrible disaster for the army, it would still result in the permanent loss of Byzantine rule over their heartland Asia Minor and the collapse of the centuries old Thematic System there that had been around since the 7th century. Now just like chapter VII, chapter VIII was written in the same kind of way wherein there was more facts than fictional elements, though only at the end do things change as the story’s what if was to have a Byzantine victory over the invading Seljuk Turks at the 1071 Battle of Manzikert, whereas in real history it was a Byzantine defeat.

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Byzantine (left) and Seljuk (right) cavalrymen clash at the Battle of Manzikert, 1071

Chapter VIII then true enough altered history by having a Byzantine victory wherein the emperor Romanos IV Diogenes would not be captured by the Seljuk Turks’ sultan Alp Arslan, however the main point of the story was to prove that it was not the Battle of Manzikert that really destroyed Byzantium in the 11th century but the corruption, betrayals, and wasteful spending in the imperial court, as well as weak leadership of emperors like Constantine X Doukas (r. 1059-1067) and Michael VII Doukas (r. 1071-1078). In the story, I also explained that even with a Byzantine victory at Manzikert, Byzantium would still be brought down from the inside through corruption, although the major difference with a Byzantine victory at Manzikert was that a lot of Asia Minor would not really be lost to the Seljuks while the First Crusade which was called for in 1095 as a result of the Seljuks’ victory at Manzikert in real history would still be called as true enough the First Crusade’s real purpose was not really to help the Byzantines recover lands lost to the Seljuks but to take back the city of Jerusalem that had also fallen to the Seljuks. While doing chapter VIII, I had also created several Byzantine themed artworks including a black and white Byzantine style inspired drawing of Star Wars’ Emperor Palpatine on the Death Star II, and for chapter VIII itself I did the usual illustrations for the lead characters, but more than that, I also did a full-scale drawing of a Byzantine cataphract cavalry soldier for the story as well as a drawing of the famous future King of Norway Harald Hardrada as a Varangian Guard who had a cameo in the story as well, while I also made a genealogy for the Doukas Dynasty which ruled Byzantium in the setting of chapter VIII (1059-1081) wherein the Battle of Manzikert took place in. Chapter VIII itself was published on June 29 right before the end of the very eventful month, and unlike the Byzantine Empire that had begun going through a decline in power at this time, my own Byzantine journey’s success still remained yet continued to grow at the same time with the sudden increase of followers on Instagram, thus making June surely an eventful month.  

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Emperor Leo VI of Byzantium and his 4 wives, art by myself
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A scene of the Rus-Byzantine War of 941 from the Madrid Skylitzes
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Nikephoros Phokas enters Constantinople in 963, Madrid Skylitzes
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The Byzantine Empire (red) at its apogee, at Basil II’s death in 1025
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Painting of the fateful Battle of Manzikert between the Byzantines and Seljuks, 1071
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Byzantine- Star Wars crossover, Emperor Palpatine as a Byzantine emperor on Death Star II, art by myself
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Genealogy of the Doukas Dynasty of the Byzantine Empire, 1059-1081; character illustrations and layout by myself

The success of my Byzantine journey would then continue onwards after the completion of chapter VIII and this was seen with the success of new posts most notably that of my Byzantine cataphract cavalry soldier and Harald Hardrada as a Varangian Guard illustration which got a great number of likes and shares both on FB and IG, with in fact a total of 39 shares on Facebook.

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

The month of July was then set to be a busy one for me, as not only was it the month for writing and publishing chapter IX, but it was also a busy one for posting on Instagram as it was here when I posted so much new and unique interesting content that would define my Byzantine IG account. These posts would include a 5-part series I did on Byzantium’s famous Varangian Guard and on the Armenian city of Ani in the Byzantine era in which were all successful posts, and in between publishing chapters VIII and IX, I published my article on how I rank the 12 centuries of Byzantine history from my personal best to worst which then came out on July 7 as a break article between chapters. Now the researching part for chapter IX was quite challenging as the History of Byzantium podcast by Robin Pierson had not yet reached the era of the chapter which was the 12th century, thus for research I had to turn to my old go to book for a more concise approach in telling Byzantine history which was the History of the Byzantine Empire by Radi Dikici, while also going through Wikipedia to get more information on the era and its people.

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Map of the 4 Crusader States of Outremer in 1135, during the reign of Byzantine emperor John II Komnenos

Writing chapter IX was also a challenge for me especially when getting the facts right as this era was a confusing one, although it was also exciting to write as the 12th century it was set in featured Byzantium, the now rising kingdoms of Western Europe, the Seljuk Turks, the new Crusader states in the Levant known as Outremer, the Balkans, and the Arab powers of the Middle East all coming together. Chapter IX was then really supposed to be the chapter on the Crusades as it was its era, thus chapter IX began where chapter VIII left off which was the beginning of the First Crusade which was originally called for by the Byzantine emperor Alexios I Komnenos (r. 1081-1118), originally aimed in helping Byzantium drive away the Seljuks that have taken over Asia Minor since their victory at Manzikert in 1071, but at the end the Crusaders’ real intention was to take back Jerusalem from the Seljuks for themselves and not assist Byzantium recover their lost lands, and as the Crusaders succeeded in achieving their goal, they became a new neighbor to Byzantium that would be both a friend or an enemy.

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Emperor Alexios I Komnenos meets the leaders of the First Crusade, 1096

In the meantime, after sharing chapter VIII which was about Manzikert to the Alternate History Discussion Group on Facebook, I got one suggestion from a comment saying that my next chapter should have to do with the following century (12th century) about an event that could stop the catastrophic 4th Crusade of 1204, another major disaster for the Byzantines that would begin the end for their empire, thus I kind of took this comment into consideration for the 9th chapters’ alternate history topic. Originally when conceptualizing the chapters, the story of chapter IX was only supposed to be about the rather controversial Byzantine emperor Isaac II Angelos (r. 1185-1195) wherein the story would prevent his blinding in 1195 by his older brother Alexios- who in real history blinded Isaac and took over the throne thus leading to the 4th Crusade in 1204- and if this event were to happen then this could possibly prevent the 4th Crusade from happening.

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Isaac II Angelos, Byzantine emperor (r. 1185-1195), art by myself

However, this what if scenario for chapter IX did not push through for rather complicated reasons being the first and only time in the series wherein an original idea did not push through for the chapter’s story, instead I chose to go with another what if for the 12th century, and this would have to do with identifying events that may have led to the disastrous 4th Crusade in 1204 and thinking of ways to avoid them to prevent that tragic event from happening. The story for chapter IX then covered the 3 consecutive stable and successful reigns of Alexios I Komnenos (1081-1118), his son John II (1118-1143), and his son Manuel I (1143-1180) which was a total of 99 years combined, while at the same time the chapter also featured the First, 2nd, and 3rd Crusades, the rise of the Republic of Venice and the kingdoms of Western Europe including the Normans of Italy, the rise of Balkan powers like Serbia and the Kingdom of Hungary, the Seljuk Empire that had been established in Asia Minor that was there to stay, and a lot more.

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Emperor Manuel I Komnenos (r. 1143-1180), art by Justinianus the Great

For the Byzantines, most of the 12th century was another time of power and dominance over the Mediterranean where Byzantium was basically the bully of the era under the Komnenos emperors wherein the new Crusader states even became Byzantium’s vassals. However, this renewed era of power would not last as following the death of Emperor Manuel I Komnenos in 1180, everything would go downhill for Byzantium, as his son and successor Alexios II Komnenos (r. 1180-1183) was still only a child, thus he was overthrown and killed by Manuel I’s cousin and strongest enemy Andronikos I Komnenos who took over the throne with a bloody massacre of Constantinople’s Latin inhabitants and later only making things worse for the empire by running the empire in a totalitarian manner. In the story, what was then changed was that before killing young Alexios II and taking over the empire, Andronikos’ plot was discovered by the loyalists of the young emperor including Isaac Angelos- who in real history was chosen by the people to seize the throne and overthrow Andronikos I- though in this story, Andronikos’ plot was discovered and thus he was blinded and exiled unlike in real history where he ruled for the next 2 years (1183-1185) until being overthrown by Isaac Angelos and executed by being brutally beaten to death by the same people that put him in power just recently.

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The young emperor Alexios II beneath the shadow of his uncle Andronikos, art by Ediacar

The climax of chapter IX then featured the same Norman invasion of Byzantine Greece in 1185 like in real history which was defeated by the Byzantines, though while the Byzantines won a major victory, they also faced a major challenge of the Bulgarians once again breaking free from Byzantine rule after being under Byzantium since Basil II’s conquest of 1018, thus the 2nd Bulgarian Empire was declared in 1185. However, in the story the young Emperor Alexios II who survives the attempt on his life carefully plans the elimination of all rivals including the leaders of the Bulgarian uprising and his exiled uncle Andronikos, thus the chapter ended in a very dramatic moment wherein the young emperor with the leader or Doge of Venice swear a sacred oath to be allies once again all while all enemies are eliminated one by one at the same time in the same style as the climax of The Godfather.

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Niketas Choniates, Byzantine historian (1155-1217), recreation of the original manuscript depicting Choniates, art by myself

The story then ended happily for Byzantium whereas the Alexios II would continue to rule with Isaac Angelos as his right-hand-man now having more experience to one day run the empire- unlike in real history where Isaac came to rule the empire despite having not much experience- and although it was a happy ending for Byzantium with Venice which Alexios II’s father Manuel made an enemy become their ally again, and with the Bulgarian uprising defeated before it could grow worse like in real history, the 3rd Crusade still did happen, but the happy ending though was that the 4th Crusade in 1204 that sacked Constantinople never took place due to Byzantium and Venice fixing their ties with each other, as Venice in real history brought the Crusaders to Constantinople to sack it, even if the Crusade was originally aimed for Jerusalem to take it back from the new Islamic power being Saladin’s Ayyubid Empire. When doing chapter IX, I also did a number of art projects for the chapter like a recreation of the manuscript depicting Niketas Choniates, one of the primary historians of the 12th century, and aside from the usual lead character illustrations for the chapter, Justinianus who previously helped in writing chapters III and VI did an illustration of chapter IX’s lead character Emperor Manuel I Komnenos in her own style. Chapter IX was then published on July 19, and only after finishing chapter IX did I do my own illustrations for the 3 Angelos emperors of Byzantium: Isaac II, Alexios III, and Alexios IV who are said to be Byzantium’s 3 worst emperors.   

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Map of the Byzantine Empire (pink) at Manuel I’s death, 1180
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Manuel I Komnenos (on a horse) at a triumphal parade in Constantinople
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Isaac II Angelos’ rise to power by beheading Andronikos I’s hitman, 1185
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Normans from Sicily invade Byzantine Greece, 1185

As chapter IX was completed and published, I quickly worked on the 5th episode of my audio-epic series (Part V: Double Disaster: Civil War and Black Death) which was uploaded before the end of July and true enough my schedule in late July and early August was a very tight one with all the art projects included.

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John III Doukas Vatatzes, Byzantine emperor in Nicaea (r. 1222-1254), art by myself

After chapter IX was completed, I immediately began working on my acrylic painting of Emperor Basil II which was to be completed on the day he defeated the 2nd Bulgarian Empire (July 29), while at the same time I was also working on my drawing on the 3 Angelos emperors, and lastly a black and white illustration of Emperor John III Vatatzes (r. 1222-1254), who would be the lead character for chapter X. The time for writing chapter X too was a tight one, but luckily before writing I already knew a lot of information for the era the chapter was to be set in which was the 13th century in which I have been making many Lego films including audio epics of it in the past, while I was lucky here also since the Youtube channel Kings and Generals had also published some videos regarding that era earlier on. When writing chapter X, I then wrote it with such speed but again as I already knew the events of the time, it was not so much of a challenge to write, however the challenging part of writing it was its very confusing story, as this chapter covered the 4th Crusade of 1204 which temporarily ended the Byzantine Empire and fractured the area of the Byzantine Empire into so many different states both Latin and Byzantine Greek. Although for chapter IX I gave a more positive image to the controversial Byzantine emperor Isaac II Angelos, for chapter X however where he returns, I returned to portraying him as he is usually portrayed in history as an incompetent and corrupt ruler while his dynasty was even much worse that their bad leadership would eventually lead to the army of the 4th Crusade arriving before Constantinople’s walls in 1203.

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4th Crusade army storms Constantinople’s walls, 1204

Chapter X’s main highlight then was the tragic betrayal and fall of Constantinople to the 4th Crusade’s Western European army in 1204 which led to the victorious Crusaders carving up Byzantine lands and dividing it among themselves while looting tons of precious Byzantine treasures and relics taking them back to Europe, though the Byzantines that survived it had formed their own successor states such as the Empire of Nicaea, Empire of Trebizond, and Despotate of Epirus, while in the north the absence of Byzantium allowed the newly proclaimed 2nd Bulgarian Empire to grow. The confusing part about chapter X was in combining all these post-1204 successor states and the constant fighting among them into one story, however the what if for this 13th century story would take place in 1235 wherein the powerful Bulgarian emperor Ivan Asen II and the exiled Byzantine emperor of Nicaea John III Vatatzes team up to take back Constantinople from the Latin Empire.

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Tsar Ivan Asen II of Bulgaria (r. 1218-1241), art by HistoryGold777

Although both rulers teamed up in real history, neither of them succeeded in taking back Constantinople from the Latins, however in the story the change was very shocking with Ivan Asen II betraying John III and capturing Constantinople from the Latins for himself, thus putting Constantinople under Bulgarian rule. This chapter’s what if as mentioned earlier was then something I have planned long before I conceptualized the whole series, as last year when doing my audio epics set in the 13th century, I came across this very unfamiliar and unlikely what if of the 2nd Bulgarian Empire taking over Constantinople in 1235. Chapter X though ended with what did not happen in real history, which here was John III eventually taking back Constantinople from the Bulgarians after Ivan II’s death in 1241 thus restoring the Byzantine Empire that was thought to have died out in 1204, as in real history John III died in 1254 and Constantinople was only recaptured by the Byzantines of Nicaea in 1261.

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Emperor John III Vatatzes in imperial armor on a horse

Due to so much happening in the early 13th century, I chose to end chapter X by 1261 no longer covering the latter part of the 13th century, although chapter X uniquely featured an alternate ending wherein I had the dynasty of John III Vatatzes survive by having Michael Palaiologos, the man who overthrew John III’s dynasty in 1261 blinded and imprisoned for life as his plot to overthrow the dynasty was discovered, thus in the story the descendants of John III or the Laskaris-Vatatzes Dynasty would continue ruling the restored Byzantium. On the other hand, the success of my Byzantine journey had still continued, at the time I was writing chapter X, although not really increasing too much but at least still staying at the same level of success, and part of this was seen with one of my Instagram posts which was a map I made of the post-1204 Byzantium with the different states’ respective coats of arms on it which then got a number of likes and shares and so did my drawing of the 3 Angelos emperors, and my post on August 15 about the reestablishment of Byzantium in 1261 which did happen on that day, and later on another one on the Slavs in the 6th century according to the Byzantines which was for me a very surprising success that now has more than 600 likes on IG. Other than having my success continue after chapter X, I also uploaded the 6th part of my late Byzantine history audio epic (Part VI: The Tragedy of John V Palaiologos), which was uploaded just 2 weeks after finishing chapter X and 3 weeks after the previous video of the series, and it was here when the stories of my late Byzantine history audio epics began coinciding with the stories of my chapters, and other than all the successes I have been facing at this time, it was also between finishing chapter X and before starting the next chapter wherein I got the 2nd dose for the COVID-19 vaccine, thus becoming fully vaccinated. Now as for chapter XI, this then happened to be the one with the quickest writing process out of all the chapters in the entire series, and most of this was due to having enough information on the era in advance considering that the audio epic series I was working on and still working on now is set in the same timeline as chapter XI which is the late 13th and the rest of the 14th centuries.

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

The rest of the events of the late 13th century beginning with the Byzantine reconquest of Constantinople in 1261 and the reign of Michael VIII Palaiologos (1261-1282), the War of the Sicilian Vespers in 1282, the first attempt to convert the Byzantine Empire to Catholicism in the 1270s, the reign of Michael VIII’s son and successor Andronikos II (1282-1328), and the further destruction brought to Byzantium by the Catalan mercenaries were then covered in chapter XI. At the same time, chapter XI was the chapter made to introduce the final act of Byzantine history as it was the first chapter to introduce the Ottoman Turks as the new enemy of Byzantium that would in 1453 bring about their end replacing the now dissolved Seljuk Empire in Asia Minor, while the chapter also continued the story of the Mongols as well as the 2nd Bulgarian Empire, but also of the rise of Serbia into a kingdom and eventually to the dominant power of the Balkans being the Serbian Empire. Chapter XI’s story also featured the reign of Andronikos III Palaiologos (1328-1341) being the last period of revival for Byzantium by reconquering most of Greece, as what followed his death in 1341 was a devastating civil war between his wife Anna of Savoy backing their young son Emperor John V and Andronikos III’s right-hand-man and general John Kantakouzenos.

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Emperor John V Palaiologos (r. 1341-1391), art by Justinianus the Great

The story then basically went through what actually happened in real history whereas John Kantakouzenos won the civil war in 1347 becoming Emperor John VI only to have the plague of Black Death hit the Byzantine Empire and further destroy it all while their northern neighbor the Serbian Empire under their newly proclaimed emperor Stefan IV Dusan not being much affected by the plague took advantage of Byzantium’s weakness and took over a lot of Byzantine territory in Greece. The story of the 14th century in chapter XI was then only altered when reaching the 1350s and here I chose to have the Serbian emperor Dusan capture Constantinople, not to conquer and pillage it but to save Byzantium from dying, therefore I chose to make this chapter’s story very much like the previous chapter with a foreign power taking over Byzantium.

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Stefan Uros IV Dusan, King of Serbia (1331-1346), Emperor of Serbia (1346-1355)

The lead character for chapter XI then was the Serbian emperor Stefan IV Dusan who I chose to portray in a more positive light as an admirer of Byzantium despite him being their enemy and in changing the course of history, I had him take over Byzantium to not only save it from deteriorating but to fully expel the Ottomans from the Balkans before they begin to expand, as in real history Dusan never took over Constantinople while the Ottomans after first crossing into Europe in 1354 began rapidly expanding to the point of destroying both the Serbian and Bulgarian Empires. Chapter XI then ended with Constantinople returning to Byzantine rule after Dusan’s death in 1355, though the main difference was that the Ottomans would no longer pose as a threat. The 14th century history of Byzantium true enough never interested me much as it basically just featured Byzantium as a weak and impoverished state with so much wars, plotting, and disaster to the point where it already becomes too tiring unlike how it was in Byzantium’s glory days of the 10th century, therefore I did not put as much effort and attention into writing chapter XI that I could have in fact skipped this entire era being the 14th century which many historical books featuring Byzantium do anyway.

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Byzantine art recreated- Chrysobull of Emperor Andronikos II (r. 1282-1328, left) presenting the document to Christ (right), art by myself

However, since all centuries in Byzantine history were to be represented per chapter, I still went with doing a chapter for the 14th century anyway where the most possible what if was for Dusan to take over Byzantium as it was part of his intention in real history anyway. On the other hand, chapter XI was also basically more or less the teaser chapter for the grand finale (chapter XII), while I also did not do much art projects for chapter XI except for the usual lead character illustrations in which I only featured 10 characters as very early on back in February I already did an illustration of the Byzantine emperor Andronikos III and his wife Empress Anna of Savoy recreating a historical illustration of them, while in March I did a portrait of Emperor Michael VIII, and in April a recreation of a historical illustration of Andronikos II.

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Seal of the Palaiologos Dynasty of the Byzantine Empire, founded in 1261

Chapter XI was then completed and published on August 31 and when sharing it, it got rather mixed reviews in the comments section just like chapter X previously, and for chapter XI the comments I got usually said that they did not agree much with Constantinople being taken over by Dusan seeing it as worthless, but despite the criticism the success of my Byzantine journey was still ongoing. While doing chapter XI, I also came across new things such as beginning in watching the series Downton Abbey and later Into the Night on Netflix, replaying Assassin’s Creed Valhalla for PS4, and beginning a new Byzantine historical novel which was The Usurper which was also set in the same era as that of chapter XI.

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Map of the Division of the Byzantine Empire after 1204 with the respective flags and seals of post and pre-1204 states, design by myself
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Constantinople falls to the 4th Crusade, 1204
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The 1261 Byzantine Reconquest of Constantinople, art by FaisalHashemi
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Byzantine art recreated- Emperor Andronikos III Palaiologos (r. 1328-1341) and his wife Empress Anna of Savoy, art by myself
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Coronation of Dusan as Emperor of Serbia in Skopje, 1346
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Map of the spread of Black Death across Europe, 1347-1351

Before writing the finale chapter XII, I first finished reading The Usurper and even published a review for it on September 11 (read it here) accompanied by a drawing I made of its lead character the late 13th century Byzantine general Alexios Philanthropenos, while at the same time as my success was continuing, on September 6 I posted an artwork I made of Emperor Theodosius I (r. 379-395) which was the day he won a victory at the Battle of Frigidus in 394 becoming the last emperor of a united Roman Empire before it permanently split with the east becoming the Byzantine Empire and the west falling in 476, and again this post was a success on both FB and IG.

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Alexios Philanthropenos from The Usurper, art by myself

At the same time, before writing chapter IX I also returned to studying after 5 months of being on break, although only doing one subject, thus chapter XII’s release date was delayed as originally it was supposed to be out on September 15, but due to other things I had to do, the date for release was moved to September 27. The process of writing chapter XII then was a long one as considering it being the series’ finale, I put a lot of time and attention to it in order to make a well-made conclusion to the entire 12-part series. Now ever since the very beginning when conceptualizing all the chapters for the series, I already had very big plans for chapter XII which was the finale set in the 15th century being Byzantium’s last century, therefore I wanted to have the final chapter have a much more epic story with a battle more epic than that in the past chapters for its climax, and to also have stories from all the other past chapters including characters like Justinian I the Great and Nikephoros II Phokas make a comeback as a fitting way to end the series.

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Flag of the Ottoman Empire, born in 1299

The researching part and the structuring for chapter XII too was quite tricky, as for the final chapter the story itself was not only about Byzantium as by the 15th century, Byzantium itself had already been so reduced, thus the story itself had a lot more to do about the Ottoman Empire now growing strong than ever, the rest of the Balkans including Serbia, Albania, Wallachia, and Hungary, and the now more powerful kingdoms of Western Europe becoming aware of the threat of the Ottomans. The 15th century where chapter XII was set in was also a time of great transition wherein the Middle Ages transitioned into the Renaissance especially in Italy while the Age of Exploration also began especially in Portugal, while for Byzantium things went the other way around as centuries ago, they were the advanced power both respected and feared by all others around them, but by this point they were the ones weaker and backwards while the rest of the developments happened in the rest of Europe.

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Emperor Manuel II Palaiologos of Byzantium (r. 1391-1425)

With all the stories of the wars against the Ottomans, the birth of the Renaissance and Age of Exploration, the schism with the Latin Church still continuing, and lastly the 1453 Siege of Constantinople, the finale then went along with real history beginning with the reign of Manuel II Palaiologos (1391-1425) wherein the Ottoman Empire was temporarily destroyed following the defeat of the Ottoman sultan Bayezid I to Timur and his forces at the Battle of Ankara, then the story proceeded to the reign of Manuel II’s son John VIII Palaiologos (1425-1448) wherein the old ideas from Byzantium would spread to Italy and help introduce the Renaissance when John VIII himself visited Italy.

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Emperor John VIII Palaiologos of Byzantium (r. 1425-1448)

The story also discussed the tensions in Byzantium especially about uniting with the Latin Church in the west to stand against the Ottomans wherein many Byzantines opposed it choosing to fall to the Ottomans rather than giving up their soul being the Orthodox faith and submit to the pope as a result of the trauma they faced under the Catholic Latins of the 4th Crusade in 1204, and this conflict was true enough even present in the ruling dynasty as the emperor John VIII as well as his brothers Constantine and Thomas supported the union while the other brother Demetrios stood against with such passion creating a strong conflict between the brothers despite their empire already on the verge of extinction. The climax of the story would then take place during the reign of John VIII’s brother Constantine XI Palaiologos (1449-1453) as the last Byzantine emperor, although rather than doing what he did in 1453 in real history which was in refusing to surrender the city to the Ottoman sultan Mehmed II and instead choose to fight till the end, in the story I made Constantine XI go for the other option of surrendering Constantinople to Mehmed II in order to buy time to one day launch a massive Crusade to take back Constantinople from the Ottomans, thus totally altering history.

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

From 1453 onwards, the story was totally altered as Mehmed II took over Constantinople without a fight, while Constantine XI returned to the Morea in Southern Greece, the last Byzantine holding to once again be its Despot (governor) together with his brother Thomas while the other brother Demetrios then abandons and betrays them switching sides to the Ottoman sultan Mehmed II, though both Constantine and Thomas then do the bold move of going to Rome themselves to fully submit to the pope and convert to Catholicism, thus once and for all ending the great schism between the Eastern and Western Churches, which never happened in real history.

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Sultan Mehmed II the Conqueror of the Ottoman Empire (r. 1451-1481)

The story then ends with a climactic final battle to recapture Constantinople wherein the famous rulers and defenders of Europe at this time including the Albanian resistance leader against the Ottomans Skanderbeg, the Hungarian general John Hunyadi, and the Prince of Wallachia Vlad III the Impaler all team up to join Constantine and Thomas in the recapture Constantinople from Mehmed II. In addition, I also wanted to add in a very unlikely story and this here was in having the distant Kingdom of Portugal which here was the 15th century’s rising star to come and assist in the recapture of Constantinople, as in real history the Byzantines and Portugal hardly if not had any interaction with each other at all, and just for the sake of fantasy, I had the powerful Portuguese navy come at the last minute to turn the tide of the war to the side of Byzantium, thus at the end the Ottoman Empire was shattered, and Byzantium continued to live on.

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The last Byzantine emperor Constantine XI in the Portuguese blue and white tile art style, art by myself

As the grand finale of the series, chapter XII was no doubt longer than all the previous 11 chapters as it featured so many side stories of the major characters from different parts of Europe and beyond, while it also brought back the highlights from the past 11 chapters. As part of the process of doing chapter XII, I did the usual illustrations for the leading characters which here had 15, while on the other hand as a reference to the Portuguese part in the story, the illustration I did for the story’s cover was a blue and white artwork of Emperor Constantine XI inspired by the Portuguese blue and white azulejo tiles. After publishing the final chapter on September 27, when sharing to the various history groups in Facebook I am a part of, it received rather mixed reviews wherein many commented saying that this kind of story of Constantine XI surrendering Constantinople to one day take it back seems rather absurd as the schism between east and west could not be solved while Western Europe was either too busy with their problems or too selfish to assist Byzantium, however I still did not really give much of damn about what they said as true enough the final chapter for the series was pure fantasy, and overall I was just very glad to have finished the entire series still coming out of it in one piece. Now after completing the series, my following on both FB and IG still continued to increase and after more than a week of taking a break from posting on IG, I continued posting in which my posts still continued getting the same success, and just recently on October 7 I uploaded the 7th episode of my audio epic (Part VII: Byzantium’s Last Respite) which has the same setting as the prologue part of chapter XII, and even with the series over, my Byzantine journey still has a long way to go.  

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Map of the Byzantine Empire by 1450 (purple) and other territories including the Ottoman Empire
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Renaissance Italian painting of John VIII as one of the magi, made during his stay in Florence by Benozzo Gozzoli
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The Fall and Ottoman Conquest of Constantinople, 1453
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Constantine XI’s final charge against the Ottomans on May 29, 1453, art by FaisalHashemi

Lessons from the History of Byzantium and from my Byzantine Journey, My Take on Byzantium’s Legacy, and Updates          

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Now when it comes to discussing the lessons that I have learned throughout my journey of writing the 12 chapters, I have to divide this into two parts as there were lessons that I have learned from the Byzantines in their entire 1,100-year history, and lessons I also learned from my journey as a Byzantine content producer.

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Flag of the Byzantine Empire (13th-15th centuries)

First, I shall start with the lessons I learned from the history of Byzantium itself and being an empire that lasted for a total of 1,123 years with over 90 emperors and 15 ruling dynasties, there is just so much to learn from. The biggest learning I had from the entire history of Byzantium itself that I have been impressed with the most was the longevity of their empire and how they persisted through such challenges to the point of lasting for over 1,100 years, that true enough just recently when looking at a list of the world’s longest living states in history, Byzantium ranked at #7 while the other longer living states higher than that had in fact happened to be lesser known states that had either existed in Ancient history or were very unknown states in other parts of the world like India or Africa. There were many incidents wherein Byzantium could have already surely disappeared such as in the 7th century when the Arabs all of a sudden expanded and could have conquered the entire Byzantium that had just recently been weakened by war with the Sassanids but impressively Byzantium survived while the Sassanid Empire that had been their longest enemy had completely fallen to the Arabs. When Byzantium’s golden age came to a close in 11th century with another enemy coming out the blue being the Seljuks that so rapidly crushed the Byzantines at the Battle of Manzikert in 1071, it was also impressive here to know that Byzantium not only survived but were able to overcome this enemy and grow to become a major power again in the 12th century.

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Constantine XI in full plated armor with his broadsword at the last moments of Byzantium, art by JohnJollos

Lastly, when the army of the 4th Crusade sacked Constantinople and could have possibly ended the existence of the Byzantine Empire itself in 1204, the Byzantines though still going into exile still managed to come back and return to ruling Constantinople despite now no longer ruling a powerful empire but rather one that was a shadow of its former self, and more so that Byzantium at their last days chose to fight to the end for their empire even knowing this would be their end as the Ottomans did in fact capture Constantinople on May 29 of 1453 ending the empire. Now what I leaned from the longevity of Byzantium is that life goes that way, there are many ups and downs to go through, and many challenges to face, and just like Byzantium that overcame these life-threatening challenges through persistence and courage, the same can be said with overcoming life’s greatest challenges and surviving them. Of course, we all meet an end the same way all empires do, and for the Byzantine Empire itself I could say that if it were a person, it would have lived a life of 110 years with every century being a decade in one’s life, and truly this 1,100-year existence of Byzantium was so impressive enough that in entire lifetime as an empire, things had changed so much that the Byzantium of the 12th century ruled by the Komnenos emperors may look so far different from the Byzantium of the 6th century under Justinian I when it fact it was the same empire with the same capital, and in their entire existence they had seen many states around them both rise and fall all while they continued to exist, and even at the very end when the Ottomans conquered all their surrounding states such as Serbia and Bulgaria, Byzantium still stood.

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Byzantine Cataphracts in battle

Just as Flavian said when interviewing him, I have to agree with what he said that one of his greatest learnings from Byzantium is that success comes with the mastery of sword and spirit and this can truly be said about Byzantium as it was through fighting constant wars throughout their existence, that there was barely a time in their history that they experienced multiple decades of peace, and it was through their mastery of war and studying the battle tactics of their enemies that they were able to overcome them and survive, while for the part of the mastery of spirit I can say that they lived on for so long basically because they had the faith of Orthodox Christianity uniting them despite Byzantine society being so divided.

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Emperor Alexios I Komnenos of Byzantium (r. 1081-1118), master of both warfare and diplomacy

However, another thing I have to say about Byzantium is that they were able to live on for so long not only due to inventions of weapons like Greek Fire or having powerful armies and massive walls protecting their capital, but also because of their mastery of diplomacy, thus a very big learning from Byzantium is that winning wars also require a lot of diplomacy and true enough the Byzantines managed to turn so many enemies away by bribing them, but also the history of Byzantium teaches us that if there is no peaceful way to resolve a conflict, war is the answer as seen many times with the Byzantines. Another great learning too from Byzantine history was that they were basically the empire that continued the existence of the Roman Empire and preserved the knowledge of the Classical Era from Ancient Greece and Rome that they in fact even absorbed it and blended it together with the Christian faith, thus making them an advanced society while the rest of Europe was in the Dark Ages. Of course, over time things would evolve thus the rest of Europe itself would begin advancing while Byzantium itself would stay in the past especially in its last years where their institutions that once seemed so advanced eventually began becoming obsolete, but luckily enough Western Europe was able to obtain knowledge from Byzantium to become more advanced the way Byzantium was before, thus brining about the Renaissance. As Akitku said earlier when I interviewed him, was that Byzantium was true enough a very advanced society in their time, and I have to agree here as when literally most of the entire world did not really have a structured government or laws, Byzantium did, and not only did Byzantium have a very centralized government, they also had state-funded hospitals and schools and a society that was much more literate than that of Europe and most other parts of the world in their time long before the modern age when society became like this.

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Civil War between Emperor Andronikos II and his grandson Andronikos from 1321-1328, sample of political instability in Byzantium

On the other hand, Byzantium also shows that even the most advanced societies are very vulnerable to corruption and internal division, and true enough corruption in the government, incompetence and cruelty by emperors in running the empire at some occasions, political rivalries and even fighting among ruling families, and a highly divided society especially regarding religious or political issues defined their history, but overall this shows that Byzantium was not perfect which makes them seem like any other country today rather than a mythical utopia that may or may have not existed. Meanwhile, another great learning for me is that even the Byzantine emperors no matter how powerful they seemed could lose their power at any moment the moment they lose their popularity, thus this shows that Byzantium really was the continuation of the Roman Empire of old as not only did it continue its imperial institutions but those from the Ancient Roman Republic itself, and true enough Byzantine emperors just like the Roman emperors before them and the consuls of the republic before them were not like the monarchs of Western Europe or the Sassanid or other eastern emperors (China and Japan) that had divine rights but rather, Byzantine emperors got their power from the Senate, army, and people just as how a republic works, therefore Byzantium never really had a system wherein the emperor’s eldest son would succeed him, which is why whenever an emperor comes to power, his authority is sure to be challenged despite him being the eldest son, which is why emperors had creative means of getting around this such as making their sons co-emperors as a way to already immediately name a successor to prevent power struggles.

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Byzantine emperor Nikephoros II Phokas (r. 963-969), an example of an emperor going from hero to zero

In Byzantium’s history there had also been many incidents showing that their political system had allowed anyone to rise to power as emperor, thus in their history there had been generals, admirals, common soldiers, peasants, even women, young children, a tribal chieftain, and a money changer becoming emperors, thus I would have to agree with what Chrysa said that Byzantium is kind of the place to follow your dreams as if yo are lucky enough, it will lead to you to something big. There were also some incidences wherein even long before our time when people do have the right to change their system did exist, and true enough there were even some incidences in Byzantine history when revolutions led by the people changed the regime by installing a new emperor of their own choice even long before revolutions like this like the American and French Revolutions happened. Their history too had shown incidences wherein emperors despite starting out popular eventually lost their popularity the moment they are no longer in favor with their people, that some emperors in fact even lost their power when losing popular support, thus being an emperor was a really tough job as to stay in power you really needed to maintain your popularity mostly by winning battles against enemies.

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Constantine XI Palaiologos with the Byzantine emperors of the past above, left to right: Constantine I the Great, Justinian I the Great, Heraclius, Basil II, John II Komnenos, and Michael VIII Palaiologos, art by JohnJollos

Lastly, the biggest lesson I learned from Byzantium was that learning to adapt to the current situation is the way to survive, and this was true enough how Byzantium was able to live on for over a thousand years, as when the times changes such as first when the Western Roman Empire had fallen in 476, they took up the role as the civilization that was there to preserve the imperial Roman identity; when the Arab threat came out of the blue and was there to stay, the Byzantines had to adapt in order to survive, thus creating the Thematic System and Thematic army; when their economy was falling apart, they had to adapt by issuing new economic reforms and new forms of currency; but Byzantium still had major weaknesses, and for me, I would say it was religious schism which further divided their society, and no matter how great they were in solving political and economic problems in their empire, it was their religious problems they could not solve, therefore if there was something I would want to change about Byzantine history, for me it should be that they should have not gotten themselves too fixated on religious schisms which was thus the cancer in their society, especially Iconoclasm as for me I would say the same as Chrysa did, wherein if the Iconoclast policies of the 8th century never came to exist, then perhaps Byzantium would never get into any strong bitter schisms with the west, therefore no Great Schism in 1054, no bad blood between Byzantium and the west, no 4th Crusade sacking Constantinople in 1204, and surely the west will help Byzantium against the Ottomans at the end. Now even up to this day in the distant future, I would say that if we have questions about the society we live in and are either confused or frustrated, I would say that a good solution is to look back at the history of Byzantium to take a look at patterns, as after all history does repeat itself. 

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Map of the Byzantine Empire at 3 different eras; greatest extent in the 6th century (red line), in 1025 (pink), and by 1360 (red)
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Life in 6th century Byzantine Constantinople, art by Amelianvs
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Early period Byzantine soldiers in training, art by Amelianvs
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Byzantine emperor Theophilos (r. 829-842) with the backing of the Byzantine Senate, Madrid Skylitzes
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Alexios V bribes the Varangian Guards to proclaim him emperor, 1204
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Left to right: Byzantine emperors Isaac II Angelos (r. 1185-1195), Alexios III Angelos (r. 1195-1203), and Alexios IV Angelos (r. 1203-1204), said to be the worst Byzantine emperors, art by myself

Now that I have discussed the lessons that I have learned from the history of Byzantium itself, it’s now time to move on to the lessons that I have learned from my journey in creating Byzantine related content online. Basically, the greatest lesson I’ve learned from doing online content on Byzantine history whether blog posts like these, videos, or Instagram posts is to first of all set a goal on where you aim your account/ page to be headed towards as well as how big you want yourself to become in the industry, then to come up with a plan of what you will post as well as your own unique style of posting. For over 2 years now I have been posting articles about Byzantine history on this same site, however it was only at the start on this year when I decided to reach a wider audience and raise more awareness about Byzantine history by creating social media accounts relating to it, beginning with my Instagram account which I in fact was at first reluctant to start wondering in what direction it would be headed to. Although at first, I basically just posted old travel posts on Byzantine era locations I have been to in the past and behind the scenes posts of my previous Byzantine era Lego films, however when the number of my followers began to increase, it was about time that I posted things that had more depth and information mostly being Byzantine history trivia in order to make my content more interesting considering the increase in followers and engagements.

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Byzantine Cataphract cavalry unload using ramps

This strategy of posting too would include posting a variety of posts which in my case included Byzantine travel destinations, Byzantine history trivia, Byzantine fan art, sometimes a quick bio on a Byzantine emperor, and once and a while a spin off post whether it was a Byzantine-Star Wars crossover drawing or a post of another country’s history like that of the Sassanid Empire, Slavs, or even of a far-off place like India or China with a hint of Byzantine history, while when posting every post on my Instagram, from the very early days I already created a trademark of introducing the caption for every post with a diamond emoji, while the emojis too would be common in my posts to make them seem to appear more light and less scholarly, while I also chose to put in a lot of hashtags as a way to get more notice.

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Sample of my posting style on Instagram

At the same time, I also learned some tips in posting from the other accounts I follow in which one before basically posted something long everyday whether it was a bio of a Byzantine emperor or something about Byzantine history wherein the caption was so long it had to spill over to the comments- which I do at times and dread it- while another user does every post beginning with a picture of the user in that certain historical landmark wherein you can view the pictures of the place itself when swiping right while the caption below on the other hand explains the historical angle. The accounts however that basically served as the inspiration for mine included Shadows of Constantinople which tells the history of Byzantium in a very informative, smart, and more organized manner of a collage to put all the pictures at once so that everything is seen immediately, and there was the user Roman Courier which never fails in creating interesting content discussing Roman history and lesser known facts about it including debunking myths in a very light and engaging but at the same time in a very serious way by using primary and academic sources; although from the same Flavian I interviewed here, one major tip I learned in posting history content is to engage followers more by having regular Q&As as well as keeping the posts concise yet entertaining. Another strategy I considered was to also balance and in a way experiment a little in your posts by making them both historically accurate and authentic but also contemporary, meaning not going too over the top in historical authenticity, and for this one example I would give would be in terms of soundtrack when doing videos wherein I would choose to use more modern soundtracks such as those from my favorite bands Chvrches and Of Monsters and Men instead of going too over historical by using Byzantine chants as a soundtrack, while the same can be said too when for example doing a post on Byzantine Constantinople wherein I would choose to balance it better by putting historical information in the caption but using a modern illustration of Byzantine Constantinople for the image instead of one from the Byzantine era itself, and also in this case I would sometimes share funny memes relating to Byzantium as well.

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Meme of Irene blinding Constantine VI, 797

As time progressed, another trick I learned was to post at a regular interval meaning coming up with a new Byzantine IG post every 2-3 days or every 5 days at the most in order to keep things balanced, as posting something or even more than one post every day would soon enough become too tiring for viewers, while posting irregularly- like once every week and once every 2 weeks at times- would confuse viewers making them wonder where you went, while posting irregularly too would not really get you anywhere in followers and engagements unless you have already reached your peak.

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Slavic warriors attacking a Byzantine fortress in the late 6th century, one of my most successful Instagram posts

Along the way, I also came up with a strategy to post on Instagram posts relating to the era where I was at in writing the alternate history stories, and it was around March in between doing chapters II and III when I developed this trick, which was basically a way to just keep my mind focused on the era I was currently working on. When it comes to posting something that would get a lot of hits, from my experience it was usually doing a post about what happened on this certain day, such as my post on the Fall of Constantinople on May 29, while on the other hand the posts that would get the most number of likes as well as comments sometimes happen to be the most unlikely ones, and in my case it was my post on the Slavs and how Byzantium saw them, which then got me a lot of followers including catching the attention of one user posting similar content as I do (follow Slavic History Mythology on Instagram). Of course, if you want your post to gain more attention including shares globally, what I do here is to post whatever I posted on Instagram to my Facebook page, then share it to various Byzantine history related groups that have thousands of members like Roman and Byzantine History, The History of the Byzantine Empire, and Byzantine Real History, which is also basically how I share my blog posts. What I would then say is the key to a successful post is consistency, and I do this by as I said posting things related to the era you’re currently working at, and not to wander off too much into different eras, however for a change it would be good to do so as well. With success however comes a lot of criticism, and in my journey I began experiencing a lot of this especially when my accounts became more successful, and a lot of this had to do with comments of others disagreeing with my post or sometimes speaking ill about Byzantium, and usually I reply back to explain exactly what I was saying or usually don’t mind them if they are just senseless comments as these could be trolls, although this criticism also shows that at least people are interested, though sometimes I also speak out my opinion by commenting what I think or what I suggest for the posts of others especially when it comes to a topic in Byzantine history that interests me a lot. The very rare thing now that I’ve faced was other users plagiarizing by posting the exact same content that I had posted behind my back without mentioning me, and although I very rarely experience this, what I do here about it is to usually remind them when seeing it that the post was originally mine, and also if it all comes to worse; I would report the post. On the other hand, another great experience was in having people out of the blue send you messages praising your content or being plainly curious to know about you and why you like Byzantine history, and when my account became successful, I have experienced this a number of times, in which this kind of experience taught me how to be truly appreciative for something like that to happen as these moments are very rare. Now, one very major thing I learned about in my journey of creating Byzantine history content is to know your audience and who exactly are you aiming to impress, as when it comes to posting about history, people see things differently, and in my experience, I have noticed there are two kinds of audiences, in which there is for one the history fans or history buffs such as myself, and there are the authorities which are basically the scholars and professors of Byzantine history.

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

Based on my experience, both these audiences are usually different from each other and certain posts please either of them, and usually my posts due to its more contemporary and easier to understand style please more history buffs which are the majority of users on Instagram, while posts that usually contain more information on sources and more historical accuracy please the authorities more. At the end however, as I have learned it is quite difficult to please both at the same time or in my case to please the authorities, therefore it turns out that my posts appeal more to history buffs, and although this may not command as much respect as it does when pleasing historical authorities, at least I can get a wider variety of audience, as after all my mission and vision for my Byzantine history social media accounts was to make the history of Byzantium accessible to everyone of all walks of life whether they are familiar with it or not, rather than to just keep the history of Byzantium among a smaller circle of scholars and historians. Of course it would still be great to get the attention of the authorities on Byzantine history online, and to do this I also learned along my journey that this would mean doing tons of research for a an article or for just a simple post and to explain the historical sources as well rather than just searching Wikipedia, and true enough I also applied this method to writing my alternate history stories, meaning that when writing each of the chapters I did more than just search Wikipedia but go through the links linked in Wikipedia, read different articles and books, and go through many channels and podcasts discussing the era to get different versions of it in order to compare them.

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A Cabinet of Byzantine Curiosities by Anthony Kaldellis

Additionally, whenever I complete a chapter for the alternate history series or a video on my channel, I always promote it by putting its link on my Instagram bio, while also since I post a lot of Byzantine history trivia it then turned out that my Instagram account became a way of retelling the trivia from one of my favorite Byzantine history books which is A Cabinet of Byzantine Curiosities by Anthony Kaldellis, thus probably my viewers would no longer buy the book but instead just follow my IG to get info on Byzantine trivia from the book. Now the greatest learning I have made here was that success comes with time as for the first few months, progress was quite slow, but through time things turned unexpectedly that from over 300 followers I suddenly reached 1,000, then 2,000, and now I have over 4,000 followers on Instagram and over 900 likes on my Facebook page all in less than a year, thus I would say the trick here is to regularly post interesting information but also to be original, and in my case I do this by using filters for every image I post as a way to authenticate it as mine, as well as a detailed caption on what the image is. Although another important learning is to also know your place and what kind of account or page you are, and in my case, I soon enough came to realize I’m more of a Byzantine history fan page posting popular content that appeals to a wider audience in which I have now been growing more satisfied in being such. Of course, the biggest thing I’ve learned is still to basically enjoy posting and creating and let the inspiration flow as this will lead you to many places, and in my case this passion for Byzantine history and posting made me virtually meet and communicate with people from all over the world who all share this common interest.

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Map of Constantinople in the early 15th century

And now I’ve come to the part of discussing about the rich legacy of the Byzantine Empire and where I can still see it today. Obviously, like as many would say I also see the legacy of Byzantium in the many landmarks built in the Byzantine era still around today including the massive and still intact Hagia Sophia and a lot of other landmarks in Istanbul including the Walls of Constantinople, Forum of Constantine, the cisterns, old monasteries and so much more including monasteries and churches in Greece, Turkey, and the Balkans with their impressive mosaics and very deep looking frescos usually with a dark blue background, and the mosaics and churches of Ravenna and in other parts of Italy as well in which I was truly lucky enough to see.

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Sts. Cyril (left) with the Cyrillic Alphabet and Methodius (right), Byzantine missionaries sent to convert the Slavs by Patriarch Photios in the 9th century

Of course, I do not only see the legacy of Byzantium in the physical form meaning landmarks but rather in the non-material world and this would include the Orthodox faith and the Patriarchate of Constantinople that had been the Church of Byzantium which until this day is still around, while another of the spiritual influences of Byzantium that still live on to this day is the Cyrillic Alphabet the Slavic countries such as Bulgaria, North Macedonia, Serbia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia still use which was in fact first introduced to them by the Byzantine Greek missionaries St. Cyril and St. Methodius in the 9th century in which the alphabet in fact even gets its name from St. Cyril, although these missionaries did not really invent it as other monks in the Balkans developed it over time in the late 9th century.

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Emperor Justinian I with his Corpus Juris Civilis

Aside from the Orthodox faith and the Cyrillic Alphabet, the Byzantine legacy in the non-physical form can be seen in a much bigger picture even beyond the lands once under Byzantium, and this is in terms of legal systems, as true enough even up to this day the code of laws or Corpus Juris Civilis created by the jurist Tribonian under Emperor Justinian I way back in the 6th century still serves as the basis for legal systems of many modern countries, while on the other hand laws made back then in that code of laws still even apply up to this day, as recently I discovered about a law wherein any body of water cannot be owned, and this law itself dates all the way back to Justinian’s code. Now Justinian’s code had happened to be so influential that many rulers and kingdoms after his time including the Visigoths of Spain, Emperor Stefan IV Dusan of Serbia, and the Ottoman sultan Suleiman I the Magnificent in the 16th century were all inspired by Justinian to make their own code of laws for their empires, thus showing how Byzantium even in their time already influenced others a lot.

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Kievan Rus’ and Scandinavians (Varangians) sail down to Constantinople (Miklagard), 860

Byzantium’s reach true enough was so large, not even in our time but in theirs, as in the 10th and 11th centuries when Byzantium was a major world power, stories of the grandness of their empire reached as far as Scandinavia to the north and Sub-Saharan Africa in the south wherein Scandinavians even referred to Constantinople as Miklagard simply meaning “the city”. Of course, even after the fall of Byzantine Constantinople to the Ottomans in 1453, Byzantium itself never really died as many states took in the identity of Byzantium, therefore it remains unclear to tell which state is really Byzantium’s successor. For me, I would say that the Ottoman Empire was Byzantium’s political successor as they took over Constantinople themselves and made it their new capital while also adopting Byzantium’s government systems and architecture, while Italy on the other hand is Byzantium’s spiritual successor mainly because of the Renaissance as after the fall of Constantinople several Byzantine scholars fled to Italy escaping the Ottomans and bringing with them knowledge from Classical Greece and Rome that they have preserved and there introducing a new revival of art and academics which was the Renaissance in which we owe it very much to the Byzantines, and lastly there is Russia as they were the ones to succeed Byzantium in terms of faith as long after the fall of Byzantium it was Russia that became the world’s Orthodox power the way Byzantium was in the Middle Ages.

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Constantine XI, the last emperor with the great rulers of Byzantium’s past above, left to right: Basil II, Manuel I Komnenos, Justinian I, Theodora, Irene of Athens, Zoe Porphyrogenita, art by Gambargin

Now, for many Western minded people including myself, Byzantium should be held with such high respect as even though they were not a Western empire, they still preserved the ideas of Classical Greece and Rome that would help bring about the Renaissance and greatly influence Western thinking up to this day, and unfortunately those who put Byzantium in such a bad light after the 16th century- when the word “byzantine” was for the first time coined- by remembering Byzantium only for corruption and everything despicable were Western scholars, therefore I have to say that these Westerners including the likes of Edward Gibbon and Voltaire who basically slandered Byzantium should be ashamed of themselves as it was Byzantium that preserved the philosophy that influenced their way of thinking! Now at this day, no matter where you are in the world, you can surely see that Byzantium lives on especially in the way countries with their governments and political systems work, most especially when seeing how leaders are backed by the people, army, and aristocrats, including all the political rivalries, and power struggles which definitely still shows that Byzantium does indeed have its relevance all the way up to this day in the distant future.

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Byzantine forks

On the other hand, I would also see Byzantium’s influence not only in large aspects including faith, politics, art, and culture but in the smallest things used in everyday life as well like the simple fork, in which many do not know that the Byzantines did in fact invent it and spread it throughout Europe sometime in the 10th century when a Byzantine princess married the Holy Roman emperor in Germany. For me, the fork is such an important part of life that I literally use it to eat everything including pizza and sandwiches, thus truly I owe a lot to the Byzantines for making life easier that way! Of course, what keeps Byzantium and its history alive today are those who keep the flame of the empire burning as if it had not been extinguished in 1453- as Flavian had said- from renowned scholars and academics to content creators such as myself and many others I know who live to believe Byzantium never really died out and see the legacy of the empire still alive in many forms, in which for my case I do in fact still see Byzantium in many things no matter how very unrelated they are such as in a good and emotional song which brings me back to the Byzantine era.

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The lifetime of the entire Roman civilization- Kingdom, Republic, Empire, and Byzantine Empire (753BC-1453AD)

However, it is still such a shame that Byzantium is not really popular in world history that general history books barely mention it except for Constantinople’s founding by Constantine I in 330, the reign of Justinian I in the 6th century, and the fall of the empire in 1453 while many people either ignore Byzantine history instead believing the Roman Empire had fallen in 476 and after that Europe fell into the dark ages. However, I would also say that I am glad to see young people such as myself, Flavian, and a lot of others being aware of the great history of Byzantium in an age where most young people are rather shallow, narrow-minded, or do not care much about the wider world but just their immediate surroundings, which shows that the rich history and legacy of the Byzantine Empire still does indeed have some relevance and interest with young everyday people rather than just scholars and historians, thus I have to say that I am glad to be part of the movement of young people not only interested in but willing to share the great history of Byzantium to other everyday people whether or not they are familiar with it. Of course, the best way for Byzantine history to get more exposure especially among everyday people is to have a large budget Hollywood movie or a large budget series on the topic, as Byzantine history unlike Ancient Greece, Rome, or Medieval Europe has never even made an appearance in popular films and series, and true enough it does have the potential do so, and that way people would more and more be aware of Byzantium’s existence.  

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The Byzantine Legacy- frescos on a dark blue background
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The Byzantine Legacy- golden mosaics, Hagia Sophia, Constantinople

And lastly before I finish off, I would just like to share a few updates on what I would be doing now that I have finished my 12-part series, and basically since I have completed writing it, of course what I have to share next is this long post you are reading here to conclude the entire series and my thoughts and feeling about it. Now after finishing chapter XII, I do not really have plans of posting anything on this site for a while, as after all I need to take quite a long rest after about 8 months of writing the entire series with barely any breaks and facing so many ups and downs, but of course I will still continue to do more Byzantine themed art and posts on Byzantine trivia for my Instagram account to keep you all updated and to know that I am still out there and still willing to share more Byzantine history content, as after all there are still tons topics that may be of interest to many in their very rich and complex history that I have not yet shared in social media. Definitely I will still continue doing my Byzantine themed art which I would continue to post wherein I also have one planned for the end of the year being a chart of all the Byzantine emperors in which I have already drawn many of them for the 12 chapters of the series, although for the ones I have not drawn yet, I would draw them in the same icon style I used for the series’ character illustrations in order to complete the chart of the emperors. As for my Instagram posts, now that the series is over, most of them will no longer follow the course of Byzantine history but instead be random, meaning that one post would be something about Byzantium in the 6th century, then the next one may be something about the 12th century, although with chapter XII finished my other IG posts would also include spinoff stories discussing characters from the story including non-Byzantines like Vlad the Impaler, Mehmed II, and Skanderbeg, as well as events after 1453 like the last descendants of the Palaiologos Dynasty, the last dynasty of Byzantium’s 15 ruling dynasties. At the same time, my audio epic series “The Last Roman Dynasty” for my Youtube channel discussing Byzantium under the Palaiologos Dynasty still remains unfinished with 2 more episodes left to go, thus before the end of the year my plan is to finish this entire audio epic series. Overall, I would definitely miss writing the alternate history series though possibly before the year ends, I also plan to write one more alternate history chapter, although this one being chapter XIII would basically be a Byzantine spinoff discussing an alternate reality of the Byzantine Empire if it lived up to the 16th century wherein the events that had been altered from chapter XII would spill over to this story. Other than this, I definitely plan to do more interactive articles like this one in the future with interviews or articles in collaboration with someone, which was after all a new thing for my site I only began doing this year. Aside from possibly writing this story, I also have a major project planned in mind once I finish the audio epic series I have also been working on for the entire year, and this major project I have in mind is another Byzantine Lego epic film, as after all I have not filmed a major Lego epic film since War of the Sicilian Vespers in 2020, therefore it would be such a pleasure to do another large-scale Byzantine era Lego epic after such a long time as a comeback film. Now for this upcoming Lego epic, the plot I have in mind for it would be one of the 12 chapters of my series, and out of the 12 chapters I am for now deciding whether it would be the story of chapter II or that of chapter IX of the series that would be made into this film, as after all these were the two most enjoyable chapters in the series for me, while it is also these two that I believe have the potential to be made into and are the most practical ones in story to be made into a homemade Lego film for my channel No Budget Films that is mainly a channel of homemade Lego films telling an epic story set in history. Now aside from more Byzantine themed artworks, the possible epilogue story to the 12-part series, and the upcoming Lego film, the even much bigger thing I have in mind in the future related to my Byzantine history interest is going to be a business I aim to launch next year on a Byzantine themed board game and a deck of cards considering that I study a business course, though I still have to organize my thoughts and plans on this. As for now, with the 12-part series completed what is to happen next would be a trip to New York and Washington D.C. wherein I will continue my Byzantine journey seeing the Byzantine collections there including the Dumbarton Oaks collection of Byzantine seals and coins in Washington D.C. Now that I have completed the series, I have also come to realize that my career path in Byzantine history is that I am more of a generalist as I basically share information not just in a specific part of Byzantine history, or of a certain emperor, or on a certain part of Byzantine culture, but on the entire 1,1100-year history of Byzantium and everything about it, therefore I shall stick to this career path in Byzantine history. Of course, with the series over, I definitely have much higher ambitions and goals for my Byzantine journey and this would include getting more exposure and publicity worldwide, as well as also writing an article for a Byzantine history site, and getting one of my artworks featured by another site, but of course the best thing to do is still to share good information and enjoy doing it. Lastly, before I completely finish off, I would want to say that this Byzantine career I have launched only this year no matter how tiring it was still gave me a great sense of purpose and direction, as without it I would not know where I would be, therefore I would like to thank all those who share the content I made in any social media platform, those who have also recommended my IG account to the others as this truly helped in growing my account in terms of likes and followers, and of course I would like to thank all my fans and viewers whether on Instagram, Facebook, or in this site for showing some support. After all, it all turned out this Byzantine journey of mine was very much like a dream coming true like that of the Byzantine emperors of the past who began out as nothing and rose up the ranks, as in my journey over the months as well, the same can be said. Now, this is all for this article, and I hope you enjoyed reading it, this is Powee Celdran, the Byzantine Time Traveler, thank you all for reading and showing your appreciation!   

 

 

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

Posted by Powee Celdran

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

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

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

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Welcome to the 6th chapter of the Byzantine Alternate History series by the Byzantium Blogger! Last time, in chapter V of this 12-part series, I went over the Byzantine Dark Ages in the 8th century, the chaos and anarchy, the dystopian-like situation the Byzantine Empire, and the controversy of Iconoclasm or the breaking of icons that may have seemed like a simple issue but at the end caused so much tensions in the empire especially in its long-term relations with the western world, particularly the Church of Rome. The last chapter had also mentioned an event that could have ended the controversial Byzantine Iconoclasm before it could get worse and totally ruin Byzantium’s relations with the west and Church unity as a whole, and this event that could have changed it was if the emperor Artavasdos who only reigned a year (742-743) stayed in power longer rather than losing and being blinded by Constantine V (r. 741-775), who returned to power and continued Iconoclasm to an even higher level purging all those who believed in icons and worked to restore them. However, since the stories in this series despite being in chronological form with one chapter per century, their alternate history scenarios are not continuous with each other, so this means that for this chapter, the events of real history would play out whereas the Iconoclast extremist Constantine V would stay in power and not fall off a castle wall like in the previous chapter. This story then continues not so long after the last one left off and will be set at the turn of the 9th century at the tail-end of the Byzantine Dark Ages and the last days of the Iconoclast period, and therefore this will be the last part of the Byzantine dystopian trilogy which began with chapter IV. Now this chapter in this series will be a very special one as we are now at the midpoint of this series, and the thing that will be different about this story compared to the previous ones is that first it will be more of a direct sequel to the previous chapter as the same plot and scenario as well as characters from the last chapter return here except of course for the scenario of Artavasdos defeating Constantine V in the civil war, so basically it will be something not purely a 9th century story but rather an 8th and 9th century crossover alternate history story. Another unique style chapter VI over here will have which the other chapters will not is that its background part will not be a story retelling the past events, but rather already beginning in the main setting in the year 800 while the lead character here Empress Irene Sarantapechaina or Irene of Athens will be the one narrating the events of the past going back to reign of Constantine V where she comes into the picture being chosen as the wife for his son Emperor Leo IV (r. 775-780).

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

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

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Flag of the Byzantine Empire

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

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

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

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

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

The one confusing thing here though is that a lot think Charlemagne was the first one that was crowned as “Holy Roman emperor” by the pope and his empire became the Holy Roman Empire, though true enough he was crowned as a “Roman emperor” and his empire would be the foundation for the Holy Roman Empire later on which would begin in 962 with the coronation of Otto I as the first Holy Roman emperor, which is to be discussed in the next chapter. Now having an empire that covered both today’s France (except Brittany) and Germany as well as most of Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland, Austria, Bohemia, parts of Denmark, and some of Northern Spain, Charlemagne would basically be remembered as the “Father of Europe” for uniting most of Western Europe and laying the foundations of what would be Europe’s most powerful countries being France and Germany, and as for laying the foundations of a Western European Empire, his empire would also be remembered as the “First Reich”. As emperor, he was not only remembered for his conquests but for promoting art, culture, and literacy which were heavily inspired by that of Ancient Rome and Byzantium, therefore bringing into Europe what was known as the “Carolingian Renaissance” leading the west out of the Dark Ages. On the other hand, at the same time as Charlemagne was crowned as an emperor by the pope in 800, the now much downsized and battered Byzantine Empire was ruled by a woman which was Empress Irene who of course Charlemagne and the pope did not see as legitimate because not only was she a woman but seen as a usurper as well for deposing her son and had no blood relation to the Isaurian Dynasty that ruled Byzantium, except that she was only married into it. In addition, the previous years where Iconoclasm or the breaking of icons ruled Byzantium and damaged their relations with the pope, the pope in Rome could no longer accept the rule of the Byzantine emperor, and also because the pope in Rome had been threatened by the power of the Lombards of Italy while the Byzantines were too busy with their own problems in the east to focus on Italy that the pope had to turn to the Frankish Kingdom for their assistance against the ambitious Lombards, which later succeeded as the Lombard Kingdom was crushed and annexed into Charlemagne’s Frankish kingdom, therefore making him an ally of the pope. Irene meanwhile was a significant historical figure as not only was she as strong woman figure that ruled an empire by herself and by her own name, but because she put an end to the controversial Iconoclasm which again helped in fixing the schism between the Byzantines and the Western Church, and when later hearing of Charlemagne being crowned as a new emperor challenging her and Byzantium’s authority, she considered marrying him as a diplomatic way to settle all the differences between the west and Byzantium and to unite the empires becoming one Roman Empire again, but this move was too controversial to the Byzantine people that it never succeeded and instead Irene got overthrown. The climax of this story then will be with Irene and Charlemagne actually managing to marry each other and unite their empires despite their differences, and after the climax being the wedding of the century in 802, the story will go on a bit further to see how this marriage will benefit Byzantium especially on how having a united empire in the west would help a lot in military victories against the Arabs and Bulgars as Charlemagne had previously already displayed success in battle against the Lombards, Avars, and Saxons. This story’s main part will then end in the year 811, where in real history the Byzantines under Emperor Nikephoros I suffered a heavy defeat to the Bulgars under their khan Krum at the Battle of Pliska where the emperor himself was killed and his skull turned into a drinking cup, though this story will explore how this battle could play out favorably for the Byzantines if Charlemagne assisted them, so basically this will be a double what if story. As this series also covers one story per century in Byzantine history with this one being the 9th century story, it will be quite odd that its main part is at the very early part of the 9th century, though the proposed marriage of Charlemagne to Irene as well as the Battle of Pliska in 811 are not the only interesting moments of this century as later on in the 9th century, there are a lot more crucial moments in Byzantine history especially with the rule of the Amorian Dynasty (820-867), the beginnings of the Byzantine Renaissance later on and the spread of Orthodox Christianity to the Slavs in the Balkans, but since the what if scenario of Charlemagne and Irene being married and the union of their empires is a very popular one and something that intrigues me and others a lot, I chose to cover that for this 9th century chapter.

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

Now this story as the halfway point of this series will be a very big one being a story of two great empires- Byzantine and Frankish- and two influential rulers being Charlemagne and Irene, but of course it will more or less primarily focus on Byzantine society and not medieval Frankish society, which means that the same issue of Iconoclasm from the previous story and how it divided Byzantium would return here, and part of the elements of Byzantine society here will of course include the same old Thematic System in the empire’s administration which was introduced back in chapter IV of this series, and the extravagance of the Byzantine imperial court with all its rituals, court dress, dining, and parties. Now in this story, Irene as the leading character would be depicted as a strong and ambitious woman who at the same time is a devout Orthodox Christian strongly dedicated to religious icons and despite coming from a backwater of the empire then which was Athens although from the nobility, she would also be someone who is ahead of her time for being a woman ruling in her own name, not afraid to make her own decisions for the empire, and someone with a very liberal thinking in such a conservative society, and this can be seen where she is open to marrying someone like Charlemagne who is many worlds away from her in culture and thinking whereas Byzantine women in that time only married who they were told to marry and think only the way they were told to think. To also add a sexy and sensual angle to this story, Irene would be the lead character as a woman who stays beautiful and attractive even as she ages that in an instant, she attracts the much older Charlemagne, who is however just 10 years older than her. As for Charlemagne on the other hand, history always shows him as a great emperor that united Europe under his rule, but for this story’s case just for the sake of experimenting, Charlemagne here will be downplayed as someone who seems to be so great when hearing about him, but in reality as he comes over to Constantinople, the people would just see him as a tired old man that has nothing really special about him, as having done his part now just wants to retire and marry an attractive Byzantine woman he could sleep with, which is of course Irene. Of course, this story to add more story telling element to it will include some suspense, drama, and comedy, as well as a number of important Byzantine figures of this time namely Irene’s finance minister who in reality overthrew her which was Nikephoros the Logothete who will usually be referred to as “the Logothete” – as confusingly enough there will also be another Nikephoros here who is Irene’s brother-in-law- in this story who would be the main villain as he is quite an interesting and seedy character at first being loyal to Irene though only doing this to further his ambitions to become emperor. The other characters this story will heavily feature on would be Irene’s family members from her own family from Athens and from her late husband Leo IV’s side being the ruling Isaurian Dynasty of Byzantium which was introduced in the previous chapter, as well as Irene’s son Constantine VI who here will be seen as a useless and sadistic young emperor that deserved his blinding in 797, and Irene’s eunuchs Staurakios and Aetios who are in conflict with each other. Overall, this story will be the kind of war and dystopian epic mixed together with romance and comedy, but is more importantly a story not so much anymore about Byzantium’s constant conflicts with the Arabs but about their cultural differences, and the other constant theme in the history of Byzantium which was its “Cold War” style conflict with the west that will also play a major part here. In addition, Empress Irene happens to be one of Byzantium’s most popular figures that just recently there is an entire podcast series dedicated to her, check out Icons/Idols: Irene, and before proceeding to the rest of the story I would like to thank the artists (Ediacar, Amelianvs, GeoffreyLi, HistoryGold777, Giuseppe Rava, Androklos, Melissinos Arts, and Byzantine Tales) for providing art for this era in Byzantine history.

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Guide to the Thematic System of the Byzantine army (from Wikipedia); this article contains a lot of terms of Byzantine army units
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Guide to the Isaurian Dynasty of the Byzantine Empire, 717-802; characters here will be featured heavily in this chapter; character illustrations and layout by myself
Watch this to learn about Empress Irene’s life and reign (History Tea Time with Lindsay Holiday)

Related Articles from The Byzantium Blogger:

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

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

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

12 Turning Points in Byzantine History

A Guide to the Themes of the Byzantine Empire

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


 

The Leading Characters: 

Irene Sarantapechaina “Irene of Athens”- Byzantine empress 

Charlemagne “Charles I the Great”- Frankish emperor

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

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

Tarasios- Iconophile Patriarch of Constantinople

Staurakios- Byzantine eunuch official and general of Irene

Aetios- Byzantine eunuch official of Irene

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

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

Theophano Sarantapechaina- Irene’s cousin

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

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

Leo the Armenian- Iconoclast Byzantine general

Bardanes Tourkos- Byzantine general, Irene loyalist

Louis I the Fair- Son and successor of Charlemagne

Krum- Khan of the Bulgars since 803

Harun al-Rashid- Caliph of the Abbasid Caliphate

Background Guide: Byzantine characters (blue), Franks (gold), Bulgars (red), Abbasid Arabs (green). 


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

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

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Empress Irene of Athens

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

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Arabian coffee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Emperor Constantine V of Byzantium (r. 741-742/ 743-775), art by Byzantine Tales

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

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Athens in the Byzantine era

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

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

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

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Byzantine Tagmata soldier, elite imperial force created under Constantine V

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

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Flag of the Abbasid Caliphate, founded in 750

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

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

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

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Bulgar army, 8th century

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

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

Watch this to learn more about Constantine V and his reign (Eastern Roman History).

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

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Map of Constantinople’s Imperial Palace Complex

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

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Byzantine female court fashion

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

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

Irene also remembered that here in this 6-week period as she was in the baths of the palace, she was taught how to wear the imperial dresses by the court ladies where these court ladies had asked her to take off her robe to be examined if her body was healthy, as the wife of the imperial heir had to be healthy in order to give birth to a healthy heir, and true enough Irene was in good health here, though her soon-to-be husband Leo was not. Here too in the baths when dressing down to what was her underwear- a piece of cloth wrapped around the bust and the waist- her body was to be measured for the 2 dresses for the upcoming ceremonies. For Irene, this moment was rather awkward as she had to experience some women she doesn’t know see her practically naked except for her underwear, and even more that these women were to take the measurements of her bust, waist, and hips while she was barely clothed. The women measuring her here would go as far as to touching her breasts and stomach while she was again only wearing her underwear, to see if her body was in perfect shape basically because even the court ladies were attracted to her looks, perfect shape of body, and height. When this 6-week period of preparations ended on December 17 of 769, Irene came out as a fully grown and proper imperial woman at only 17 dressed in the golden coronation dress, which was a tight long-sleeved golden dress that covered almost the entire body, and when fully dressed up she met her husband-to-be Leo IV at the Hagia Sophia where Leo already being made years earlier by his father as his co-emperor placed a golden outer robe on Irene’s shoulders, and afterwards placed a crown on her head, thus Irene was now crowned as a co-empress, or at least an imperial princess and the 4th most powerful person in the imperial authority (first being the emperor Constantine V, then his wife Eudokia, then the co-emperor Leo, and lastly Irene). Now in Byzantine coronation tradition, the Patriarch of Constantinople was to crown the emperor symbolizing that the emperor got his authority from God, but the empress was not crowned by the patriarch but rather by the emperor showing she got her power from her husband, the emperor. Following the coronation, Leo presented Irene dressed in her golden dress and crown to the people of Constantinople from a balcony of the imperial palace. Leo then proceeded to the Church of the Virgin of the Pharos in the Imperial Palace Complex while Irene returned to her dressing room to change into her wedding gown, another conservative dress that covered almost her entire body, and then met up with Leo at the Pharos church where the Iconoclast Patriarch of Constantinople married them, and in attendance was Leo’s entire family including his father the emperor and the senate. At the end of the day, Irene was both crowned and married and with both ceremonies over, she and Leo changed back into more comfortable but still formal outfits for the banquet given to them by the emperor that night. The entire ceremony process would then end only 3 days later on December 20 with a bath ceremony held for Irene, except no one would see her bathe, instead as the palace officials and guards led her to her baths which was already prepared with the tub filled and towels and robes for her hanging, they left her alone to undress, fall into the tub, and take her time. Though now being married, Irene and Leo did not share the bedroom at all times but rather, Leo would frequently visit Irene in her bedchamber and in 770, Irene would be pregnant at 18 but everyone speculated if it would be a boy and true enough in January of 771, Irene gave birth to a healthy boy at the purple room of the imperial palace or Porphyria, a dark room with walls made of purple marble or porphyry and draped with purple silks. This now was another Byzantine imperial tradition as only the imperial wife or the wife of the imperial heir could give birth here as a way to secure the succession of their children to secure legitimacy as no one else but the imperial family had access to this room, and in 771 Irene and Leo’s son Constantine named after his grandfather the emperor was the second one to be born here in the purple room, the first being Leo himself as well as his twin sister Anthousa in 750. With the birth of Constantine who was to be emperor one day, his grandfather the emperor who he was named after threw lavish celebrations including chariot races in the Hippodrome and the free distribution of the purple sherbet drink Lochozema to the people of the capital and after these celebrations, the baby Constantine dressed in a golden robe was presented to the people. With the celebrations over, the Patriarch of Constantinople baptized the baby Constantine, except unlike his grandfather back in 718, he did not defecate on the water though the emperor Constantine V who was right there in that exact same spot many years later still remembered that embarrassing moment, at least from what he heard of. It was also here in her son’s baptism when Irene got herself acquainted with her in-laws such as the empress or Augusta Eudokia who was at least friendly with her in this story’s case, her sister-in-law Anthousa who was Leo’s twin wherein both her Irene would soon develop a strong bond as Anthousa also secretly supported the icons, and lastly Irene would meet the emperor’s much older sister Anna, who being 10 years older than Constantine V was still alive at 63, except she appeared to be cold and bitter as her brother blinded her husband Artavasdos and her sons with him leading to their deaths even if it was already almost 30 years ago when it happened, but where Irene and Anna would later find common ground was in their support for icons as Anna way back then- in this story’s case- led a resistance to restore the icons which failed when her brother took back the throne in 743 which also removed Anna as empress. 2 years later though (773)- in this story’s case as history does not record it- Anna would die and Constantine V too would not have much longer to live.          

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When it came to ruling the empire though, there was not much significance in Leo IV’s reign except with one incident in 777 when the Bulgarian khan Telerig was ousted from the throne by the new khan Kardam making Telerig flee to Constantinople where Leo welcomed him, gave him the rank of patrician, and had him baptized as a Christian as here the Bulgars were still Pagan, though Telerig died later that year; and in 778 Leo despite his bad health decided to launch a campaign against the Abbasid Arabs in Syria as fighting a war was part of his bucket list before his death. The invasion Leo launched in 778 was a large one consisting of the armies of the Anatolic, Armeniac, Opsikion, Bucellarian, and Thracesian Themes all led by their own generals or Strategoi (singular: Strategos) and at the end, this campaign was successful in killing a large number of Arabs, winning a number of victories, taking back a large amount of spoils of war, and relocating a number of Syrian Christians to Thrace just as Constantine V did before, and the emperor at least got the honor of leading his men in battle.

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Emperor Leo IV the Khazar of Byzantium (r. 775-780), art by Byzantine Tales

Later in 778, a triumphal procession in Constantinople was held for Leo IV and all the 5 generals who survived where all the spoils of war and Arab captives were paraded, though in the next year (779) the Abbasids struck back invading Eastern Asia Minor but Leo’s army again successfully won repelling the invasion. In 780, Leo IV decided to this time launch a campaign on Bulgaria against its new ruler Kardam but before he could even start, his health grew worse that in this story’s case Irene persuaded him to give up on it and rest, and on September 8 of that year, Leo IV the Khazar died at only 30 from an extreme fever caused by his tuberculosis being the last effective ruler of his dynasty, the Isaurian Dynasty as his son Constantine VI at only 9 succeeded to the throne with his mother Irene as his full-time regent in which she will be for most of Constantine VI’s reign. Leo IV may have ruled for too short, but despite only 5 years of ruling, he was an able ruler considering that he suffered from chronic tuberculosis, although Leo IV’s reign is often called the epilogue to that of his father Constantine V’s long reign. Irene ends her story here in 780 when she came to power already as the effective empress-regent for her son, and here back to the setting in 800 she called it a day saying goodbye to the Logothete Nikephoros as Nikephoros returned to his house and Irene would return to her bedchamber which was not the empress’ room but the emperor’s as with no male emperor currently reigning, she was free to occupy it.

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

Watch this to learn more about Leo IV’s reign (Eastern Roman History).


The Background Part II- Irene as the Empress-Regent          

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In the year 800, a few days after Irene’s meeting with the new finance minister or Logothete Nikephoros at the Boukoleon Palace, Irene in a gold and purple imperial robe headed to the polo field of the Great Palace where she saw her advisor, the eunuch Aetios playing a game of Tzykanion or Polo, who after seeing Irene stopped and rushed to her reporting about his rival eunuch Staurakios, Irene’s most trusted person before, and here Aetios brought some sad news though happy for him which was that some weeks earlier on June 3 of that year, Staurakios had died from sickness in Cappadocia when raising an army to rebel against Irene and take over the throne despite being a eunuch, although Staurakios seeing that Irene took the throne even if she was a woman thought he could too even as a eunuch.

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Byzantine eunuchs

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

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Tzykanion, Byzantine polo, art by Amelianvs

20 years earlier in 780, after Leo IV died, his son with Irene Constantine VI became emperor at only 9, therefore the task was left to Irene to rule as the effective ruler of the empire as Constantine VI was too young to make his own decisions, though following Leo IV’s death Irene came up with rumors that he died by putting on the crown of the former Byzantine emperor Maurice (r. 582-602) which gave him a curse causing him his death, as a way to explain why their emperor died too soon. Staurakios who in this story taught Irene the proper dining etiquette, introduced her to a number of cuisines including Byzantine, Arabic, Persian, and Frankish, turned Irene from a country girl to a sophisticated imperial woman, and helped secure her position as the empress-regent as a big percent of the army, mostly being the elite guard force or Tagmata opposed Irene as not only was she a woman but a supporter of the icons whereas most of the army were still extreme Iconoclasts undyingly loyal to the late Constantine V.

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Byzantine Tagmata, imperial guard unit

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

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Patriarch Tarasios of Constantinople, appointed by Irene in 784

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

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Army of the Arab Abbasid Caliphate

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

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Coin of Irene and Constantine VI with Irene on the right

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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Inside Constantinople’s Great Palace

          

In 792, despite Irene coming back to power, Constantine VI still asserted himself as the effective emperor, though Irene was still more popular here and she would do all it took to make her son fail in order to fully get him out of the way and this included, in this story’s case, encouraging him to brutally suppress a revolt in the Armeniac Theme wherein Constantine had the rebellious general there Alexios Mosele blinded, and out of his own cruelty he massacred a large number of the rebellious population in the Theme, thus the people of this Theme who had strongly supported him became his biggest enemy. Constantine VI though with his wife Maria of Amnia back in 790 had a daughter named Euphrosyne, thus making Irene a grandmother at 38, although with his wife Constantine failed to produce sons and in 794 when getting tired of his boring wife, he chose to divorce her which was an illegal act, although Patriarch Tarasios ignored it and the divorce happened, but it created a lot of controversy as it was against Church Law making many monks turn on Constantine VI and side with Irene. Constantine VI later in 795 would marry his long-time mistress Theodote who was a Greek beauty, though this would even make the tensions between him and his mother even stronger, and here with the monks supporting Irene because of her devotion to icons, her support base was even stronger than that of her sons’.

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Empress Irene and her son Constantine VI

In 795 as well, Constantine VI launched another campaign against the Bulgars in which he was successful at this time, although no one cheered for him in the empire as he was rapidly losing his popularity. In 797, Constantine VI resumed his campaigns in the east as Caliph Harun al-Rashid continued raiding into Asia Minor again but before even going that far as when Constantine was at the baths in the city of Prusa in the Opsikion Theme right across the Marmara Sea from Thrace, he received fake news that the caliph withdrew his forces before he even began the war, although it was only Irene who came up with this as a way to get her son back to the capital, and so Constantine returned to the capital, however when returning he just realized literally everyone turned on him that people threw stones at him and shouted insults at him calling him “loser” and “idiot”. Constantine then decided to flee Constantinople when seeing everyone was against him but when reaching the dock at the Bosporus, the elite Vigla guards of the Tagmata had already been bribed by Irene, therefore they seized Constantine, beat him up, chained him, and dragged him to the imperial palace. Here on August 17 of 797, the unconscious Constantine VI woke up in the exact same purple room he was born in 26 years ago in 771 where he was met by his very enraged mother who was tired of having to deal with her incompetent and cowardly son and ruling with him, and thinking imprisoning or exiling him was not enough as someone would again return him to power one day, Irene would instead commit one of the most brutal acts in Byzantine history, and the dark and creepy purple room where he was born in 26 years ago was the last thing Constantine would see as here, the brutal emperor was brutally blinded by a court eunuch which in this story’s case was Aetios acting on Irene’s orders. Some sources including Robin Pierson in the History of Byzantium Podcast say that with the blinding being so brutal, Constantine VI would die shortly after, although this story would go with the version that after his blinding, Constantine VI was sent by ship just to one of the islands in the Marmara Sea known as the Princes’ Islands just a few kilometers from Constantinople to be put in monastery arrest for the rest of his life dying years later. Just right after Constantine VI was blinded, an unnatural natural event took place in Constantinople which was a solar eclipse and here for 17 days straight, the sky turned black although right here as Justinianus put it, Irene did not feel any sense of guilt at all and instead totally felt like she did not care while the rest of Constantinople’s people saw this solar eclipse as an act of God punishing Irene for blinding her son, and although Constantine VI was hated, the people still found what Irene did to him a bit too much.  

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Meme of Irene blinding Constantine VI, 797

           

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

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Coin of Empress Irene colored, art by GeoffreyLi

On the other hand, with Irene being a woman, a portion of the army in Asia Minor in 797 rebelled and for the 4th time chose to elevate the Caesar Nikephoros despite having been blinded back in 792 as emperor. Irene discovering another plot to make her brother-in-law Nikephoros emperor again acted quick and had Nikephoros’ 4 younger brothers blinded too, and then had them all moved to Athens to get them further away where Irene’s surviving family members there would watch over them. However, in 799 another plot made by the army in Greece which was that of the Hellas Theme again chose to proclaim Nikephoros as emperor now for the 5th time and when hearing about this, Irene had all 5 brothers moved out of Athens to one of the Princes’ Islands in the Marmara near Constantinople- though not the one Constantine VI was in- to keep them under closer watch. At the same time, the threat of the Abbasid Arabs was still at large in the east and Irene not wanting to continue conflicts with them as there was so much in her mind, chose to pay tribute again to Caliph Harun al-Rashid, which was an amount even bigger than what her son had to pay before. Irene then moved on to talking about her illness just 2 years earlier wherein Staurakios and Aetios used it to have a power struggle between themselves but Irene on the other hand in this story’s case, when getting this illness would start feeling some guilt for blinding her son, seeing the illness as a punishment from God for doing just that. Here in 801, Irene was now feeling guilty for the blinding but with a big function that was to happen later that day, Irene had to hide her emotions, which was something she learned when being trained in the proper court etiquette many years ago. With Irene’s hair now completed styled in a way with her long wavy hair put down in an orderly way, she still remained seated as Anthousa who was to dress her up picked up the dress for Irene which was just hanging.

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Irene in the purple dress, front view, art by myself

The dress Irene was going to wear was something unusual for the conservative Byzantines as it showed a lot of skin completely exposing her shoulders and upper chest, though in length it extended all the way to the floor, and this purple silk dress lined with gold was to be wrapped around her body wherein the dress itself went from the top of her bust down to her feet. As Irene stood and removed her dressing robe dressing down to her underwear- the same type mentioned earlier- Anthousa here did the job of wrapping the dress around Irene’s body as the cloth that was basically the dress was too heavy for one person to do the job of dressing up. Here, Irene started with holding the long cloth over her skin at her stomach area while Anthousa began wrapping it around Irene’s body passing through the back heading upwards and coming back to the front again wherein the cloth was wrapped over her bust, and then wrapped to the back again where the dress would basically spiral around her body ending back at her feet again.

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Irene in the purple dress, back view, art by myself

To keep the dress in place so that it wouldn’t slip out considering that the dress itself was basically a large piece of cloth with no buttons or zippers to hold it up, Irene put a silver jewelled belt around her waist while Anthousa pinned the back of Irene’s dress with a pin, which also pinned her underwear for her chest to the dress in order to conceal it, as the back part of Irene’s dress exposed more skin at her back below the level of her chest underwear. In addition as a way to show her true shape of body, Irene had this dress wrapped tightly around her body, and when fully done she pushed her bust up a bit by tightening the top of her dress to show its full form as well before putting on the rest of her jewellery. Now this revealing purple wrap-around strapless silk dress had already appeared in the universe of this Byzantine Alternate History series in chapter III worn by the 6th century empress Theodora (527-548) and her successor empress Sophia (565-578), and as for Irene in the universe of this fan fiction series, when discovering old documents from the 6th century, she decided to replicate this dress with the exact same style, although no one really saw her in it except for her late husband Leo IV once when he was emperor between 775 and 780 and her son Constantine VI as Irene always tried to make herself look attractive in front of them. As the end result, Irene at 48 still looked exceptionally attractive in figure wearing this, and all prepared for the function that night wherein it would be the first time she would be seen wearing it in public.          

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Empress Irene in the purple silk dress, art by Powee Celdran

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

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Frankish Empire fashion

The Frankish ambassadors were already right here in the palace looking very distinct with their unkempt blonde hair and beards while dressed in wool tunics and cloaks with at least some gold trimmings, except their attire was not as sophisticated like the silks the Byzantines here were wearing. When meeting Irene, the ambassadors already told her the headline of their report in Latin, which Irene here in this story knew a bit of, though when hearing it she seemed to dread it, and afterwards she announced it to everyone in Greek. The dreadful news now that Irene announced to everyone here was that on Christmas Day of the previous year (800), the pope in Rome Leo III– not to be confused with Emperor Leo III the Isaurian- crowned the King of the Franks Charlemagne “Roman emperor” or Augustus for his valor and dedication to the Church of Rome, and even though his title of “Roman emperor” was only honorary, he still had an empire a lot larger and more powerful than that of the Byzantines. The people in the room were deeply offended hearing this while both Aetios and Nikephoros the Logothete even shouted out here “How dare he! He has no claim to our empire, he even has no trace of Roman origins!”, though Irene remembering her court training did not react in such a way, instead she only remained still and thought of what the news could mean, but instead she only remembered Charlemagne as the man whose daughter her son was supposed to marry in the 780s. For the Byzantines meanwhile, hearing of a Germanic Frankish barbarian in the west which was Charlemagne who had no trace of Roman origins was insulting and had hurt their pride as the Byzantine Empire being the Eastern Roman Empire was the legitimate Roman Empire that in fact in their time they even called themselves that, basically Romania meaning “Roman Land”, and them as people of their empire called themselves Romaioi in Greek meaning “Romans”, while the name for them “Byzantines” which these alternate history stories use was in fact only a 16th century invention used only after the Byzantine Empire was gone. If you also remember back in chapters I and II of this alternate history series respectively set in the 4th and 5th centuries, the Byzantines or Eastern Romans were still referred to as “Romans”, though after the end of the Western Roman Empire in 476, by chapter III of this series, the Eastern Romans were already referred to as “Byzantines”. The Byzantines of Constantinople had every right to be the legitimate Roman Empire as their city was founded by the Roman emperor Constantine I the Great in 330 as the empire’s new capital, the eastern half of the empire based in Constantinople too was the superior empire over the western half after the old Roman Empire was divided in 395 following the death of Emperor Theodosius I the Great (r. 379-395), and after the Western Roman Empire based in Ravenna was dissolved in 476 the east was the only surviving Roman Empire whereas the west fell to several barbarian kingdoms. Now back in this function in the palace, after hearing the news of Charlemagne’s coronation as “Roman emperor”, the people attending feeling the pride of their empire being insulted all left leaving only Irene and her cousin Theophano in the room before both went back to their quarters in the palace. Irene though was deeply angered inside as in the entire history of Byzantium, foreign rulers especially from the west would get the approval of the Byzantine emperor to rule their own lands, but now everything changed with Charlemagne not only not getting Byzantine approval to be crowned but to be crowned as a “Roman emperor” when there was still in fact a Roman Empire (Byzantium), and this could have been because for one the pope who crowned him was no longer answering to the Byzantine Empire after all these years of conflict with them and Iconoclasm, and also because Irene was a woman therefore she could not be accepted as a Roman emperor by Charlemagne and the pope, therefore times had totally changed.   

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Magnaura of Constantinople’s Imperial Palace, art by Byzantine Tales

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


The Climax Part I- Charlemagne and Irene’s Marriage        

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

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

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

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Charles Martel battles the Umayyads at Tours, 732

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

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

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

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Seal of the Frankish Kingdom of Charlemagne

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

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Pope Leo III, crowned Charlemagne emperor in 800

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

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Carolingian Minuscule

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

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

       

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

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Charlemagne crowned by Pope Leo III, 800

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

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Coin of Charlemagne as a Roman emperor

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

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

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

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Supposed marriage proposal between Irene and Charlemagne

In order to gain more support from the people of Constantinople, Irene as usual went out to the Hippodrome and the streets of Constantinople to give away money and food, but here it was soon enough going to be too late for Irene to still keep her popularity as both Aetios and her other most trusted advisor Nikephoros the Logothete were now hatching a plot to turn the people against her. Nikephoros the Logothethe on the other hand also had his own intentions to overthrow Irene which were different from Aetios’ and his was because as the finance minister, he objected to all of Irene’s weak financial policies such as reducing taxes for the nobility, and coming from the nobility he saw this as a sign of weakness wherein he could just bribe his way to power in order to get support to oust Irene. After all, Nikephoros even if being an Iconophile and loyal to Irene only wanted to work for her and pretend to be nice to her as a way to advance himself in power and one day take the throne. Now Nikephoros the Logothete and Aetios together with other conspirators including another palace official named Niketas Tryphillios, Irene’s cousin Leo Sarantapechos, and in this story’s case a young scheming Iconoclast soldier with his own ambitions which was Leo the Armenian– who in real history would become emperor in 813- would all meet up at a high-end tavern near the Great Palace in Constantinople where they would discuss their plot to overthrow Irene as they drank a few cups of wine. Where both Nikephoros and Aetios had common ground however was that they both objected to Irene marrying Charlemagne and for their empire to be ruled by a barbarian but as it turned out, both Aetios and Nikephoros had conflicting ambitions as Aetios still wanted to use this conspiracy to make his brother Leo emperor and rule through him while Nikephoros on the other hand was set to make himself emperor and not wait any longer and instead find the soonest opportunity to overthrow Irene while Aetios was still waiting for her death.

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Street life in Byzantine Constantinople

In the tavern, Nikephoros already had an entire organized campaign in mind to get rid of Irene, which was to bribe off heralds and officials in the city to spread word that Irene wants to give up their empire to Charlemagne as well as announcing all of Irene’s inappropriate things in public even if they were not really proven which here for this story would include Irene lying down naked sunbathing at the Imperial Palace’s balcony among a lot of others, which was a similar strategy the historian Procopius did in the 6th century to ruin the image of the empress Theodora, Justinian I’s wife if you recall from chapter III, except Procopius’ was more privately done. Another rumor too was spread that Irene’s son Constantine VI had already died, therefore she killed him as a way to further vilify her. Nikephoros the Logothete too already got ahead in his plot to make himself emperor and this meant- in this story’s case- that he was to trick Irene’s still alive brothers-in-law the Caesars Nikephoros and Christopher despite being blind that they would be his co-emperors in order to get more support from the still Iconoclast troops in the army who were still undyingly loyal to Constantine V and his sons, though the other 3 brothers Niketas, Eudokimos, and Anthimos who were all still alive were to be left behind. Now Nikephoros Caesar by 802 was still in the Princes’ Islands in the Marmara under close watch by Irene’s officials and would only rise up one last time later on in 812 in real history, but in this story’s case, Nikephoros the Logothete would go there to this island just a few hours by boat from Constantinople, bribe the guards and monks of the monastery to only get the Caesars Christopher and Nikephoros out, and together they would flee to a stronghold in Thrace.

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

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

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

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

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Sample of a Byzantine era grenade

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

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Empress Irene of Athens, art by HistoryGold777

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

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Feasting in the Byzantine Empire

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